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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Individual Voter Registration

1. What measures are in place to prevent a fall in the number of people registered to vote after the introduction of individual voter registration. (901779)

4. What measures are in place to prevent a fall in the number of people registered to vote after the introduction of individual voter registration. (901782)

A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to colleagues.

There are three ways in which the Government are ensuring that the electoral register under individual registration is complete and accurate: first, using data matching so that the majority of voters are automatically registered; secondly, phasing in the transition over two years so that people who are not individually registered can nevertheless vote in the 2015 general election; and, thirdly, providing additional resources above what is usually spent at a national and local level to fund activities to boost the completeness and accuracy of the register.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What are the Government doing to ensure that when members of the public come into contact with Government agencies such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency or the UK Passport Service, that is used to promote electoral registration?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the features of the transition that we are putting in place is to use Government databases automatically to register those whose details are held. In the test of this, well over three quarters were automatically registered; in fact, in his constituency the figure was 84%. We are continuing to make use of those sources.

Ministers will recognise the particular challenge of encouraging young people to engage in the electoral process, so what consideration has been given to having polling stations in sixth-form colleges, further education colleges and universities to encourage 18-year-olds to vote?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, it is in all our interests to ensure that as many young people register as possible, especially in student cities such as his. It is for local authorities to determine polling places, as he knows, but I will take away his suggestion and raise it with the relevant authorities.

Does the Minister agree that increasing voter registration and voter participation is absolutely vital, but that we must not do so in any way that increases the incidence of voter fraud?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The purpose of individual electoral registration is to make sure that those who vote are those who are entitled to vote, so the accuracy of the register is important as well. It is not just important, vital though it is, for voting, because identity fraud is often associated with a fraudulent entry on the electoral register. In fact, the Metropolitan police found that nearly half of fraudulent IDs corresponded with a fraudulent entry on the register. That is another good reason why this change is important.

Surely the way to stop a decline in individual registration is to make politics interesting. Is it not therefore essential that we continue with the leaders’ debates and that they should include the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the UK Independence party? Does the Minister agree that afterwards it will not be a case of “I agree with Nick” but “I agree with Nige”?

All I would say is that my hon. Friend is a personal example of someone who makes politics interesting, and there is a good case for his being included in those debates for that reason.

11. In a debate on a statutory instrument before Christmas, the Minister indicated that where local authorities needed extra resources to make proper efforts to maximise the number of people on the register, those resources would be available to them. How are they going to go about applying for them—what will the process be? (901789)

The process is already under way. There has been an allocation based on the assessed requirement of the local authority, but it has been made very clear that if it produces evidence of why its need is higher, that need will be met. In the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, in Sheffield, £240,000 has been allocated on top of what is usually spent on electoral registration for this purpose. If there are any exceptional circumstances, they are being considered by my officials right now.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) made an extremely good point. Will my right hon. Friend use his considerable influence across all Government Departments to ensure that whenever a member of the public comes into contact with one of those Departments, or a local authority, they are asked, “Are you on the local electoral register”, and if they are not, they are helped to fill out a voter registration form then and there?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. A public awareness campaign promoting electoral registration will be held during the summer and beyond. My hon. Friend makes a valuable contribution in suggesting that every Department that has contact with the public can play its role.

At a statutory instrument Committee last month, the Minister said that the point of individual electoral registration

“is to drive up registration”.—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 16 December 2013; c. 12.]

Frankly, most people expect the opposite. How many people would have to fall off the register for the Government to consider using their power to delay implementation of full IER?

I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s question, given that this policy was originated by the Labour party. Everyone agrees that we should modernise our electoral system so that people vote individually. The hon. Gentleman did not oppose the passage of the legislation. We need to proceed with it. The Electoral Commission will monitor it and provide advice as we go.

House of Lords Reform

Order. There seems to be a problem with the microphone. We will try to have the problem solved, but in the meantime if the Minister speaks up we will all be able to hear him.

In the absence of wider reform, the Government have said that they will support the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), which proposes changes to the rules governing the membership of the House of Lords, including removing peers who are convicted of a serious offence—bringing the rules into line with those of the House of Commons—and removing peers who do not attend.

I am obliged to the Minister for his response. According to the House of Commons Library, the additional costs of running the House of Lords have increased by £42 million since 2010. Will the Minister confirm how much his Government’s policy of stuffing the Lords until it bursts will cost the taxpayer between now and the general election?

I will raise my voice to make the point that the hon. Lady has some nerve to lecture us on House of Lords reform when the Labour party blocked such reform. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) is right to say that some of my colleagues voted against it, but they did so because they disagreed with it; Labour Members voted against it despite the fact that they said they agreed with it.

In the interests of the coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister occasionally allows his coalition partner to answer questions.

I am also surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister is not answering the question. [Interruption.] I have been called to stand up and speak, and I will do so.

Over the past three years, the size and cost of the House of Lords has gone up. Does the Minister realise that the more Tory and Lib Dem peers the Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister appoint, the less effective the House of Lords becomes, because they do as the Government Whips say? Does the Minister therefore agree that, over the past three years, the House of Lords has become bigger, more expensive and less effective?

The right hon. Gentleman does not have a shred of credibility, because Labour voted against the proposals that would have blocked that. Of course, we all know that 408 peers were created under the previous Labour Government.

Does my right hon. Friend have any idea whether the Deputy Prime Minister has adopted a new year’s resolution to stop blocking the eminently sensible proposal of his own former party leader, Lord Steel, for modest but necessary House of Lords reform?

I have a post-Christmas gift for my hon. Friend: the Government are indeed supporting—[Hon. Members: “Hurrah!”] Ah, we are back. The Government, including my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, have announced that we will support the very sensible and modest, common-sense proposals in the Bill proposed by our hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire.

Social Mobility Strategy

Improving social mobility—[Hon. Members: “He speaks.”] He does, indeed, speak. Improving social mobility is the principal goal of this Government’s social policy. Progress is being made in a range of areas, and we continue to increase investment. Next year, we will double our offer of early education for two-year-olds from lower-income families, and we will add a further £400 per child to the pupil premium. As announced in the autumn statement, we will soon invest about £10 million extra per year in Jobcentre Plus to help young people access apprenticeships.

Following recent media comment, some of it misinformed, about heritability, will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s belief that a huge part of long-standing social immobility in Britain has nothing to do with inherent ability? Will he reaffirm the Government’s core purpose to ensure, through school reform and every other lever available to Government, that everybody in our society can reach their full potential?

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend? I know that he has done a huge amount of work in this area, and I have read with great interest the reports that he and the all-party group on social mobility have published. He is absolutely right. It is a counsel of pessimism somehow to assume that people’s life chances are blighted at birth. That is why I am so proud that this coalition Government—across the coalition—have dedicated so much time and resources in rectifying the mistakes of the previous Labour Government: providing better child care and more opportunities for two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds; providing a £2.5 million pupil premium for children from the most disadvantaged families; expanding apprenticeships on a scale never seen before; and ensuring we have a welfare and tax system with which people can get into work and keep more of the money that they earn.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the social mobility commission that the decision to abolish the education maintenance allowance was badly conceived, and what steps will he take to make up for that error?

The education maintenance allowance, as proven by study after study, was not targeted at the problem it was supposed to address. That is why it has been replaced by a fund, which is now used at the discretion of colleges to cover classroom costs and transport costs for those students at college who otherwise cannot access it. I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that we have recently announced—as well as free school meals for all children in the first years of primary school—that we will finally address the inequity of providing free school meals to youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds at college as well.

Given that one of the key determinants of social mobility is the availability of affordable new housing, will the Deputy Prime Minister disassociate himself from words attributed to the Prime Minister over the holiday period about the Price Minister being opposed to the development of new garden cities to help meet that desperate need? Will my right hon. Friend support proposals to build in fresh places to make our economy stronger and our society fairer?

I have been a long-standing advocate of garden cities. If we are to avoid endless infill and endless controversy about developments that sprawl from already established urban or suburban places, we have to create communities where people want to live—not just with affordable housing, but with the amenities of schools and the infrastructure necessary. That is why I believe in garden cities and why, as a Government, we are committed to publishing a prospectus on them, which I very much hope we will do as soon as possible.

Another recommendation of the social mobility commission was a substantial increase in the minimum wage that would bring it up to about £7.45 outside London, which would seriously benefit constituents in Darlington. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about that one?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has asked the Low Pay Commission precisely the question about the merits and the economic knock-on effects of increasing the minimum wage by a higher rate than in the past. That is what the Low Pay Commission is about and why we have asked that question. We have asked that question; it was not asked by the Labour Government.

Heseltine Review

6. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the role of decentralisation in the implementation of the Heseltine review. (901784)

The Government published its response to Lord Heseltine’s report in March 2013. We accepted its proposition that more funding and powers, currently held centrally, should be available at local level. Some £2 billion a year has been taken from central Government Departments and is available for that purpose. I look forward to assessing proposals during the weeks ahead.

Decentralisation, as outlined by my noble predecessor’s review, can help to promote private sector business. In this context, what progress is my right hon. Friend making with the Oxfordshire growth deal?

I am delighted to say that there has been very good progress. A city deal for the city of Oxford and the surrounding area is being negotiated and we hope to complete it shortly. I will meet the representatives of Oxfordshire to go further than that by devolving more power and resources to the county to further private sector growth.

May I press the Minister to confirm that the Government will genuinely look at new ideas that are proposed by local authorities? More importantly, will he confirm that the onus will shift from Whitehall having to approve ideas to it having to disprove their viability?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is precisely the rubric that has been given to local authorities. It is up to Departments to demonstrate why an innovation should not proceed, rather than simply to say, “The computer says no.”

May I press the Minister further on this matter? There is a devolved Assembly or Parliament in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and there is a powerful Greater London axis under Boris Johnson that is enormously influential, but we in the regions have nothing—Yorkshire has nothing. We have no focus, no strategy, no leadership. The Heseltine review said that we should take this matter seriously. When will the Minister take it seriously?

It is taken immensely seriously. The hon. Gentleman does a disservice to the leaders in Leeds and West Yorkshire, who have been extremely effective in producing a plan for a combined authority that puts their resources together. They have been very clear that progress has been made. More progress has been made in the last three years than was made in the 13 years when the Labour party was in power. Lord Heseltine will be travelling to Yorkshire with me to make it clear that the implementation of his report is as serious as the agreement of it.

The Minister will be aware that Manchester has made huge progress with its combined authority and that the Manchester city deal, which will devolve £1.2 billion to Manchester, was one of the first such deals to be announced by the Government nearly two years ago. Will he say when that deal will be signed, given the ongoing delay in his Department’s signing the deal?

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policies and initiatives. [Hon. Members: “Oh no you don’t!”] Oh yes I do. I say to Opposition Members that the pantomime season is over. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

A and E departments across the country are in crisis, despite the valiant efforts of NHS staff, including staff at Royal Oldham hospital in my area. The cuts to social care mean that there is often insufficient support in the community to allow patients to be discharged from hospital safely, and beds are blocked as a result. Why did the Deputy Prime Minister support his coalition partners in the £3 billion top-down reorganisation and the £1.8 million cuts to social care when these things were predicted?

I wish that the Labour party would stop talking down the NHS. The fact is that A and E is performing better than it did under Labour. We have 300 more A and E doctors than there were under Labour; 2,000 more patients are seen every day within the four-hour limit than when Labour was in control; 1.2 million more people are now using A and E; and there is a new £3.8 billion fund to promote the integration of social care and health care that the hon. Lady advocates. Is it not time to support, rather than denigrate, the NHS?

T3. I extend birthday greetings to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he give a progress report on the triple lock for pensions—an ingredient in the coalition agreement that is 100% Liberal Democrat? (901820)

I thank my hon. Friend for the birthday greetings. On my birthday, I look forward to nothing more than coming to Deputy Prime Minister’s questions. He asks for a progress report on the triple lock. It is true that in the last election the triple lock was not in the Labour manifesto or the Conservative manifesto, but only in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I am delighted that we have delivered it in coalition. It has led to the largest cash increase in the state pension ever. It is a great idea that has been delivered to the benefit of millions of pensioners across the country.

May I bring the Deputy Prime Minister back down to planet Earth? NHS England’s own figures show that almost 18,500 beds were unavailable over Christmas because patients spent the holidays in hospital, even though they were well enough to be discharged. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of that, and why does he think it was?

As I said earlier, given that we have more A and E doctors and thousands more patients being seen within a four-hour period than under the Labour Government, given that A and E NHS departments across the country are performing better than they did under Labour, and given that more than 1.2 million more people are using A and E departments, I think we should get behind the NHS, not constantly look for crises where they do not exist.

It would be nice if the Deputy Prime Minister answered a question or two once in a while. The real reason that thousands of people were stuck in hospital over Christmas is that cuts to elderly care make it harder to discharge patients back home. Those cuts also have a knock-on impact on A and E. Official figures show that over Christmas, 13 patients had to wait at least 12 hours on trolleys before being found beds. What message does the Deputy Prime Minister send to those families and patients?

For a party that allowed the scandal at Stafford hospital to take place on its watch, it is pretty rich to start complaining about hospital conditions. The failure of social care and health care to work together effectively and address the problem, to which the right hon. Gentleman rightly alludes, went unaddressed for 13 years. We have offered £3.8 billion to local authorities across the country, in an unprecedented attempt to integrate social care and health care. That is what we are doing and what Labour failed to do when it was in office.

T5. Irrespective of the outcome of the national debate on the level of net immigration, does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that sufficient support is given to those communities where there are disproportionately high levels of immigration, and in particular to the public services available in those areas? (901822)

That obviously touches on an issue of widespread public concern, and my hon. Friend will know that local public services are funded on a needs-based formula, which relates in large part to the number of people in a local area. The changes in population in a local area are reflected in the funding settlements for our schools and health system. To that extent, changes in local population are of course reflected in the funding provided to our local services. More generally, I think we all need to work together to ensure the public have confidence that we have a firm but fair immigration system that welcomes to this country people who want to contribute to the United Kingdom and play by the rules. We must, however, stamp out abuse and illegality, and ensure that in the European Union, for instance, the right to move to look for work is not synonymous—as it was in the past—with the right to claim benefits, no questions asked.

T6. Will the Deputy Prime Minister agree and support the placement of a limited number of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria in the UK? (901823)

We have already accepted a number of—[Interruption.] Yes we have. We have accepted, I think, about 1,500 asylum seekers—[Interruption.] Yes we have; that is a fact.

The hon. Gentleman keeps shaking his head, but it is a fact that we have accepted hundreds upon hundreds of individual asylum seekers from Syria, under our international asylum obligations. Of course we should do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about asylum seekers from Syria, and I am giving him a fact that he does not seem to want to recognise. We have accepted hundreds of asylum seekers who have sought and been provided with refuge in this country under our international obligations. At the same time, I think Members from across the House should be proud of the fact that we, and the generosity of the British people, have led to more British assistance—£500 million of assistance—going to Jordan and other front-line states, and to those communities in the region that are dealing with this terrible humanitarian crisis.

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister and I agree that the integrity of voter registration is crucial, and he will know that I am interested in the issue. Will he change his mind and press for voter identification cards such as those used successfully in Northern Ireland? (901824)

I recognise that my hon. Friend has raised this issue on several occasions and he clearly feels strongly about it. We are confident that the measures being introduced through the individual voter registration system, originally planned by the Labour party and being delivered ahead of time by us, will stamp out the problems of fraud about which he is rightly so concerned.

T8. In response to the Chancellor’s statement yesterday about further welfare benefit cuts in years to come, the Deputy Prime Minister said that those would be cuts for cuts’ sake and would be Conservative cuts. Can he explain to people who live on welfare benefits why he keeps the Conservatives in office? (901825)

There is a really important debate emerging. We have to finish the job of fiscal consolidation, and there are at least two parties in the House which understand that—the two coalition parties. We understand that we have to fill the black hole in the public finances left by the Labour party, and that will require several further years of difficult choices. Then there is a debate about how we get to that objective and clearly there are differences there. In my party we feel that we should ask those with the broadest shoulders to continue to make an effort in the ongoing fiscal consolidation: my coalition partners do not. That is a legitimate debate, but what divides this side of the House from the other side is that at least we recognise that we have to clear up the mess left behind by the Labour Government.

T10. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that unrestricted immigration from the European Union is in Britain’s national interest? (901827)

Being part of the single market, on which more than 3 million jobs in this country depend, is absolutely necessary to our national self-interest. The CBI, no less, has said that it is worth about £3,000 per household in this country. Turning our back on the idea of the world’s largest borderless single market would be an act of monumental economic suicide and it is something that I would never support.

T9. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Business Secretary that the net migration target is not helpful and will not be met? (901826)

The Conservative party has a long-standing aspiration to reduce net immigration to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. The Business Secretary was entirely right to point out that the Government need to be open with the British people about those factors in the immigration system over which the Government have control and those over which they do not. He rightly pointed out that the number of British people leaving Britain to live elsewhere, or those Brits living elsewhere coming back, is something that no Government can necessarily control.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister inform the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that there are no promises from the Government to cut the number of migrants coming into the UK from the European Union?

I may have misheard the question. We are clear as a Government, across the coalition, that what we are delivering is a reduction by a third in the levels of net immigration. I very much want to see this happen more quickly, with the reintroduction of the exit checks that have been removed in the past and, generally, a firm but fair approach towards immigration that says that those people who want to come here and play by the rules, pay their taxes and make a contribution to this country are welcome to do so.

T12. Last January I asked the Deputy Prime Minister if he was ashamed of the shocking rise in food banks under this Government. He has had a year to come up with a decent answer, because I did not get one back then. Does he agree that it is a scandal that more than half a million people are now using food banks and, more importantly, what does he intend to do about it? (901829)

The hon. Lady might have prefaced her question with the observation that food banks increased tenfold in the years in which Labour was in office, but—as with so much else—amnesia settles on the Opposition Benches and they entirely forget their responsibility for the problems we have and many of the errors that we are correcting in government. We should pay tribute to people who work in food banks and make sure that they help the most vulnerable in society, rather than constantly seeking to make opportunistic political points to their cost.

T13. At a meeting held last week between the chairman of the Humber local enterprise partnership and local MPs, the chairman briefed us on the successful conclusion and signing off of the Humber city deal. The meeting recognised that if the area is to meet its full economic potential, a number of major infrastructure projects will need to be carried forward. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that the Government will work across Departments to ensure that that happens? (901830)

While my hon. Friend did not say so, I assume he is referring to the much- anticipated agreement on the Siemens investment in the area and other infrastructure projects. I can certainly reassure him that on the back of the Humber city deal, which was confirmed by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) shortly before Christmas, we are working across all Departments to ensure that where there are steps that we can still take as a Government to ensure that these investment projects are finally given the go-ahead, that should be the case as quickly as possible.

T15. Given the geographical imbalance in the economy, does the Deputy Prime Minister share the analysis of the Business Secretary that the way forward for expansion of airport capacity is to make more use of provincial airports, such as Durham Tees Valley, rather than continuing to stretch capacity in the south-east? (901832)

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman—I am sure everyone will—that we all need to work together to try to ensure that the profound geographical imbalances that have existed in the British economy for a long time are overcome. That can be done in any number of ways. Proper infrastructure investment is clearly needed, which is why, in my view, High Speed 2 will play such a galvanising role in healing the north-south divide. We need to liberate local areas, such as with the Tees Valley city deal, so that they can make their own economic fortunes rather than constantly being at the beck and call of decisions made in Whitehall; and we need to celebrate the fact that, unlike previous recoveries, we are seeing a broadly based recovery, not least in manufacturing in the north, as well as in the service sector heavily located in the south.

T14. With regard to the Heseltine report, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that local leaders are best placed to understand the opportunities and obstacles to growth in their communities, whether that be in my part of West Yorkshire, or in relation to the Leeds city region local enterprise partnership, the Huddersfield “The Place to Make it” campaign or even the Calderdale and Kirklees Manufacturing Alliance? (901831)

I strongly agree. I think the fundamental insight from Lord Heseltine was one that we have ignored at our peril as a country for far too long: we have relied on a culture of government that has always assumed that Whitehall knows best. Whitehall does not always know best—I have certainly learned that after four years in Whitehall. The more we can allow local business leaders and local politicians to come up with locally innovative solutions, the better for our country in the long run.

When the Deputy Prime Minister kicked off this session, he said he supported the Government’s policies. I have to tell him, looking around the Chamber, that I do not think the leading Members of the Tory party are supporting him. They have not turned up. Three Tories have not even asked their questions. The only one who has been here all the time, the Chief Whip, is not a proper member of the Cabinet. Why can the Deputy Prime Minister not read the signs? The Government are disintegrating before our eyes. Why does he not do the decent thing and pack it in and let us have an early election?

I might ask: where is the hon. Gentleman’s deputy leader? I ask him to stop insulting the Chief Whip, who I consider to be a fully fledged member—[Interruption.] Stop denigrating the Government Chief Whip—very unfair on him indeed. Far from this Government disintegrating, we have continued steadfastly to clear up the mess left by the party of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), to fill the black hole in our public finances, to give tax cuts to millions of people on low and middle incomes, to introduce the pupil premium, to increase apprenticeships on a scale never seen before, and finally to put this country economically back on the straight and narrow.

Yesterday, Robert Chote, the director of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, said:

“Not very much has actually come from a reduction in social security spending as a share of national income.”

In the light of that, would the Deputy Prime Minister care to apologise to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for criticising the Chancellor’s excellent speech on welfare yesterday?

No, I will not do that because there is a sincerely held difference of view. I believe that if we are to complete the job of further fiscal consolidation we need to do what pretty well every mainstream economist in the world advocates, which is a mix of, yes, public spending restraint, welfare savings and fair taxes on those with the broadest shoulders. If the Conservative party chooses to do it all through further sacrifices by the working-age poor who are dependent on welfare, that is its choice. It is not a choice that my party has signed up to.

Given that this Government have been waging war on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, how much more is the Deputy Prime Minister willing to put up with? Is it what he came into politics for?

For an hon. Member who has been here so long, the hon. Gentleman’s questions are truly infantile. The most regressive thing to do is to shrug one’s shoulders, like the Labour party does, and say, “We can’t be bothered to fill the black hole we have left in the public finances. We’ll let our children and grandchildren do it.” There is nothing more infantile than doing what the Labour party is doing—going around pointing at things that are expensive, but never actually spelling out how much its own policies would cost.

There is much in this country that is archaic and out of date. For example, section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848 makes it an offence even to imagine—[Interruption.]

The Act makes it an offence even to imagine this country being a republic or to “overawe” Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend have a look at whether such archaic legislation can be repealed?

I will, of course, look into these provisions, following my hon. Friend’s entreaty, but I do not want him to hold his breath, thinking that in the latter stage of this Parliament our absolute priority will be the reform of the 1848 Act.

Was the Deputy Prime Minister consulted on, and did he approve of, the Prime Minister’s plan to create 117 new peers, at a cost of £18 million, and how does that square with the Government’s promise to cut the cost of politics? Was it only elected politics they had in mind?

The Labour party stuffed the House of Lords year after year. More than that, we debated hour after hour how we could take all party leaders out of the equation and bring the British public into it by introducing a smidgeon of democracy in the House of Lords, and what did the Labour party do? Having lectured people for decades about the need to reform the bastion of privilege and patronage, when it had the chance to reform the House of Lords, it voted against it.

Returning from planet Bolsover, devolution has been one of the successes of the coalition Government, and the city deal for Newcastle and the north-east local enterprise partnership are two of the finest successes in the north-east, but will the Deputy Prime Minister go one step further and consider expanding the city deal to a rural deal so that the most sparsely populated counties, such as mine in Northumberland, get the same opportunities as cities?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments and I strongly agree with him. At the end of this Parliament, we will have left England in particular significantly more devolved in how money and powers are allocated than it has been for a very long time. For instance, the devolution of business rates, which is often unremarked upon, is probably the greatest act of fiscal devolution for a very long time. I strongly agree that devolution should be not just an urban phenomenon, and at the heart of the local growth deals lies exactly the promise that city deals in urban areas will be extended to rural areas too.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Unduly Lenient Sentences

1. On how many occasions in the last 12 months he has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal for review because it was felt to be unduly lenient. (901833)

From 31 December 2012 to 1 January 2014, the sentences of 67 offenders were referred as unduly lenient and have either been heard or are due to be heard by the Court of Appeal.

The will of Parliament was that the use of a knife in an aggravated fashion would carry a mandatory six-month jail sentence, but according to the latest statistics, the courts have imposed such a sentence in only half of all cases. Does the Attorney-General agree that perhaps these should be considered for appeal, and does he back Parliament’s will?

My hon. Friend may be aware that such cases are not currently referable. It is for Parliament to decide whether it wishes to extend and make referable those sentences. If Parliament’s will is that they should be, it is my job to consider that. It is worth bearing in mind that the principle enunciated originally was that only a small number of cases in specified and very serious offences would ever be referred. But there needs to be finality in sentencing and, of course, if many more cases are referred, that will place burdens both on the Court of Appeal in considering them and on my office in making the assessment of around 450 cases per annum.

Thank you, Mr Speaker and happy new year. Does the Attorney-General agree that, at the end of the day, it is for the judges who hear the evidence in a case to decide what the sentence should be?

The hon. Lady is quite right. We must rely on judges’ judiciousness in deciding what sentences should be. Occasionally there will be examples that are unduly lenient and fall within the specified schedule where I can make a reference. The object of the reference is not only to correct the particular sentence that has been passed but to try to lay down a good precedent for the future. It is noteworthy that we have referred fewer cases overall in the last 12 months than the 12 months before. That may be an indication of the extent to which the Sentencing Council is working to ensure consistency.

What proportion of the 67 cases were for child sex abuse or child sex pornography in some form or other? Is the Attorney-General prepared to review the sentencing of those sorts of cases in terms of the sentences that are available?

My hon. Friend can be reassured that most of those cases will be referable and, indeed, I have referred such cases to the Court of Appeal. I am afraid that I cannot give him the statistics at the Dispatch Box but I will write to him with the statistics for the last 12 months.

As the Attorney-General has said, there are a number of very serious cases that cannot be referred. He says that that is a matter for Parliament. But will he take the initiative and start a consultation, allowing Members to put forward their views as to which offences should be subject to these reviews?

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, other offences have been added to the specified offences. In August 2012, we added trafficking people for exploitation. In May 2006, various offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, to which we have just referred, were added. Of course that is possible but, as I said in my first answer, we need to balance the need for finality and the need not to end up with a system where the Court of Appeal becomes the sentencing court for almost all offences. But if the right hon. Gentleman has examples that he feels need to be considered, I strongly urge him to write either to me or to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and those can undoubtedly be considered.

Complaints about Public Prosecutors

3. What recent assessment he has made of the options available to victims of crime who wish to complain about the performance of public prosecutors. (901836)

8. What recent assessment he has made of the options available to victims of crime who wish to complain about the performance of public prosecutors. (901841)

Since the Crown Prosecution Service launched its new victims’ right to review scheme on 5 June 2013, victims have the right to request a review of a CPS decision not to prosecute in qualifying cases. The CPS feedback and complaints policy has also been revised to reflect the appointment of the independent assessor of complaints for the CPS. The VRR scheme was the subject of a consultation, concluded on 5 September 2013, and the CPS is considering the responses to the consultation with a view as to how best to operate the VRR scheme in the future.

There have been 600 requests from victims of crime to review prosecutors’ decisions to drop their case since the victims’ right to review was introduced six months ago. Given that level of demand, will the Government consider looking at widening the right to review to include decisions to caution instead of charge and decisions to alter substantially the original charge?

It might be worth while seeing first how the current changes, which are significant, operate in practice. The hon. Lady referred to the figure, which is 662, of which the determination was that the original decision was incorrect in, I think, 18 cases. There have also been cases referred to the independent assessor, where six have been upheld and three partly upheld. I am utterly pragmatic about this; I wish to see victims’ rights at the heart of the criminal justice system, but there are significant changes and we need first to see how well the system is operating and, in particular, how it will operate once the CPS responds in February to its consultation.

The Crown Prosecution Service is prosecuting fewer and fewer cases each year, and has been referred fewer cases to charge by the police. This suggests that more cases are being dropped at a stage in the criminal justice system where no right to review exists. Is the Attorney-General concerned by that?

The hon. Gentleman may be right, but there may be other explanations, one of which is that the noticeable fall in crime is leading to fewer cases coming to the police in the first place. I am obviously not answerable for the actions of the police who, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, are in fact independent in the way they operate. They can be subject to judicial review, but certainly not to ministerial command. If the hon. Gentleman or indeed any hon. Member has examples where they think that the police decision-making process is not working properly, I would be most grateful if they brought them to my attention or indeed to that of the Home Secretary.

Many people, not just victims of crime, have concerns about the performance of public prosecutors in court. Will the Attorney-General set out what inspections are made of public prosecutors in court and how many unannounced visits are made in order to assess the performance of the CPS prosecutors?

The Crown prosecutors who appear in court as advocates are monitored. Indeed, it is a rather more rigorous monitoring process than the one available, for example, for the independent Bar that does their work. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details of how this monitoring is carried out. The previous Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, made a very particular point in the first year that I was working with him in carrying out an extensive review of the performance of Crown prosecutors. This is monitored and it is also the subject of inspections by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. There are published reports on the quality of the advocacy being delivered.

Now that wasted cost orders are no longer available in legally aided cases awarded against the Crown, how can accountability be enforced against Crown prosecutors who have plainly not only wasted the court’s time, but let down the criminal justice system, which includes victims?

First, if there is adverse publicity in respect of prosecutors not doing their jobs properly, that is a matter of very serious concern to me and should and would be a matter of serious concern to the Director of Public Prosecutions. That provides some sanction in itself, quite apart from the fact that I have to answer for the work of the Crown prosecutors once a month in this House.

The day after we saw barristers and solicitors withdrawing their labour in the teeth of the cuts to legal aid, what is the Attorney-General doing to try to improve the efficiency of the Crown Prosecution Service? When I was a witness just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the inefficiencies and time wasted—for victims, witnesses and prosecutors—in the system. With these stringent cuts, that should surely be an area in which to look for efficiencies.

The hon. Lady will be aware that we are seeking to introduce many efficiencies into the system, including digital working, early guilty plea systems and better warning of witnesses. Some of those are in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service, but others, as she will appreciate, are not. They lie with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Court Service. There is a great drive for efficiency: efficiency delivers savings and in a time of austerity, there is no doubt that improving the efficiency of the Court Service and of the throughput of the criminal justice system is one of the highest priorities—both for me and, I know, for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Can anything be done to rectify a perceived imbalance in criminal cases where the person on trial has direct access to the barrister who is representing him while the victim, as a witness, has no direct access to the prosecutor? Victims sometimes feel that their case is not as fully understood by the prosecutor as it should be. Can anything be done about that?

There are limits to what is feasible, although it is also right to say to my hon. Friend that the previous practice, whereby the prosecuting counsel could have no contact whatever with the witness, is now at an end. There is now an opportunity for an introduction and an explanation of how the court process is likely to develop, which I think is a great improvement. That said, there should be no suggestion that a witness is being coached, which my hon. Friend will appreciate could undermine a prosecution case. Those two things have to be balanced. A point that was always made to me when I prosecuted was the absolute necessity of informing witnesses, introducing oneself to them and keeping them informed within the bounds of propriety and the court process about what is actually going on, including talking to witnesses who turn up to find that they are not needed because the defendant has pleaded guilty. It is important to explain that to them.

Prosecutions for Rape, Child Abuse and Domestic Violence

4. If he will take steps to ensure that the causes of the recent decline in prosecutions for rape, child abuse and domestic violence are investigated. (901837)

7. If he will take steps to ensure that the causes of the recent decline in prosecutions for rape, child abuse and domestic violence are investigated. (901840)

In September the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, chaired a meeting with the Home Office and national police leaders, the outcome of which was a six-point action plan to investigate and increase the number of rape and domestic violence cases that are referred by the police to the CPS for charging decisions.

What recent discussions has the Solicitor-General had with Home Office Ministers about the fall in the number of referrals of rape, domestic violence and child abuse cases to the CPS?

I have not engaged in any specific bilateral discussions, but I am a member of a number of Government committees that discuss these matters, including the committee that deals with violence against women and girls. There are falls in the number of referrals, which the six-point action plan is addressing, but it is worth pointing out that the rates of convictions for domestic violence, rape and child sex abuse are at record highs.

What has been the impact of the closure, under the present Government, of 38 out of 39 joint police-CPS offices nationwide on the close co-operation between police and prosecutors that is so vital in relation to this very sensitive subject?

I agree that close co-operation between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service is important. As the hon. Lady will know, there are rape and serious sexual offence units that are combined. However, there are advantages in a more efficient system and a cluster of excellence in the CPS, and the view is that, on balance, the way in which the system is currently developing is more efficient and effective.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on the progress that has been made in ensuring that the court process is less traumatising for victims, especially victims of child sexual exploitation. The greater profile that is now given to some of those cases is a sign of that success.. However, will my hon. and learned Friend tell me what work he is doing with, in particular, children’s charities and child protection professionals with the aim of communicating to some of the victims the information that the court process is now less traumatising and more user-friendly, so that more of them will be encouraged to take their cases all the way to court and appear as witnesses, rather than being scared off and allowing the perpetrators to get off?

The inter-departmental committee on violence against women and girls, which I mentioned earlier, is involved with representatives of various organisations who attend its meetings, so there is that connection. The new guidelines on child sex abuse that were issued last October are intended to bring about a big change in the way in which such cases are dealt with. They recommend an holistic approach and consideration of the credibility of the allegation rather than just the credibility of the witness, and I think that that will help a great deal.

In July 2012, Canadian police closed a child abuse network. They released hundreds of children and passed 2,345 names of suspects to British police, who then did absolutely nothing for 16 months. What assessment has the Solicitor-General made of the effect that that has had on the number of successful prosecutions?

The way in which the police investigate cases is independent. The hon. Gentleman could raise it with the Home Secretary, but it is not dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service. The new CPS guidelines constitute a major step forward, as do the new national network of rape and child sex abuse prosecutors, which provides a source of expertise on such offences in each area. That will lead to more effective prosecutions.

One of the reasons for the decline in the number of prosecutions for child abuse is that the police are not referring as many cases to the Crown Prosecution Service despite the fact that the numbers remain constant, but the other major factor is that local authorities are not co-operating with the Crown Prosecution Service. Was the Minister as shocked as I was to discover that in the past three years two thirds of councils have refused to disclose information to the police and to the CPS in child abuse cases? Does he think in future he should monitor this, rather than leave it to me, through the Freedom of Information Act, to discover that information, and will he consider making disclosure compulsory in future if this situation does not improve?

In fact, the Attorney-General and I have been concerned about this issue and as a result Her Majesty’s inspectorate of the CPS has undertaken a report on disclosure, which was published recently. It is a matter that needs to be addressed. Having said that, the new protocol and the way in which the various authorities are coming together on this is encouraging. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says something from a sedentary position which I cannot hear, but I assure her that all efforts are being made—

I do not want to get into pantomime mode and say, “Oh yes they are,” but the fact of the matter is that considerable progress is being made.

Online Stalking and Harassment

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the rate of successful prosecutions of cases of online stalking and harassment. (901838)

The CPS has published guidance for its prosecutors on stalking and harassment cases and on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. In addition, all prosecutors must complete an online e-learning course on cyber-stalking, non-cyber stalking and harassment.

Will my hon. and learned Friend help reassure victims of stalking and help prosecutors by setting out exactly what training and guidance is being brought in for the CPS following the Government’s implementation of the new tougher stalking offences?

Yes, I am happy to do that. My hon. Friend will recall that just over a year ago the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 amendment provisions dealing with stalking and with stalking leading to fear of violence and alarm and distress were introduced. Since that time new guidance has been brought forward dealing with the way in which such offences are to be identified and with harassment, and also specifically how they should be dealt with if they involve the social media. Some 438 cases have been prosecuted so far under the new law. That figure is not necessarily too low given that we are at a very early stage, but it is important that this should be driven forward so a joint protocol is being produced by the CPS and the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is due in spring 2014 and it will set out in more detail how both sides of the criminal justice service should perform.

Those of us who campaigned for the new law are disappointed in as much as we now have evidence of under-charging by the CPS using the old 1997 Act as it was, and also, regrettably, many Crown prosecutors have not been sufficiently trained to implement the new law. Will the Minister please have a word with the Director of Public Prosecutions and ensure this is put right, because otherwise we will be failing many thousands of people?

May I start by paying tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his all-party group on their work in this area? These two new offences, which were introduced just over a year ago, are an important step forward. It is too early to say whether it is disappointing that the number of offences so far charged is 438 rather than a higher figure, because we want to see how this goes forward from here, but there is no lack of drive or push in trying to deal with these offences, which are horrific and require a very firm approach, and I think this joint protocol will certainly help. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to discuss it with me, I will be more than happy to do so.

Contempt of Court

6. What steps he is taking to promote awareness of the laws on contempt of court among users of social media. (901839)

The media and those who publish information on social media sites should always be alert to the requirements of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. In December I announced that in future, if appropriate to do so, advisory notices that I issue for specific cases will be published on the Government UK website and my office’s Twitter feed as well as being issued to mainstream media. These advisories will not take the form of general guidance, but there will also continue to be some information on contempt available on our website and this has been updated today. Providing advisory notices to the wider public on a case-by-case basis will, I hope, ensure greater awareness of the law of contempt and its applicability to both the mainstream media and users of social media and help prevent people from inadvertently committing a contempt of court.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that response. Do the Government plan to follow the Law Commission’s recent recommendations on contempt of court, which include the introduction of a new statutory offence for jurors who google extraneous information relating to their case?

I have read the Law Commission’s report and proposals with great interest, and I am taking them very seriously. They are an extremely important contribution to how we might be able to improve matters.