House of Commons
Wednesday 22 January 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Development Programmes (Gender)
Before I answer that question, may I say how shocked and saddened I was to hear of the deaths of the Britons, Simon Chase and Del Singh, in the recent bomb attack in Kabul? Both were part of the effort to rebuild Afghanistan. Del was an employee of Adam Smith International, working on a Department for International Development programme. Our thoughts are with their families.
Giving women and girls a voice, choice and control has a transformative impact on poverty reduction and it is critical to freer and fairer societies and economies. The Department for International Development puts that at the centre of its work, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who is introducing a private Member’s Bill on this very topic.
I welcome the fact that the United Nations does such good work to support women and girls. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the earliest years in a child’s life are the most important, and will she tell us what steps her Department is taking to support greater life chances for baby girls?
This is an area on which my hon. Friend rightly spends a lot of time. Much of DFID’s work focuses on early-years health, including maternal health and antenatal and postnatal health education. Furthermore, our G8 focused on nutrition, which is particularly important in ensuring that babies grow up healthy.
The collapse in the supply of fuel and medical supplies entering Gaza in recent months and the rising price of food are exacerbating the already precarious humanitarian situation caused by restrictions on the movement of goods and people and the devastation of the winter storms.
The Minister will know that there are severe drug shortages in Gaza, leading to problems with the provision of proper emergency care. What is his Department doing to ensure that the Palestinians get better, more timely access to the health care that they need?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I was in the Palestinian territories last week and I spoke directly to a number of people in Gaza. The shortage of drugs is a serious issue, and it has been since about 2007. DFID is supporting the UN access co-ordination unit to work with the World Health Organisation, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the agencies to help to facilitate the transfer of medical equipment and supplies, and patient referrals, in and out of Gaza.
The key point is that the tunnels from Egypt are now largely shut. DFID has had no direct conversations with the Government of Egypt, but I hope to visit that country in the next few months, and when I do so I have no doubt that that matter will be on the agenda.
Someone who did much to draw attention to the plight of the people living in Gaza, and who also represented Labour Friends of Palestine in the Gaza marathon two years ago and in the Bethlehem marathon, was Del Singh. He was killed last weekend in the attack on a restaurant in Kabul. Will the Minister join me in remembering Del Singh, and does he agree that Del will best be remembered by all of us redoubling our efforts to bring an end to the blockade of Gaza?
I wholly endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. We offer our condolences and full sympathy following Del Singh’s death. It would be a tribute to him if we were all to raise the issue of the humanitarian challenge now facing Gaza. It is no exaggeration to say that, come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water. One UN report predicts that it could become an unliveable place, meaning that it risks becoming unfit for human habitation.
I welcome the Minister’s forthcoming talks with the Egyptian Government. Will he impress on them that, while we support the security crackdown in Sinai, it is important that they should make suitable provision for humanitarian assistance to cross the Egypt-Gaza border?
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, but at the moment those borders are closed. Under international law and other obligations, primary responsibility rests with the occupying power, and it is to that end that we will continue to work closely with Israel in an attempt to alleviate the humanitarian pressure that Gaza currently faces.
Syria: Humanitarian Support
3. What assessment she has made of the educational needs of Syrian-born children in Syria and in refugee communities. (902100)
The humanitarian crisis in Syria has reached catastrophic proportions. In July last year, the United Nations estimated that more than 100,000 people had been killed. More than 9 million people in Syria now need humanitarian aid, 6.5 million of whom are internally displaced, and 2.4 million Syrians have fled the country. In Syria, 2 million children are out of school. The UK has led efforts to improve the co-ordination of the humanitarian response and the development of the “no lost generation” strategy, which is focused on helping the children affected by the crisis.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked western countries to give refuge to some of Syria’s most vulnerable people affected by this terrible war, including orphan children. The USA and Australia have stepped up to the plate. Why are the UK Government not doing so?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are playing a leading role, particularly in working with the very people affected by the crisis whom he has just talked about. The UK was instrumental in setting up the “no lost generation” initiative. It is absolutely focused not only on making sure that the millions of children affected by this crisis get education, but on protection. It is a crucial project, we are working hand in hand with UNICEF and I assure him that the UK is playing a leading role to ensure that we work with those very people he rightly cares about.
Nearly one in five schools in Syria has been destroyed, damaged or used by the military. At the very least at the talks in Geneva, will the Government press all parties to the Syrian conflict to end the use or targeting of schools or health facilities?
Does the Secretary of State agree that mobile Army surgical hospital units, which can be built in the UK, funded by DFID and deployed within 24 hours by our military, would be a further effective way of Britain providing humanitarian support to the people of Syria and the surrounding region?
I know that my hon. Friend has held an Adjournment debate on this subject. Clearly, in Syria we are seeking to provide medical support, and although his idea may not be appropriate for Syria, it does have potential applicability for other humanitarian crises.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the number of Syrian refugees who have reached the Lebanon is now about 1 million. What is her Department doing in support of local non-governmental organisations as they respond to educational and other vital needs?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. I was in Lebanon last week and as part of that visit I went to a local school that is now running a double shift. I spoke to the head teacher, who is now having to run a school which not only educates Lebanese children in the morning but educates Syrian children in the afternoon. Part of that trip saw me announce funding for textbooks for 300,000 children at public school in Lebanon, including Syrian children. It is incredibly important that countries such as the UK work with countries such as Lebanon, not only to help the Syrian refugees directly, but to help host communities cope.
I wish to return to an earlier supplementary question. There is a general welcome for UK financial support for Syrian refugees, but of course there is growing concern about the Government’s refusal to admit any of the refugees to the UK. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many other countries have said yes? How can it be right that the British Government continue to say no when countries and nations as diverse as the United States, Moldova and even the new hard-line Government in Australia are willing to do the right thing?
The UK is playing a leading role in helping the refugees from Syria. We are the third largest grantee of asylum to Syrian refugees in the European Union, after Germany and Sweden. It is wrong to suggest that we are not playing a leading role, because we are. Ultimately, all countries decide the form that their support will take and we have chosen a broad-based support which has helped millions of people in Syria. I very much hope that other EU member states can step up to the plate more fully in giving financial backing to the UN’s appeal, which was announced in Kuwait last week.
Surely it is not an issue of money or refugees; surely those are not mutually exclusive. The UK aid charities are right when they ask
“how can we call on Syria’s neighbours to keep their borders open to refugees if we keep our own under lock and key?”
We are talking about torture victims and children who have lost both their parents. I think it is likely that, over time, the Government will change their position on this, so can the Secretary of State at least confirm that she is willing to enter into discussions about detailed plans with the United Nations? Otherwise, despite the financial generosity, the UK will be seen by some refugees as shrill and unwelcoming.
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is right. Obviously, the Home Secretary has already responded to the UN in relation to the issues that he has just raised. We will continue to look at what we can do to support the refugees. It would be wrong for anybody to say anything other than that the UK has played a leading role in the extent, the co-ordination and, latterly, the shaping of our support, in particular focusing it on helping children affected by the crisis.
With a contribution of £600 million, the Government are probably the lead contributor to humanitarian relief, but does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is concern that if there is not a solution to this crisis in the coming 12 months, there will not be enough resources in the world to meet humanitarian crises elsewhere? It is absolutely imperative that everything is done to try to achieve a situation in which we can sustain the support.
May I press the Secretary of State on the refugee issue? Millions of people have been displaced from their homes, and it is only right that the UK takes its share of those refugees and gives sanctuary under its international obligations. I urge the Secretary of State to make the UK Government do the right thing.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have absolutely played a leading role in Europe in accepting asylum-seeking Syrians. When I go into the region and talk directly to refugees—I have done that on many occasions now—they are clear that they want the chance to go back home to Syria. That hope of going home is precisely why, having moved across the border into Jordan and Lebanon, they have stayed in the camps in those communities.
There must be occasions in international affairs when compassion trumps all other political and policy considerations. Surely there are echoes of the Kindertransport here. Surely we can find a place in our hearts for just a small number of these terribly tortured and disaffected Syrian children. Surely we can find room for them in the United Kingdom—just a few of them, just anything. Please say yes.
My hon. Friend is right to show that level of compassion for those children who have been so badly affected by this crisis. I can reassure him that the UK is playing a leading role in the area of broad humanitarian support. As he will be aware, we were instrumental in setting up the “no lost generation” initiative with UNICEF. We are now UNICEF’s largest bilateral donor, which shows that we work directly with children.
The Secretary of State will be aware that there are many Syrian refugees living all over the UK, including in my constituency. One came to see me recently with a tragic story of how her family were unable to get cancer treatment. Obviously that was because of the impact on medical services in that country. What assessment has she made of the availability of medical care across the spectrum as a result of the conflicts?
We have been involved in providing medical support both outside Syria, to refugees in the region, and inside Syria. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are now a quarter of a million people living in besieged towns and cities with no access to medical supplies. The situation is dire.
Global Partnership for Education
The UK is currently the largest donor to the Global Partnership for Education, providing on average of £50 million per year from 2012 to 2014. GPE estimates that in 2012 its funding supported around 4.5 million children in primary school, 1.3 million of whom with DFID support.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome the Government’s leading role in the Global Partnership for Education, which has done so much to fulfil the entitlement of all children to an education and is now turning its sights to the quality of education through teacher training. Given the Government’s strong support for it, what plans does she have to champion the GP’s replenishment this year and to encourage other donors to come forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I pay tribute to his work and interest in this area. The UK is currently the largest bilateral donor to basic education. That is the sector in which aid is now declining. We strongly encourage other donors to step up to the plate alongside us, as well as mother countries themselves. We will determine our plans for support to the GP based on the case they make for replenishment. We will use that as a basis for—
The Global Partnership for Education estimates that 50% of children who are out of school live in conflict-affected areas. Will the Minister say a little more about the discussions she has had with the Global Partnership for Education about how the UK can further support work to reduce disruption to education in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan?
Save the Children
In financial year 2012-13, DFID provided £55 million to Save the Children for its international humanitarian and long-term development work. During 2013, additional funding was agreed for Save the Children’s response to humanitarian crisis, including projects in Syria, the Philippines and the Central African Republic.
Does the hon. Lady agree that an organisation receiving so much Government money has a duty to remain non-political and that tweeting insults about Lady Thatcher and implied criticisms of Government education policy suggests that Save the Children and its Labour spin doctor chief executive have a lot more work to do in that regard?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, but I do not quite share his position. DFID does not provide funding for political lobbying activities. Save the Children works to save children’s lives and does an extremely good job. It also fights for children’s rights. In pursuing those laudable social aims, of course it engages legitimately with politicians and political processes in the UK and internationally.
We are watching events carefully in Bangladesh following the recent elections. We have no intention of rushing into any decisions and have not cancelled any existing programmes.
It is true that the state of politics in Bangladesh leaves a lot to be desired. It does not, however, mean that our efforts are wasted. We do not give any direct funding to political parties, but we work with parliamentary Committees, particularly the Public Accounts Committee, to enhance parliamentary scrutiny, much of which is done through non-governmental organisations.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The outcome of the elections is largely clear, albeit that there has been a lot of recrimination. We are careful not to give direct budget support to a Government in the face of such controversy, but we are giving sectoral support—for instance, in education—and we will continue to work, largely through NGOs, to deliver the good work that DFID does in that country.
The worrying situation in Bangladesh underlines the links between development and stability and looks like a good candidate for support from the new conflict, stability and security fund that the Government are establishing. Will DFID be centrally involved in setting priorities for that fund and ensuring that the links between development and stability are reinforced?
We are fully involved in the new fund, which will replace the conflict pool from 2015, and we have worked very closely with the apparatus of the National Security Council to ensure that everything DFID does is fully aligned with the broader judgments of other Departments across Whitehall in this area.
Since the last session of DFID questions, I have announced a further £100 million in new funding at the Syria pledging conference in Kuwait, bringing our total funding to £600 million. That included announcing funding with Islamic Relief for education programmes helping children into education in Jordan. Last Friday, the private Member’s Bill on gender equality promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) successfully passed its Third Reading in the House of Commons. My Department is also focused on our humanitarian responses in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
There is clear evidence that organisations operating in Palestine with UK taxpayers’ money are responsible for inciting hatred and violence against the Israeli people. What action has my right hon. Friend taken either to persuade those organisations to desist from that iniquitous practice or to withdraw UK taxpayers’ money?
We take all those issues incredibly seriously. The UK deplores all incitement to violence, which we raise with both sides and with our partner organisations whenever allegations are made. We believe that President Abbas is committed to non-violence and peace, and DFID funding to the Palestinian Authority funds the salaries of an approved list of civil servants.
On Monday, Catherine Samba-Panza was elected as interim President of the Central African Republic, and she has spoken encouragingly of reconciling the different groups in the country, but the threat of serious conflict remains. The new Government will need significant support, so will the Secretary of State say more about what help the UK is planning to help avert conflict and serious humanitarian disaster?
Obviously, the situation remains fragile. We welcome the fact that there is now a leader who wants to take things forward. The UK pledged a total of £15 million—we are one of the largest donors to the Central African Republic—and we stand ready, should more requests be made, to listen to them and provide all possible help that we can give.
T4. South Sudan won independence with great hopes of democracy and freedom, but it has collapsed into near civil war. Will the Minister tell us what steps she has taken to help deal with the humanitarian crisis in that country? [Interruption]. (902092)
The situation in South Sudan is extremely worrying, and we support the mediation led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. We have given £12.5 million, and £60 million in DFID programmes has been switched to humanitarian assistance. We were hopeful earlier in the week that there might be a cessation of hostilities, but that faint hope has now faded.
T6. On Monday, many of us will attend Holocaust memorial day events. The theme is journeys, including journeys of return. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that our thoughts should include, among many others, the millions of displaced Palestinians still denied their right to return to their homes? (902094)
The right of return is of course part of the negotiations that continue as part of the middle east peace process. We fully support the efforts of Secretary Kerry and of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in everything that they are doing, and we want to do all we can to underpin the best prospects for a successful conclusion, which are predicted to occur by the end of April.
This is an important project that is working in east Africa to remove many of the barriers to trade that hold back that region. We continue to assess the project, and our assessment is that it is working well. We will continue to look at it as it moves forward. If any project is bad value for money, we stop it.
T9. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update on the international humanitarian pledging conference held in Kuwait last week? Will she share with the House her assessment of the impact of the humanitarian need in Syria? (902097)
It is always a pleasure to have a question from my right hon. Friend. We had a very successful pledging conference in Kuwait. The UK pledged £100 million and it raised £2.4 billion in total, which will provide vital humanitarian support to the Syrian crisis.
T7. Several people have been killed and hundreds of civilians displaced in Burma recently in Rakhine state. What representation has the Secretary of State made about greater humanitarian access to internally displaced persons, especially the Rohingya persecuted minority? (902095)
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this incredibly important question, which we pursue through our Foreign Office with the Burmese regime. She will be aware that we have put in significant humanitarian support, particularly focused on internally displaced people in the region.
Having just returned from the Nizip-2 Syrian refugee camp, where the conditions were quite good, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s Department for what it is doing there, but what is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that some of the other camps in front-line countries are as good as that one?
I thank my hon. Friend for the amazing trip that I know he had during the last couple of weeks to Turkey and the social action projects in the camp there. He is right to raise the issue of conditions in the camps. The UK works with UN agencies to ensure that they are as good as they possibly can be.
The hon. Lady will know that the aid to Belarus was transferred under the multi-annual financial framework, which was agreed under the last Government. This Government have tightened that up to make sure that fewer middle-income countries such as Belarus will receive aid in the future.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in paying tribute to Del Singh and to Simon Chase who were tragically killed in Kabul on Sunday in a cowardly terrorist attack. Both were there to support the Afghan Government and to improve the lives of the Afghan people. Del Singh was a friend to many in the House and had given so much time and dedication to troubled regions across the world. Our thoughts should be with their families and friends at this very difficult time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”]. This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I would like to associate myself with the condolences that the Prime Minister expressed on behalf of the whole House.
The Trussell Trust co-ordinates the fast-growing network, now numbering some 400, of church-based food banks, which between them provided food for half a million people, just between April and December last year. Will the Prime Minister be willing to meet representatives of the Trussell Trust to discuss the big challenges with which they are grappling?
I would be happy to meet them. We have listened carefully to the Trussell Trust. One thing that it wanted to see done by this Government and the previous Government was to allow food banks to be promoted in jobcentres. We have allowed that to happen. That has increased the use of food banks, but it is important to do the right thing rather than something that might just seem politically convenient.
Q2. The Prime Minister is aware of the tragic case of a two-year-old boy taken to Chase Farm urgent care centre at 3 am for the emergency care he needed. Despite the best efforts of a senior nurse and the paramedics who took him to North Middlesex hospital he was tragically pronounced dead at 4 am. I know that we cannot comment on the case until a full report is published, but does he agree that the effect of reconfigurations, often put through despite local opposition, including from me, is that we are asking people to decide where to go for help at moments of great personal stress? Does he further agree that we must do more to explain the choices to help them decide? On publication of the report, will he meet me to see whether lessons can be learned and changes made? (902114)
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. This is an absolutely tragic case. I offer my deepest sympathies to Hashir’s family. Anyone who has taken a desperately ill child to hospital in the middle of the night when the child is at risk knows what an incredibly desperate time it can be. I understand that the hospital is carrying out a full and comprehensive investigation into the circumstances around that poor child’s death. I have asked the Health Secretary to discuss the findings of the investigation with my hon. Friend once it is completed. We must ensure that everything is done to avoid these terrible incidents happening in future.
I want to start by paying tribute to the two British nationals, Simon Chase and Del Singh, who were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan. Simon Chase had served Britain in the Army, and my condolences go to all his family and friends. Del Singh was one of Labour’s European candidates, and one of the most decent people one could ever hope to meet. He was an international development worker who dedicated his life to helping people across the world, and we all grieve with his family.
Recent reports of the murder of thousands of innocent civilians by the regime in Syria are a reminder of the horror unfolding there. We all hope for significant progress from today’s talks. Last month the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and I made a joint statement about the plight of Syrian refugees, which welcomed the Government’s leadership in the aid programme. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also called on Britain to be part of a programme to help resettle a small number of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. Eighteen countries are part of that programme, but so far Britain is not among them. Does the Prime Minister not agree that we should be?
First, I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman on just how dreadful the news is that has come out of Syria in recent days, with allegations of torture and worse. I think that we are fulfilling our moral obligations to the people of Syria. We are the second largest bilateral aid donor. The money that British taxpayers are providing is providing food, shelter, water and medicine for literally hundreds of thousands of people.
We are also fulfilling all our obligations in terms of asylum seekers. We have taken over 1,000 asylum seekers from Syria in recent months. We are also making sure that when we can help very vulnerable children who are ill, including a child who is in a British hospital today, we take action as well. I do not believe that we can solve a refugee crisis of this scale, with almost half of Syria’s population of 9 million either displaced or at risk of displacement, with a quota system by which countries are taking a few hundreds refugees. But I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that if there are very difficult cases of people who do not belong in refugee camps who either have been disabled by the dreadful attacks or are in very difficult circumstances, I am happy for us to look at that argument. Britain always plays the right role in these desperate humanitarian crises.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Let me make just a few points in reply, because this is an important issue. First, we all agree on the leadership that this Government have shown in relation to Syrian aid, and I pay tribute to him, the International Development Secretary and others. On the point about asylum seekers, they are of course the people who have been able to get here, but we are talking about the people who are in the refugee camps at the moment. On his point about whether this can solve the problem, of course it cannot, but the UN is talking about a small number of the most vulnerable people, including children who have lost their parents and victims of torture. I was somewhat encouraged by the end of the Prime Minister’s answer. We are all proud of Britain’s tradition of taking refugees. Why does he not look at it again, say that Britain will participate in the programme, take just a few hundred refugees and, indeed, set an example?
I do not think that there is a disagreement between us. The problem I see—[Interruption.] Let me explain. The problem I see is that some countries are using the quota system as a way of saying, “Therefore, I have fulfilled my obligations.” When almost half of the population of 9 million is at risk of displacement, the fact that the Finns, the French or the Swedes will take a few hundred people is not fulfilling their obligations, whereas the massive amount of aid that Britain is putting forward—the second largest in the world—is playing the most important role. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, I think that there are individual cases that we should be looking at, and I am happy to look at those arguments and issues, but let us not pretend that a small quota system can solve the problem of Syrian refugees.
I do feel we are gradually inching forward on this issue. Let me be clear about this. It must not be an excuse for failing to provide aid—of course it must not—but we are not talking about either providing aid or taking vulnerable refugees; we are talking about doing both. Given the Prime Minister’s reasonable tone, will he now open discussions with the United Nations about Britain making its contribution to this programme? I think colleagues in all parts of the House want this to happen; will he now say he will do so?
I have made this very clear. We are prepared to listen to the arguments about how we can help the most vulnerable people in those refugee camps. Just to correct the right hon. Gentleman, some of the countries that are participating include in their quotas both asylum numbers and refugee numbers, which is not the argument we should be making. Let me be absolutely clear: Britain is leading the world in terms of humanitarian aid in Syria; we should be proud of that. We are fulfilling our obligations on asylum claims, and we should be proud that we give a home to those who flee torture and persecution. Where there are extreme hardship cases, we should look at those again. That is the approach that we should take. I think there should be all-party support for it, and I think Britain can be proud of the role that we are playing.
I hope that the Prime Minister will take this away and, as I say, open discussions with the United Nations—[Interruption.] I do not think hon. Members should groan on this issue; I really do not. We know that Britain can make more of a contribution on this specific issue and I hope he will open discussions.
I want to move on to another subject. Today’s welcome fall in unemployment is good for the people concerned—[Interruption.] We welcome the fall in unemployment because whenever an individual gets back into work it is good for them and good for their family. [Interruption.] I have to say to hon. Members that just braying like that does not do anybody any good. Can the Prime Minister confirm that today’s figures also show that average wages are down by £1,600 a year since the election, meaning that for many ordinary families life is getting harder?
It is worth pausing for a moment over what these statistics show today. They show youth unemployment coming down, long-term unemployment coming down, the claimant count coming down, and unemployment overall coming down—but above all, what we see today is the biggest ever quarterly increase in the number of people in work in our country. There should not be one ounce of complacency—there is still a huge amount of work to do to get Britain back to work—but there are 280,000 more people in work: that is 280,000 more people with the security of a regular pay packet coming in for themselves and their family. Now of course we are seeing a slow growth in wages—why? Because we are recovering from the longest and deepest recession in living memory. Because the Leader of the Opposition keeps quoting the figure without the tax cuts that we have put in place, he is not recognising that actually this year people are better off because we have controlled spending and cut taxes.
All the Prime Minister has done is show that he is absolutely complacent about the situation, because he is trying to tell millions of families around this country that they are better off when they know they are worse off, and it does not help for him to tell them the opposite. Let me take this figure: in Britain today, there are 13 million people living in poverty—that is a shocking figure. What is scandalous is that for the first time ever the majority of those people are living not in jobless families but in working families. What is his explanation for that?
The explanation is what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, which is that wages have increased much less quickly than inflation. As I say, that is not surprising. We have had the biggest recession in 100 years. It would be astonishing if household incomes had not fallen and earnings had not fallen. The fact is that we are recovering from the mess that Labour left us. Every week the Leader of the Opposition comes here and raises a new problem that he created. We had the betting problem, then we had the banking problem, then we had the deficit problem, and now we have the cost of living problem. He is like an arsonist who goes round setting fire after fire and then complains when the fire brigade are not putting out the fires fast enough. Why does he not start with an apology for the mess that he left us?
The Prime Minister comes here every week and does his Bullingdon club routine, and all he shows is that he has absolutely no understanding of the lives of people up and down this country. That is the reality: ordinary families are working harder for longer for less; he is cutting taxes for millionaires and not helping those families; and the minimum wage is falling in value. He cannot be the solution to the cost of living crisis, because he just does not understand the problem.
We are cutting taxes for everyone in our country, and we are able to do that only because we have controlled spending. What the right hon. Gentleman cannot face is the fact that the economy is improving. For months, the Opposition told us to listen to the IMF. Remember that? We had five tweets in one month from the shadow Chancellor: “Listen to the IMF”. Now the IMF is telling us, “The economy is growing. Stick to the plan. Unemployment is going down”—not a word.
We should remember that the Leader of the Opposition predicted 1 million more unemployed; we got 1 million more in work. He predicted the deficit would go up; the deficit is coming down. The fact is today our plan is working. There are 1.3 million more people in work in our country, which is 1.3 million more people with the security of a regular pay packet. We are securing Britain’s future, and it would be put at risk by Labour.
Q3. The systematic torture and killing of 11,000 people detained by the Syrian state is surely a war crime. As there can be no lasting peace without justice, will the Prime Minister resist conceding any immunity from prosecution for war crimes at the Geneva II talks that start today, so that the next time a tyrant turns on his own people the deterrent of international law is not muffled? (902115)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Britain is actually going further than that by making sure that we play our role not just in the humanitarian crisis that we have discussed, but in collecting evidence about war crimes so that people can be held to account for the dreadful things that they have done.
Stop-and-search does need reform. The report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary shows that in 27% of cases the police have not followed their own guidance on stop-and-search, so we do need to reform stop-and-search. If it is necessary to legislate, we will legislate; if it is not, we will not. What is really important is that stop-and-search is used properly, and that we do not add to the burdens of the police.
Q5. The Government’s roll-out of rural broadband will double the number of homes and businesses that receive broadband from 40% to 80%, but 17% of people will still be left without full fast broadband. Will the Government work with me to deliver that extra 20%, because it is very much part of our long-term economic plan? (902117)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For those of us who represent rural communities, broadband is not just part of the economic plan but an absolutely vital part, because without that connectivity small businesses and entrepreneurs in our constituencies will not be able to benefit. We have seen massive investment go into broadband; we will shortly set out our plans for the £250 million announced in June to extend superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by 2017; and we are now connecting up tens of thousands of homes and businesses every week—all progress that was not made under the Labour Government.
Does the Prime Minister accept that the remarks of the Irish Foreign Minister about the Haass talks and the possibility of some kind of intervention by his Government are deeply unhelpful, that the vast majority of the issues at stake in the Haass talks are internal to Northern Ireland and are matters for the parties in Northern Ireland to engage and agree on, that there can be no question of an imposed solution and that the most helpful thing the Irish Government could do about the past is to be more forthcoming about the role of the state authorities in collusion with the IRA?
Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that there is absolutely no question of an imposed solution. The proposal for the Haass discussions was a proposal of the Northern Ireland parties themselves. I obviously wish this process well. I think Haass did a good job in providing the architecture of a future solution on parades, flags and the past. I hope the parties can come together and continue the work. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary will do what she can to help to facilitate that work. I think it is important to go on discussing this with the Government of the Republic of Ireland. They have taken steps themselves to come to terms with some of the things that happened in their past. If the parties work together, and if the British and Irish Governments are there to help, I hope we can make some progress.
My hon. Friend is quite right that Brighton has a superb microclimate that people should be encouraged to take advantage of. He stands up for all his constituents with great vim and vigour. In reward, it would only be fair if Brighton, Kemptown was put in the shipping forecast somewhere between Dover and Wight, so that we had a reflection of that every morning.
Q7. Hitachi Rail Europe and Gestamp are working with Sunderland university to establish a university technical college in my constituency. That has the support of the Department for Transport. Will the Prime Minister assure me that he will support the college and ensure that the decision on the bid is taken quickly, so that employers and young people can acquire the skills that they need? (902119)
I am a great supporter of university technical colleges. They are providing a really good new set of schools for our country that focus on vocational training and education. The announcement of the new college last week was welcome news. It will open its doors in 2017. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that issue.
Q8. Voyage Care and Igloo are just two of the companies that have set up shop recently in my constituency, bringing hundreds of new jobs to an area where long-term unemployment has fallen by 35% and youth unemployment by 40%. Will my right hon. Friend commend the good sense of those companies for coming to Tamworth, encourage more to do the same and consider visiting Tamworth so that he can see for himself how our long-term economic plan is delivering results? (902120)
I am always happy to visit Tamworth and spend time in the shadow of Sir Robert Peel. I have enjoyed visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency in the past. We are seeing a recovery, particularly in jobs and getting people off the unemployment register. It is worth noting that today’s figures also show that full-time employment is up by 220,000, compared with just a 60,000 increase in part-time employment. That shows that people are getting the full-time jobs that they want. I am happy to commend the businesses he is welcoming to Tamworth.
The green shoots of economic recovery are not being realised across the entire UK. Does he intend to speak to the Governor of the Bank of England to make him aware that, in low-wage economy areas, any increase in inflation would undoubtedly have a devastating impact on many households?
We of course want to secure a recovery in every region of our country and in every nation of our United Kingdom. Employment in Scotland went up by 10,000 in the last quarter and there are 90,000 more people in work than there were a year ago, so progress is being made and the Scottish economy is performing. We should do everything we can to make that happen. Whether we keep interest rates down is a matter for the Bank of England. Our role must be to continue the work that we are doing to get the deficit down. In doing that, we have to make difficult decisions on spending. We are not helped by the fact that, of all the difficult decisions we have made, not one has been supported by the Labour party.
Q9. The Leader of the Opposition has suggested that we learn lessons from the Labour Welsh Assembly Government on how to run public services. Given that Wales has seen cuts to the NHS budget and has the worst education system in the UK, does my right hon. Friend agree that the only lesson that we can learn from it is that those who care about public services should vote Conservative? (902121)
It is possible to look closely at the decisions that the Labour Government have taken in Wales and at the effect of those decisions. They have not followed our approach of protecting spending on the NHS. There has been an 8% cut to the NHS budget in Wales. As a result, they have not met an A and E target since 2009. Like my hon. Friend, I also worry about some of the changes that have been made to education in Wales, because we want all children in our country to get the benefits that come from good basics in education, proper tests and proper league tables.
Q10. This weekend, Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General, one of our biggest financial companies, urged the Government to abandon their Help to Buy scheme in London to prevent house prices from spiralling out of control. Does the Prime Minister agree with Mr Wilson that we should instead use the money to build new homes across the United Kingdom? (902122)
We are building homes across the United Kingdom, but one better than what she suggests is what we have done, which is to give the power to the Bank of England to advise specifically on any potential problems in the housing market, or, indeed, in any other market. We have cleared up the mess of the regulatory system we were left by the Labour party, so that proper warnings can be given in proper time.
Q11. Under the Labour Government, manufacturing was neglected and the sector halved in size. With this Government investing in manufacturing excellence at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in my constituency, and with the success of companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls-Royce in important export markets, does the Prime Minister agree that a resurgent manufacturing sector is part of this Government’s long-term plan for the economy? (902123)
Rebalancing our economy is absolutely part of our long-term economic plan. We want to see a balanced recovery—balanced between manufacturing and services, and properly balanced between north and south—and make sure that we win back jobs and orders from overseas. Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover and Rolls-Royce have the full backing and support of the Government: they have investment going into apprenticeship schemes, which are helping them; we have reformed UK Trade & Investment, so we can help them sell around the world; we are doing everything we can to encourage them to bring jobs back into the UK; and manufacturing exports and investment are responding well.
Q12. As the Deputy Prime Minister knows, sorry is still the hardest word to say, but does the Prime Minister agree that Alex Salmond owes the people of Scotland an apology for a White Paper—[Interruption.] (902124)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Prime Minister agree that Alex Salmond owes the people of Scotland an apology for a White Paper that dodges the tough questions and does not explain that by adopting the pound interest rates will go up, because Scotland’s lender of last resort will be a foreign bank?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The White Paper, which we were told would answer all questions, has actually left all the most important questions—on the future of the currency, on Scotland’s place in the European Union, on the future of defence jobs and on the future financial services—unanswered. I think that that is why Mr Salmond is struggling to get his argument across.
We can currently celebrate record investment in North sea oil and gas production and all the jobs that they support but we have to recognise the growing concern at the lack of exploration. Will the Prime Minister therefore recommit the Government to their tax stability policy to encourage as much exploration as possible and ensure future investment?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is very important that we make the most out of the asset that is the North sea. That is what the Wood report is all about, and we are putting those proposals in place. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will listen very carefully to what he says about ensuring that the tax system encourages maximum recovery in the long term.
Q13. Del Singh was an extraordinary person: a warm and generous friend, and a passionate campaigner for peace and justice. He dedicated his life to working for those in need in areas of conflict, including in Afghanistan. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that, after the drawdown of troops this year, the work of people such as Del Singh will continue to be supported by this Government? (902125)
I very much share what the hon. Lady said about Del Singh. It reminds us of the risks that aid workers take on our behalf to deliver vital assistance around the world. I can give her the assurance she seeks. It is very important for everyone to recognise that, while our troops are coming home at the end of 2014, our commitment to Afghanistan will continue: not just our commitment to its armed forces but, with more than $100 million a year, our commitment to its aid and future development. We will need many more brave people such as Del Singh to go on working with the Afghan Government to deliver for the Afghan people.
Q14. Formula 1 team McLaren is the largest employer in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating it on the hundreds of new jobs it is creating locally, on the global sell-out of its P1 sports car and on the £50 million of exports it will achieve this year in China? Surely these are yet more examples of the success of British business and of our long-term economic plan. (902126)
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for McLaren and the work of Ron Dennis, who helpfully brought one of his cars to our great meeting in China on encouraging investment into the UK. Of course, this is the very highest end of British motor manufacturing, but it is worth recognising that a vehicle rolls off a British production line every 20 seconds. The British motor industry is doing well, this Government are backing it and long may that continue.
May I also thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their kind words about my friend Del Singh, who devoted his too-short life to working for peace and justice, not least in Palestine and Afghanistan?
The number of new affordable home starts has fallen by a third since 2010. Why is that? Is it in part because Tory councils, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, are demolishing council homes—the most affordable type of housing—and selling the land for exclusively private development?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman has got his figures wrong. The number of housing starts is 89% higher than the trough Labour left us in 2009. We have already delivered more than 100,000 affordable homes and will deliver 170,000 in total by 2015, and the rate of affordable house building will soon be the highest it has been for two decades, which is a massive contrast with Labour, under which housing waiting lists almost doubled. If he does not believe me, he might want to listen to this quotation—and guess who it is from:
“We refused to prioritise the building of new social housing”.
Who said that? Anyone? It was the Leader of the Opposition. Thank you very much.
Q15. May I commend the Prime Minister for his firm action against unscrupulous payday lenders and for driving the credit union expansion project? Will he now urge more employers to consider partnering with their local credit union so that many more people can access affordable credit and convenient savings direct through the payroll? (902127)
I commend my hon. Friend for his consistent campaigning and speaking out on this issue. We are taking the tough action needed on payday lending, but, as he says, the positive side of this is that we need to expand credit unions faster, and we should be looking at all the ways that can be done, including through other organisations partnering with credit unions and encouraging their work.
A report on the food aid crisis in the UK was commissioned by the Government last February, was given to Ministers early last summer, and yet is still being suppressed. What is the Prime Minister afraid of, and why does he not now publish and be damned?
What the Government are publishing today is the fact that hundreds of thousands more people are getting into work and able to provide for their families and get the peace of mind and security that people in this country want. That is what we are publishing today, and that is real progress for our nation.
Some 45% of people do not pay their utility bills by direct debit, and 1 million of them do not have bank accounts, yet energy companies charge, on average, £115 extra for people who do not pay by direct debit, hitting pensioners and the poorest the most. Will my right hon. Friend look into this, given that the Government are doing everything possible by cutting energy bills by £50?
I am certainly happy to look into this issue. We have taken steps to compel the energy companies to put people on the lowest tariffs, and we want to ensure that everyone can take advantage of that. As my hon. Friend said, we have also cut energy bills by £50 by rolling back the cost of some of the green measures, and we should continue to make this market more competitive, to give more choice to consumers and to encourage switching, which happened a huge amount towards the end of last year and has saved many people many hundreds of pounds.
Public Services (Ownership and User Involvement) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Caroline Lucas, supported by Mr John Leech, Katy Clark, John McDonnell, Grahame M. Morris, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Jeremy Corbyn and Ms Margaret Ritchie, presented a Bill to promote public ownership of public services; to introduce a presumption in favour of service provision by public sector and not-for-profit entities; and to put in place mechanisms to increase the accountability, transparency and public control of public services, including those operated by private companies.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 160).
Animal Welfare (Electronic Collars)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use on dogs of any electronic collar designed to administer an electric shock; and for connected purposes.
It is claimed that the United Kingdom is a nation of animal lovers, so it is hard to imagine that we would show our affection for our pets by submitting them to electric shocks. However, it remains permissible under the law to sell and use electric shock collars on dogs, and it is believed that there are over 300,000 such devices in use.
Electric shock collars are worn around a dog’s neck and work either by a remote control with various settings that, when pressed, deliver an electric shock to a dog’s neck or by automatically delivering an electric shock to a dog when it barks. These collars are intended to train dogs to respond for fear of further punishment, with the dog receiving a shock when it does not perform what is asked of it, rather than out of a willingness to obey. This is not the type of training method that the Kennel Club endorses and certainly not a practice to which I would subject my Jack Russell, Maximus.
The Kennel Club and the Dogs Trust take the view that unwanted behaviour in dogs is best resolved by positive training methods. As such, my Bill is designed to ban the use of electric shock collars as they are not appropriate devices. Scientific learning theory dictates that if a dog has a strong desire to indulge in what it believes is pleasurable behaviour, any negative training method employed to prevent this has to be far more unpleasant for them than their natural behaviour is pleasant—it has to be extremely aversive. If an action brings about a positive outcome for a dog, that action will be repeated, as it is perceived to be beneficial.
Secondly, electronic training devices fail to address underlying behavioural problems in dogs, and seek to alter their behaviour by introducing a fear of further punishment rather than a willingness to obey. Any change in behaviour would result only from the dog perceiving the shock as painful. An electric shock collar hurts the animal because it has to; if it did not hurt, it would not work.
Electronic training devices also cause further behavioural problems. Dogs have a natural in-built flight or fight response when put in a situation that causes pain and fear, meaning that they either do anything they can to get away from the source of pain or become aggressive in response. Shock collars can thus cause further behavioural problems in addition to the ones owners are attempting to control. As a dog will have no idea what caused the pain, it is far more likely to associate it with something in its immediate environment rather than with its behaviour at the time. This is why there are cases of dogs attacking other dogs, their owners or other animals close by at the time of the shock, as the dog develops “superstitious” fears to things in the environment that were heard or seen at the time of the shock.
The most common defence for using electric shock collars is that they train dogs to stop chasing sheep. However, it is important to note that it is virtually impossible to use an electric shock collar to train a dog not to chase sheep. The theory behind the training method is that the dog will believe that the sheep gave it an electric shock and will thus not chase sheep again. Professional dog trainers claim, however, that success would be based on luck rather than judgment, as it is impossible to know at which level the collar should be set when the dog is near the sheep. In order for the dog to think the sheep shocked it, the trainer would have to wait until the dog was very near the sheep; otherwise, the dog would think the shock came from something else in its immediate environment. If the trainer waited until the dog was very close to the sheep and the setting of the collar was too low, there would be a high chance that the shock would not prevent the dog from worrying the sheep. Similarly, the collar could be set at the highest setting, but have no effect on the dog’s behaviour because the dog is already so aroused by chasing the sheep that it will continue to chase, no matter what shock it received.
Under the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953, a person in control of a dog worrying livestock on agricultural land is guilty of an offence. Under this Act, dogs must be kept on leads or under close control. In reality, dogs exercised near livestock should always be kept on leads—it is as simple as that; there should be no need for an electric shock collar. Other positive training tools and methods can produce dogs that are trained just as quickly and reliably—with absolutely no fear, pain or potential damage to the relationship between dog and handler.
Police dogs, armed forces dogs and assistance dogs are never trained using electric shock training devices. On 2 December, the Minister responded to my parliamentary written question about what progress, following the publication of research funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, had been made on banning electric shock collars on dogs. Having acknowledged that
“electronic training aids can have a negative impact on the welfare of some dogs”,
the Minister added:
“the evidence from these studies is not strong enough to support a ban under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The Government therefore has no plans to ban such devices in England. However, we have asked the industry to draw up guidance for dog owners and trainers advising how to use e-collars properly and to develop a manufacturers’ charter to ensure any e-collars on sale are made to high standards.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 511W.]
The findings of the recent publication of studies AW1402 and AW1402a greatly favour elimination of the use of electric shock collars. The first DEFRA project concluded that there was great variability in the way in which electric shock collars were used on dogs, and showed that owners tended not to read or follow the advice given in the instructions. The main conclusion was that there were significant negative welfare consequences for some of the dogs that had been trained with electric shock collars in the study.
The second study was on electric shock collars on dogs by trained professionals according to industry standards. The Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association was asked to design the training protocol and to recommend industry-trained professionals to take part in the study. The research project concluded that there was enough evidence, in the form of both behavioural and psychological changes, to support the argument that the use of electric shock collars, even by industry-trained professionals, still had a negative impact on dog welfare.
It therefore remains the view of the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust, the British Veterinary Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that electric shock collars are negative training devices that have a detrimental impact on dog welfare. My Bill would ban their use, which has already been banned in Wales, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Dr Matthew Offord, John Stevenson, Jim Fitzpatrick, Simon Wright, Zac Goldsmith, Mr David Amess, Martin Caton, Joan Walley, Andrew Rosindell and Mr John Baron present the Bill.
Dr Matthew Offord accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February and to be printed (Bill 159).
Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 3 September 2013 (Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill: Programme) and 8 October 2013 (Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill: Programme (No. 2)).
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Any Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
2. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.
3. The proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
4. The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
Amendments to clause 2, amendments to schedule 1, amendments to schedule 2, remaining amendments to part 1
Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments
Amendments to clause 26, amendments to schedule 3, amendments to clauses 27 to 32, amendments to schedule 4, remaining amendments to part 2, amendments to part 4, remaining amendments to the Bill
Four hours after the commencement of those proceedings
5. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
6. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Tom Brake.)
Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill
[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, on the Government’s lobbying Bill: follow up, HC 891.]
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 13, 14, 88 and 100. If the House agrees to the amendments, I shall cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
Meaning of consultant lobbying
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government motion to disagree with Lords amendment 1, and Government amendments (b) and (c) in lieu.
Lords amendments 2 to 4, 101 to 103, 5 and 6.
Lords amendment 7, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 8 to 15.
I am delighted to initiate the debate.
The Bill has a chequered history as regards Parliament’s involvement in it so far, which, I am sorry to say, has demonstrated in spades the contempt that the Executive have for the legislature. I would like to expand on that just a little before I get into the detail of the amendments.
The contempt started when this Bill first came to the House, and is continuing to the very end of the process without relenting. We started this Bill having had some pre-legislative scrutiny of what we all called the lobbying Bill, only to find that one day before the summer recess a mega-Bill was presented, two thirds of which had not even seen the light of day in public let alone been discussed, analysed or subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by this House. That is our job, but we were prevented from doing it because this Bill was presented far too late in the day, one day before a summer recess. Just to add insult to injury, it was then stuffed into the parliamentary sausage machine one week after we returned from the summer break.
That story has been repeated throughout the passage of the Bill. One might have thought that, even if only for the sake of window-dressing, there would be the odd pause, the odd break, the odd extension, or a gap between consideration by their lordships and this House, but not a bit of it. That demonstrates the way the Government treat this House, particularly when they have an embarrassment such as this Bill in front of them.
Mr Speaker is an authority on these matters and he will correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that it was possible to have a shorter period between consideration yesterday in the second Chamber and consideration today in Parliament. Could the House have squeezed that period even more? Could we have met last night to discuss this?
The Government had a pause in the other place, which I welcome. Six weeks is not wonderful and my Select Committee called for six months—we called for the job to be done properly. We were grateful for those six weeks, however, but there was no opportunity for colleagues in this House to consider what their lordships had said and read it carefully, because, as we know, amendments were being made up to the very last moment in the second Chamber. None of us had that opportunity—Front Benchers, colleagues who are interested in this issue and above all Back Benchers, and, may I say, the Select Committee, which seeks to represent Back Benchers and which has the legitimacy of being a Select Committee elected by Members from all parts of this House in a secret ballot, with a Chair elected by the whole House. Despite that legitimacy, none of us was allowed to see any paperwork or the Order Paper after that consideration in the second Chamber yesterday. It is an absolute disgrace, and it cannot be allowed to continue if we are to have any reputation in this House for doing our job on accountability and scrutiny effectively.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the process of this Bill and congratulate him and his Committee on the tremendous job they have done in turning round a report overnight—and under huge pressure, I am quite sure. Does he agree that that pressure has extended not just to those of us in this place, but to those who will be directly affected by this in civil society, and who have also had to work overnight to analyse the Lords amendments and come back to us with their perspectives on them today?
As there is no good will whatever from the Executive and there is no effective process for this House other than to be told what to do and have its agenda written for it on a daily basis by the Executive, then, yes, we rely on the good will of other people. My Select Committee—a number of colleagues who serve on it are present—relies upon its Clerks, who have done an absolutely stunning job. My own Clerk was at the printers last night producing a report for Members of all parts of this House until gone 9 o’clock, and I sent that report to every Member of the House at 11.20 pm.
Is this a trivial, pointless Bill or is it an important Bill? Is it appropriate that the Chair of a Select Committee is sending a report to Members of this House just before midnight for consideration the very next day? I do not think the Government have sent anything to Members, but they are asking their colleagues to walk through the Lobby on these issues. The way the House is being treated is outrageous—again. We can all get puffed up and annoyed by stuff, but this is serious. This is about the way in which the Bill will shape the next general election and how our charities and voluntary organisations will participate in our political life. This is not a trivial matter. It is not as though 95% of people vote—the numbers voting creep down ever lower. People say, “You’re not worth going out and voting for, any of you.” And then we do this.
If this is the way we treat the important topic of lobbying—“the next big scandal”, as the Prime Minister called it—and thousands of individual charities, it speaks ill of this place and I think that we can do better.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments in opening the debate on these important amendments. He has rightly outlined the anger that is felt on this side of the House, by groups in civil society and by our constituents. I have been contacted by more than 100 of my constituents about the Bill and they are looking to this Chamber to make representations on their behalf about how they can participate in our democracy in the future. I see this process as an affront to our democracy. Does my hon. Friend agree?
It is a continuing affront to our democracy, and I hope that Ministers—and future Ministers—will take this to heart and consider how the process of effectively scrutinising legislation can be amended.
I will now advertise another report by my Committee on the quality of legislation. It suggests, for example, mandatory pre-legislative scrutiny of all Bills, apart from emergency ones. That is not from a desire to delay any legislation. I believe that in our form of democracy, the Government should get their business through. The contribution that Parliament makes is to ensure that legislation is more effective. Otherwise, we have to come back until we get it right—in this case, after the next general election. It does not save time to keep coming back to the House, as we did—infamously—on criminal justice Bills under the last Government, tinkering year after year and with Ministers getting the prestige of having a Bill before the House. Instead, Governments should listen to the House and get legislation closer to being right.
I agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that pressure from Back Benchers on both sides of the House will force our Front Benchers to agree a better process of involving Parliament in partnership with the Executive.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom I consider to be my friend, although technically he is not so in this House. I am grateful for all the work he, his Committee and the Clerks have done and the briefings they have sent us. I, too, am concerned about the shortage of time. How long does the hon. Gentleman think we should have had between the other place considering this matter and it coming before us?
Given that the Government want to get the Bill implemented in order to influence the expenditure limits in the next general election, I do not maintain that it should be held over for months and months. Hon. Members may wish to read the report from my Select Committee, which we produced last night, starting at 6.30 pm, and which I delivered by e-mail to every Member just before midnight. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are prepared to say, “These guys are serious, and we should at least have a look at their report”, I suggest that we should have at least two days to read the papers and to table measured amendments.
Thanks to the great assistance of the Clerks, I was able to table several amendments on behalf of my Committee last night, but I imagine that few hon. Members know their way around the Order Paper well enough to do that. The Table Office was open until 10 this morning, which means about two working hours for colleagues to read the report, listen to the Government, read the proceedings in the other place and decide whether to support an all-party view—as expressed in the report—and to table, as some have managed to do, their own amendments. The way we conduct our business helps us to get better law. It means that what we produce will stand the test of time, rather than need reviewing or stitching back together when the gaps appear over the next few years.
I add my thanks to those of hon. Members who have thanked my hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee have done overnight. As a relatively new Member, I find it an extraordinary abuse of process for the Bill to be conducted in this way—I read the report at 12.15 last night, and I tried to do it justice, given the effort that had been made.
Like many other hon. Members, I struggled to balance two or three other responsibilities this morning, including attending Committees, with doing justice to this extraordinary Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot go on in this way?
Indeed. All parties are now, for the first time in a fixed-term Parliament, entering a prolonged discussion of policy and undertaking a manifesto process that will no longer take just 28 days and be decided only by party leaders. We will all have a chance to influence the process. If hon. Members care about Parliament, whatever their party, and want to make it relevant to the electorate, who hold us in contempt, I urge them to propose ways in which the House can make a contribution to our democratic process. We would all be stronger for that and start to win back some of the reputation that we have lost in recent years.
I, too, commend my hon. Friend and his Committee for all the work that they have done to ensure proper scrutiny of the Bill, but he might be being a little too unfair on the Government. It is not my usual practice to defend Ministers, but one of the successes that the Bill has had in its progress through both Houses is that it has unified the transparency campaigners and the lobbying industry, both of which agree that the Bill is chronically bad and will make things worse not better.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about my Committee, which has members from all parts of the House. I thought that he was going to steal one of my best lines—that it is quite an achievement for the Government to get the League Against Cruel Sports and the Countryside Alliance on the same side and working in unison. He makes a serious point: there are people out there who can help us to make a contribution, and they appeared before us as witnesses, but that process has been completely ignored. At least we were able to do some serious work on the lobbying aspect of the Bill. We were able to conjure a consensus between people who came from different ends of the spectrum, and that could have been the first step in making the lobbying aspect of the Bill effective, but it has been cast aside.
The sad thing is that what has happened throws back in people’s faces—including even the Prime Minister—the contention that lobbying is the next big scandal waiting to happen. As a parliamentarian, I want to help the Prime Minister sort that issue out. It was in the coalition agreement, and both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledged to do this, as we all did. So why are we not using the processes of the House to reach a result that will stick for a long, long time?
I agree that the Government have timetabled this Bill in an entirely shoddy and inappropriate manner; that concern has been expressed across the House. The previous Labour Government got up to similar antics, and it is simply not appropriate for parliamentarians to allow Governments to pursue the lowest common denominator in this way. I hope that we will pursue this issue as parliamentarians to ensure that Bills are tabled in the proper manner that the hon. Gentleman has described.
It is a fact of life that Oppositions become Governments and rapidly leave behind their commitments to help the House to become part of the democratic process. I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that the coalition parties’ manifesto processes are clear about the changes that we want to see.
We are now being given only four hours in which to discuss these matters. There was an unprecedented pause in the legislation, albeit only for a few weeks, to allow proper discussion to take place in the second Chamber, yet we are now being given only four hours in which to synthesise that work that happened in the other place. No one would argue that that is appropriate or adequate. We have not even had a chance to discuss the timetable, as the programme motion was not debateable. We have had no chance even to make this point, other than through the generosity of the Chair in allowing me to talk about it now. Technically, the House has not been allowed to debate the inadequacy of having only four hours for debate at the end of this Bill.
I have a petition here from 190,553 people who object to the Bill. Does my hon. Friend think that those people will have any understanding of why the Leader of the House is forcing this business through in less than four hours?
People out there do not have any such understanding, but I will go further and say that even some of the charities and voluntary sector organisations involved do not understand it. Indeed, I will go even closer to home and ask how many Members of Parliament understand how this process has actually worked over the past 24 hours. Do they understand how a Bill can be debated in the second Chamber and then pushed back here and given two working hours for consideration of the work that the other place has carried out at some length? That work, as well as the work of the commission that was set up by people who are annoyed about this process, and all the evidence taking have all gone by the board.
This process is holding the House in contempt, and that needs to be recognised not just by the people in the lobbying industry but by the more than 10,000 organisations under the umbrella of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Those organisations come from all parts of the political spectrum. I imagine that every Member in the Chamber is associated with a trust, charity or voluntary organisation that will feel the impact of the Bill. Those organisations have been treated in a way that we should not regard as acceptable.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the NCVO. The sister organisation in Wales is the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which has recently pointed out that while there could be two elections in England over a two-year span, Wales and Scotland could have three sets of elections in such a period owing to the devolution arrangements. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem could therefore be much worse there?
My hon. Friend is absolutely on the mark, as he normally is on these matters.
This situation is completely unacceptable. It makes the case very eloquently for the establishment of a House business Committee, but I am sorry to say that that proposal has been rejected by those on the Government Front Bench, even though it was in the coalition agreement to which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats signed up. The Labour Opposition also signed up to the proposal, but it will not now be implemented. I cannot imagine any meeting of such a Committee, with parliamentary Back-Bench representation, that would not have identified this particular issue as an unacceptable way in which to treat the House. It would not veto the agenda for the next week, or anything ludicrous of that kind; it would raise such matters with the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House in private and say that there must be a better way of considering this kind of legislation. The Wright Committee proposed the setting up of a House business Committee, and its absence reflects badly on those who promised to bring that forward within the first three years of this Government.
As a fellow cricketer and someone who also believes in proper parliamentary scrutiny, I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. However, we have only two hours left, so will he now tell us his views on the amendments? Otherwise, we will have no time to discuss what the people outside want us to talk about.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a sound point, and I hope that he and the House will forgive me, but it is important that people outside the House should understand why we do not have a full day to discuss this and why we have not had two days to consider the key issues. Those people who wish to campaign on the Bill did not know how to respond or how to contact their Member of Parliament. They did not know what the issues might be.
I came into the Chamber rather hurriedly this morning because, even minutes before I was due to get to my feet to speak, I did not know which matters might be votable today. I did not know which amendments might be discussed. I have been in this place for 26 years, and I know my way round the Order Paper, but even experienced parliamentarians did not know exactly how today’s business would be conducted, or how the amendments might be grouped. Mr Speaker, you have had a discussion about that within the past couple of hours. How is a constituent of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), for example, who cares about their charity and wants to get hold of the right hon. Gentleman, supposed to know what is going on? They might have wanted to ask him to listen to their points and to make a case on behalf of the local charity that they represent.
However, I shall take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s chiding, in order to pre-empt your own, Mr Speaker. I shall move on to the specific matter of the amendments that I tabled on behalf of my all-party Select Committee late yesterday, not long before the debate began today. Our main amendment to this part of the Bill, on lobbying, is amendment (a). It deals with the question of who is being lobbied. Our original report found that it was ludicrous not to include senior civil servants among those who should declare clearly, honestly and transparently that they had been lobbied.
I remember the debates on this matter well; members of all parties contributed to them. I will not go over that ground again, other than to say that a number of us—myself included—said that people never sought to lobby a permanent secretary. We noted that although getting in to see a permanent secretary involved a feat of genius, it would actually not do much good. That was because the permanent secretary would take the matter to the director-general who, in turn, would go to the desk officer. If people want to get something done—on nursery care, for example, or on cycle lanes—they do not go to the permanent secretary. They certainly do not go to them if big money is involved. They of course go to senior civil servants, which my Select Committee defined as being at grade 5 and above, and in our view those senior civil servants should be included in the group that is required to make a declaration in respect of being lobbied. That is self-evident and sensible. Excluding the very people who are lobbied the most in the Government will render the Bill an absolute laughing stock. We all know the truth of this matter.
I completely concur with my hon. Friend’s point. Speaking as a former special adviser and a lobbyist for a charity, I can confirm that senior civil servants are exactly the kind of people that I was speaking to, although even special advisers get very little time with permanent secretaries. My hon. Friend is making his point well, and I hope that the Government are listening to what he is saying.
A number of expert witnesses from the lobbying business came to see the Committee, at our request, and I will read a quote from just one. The Whitehouse Consultancy, a public affairs company, said:
“Our clients…want to develop relationships with other officials and policymakers, such as those at Director-General level or below”.
That view was repeated over and over again; I have a list here, but I will not bore you by reading it into the record, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend makes a succinct point: those people—the doers; the people who are going to write those background papers and feed a yes or no recommendation to a Minister—perhaps even above Ministers, and certainly above permanent secretaries, should be first on the list.
I join other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have thanked my hon. Friend and his Committee for the excellent work they have done. In his examination of the type of senior civil servants who are lobbied, did he note the reports of the lobbying on fracking and shale gas of senior officials from the Department of Energy and Climate Change? Apparently, they discussed, over hospitality and via e-mail, lines to take, so that the same solid response came from government—from senior civil servants—and the shale gas companies. That is a perfect example of what he is talking about.
My hon. Friend has been persistent in raising these matters in the House, and I bow to her expertise on them. I am sure that we all have particular things that have interested us as Members over the years where it has been essential that we have such access. I have no problem in listing those things, and I hope that my constituents might be impressed if I were to do so. On the basis of honesty and transparency, all those things should certainly be clear for everyone to see, to make sure that our government is conducted without even the slightest whiff of impropriety.
Further to the previous intervention, does the hon. Gentleman recognise that we have also had recent reports about the Government’s change on minimum alcohol pricing, which showed that layered lobbying on a corporate basis by that industry had been going on? Surely the amendment he has tabled on behalf of the Committee would at least bring into the Bill’s scope all the civil servants who were part of that layered lobbying. Unfortunately, it would not bring into the Bill’s scope the very people who were doing that lobbying.
If we had more than four hours and we could use the four hours on only this amendment, I imagine I could provoke every Member in the Chamber to recall a similar story or experience to that of my Select Committee colleague and my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley). We are all aware of such things and they are legion. If we look back at our debates in Committee and on Report, we see that people from all parts of the House made the exact same points.
I would like to press the amendment to a vote, as is appropriate. I do not anticipate that we will win on this one. I imagine that those who support the Select Committee would win handsomely were there to be a secret ballot. The rational arguments for including senior civil servants are missed only by the Government Front-Bench team; they are not missed by Back Benchers and members of other parties. With great optimism, therefore, I await the Deputy Leader of the House accepting my amendment, in which case there will be no need for a vote. I understand that the Government have moved on including special advisers, and I will listen with great care about whether they will indeed be included and how that may be done. I would welcome that, and I hope it will mean that we do not have a vote on the matter.
A lot of amendments are on the Order Paper, but I hope that we will spend most of the four hours discussing the annoyance and anger that is out there about this flawed and failing Bill, rather than spending all our time walking round in circles in the Lobby being beaten by the same number. I am afraid that this Bill and part 1 of it do not do what they were meant to do—what they said on the tin. They do not deal with what the public felt outraged about; they do not help to bring lobbying under control. They do not do what the House felt was appropriate in terms of bringing lobbying back into the mainstream. They do not do what all three parties committed to at the last general election, which was to regulate lobbying effectively. They do not do what the Prime Minister said in respect of addressing the potential for the “next big scandal” in British politics.
On that basis, unless I hear good news from the Deputy Leader of the House, I would ask colleagues in all parts of the House to register their protest, not least at how we have been treated in our discussions on the Bill, by voting for the amendment that stands in my name as Chair of the Select Committee. I hope we will get the Government, even at this point, to see sense.
I ask colleagues to disagree with Lords amendment 1, and to support amendments (b) and (c) in lieu. I hope the House will also be persuaded to disagree with amendment (a), which was tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I wish to say at the outset that I cannot agree with his comments about the lack of consultation. If he looks at what has happened since this Bill got under way and, for example, at the ministerial quarterly reports, he will see the extent of consultation that has taken place on the Bill. The fact that many of today’s amendments have been the subject of consultation in this place and in the House of Lords, and have reflected to a great extent the concerns expressed by a range of organisations, underlines the fact that substantial consultation has taken place on this subject. Indeed, many of those changes are inspired by his Committee.
I must also say that repeatedly stating that charities will not be able to campaign on policy matters, as we have heard Opposition Members do, does not make it true.
On the process by which we are having to deal with this Bill, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Parliament is being made a laughing stock by the fact that we are trying to concertina such a complex issue into such a short time? Does that not undermine any credibility this Government had? They are supposed to be championing the big society, but they are trying to muzzle it, both in the Bill and in the process they are setting out here today.
First, it is not unusual for things to proceed at this pace. I should also point out that what we are supposed to be focusing on in this debate is a limited number of amendments that have come from the Lords and some amendments in lieu that the Government are proposing—that is today’s subject. I do not want to make too long a speech, because I can see from the requests for interventions that a lot of hon. Members want to speak on this group.
Amendment 1 was moved on Report in the House of Lords by Lord Tyler and was agreed to by a majority of 18 votes. The amendment would extend the scope of the register to those who lobby special advisers, in addition to those who lobby Ministers and permanent secretaries. We debated this issue ourselves when discussing the amendments tabled in Committee by the Opposition, the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and other Members. During that debate, the Government made it clear that the register was designed to complement the existing government transparency regime and to address a specific problem.
It may help if I first remind the House of the context for the part 1 provisions—the unique open government context in which they have been developed. Transparency is at the heart of this Government’s agenda. We are opening up government and the public sector, and by doing so we are enhancing transparency, participation and accountability. [Interruption.] The noises from Opposition Members need to be quiescent for just a couple of seconds because I want to outline the things the Government have done since 2010 to open up transparency. We have published unprecedented amounts of information about decision makers and decision making. Since 2010, we have proactively and regularly published the following details: Ministers’ private interests; Ministers and permanent secretaries’ meetings with external organisations or individuals; Ministers and special advisers’ meetings with media proprietors, editors, and senior executives; all gifts of hospitality received by Ministers, permanent secretaries and special advisers; ministerial overseas travel; all official and charity receptions held at No. 10; and those who have received hospitality at Chequers and Chevening.
Will the Minister explain when the Government will release the vital information on exchanges between President Bush and the then Prime Minister of this country as it is delaying the Chilcot inquiry and has delayed it for the past three years?
The hon. Gentleman must be familiar with the Chilcot inquiry website, so he can access that. I am sure that Mr Speaker will not allow me to take this debate on to the subject of Chilcot when it is very much a focused debate on the amendments under consideration.
The list I have just read out is impressive in terms of opening up transparency. In addition, we have published the names, job titles and pay bands of all civil servants earning more than £80,000, and the job titles and pay bands of all other roles. Such initiatives are shining the light of transparency on to the actions of decision makers and are empowering citizens to hold politicians and public bodies to account. Despite being recognised leaders in open government, we are not complacent. We heard from colleagues in both Houses that there is more we can do to extend further transparency in Government and the public sector. We listened carefully to those concerns and, in response to my colleague, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, we made a commitment to improving the accessibility of Government transparency information. Specifically, the Government committed to ensuring better co-ordination of the publication of datasets so that all returns within a quarter can be found on one page.
We will improve the access to and the presentation of that data, including by improving the consistency of presentation and titling. We will also seek to ensure greater consistency in the content of departmental reporting and to include the subject of meetings. Finally we will ensure that the Government.UK transparency pages contain a link to the statutory register of lobbyists so that the data can be easily cross-referenced.
Surely the Minister recognises that the first port of call for many lobbyists is not the Minister or the permanent secretary but the political adviser in that Department or other civil servants. Is that not the gaping hole in this lobbying Bill? It does nothing to tackle the real lobbying that is taking place.
The Government are focusing on Ministers and permanent secretaries because of their key decision-making roles. Ultimately, they make the decisions in Government. We will of course come to the issue of special advisers.
The measures will further improve the transparency of decision makers. It is equally important that the actions of those who seek to influence decision makers are also transparent. We have been clear that lobbying plays a vital role in policy making, ensuring that Ministers hear a full range of views from those who will be affected by Government decisions, particularly in the more participative and open policy-making environment that we are promoting. It is crucial that the fluency of this dialogue is protected.
Did the Minister not hear the point I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) about recent reports based on freedom of information requests of senior civil servants in the Department of Energy and Climate Change meeting lobbyists from the shale gas industry to give them lines to take? I am talking about hospitality, meetings and e-mails. That is not balanced; that is not hearing both sides of the argument. If that is the relationship between DECC civil servants and the shale gas companies, does the Minister not understand that there is no balance in that whatever?
I am afraid that I am not aware of the details to which the hon. Lady has referred. Again, I restate the fact that this is about ensuring there is transparency around the people who make the decisions in Government, and that is perfectly appropriate.
By publishing details of Ministers’ and permanent secretaries’ meetings with external organisations and individuals, we have enhanced the transparency of that dialogue, without diminishing its vibrancy. There is one element of the dialogue, however, that remains potentially hidden and that is when organisations or individuals make communications to Ministers and permanent secretaries via consultant lobbyists. That is because it is not always clear which third-party interests are being represented by such lobbyists. The provisions for a statutory register of consultant lobbyists provided for by part 1 of the Bill address that specific problem. They will identify the interests represented by consultant lobbyists by requiring them to disclose details of their clients on a publicly available register.
There has been some criticism of the Government’s proposals for a register, but there has been no consensus on what should replace it. I recognise that some in this place have suggested that the scope of the register should be broader to capture all those who communicate with Government and require them to disclose extensive information regarding their activities and finances. There has, however, been no clear articulation of the problem that such proposals would address.
Having chided Opposition Members for complaining about the lack of time, saying that they should concentrate on the actual amendment, perhaps the Minister himself could come to the amendment rather than reprising his Second Reading speech.
I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that that is precisely what I am doing. The failure to make the case for a higher-regulatory model has meant that neither House felt it appropriate to extend the scope of the Government’s provisions. That is not to say, however, that each place has not made very real contributions to ensuring that we deliver robust and effective provisions for a statutory register of lobbyists. Following the recommendations of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and the Standards and Privileges Committee, the provisions were amended to ensure absolute clarity regarding the register’s application to parliamentarians. We also amended the Bill to ensure that the register does not impose disproportionate burdens on the smallest businesses. Further amendments were made in the House of Lords and many of those reflected discussion and debate within this Chamber.
Lord Tyler’s, amendment, which was agreed to by just 18 votes, would extend the scope of the register to those who lobby special advisers. I understand why he was seeking to make that change. However, it is the coalition Government’s view that it would dissociate the register from the clearly articulated problem that it is designed to address. The amendment tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee would further detach the register from its objective, by extending the scope of the register to those who lobby senior civil servants.
The register is designed to complement the system by which Ministers and permanent secretaries publish their meetings and to address a specific and discrete problem within that context. Our view is that to extend the scope of the register to other public officials would provide no appreciable benefits because they are not required to publish their diaries.
Yes, we accept that lobbyists make communications to Government other than directly to Ministers and permanent secretaries, but ultimately it is Ministers and permanent secretaries who are responsible for the decisions taken within their Departments. Lord Tyler suggests that the register should apply to those who lobby special advisers. Special advisers may provide advice, but they are not decision makers. It is Ministers, not special advisers, who are ultimately responsible for the actions of their Departments; and it is therefore only right that Ministers, not special advisers, are the main focus of the meeting reporting system and the register.
The Minister will know as he has been in this place a while—I am a relatively new MP; I have been here only since May 2010—that when we see a Minister, as we often do in Portcullis House or around this building, they often have, on their right arm, a special adviser. That special adviser is with them morning, noon and night, and also has meetings in the evenings and at weekends. The idea that we can dissociate that special adviser from the Minister is frankly ridiculous. I cannot understand the Minister’s rationale.
I can reassure the hon. Lady that I have not finished my comments in relation to special advisers. There is an amendment in lieu to which I am about to refer. Ultimately, whether or not there are contacts with the special adviser, it is not the special adviser who signs off the decision; it is the Minister.
The description I would use is glued at the hip. Coming to this place as an outsider, my observation is that special advisers are absolutely key to decision making. If our aim is genuinely to improve transparency, we will miss an important opportunity if we do not include special advisers.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I have not finished commenting on special advisers, so perhaps I should pursue that. There might be further interventions, but let us wait and see.
Special advisers are defined by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which includes the requirement that they are a person
“appointed to assist a Minister of the Crown after being selected for the appointment by that Minister personally”.
The Act also provides for a statutory code for special advisers that makes it clear that they may not authorise the expenditure of public funds, exercise any power in relation to the management of any part of the civil service of the state or otherwise exercise any statutory or prerogative power.
As the code makes clear, the employment of special advisers adds a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers. They are an additional resource for the Minister, providing assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available from the permanent civil service. I must restate this: unlike a Minister or permanent secretary, a special adviser is not a decision maker, even if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) says, they are attached to the Minister’s hip. We are aware, however, that there are those in this House who agree—[Interruption.] Members need to listen.
We are aware that some Members agree with the conclusion of the House of Lords that communications with special advisers should be captured. Indeed, many Liberal Democrat peers and Members of Parliament agree that they should be captured, but no amendments were tabled to extend the scope of the register in such a way when the issue was discussed in this House. In the House of Lords, Lord Tyler’s amendment was agreed to, but by a small majority.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the third-party register of lobbyists focuses specifically on Ministers or permanent secretaries. That is what is before us today.
We are not persuaded that the calls to capture communications with special advisers are sufficiently strong to justify amending the Bill in the manner that Lord Tyler proposes. We are, however, aware that the discussion about including such communications within the scope of the register is likely to continue. We therefore propose as a contingency an amendment in lieu that would introduce a power for the Minister to amend the definition of consultant lobbying provided for by clause 2 so that it could subsequently, if necessary, include communications with special advisers. Such a power would enable Ministers to extend the scope as suggested if and when they were persuaded of the case for doing so without the need for primary legislation. It should therefore assuage the concerns of those who have asked that we do not eliminate the possibility of expansion of the scope if it is justified in future.
I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Lady an answer to that question immediately. However, if she wants, she can do what a number of newspapers have done when they have produced so-called scoops. They have gone through the quarterly ministerial reports, looked at the meetings registered and added up the number of meetings with the permanent secretary. That information is there if she wants to pursue the question.
On the question of the definition of “special adviser”, will the definition the Deputy Leader of the House has cited include the new class of policy advisers who, we are told, will be “specialist” rather than “special” advisers and will be appointed by Ministers to move policy along in significant areas?
The argument so far has concentrated on any lobbying of the final decision maker, but does the Deputy Leader of the House not agree that the process of eventually making the decision is equally important? That starts with senior civil servants and goes through special advisers, and is as important as any lobbying of the final decision maker.
I think the hon. Gentleman is asking me to require the Government to publish all the internal workings of government, but that is not done by any Government. My view is that the Government’s proposed amendments in lieu will be a pragmatic response to the Lords’ concerns.
Let me turn to the amendment tabled by the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. I should remind the House that we have discussed the matter and that no relevant amendments were moved. Similar amendments were moved in the House of Lords, and the extension of the register to public officials such as civil servants was rejected by a substantial majority of 51. As I have outlined, the register is intended to complement the existing Government transparency regime. Both systems are intended to enhance the transparency of key decision makers—Ministers and permanent secretaries—and those who communicate with them.
It is somewhat unfair of the Minister to rely on the fact that no amendments to expand the scope of the register to include special advisers were moved in this House. Many amendments were tabled that would have extended the scope to include special advisers and senior civil servants, and it was only the exigencies of time that meant that Members did not move them, as they would have lost time for debate by calling a Division.
Had we had the opportunity to discuss amendments on civil servants, for instance, we could have considered the impact, the scale—that is, how many thousands of civil servants it would have included—and the potential costs associated with such an extension. In some ways, I would have welcomed that.
As we have previously outlined, there is little value in extending the scope of the register to those who are not required to publish their meeting details. We are not persuaded that the introduction of meeting reporting obligations for senior civil servants is appropriate. Such a system would result in an unnecessary, disproportionate and unhelpful administrative burden and the cost to the public purse could not be justified in the light of the limited transparency benefits that would be achieved.
Given that amendments (b) and (c) were made available only at 11 o'clock this morning, it would be really helpful if the House could understand the differences between the proposals of the amendments in lieu and those in Lords amendment 1. The House deserves a clear explanation.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The clear explanation is that our amendments in lieu provide an opportunity for such a change at a point in the future, if the debate leads to a consensus on proceeding with the reporting of special advisers’ meetings. That is what we are facilitating. Who knows? A future Labour Government might well have to make that decision, and it would be interesting to know whether they would want to take it.
There are about 5,000 senior civil servants in the UK. Is there really public interest in seeing the details of all their meetings with external organisations? [Interruption.] Surely the huge costs that that would involve are hardly justified. I heard a number of Members saying “Yes” from a sedentary position, but I wonder if any of them have costed the possible impact and the effect that such a change would have on the activities of those 5,000 senior civil servants. I am waiting—
We would need consensus within the coalition Government that we wanted to proceed in such a way. As I stated, a number of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament and peers would like to see us proceed in such a way, but we are not in a position to do that and that is why, if the position changes, we are facilitating either this Government or a future Government in taking such a decision without primary legislation. I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not use his intervention to outline the cost of extending the provision to 5,000 civil servants, which now seems to be the official policy position of the Opposition.
May I again commiserate with the right hon. Gentleman, a sensible and capable Front Bencher, on being lumbered with the Bill? I am sincerely sorry that he has been landed with this—I hope that it does not influence his long-term career prospects.
Making legislation on the hoof may allow us to repent at leisure. I would like the House to understand what was added to the amendment paper last night, because I do not understand it as much as I would like. Is the crux of amendment (b) on special advisers the word “may”—regulations may be made some time in future—which does not need to be included in the Bill, as the Government can introduce new legislation to do that, or is it a commitment that, with some certainty, that provision will be introduced in the near future? If it is the former, many of us would find it difficult to support. If it is the latter, some of us would be sympathetic towards what the Deputy Leader of the House is saying.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am not sure that I can add much to what I said earlier, other than that this is about providing an order-making power to a Minister to enable the inclusion of special advisers in the terms of the third-party register at some point in the future, which could be the day after Royal Assent, if that was desired. We should streamline public services, not impose additional burdens on them.
It is a point of order. In view of the response from the Deputy Leader of the House, I shall probably not press my amendment to a vote, so that the House can vote on the issue of special advisers. It is not satisfactory not to regulate that in some shape or form.
I need to make some progress, as we do not have much time for the debate.
We should streamline public services, not impose additional burdens on them. We should provide the public with relevant and useful information, not overwhelm them with huge volumes of unhelpful and extraneous data. The House accepted these arguments in our debates on part 1, and did not seek to extend the scope of the measure in the manner proposed by hon. Members. We should respond to the Lords amendments constructively by proposing an amendment in lieu in respect of the proposed extension to capture special advisers, but we should not seek further to extend the scope in a manner that the Lords have specifically rejected.
Briefly, Lords amendments 2 and 3 deal with recipients of communications. They are minor amendments and improve drafting to clarify and provide greater consistency in the terminology used in relation both to the recipients of the lobbying communications and to the communications themselves. Lords amendment 4 is a minor amendment that clarifies the fact that the term, “Minister of the Crown” does not, in the context of the Bill, capture the two bodies of persons, the Defence Council and the Board of Trade. As clause 2 makes clear, the communications that the register is intended to capture are those that are
“made personally to a Minister of the Crown or permanent secretary”.
The definition in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975 includes the Defence Council and the Board of Trade. Both those entities, however, are bodies of persons with which it is not possible to make personal communications. As such, the Lords amendments remove those bodies from the definition, and in doing so provide further clarity regarding the communications that fall within the scope of consultant lobbying.
Lords amendments 5, 6 and 7 deal with the code of conduct. In Committee in both Houses, the Opposition tabled amendments that required lobbyists to sign up to a statutory code of conduct and face sanctions for any breaches. As we exposed during the debates in both Houses, the Opposition’s amendments were based on a miscomprehension of the role of codes, both statutory and voluntary, in the regulation of lobbying. While the Opposition suggested that such codes are in existence and operate successfully in other jurisdictions, we have not been able to identify any international precedent for the type of code that has been proposed. Furthermore, the Opposition could propose just one provision for inclusion in that code: a prohibition on inappropriate financial relationships between lobbyists and parliamentarians, which is unnecessary, given the fact that there are parliamentary codes, as well as laws, on bribery and corruption. Once the shortcomings of the Opposition’s amendments were demonstrated, both Houses were able confidently to reject them.
My Lords—not my Lords—the objective of the part 1 provisions is to enhance transparency.