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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Third Party Campaign Expenditure

Before turning to the question, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) for her excellent work in the past year on political and constitutional reform. I welcome the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who will bring unique zeal to decentralisation in particular, which he has championed within Government. I also welcome the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) to his new position on the Opposition Front Bench.

It is of course good that people are motivated to campaign for what they believe in, whether inside or outside a traditional political party. However, it is also important that the integrity of democratic political campaigning is maintained. Campaigning by third parties at general elections should therefore be made more transparent and accountable.

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister has, like many hon. Members, been contacted by hundreds of people from the voluntary, charity and community sectors who are vehemently opposed to the gagging provisions in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has assiduously cultivated those groups in the past, and frankly, they feel betrayed. Will he explain to them why he has led the Liberal Democrats in support of this assault on grass-roots politics? Better still, will he recognise, even at this late stage, that he has got this badly wrong and join us in opposing the Bill?

My view is that if we did nothing about the increasing trend of big money in British politics, which seeks to influence the outcome of political contests through groups that are not political parties, those very same groups would campaign after the next general election, saying that we should do something about that trend. At the general election, non-party political funds doubled to £3 million. We have seen what happens when that gets out of control. Just look across the Atlantic at the United States: super-PACs—political action committees; the increasing polarisation of politics; and people outside the democratic political process, non-political parties, trying to influence the outcome of elections. We will maintain the rules, as they have existed since 2000, on whether groups are regulated as third party campaign groups. All we are saying is that non-party political parties that want to act like a political party should be asked to fill in the same paperwork as a political party.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is nothing in the Bill that stops campaigns on particular policies? Furthermore, we will not end up with third party groups spending more than political candidates are able to spend on their own election.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Under the current rules, a well-funded third party campaign group seeking to influence the democratic outcome in a constituency or constituencies could spend more money than a political party. That, surely, cannot be right. The Labour party, which is run by a third party campaign group, the trade unions, does not think it is a problem if political parties are influenced by third party campaign groups that might have political designs. Nothing in the Bill would stop Make Poverty History spending millions on its campaign. Nothing would stop the Green Alliance grading us all on our green promises—nothing would change that.

Returning to planet earth, the Deputy Prime Minister regularly bleats on about the value of consultation. Why did that not apply to the lobbying Bill? There was no form of consultation whatever on this wretched Bill.

There was extensive consultation and scrutiny on the lobbying provisions in the Bill. The parts on third party campaigning were discussed extensively by the three parties in the cross-party funding talks. It was agreed by all parties, and backed by Sir Christopher Kelly in his recommendations on party funding reform, that any change to party funding arrangements should also include some limits on third party campaign groups when they want to influence the political outcome in a constituency or constituencies.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is huge public demand for complete transparency in the influence of trade unions, especially during election periods and especially given the allegations concerning the actions of Unite in the affairs of the Labour party earlier this year?

I have this old-fashioned view that in all our constituencies candidates from our democratic political parties should be slugging it out on a level playing field and that we should not have people pulling the strings in the background in an untransparent way. That is all the Bill is trying to do. Anyone who believes in the integrity and transparency of democratic, open contest in our constituencies should support the Bill.

Electoral Register

2. What steps his Office is taking to improve the completeness and accuracy of the Electoral Register. (900469)

The Government will shortly publish the results of our confirmation dry run exercise, which matched almost 47 million electors against Department for Work and Pensions data. The results were much better than we anticipated and, using a combination of national and local data, could lead to an overall average match rate of 85%. In addition, we are making registration simpler by enabling online registration, and in June we announced £4.2 million-worth of measures to maximise voter registration ahead of the transition to individual electoral registration.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his answer, but will he explain what he is doing to promote voter registration among our armed services personnel, whose percentage registration has been highlighted as a cause for concern?

I know that the Cabinet Office has been working with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that efforts are undertaken. Considerable efforts have been made in the past, but where we can do more, we should do more, in order to encourage anyone who is eligible to vote to do so and to enter into the new individual voter registration system, as I explained earlier.

As well as the problem of not enough voters being registered, there is a problem of voters registered under the wrong category. Given the growing number of EU nationals in this country who can vote in local and European elections but not in Westminster parliamentary elections, may we have clearer guidance from his Office to that effect?

I am not sure precisely what my hon. Friend is referring to, but the rules are very clear: EU nationals may vote in local and European elections but not national elections, and electoral registration officers are fully aware of that and, in my experience, are scrupulous in ensuring that the system reflects it. If he has any particular reservations, however, he can of course bring them to my attention.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that in Northern Ireland there is a new drive for individual registration, and would he find it helpful to monitor the success of that exercise and to learn from the experience?

Absolutely; in designing the system of individual voter registration that we are introducing, we looked very carefully at the strengths and weaknesses of the experience in Northern Ireland. The most important innovation on which we have embarked is the one I explained earlier, which is matching the very large databases that we already have with information on the electoral register and, in effect, automatically enrolling millions of people on the individual voter registration system.

9. What will be the Electoral Commission’s budget for raising awareness of the introduction of individual electoral registration? (900479)

I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific figure, but of course we work very closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that we pull in the same direction to raise awareness of the changes to the new system, and we have allocated just over £4 million to various groups locally working with us and the Electoral Commission to raise awareness among those groups where under-registration has historically been a problem.

First, I join the Deputy Prime Minister in congratulating the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), on his appointment.

The Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the data-matching dry run this summer, which I understand produced an outcome nationally of 78% accuracy. Within that, however, was a range of 47% to 87%. Is there not a risk that even more electors will fall off the electoral register because of the speed at which the Government are introducing the new system? Will he consider delaying the introduction of individual voter registration in order to maximise the completeness and accuracy of the register?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the data-matching tests are a dry run and have exceeded expectations. We think that the use of those central databases, particularly the DWP database, combined with what we do with other databases, should raise the overall figure of automatic enrolment when that finally happens. As he also knows, we have done a considerable amount to ensure that there is a two-year roll-over period, so that people who do not automatically register before the next general election will still have an opportunity to do so, while door-to-door information will be provided to people so that they will know how the new system works. We have put as many belt-and-braces provisions in place as possible, therefore, to ensure that the maximum number of people are on the new IER system.

Returning Officers Fees

Returning officers are entitled under the Representation of the People Act 1983 to receive payments for administering election polls, as those responsibilities fall outside their local authority duties.

These are some of the highest paid public servants in the land, sometimes on salaries of about £200,000. How can we continue to justify paying these people extra sums of £30,000 or so just to do another task, for which their salary should be more than enough to compensate them?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I look forward to meeting him next week to discuss these matters further. Before the previous Government left office they increased the fees to returning officers, allowing fees to be paid uncapped for multiple constituencies. We in this Government froze those fees from that time. I look forward to our discussions and to hearing my hon. Friend’s views, which I know he has thoroughly researched.

May I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post and ask him to give consideration to the situation where returning officers have often made numerous mistakes during elections? We had this happen several years ago in Warrington when the wrong people were declared elected for some parish poll, yet there is no provision to reduce or take away the returning officer’s fee when that happens. Should that not happen? Will the Minister consider that?

I am happy to take on board the hon. Lady’s suggestion. Of course, returning officers do not need to accept the fee. There are some honourable examples where returning officers have not taken the full fee to which they are entitled. That option is available to them.

Political Party Funding

5. What progress the Government has made in reviewing the law on the funding of political parties; and if he will make a statement. (900474)

I have always been clear that any reform is best achieved by consensus. Despite seven meetings, I am disappointed that, as on previous occasions, there has been no agreement between the three parties on beginning party funding reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister and colleagues have managed to get agreement across government to deal with third party big funding and agreement with the official Opposition to deal with the Leveson issues on regulating the press—it was difficult, but we got there. Will my right hon. Friend make a renewed effort to try to get a deal with the Labour and Conservative parties in time for the election to take some very big money out of party politics so that voters, not big funders, decide the outcome?

I would love to think that there might be a realistic prospect of that, but, frankly, I do not think that there is. We tested it to destruction in seven meetings that brought the three parties together over a prolonged period on the back of very strong recommendations from Sir Christopher Kelly and his Committee. Not to put it too delicately, the same old vested interests relating to donation caps on the one hand and the financial relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions on the other were, once again, not reconcilable. Until we get those two things aligned, a cross-party agreement on party funding is unlikely—but it will have to happen eventually; otherwise we will be afflicted by scandal after scandal and controversy after controversy.

What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that company shareholders, co-op members and union members have a reasonable say on political donations made in their name?

If I understand it correctly, moves are afoot, although they are rather opaque to an outsider so far as the trade union funding link with the Labour party is concerned. More generally, transparency has to be a good thing when money is sloshing around the system and it could influence democratic electoral contests. To return to my earlier theme, this is what the transparency provisions on third party campaigning are all about—not to stop charities from doing their work or from campaigning, but simply to make them transparent in how the money is used, particularly where they choose to use money for explicitly political ends to engineer or influence a particular outcome in a constituency.

The problem with the Deputy Prime Minister’s position is that he was willing to rush out a Bill to capture what amounts to a small problem, which may well damage democracy, but he was not prepared to put the weight of his position behind actually achieving a solution on party funding.

Talk about pots and kettles! It is no secret that, in a sense, the Liberal Democrats are not rich enough to have quite the vested interests that are involved in all this. It has always been resistance from the two established, larger parties that has prevented a deal, and that is exactly what happened on this occasion. I do not think that we should beat about the bush.

As for the hon. Lady’s first point, I urge her not to be complacent about the trend towards the funnelling of increasingly large amounts of money into the political process by non-political parties. Look at what has happened in the United States. Do we really want to go in the direction of super-PACS or very well-funded groups trying to influence the political process? I do not think that that would be healthy for our democracy.

I, too, welcome the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to his new position.

As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, Sir Christopher Kelly’s most recent report recommended a reduction in the cap on political parties’ general election expenditure from £19 million to £16 million, and before the last general election the Prime Minister said that it should be £15 million. Sir Christopher’s report also referred to the lobbying Bill, which will reduce what campaigning groups can spend by more than 70% although they spend a fraction of what is spent by political parties. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think the cap should be for political parties’ general election expenditure, and what does he think should be the maximum donation that an individual can make?

First, I do not think that it is possible to view one of those figures in isolation. It is not possible to consider the £19 million or the £15 million figure without trying to incorporate it in a cross-party consensus on political party funding, which has eluded us so far. As for individual donations to individual candidates, our Bill increases the limit from £500 to £700.

Secondly, charities and campaign organisations that are not seeking to influence the outcome of an electoral contest in a constituency can spend as much money as they like. They can spend millions and millions of pounds, unregulated, if they are not seeking to enter into the democratic process. If they do seek to enter into the democratic process, why are they not asked to fill in the same paperwork as political parties?

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policies and initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

When my right hon. Friend visited north-east Lincolnshire recently, he must have observed the tremendous investment that has been made in the offshore renewables sector which is helping to boost the local economy. However, much of north-east Lincolnshire in still in recession. Can my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the Government will do all that they can to support the area during the present difficult times?

Having visited the area on numerous occasions, I am acutely aware of the importance of the new green offshore wind industry to the long-term economic prospects of my hon. Friend’s constituents and the region. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is doing a huge amount in trying to secure, for instance, the long-awaited and much discussed investment from Siemens in the Hull area, which will transform the local economy, and I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that those endeavours will continue.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that his Government’s justification for the bedroom tax—that it will mean tenants moving to smaller homes—cannot work unless there are smaller homes for them to move to? What is his estimate of the percentage of tenants for whom there is no smaller home to go to?

I totally accept the premise, which is that a change from one system to another involves hard cases that need to be—[Interruption.] That is why we are providing hard cash for hard cases. We have trebled the discretionary housing payments that are available to local councils. I am not in any way seeking to ignore the fact that some individual cases really do need the flexibility and the money from local authorities to enable their circumstances to be dealt with.

Let me say this to the right hon. and learned Lady. If there is a principled objection to this change, I do not understand why, in all the years during which Labour was in government, exactly the same provisions existed for millions of people in the private rented sector.

This is the central issue in the Government’s justification for a policy that the Deputy Prime Minister has brought forward and voted for. He obviously does not want to admit that for 96% of tenants, there is no smaller home to go to. No wonder councils are saying that the discretionary housing fund is completely inadequate to help all the families who cannot move and are falling into arrears. Does he recognise that this is a cruel and unfair policy that he should not have voted for? He should repeal it now.

Of course I accept that for some households the change from one system to another creates real dilemmas that need to be addressed through the money that we are making available to local authorities. The right hon. and learned Lady cites a figure. To be honest, lots of wildly different figures have been cited about the policy’s impact. That is why we are commissioning independent research to understand its impact. I suspect that it varies enormously between one part of the country and another, and one local authority and another. That is why we are trebling the resources that we making available to local authorities.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister has specific responsibility for implementing the programme for government and likes to take special ownership of the chapter on tax, a key aim of which is to help lower and middle-income earners. I have a Lib Dem briefing that states:“£50,000” is “a very large salary: these are not middle income earners.”It also says:“We are looking at how” they “could make a further contribution.”Why does he want to clobber the middle classes? (900484)

I do not, and as we made clear at the time the £50,000 figure does not represent any policy of my party. However, I will not be shy about parading the fact that it is because of Liberal Democrats in government that we are giving a huge tax cut to over 20 million basic rate taxpayers, a policy that I was warned by the hon. Gentleman’s party leader at the time of the last general election was not deliverable. It has been delivered because of Liberal Democrats in government.

T3. According to the Papworth Trust, nine out of 10 disabled people are having to cut back on food or heating because of the bedroom tax. The discretionary housing payments are derisory: they give £2.09 to disabled people, compared with the £14 that they are losing through the bedroom tax. How do the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister justify that? Is that the mark of a civilised society? Since it is not in the coalition agreement, will he call for it to be scrapped? (900485)

I read in the Sunday papers that the Labour party was going to get even tougher on welfare than the coalition, yet it has opposed £83 billion-worth of welfare savings. We have to bring the housing benefits bill down somehow. I assume that our rationale for the change is exactly the reason why, in government for 13 years, Labour maintained the same rules for households receiving housing benefit in the private rented sector.

Could the Deputy Prime Minister let us have the Government’s view on having televised party leader debates before the next general election? Will he ensure that the fourth party is allowed to take part in the debate so that he would be able to speak? [Interruption.]

It is the sting in the tail that I always love. The hon. Gentleman must rehearse his questions endlessly—but they are good; it was a good one today. As he knows, that is not a subject, thankfully perhaps, of Government policy. It is a subject for discussion between the broadcasters, who will have their own views, and the political parties. He should speak to his own party leader about his party’s view on these things. I think that the innovation of televised leader debates was a good one. Millions of people found it a good opportunity to see how the party leaders measured up against each other and I think that we should repeat them.

T5. I listened carefully to the Deputy Prime Minister’s answers about the bedroom tax. He kept referring to “some households”. However, does he agree with his own party that the bedroom tax discriminates against the most vulnerable in our society? Will he join his party in calling for the tax to be scrapped? (900487)

For exactly the same reason that the hon. Lady and her party maintained precisely the same policy in the private rented sector for 13 years. That spectacular act of inconsistency may seem normal to a party that is used to crashing the economy and then claiming that nothing was wrong, but I hope that she will agree that the benefits bill generally and the housing benefits bill in particular need to be brought under some semblance of control. We need to take difficult decisions. We need to provide hard cash, as we are, for hard cases. That is why we have trebled the discretionary housing payment.

T6. Given the success of the city deals and the emergence of city regions, what plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have for further decentralisation to include more rural areas? (900488)

That is one of the reasons why I so warmly welcome the appointment of the Minister of State, because he has demonstrated extraordinary personal commitment to this wider agenda of devolution and decentralisation. As my hon. Friend will know, we are examining the case for 20 more city deals, and we will then be seeking to roll out a much more extensive programme of decentralisation on the back of the Heseltine recommendations, which I hope will leave all of our country far more decentralised now than we found it back in 2010.

T10. In the borough of Wigan over 100 tenants have moved into the private rented sector since April, where rents are between £700 and £1,200 higher than council rents. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm therefore that, rather than falling, the housing benefit bill is likely to rise as a result of the bedroom tax? (900492)

I hope the hon. Lady will accept that there is an underlying problem. We have lots of people on the social rented sector waiting list. There are 1.8 million households on the waiting list and about 1.5 million bedrooms in the social rented sector are not being used. We need somehow to make sure that those people who do not have homes are better matched with available homes. At the same time we have many families living in very overcrowded conditions. Those are the problems: those are the imbalances of the system that we are trying to straighten out. I accept that that leads to some hard cases. They need to be treated fairly and compassionately.

T7. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure the UK maximises the opportunity for green growth and green jobs across the UK? (900489)

My view is that an island such as ours has a huge commercial opportunity, particularly with the capacity for offshore wind that we have as a country. It might sound odd to say that there is a commercial opportunity in the face of such a grave threat as climate change, but there is a commercial opportunity if we can show that we have the technologies, the science, the companies and the strategies to adapt to these new environmental realities. I think that that would be a great opportunity to create jobs for many thousands of people throughout the country.

T11. My right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party has stated strong support for lowering the voting age and giving a voice to our 16 and 17-year-olds. Their futures are decided by many of the decisions that are taken in this House. The Deputy Prime Minister said he supports this position, but three years after taking up his post no action has been taken. When can Britain’s young people expect him to live up to his commitments? (900493)

Government Members have always been very open about the fact that there is disagreement between the two coalition parties. I strongly believe that the voting age should be brought down to 16. I do not see why 17-years-olds are not able to vote when they have so many other roles and responsibilities in British society. It is not something we have included in the coalition agreement, but my views on the matter have not changed.

T8. “Drekly” is a Cornish expression that means doing something maybe some time in the future, possibly never. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in terms of devolving greater powers to the people of Cornwall, drekly is not an answer he will ever give from the Dispatch Box? (900490)

Since I only just heard that term I doubt very much I would use it at the Dispatch Box, and it is absolutely not our intention to delay further progress on devolving powers and decentralising control over how money is raised and spent across all parts of the United Kingdom, including Cornwall. We are doing that in the steps I described earlier: a first wave of city deals, a second wave of city deals, and then implementing the recommendations of the Heseltine review.

T12. A number of countries have abolished the second Chambers of their Parliaments, and Ireland has just decided to follow suit. About half of all Labour Back Benchers in a recent previous Parliament voted for a unicameral Parliament. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now accept that that is one reasonable option for reform of the House of Lords? (900494)

Notwithstanding my frustration that we did not manage to introduce even a smidgeon of democracy into the other place, I am not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that therefore we should scrap the place altogether. I remain of the view that there are virtues in having a tension—a balance—between two Chambers. That is the virtue of bicameral systems all over the democratic world. I just have this old-fashioned view that it is best done when both Chambers are elected by the people they purport to represent.

T9. In his keynote speech to the National House-Building Council on 22 November last year, the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted the 5,500 unit housing development to the east of Kettering as a major project that needed infrastructure support, but since then its £30 million bid to the regional growth fund for a related junction improvement has been turned down. Will he agree to meet a delegation from Kettering to discuss how, across government, heads could be knocked together to ensure that local people get the infrastructure they need to cope with all these extra houses? (900491)

I can certainly ensure that officials who run the bidding process in the regional growth fund are able to meet those who put together the application in Kettering. As my hon. Friend knows, this is, thankfully, not something that politicians decide; it is decided on an objective basis and a panel, chaired by Lord Heseltine, filters and assesses the bids before they come before Ministers. More generally, I know that colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government would be more than happy to meet him and his colleagues from Kettering to look at making sure that the infrastructure is indeed available to the local community.

T14. Is the desperate scarcity of one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties for rent in Ogmore, coupled with the growth in the number of abandoned three-bedroom houses and added to the rise in debt arrears of every housing authority, which prevents them from making the necessary refurbishments, an intended consequence of his policies on benefits and the bedroom tax? (900496)

The whole system is not working as it should—[Interruption.] The whole system we inherited from the hon. Gentleman’s Government was one where we had 1.8 million people on the housing waiting list, hundreds of thousands of families living in overcrowded accommodation and other people receiving housing benefit for more bedrooms than they actually needed. That is the system we are trying to sort out. There are many features to this, which is why we decided that, in exactly the same way as his Government supported the rules in the private rented sector, we would apply the same rules in the social rented sector.

T13. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme run by the Social Mobility Foundation and supported by many across this House. I will shortly be welcoming a new member of staff through that programme. Will he join me in welcoming its success in getting more people from a diverse range of backgrounds into politics and advancing the cause of social mobility? (900495)

I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend said. The scheme is excellent and it is part of a creeping culture change, whereby everyone is realising, in the private sector, the public sector, Parliament and Whitehall, that work experience places and internships should, wherever possible, be based on what people know rather than who they know. That is reflected in this truly excellent scheme.

What discussions has the Deputy Prime Minister had with the Justice Secretary about his recent announcement that he is going to repeal the Human Rights Act as early as next year?

There will be no repeal of the Human Rights Act during the course of this Parliament under this coalition Government.

T15. The Deputy Prime Minister recently warned the United Nations that it was in danger of becoming a “relic of a different time” and that the Security Council should be reformed. Does he believe that the reform should also include limiting the veto? (900497)

The primary focus of reform of the UN Security Council, which is an anachronism—it is based on an international pecking order that has changed out of all recognition since it was formed—needs to be on the composition of its permanent members, rather than on their respective voting rights. That remains the focus of this Government; we seek to champion the case of other nations—Germany, a member from Africa and one from other hemispheres—to be represented at the top table of the United Nations.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister in any way uneasy about the manner in which large cash donors to some political parties still find their way into the House of Lords—a situation that would disgrace any banana republic?

I do not think that it is wrong by definition to say that someone who is committed to or has supported a political party should somehow be barred for life from showing their support by serving that party in the House of Lords. In general terms, not only should we reform the House of Lords and make it not a plaything for party leaders but something for the British people, but we should take big money out of British politics more generally.

What role does the Deputy Prime Minister envisage that successful city deals, such as that proposed for Norwich, will play in the development of local growth funds from 2015, particularly in relation to the skills agenda?

I know that the Minister of State is deep in discussions on the Norwich city deal this very week. I hope that will lead to a successful conclusion soon enough. The first wave of city deals—I have seen this for myself in Sheffield—shows that the devolution in powers over skills from Whitehall to the town hall and the local enterprise partnerships is providing a fantastic boost to the provision of skills, particularly for young people who are seeking to get into work.

The introduction of the dreaded bedroom tax has hammered thousands of people, mainly disabled, up and down the UK. Recent research shows that the Government wildly exaggerated the potential savings—why is that?

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the study from the university of York that was published recently. The details of that study show that it is based on partial information. We simply do not know yet whether the impact or the purported savings are as big or small as the university of York study has implied, but we need to ensure that they are considered independently and objectively so that we can all agree on the basic facts, whatever our disagreements about the policy.

Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s welcome recent criticisms of The Guardian newspaper and its potential breaches of the Official Secrets Act and the Terrorism Acts, will he encourage the Cabinet Office to take a tougher line than hitherto as matters proceed over the month ahead?

My view is that as a matter of course any publication of technical details that are, frankly, not of a great deal of interest to the non-technical reader of our newspapers but might be of huge interest to people who want to do this country harm are not a good thing. Having said that, however, I think that there is an entirely legitimate debate about whether the laws we have in place were properly framed for the power of the technologies available to our agencies and to those who wish to harm us and about whether our oversight arrangements for the work of the agencies are as strong, transparent and credible as they need to be.

Every right hon. and hon. Member has been elected on a constituency basis; nobody has been elected on a national basis. Would it not revitalise democracy if we changed the balance of allowed funding in general elections from a national level to a constituency level and got away from these pseudo-presidential elections?

The recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee on party funding reform, particularly with their strict limits on donation caps, would have an analogous effect as they would significantly decrease the ability of large individual donations to be siphoned directly to national parties. As I said before, however, the cross-party consensus necessary to underpin any party funding reform has eluded us once again.

In the spirit of what my right hon. Friend said earlier about devolution, when will we finally hear the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Silk commission, which are of critical importance to the people of Wales?

I understand the impatience for progress on the adoption of the Silk recommendations. As my hon. Friend knows, we have done some work latterly on the implications of devolution of aspects of the system of stamp duty. I am a huge supporter of the thinking behind the Silk commission, I am acutely aware that it is supported by all parties in Wales and I hope that we will be able to make progress on it without further delay.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen the recent research that shows that the High Speed 2 rail line, rather than bringing strength and resurrecting the cities of the midlands and the north, will mean that more power will be sucked back to London and the south-east?

I find such research utterly specious. I wish the Labour party would decide whether it is for or against HS2. It is betraying the north of England and the great cities of the north by being so equivocal about HS2. In my view that is the most important infrastructure projects for this country’s future and it will play a crucial role in healing the long, long divide that has existed between the north and the south of our country.

I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, who can try to be accommodated elsewhere on other question sessions. We must now move on.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Rape and Domestic Violence Prosecutions

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on increasing the number of prosecutions for rape and domestic violence. (900458)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (900462)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the prosecution of cases involving allegations of domestic violence. (900465)

The Attorney-General and I regularly discuss the effective prosecution of cases of violence against women and girls, including both domestic violence and rape, with the Director of Public Prosecutions. Discussions also take place between the DPP, the police and the Home Office. In 2012-13 the proportion of such cases resulting in conviction increased to 74.3% for domestic violence and 63.2% for rape.

Under this Government more and more cases of both rape and domestic violence are being dropped by the police without being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution, leaving offenders unpunished and free and leaving victims vulnerable. What are the Government going to do about this?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government are aiming to increase the number not only of prosecutions, but of successful ones which result in conviction. On 26 September this year the Director of Public Prosecutions held a meeting with all the other stakeholders—the police, the Home Office, the College of Policing and the Attorney-General’s Office—to look at why the referrals from police to the CPS had fallen. Six actions were agreed at that time.

Does the Solicitor-General share my concerns that for 2012-13 around 30% of defendants for domestic violence were aged under 24, and more than 2,000 were between 14 and 17 years old? What are the Government doing to tackle domestic violence among young people?

My hon. Friend has a strong record of campaigning on this issue and he is absolutely right: it is of concern that young people are perpetrating domestic violence. The Government’s action plan for violence against women and girls includes a programme to increase understanding and awareness of these issues, and the DPP’s national scrutiny panel last year focused on teenage relationship abuse. The CPS is putting together specific training for prosecutors on issues to take into account when they are prosecuting cases and also to support the victims.

Taking into account the gravity of the offence, there is a concern that too many cautions are being issued in domestic violence cases. If this is established to be happening, will the Solicitor-General work with the Home Secretary to address it?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As he will know, the Secretary of State for Justice has announced a wider review of out-of- court disposals, but at the recent meeting which I mentioned, convened by the Director of Public Prosecutions, it was agreed that there needs to be a closer analysis of domestic violence figures and how out-of-court disposals are being dealt with. That is ongoing.

The Solicitor-General has given us a rather tantalising answer, telling us that in September there was a meeting on ensuring that more cases were taken by the police and given to the Crown Prosecution Service for charging. We are all concerned that the CPS is not getting enough cases in front of it on which to make decisions. The Solicitor-General tells us that six actions have been agreed. Would he like to tell us what they are?

I did not want to trespass on Mr Speaker’s good will, but I am delighted to set out the six actions. First, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary will carry out a themed inspection of domestic violence, liaising closely with the Home Office and the CPS. Secondly, the evidence that I have just mentioned about how out-of-court disposals are dealt with will be examined in more detail to see what is happening in this area. Thirdly, the performance of the CPS is being closely examined to see whether there are differences between areas in the way in which cases are referred. The fourth action entails looking at the independent domestic violence adviser network and making sure that it is performing consistently across the country. Fifthly, six areas are being reviewed and cases which were not referred to the police are being examined closely to see why. Sixthly, the Crown Prosecution Service is going to give further advice to the police about how to pursue cases without the witnesses giving evidence.

Just about, Mr Speaker.

In 2012 there was the tragic death in my constituency of Eystna Blunnie, a victim of domestic violence. The CPS admitted that there had been a failure to prosecute the murderer for a previous assault. What steps are my hon. and learned Friend and the Government taking to ensure that the CPS properly follows through prosecutions of perpetrators of domestic violence?

Of course, the key is to have regular meetings and to issue the sort of guidelines that the Director of Public Prosecutions has done. If my hon. Friend wishes to write to me about the case he mentioned, I will certainly ensure that any review that is still available is undertaken.

As the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) pointed out, this is a serious matter, and the consequences are serious. In Thames Valley last year there were 9,804 recorded incidents of crime involving domestic violence, but a further 22,627 incidents were reported to the police, and we know that such cases sometimes end in a tragic death. I fear that the hon. and learned Gentleman’s six actions are a bit laid back. What is he going to do?

First, the six actions relate to one important aspect: ensuring that referrals come through from the police to the CPS. But let us be clear that over recent years huge progress has been made, in both the proportion of cases that are prosecuted and the conviction rates achieved. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need a cross-governmental strategy, which we have in the action plan of the interministerial group on violence against women and girls, so there is no complacency in that regard, but she must recognise that there are achievements as well as areas that need improvement.

Vulnerable Witnesses

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in sexual abuse or domestic violence cases. (900460)

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in sexual abuse or domestic violence cases. (900464)

The Crown Prosecution Service takes allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence very seriously and ensures that prosecutors are well equipped to handle those cases. There is also the national network of witness care units, whose role is to support victims. The House will want to know that the Director of Public Prosecutions will publish final guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse shortly.

I thank the Solicitor-General for his answer. Will he also look at what more can be done to support those who have been the victims of psychological or emotional abuse, because although there is no physical effect, the mental trauma can be quite debilitating?

My hon. Friend’s contribution is timely, as we have recently had mental health day. He is right that it is important to support such victims and witnesses, which is what the witness care units do. In addition, there is a range of guidance for prosecutors on issues such as the provision of therapy to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. With regard to victims who have suffered mental trauma, there is guidance on how to help victims and witnesses with mental health issues, and the CPS also contributed to the Mind toolkit.

Will my hon. and learned Friend outline what the special measures will be, how they will be granted for vulnerable witnesses and how they will help the court process to ensure that the trial is fair for all, particularly those witnesses in these very difficult cases?

The special measures available for vulnerable or intimidated witnesses include: giving evidence from behind a screen, by live television link or in private by clearing the court room of the public; removal of wigs and gowns by judges and lawyers; use of video-recorded evidence-in-chief; examination of the witness through an intermediary; and provision of communication aids. Many of us are strong supporters of one special measure, pre-recorded cross-examination, for which I think there is a measure of support across the House. It has not yet been implemented, but it is coming soon.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

Children have particular difficulty in communicating, and registered intermediaries are crucial in enabling them to give the best possible evidence in court, but they are being appointed in a tiny minority of cases. What more can the Solicitor-General do to make sure that the Crown Prosecution Service appoints better registered intermediaries for children at an early stage?

As the hon. Lady will remember, that is one of the six issues that is being considered. I agree that it is important to ensure that the right support is given in every case. Of course, support would not be needed in every case, but where it is, it should be available.

The Solicitor-General will know that the specialist domestic courts that were established under the previous Labour Government helped to speed up prosecutions and reduce attrition. Why, then, have his Government gone about closing them down?

Although referrals are down, the proportion of the caseload that is domestic violence or rape cases has held up strongly, so I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s allegation stands up. However, it is certainly true that we need to ensure that these cases are dealt with expeditiously.

I thank the Attorney-General for the report he commissioned, following our meeting with the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate, on the disclosure of medical and counselling records of victims of sexual abuse and rape. Will he or the Solicitor-General meet me to discuss the implementation of these recommendations and the need for further action in related areas?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Attorney-General and I were very grateful for her intervention in this regard. The report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate bears that out, and either one or both of us would be happy to meet her to discuss taking this forward.

May I draw the Solicitor-General’s attention to the experience of one of my constituents who has been identified as a potential witness in a case of serious sexual abuse going back over many, many years? This has caused him great distress, and, frankly, he is not receiving the support that he desperately needs. Will the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General look again at what more can be done to support vulnerable witnesses over the many months they have to wait while their case comes to trial?

If the right hon. Gentleman writes to me I will make sure that the case is given whatever extra support is needed. As regards the point he makes, he is absolutely right. As somebody who has prosecuted these cases, I know that having a properly supported witness who feels confident in giving evidence is key.

I am currently dealing with a case where a vulnerable witness has been forced to leave her own home as a result of the abuse she has suffered, and the offender is now walking around and living in that house. Does the Solicitor-General agree that that is an absolutely disgraceful situation? If I send him the full details, will he look into it and find ways in which I can help this constituent?

I would be more than happy to discuss the case with my hon. Friend. Obviously it is difficult for me to comment, not having seen the papers, but I make that offer.

Exit Payouts (CPS)

4. If he will discuss with the Director of Public Prosecutions ways of limiting public expenditure on exit payouts at the Crown Prosecution Service. (900461)

I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions, and this subject has been discussed. The CPS has reduced its staff numbers by 1,902, or 21%, during the current spending review period, while improving overall performance in its delivery of a public prosecution service. These reductions will save the public purse a forecast £77.8 million per annum by 2015-16. Expenditure on staff exits will substantially reduce in the next financial year as the CPS will have completed its major programme of achieving significant staff reductions.

Given that, by his own admission, the Attorney-General is losing a quarter of all prosecutors, perhaps it is not surprising that he spent £50 million getting rid of them, but why has £10 million of that gone on packages of more than £100,000, including ones of up to £300,000, when the rump of the service is starved of resources?

The payments in each case were those to which the individuals were contractually entitled. I am aware of the recent press coverage of two payments, but it relied on a series of assumptions that have been shown not to be accurate. Moreover, in the case of one of those two cases, the payments were in fact made in 2009 and were part of the redundancy payments approved by the previous Government, which we changed.

Criminal Sentences

6. On how many occasions during the last 12 months his Department has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review on the grounds that it was unduly lenient. (900463)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the power to refer sentences is an exceptional remedy reserved for those cases in which the sentence is so far below the range of sentences it was reasonable to impose that public confidence in the criminal justice system risks being damaged. For 2012, the most recent period for which statistics on unduly lenient sentence cases have been published, we received 435 requests for sentences to be reviewed, of which 82 were referred as unduly lenient and heard by the Court of Appeal. For the period ending 30 September 2013, we have received 352 requests for sentences to be reviewed, of which 57 have been referred to the Court of Appeal and have been, or are due to be, heard by the Court.

In that case, could the Attorney-General please assure the House that he will give due consideration to widening the scope to appeal against unduly lenient sentences? I am sure he will agree that weak sentences by our courts let down the victim, the judiciary and the whole of society.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the scheme is currently restricted to a list of serious offences. It is right to say that we have added to that list in recent years. In August 2012, the offence of trafficking people for exploitation was added, as were racially or religiously aggravated assaults in October 2003 and various offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in 2006. It is always possible for cases to be added to the list, but it is important to bear in mind that references take up court time and there must be a limit to the number of cases that the Court of Appeal can hear. One must also bear in mind that there has to be a degree of finality and these things have to be balanced out. If my hon. Friend knows of any cases or types of offences that he thinks might be added, I am always happy to consider such matters. It is, obviously, ultimately a matter for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, but we discuss these matters and will act if we think it necessary.

I am usually a great fan of the Attorney-General, but the way in which he has handled the case of Elena Fanaru is very disappointing. She now lies in a grave in Romania. The man who knocked her down and killed her, having fled the scene of the accident, got only one year and four months in prison. When are we going to make sure that such people really do face justice?

I am not going to comment on an individual case. I am quite satisfied that, in so far as I have been able to have any role in this matter, I have acted properly. In so far as it is a matter of where the law needs to be changed, that is for this House to decide.

May I urge the Attorney-General to work with the Lord Chancellor to extend the period in which an appeal can be made against an unduly lenient sentence from the current 28 days? Could he also give a word of encouragement to campaigners such as the excellent Families Fighting for Justice who claim it would make a big difference to victims of the most serious offences?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Certainly, the question of the time limit will be looked at by my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. I am certainly open to suggestions, although it is right to say that if we have a new time limit there will always be the risk that it will also be exceeded in some cases. It is important that cases should be reviewed quickly. In some cases the defendant/offender may not have been given a custodial sentence, and to have a long period of delay before a custodial sentence is then imposed is clearly undesirable.

Human Trafficking

9. What steps the Director of Public Prosecutions is taking to raise awareness amongst prosecutors of how to deal with cases of human trafficking; and what assessment he has made of whether current legislation is being used to prosecute such cases effectively. (900467)

Guidance is issued by the Crown Prosecution Service and it is regularly updated. There is a training programme for the CPS and the Director of Public Prosecutions will host a round-table event later this year to consider how best to strengthen prosecutions.

I thank the Solicitor-General for that response. This Friday 18 October is anti-slavery day, which aims to highlight human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the key problems is that those crimes are very well concealed and seldom brought to the attention of the authorities and the police, and that wider public awareness, as well as the awareness of GPs and teachers, is required.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are committed to publishing a draft modern-day slavery Bill later this year. There have been amendments to the law to enable more prosecutions to occur. The round-table event later this year will be important in raising awareness, as she suggests.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has recently brought in legislation on human trafficking that is perhaps unique in the United Kingdom. Has the Solicitor-General had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly and, if so, what was the outcome?

I have not had such a discussion, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to talk to me about the issue, I would be happy to do so.

Will the Solicitor-General press the Home Secretary to consider this matter in drafting the modern-day slavery Bill?

The details of the Bill will be published in draft, so my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to contribute at that point. I pay tribute to the work that he does with the all-party group on human trafficking.