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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Devolved Powers (Macclesfield)

The Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership, which includes Macclesfield, is developing a proposal for its local growth deal. This deal will enable the area to agree freedoms and flexibilities to support the drive to devolve power and resources, including access to funding from the local growth fund, which is worth at least £12 billion over the next five years.

I welcome the Government’s plans to devolve further powers to LEPs and I welcome the funding, which is vitally important, but what steps are the Government taking to work closely with the Cheshire and Warrington LEP and the taskforce at the AstraZeneca site at Alderley Park to ensure that there is a locally based strategy for the future of life sciences in north-east Cheshire?

That is precisely what the local growth deal provides the opportunity to do. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), for their assiduity in making sure that AstraZeneca in particular has maintained its commitment to Cheshire and to the north-west, securing 300 jobs just in recent weeks. I expect this to be at the heart of the deal that is proposed by the LEP.

City Deal (Plymouth)

Negotiations to conclude the Plymouth city deal continue to progress well. The proposals seek to bring into use new employment space for Plymouth’s growing marine sector, to deliver tailored business support to small businesses and to get young people into the jobs that will result. Negotiations are at an advanced stage, and I am hopeful that we will be able to agree this important city deal in the near future.

Is my right hon. Friend also aware that in awarding Plymouth city deal status, along with £10 million to decontaminate part of the South Yard in the Devonport dockyard, the Government will not only be helping to create a marine energy park but in turn be helping to deliver 10,000 new jobs?

My hon. Friend is right, and he has been a formidable champion for the proposed city deal. All the members of the LEP and the local authorities, including across the Tamar in Cornwall, came to make an impressive pitch on 31 October, and my hon. Friend has been to see me. It is an exciting proposal that builds on the strengths that we know exist in Plymouth and the whole of the south-west peninsula to serve a globally growing sector of marine engineering. I certainly wish it well, and I hope that we will have good news before very long.

I am sure, yes. We can always try to catch the hon. Lady later. There is a bit of a distance between Devon and Cornwall and Birmingham, Edgbaston.

Special Advisers

Unlike the previous Administration, the Government publish the number of special advisers working in government alongside specific details of their salaries. The Government have gone further to ensure that a wider range of information about special advisers is now available to the public. For example, we are now committed to providing details of gifts and hospitality received by special advisers on a quarterly basis, as well as the details of all meetings held with senior media figures. All of this information was last published on 25 October 2013.

That is all very interesting, but it does not answer the question that I tabled on the Order Paper. I suspect that the answer to that question is “too many” and “too expensive”. In responding to my supplementary, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House about plans to be announced this week, apparently, that will allow each Cabinet member to appoint up to 10 personal advisers in a move towards a US “West Wing” type of Government, which will be very unpopular across the country?

As I said, all the information was published. Let me be explicit: there are 98 special advisers in post—72 Conservative and 26 Liberal Democrat—across the Government. On the other point, this is not a plan to import an endless series of political advisers. It is about recognising something that a number of independent think-tanks and others have recommended to the Government, to allow Ministers access to external policy expertise, which is sometimes lacking in Whitehall in the offices Ministers find themselves in.

Further to the supplementary question asked by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), and following this morning’s news that Cabinet Ministers will be allowed to have an additional 10 political appointees, does the Deputy Prime Minister think it is right that the taxpayer will be charged £16 million a year, in addition to the current SpAd bill, so that he and his Cabinet colleagues can be advised by their mates?

The average salary cost of special advisers is 9% lower than it was under the last Labour Administration, so pots and kettles don’t half spring to mind.

We all know that the reputation of special advisers was tarnished during Labour’s 13 years in government, but on the question of having technical advisers, which we have heard about in the past 24 hours, will the Deputy Prime Minister indicate what criteria would be used to ensure that they are indeed technical advisers, not political spin doctors?

Most usefully perhaps, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research—not a think-tank widely known always to support the measures of the coalition Government—which stated that, when compared with other similar systems, it is clear that Ministers often struggle to get the right kind of expertise they need to discharge their duties effectively. That is why, under proper processes of authorisation, we will explore the way Ministers can access that advice and expertise so that they can do their jobs better.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall saying in 2009:

“These are political jobs and therefore should be funded by political parties. Special advisers will not be paid for by the taxpayer”?

That broken promise is costing taxpayers a record-breaking £7.2 million a year, £1.3 million of which is for the Lib Dem share. What has changed since 2009?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks for a party that is hoovering up all the available Short money from taxpayers, and his question was probably written for him by Len McCluskey. For heaven’s sake, talk about blurring the boundaries between politics and non-party interests. Was the question written for him by a trade union—yes or no?

Individual Electoral Registration

4. What steps he has taken to prevent a reduction in those registered to vote as a result of the introduction of individual electoral registration. (901057)

6. What steps he has taken to prevent a reduction in those registered to vote as a result of the introduction of individual electoral registration. (901059)

The Government are safeguarding the completeness of the electoral register by using data-matching to confirm the majority of existing electors to ensure that they are all automatically enrolled during the transition to individual electoral registration. We are also phasing in the transition over two years to allow those not individually registered to vote in the 2015 election. We are making registration simpler and more convenient by enabling online registration for the first time. In addition, resources have been provided to maximise voter registration ahead of individual electoral registration.

How many eligible voters would have to drop off the register for the Government, the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to pause and review this policy?

The hon. Gentleman should know that the tests that have been done and the safeguards that are in place, including carrying over the existing register to the 2015 election, mean that there is every prospect that the number of people able to vote in that election will increase. That is what has led the chair of the Electoral Commission to say:

“We have independently assessed how ready the plans are for this change to the registration system and have concluded that it can proceed”.

Does the Minister support Labour’s policy of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds, and, in that context, what preparations are being made to learn from the experience of the referendum in Scotland?

Obviously, an exception has been made for Scotland, but the Government have no plans to extend it to the rest of the United Kingdom.

We warmly welcome anything that increases the integrity of the electoral register, but is my right hon. Friend aware that although it takes only 10 or 15 seconds for someone to put their name on the register, it can take months, if not years, and considerable expense to remove someone who has inadvertently or illegally put their name on it? What is he going to do about it?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the transition is to ensure the integrity of the electoral register and to make sure that electoral registration officers target the accuracy, as well as the completeness, of the register. I was struck by some figures from the Metropolitan police, who disclosed that of 29,000 forged identity documents they had seized, 45% had a corresponding forged entry on the electoral register. That underlines the importance of the changes we are making.

Students tend to move very regularly, and previously there have been good systems in, for example, the Cambridge colleges to register them all automatically. Under the proposed changes, they will be particularly at risk of falling off the register. What steps is the Minister taking to try to make sure that that problem is reduced?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He will know that I have allocated funding to electoral registration officers in proportion to the risk of under-registration, and places with a high student population are included in that category. He will find that his electoral registration officer has the funds that are required to target that group of people.

10. If the Electoral Commission determines in any report it may produce before the 2015 election that the current procedure is not fit for purpose, will the Government scrap it? (901064)

The Electoral Commission has given its view, and it says that there is no reason why it should not proceed. The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware of the difference between the procedure for the 2015 general election and the later transition to full individual electoral registration. In the 2015 election, the existing carried-over register and the individual register will both be available. That will provide a safeguard in relation to the concerns that he might otherwise have had.

As has already been said, young people and students are those most likely to fall off the register. May I press the Minister on what more the Government can do, particularly working with universities, sixth-form colleges, schools and further education colleges to maximise the number of young people who will register? I understand that the Electoral Commission has the power to recommend a delay if it feels that the situation is not ready in 2015. If it gives him that recommendation, will he heed its advice?

As I said, the Electoral Commission has made its assessment and, having independently assessed readiness, has concluded that it can proceed. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to talk about groups that have historically been under-represented and might be so in future. That is why I have announced £24 million of funding for electoral registration officers to make sure that, in addition to their usual work, they target the groups who may otherwise drop off the register and canvass them properly to make sure that they register.

Access to Elected Office Fund

The access to elected office fund is an initiative from the Government Equalities Office to help candidates to meet disability-related costs when standing for election. The fund has approved 22 applications to date, with another 32 pending. It is a pilot exercise targeted to run until June 2014, when the Government will review its operation.

I thank the Minister for that reply and for the support that the fund has given to disabled parliamentary candidates in Wales. Will he encourage the Welsh Assembly to consider extending the scheme to include local government candidates as well?

That is obviously a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government. However, with local elections coming up next year, I encourage all Members to publicise the existence of this fund, which meets the additional costs that anyone with disabilities may incur in standing for election—for example, with difficulties in using public transport. The fund is there to enable them to take up their democratic right to stand for office in a way that does not disadvantage them. I hope that more people will access this fund which is available for that purpose.

Social Mobility

Improving social mobility is the principal long-term goal of this Government’s social policy. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about measures to improve social mobility, such as the offer of early education for two-year-olds from lower-income families, the pupil premium and the youth contract.

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister. Does he agree, though, that the very best way to achieve social mobility is through effective early-years intervention to support the emotional resilience of families?

I strongly agree that the more we can do to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds very early on in their lives, before they even go to primary school, the more dramatic the difference—all the evidence shows this—to their subsequent ability to do well at school and go to college, university or elsewhere and get a good job. That is one of the reasons why we have increased the overall funds for early intervention from £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion, and why we have provided a new entitlement—it has never existed before—of 15 hours’ pre-school support for two-year-olds from the poorest 20% of families in the country. We will double that next year. We will also, of course, provide tax-free child care to all working families as of 2015.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister consider the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and himself to be good examples of social mobility?

I do not think that the whole political class is a particularly good example of social mobility. We also need to make sure that doors are opened in many other sectors, whether the media or the law, in order to give opportunities to young people who otherwise would not have them. That is why I am delighted that 150 businesses from a range of sectors have signed up to a new business compact which I have thrashed out with them and which will ensure that young people will be able to have meritocratic access to internships in all those businesses that were not available to them before.

One of the most effective ways of tackling social mobility is through high-quality teaching in our schools. Will the Deputy Prime Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Education how the best teachers can be encouraged into schools facing the most challenging circumstances?

I certainly agree that great teachers who inspire pupils and are committed to their vocation are crucial in promoting a good education system and, therefore, social mobility. We have a number of programmes. I would single out Teach First as an outstanding programme that has attracted some of the brightest and the best into teaching, which is something the whole Government actively support.

Sir John Major recently said that he finds it “truly shocking” that in every single sphere of influence in Britain

“the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class”.

In 1979, just 3% of MPs had a political background, such as special adviser. At the last election, the figure was 25% of this House. What is the Deputy Prime Minister doing to change that?

I think we all need to ask ourselves searching questions about how, in our own political parties and parliamentary offices, we can make sure that we give people greater opportunity. One of the huge changes in recent years—I know the right hon. Lady has been very active on this, and I pay tribute to her for that—is the way in which internships, which were once an informal arrangement and all about who rather than what someone knew, are becoming an increasingly important, almost semi-formal step towards full-time work and are being provided on a more meritocratic basis. We need to do that here in Parliament, just as much as many other workplaces need to do it up and down the country.

Topical Questions

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

The Government have been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority, the Office for Budget Responsibility and others for misleading statements by Ministers on welfare, economic, health and education policy. Given that this, unfortunately, slips between the ministerial and Members’ codes, what does the Deputy Prime Minister believe the punishment should be for Ministers who deliberately mislead the House and, more importantly, the public?

It is incumbent on everybody on both sides of the House to make sure that the statistics we use, much as we might challenge them, are based in objective fact. However, on the day that the Labour party is literally making it up about child care costs and has been shown overnight to be using misleading statistics, and on the day when it claims that it will pay for new child care policies with a bank bonus tax that it has already spent 10 times over, I suggest that the hon. Lady’s colleagues think more carefully about the statistics they use.

T2. Now that Labour’s disastrous social housing policy of selling and spending is over, will my right hon. Friend congratulate Stockport Homes on its work on rebuilding Stockport’s social housing stock, and will he have a word with the Chancellor to see whether Stockport can have greater financial flexibility to build more homes, which my constituents desperately need? (901119)

I certainly want to congratulate Stockport council on its very innovative scheme. I also want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend who, in government, did a great deal to ensure that the £4 billion-plus that we are investing in affordable homes really translates into more affordable homes being built at a higher rate than was the case under the previous Administration.

My right hon. Friend will know that we, as the Liberal Democrat party within the coalition, think that there is a case for looking at greater flexibility in the headroom in housing revenue accounts, where those accounts are not fully used by councils, and we will continue to discuss that within the Government.

There is widespread recognition now about the importance of child care, but it needs to be high quality, accessible and affordable for working parents. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that since he became Deputy Prime Minister, the cost of child care has gone up five times faster than wages, and that for every week that he has been Deputy Prime Minister, three Sure Start children’s centres have closed?

On both counts wrong, and I strongly urge the right hon. and learned Lady not—[Interruption.] No, categorically wrong: 45 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, which is 1.2% of all Sure Start centres. She must stop peddling these misleading statistics about the closure of Sure Start centres. She is also wrong about costs. In fact, the dataset used by Labour shows that child care costs increased by 46% between 2002 and 2010.

The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is not even consistent with the Government’s own figures on Sure Start children’s centres. More importantly, it is not consistent with the experience of people in their own communities and of hard-working parents who have seen not only children’s centres close, but those remaining having their hours cut, their staff cut and their services cut. Nobody is going to be impressed by his posing as the champion of child care. The truth is that after all the progress on child care when we were in government, working parents are now finding it even harder to get the child care they need.

There are more parents using Sure Start children’s centres than ever before. This Government are providing a new entitlement for two-year-olds from the poorest families, which did not happen under 13 years of Labour. I have to say that so many of these difficult decisions are related to the fact that Opposition Members crashed the economy in the first place, for which they have taken no responsibility. Even the mayor of Toronto is admitting past mistakes.

T4. The Cambridge area is a global success story. Our high-tech cluster alone has 57,000 direct jobs, generating revenues of £13 billion. The proposed Greater Cambridge city deal would enable us to build much-needed affordable housing and sustainable transport, so that we can continue that success to generate money for the Treasury. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in delivering the city deal? (901121)

I know that the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibility for constitutional affairs and city deals, met leaders from the council and those sponsoring the city deal just last week. As my hon. Friend will know, we are very enthusiastic about city deals generally. They are a very significant step in the further decentralisation of powers away from Whitehall to our communities. We very much hope to make progress on the Cambridge city deal and, indeed, on others as soon as we can.

T3. The Deputy Prime Minister will know the anger within the voluntary community and faith sector in the city that we both represent, and indeed across the whole country, about his enthusiastic support for the gagging provisions of the lobbying Bill that will do so much to undermine political accountability and transparency. He has been generously provided by 38 Degrees with a platform in the heart of his constituency on Friday to justify his position. Will he take it up on the offer? (901120)

I am unapologetically enthusiastic about a measure that will do a great deal to safeguard the integrity of the democratic process. All we are saying—one would have thought that the hon. Gentleman might support this—is that we do not want to go the way of the United States, where big money distorts and subverts the political process. Under our current rules, we would see big money spending more in constituencies than political parties can spend. Given that his party is run by the trade unions and big money outside political parties, he thinks that that is okay; millions of British voters do not.

T12. The Tees valley is already an industrial powerhouse. What progress has my right hon. Friend made in delivering a city deal for the Tees valley? (901130)

Again, a meeting was held last week about the Tees valley city deal. As my hon. Friend knows, we are considering having up to 20 city deals if we can cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is a willingness across the coalition Government to ensure that when local areas, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships say to us that they would like to draw down powers that are hoarded in Whitehall, our answer is yes, unless there are clear reasons why it should not happen. That is the thinking that will inform our approach to the Tees valley city deal.

T5. The social mobility and child poverty commission has stated that“fiscal consolidation has been regressive”.Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore accept its recommendation that the 2013 Budget funding for child care should be reallocated from higher-rate taxpayers to those on universal credit or, since universal credit seems to be over the horizon, to those on tax credits? (901122)

The hon. Lady will know that as we introduce universal credit and sweep aside the pernicious old rules, such as the 16-hour rule, that prevented people from accessing help with their child care costs, we are ensuring that there is support for those on universal credit to cover the vast bulk of their child care costs. We have made a number of announcements about that.

Even though we have had to make dramatic savings over the past few years, we should be judged by our actions. We have put more money into the universal provision of 15 hours’ pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds, more money into provision for two-year-olds from the most deprived backgrounds and more money into the education of children from the most deprived backgrounds through the pupil premium. Alan Milburn’s report shows that, particularly through the effective use of the pupil premium, we are finally starting to close the attainment gap that has blighted our society for far too long.

T13. My right hon. Friend knows well that Cornwall is up for devolution as a rural pilot under the city deals scheme. However, the speed across Departments is variable. Will he meet me and other stakeholders in Cornwall to accelerate the progress towards the ambition that Cornwall clearly has? (901131)

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is dealing with the city deals, tells me that he will be meeting all Cornish MPs, including my hon. Friend, to discuss the matter. I know that there is frustration about it in Cornwall, as well as great enthusiasm for a greater devolution of powers, which I admire and pay tribute to. As my hon. Friend knows, we provided city deals for the eight largest cities in the country first and are now looking at the next rung of the ladder, which involves a further 20 city deals. We will of course look at whether we can spread the approach to other parts of the country subsequently.

The UK Youth Parliament voted for it, the Labour party has put it in its general election manifesto and the Liberal Democrats have always supported it. When will the Deputy Prime Minister bring forward proposals to lower the voting age to 16?

I have always been very open about this matter. It is something that I believe in and that my party believes in, but it is not agreed on across the coalition. That is the nature of coalition government. My coalition partners are perfectly entitled to have a different view on when people should be entitled to vote. I will continue to argue for my point of view.

The Silk commission has received ample testimony on a pattern of unfairness from the Welsh Government, including in the treatment of English NHS patients, the use of the ambulance service and the sharing of water and other resources. Will the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that he will do everything possible to ensure that those anomalies are resolved?

The anomaly, as my hon. Friend politely puts it, is the lamentable record on the NHS of the Labour Administration in Wales. He refers to the Silk commission, which was a bold step towards the further devolution of powers from Whitehall to Cardiff. The Prime Minister and I were in Wales the week before last to announce that process and it has been universally welcomed by all parties in Wales. That comes in the context of the debate about the future of the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place within it. The Silk commission has shown in practice that we do not need to pull the United Kingdom apart to have a greater devolution of powers to its constituent parts.

T7. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the abundance of riches today. What is the Deputy Prime Minister doing in his co-ordinating role across Government to ensure that there are social value clauses in central and local government procurement? Social value clauses can help with apprenticeships, training and the building of local supply chains. I ask him to take the lead in Cabinet and ensure that social value is one of the most important aims in the procurement of every Department. (901124)

The right hon. Lady asks a specific question about a social value clause, and if she does not mind I will get back to her on that having consulted the Cabinet Office. More generally, she referred to apprenticeships of which, as she knows, I am as much a fan as she. Apprentices are now being taken on in 200,000 workplaces in the country, and I do not see why we should not be able to double that in a relatively short period of time, to give more young people a greater opportunity to take up apprenticeships and move into meaningful work.

The coalition Government have been extraordinarily successful. Has the Deputy Prime Minister enjoyed his role, and would he like to continue as Deputy Prime Minister after the next election, and continue to enjoy support from MPs such as myself?

Whether he is moustachioed or otherwise, I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s questions, although I usually wait for a sting in the tail, which did not quite come this week as it did last time. I am always grateful for his support in whatever qualified form it is provided.

T8. Sure Start is such a great idea that it will not go away, despite the coalition’s efforts. What will the Deputy Prime Minister say to all those children across the country who are denied a place as a result of cutbacks to fund tax cuts for millionaires? (901125)

As I have said, in the final financial year of this Parliament the amount of money we have provided is actually going up from £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion, and more parents are accessing children’s centres than ever before. There has been a closure of 1.2% of children’s centres across the country, but at the same time we have provided hundreds of millions of pounds of extra support to help small children before they even go to school, providing for the first time ever a universal entitlement of 15 hours of pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds, and 15 hours of pre-school support to two-year-olds from the poorest families in this country. I hoped the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed that.

Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have articulated their vision for the Humber region, but much will depend on the emerging city deal. Are Ministers satisfied with their progress on that?

I am reliably informed that the city deal was the subject of another meeting last week. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the city deals, including that in the Humber area, are reaching a critical phase and we are examining the details on a line-by-line basis. As I said, we are keen to land those city deals—or as many as we can—as rapidly as possibly in the weeks and months to come.

T9. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm whether he believes that his party’s support for the dreaded bedroom tax is in the best traditions of liberalism in this country? (901126)

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his exotic commitment to Movember.

On the bedroom tax, as the hon. Gentleman knows, of course there are hard cases that deserve hard cash to ensure that people are dealt with flexibly and compassionately. That is why we have trebled the amount of discretionary housing payments available to £180 million. The principle that someone receives housing benefit in the social rented sector for the number of bedrooms and amount of space they need—just as they would in the private rented sector—was supported by the previous Government, and is supported by this one as well.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why it is a higher priority to provide a free school meal to a six-year-old from an affluent family than to a 12-year-old living in childhood poverty?

With respect, my right hon. Friend fundamentally misunderstands the progressive nature of extending free school meals to the first three years of children at primary school. The evidence from pilots in Durham, Newham and elsewhere—I strongly urge him to visit some of those pilots—suggests that it helps many thousands of children who are in poverty but do not receive free school meals. Having children share a healthy, hot lunch every day together has a dramatic effect in closing the attainment gap in education between wealthier and not so wealthy children.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister has made great play of the Government’s offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds, but one in three councils do not have enough places, and local childminders tell me that the subsidy is not enough to pay the cost. When will he realise that proclamations from the Dispatch Box do not deliver policies for parents on the ground? (901128)

I will send the hon. Lady the figures, but my memory is that we are already on track to deliver more of the places for that first instalment for the 20% of the poorest families with two-year-old toddlers than we had originally planned. I think we are already on track to provide 92,000 places and to deliver 100% of those, but I will provide her with that information in writing if she wishes.

Carlisle is a considerable distance from London and is close to Scotland, which has extensive devolution. In my view, many local decisions should be made locally and not by central Government. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have to devolve power and resources to Carlisle?

As my hon. Friend will know, we made an announcement some months ago on the back of the recommendations from Lord Heseltine to establish local growth deals that will be accessible to all parts of the country to do exactly what my hon. Friend describes—to allow local areas, which can often make far better decisions about skills, training, transport and business investment, to take those decisions with greater freedom and greater resources available to them.

T11. Some of the top universities are lobbying for an increase in the cap on tuition fees to £16,000 a year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance —one of his firm pledges—that while the Liberal Democrats are in government he will not allow that to happen? (901129)

I know that the hon. Lady’s party advocated no upper limit to fees, because it was the Labour Government who commissioned the Lord Brown review—never mind £9,000, it said there should be no upper limit. We have no plans to change the upper limit at the present time.

May I press the Deputy Prime Minister on the answer I got from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)? What precisely are the Government planning to do to make it easier, cheaper and quicker to remove from the electoral register those who put themselves on it either inadvertently or illegally?

The whole design of individual voter registration—which, let us remember, was first mooted and launched by the previous Government—was precisely to stamp out levels of fraud and wrongdoing on the electoral register. Our view is that as we move towards individual voter registration on the timetable that we have set out—doing so carefully and providing a great deal of information to those who might otherwise not be aware that they need to make the change and comparing different datasets to make sure that those who are legitimately on the electoral register and are on other databases are transferred automatically—we will be able to weed out fraudulent entries on the electoral register within two or three years.

Since the Deputy Prime Minister took over his important office, has the cost of the Deputy Prime Minister’s office increased or decreased, and by how much?

I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at all the detailed figures that we published in October. Unlike any previous Administration, we said exactly how many special advisers there are and what their costs are. Of course a number of special advisers attached to my office support various Departments across Whitehall—something that is necessary in a coalition Government.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Human Rights Act

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on bringing forward proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998. (901109)

I have frequent discussions with the Justice Secretary about a range of topics. However, the present Government have no current plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. The Justice Secretary has indicated that in the new year the Conservative party will publish a draft Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. Such a Bill may not be adopted until there is a majority Conservative Government.

Is the Attorney-General aware that the Human Rights Act is one of the few ways in which the victims of crime can hold police and prosecutors to account for failure to investigate and prosecute? If so, does he agree that the desire of many of his colleagues to repeal it would represent a serious backwards step for the victims of crime?

I certainly endorse what the hon. Gentleman says—that the Human Rights Act is a mechanism through which victims of crime may seek redress. He is right about that, but there is no reason to suppose that if it were to be replaced by a Bill of Rights, that right would necessarily be removed.

Does the Attorney-General agree that the British people want the European convention on human rights to be interpreted in the way the original draftsmen intended back in 1950, and not according to what some judges would like it to mean today?

I am afraid I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. If he were correct, the criminalisation of homosexuality would remain acceptable, because the convention would not have evolved. I realise he touches on a difficult issue. Some have argued that the interpretation of the convention goes further than it should, and that is a legitimate issue of public debate. As for the principle that the convention should simply be static and remain where it was in 1950, I think careful examination would soon reveal a great many problems that would cause anxiety in this House.

The Human Rights Act 1998 is also invoked by the victims of human trafficking and slavery to hold to account state agencies that fail to pursue and prosecute their oppressors. Should we not be careful that we do not take a retrograde step, leaving victims of human trafficking and slavery powerless and voiceless as a result of the Attorney-General’s changes?

First, I have put no changes to the House today. The hon. Gentleman makes the correct point that the Human Rights Act, as interpreted in our courts, provides a degree of protection. It is possible, however, to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights that is compliant and compatible with our convention obligations, and which could do exactly the same thing. If I could provide him with some reassurance, the mere replacement of the Human Rights Act by a Bill of Rights would not necessarily lead to the mischief he anticipates.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the famous Gettysburg Address. In that short speech, Honest Abe declared a new birth of freedom. In Britain and the rest of the world, no single law does more to protect our freedom than the Human Rights Act. Will my right hon. and learned Friend honour Lincoln’s call by reaffirming our support for the Human Rights Act, which underpins our freedoms today?

The key issue for my hon. Friend, and for me, is reaffirming the principles embodied in the convention. The Human Rights Act is a mechanism by which we ensure that convention rights are accessible to those in this country. That has always seemed to be a very good principle on which to operate.

Child Abuse (Mandatory Reporting)

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on making reporting of suspected child abuse mandatory for schools. (901110)

I have not had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Education on making reporting of suspected child abuse mandatory for schools. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) told the House on 11 November that the relevant statutory guidance is clear: if anyone working with children, including in schools, has concern about a child’s welfare, safety or care, they should report that to the appropriate authority.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with the recent recommendation made by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, that teachers and health workers who fail to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse should face criminal prosecutions? Will he produce guidance for schools on what constitutes reasonable suspicion?

The former Director of Public Prosecutions has made an important contribution to this debate. I assure the hon. Lady that this matter is being considered by the Government, including by the Home Office. Unless criminalisation of failure to report comes in, guidance is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. As I indicated in my earlier answer, there are clear guidelines which ought to ensure, even at present, that if there is suspicion or anxiety that a child is being abused, it will be reported to the proper authorities.

Does the Attorney-General believe it would be easier or more difficult to tackle child abuse if the age of consent were reduced to 15?

The question of whether the age of consent might or might not be reduced to 15 is a matter for the House, but speaking personally, I cannot see any advantage from doing so.

As a professional who worked in this area for 20 years, I was always clear that child abuse suspicions should be reported, but I am concerned that there now appears to be a lot of doubt among the wider public and some professionals. Will the Attorney-General work across Government to ensure that the statutory guidance to which he has referred and the need for all professionals in contact with children to report suspicions are made absolutely clear, as it is far from clear that mandatory reporting in legislation would improve child protection?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who makes some sensible points. I will ensure that what has been said in the House today will go back to the Secretary of State for Education and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Human Trafficking

3. What steps the Director of Public Prosecutions is taking to raise awareness among prosecutors of best practice in prosecuting human trafficking offences; and whether current legislation is being used to prosecute such cases effectively. (901112)

Guidance is issued to prosecutors by the Crown Prosecution Service and supported by an e-learning programme. Cases are being prosecuted effectively, and the Director of Public Prosecutions is holding a round table on human trafficking on 4 December for police and experts to strengthen investigations and prosecutions.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that prioritising the issue of child sex tourism is critical and that robust action should be taken to apprehend, prosecute and enforce legislation against child sex tourists, as highlighted by the Stop it Together campaign recently launched by the International Justice Mission?

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the all-party group on human trafficking and modern day slavery on their involvement and the campaign. New legislation came into force on 6 April extending the territorial jurisdiction to enable the prosecution of cases of trafficking where victims have been trafficked anywhere in the world. The CPS and I are committed to bringing perpetrators to justice.

The Solicitor-General will be aware of the landmark case of L and others, decided by the Court of Appeal in May, which said that victims of trafficking should not be prosecuted, yet if I visit our prisons, I see in jail young Vietnamese trafficked to Britain to be cannabis farmers. What is he doing about that? Will he meet the Secretary of State for Justice to get those innocent victims of trafficking freed?

The Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Human Trafficking was set up for the purpose of liaising across Government and has met very recently. The hon. Lady raises an important point: victims of trafficking should not be prosecuted for offences that arise from that. Of course, there can be cases that do not arise from their trafficking where they may end up before the courts, but the principle that she sets out and which the Court has adumbrated is one that the Government accept.

Given the international nature of human trafficking, has the Solicitor-General looked for examples of best practice from other countries around the world that best prosecute human traffickers and from which we might learn valuable lessons?

My hon. Friend will know that the Government have liaison magistrates and others around the world helping to build capacity in that area. We look at the international experience, and it is important to do so; but having said that, the number of people prosecuted in this country for such human trafficking offences is increasing, and we are determined that that should continue.

Tackling human trafficking requires getting tough on perpetrators and, as we have talked about, providing more support for victims. Given that two thirds of trafficked children rescued then go missing again, why will the Government not now sign up to the EU directive on human trafficking, which would ensure that independent guardians were appointed for child victims of trafficking?

The hon. Lady is right that we should support the victims of trafficking, and a great deal of work is done to achieve that—for example, she will know of the work of the Salvation Army. I was very impressed, visiting the north-west area of the CPS, by the work being done and the substantial support being given to witnesses in order to achieve successful prosecutions. That work needs to continue and be spread.

Has the Solicitor-General had, or does he plan to have, any consultation with the Northern Ireland authorities about the excellent legislation on human trafficking that is currently before the Northern Ireland Assembly? It would effectively increase the number of prosecutions of people who commit this terrible crime.

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, his hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised this issue with me at the last Question Time. Since then, we have corresponded, and we are certainly liaising with the Northern Ireland authorities who, in fact, sit on the inter-ministerial group.

DPP (Ministerial Meetings)

4. What meetings he has had with the new Director of Public Prosecutions since her appointment. (901113)

I have met Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, on a number of occasions since the announcement of her appointment and on one occasion since her appointment.

I thank the Attorney-General for his response. He will be aware that victims of crime often feel let down and frustrated by the processes of the Crown Prosecution Service, particularly regarding the absence of information on their cases. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that he will oversee the performance of the CPS, so that it can deliver a much better and joined-up service for the victims of crime?

The CPS operates under my superintendence and I regularly meet the DPP. The joint police-CPS witness care units keep—or should keep—victims and witnesses updated about their cases as they progress through the criminal justice system. The DPP has indicated that she has three priorities for her work; one of which is care and contact with victims and witnesses. In addition, a pilot is currently being run in South Yorkshire on improving services for victims and witnesses.

It looks as though I have to arbitrate the sibling rivalry. On this occasion, it will be little brother. I call Mr Keith Vaz.

A very good choice, Mr Speaker.

Last Thursday, two individuals were arrested for carrying out female genital mutilation of a five to six-week-old girl. Since 1985, not a single person has been charged for this terrible crime. Has the Attorney-General had any discussions with the DPP about why that is the case, and if he has not done so, will he do so in future?

Yes, I have had discussions with both the previous and the present Director of Public Prosecutions about this issue. It centres on the evidence. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that if there is evidence on which a prosecution can be brought, it will be brought. The CPS takes the issue very seriously, but as he will be aware, the evidence has to be collected first by the police—and the CPS can help with that at times—and it has to cross the threshold on which a prosecution can be mounted. The difficulty in this area, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, is that this is a secret crime, often committed in a way and form that does not bring itself readily to public notice. I can assure him that the CPS takes this issue very seriously.

Has the Attorney-General held discussions with the DPP about the number of cases that are listed for trial but that do not go ahead because the Crown Prosecution Service has not complied with full disclosure? That is not fair to victims and not fair to the administration of justice or the taxpayer. What steps are being taken to resolve the issue, and how many such cases are there at the moment?

Yes, I have raised the matter on a number of occasions with both the previous and the present DPP. It would be best for me to write to my hon. Friend in respect of any statistics; they are not very easy to come by, unfortunately. One issue I often raise when I see some of Her Majesty’s judges on my visits to courts is a request for them to feed in to me any such examples rather than just to rely on anecdote. Nobody pretends that the CPS is a 100% efficient organisation, but I would like to take this opportunity to say that the last director left it in a much better condition than the one he inherited, and made substantial progress.

Does the Attorney-General recall that over a year ago, in relation to Hillsborough, I advised him to consider

“discussing with the DPP the value of instructing, at the outset, a senior and independent-minded Queen’s counsel to lead the review of evidence and the decision-making process on any possible prosecutions”?—[Official Report, 16 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 157.]

He now finds himself unable to discuss Hillsborough with the current DPP, as she previously advised no further action be taken on it. Indeed, the official she nominated is also compromised. With hindsight, does the right hon. and learned Gentleman now regret not taking my advice?

In circumstances in which a potential conflict of interests might arise, there are perfectly available mechanisms for my liaison with the Crown Prosecution Service to continue. I have every confidence that this matter is being dealt with appropriately. I am also satisfied that, if there is a need for liaison between my office and the CPS, it can be readily secured with the Crown prosecutor who is dealing with the case.

Has the Attorney-General discussed with the new Director of Public Prosecutions how she will respond to the chief inspector’s concerns about the quality of Crown court advocacy, and about the need to give Crown court advocates an opportunity to develop their trial skills?

Yes, we have discussed that, and we will continue to discuss it. Advocacy lies at the heart of court presentation, and advocacy that is provided in-house within the CPS must be of a high quality. There are fairly rigorous internal review mechanisms, and I think that they have contributed to a raising of standards, but I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there is more to be done.

Abortion Act (Prosecutions)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service on prosecution of offences under the Abortion Act 1967. (901114)

The former Director of Public Prosecutions and I have had various discussions relating to the Act. On 7 October 2013, he published detailed reasons explaining why the CPS had decided not to proceed in the recent cases involving two doctors.

Will the Attorney-General confirm that it is the settled will of Parliament that sex-selection abortion is morally wrong and illegal, end of story? How does he explain the fact that, although Operation Monto revealed that such abortions were taking place on a considerable scale, a derisory number of prosecutions have taken place—only seven in four years? Indeed, Keir Starmer, the former head of the CPS, decided not to prosecute when there was clear evidence on the basis of which he could have done so. Will the Attorney-General now take action to ensure that the settled will of Parliament is abided by?

As I think my hon. Friend will know, the Abortion Act 1967 does not outlaw abortion on the basis of gender. It provides a mechanism whereby lawful abortion may take place, subject to medical diagnosis and scrutiny. No prosecution was brought because, when the case was examined, it was apparent that there was no

“considered medical guidance setting out, in clear terms, an agreed and proper approach to assessing the risks to the patient’s physical or mental health”,

no guidance on where the threshold of risk lay, and no guidance on the proper process for recording that the assessment had been carried out. It is for those reasons that I have raised the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and I am delighted that he is reviewing it to ensure that it does not arise in future.

Following the outcry that met the decision by the CPS not to prosecute the two doctors for allegedly agreeing to arrange a gender-selective abortion, does the Attorney-General not agree that in future all decisions to prosecute—or not—under the Abortion Act should be signed off personally by the DPP?

I certainly take the view that this is a matter of great seriousness, and I would normally expect the DPP to be aware of it. I should point out that the former director of the CPS was aware of the decision not to prosecute in that case, and of course I asked him to review it personally. If he had reached a different conclusion from the prosecutor, he could have done so.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we must now move on. There is considerable pressure on the parliamentary timetable.