House of Commons
Tuesday 7 January 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Individual Voter Registration
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.
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”?
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
In the absence of wider reform—[Interruption.]
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (901819)
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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—
Online Stalking and Harassment
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.
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
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 gov.uk 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 been asked to reply. The European Council focused on three things: defence; economic and monetary union; and EU enlargement and association agreements. On defence, the Prime Minister made it clear that NATO would remain the bedrock of our national defence. As a result of United Kingdom lobbying, NATO’s Secretary-General Rasmussen was invited to attend and address the Council as a symbol of the importance of the European Union’s efforts, which complement rather than duplicate the role of NATO in our collective security. It is right for European countries to co-operate on defence issues such as tackling piracy, and this country has consistently supported other European allies, including the French efforts in Mali. However, it is important that defence co-operation is driven by nations themselves, on a voluntary basis, according to their own priorities and needs, and not by the Brussels institutions.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ensured that the conclusions excluded any ambiguous language or proposals that could lead to new bureaucracy, new EU institutions or increased EU competence on defence and security matters, including any ambitions to own dual-use capabilities such as remotely piloted air systems. The conclusions of the Council were clear that nations, not the EU institutions, were in the driving seat of defence policy and would remain there.
On economic and monetary union, the United Kingdom is not in the eurozone and will not be joining the euro, but we want our trading partners in Europe to have a strong and stable currency and we support their efforts to achieve that, provided that Britain’s interest are properly protected. My right hon. Friend ensured that there would be no financial liability for this country from banking union or from any future euro area mechanism of loans or guarantees for eurozone countries The conclusions also reiterate the importance of making the EU more competitive, including cutting red tape for business.
On enlargement and association agreements, the European Council welcomed the initialling of association agreements with Moldova and Georgia, and made it clear that the EU’s offer to Ukraine remained open. The United Kingdom has long supported enlargement because the prospect of EU membership has proved a huge driver for peace, prosperity and reform across our continent. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he continued to support enlargement and saw it as one of the European Union’s greatest strengths. At the same time, however, he argued that when new countries join the EU in future, we should look again at the transitional arrangements for the free movement of workers. He argued, too, that the free movement of workers was different from the free movement of people seeking the best benefit deal. Other member states share our concerns about this matter, and we look forward to continuing those discussions over the coming year.
Delightful as it is to see the Europe Minister here today, it is the Prime Minister who is meant to make statements following European Council meetings. Why is the Prime Minister not here today? If he has a good excuse for not being here today, why could he not have made a statement yesterday? Is it now Government policy not to make statements following European Council meetings, even though the House has observed that practice for many years? It would be particularly regrettable if that were the case, given that we no longer have pre-Council debates.
Does the Minister think, on reflection, when he reads the written ministerial statement, that even if the Prime Minister had to make such a statement, the one published in Hansard is not brief, but tawdry? It really is quite an insult, particularly when compared with the official Council conclusions. The written statement makes it clear that there will be no EU ownership, no EU headquarters, no reference to Europe’s armed forces, no European pooled acquisition mechanisms, no EU assets and fleets, no EU drones and no EU air-to-air refuelling tankers. Of course, that leaves one to wonder what there will be, given that this meeting was the first since the Lisbon treaty came into force where the Council had a themed debate focusing on defence.
How does the Government’s statement square with the Council conclusions, which say:
“The European Council remains committed to delivering key capabilities and addressing critical shortfalls through concrete projects by Member States, supported by the European Defence Agency.”?
Given that whole list of noes, including on the institutions, what is the role and function of the European Defence Agency? Similarly, given that there are meant to be no EU drones, what are we to make of the Council conclusion that we remain committed to a 2020 to 2025 time frame for the
“preparations for a programme of a next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS; the establishment of an RPAS user community”
group and European Commission regulations on that?
The Council conclusions also state:
“The European Council welcomes the Commission communication ‘Towards a more competitive and efficient defence and security sector’. It notes the intention of the Commission to develop, in close cooperation with the High Representative and the European Defence Agency, a roadmap for implementation”
of a more co-ordinated defence industry. Will the Minister comment on the clear contradiction between the written ministerial statement and the conclusions?
I have two final points to make. First, how does the statement square with the French Prime Minister’s demand for the setting up of a permanent fund to finance operations such as France’s operation in the Central African Republic? Secondly, did the Prime Minister have any discussions with the new German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who until that point had been personally very deeply committed to a united states of Europe?
First, I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s words of welcome. Let me respond to her first question by reminding her that since May 2010 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made no fewer than 18 oral statements here following Councils that took place while Parliament was sitting—that is double the number of such oral statements given by his immediate predecessor. It has been the practice of successive Governments not to make an oral statement following Councils taking place during a recess, and my right hon. Friend therefore made a full written ministerial statement on Monday, which set out in detail the key outcomes from this Council.
On the hon. Lady’s important points about common security and defence policy, the key is to understand the distinction between ownership by the EU of defence capabilities, which we do not support and have resisted successfully, and co-operation by European countries in providing greater defence and security capabilities. What was good about the conclusions both of the December European Council and of the previous week’s Foreign Affairs Council on CSDP matters was that they made it very clear that the EU first had to work with, and not duplicate, the efforts of NATO and work alongside other partners in different parts of the world. Secondly, they made it clear that the EU would look for ways in which to encourage co-operation on capabilities, for example, on drones, which she mentioned. That is not some new EU-directed operation, but a facility that individual members of the EU can decide whether or not to take part in. There is no secret plan to direct some Euro drone out of the Berlaymont; it is very different. It is about co-operation between willing member states.
On the defence industry point, the conclusions made it clear that the European defence sector needed to become more competitive and efficient. The language that we successfully negotiated makes it clear that rather than there being any question of European national champions, the defence sector must comply with European law, which means that there must not be illegal state subsidies, except where subsidies are explicitly protected under the treaties. The language also makes it very clear that we, or indeed any other country, are not in any way constrained from continuing to work with the United States or other international partners on our defence industries. When the hon. Lady comes to look in more detail at the conclusions, I hope that she will agree that it was a good outcome for the United Kingdom and a successful negotiation.
This morning, the European Scrutiny Committee cross-examined the Minister for Europe on these issues. I have written to the Prime Minister accordingly in relation to the fact that he is not here today, as he should be and as our Committee recommended in our recent European scrutiny report. The substantive matter is that, on the one hand, the Prime Minister did say in his press statement that defence must be driven by the nations and not by Brussels diktat, but, on the other, Mr Van Rompuy states that we must have credible European scrutiny and
“a strong, credible, common security and defence policy”.
He also suggests that there is a greater role for European defence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to compare and to reconcile those different approaches given that there is an ever-increasing competence towards European defence irrespective of what the Minister has just said?
On my hon. Friend’s first point, I am aware that he has written to the Prime Minister about the matter of oral statements. There is of course that recommendation in his Committee’s report. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will reply to the letter. For the record, I repeat the Government’s commitment to give their full detailed response to the European Scrutiny Committee’s report in due course, and I pledge to do that as soon as we are able.
On his point about CSDP matters, I do not agree with him. I, too, want to see a European arm of the Atlantic alliance that is more credible and effective than it is at the moment. That is certainly a message that I hear consistently from the other side of the Atlantic as well. But there is a difference between that and the European Union and its institutions owning and directing those policies. What we support and advocate is a system in which European countries take more seriously their obligations to deliver effective security and defence contributions to that trans-Atlantic alliance, and that is where the conclusions of the European Council represented a clear victory for our vision. It advocated an emphasis on capabilities and political commitment, not on new EU institutions and not on the EU ownership. Rather, it insisted on the EU complementing NATO and working with the grain of member state responsibility and competence over defence policy.
I rather agree with much of what the Minister has said and congratulate him on being a rather fine Minister for Europe in that he does not subscribe to some of the looney-tunes ideas proposed by some of the people sitting behind him. May I ask him about the European Council and whether there was any discussion about who will be the new British commissioner? The European Parliament will get to have a view, so should not this House get to have a view on who the next British commissioner should be?
The straight answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that there was no discussion by this country or any of the other member states of who their nominee might be later this year. That is a matter, as always, on which the Government will come to a view and we will nominate a man or woman in due course. I must advise the hon. Gentleman to be patient for a bit longer.
I commend the Government on successfully resisting the idea of EU-owned military assets or capabilities and underline the support of the Liberal Democrats for European co-operation in defence to be based on nation states putting their forces into joint operations when appropriate, which works very well with the naval counter-piracy mission and various land operations in Africa. Given that the US is rebalancing its defence efforts to the Pacific and is taking 20% of its defence spend out of Europe, is it not more important than ever that the 28 member states of Europe should share their capabilities and expertise where possible to ensure the best possible return on limited investment?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s points. One thing that the habit of working together on security and defence matters through the EU does is enable us to bring in those countries that are members of the EU but are not, for historical and constitutional reasons, allies of ours in NATO. The very fact that Secretary-General Rasmussen not only spoke at the summit but warmly welcomed its conclusions as pointing the way towards a more effective European arm of defence that complemented and supported what NATO was doing should give us all confidence.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for securing the opportunity to discuss this issue in the Chamber today and I share her regret that the Prime Minister broke with precedent by not appearing in person to answer her question.
Let me first touch briefly on the banking union. We welcome the progress that has been made, but what discussions were had during the summit to ensure that the European Central Bank’s risk assessments, which are due to be conducted later this year, will be sufficiently rigorous?
On migration, I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that there will be further discussions on the
“need to find a better approach to tackle free movement abuse”
at an EU level. As we in the Opposition have said before, we need to reform the way free movement works so it is not seen as a part of a race to the bottom in the world of work. This means looking again at the transitional controls, including extending them over longer periods so that when new countries move into the European Union we learn the lessons from the past. With the recent lifting of transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria, will the Minister set out what steps the Government are taking to address practical problems around those who exploit migrant workers to undercut local businesses and staff? EU reform will be achieved through building alliances for change among other EU member states rather than escalating rhetoric and alienating allies, so can the Minister set out who will be leading the negotiations on any proposed EU reform agenda on behalf of the Government?
The summit should have been a vital opportunity to build coalitions to secure the changes that must be made in Europe for Britain yet, once again, it seems the Prime Minister viewed it as merely providing the opportunity for securing headlines rather than securing change.
The hon. Lady is being unusually churlish. If she looks again at the Council’s conclusions, she will see that we not only managed to secure important and positive British interests that take the development of the common security and defence policy in the direction that the UK has long advocated, but—and she omitted to mention this in her question—we secured key safeguards on the operation of the banking union to ensure that the taxpayers of this country are not liable for the consequences of any solvency decision made by our eurozone colleagues. The Opposition might have had the grace to pay tribute to what the Prime Minister achieved; otherwise people might come to think that the Opposition are somehow dismissive of the interests of British taxpayers and of safeguarding them against such liabilities.
The hon. Lady asked directly about the safeguards that the Government were putting in place for people who might be exploited if they came here from other parts of the EU or elsewhere in the world. I can reassure her that the Government are doubling the fine for people who employ illegal workers and quadrupling the fine for paying people below the statutory minimum wage. Under the previous Labour Government, the fine for paying somebody below the minimum wage was £5,000 per employer. Under this Government, the fine will be £20,000 per employee, not per employer. When it comes to the protection of exploited workers, the Opposition’s record does not give them anything of which to be proud.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s repeated assertion that NATO remains the cornerstone of the defence of the United Kingdom and, of course, of western Europe. However, may I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the observations made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) illustrate that there is no reduction in the enthusiasm of some of our continental partners about creating an EU defence identity in conflict with NATO? Should not those countries be working within NATO to strengthen NATO’s capabilities as the United States inevitably reduces its interest in Europe in favour of the Pacific? I remind my right hon. Friend that we have a veto on defence matters in the EU and I hope that he will ensure that that is maintained.
Yes, we not only have a veto but we have legislated in the European Union Act 2011 to require a referendum were anybody to propose that that veto be lost and that we should move to a system of qualified majority voting instead. Those safeguards, thanks to this Government, are written into law. If my hon. Friend looks again at the detail of the language in the European Council and Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, he will see a welcome emphasis on the need for the EU to complement NATO and the importance of capabilities. The issue of an EU operational headquarters, which was the cause of a rancorous debate 12 months ago, was not even pursued this year. That is evidence that we are winning the argument on the direction in which the European CSDP should go.
On the question of European enlargement and immigration, I pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of citizens from elsewhere in the European Union who, in my constituency in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, work hard, pay their taxes and are a benefit to society. Will the Minister take the opportunity to confirm that more than 2 million UK citizens live elsewhere in the European Union, and that the Department for Work and Pensions is right in confirming that the percentage of benefit claimants in the UK is significantly lower among EU nationals than among UK citizens?
Statistically, as far as I am aware, the hon. Gentleman is right on that point, although of course it in part reflects the fact that the majority of people from elsewhere in the EU who are here are of working age and not retired and in receipt of pensions, so it is not an exact comparison. I very much agree that we should acknowledge that the great majority of people from other EU countries who come here do so to work, to pay taxes and to contribute to society, but that does not mean that we should dismiss the cases in which there is evidence that people have either tried to exploit our benefits system or have engaged in organised or perhaps low-level but still very antisocial crime. It is right that action is taken to tighten up access to benefits and free public services in the way that the Government are proposing. That is important in order to maintain public support and confidence for the principle of free movement of workers—and workers alone.
I, too, welcome much of the language used by the Prime Minister at the time of the Council and by my right hon. Friend in the early part of his statement indicating our opposition to a move towards European stand-alone defence capabilities of any kind. However, I also very much share the scepticism voiced particularly by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) as to whether this is for real. Surely my right hon. Friend agrees that if defence and foreign affairs are the primary and exclusive role of nation states, now is the time to start moving towards abolishing the CSDP, not praising it as he has done.
No, I do not agree. I think we should look to the CSDP within the European Union as we look to our co-operative defence and security arrangements, bilaterally with other European countries and with countries elsewhere in the world, as mechanisms by which we can enhance and strengthen the United Kingdom’s security and defence and take forward our global security objectives. Provided that that is done in the right way without the accretion of new powers to EU institutions or the establishment of new EU institutions, then we can succeed in benefiting from sensible, pragmatic co-operation between willing European countries in a way that strengthens the transatlantic alliance as a whole and our national security.
The Minister made reference to economic and monetary union. It is clear that a number of countries have suffered terrible economic experiences as a result of membership of the eurozone. Eurozone membership is now having a deflationary impact in France, and its economy is definitely going in the wrong direction. Has there been any discussion about the likely longer-term implications of France suffering the same kind of experiences as other countries in southern Europe?
It is for French Ministers to defend French economic policy, including membership of the euro. I am very glad that the United Kingdom remains outside the euro and has no intention of joining it, and that this Government have introduced a statutory referendum lock against any future prospect of our doing so. However, in all my conversations with ministerial colleagues from those countries that have elected to join the single currency, their political commitment remains very strong, and we have to respect the sovereign decisions that they have taken.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm once and for all that, notwithstanding what Labour Members say about the value of immigrants to this country and the fact that they claim fewer benefits than the indigenous population, it is perfectly right and legitimate for British taxpayers to be concerned about the speed and rate of immigration, particularly under the previous Government, and that we are therefore right to be doing something not only about reducing immigration overall but specifically about the unintended consequences of free movement of labour? What is his assessment of Angela Merkel’s decision to hold an inquiry into the unintended consequences of free movement, and does he think that that will give us the opportunity to sort out a sensible solution that works for the British taxpayer?
We need to do two things. First, we need to make sure that our law and European rules distinguish clearly people who want to travel in order to work or who are genuinely able to support themselves, from those who are not able to do so—a principle of free movement to work that benefits a large number of United Kingdom citizens as well as people from other European Union countries. Secondly, when we come to look towards future enlargement of the European Union—we are some years away from any other country being ready to join the EU—we need to revisit the issue of transitional controls and ask ourselves whether simply having a specified, perhaps somewhat arbitrary, number of years after which all controls come off is the right way to address the issue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister alluded to that and started a debate on it in his article in the Financial Times just before Christmas. On that matter and on the relationship between freedom of movement and the benefits system, we are indeed looking forward to taking discussions forward over the next year, not only with our German colleagues but with other member states.
I have known the Minister for Europe since he was 20 years of age, and he has always been very cheerful and talented, but I am afraid he is not a substitute for the Prime Minister. I agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart): this is a European Council statement that ends the Lithuanian presidency and begins the Greek presidency, and it ought to have been given by the Prime Minister as soon as the House sat yesterday.
Is it now the policy of this Government to veto enlargement unless we have agreement on transitional arrangements? What exactly are we providing under presidency conclusion 41? Are we giving additional support to countries such as Greece?
I will have to advise my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to divert his flight to Luton airport when he next comes back from a Council meeting so that he can be sure of seeing the right hon. Gentleman in person.
I refer the right hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier, which is that when Parliament has been in recess during a European Council, successive Governments have followed the practice of giving a full written ministerial statement rather than an oral statement. His strictures should therefore be as much directed against the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as against my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. In his time as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend has given twice as many oral statements on EU summits as his immediate predecessor, so I do not think he has anything to apologise for.
My right hon. Friend is very precise in his language—he is a model for a learned lexicographer. I wonder therefore how he might construe this phrase in the conclusions of the Council of Ministers on the CSDP that was endorsed by the European Council, which says that the EU is
“to engage in all domains—land, air, maritime, space and cyber.”
How does that equal his assurance that what will be done will be mainly intergovernmental?
I take my hon. Friend’s description of me as a compliment, though I recall that Dr Johnson described a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge”—if I remember the quote from his dictionary accurately.
The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we must again go back to the distinction between a policy that is directed by and owned by the EU collectively and its institutions, which we do not have, and a broad policy on security and defence that rests on free co-operation between willing national Governments working together so that their capabilities complement one another, and working in partnership particularly with NATO but with other partners around the world as well. There is nothing to fear from the latter version of the common security and defence policy, and that is the version embodied in the European Council conclusions.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said in this House before, one of the difficulties we have had is that the previous Government chose not to collect statistics for social security benefits categorised by nationality of claimants. He and his team at the DWP are now changing that, and I am sure that they will produce those figures in due course, but they do not exist for the period of years that the right hon. Gentleman wants, because his Government did not bother to collect them.
I suggest that the vast majority of immigrants come here for work and not for benefits. Nevertheless, as the Prime Minister suggested at his press conference after the Council meeting, if not during it, the issue of migration needs to be addressed. Will the Minister enlighten the House on how the Prime Minister proposes to move this issue forward in negotiations with his EU partners, given that this is a fundamental right and freedom which might require treaty change by all members?
We are at an early stage of those discussions. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear when he wrote for the Financial Times just before Christmas, he wants to start a debate about how we should manage these matters better in the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) knows, this subject causes concerns, particularly among Interior Ministers and Social Security Ministers in a number of different European countries. The conversations are being taken forward by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and, of course, the Prime Minister. We are at an early stage, but we will be taking the discussions forward over the next 12 months.
Conclusion 36 indicates that the Council is calling for further discussions on tax evasion, aggressive tax planning, base erosion and so on. Does that include changes in EU regulations which currently permit workers posted to the UK for less than two years to avoid paying tax here and to opt to pay tax in their own country while still being eligible for benefits in the United Kingdom?
I think the appropriate Minister will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the particular issue he mentions about posted workers. The key point about the conclusion on tax is that it is part of taking forward the G8 agenda on tax transparency that the Prime Minister led at the Enniskillen summit last year.
If EU defence is really just harmless intergovernmentalism, why do we have directives that have the force of law in the field of defence? Why do these conclusions include invitation after invitation for the Commission, which is not an intergovernmental institution, to lead on initiatives? Why are we still in the European Defence Agency, which contains expensive provision for qualified majority voting on defence? Is not my right hon. Friend becoming somewhat blind to the fact that we are moving towards a federal defence policy and a European army? He is in denial.
My hon. Friend is mistaken in his analysis of the EDA. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has responsibility for defence procurement, took a very hard line and successfully won a flat-cash settlement for the EDA this year. We held out and it required unanimity for that budget to be agreed. It is simply not the case that we can be overridden by a QMV vote.[Official Report, 15 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 11MC.]
The Commission has a role under the treaties with regard to industrial policy and, of course, the operation of the single market. However, the single market as regards defence is qualified in the treaties by articles that make it clear that certain matters are reserved from normal single market arrangements because they are critical to national security. Embodied in the European Council conclusions is a very clear direction from all 28 Heads of State and Government that the Commission should stick to what is given under the treaties, that there should be no attempt at competence creep and that there should be no move towards national European champions or a circumvention of the freedom of member states to strike sensible defence partnerships with countries outside Europe, and instead that the Commission should work on ways to make Europe’s defence industries more competitive and its defence markets more open in a way that, incidentally, would provide great opportunities for the United Kingdom’s first-class defence suppliers. That move towards greater openness in areas of defence procurement is something that United Kingdom companies have been pressing Ministers to achieve.
The conclusions of the European Council state:
“The European Council welcomes the signature this week of the biggest ever single EU humanitarian financial allocation”
to Syria. Why did the Prime Minister not make any reference to that in his written statement? Indeed, why has the Minister not mentioned it in his response this afternoon?
There is a lot in the European Council conclusions. I do not think it would serve a huge purpose if a written statement simply rehearsed every single item when there is a link in the statement on the Council conclusions to the full text itself. I am also somewhat constrained—quite properly—by the time permitted to respond to the urgent question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart).
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), however, is right: this was a very important breakthrough. There was a commitment by all 28 Heads of State and Government for European countries to do more to help people in Syria who have been displaced and are in need and those who have taken refuge in neighbouring countries who face huge problems. What is also needed—we have supported the efforts of other EU countries on this—is some declaration, if we cannot get a resolution, at the United Nations Security Council to provide safe passage for humanitarian organisations to reach people in Syria who are in desperate need and find it impossible to get access to the aid available.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has undoubtedly won some crucial victories in our national interest, in the face of the unremitting efforts of the Brussels institutions to fulfil ambitions that are set out in the treaties for all to see, including that of having a European army. Sadly, there are some new commitments in the conclusions, including one in paragraph 9 for
“an EU Maritime Security Strategy by June 2014, on the basis of a joint Communication from the Commission and the High Representative, taking into account the opinions of Member States”.
Is that not precisely a case of the Brussels institutions being in the driving seat and an open invitation for them to indulge in more competence creep?
The maritime security strategy is about trying to make the different efforts of the 28 European Governments over matters such as piracy and port security more cohesive and co-ordinated than they are at present. It does not involve any kind of direction. It is trying to establish a framework for effective partnership and working together so that we have fewer weak links in security—whether it be maritime or terrestrial—anywhere across the continent of Europe. Any weakness in security arrangements elsewhere in Europe can end up providing a point of entry for people who want to threaten our interests directly, so this sort of effective working together is very much in the interests of this country.
What the Minister has told us about the European Council discussions is obviously welcome, but six days before the European Council an Amnesty International report said:
“European leaders should hang their heads in shame over the pitifully low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle”.
Is it not the fact that Europe as a whole, with the exception of Germany, has been failing in its humanitarian duty to support refugees from Syria? Should not this have been pursued more actively by our own Prime Minister at the European Council, and should not it be taken forward in other European forums as well?
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge the very significant sums of humanitarian relief that this country has provided through the Department for International Development. What we surely want to see in Syria is a ceasefire leading to a political settlement that enables Syrian people to return home, rather than to be dispersed into a diaspora community around the rest of the world.
Once again in its conclusions the Council has restated the need to cut EU-imposed red tape on businesses, but British companies want action now, not just words. Is my right hon. Friend able to indicate when any of the existing EU-imposed rules and regulations, such as those on the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals, will actually be repealed?
In fairness, I think that what the industry has been calling for is modification of the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals directive—REACH—and flexibility in its interpretation, rather than its outright repeal. I can point my hon. Friend to the agreement by all Governments to exempt micro-businesses from future EU regulations as the default position. I can also point him to the Commission’s refit package published earlier this year. Among other things, the Commission has announced that it will withdraw some proposals to impose extra regulations on professions such as hairdressing, and it will also take action about the over-prescriptive aspects of the soils directive. A lot more can and should be done. That is why we have pressed very hard for the recommendations of the Prime Minister’s business taskforce to be taken forward, and why we strongly welcome the fact that the taskforce report has had strong support from Government leaders representing all the main political families right across the European Union.
I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. I note that there was no discussion at the Council about a Spanish naval ship’s unlawful incursion into Gibraltar’s territorial waters. The EU is adamant that member states must respect each other’s sovereignty, but Spain is obviously ignoring that agreement. What steps will he take to address that issue?
We make it clear every time there is a Spanish incursion into British Gibraltar territorial waters that that is unacceptable through a formal protest of some kind to the Spanish Government, which, depending on the circumstances, has ranged from a note verbale to a public summoning of the Spanish ambassador. We continue to make representations to Spain at the highest level about the fact that this sort of behaviour is not tolerable, as well as the fact that Spain would be better off recognising that a large number of Spanish citizens benefit from the prosperity of Gibraltar—from being able to take work there and from the spending power it provides to the Andalusian economy—and that it would be in Spain’s interest to start trying to make friends with Gibraltar, instead of issuing threats.
A common defence policy for Europe would clearly undermine the crucial link between Europe and America that forms the basis of NATO. What assessment have our Government made of the number of our fellow EU member states that favour a common defence policy, and of their motivation for favouring such a dangerous step?
It all depends on what is meant by a common defence policy. There is widespread support, including in the United States and from the NATO Secretary-General, for European members of the transatlantic alliance to be more effective and cohesive in their contributions to our joint security arrangements. My hon. Friend is right that some people in Europe want to go a great deal further, particularly in some of the European institutions, such as the Parliament and the Commission.
For rather obvious reasons of parliamentary accountability and a consciousness of the importance of national sovereignty over defence and foreign policy, there is greater reluctance among national Governments. As a rule of thumb, smaller member states often see security advantages in closer European integration at defence level, and the significant defence players are generally the most conscious of the need to preserve national autonomy and to defend what the treaties lay down, which is that defence and security remain national competences and rights.
What further reassurances can the European Council provide to the people and the Government of Ukraine that signing the draft association agreement with the European Union remains in their long-term economic interests? When the Minister next speaks to his counterparts in Russia, will he remind them that the decision about whether to sign that agreement is one for Ukraine alone, not one that should be subject to pressure by Ukraine’s neighbours?
It is important that we do not just make statements at European Councils or the like about this issue, but that we try to reach out to ordinary Ukrainians. Our embassy in Kiev has been leading on that and encouraging embassies from other European countries to do so as well, particularly to get the message through to those in the Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of Ukraine that greater integration with the world’s biggest single trading market will, in the medium and long term, hugely benefit the prosperity of people of every ethnic background within Ukraine.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in relation to Russia. I have certainly made such a point directly to my Russian opposite number. It is in Russia’s interests to have a Ukraine that is more prosperous and stable than it is today, so I hope that Russia will in time see that Ukraine’s association with the EU should not be perceived as a threat.
On enlargement, there is a huge disparity between income per head in new member states and that in existing states, which results in many people abandoning their country for a richer one. Is it time for the EU to legislate against new entrants gaining access to other labour markets until their own economic fortunes are growing?
As the Prime Minister has said, we need to look at how transitional arrangements should operate in future. In his Financial Times article, my right hon. Friend suggested the idea of looking at a new entrant’s GDP in relation to average EU GDP. However, he made it clear that we are not necessarily wedded to that proposal, and are keen to hear ideas from others.
It is clear that simply relying on a somewhat arbitrary number of years and saying that all restrictions will fall away automatically at the end of that period will not restore public confidence in the enlargement process. I profoundly believe that enlargement has worked to the benefit of Europe as a whole, including the United Kingdom, so I want to see public confidence restored, and looking again at transitional controls is one important way to do that.
I am sure that if the Prime Minister were here—I wish he was—he would join me, as I hope the Minister will, in wishing the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, a speedy recovery from her serious skiing accident.
Will the Minister take it from me that I am a very strong pro-European—always have been—but even I am very concerned that this miserable little Council meeting seems, according to his statement, to have spent so little time on the real problems that the European economy still faces. I am talking not about the eurozone, but about the heath of our economy. Only two weeks ago, Angela Merkel made a very important speech about the rift between the rich or super-rich and average, ordinary people being a danger to democratic institutions.
My last point is that we seem to be sleepwalking towards enlargement with three other poor countries, which concerns my constituents and me.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, there is no question of sleepwalking. There is a very rigorous process of accession negotiations, each stage of which succeeds only if every EU member unanimously agrees that the relevant standards have been reached by the candidate country. Even on the most generous estimate, it will be a fair number of years before any of the current candidate countries are in a position to be ready to join the European Union.
I happily concur with what the hon. Gentleman said about Chancellor Merkel. She is a formidable leader of Germany, and a good friend of this country as well. I am sure that the whole House will wish her a very speedy recovery from her skiing injury.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about debates on the economy, this Council had been designated for a long time as the occasion for the first discussion at Heads of Government level on defence and security policy for several years. There is a limit to the number of significant issues that can be pushed into a single summit meeting without doing injustice to their importance. There was a very good discussion of some broader economic issues at the October European Council, and I am absolutely confident that the Heads of Government will return to the economy in 2014.
The whole House will be disappointed that there was not an oral statement by the Prime Minister yesterday, and the Minister has not explained why the Prime Minister has not popped over from Downing street to spend an hour answering the urgent question that has been granted today.
On a specific matter, did the Prime Minister bring up the issue of Romanian and Bulgarian migration at the Council, and did he suggest that this country wanted to extend the limits? Talking about future transitional arrangements, which are years away, is rather like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
The Prime Minister and the Government have always made it clear that we will abide by the law in respect of Romania, Bulgaria and other accession countries. The treaty of accession, which was negotiated by the last Government and agreed by the House in the last Parliament, laid down that the transitional controls on migration from Romania and Bulgaria should continue for a maximum of seven years. We were right to put transitional controls in place for the full seven-year period. Unlike in the case of the 2004 accession states, we are lifting the transitional controls at the same time as every other country in the EU that has maintained such controls. The situation is therefore somewhat different.
The measures that we have announced and are implementing to make it more difficult for people who are not workers to access social security and public services ought to provide considerable public reassurance, as should the knowledge that under this Government about two thirds of new employment is being taken up by United Kingdom citizens, whereas under the last Government the figure was only 10%. That is the first sign that this Government’s reforms to welfare, education and training are having the beneficial effect of making more of our young people employable and willing to take the work that is available.
I have asked this question of the Minister for Europe before. Now that another European Council meeting has concluded, is he able to tell the House whether he is any closer to determining what is the top policy priority for repatriation that would encourage the Government to campaign to stay in the European Union?
I have to confess to the hon. Gentleman that he is not the first person with whom I will share the secret. The Government have a clear policy on reform of the European Union to make it more competitive, democratic and flexible. In his party capacity, the Prime Minister has set out that at the next election he will advocate a programme of further European reform, including treaty change. The hon. Gentleman will have to contain himself and see what is in the Conservative manifestos this year and next. They will give him a bit more detail.
I suggest to my right hon. Friend that these defence discussions are a classic example of EU competence creep, or should I say incompetence creep? I put it to him that the United Kingdom should have nothing to do with establishing an EU-led so-called European arm of NATO, because if the EU gets anywhere near the NATO-led defence capabilities of European nations, including our own, it will wreck them, just as it has wrecked economic and monetary union.
I assure my hon. Friend that we are not doing that. Nothing in the European Council conclusions should give credence to the idea that there is such a threat. I say to him that it is a mistake always to see Europe as threatening and to think that we are unable to influence the way in which Europe works together. The record of this European summit again shows that when we put our minds and energies to it, we can influence, and to a considerable extent direct, the future shape of European policy in a way that serves our national interests, the interests of all our people and the interests of Europe as a whole.
Does my right hon. Friend know whether the Prime Minister had any conversations or open debates on protecting parliamentary sovereignty, given the growing crisis in subsidiarity in the European Union following the yellow card that was issued by 19 reasoned opinions across member states on the European public prosecutor’s office being blatantly ignored by the European Commission, which is ploughing forward on this matter?
That issue was not on the agenda for the European Council, but I made a point of raising it in strong terms at the General Affairs Council a few days before the summit. I was pleased to be supported strongly by my Dutch colleague and a number of other Ministers who were present.