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Commons Chamber

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013

House of Commons

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]

Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 26 November at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).

Hertfordshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 26 November at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

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.

EU Charter of Fundamental Rights

(Urgent Question): To ask the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice to make a statement on the status in the United Kingdom of the EU charter of fundamental rights following the ruling by Mr Justice Mostyn in the High Court on 7 November.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving the House an opportunity to consider the AB case, which we all noted last week, and which gained considerable publicity. I think it would be helpful for me to set out the position.

The claimant in that case raised the EU’s charter of fundamental rights when arguing that UK officials should not have allowed information about him to pass to the authorities of the country to which he was being removed. The case was dismissed on its facts but the judge in passing made some comments on the charter and the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. The judge’s view was that the Luxembourg court had, in the case of NS, held that the charter could create new rights that apply in the UK. It is important to be very clear to the House: we do not agree with that analysis of the NS case. We intend to find another case—we cannot do it with this one as the Home Office was successful and we cannot appeal a case we have won—at the earliest opportunity to clarify beyond doubt the legal effects of the charter and to put the record straight.

It is no secret in this House that I would not personally have chosen to sign up to the Lisbon treaty or to the charter of fundamental rights. However, it is also important to say that the charter’s effects are limited to EU law within the UK, and I have not seen any evidence that it goes beyond that. I would be very concerned if there was any suggestion that the charter did in fact create new rights.

This is an important area, which is why this Government have included the extent of the EU’s competence on fundamental rights in our balance of competences review.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the scale of the problem with which he is now faced, both constitutionally and practically, which would lead to the bypassing of the Government’s proposals for a British Bill of Rights and the repeal of the Human Rights Act, a policy that I established when I was shadow Attorney-General and which lasted until the coalition Government came to office? Does he appreciate that the import of Mr Justice Mostyn’s ruling opens the floodgates to a tidal wave of charter-based legal action, at enormous cost to the British taxpayer and businesses, and raises a fundamental clash between Westminster supremacy and the claims of the EU and the ECJ in respect of sections 2 and 3 of the European Communities Act 1972 that goes beyond mere renegotiation? Does he on behalf of the Government recognise that the amendments I tabled to the Lisbon Act—the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008—which the then Government voted against and the then official Opposition and the Lib Dems would not support, although 48 Conservative colleagues did vote for them, would have put our exclusion from the charter beyond any doubt? Will he therefore agree to support my proposal for urgent legislation as follows: “Notwithstanding any provision of the European Communities Act 1972, nothing in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union shall be binding in any legal proceedings of the United Kingdom and shall not form part of the law applicable in any part of the United Kingdom and that this Act reaffirms the supremacy of the United Kingdom Parliament”?

May I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this House over the years in highlighting the complexities and challenges of EU law? He is a valuable contributor to these debates and we listen to him carefully. I have both listened to what he has said and I have taken extensive legal advice about the case last week. I think it is of fundamental importance that the impact of the charter in the United Kingdom is limited. We were made various promises about even that degree of involvement over the years, but we were not in power at that time. It is absolutely essential that it is limited in scope in the UK. I would treat it as a matter of the utmost seriousness if it were to emerge in law that that was no longer the case and that the charter was more broadly applicable than that.

I have to say that there are those in the European institutions who argue that it should have a broader impact than that, but I can provide some reassurance to my hon. Friend by saying that I was involved in such a discussion recently at a meeting in Brussels where the overwhelming view of member states present was that they did not wish it to have a broader remit than it does at the moment, and I say to him that we would treat any such situation with great seriousness. We do intend to make sure this issue is laid to rest in law at the earliest opportunity and, as always, I will be delighted to talk to him about his suggestions and about his concerns in this area.

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman will be talking to the Secretary of State. That will be a very important part of the discussion.

I commend the Justice Secretary for the cool, calm way in which he answered these questions today, in contrast to the way in which he spoke to the media about the case last week. The position is clear: in 2007, Britain specifically opted out of the charter of fundamental rights being enforceable when the Lisbon treaty was signed. There is no ambiguity about that, as even Mr Justice Mostyn agrees. In his judgment, after quoting the relevant protocol, he said:

“To my mind, it is absolutely clear that the contracting parties agreed that the Charter did not create one single further justiciable right in our domestic courts.”

Labour sought and successfully negotiated an opt-out from the charter. I commend the cool, calm way in which the right hon. Gentleman has explained the timeline and the judgment in 2011.

The right hon. Gentleman has explained why he did not appeal the judgment in Luxembourg in 2011, but he has also heard the concern about the confusion that that could cause in the judiciary. Will he publish the relevant legal advice so that all members of the judiciary can be made aware that there is no confusion, and that the charter is not enforceable in the UK courts? Will he also confirm that he understands that the concern relates to a ruling by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which arbitrates on matters relating to the EU, and not by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which deals with the European convention on human rights? For the avoidance of doubt, I am willing to work with the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that the UK’s opt-out from the EU charter of fundamental rights, which we negotiated, remains in place?

With apologies to the House, I am not prepared to take any lessons from Labour Members who landed us with a treaty and a charter that did far more than we were promised. I also apologise to the former Europe Minister, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is in his place, for taking his name in vain, but it was he who said in 2000 that Europe’s new charter of fundamental rights

“would have no greater legal standing before EU judges than a copy of the Beano or the Sun.”

He knows that that is simply not what happened, because the previous Government signed us up to something that we would not have chosen to sign. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) talks about an opt-out, but that is not what the Labour Government actually negotiated. They negotiated a protocol that stated that the charter would be applied only to EU law. That is the situation today, and it does not enable us to opt out of the charter. We are still subject to it in EU matters. Again, that is not what Labour said would be the case.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to publish the legal advice. His party has a long track record of not publishing legal advice. As he knows, Governments have always resisted its publication, and that will continue, because it is an important part of a Minister’s job to be able to take advice in confidence from our Law Officers. He also made a point about the European Court of Human Rights. The truth is that we need change in both areas. We need change in our relationship with the European Union and in our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. They are separate institutions, and we need change in both of them. A majority Conservative Government would deliver those changes.

I welcome the Government’s readiness to seek clarification in the courts at an appropriate stage. May I make it clear to the Justice Secretary that, up to now, there has always been a majority in this House in favour of our subscription to the European convention on human rights but no majority in favour of our subscription to the European charter of fundamental rights?

May I say how much I agree with my right hon. Friend? He will know that the two documents are contradictory in many respects. They contain comparable rights that are differently worded, leaving the courts uncertain about how, when and where they should be applied. I personally think that the charter of fundamental rights was an unnecessary document. It was signed up to by the previous Government, even though it directly contradicted the convention in many respects and was likely to cause legal confusion in the years ahead.

Order. There is notable interest in this subject, which I am keen to accommodate, but I am also keen to move on to the next business shortly after 1 o’clock. There is therefore a premium on brevity, which I know will now be observed by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).

It will now, Mr Speaker.

First, will the Secretary of State accept that the wording of article 1 of protocol 30, whereby Britain opted out of the charter, could not be clearer? Nobody was duped; the wording makes it absolutely clear that the charter does not extend the ability of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg or any other court, so far as British rights and duties are concerned. Secondly, as the right hon. Gentleman is now so aerated about this matter, will he explain what action he took once the decision of the European Court of Justice in 2011 first became known to him more than two years ago?

On the 2011 case, I was not Secretary of State at the time, so I did not take any action at all. That case—this remains the view of my Department—did not restate the legal position. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the protocol, which says that the charter applies to EU law and not to national law. Unfortunately, as we know, the Lisbon treaty is so vaguely worded in many respects that actually it allows the EU institutions to intrude in areas, such as social security, for example, that were expressly not envisioned in the treaty itself.

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the lawyers who are advising him to do nothing now are the same ones who advised the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and his Government to believe in the integrity of this opt-out and that the European Court would not come after it? Is my right hon. Friend really advocating a policy of “do nothing”? That seems to be what he is suggesting. What we could do is legislate to protect United Kingdom law from the application of the charter of fundamental rights, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), the Chair of the Select Committee.

I am absolutely not suggesting that we do nothing, and that is why we need to get this point clarified in law at the earliest opportunity. The recent Supreme Court case on prisoner voting has reassured me on this issue, but I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) that I have every intention of testing this in law quickly. If we find that the legal position is not what we believe it to be, we will have to take further steps.

The Secretary of State is right to say that I was the Minister for Europe who negotiated the charter of fundamental rights. I am very clear that, as the former Foreign Secretary has said, this is not enforceable in UK domestic law and the protocol is absolutely clear, in article 1. I know why the Secretary of State is reacting as he is today, but I can say to him that if he needs to clarify the matter in the courts, I have no objection, and the House should have no objection, to that. I also have no objection to the legal advice that was given to me and the previous Government being released to this House—I think that would be a very good idea.

The truth is that we were reassured again and again by the previous Government that this document had no legal force at all. Of course it now does have legal force in European law. The issue is about whether that legal force extends to UK law. We regard that matter as being exceptionally important. If there were any question of that linkage being made, we would have to take steps on it.

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that to make things clear we should now insist that any judgment of the European Court of Justice needs to be confirmed by this House before it can be used by a court in this country? The ECJ is a political court; it extends the competence of the European Union under the treaties. It is for Parliament to resist that, so that our courts cannot take any judgment into account without our specific approval.

As my hon. Friend knows, I have a lot of sympathy with his concerns in this area. I have directly seen the way in which the ECJ has amended the rules on social security and left us in a position where we are apparently losing control of what should be a national competency under the treaty. These matters are essential ones for consideration as part of our party’s planned renegotiation of our membership of the European Union.

Although I recognise the good work being done by the present Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee in pursuing his own view of where justice should lie in our relationship with the ECJ, I must ask the Lord Chancellor not to whip up hysteria on a question that has already been settled. In a unanimous report by the European Scrutiny Committee at the time, it was accepted, including by the Conservative Members, that the protocol allowed the UK to opt out of the charter of fundamental rights. It is not correct, when we are dealing with such difficult matters, to use this in a cheap political way, which he is doing.

I do not really recognise the comments of the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that we have a protocol that simply restates the legal position that European law and the charter of fundamental rights sit together and the charter does not apply in UK law. However, what we have seen over the past two or three years, in areas such as social security, is what we understood to be the scope of the treaty being extended by court judgments. We have to be immensely wary of that. It has happened in social security, it has happened in a way that causes real concerns across this House and we have to be very careful. I am absolutely clear that the charter should not apply in UK law, and we would take serious action if there were any suggestion that it could do.

I am a bear of little brain, Lord Chancellor, but is not the real problem here that the public, the people whom we represent, are losing faith in our institutions and in the ability of this country to assert its sovereignty?

I have never recognised my hon. Friend as a bear of little brain, but I know full well that he is well in touch with the views of his constituents, and these are issues of which we should be immensely mindful. I hope he accepts that both he and my colleagues on the Front Bench are very much united in the view that we need to take these concerns very seriously indeed.

I thank the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) who has once again done a great service to the House and to the public in raising and highlighting this matter and in giving us an opportunity to discuss it. The Lord Chancellor talks about seeking a case to get the law clarified. Would it not be simpler to take the consensus that is here and legislate quickly to put the matter beyond any doubt? Why wait?

Our view is that there is not a legal need to legislate. We will test the point in a forthcoming case. If the point proves that the legal position is different from what we understand it to be, we will of course have to return to this House.

I noticed that my right hon. Friend said that a future majority Conservative Government would want to take steps to reassert this House’s sovereignty over EU legislation. Does that mean that we would not be able to take such steps if the Liberal Democrats were part of any future Government?

It is clear that there are many things that have united us politically in the past three years where we have done good work for this country but that there are areas—European issues and issues of human rights—where we take a different view. The mature approach in a coalition is to accept that those differences of views exist, to work collaboratively together when we agree and to be honest when we do not. That is what we will continue to do. I will certainly be on the doorsteps at the next general election arguing very strongly indeed for a Conservative approach that deals with many of these issues.

Is there any significance to the fact that there is no Liberal Democrat Minister on the Front Bench while the Lord Chancellor is making his statement?

Not at all. My Liberal Democrat Minister, Lord McNally, is a first-rate member of our team and has done good work for this Government. However, he is in the other place and is not entitled to sit alongside us.

Following the constructive response from the Secretary of State about how the coalition agrees on many of the issues under the justice remit, may we also get agreement that, although there are differences between us over whether the Human Rights Act 1998 was a proper tool for implementation, this country cannot remain in the Council of Europe unless we continue to subscribe to the European convention on human rights, which we have done for many decades? There must also be a consensus across the House that the European Union charter of fundamental rights should not extend to impose itself across our legislative process, and that has been our understanding from the beginning of its implementation.

That is very much the legal view of the Government at this moment in time. Were we to discover that that was not to be the case—the law has had a habit of moving around in recent years—I hope that all parties would come together and say that it is not acceptable and put in place measures that would prevent it from happening.

This development is likely to trump the excellent work that the Lord Chancellor is trying to do in rolling back the tide of human rights legislation. Is it not the case that it does not really matter what he or other Members in this House think? It is what the judges rule that counts. We are used to EU mission-creep extending its reach beyond what was ever envisaged. Is not the only protection from that to withdraw from the European Union altogether?

My view is that we should seek to renegotiate our membership and to address some of those issues, but it is a matter that will have to wait for a majority Conservative Government. I share many of my hon. Friend’s concerns and believe that we cannot go on in the way we are.

Is it not true that the Lord Chancellor does know the legal interpretation and is waiting for further instruction from the UK Independence party?

Can the House conclude from the Secretary of State’s previous answer that if on this point we could not renegotiate, he would support withdrawing from the European Union?

What I say to my hon. Friend is that we should never enter a renegotiation in the expectation that we will lose.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust stance on this matter, but, as someone who is not one of the usual suspects on Europe—to the best of my knowledge I have never made a speech in this House on the subject—may I say that we really are at a Rubicon? If this does go into law, it would suggest that we have moved a very long way in a bad direction.

I take a clear view that there is an issue in all these matters around who governs Britain. My view is that Britain should be governed by this House. I can assure my hon. Friend that were we to discover that the charter had a broader legal reach than we understand to be the case at the moment, we would take rapid steps to address it.

On 21 January 2008, Hansard records the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), who was then the Europe Minister, saying:

“It is clear that the UK does not have an opt-out on the charter of fundamental rights”.—[Official Report, 21 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1317.]

On 14 November 2009, the current Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, said:

“We will want a complete opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights.”

Does the Lord Chancellor agree that this latest case demonstrates more than ever that if a complete opt-out is not agreed in any future renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU, the British people will be fully justified in voting to leave the European Union?

It is inconceivable that this country could accept a situation in which the charter of fundamental rights was applicable in domestic UK law. On that point, my hon. Friend and I are in great agreement. He has also highlighted another point. We went through a decade of the Labour party pulling the wool over our eyes over Europe, signing up to a treaty it promised again and again it would not sign up to, and signing up to a charter it said would be meaningless and have no legal effect and which does have legal effect. It cannot be trusted on Europe.

Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the Government’s response to the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry.

Let me start by paying tribute to the men and women of courage, without whom this darkest episode in the history of the NHS would never have come to light. I am talking about people such as Julie Bailey and members of Cure the NHS, who stood outside the Department of Health in all weathers because no one would meet them to hear about the inhumane care given to their loved ones; brave whistleblowers such as Mid Staffs nurse Helene Donnelly; and campaigners who suffered tragedies elsewhere such as James Titcombe, who never gave up the fight after losing his son Joshua at Morecambe Bay. They suffered greatly for their selfless determination to ensure that their personal losses were not in vain. All of us in the House are humbled today to stand in the giant shadow of their bravery.

Robert Francis and his team also deserve huge credit. Their diligence and thoughtfulness led to an outstanding reform, which will transform our NHS for the better. Finally, let me pay tribute to all NHS front-line staff for whom reading about these events in the media has been immensely distressing. We owe it to them to make sure that poor care is never again allowed to take root and survive unchallenged in our NHS.

Since our initial response to the inquiry in March, much has happened. Thirteen hospitals have been put into special measures as part of a tough new failure regime. Those hospitals, where poor care had been allowed to persist, are now being turned around, and I thank the Keogh inquiry team for its painstaking work in that area. Independent Ofsted-style ratings of hospitals are under way, led by Professor Sir Mike Richards, the new chief inspector of hospitals. The first 18 trusts are currently being inspected, with quality of care and safety paramount. We have appointed new chief inspectors of adult social care and general practice, whose robust inspections of care homes, domiciliary care and surgeries start next year, and surgical survival rates for 10 major specialties have been published by individual surgeons, making the NHS a world-leader in transparency.

Today the Government are publishing our further response to the inquiry, as well as our response to the Select Committee on Health’s report on the inquiry. Both responses have been laid before Parliament.

The NHS is a moral being or it is nothing. It was set up 65 years ago with the noble ideal that no one should ever be prevented by background or finance from accessing the best care. That is why it remains the most loved British institution, and rightly so. But each and every case of poor care betrays those worthy aims. I do not simply want to prevent another Mid Staffs. I want our NHS to be a beacon across the world for not just its equity but its excellence. I want it to offer the safest, most compassionate and most effective care available anywhere. I believe that it can, but only if there is a profound transformation of the culture in the NHS.

The inquiry shows the devastating effects of overly defensive responses: hurting families, suppressing the truth and preventing lessons from being learned. Failure cannot be addressed when it is covered up, so today I am announcing new measures to promote a culture of openness and transparency. From 2014, every organisation registered with the Care Quality Commission will have a statutory duty of candour. Patients must be told promptly about any avoidable harm, but there will be a statutory requirement to notify any harm that has led to avoidable death or serious injury.

We will consult on whether hospitals that are found not to have been open and transparent with patients or families at the earliest reasonable opportunity should risk having their indemnity from litigation awards reduced or removed by the NHS Litigation Authority. The signal must go out loud and clear from hospital boards and chief executives to all clinicians: if in doubt, report an incident and tell the patient. The professional regulators have agreed to place a new, strengthened professional duty of candour on all doctors and nurses. Failing to inform a patient, not reporting avoidable harm or obstructing someone else seeking to do so will be subject to sanctions, including being struck off.

Inspired by the airline industry, the duty will cover “near misses”—occasions when mistakes were made that could have led to harm and from which we need to learn. Conversely, prompt reporting may be considered as a mitigating factor in a professional conduct hearing. That is not about penalising staff for making mistakes; it is about enabling them to learn from them. The NHS will adopt a culture of learning, as recommended by Don Berwick and his expert committee, and I thank them for their seminal report.

A culture of openness also means learning from complaints. In line with the recommendations of the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and Professor Tricia Hart’s excellent review, all patients will be able to access independent help in making their complaint, with clear signs in every ward explaining how to do so. The chief inspector of hospitals will inspect complaints handling to establish whether trusts are genuinely seeking to understand and learn from them; every quarter, trusts will publish the number of complaints received and lessons learned; and the health service ombudsman will dramatically increase the number of cases she looks at in detail.

[Official Report, 22 November 2013, Vol. 570, c. 12-14MC.]It is impossible to deliver safe care without safe staffing levels. All hospitals will be required to monitor their staffing levels on a ward-by-ward basis, analysing precisely how many shifts meet safe staffing guidelines. By the end of this year, this will be done using models independently approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. No hospital will be able to conceal unsafe staffing from the public because from next June all that data, both at ward and hospital level, will be published alongside other safety data on a new NHS safety website, triggering CQC action if there is cause for concern.

Things are already changing for the better and I am pleased to report that trusts are planning to recruit an additional 3,700 nurses compared with a year ago, but we need to go further to train and motivate staff, particularly the health care assistants and social care support workers who perform so much vital care. Health care assistants and social care support workers will be required to have a new care certificate to ensure that no one is ever asked to perform personal care without adequate training, whether in hospitals or care homes. The title “nursing assistants” will be used widely in hospitals, and paths to nursing careers will be improved. I thank Camilla Cavendish for her excellent work in this area.

We also need to broaden the talent pool going into NHS management positions, in particular by attracting more clinicians and those with good external experience. We have introduced a fast-track leadership programme, sending 50 people a year to a world-leading business school followed by time shadowing top NHS chief executives.

Robert Francis correctly highlighted the failure of regulatory systems to identify quickly what happened at Mid Staffs. Subsequently it has become clear that Ministers put pressure on regulators that may have led them to tone down news about poor care. That is totally unacceptable, so we will strengthen the statutory independence surrounding reports into care quality. The chief inspector will be the nation’s whistleblower-in-chief and nothing must ever be allowed to stand in his way.

The CQC can prosecute when fundamental standards are breached and trusts put into special measures will have a strictly limited time to get their house in order before administration is considered. Foundation trusts in special measures will have their autonomy suspended and action will be taken to ensure that they quickly improve. No trust will be able to progress to foundation status unless it is rated good or outstanding.

Proper accountability must be at the heart of the NHS. I have therefore accepted Professor Berwick’s recommendation of legal sanctions for those found guilty of wilful neglect or ill treatment. There will be a new criminal offence for care providers that supply or publish false or misleading information and a new fit and proper persons test will enable the CQC to bar unfit directors from boards.

Finally, every hospital patient should have the names of a responsible consultant and nurse above their bed. Starting with over-75s from next April, there will be a named accountable clinician for out-of-hospital care for vulnerable older people.

One of the most chilling accounts in the Francis report came from Mid Staffs employees who considered the care they saw to be “normal”. Cruelty became normal in our NHS and no one noticed. The Francis report made 290 recommendations. I accept the principles behind all of them, and wherever possible have adopted the practical solutions suggested by the inquiry. Robert Francis has welcomed today’s announcement as a carefully considered and thorough response to his recommendations, which he says will contribute greatly towards a new culture of caring and making our hospitals safer places for their patients.

Today’s measures are a blueprint for restoring trust in the NHS, reinforcing professional pride in NHS front-line staff and above all giving confidence to patients that after Mid Staffs the NHS has listened, the NHS has learned and the NHS will not rest until it is delivering the safest, most effective and most compassionate care anywhere in the world. I commend this statement to the House.

What happened at Mid Staffs was a betrayal of the NHS and its values. The previous Government rightly apologised, but now is the time to back our words with action. That is why, although I welcome much of what the Secretary of State has just said, it is my job to press him on where we feel he could have gone further and to question why, of the 290 Francis recommendations, 86 are not being implemented in full.

First, let me, too, pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), Professor Tricia Hart, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, Camilla Cavendish, Professor Don Berwick and, of course, Robert Francis. Between them, they have given us proposals that will help to prevent a repeat but, more importantly, as the Secretary of State said, change the whole of the NHS for the better.

Both Francis reports found three primary and fundamental causes of what went wrong: a failure to listen to patients; a lack of properly trained staff; and a dysfunctional culture. I shall take each of those issues in turn.

First, I am sure the Secretary of State agrees with me that patients and their families must always, as Francis recommends, be the first priority for the NHS. That principle unites this House and it must also unite the NHS. Is not Robert Francis right to recommend that the NHS constitution, and the ethos it sets out, should be required reading for all NHS staff? I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on agreeing to implement the Clywd review in full and change the way the NHS handles complaints.

Secondly, on the issue of staffing numbers and training, the first Francis report found that Mid Staffs made dangerous cuts to front-line staffing over a short period. I welcome the Government’s new focus on this issue, but is it not the case that nurse-patient ratios across the NHS have got significantly worse in the past three years, with 5,890 fewer nurses, more older patients in hospital and bed occupancy running at record levels? It is encouraging that the NHS has plans to recruit more nurses this year, and is introducing more monitoring. The Secretary of State says “things are already changing for the better”, but is he aware that Monitor has warned that trusts are planning major nurse redundancies in the 2014-16 period, far outweighing any increases this year? Will he intervene now to stop that? Further, can he explain why he stopped short of requiring safe staffing levels? Is he further aware that nurse training places have been severely cut in recent years and trusts are being forced to recruit overseas?

Alongside nursing, more action is needed to raise standards across the caring work force. As Robert Francis has said, it is unacceptable that the security guard at the door of the hospital is more regulated, and subject to professional sanctions, than the health care assistant attending to an elderly patient. The development of the care certificate as proposed by Camilla Cavendish is a step forward, but will it not work only alongside a register of those who hold it and an ability to remove it if they fall short? Was not Robert Francis right to recommend a system of regulation for health care assistants and, going forward, will the Government reconsider their decision to rule this out? Overall, although there is progress on staffing today, it does not go far enough and we will continue to challenge the Government on it.

Thirdly, on culture change, Francis’s central proposal is a new duty of candour on organisations and individuals. Extending the duty to organisations is a step forward, but patient groups are disappointed today that it will cover only the most serious incidents. Can the right hon. Gentleman say why it has not been extended to all incidents of harm? Further, it is not clear how an organisational duty alone will help individuals challenge an organisation where there is a dysfunctional culture. Is it not the case that an individual duty as proposed by Francis is essential? This point comes over clearly from the evidence given to Francis from a senior, soon to be retired consultant. He said:

“I took the path of least resistance . . . here were also veiled threats at the time, that I should not rock the boat at my stage in life.”

It is only when an individual is both required to speak out, and protected in doing so, that this House can say it has done enough to safeguard patients.

The duty of openness and transparency should apply equally to all organisations providing NHS services including, as Francis rightly recommends, contractors providing outsourced services. Given that this Government are bringing into the NHS more outside providers, patients will need reassurance that we do not have an uneven playing field where private providers face less scrutiny. So will the Secretary of State extend the duty of candour to all health care organisations, as Francis proposed? His amendments to the Care Bill do not make that clear. And should not he now commit to extending freedom of information law to any provider of NHS services?

On openness, Francis made a direct call on the Government to set an example to the rest of the NHS. He said that

“risk assessments should be made public, and debated publicly, before a proposal for any major structural change to the healthcare system is accepted.”

Given that the Government claim today to be accepting this, should they not show now that they mean what they say by finally publishing the risk register on the current reorganisation of the NHS?

Finally, on openness, the NHS would be more accountable to families with a proper system of death certification. The House will remember that this was a recommendation of the Dame Janet Smith inquiry into the Shipman murders. The report today says that the Francis recommendations on this are not accepted in full. If we fail to act now, might people be justified in thinking that this House has not learned the lessons of tragedies that have gone before? If the Secretary of State brings forward proposals, we will work with him on a cross-party basis to implement them.

In conclusion, I do not believe that cruelty has become normal in the NHS, but there is a much deeper question for us all and that is how, in the century of the ageing society, we do a better job of caring for older people. We should not accept the situation where, as Cavendish says, people are paid less than the national minimum wage. Should we not all set much higher ambitions for the care of older people and, in so doing, learn the most fundamental lesson of all from what happened at Mid Staffs?

Let me take the right hon. Gentleman’s points in turn. First, he will know, because this is what happened after the Bristol inquiry and the Shipman inquiry under the previous Government, that Governments do not always accept every single recommendation. What I have said today is that we accept all the principles behind every single one of Robert Francis’s recommendations. We are implementing 204 in full, and in respect of the 86 that we are not implementing exactly as he said, we are doing everything we can to make sure that we implement the spirit behind them, but we need to make sure that everything we do is workable in practice. Francis himself has said that it is a “carefully considered” response that is a “comprehensive collection of measures”.

On staffing numbers, which is an essential part of what we have to consider, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the nursing hours per bed, he will find that they have gone up since 2010, not down. We recognise the crucial importance of front-line staff, which is why I gently say to him that we made some reforms to the NHS that meant that there are 5,500 more doctors on the front line and 8,000 fewer managers. What we also need is more nurses. That is why it is so encouraging that in response to what Robert Francis has said and the recognition throughout the NHS of the importance of compassionate care, we are getting a reaction from NHS trusts—not as a result of a direct ministerial decision, but because trusts themselves are recognising the importance of compassionate care. We think that is a very encouraging sign.

With respect to whether staffing levels should be mandatory, we agree that there are minimum recommended staffing levels, but they are not the same for every ward in every hospital. The minimum level might be one in six for an acute medical unit, one in four for a general medical unit, and one on one for intensive care. We took extensive advice on whether it would be appropriate to set a national minimum mandatory number. Not only is the chief nurse and leading nurses from across the country against this; the King’s Fund and the British Medical Association are against it. The BMA said something today in a statement which I never thought I would read in my lifetime—it said that the “Government is right” on this issue.

The right hon. Gentleman also opposed mandatory staffing levels back in 2011, although it is fair to say that in the House his position on this has changed. The important thing is that we allow local discretion to make sure that nursing levels are adequate, and that where they are not, that is exposed quickly so that there is no repetition of what happened at Mid Staffs.

On the regulation of health care assistants, every health care assistant will have to have a care certificate. Effectively, there will be a database which allows employers to check whether someone has such a certificate. That is a kind of register. The other reason for people talking about the regulation of health care assistants is that they want to make sure that if someone fails in their duty of care, they are not able to appear somewhere else in the country. That is why we have a vetting and barring scheme to make sure that that does not happen.

On the individual duty of candour, let us be clear: we want total candour about all avoidable harm, at every stage that it happens, anywhere in the NHS. We decided after much discussion that extending the statutory duty of candour to individual front-line clinicians would be likely to create a huge amount of bureaucracy and damage the culture of openness that we are trying to create, because everyone would constantly be worried about whether or not they were breaking the law. We decided that the right way to achieve the objective is through a professional duty of candour, which is much stronger than the current professional duty states. Critically—this is a key change—we decided to make sure that, just as airline pilots have protection if they speak out, if front-line NHS employees speak out, they too will get protection if there is a professional conduct case, and that openness at an early stage will be treated as a mitigating factor. That is really important in terms of changing the culture.

Finally, we absolutely do need to resolve the issue of death certificates. It is important that we have an independent view to certify deaths. It is a question of finding a practical way to make sure that we do that, but we very much accept the spirit of what Robert Francis said.

Today I hope that we will find a way forward on all the problems that Robert Francis addressed in his response and that we have been thinking hard about. I urge the shadow Secretary of State to join Government Members in saying that this is a moment when the NHS can once again reach forward and aim to be the very best in the world, because the kind of measures that we are talking about are not happening anywhere else, and that is something of which we can all be very proud.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement and commitment. A culture of compassionate and safe care for all in the NHS must be the legacy of the Francis inquiry. It is the least that those who suffered from dreadful neglect, and their loved ones who campaigned for justice, deserve. Staff throughout Mid Staffordshire trust have made firm strides since then in improving that culture with clear results in patient care, but will my right hon. Friend be the patients champion and ensure that the NHS puts patients first and foremost?

That is the central change in culture that we need throughout the NHS. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend in particular, because he has had a more difficult challenge with respect to his local hospital than any hon. Member. He has campaigned for the people who use that hospital and for the staff there with great integrity and courage, which I commend.

I have never believed that there is a conflict or a choice between putting NHS staff first and putting the patient first. I have never met a doctor or nurse who does not want to put the patient first. The trouble is that we have created structures and incentives that make it difficult for front-line staff to do what they joined the NHS to do, which is to care for patients with dignity, compassion and respect. That is what we are trying to do in the changes today.

I am grateful for the kind words about the report from the Secretary of State and from my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State. If I may plug our report for a moment, “A Review of the NHS Hospitals Complaints System: Putting Patients Back in the Picture” is available. I have not yet gone through the tick-list of all the things that we asked for, but I shall be doing that. The Secretary of State has agreed that we can monitor the progress that Sir Mike Richards makes in putting complaints and the treatment of complaints at the top of his list when he visits hospitals around in the country.

May I press the Secretary of State on one point? He said in his statement that “all patients will be able to access independent help in making their complaint”. How exactly will that be done and how will it be resourced? I am grateful to the many thousands of people who wrote to me during the course of the review who complained about similar experiences to mine on the lack of care and compassion. That applies not just to nurses, but throughout the NHS from top to bottom. I hope that this will address some of the many complaints from Stafford and elsewhere.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on the extremely good report that she produced. I hope she will not find herself in a position of wanting to complain to me about the way in which I have implemented her report on complaints, because we intend to take it extremely seriously. She knows that I basically accept everything she said in it, although we will have to work carefully on the implementation of some things to make sure we get them right. She highlights one of the most fundamental problems. Probably the biggest problem is that some hospitals treat their complaints procedure as a process rather than something that they can learn from. Every NHS patient whom I have met who has had problems only ever says the same thing. They just want to know that the NHS will learn from what has gone wrong. That is all that they are interested in.

The point that the right hon. Lady makes is a very important one. People do sometimes feel that it is them against the system, and taking on a big establishment that might be well funded and is not really interested in hearing what they have to say is a very lonely process. It is vital that everyone who wants it can get independent support. One thing that we will be requiring is a sign, prominently displayed in every ward of every hospital, telling people, first, how they can make a complaint, and secondly, how if they want it they can get independent help and support. That could be a very good role for the new healthwatch organisations, but it may not be them in all cases, so most importantly, we will insist that people everywhere can access that independent help.

Did my right hon. Friend hear my constituent, Debra Hazeldine, this morning on the “Today” programme, with a harrowing description of the way in which her mother was let down and died in Stafford hospital? I agreed with everything she said. Does he acknowledge that, although my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister listened, after correspondence and meetings with him, to my repeated calls and motions for the setting up of an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005, which the Prime Minister set up and which has led to a complete shake-up, not only of Mid Staffs but the entire health service, successive Labour Secretaries of State in the last Government disgracefully and repeatedly refused to agree to such an inquiry, and that but for our determined campaign with Cure the NHS, and in particular Julie Bailey, Debra Hazeldine and Ken Lownds and his campaign for zero harm, the 2005 Act inquiry would never have taken place and the Francis report would never have been produced, with all its beneficial consequences, in the Secretary of State’s hands, for the NHS in the national interest? When will the debate take place on this report on the Floor of the House in Government time?

I did not hear Deb Hazeldine this morning, but I have met her on a number of occasions, and she is an extraordinary, powerful advocate for the changes that we need to make in the NHS. I have had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the possibility of debating this on the Floor of the House, and I would very much welcome the opportunity to do so. My right hon. Friend deserves great credit for the fact that he was one of the earliest people to push for a full inquiry. I hope that the shadow Secretary of State will now accept that it was wrong not to have a public inquiry—it was blocked so many times by the Labour party—because we have learned so much from what Robert Francis has been able to say, and the NHS will be the better for it. Great credit should go to my predecessor, who is sitting here now, who took the decision to have that public inquiry.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the horrors of Mid Staffs were taking place at the same time that wonderful first-class care, from both a clinical and compassionate point of view, was available in many hospitals throughout the country? Is he confident that the measures that he is putting forward now will ensure that the worst performing hospitals will raise their standards to those of the best?

We have to wait and see, but we have put in place a radical, tough new Ofsted-style inspection regime. The point of that regime is not just to identify hospitals where care is unsafe, but to identify outstanding hospitals, so that hospitals in difficulty have hospitals from which they can learn, and we create a culture, just as we have in schools, where failing schools learn from outstanding schools and have a pathway to improvement. That will make a big difference. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we now have 13 hospitals in special measures, and I am sure there will be more as the inspection process gets under way. But we will also have the great hospitals that we can learn from, which will mean that this can be a positive process for the NHS.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the thoughtful and thorough way in which he has conducted the reaction to the publication of the Francis inquiry. Does he agree that the most chilling finding of Francis was that professional people whose focus should have been on the needs of their patients found themselves, in Francis’s words, “doing the system’s business”? Is not the central driver of my right hon. Friend’s recommendations to ensure that never again shall we have closed institutions in a closed system where that is possible, and that the key way forward is to throw sunlight into institutions that have too often been unchallenged?

My right hon. Friend, as so often, speaks wisely. This is probably the boldest step towards transparency taken by any health care system anywhere in the world. We will see if he is right, but I think that he is, because sunlight is the best disinfectant. It means that problems are sorted out much more quickly, but it is sometimes an uncomfortable process. It is really important that we as a country understand that exposing poor care in one place does not mean that there is poor care everywhere and that, in fact, exposing it is the quickest way to sort it out.

We need total candour with regard to avoidable deaths. The only way to determine that is through an independent review of medical case notes by neutral clinicians. That exercise took place at Stafford. Will the Secretary of State remind us of the result?

I do not have the results in front of me, but I am happy to supply them. I want to take up the right hon. Gentleman’s point about avoidable deaths, because one of the changes we want to make today is to avoid the temptation, when there is an avoidable death, for people on the front line to say that it was unavoidable. We are trying to create the structures that make it easy for people to speak out if they think that a death was avoidable and to ensure that they are encouraged to do so.

I very much welcome the introduction of a statutory duty of candour, which the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), wrote into our 2010 manifesto. May I ask the Secretary of State about his plans to prosecute if the fundamental standards are breached, which is an important step with regard to corporate criminal accountability? In drafting those standards, will he ensure that advice is sought from the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Health and Safety Executive and others to ensure that the wording is clear and fit for purpose so that when a prosecution takes place there is no hiding behind the language in those fundamental standards?

We will absolutely do that. We are in the process of a very big consultation to ensure that we get the definitions of the fundamental standards absolutely right, but we also want to try to create a culture that means we do not get to that point in the first place. One of the problems we had with the current system is that the definition of success for a hospital tended to be about meeting waiting time targets and financial balance, rather than caring for patients properly. We want to re-engineer the system through the new inspection regime so that a hospital cannot be good or outstanding unless it is delivering good or outstanding care.

What happened at Mid Staffordshire must never be allowed to happen again, but given that safe staffing levels will depend on adequate resources, can the Secretary of State give an assurance that there will be a debate in the House in Government time on the successor arrangements for Mid Staffordshire and for the University Hospital of North Staffordshire?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are going through a process at the moment and the trust special administrator is drawing up detailed plans, so it is premature to say what will happen, but we will of course keep the House well informed and there will be plenty of opportunities for her to question me, or anyone else she wants to question, about any decisions that are eventually made.

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, which will help health professionals to get on with their jobs and improve openness and transparency across the NHS. I particularly welcome his recognition of the important role played by the 1.3 million health care assistants across health and social care. In implementing the vetting and barring scheme, will he ensure that individuals looking after people at home or in outside institutions can access that list to ensure that they have health care assistants who comply with the fundamental standards?

That is a very good point. I will take it away and look at whether that will be possible, because there is a powerful logic behind making that happen. As my hon. Friend has mentioned health care assistants, I would like to highlight the brilliant work they do, along with so many NHS staff. It has been a very challenging year for them to read about these examples of poor care, which are as shocking to them as they are to us. I agree that now is the time to get behind the people on the front line, who really want to change the culture for the better.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the observations made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, but my constituents will be concerned about the impact of whatever the trust special adm