House of Commons
Tuesday 4 February 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—
10. What progress he has made on reducing the cost to the public purse of legal aid. (902383)
I welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to my Front-Bench team. I also inform the House that Lord Faulks has joined my team in the House of Lords. I pay tribute to Lord McNally, who has left the Front-Bench team, for the excellent work that he did on behalf of the Government.
I will shortly publish final proposals covering the two areas that are subject to consultation in the “Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps” document: the procurement of criminal litigation services and reform of the advocacy fee scheme. I anticipate that the total saving from the transforming legal aid proposals will be £220 million per year by 2018-19. That is in addition to the £320 million that has been saved as part of the Government’s previous reforms, which were enacted in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Trafford law centre closed last week, Barnet law centre faces closure in March, and many more advice agencies and citizens advice bureaux face closure or redundancies, which will reduce services for the most vulnerable. What assessment is being made of the impact of those closures, which have been caused by the cumulative effect of cuts to civil legal aid and other cuts, through an increased demand on other public services, such as the health service?
We will clearly continue to review those matters. The decisions that we are making are of course difficult, but we have to make them because we have to bring down the cost of legal aid to deal with the enormous financial challenges that we face. We would not have wished to take these decisions, but given the inheritance that we received from the last Government, there is no option but to do so.
I can confirm that. In taking a range of difficult decisions, we have sought to ensure that the impact is felt most significantly higher up the income scale. I am well aware that people at the junior end of the income scale face considerably more financial pressure than those who are further up. We have sought to put together a package that has a disproportionate impact further up the income scale, for example through our changes to very high cost case fees.
My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on trying to get the costs of legal aid down. He knows that I have concerns about the impact on the criminal Bar. What alternative funding has he looked at or will he be looking at to get costs down?
We have looked at a variety of ways of minimising the impact on different parts of our justice system of the difficult decisions that we have had to take. I reassure my right hon. Friend that the decisions that we are taking on legal aid are in proportion to the decisions that we are having to take in the rest of the Department—the legal aid budget is coming down by the same proportion as the overall departmental budget. In relation to the Bar, I have sought, where I can do so, to put in place ameliorating measures, such as the offer to introduce a staged payment system, which at the very least will improve the cash flow of working barristers, even if we have to take tough decisions about the amount that we pay.
I, too, welcome the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) to his position and congratulate him on his promotion.
The Government’s salami-slicing of civil legal aid over the past three years and of criminal legal aid over the next 15 months will, according to independent experts, deny hundreds of thousands of citizens access to decent advice and representation. Law centres and high street firms are closing down, as we have heard, and junior barristers are leaving the profession. That should worry us all. If the Justice Secretary was provided with costed proposals that would make similar savings over the next 15 months but without the devastating consequences, would the Government reconsider their plans?
I sometimes find the Opposition’s attitude completely breathtaking. It is but two and a half years since they attacked our proposals to reform civil legal aid, saying that the savings should be found from criminal legal aid instead. Now they appear to have done a complete U-turn. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to commit in the House today that if a Labour Government are elected at the next election, they will reverse the cuts? I suspect that the answer is no.
The Government have put in place an extensive awareness strategy, and we believe that the more people can attend mediation, the more significant the impact will be on reducing the number of applications made to court. We have increased the legal aid budget for family mediation. There are data about the amount of mediation that takes place, but we cannot tell specifically who has attended mediation rather than gone to court.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. Does he agree that mediation is well established in the commercial law field and growing in the family and matrimonial law field, but that we are perhaps missing a trick in two areas? The first is in ensuring that more use is made of mediation in land compensation and related planning disputes. Will he meet me to discuss whether the Bill on High Speed 2 gives the Government an opportunity to promote that and to create greater awareness among fellow Departments, and—
In recent months, I have dealt with several cases for constituents, including one in which a constituent was presented with a £15,000 legal bill for civil court costs over the siting of his rubbish bin. Another constituent lost a case after failed joint legal action with the local council, when his wall collapsed after being damaged by a utility company. Will the Minister outline what measures the Government are taking to increase the number of such cases that are taken to mediation services before such costly legal action occurs?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to identify the costs involved. In matrimonial and other matters, if there is mediation the average cost to both parties is £500; if they go to law the average cost is £4,000. Mediation takes 110 days on average; going to law takes 435 days. The Government are committed to ensuring that we use mediation wherever possible, and we will collectively promote it heavily over the next few weeks. There will be a round table and a web interchange, and it will be one of the priorities for me and the Ministry of Justice.
The whole House agrees that mediation is preferable to ordinary members of the public falling into the hands of lawyers. However, given that the Government’s emphasis on mediation is largely driven by cost, is there not a danger that in family law, women will be left vulnerable to violence and abuse because of the emphasis on mediation rather than immediate legal redress?
That issue is very important and well understood. Under the Children and Families Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, there will be a requirement that people consider whether mediation is appropriate. We are clear that in domestic abuse cases, it absolutely may not be appropriate, and there will be no requirement of mediation in cases in which it would be to the disadvantage of either party or to the children of the family.
At the moment, legal advice and legal aid cover mediation. Someone does not necessarily need legal advice to go into the process, although the mediators may recommend that they need legal advice, which will be available in a legally aided way. It is often necessary to have lawyers involved to draw up the agreement that the mediators have reached, and that will also be publicly fundable by the legal aid service if someone is within the eligibility limits.
I do not have that figure in front of me, but I will willingly give it to the hon. Gentleman and make it known more widely. I am clear that we have a duty to re-engage people with the idea that mediation is available. The figures have gone down in some areas in the past year, and we want them to go up. We hope to be able to report a significant increase in the number of people using mediation by the end of the year, but I will of course give him the figures.
We know that the Secretary of State is not a big fan of due process, because otherwise he would not have briefed The Times this morning on how the criminal justice and courts Bill will keep developers and other Tory donors happy by curbing judicial review—a subject on which he has not yet responded to consultation. However, Ministers should play by the rules when answering questions in the Chamber, so will the Minister correct the record for Justice questions on 17 December, when the Secretary of State said three times that there would be no change in the number of mediations, even though his Department’s figures show a year-on-year fall of 35%?
It is certainly not all in the press, and the Bill might be much more encouraging to people than the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) might wish it to be. On the take-up of mediation, we do not have the figure for a full year but it is unarguable that figures have gone down. We are making sure, and we are hoping, that when we have the full-year figures, we will see that we have reversed that. I will keep the House and the hon. Gentleman updated about those figures over the year ahead.
The Government will introduce a new pathfinder secure college in 2017, which will equip young offenders with the skills and qualifications they need to pursue a life free from crime. We are also enhancing education provision in young offenders institutions, and taking steps to improve the resettlement of young people leaving custody.
Last year the York and North Yorkshire Probation Trust community payback team joined forces with local residents to carry out a spring-clean in York. Graffiti was painted over, broken fences fixed, and public spaces brought back to life. Will the Minister join me in encouraging more initiatives of that kind, which provide young offenders not only with valuable skills, but also a sense of community responsibility?
I agree with my hon. Friend and think that where the court deems it appropriate, offenders young and old should be engaged in putting something back into the communities they have damaged by their offending. I also think it important that communities see that happening.
Will the Minister confirm that young offenders such as those in Her Majesty’s Prison Lincoln who have worked with Gelder Group, a forward-thinking construction company in Lincolnshire, say that better education and skills would help them stay away from crime once they are released from custody?
My hon. Friend is right: that is exactly what we hear from young offenders, and evidence is overwhelming that young offenders who engage in education, get qualifications, and go on to find work, have a better chance of staying out of trouble. That is exactly what we want to see.
Does the Minister agree that custody in secure colleges provides an opportunity to end the chaos that many of these children face and to impose boundaries that have all too often been lacking in their lives? Will he stick rigidly to the cross-departmental approach that was set out so intelligently in the “Transforming Youth Custody” paper, which is now a year old?
We want to see a cross-Government approach to this, and my hon. Friend is right to say that many other Departments have an interest in what we are doing. He is also right that a period of stability is vital. It may be a relatively short period of incarceration for those young people, but it is probably one of the few opportunities they have had to be clear about where their next meal will come from and where they are going to sleep, and to give us the space to address some of their significant problems. That is a large part of what we intend to do.
It is certainly important that the environment of a young offenders institution does not encourage those in it to think it is comfortable and to want to go back. For that reason, my hon. Friend will be encouraged to hear that we are looking at changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme in young offenders institutions, in the same way as we have considered changes in the adult estate. We want to ensure that where young people have access to privileges, they get them only when they have earned them.
A report published by the chief inspector of prisons on 17 December last year suggested that it was easier for inmates to get drugs than clean underwear in prison, and a number of young offenders acquire a drugs habit in prison. How can we break the cycle when they leave?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that drugs in prison—whether adult prisons or young offender institutions—are a continuing problem, but as he and I have discussed, that problem is changing. Increasingly we see good reductions in mandatory drug testing rates for adult institutions—down from some 25% positive results to nearer 7%—but an increase in problems with drugs that are not in and of themselves illegal, but which should not be misused in prisons. For that reason we need to change the testing regime and give ourselves more tools to address the problem, which is what we seek to do.
Under the previous Government, the youth offending teams brought together professionals from different areas to help to tackle youth offending and bring down youth crime. What is the Minister doing to invest in mental health services and drug rehabilitation services in particular? Skills are important, but, if the issues that affect many of our young offenders are not addressed, they are likely to return to crime.
The hon. Lady is right that youth offending teams do valuable work. They continue to do that work, of course, supported by the Youth Justice Board. We are looking at the moment at how we can strengthen youth offending teams and have greater support from the Youth Justice Board to ensure that high standards are maintained. She is right, too, that one of the advantages of the youth offending team model is that it brings together a variety of different agencies, including those within the health sphere. She is right that mental health questions, in particular, are often relevant to addressing wider reoffending needs.
Children in care are some of our most vulnerable young people, yet far too many end up in prison due to a lack of support when they leave care. Will the Minister tell us what work he is doing with colleagues in other Departments to support care leavers, and to reduce the number of young people who turn to crime, both while in care and when they have left care?
I work closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), the Minister with responsibility for children and families, who, as the hon. Gentleman knows, takes a close interest in the welfare of children in care and those who leave care. He is right that a connection is, unfortunately, often made between those leaving care and those who end up in the criminal justice system, but it is important that we address the needs of young offenders throughout the process. He will appreciate that the Ministry of Justice encounters these young people quite late on in that process, but he is right that there should be co-ordination and that will continue.
Recently, a jury inquest into the death of a 17-year-old at a young offenders institution indicated a string of failures by the authorities to safeguard the life of a vulnerable boy. In the past 10 months, there have been 12 deaths in custody of those aged 24 or younger. In the past 10 years, there have been 163 deaths. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister consider inviting the Justice Select Committee to undertake a review into how deaths of young people in custody can be prevented?
The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on this issue. Every one of those cases is a very real personal tragedy and a worrying sign for the system, but that does not mean that we should react in the wrong way. I think it is appropriate that we think very carefully about what level of investigation is necessary. I can tell the hon. Gentleman, as he may already know, that, in relation to each death, a variety of different investigations take place both internally within the prison system and from the coroner, and, in many cases, from others too. That does not mean, however, that there is not perhaps a case for looking more broadly at what wider lessons can be learned. That is exactly what we are considering at the moment. It is what I am applying my mind to now. I will let him know as soon as I can what we think the right conclusions should be.
I have had no recent discussions with the judiciary about the Strasbourg Court judgment in Vinter and others about whole-life orders. The reason for that is that the Government have been arguing in the Court of Appeal that whole-life tariffs are wholly justified in the most heinous cases. That process is continuing and we await the Court’s decision with interest.
Mr Justice Sweeney has already refused to give a whole-life tariff to a murderer due to a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, and he has deferred the sentencing for the murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby, who most right-thinking people think should get a whole-life tariff. When are we going to withdraw from the European convention on human rights and the increasingly barmy European Court of Human Rights, so that we can ensure that a life sentence means a life sentence for the murderers of Lee Rigby?
I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. We have gone to the Court of Appeal to ensure we can continue to give whole-life tariffs in this country. My view is that this should always be a matter for Parliament, but as he knows, while we have good collaborative relationships across the coalition and while we agree on many things, there are some things we do not agree on, and this is one of them, so I am afraid that wholesale change to our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, which I personally think is urgently needed, will have to await the election of a majority Conservative Government.
Will the Justice Secretary think about what he just said? He might agree or disagree with an individual decision of the ECHR, but does he not recognise that having a Europe-wide convention which protects the human rights of everybody in every country that is a signatory to it is good for all of us, including victims of irrational justice decisions in other jurisdictions? Will he not declare that we support the idea of a European convention on human rights and that we will not withdraw from it?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman and I take a different view on this matter. I simply refer him to the recent comments by Lord Judge, the previous Lord Chief Justice and distinguished judicial figure who commands respect around the country. He said he believed the Court had overstepped the mark, and I agree with him. It is a tragedy, given the Court’s history, but it is the reality, and it has to be dealt with.
Does the Justice Secretary think it helps those of us campaigning for LGBT+ rights in Russia, for example, or trying to persuade Belarus to behave more like a responsible country for this country to be so negative about the European convention on human rights and the European Court? These are our standards, and we should be trying to export them, not pull away from them ourselves.
Fundamentally, in my opinion, the problem is that the Court is interpreting the convention as an unfettered jurisprudence that allows it to move into areas never envisaged by the people who wrote the convention. My clear view is that the Court is moving into areas that are matters for national Parliaments and which do not belong within the remit of an international court. It is a matter of disagreement between the coalition parties—we are open and honest about that—but we will leave it to the electorate in 14 months to decide which of our approaches they prefer.
Would the Secretary of State care to reflect on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in protecting fundamental freedoms in this country that he would support? For example, it was due to the Court that journalists were not forced to reveal their sources and that people were allowed to go on wearing crucifixes when they had been told not to wear them. These are essential and fundamental freedoms that I know he agrees with. Would he care to comment on that?
I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s stand on this matter. Does he agree that just one example of how far the European Court of Human Rights has moved from its original foundations is that the British Government and the lawyers who were instrumental in setting it up were also responsible for the largest programme of judicial executions—of Nazis at Nuremburg—in modern British history?
It is certainly the case that the jurisprudence of the Court has moved a long way from where it started, and some things have clearly changed for the better, but I would argue now that the decisions coming out of the Court are matters that should be addressed in this and other Parliaments. Of course, this is an area where there are divisions between all the parties in the House, and I have no doubt that it will be an area of lively debate as we approach the general election, when the people will decide.
We are working closely with the contractor at Oakwood to implement the recommendations in last year’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons. As with other new prisons, Oakwood has experienced initial challenges, but action has been taken and the prison’s performance is improving. We expect that improvement to continue over the next 12 months.
A prison officer on the scene described the disturbance as a full-scale prison riot, but the Government and the contractor described it as “concerted ill-discipline”—that might be a perfectly adequate description of the behaviour of Back-Bench Tory MPs. I urge the Government to abandon this PR spin and for once to tell the simple truth.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the term “concerted indiscipline” has been used by both Governments to describe incidents that have occurred in both the public sector estate and the private sector estate. There has been no cover-up. I went to Oakwood 10 days ago and spoke to an officer engaged in the incident. I also spoke to a prisoner who, although not involved, was there at the time. I saw some of the CCTV coverage, too, so I am very clear about how serious the incident was, but to describe it as a full-scale riot is in my view inaccurate. Twenty prisoners were involved in the incident, out of a total of 1,600. The wing is now back in use and the issue was professionally resolved. That is what we would expect from prisons in the private or public sector. I do not think it is wise to overstate the significance of this incident in the context of what happens in other places.
Does the Minister agree that one way to relieve pressure on Oakwood would be to reopen the prison in Wellingborough, which took category C prisoners? Will he update the House on what progress has been made regarding Wellingborough?
Even by my hon. Friend’s high standards, that is inventive. As I have said to him before, we will of course consider again, as he has asked me to, whether Wellingborough is a suitable venue for a large new prison for the London area, but that is entirely separate from the judgments we need to make about how the rest of the estate operates. However, I will of course keep him informed as our thinking develops.
The coalition has characteristically dealt with the difficult decision of whether the prison at Wrexham will be in the public or private sector by deferring it, probably beyond the next general election. How can we prepare to ensure that the type of incident that occurred at Oakwood does not occur at Wrexham in 2017, when we do not know how the prison will be run?
That is very helpful. Let me help the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend. In relation to the size of the prison, it was the last Labour Government who decided to set it at 1,600 prisoners, and in relation to its running, it was the last Labour Government who decided to put the management of the prison up for competition and not retain it in the public sector. Therefore, on both counts it is not us on the Government Benches whom the right hon. Gentleman should be talking to; it is those on his own Benches.
In relation to Wrexham, we have quite properly said that there is an initial decision to be made, which is whether a large new prison should be built at Wrexham. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were asked to build it on that site by his own council and a large number of other members of the Labour party in north Wales. The decision to be taken now is who should build it; we will make a decision about who should run it in due course.
Will my hon. Friend look at what the chief inspector of prisons said to the Select Committee on Justice this morning about Oakwood, which is that there are special problems in managing very large prisons and in new prisons? When both things are brought together, there are surely training and staffing requirements that the Department needs to consider.
There are undoubtedly issues that arise with every new prison. New prisons in both the public and the private sector, and of all sizes, have encountered these kinds of difficulties. My right hon. Friend is right, too, that it is necessary to pay close attention to the training needs of staff. We will do that—that is already under way—and both the contractors and the MOJ are keen to ensure that these issues are addressed.
I am afraid this prison is two years old now, and we would have hoped to see some progress. The Minister is being way too complacent about the failure of G4S at Oakwood. Given the delay in implementing the probation changes, due to fears of public safety, how do we know that he will not be equally tolerant of failure when he privatises probation?
There is no complacency on this issue at all. Let us get the facts right. Oakwood has been operating at full capacity since February last year, and it is not unheard of that prisons—in the public or private sector, as I said—have difficulties of this nature in the first two years of operation. That does not mean that we do not address those difficulties, but it is important to put them in context. If I may ever so gently say so to the hon. Lady, when I was at Oakwood 10 days ago, one of the comments made to me by staff who work there was that it does not help their already difficult job when their workplace is used for party political purposes to exaggerate what is going on there.
Victims of Crime
The Government are giving more support to victims, and giving them a louder voice in the criminal justice system. We have introduced a new victims code, which gives victims more help throughout the criminal justice process. We are also exploring ways of reducing the distress caused to victims of sexual violence by cross-examination in court, and we aim to provide up to £100 million—more money than ever before—to help victims to cope and recover from crime.
My right hon. Friend is aware of my long-standing support for victims of crime. He is also aware that my constituent Marie Heath lost her job because she had to take time off work to attend the trial of criminals who murdered her son in Frankfurt. Does he agree that employers should show sympathy to employees who are bereaved in such horrific cases?
The whole House will sympathise with my hon. Friend’s view, and, in particular, with her constituent Marie Heath. The Government fund a national homicide service which supports bereaved people by, for instance, giving them access to support and guidance, helping them to explain their position to their employers, and enabling them to gain access to legal advice.
The extent to which sexual attacks and exploitation affect the way in which victims give evidence in court is poorly understood, and the difficulties that such people experience when giving evidence are often used to undermine them and their credibility as witnesses. The wider use of registered intermediaries would help to ensure that the evidence of the best possible quality was obtained during cross-examination. I know that the Minister is very supportive of that idea, but what is his view of the barriers that still prevent the use of registered intermediaries?
There are certainly no barriers as far as I am concerned. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of registered intermediaries. As she knows, as well as introducing a victims code, we are taking other steps to help particularly vulnerable victims of the type that she has described, which include the introduction of changes in the way in which they can give evidence. In some cases video evidence can be used, and we are consulting on how to surmount the problems posed by the multiple cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses in other cases. Obviously, we will continue that work.
I am pleased to report to my hon. Friend that we are making significant progress. Increased use of the victim surcharge means that more money is available for victims’ services than ever before, and we hope in time to double the amount that is currently available from £50 million to £100 million. I am sure that the whole House will welcome the fact that the extra money will come from offenders themselves.
As the Minister will know, those who deal with victims of domestic violence fear that the services they currently receive will not be maintained when police commissioners take over the provision of support for victims, and those in areas such as Warrington still do not know how much money will be provided in April. Is he prepared to give the House a commitment that support for those very vulnerable victims will be maintained?
Obviously that will be a decision for individual police and crime commissioners, but they will all be very aware of the need to help, in particular, the most vulnerable victims. As I have said, not only will the total budget available be greater than ever before—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady says that I am not deciding how the budget is distributed. No, I am not: the decision is being made by elected people at local level, and I think that that is more likely to provide locally sensitive and tailored services than a decision made by someone sitting in London.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. In particular, I do not agree with his suggestion that his area will lose out. The fact is that every area in the country will receive more money under our proposed system than it was receiving under the previous system, so no one will lose out.
Property Boundary Disputes
The Ministry of Justice is in the process of completing the initial scoping study on the issue of property boundary disputes announced by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) in February last year in her reply to my hon. Friend’s written questions on this subject. The Department will publish its findings in due course, when Ministers have considered the options.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Property boundary disputes are stressful and cause a lot of heartache, and cost a lot of money unnecessarily. May I urge the Minister to move ahead on this and consider introducing reform proposals to this House?
I agree with my hon. Friend that boundary disputes can often be bitter, protracted and indeed expensive. I can assure him that the Department is working at pace to come up with the conclusions of the scoping study, and we hope to report on that as soon as is practicable.
The victims code will have a positive effect on the experience of victims in the criminal justice system. The new code gives victims clearer entitlements; a louder voice, including a right to read a victim personal statement aloud; enhanced entitlements for victims of the most serious crime, and vulnerable or intimidated and persistently targeted victims; and a more effective means of redress.
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that of the money the police and crime commissioners will be using, up to £18 million is specifically ring-fenced for restorative justice services. That funding will help us to ensure that restorative justice is available at all stages of the process so that victims can make properly informed decisions about whether they want to participate in restorative justice at the point in the process that best serves their needs.
The new victims code provides an enhanced service for victims of the most serious crime and that includes victims of human trafficking. This will enable them to have quicker updates on the status of their case and to have referral to pre-trial therapy and counselling, which is often appropriate in those cases.
The Minister must have seen in the national newspapers this morning the incidents of alleged rape and how in some parts of the country there is very poor follow-up of these allegations. Will his victims code help those women who have been raped and then find that the police do not take their case seriously enough?
I agree that the point made in this morning’s reports is very serious, and I can assure the House that it is not just the victims code that will help. We have written to PCCs and chief constables encouraging them to use these recently issued data in conjunction with the data on referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service to improve all forces’ response to rape. We have also involved the Director of Public Prosecutions in setting up a scrutiny panel to look at how forces deal with rape in certain areas.
The criminal investigation into the Hillsborough disaster is still ongoing, but a very great number of people undoubtedly suffered, as we saw on last night’s “Newsnight”—I hope the Minister and Secretary of State will watch it if they have not already done so—when the survivors told their harrowing stories. May I simply ask the Minister to confirm that his Department will make available all support necessary to bring them justice as soon as possible?
When the hon. Lady refers to my Department, I should point out that it is the Home Office, where I also have a responsibility, that leads on Hillsborough. We are absolutely determined to do what she says through the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation, which is ongoing, and the coroner’s action, which is due to start next month. I know the families are very much looking forward to those as a way of getting to the truth.
Shared Services (Tendering)
As part of the next generation shared services programme, the Ministry of Justice is reviewing the options available for the future delivery of our shared services.
A foreign multinational that has been awarded hundreds of millions of pounds of Government money to undertake work that was previously carried out in the public sector has admitted to exploring options to offshore that work. Surely the Secretary of State accepts that it is the Government’s responsibility to maximise employment in this country. Will he undertake to intervene if necessary to prevent that work from being offshored?
I have a track record of saying that I do not believe in offshoring UK jobs, and I will always look carefully at any such situation that arises. Whenever possible, the Government should prevent that from happening. I cannot say that it will never happen, however, as these are often decisions with a number of factors behind them, but I am not sympathetic to the offshoring of UK jobs.
We have legislated to set out the process that bailiffs must follow when taking control of goods, and to introduce a simplified, transparent fee structure. Further legislation for a new certification process will ensure that only fit and proper individuals can work as bailiffs. These reforms will come into force in April.
May I first put on record what a doughty campaigner the hon. Gentleman has been on this issue? I very much hope that the proposals that we will be putting in place in April will meet with his approval. We are putting in place a governance system that will make it absolutely clear when bailiffs—or enforcement agents, as they will be called—can seize goods and when they cannot, as well as how they should deal with vulnerable people. We are also putting in place a fee structure that is clearly understood and, most importantly, ensuring that enforcement agents have mandatory training and receive a certificate. If anyone acts as an enforcement agent without that certification, they will be committing a criminal offence.
This Government are committed to reducing the number of foreign nationals in our prisons. While Labour was in power, the number of foreign prisoners more than doubled, at great expense to the taxpayer. Since 2010, we have begun to clear up Labour’s mess. We have reversed that rising trend, and we are now looking at every option to send more foreign criminals back to serve their sentences in their home countries. Earlier this month, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) travelled to Nigeria to sign a compulsory prisoner transfer agreement between our two countries, and I congratulate him on doing that. This is a significant achievement for the UK, particularly as Nigeria has one of the highest foreign national populations in our prisons. The agreement will be ratified in the coming months, and we expect to see Nigerian offenders being sent home within a year.
The Secretary of State is working hard to improve the chances of those who have completed a prison term. Does he agree that locally managed schemes such as Future Unlocked, which he visited in Rugby last year, have a key role to play in achieving that objective?
I very much enjoyed that visit, and I pay tribute to the work being done in Rugby. In setting out our probation reforms, we have taken steps to ensure that smaller organisations not only have the opportunity to participate in that way but have the simplest possible mechanisms to enable them to do so, with transparency of risk in the supply chain, with common contracts to save on bureaucracy and with measures to prevent anyone being used as what is commonly known as bid candy. We want to guarantee that supply chains will remain intact—without changes—through our consent.
Having seen the way in which the Ministry of Justice has been taken for a ride by G4S at Oakwood prison and by ALS in relation to the court translator services—both of which contracts were awarded by this Government—will the Secretary of State tell us just how bad a private company running a probation contract will need to be in order to be sacked?
Let me tell the House what being taken for a ride is. It is what happened under the last Government, under the contracts for electronic tagging, and we have been dealing with that and clearing up the mess in the past few months. I will take no lessons from Labour Members, who presided over an appalling system of contract management and exposed the taxpayer to considerable risk, leaving behind the mess that we have had to clear up. They are shocking, they were shocking, and I will take no lessons from them.
The Justice Secretary has been in the job long enough to understand that the way it works is that I ask the questions and he answers them. He and the Minister with responsibility for probation claimed that the main reason for privatising probation is that the savings can be used to provide probation services to those who currently do not receive them as their sentence is less than 12 months. The Justice Secretary has refused to publish costings and to pilot his plans, and he is already two months behind schedule. I will ask him a simple question, and I hope to get an answer: by what date will all those on sentences of less than 12 months be receiving through-the-gate supervision?
We will begin rolling out the part of the reforms set out in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill in the latter part of this year. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he represents a party that was in government for nearly 15 years, during which time tens of thousands of offences were committed by people on short sentences who had no supervision when they left prison. The Labour Government did nothing about it. We are doing something about it, and it is not before time.
T2. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 is one of the great achievements of this Government but it left a few issues unresolved, one of which relates to humanist weddings, which are very popular in Scotland but currently not allowed here. The Act required the Secretary of State to conduct a review. What progress has been made on it, so that we can get on with allowing such weddings to happen? (902364)
My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government made a commitment to have a review, and we will do that. We will be starting it soon, and we will have a consultation. We intend to have the results of the review by the end of the year.
T3. The Secretary of State had previously been adamant that no further contracts would be awarded to Serco until it had received a clean bill of health from the Serious Fraud Office. Will he therefore explain why he awarded it a contract for the extension of Thameside prison on 20 December? When is a contract not a contract? (902365)
I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman was not in the House last June when I made the original statement about the electronic tagging situation and said that I had decided, in the interests of justice in this country, to proceed with two extensions at prisons run by the two organisations involved. I was completely clear about it, I explained why at the time and he clearly was not listening.
T4. Residents in Monmouthshire were recently very concerned when a man convicted of manslaughter absconded from Prescoed open prison. Will the Minister ask his officials to look into the risk assessments being used before prisoners are transferred to Prescoed to ensure that they are suitably rigorous? (902366)
We expect that the risk assessments in all these cases are rigorous. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this case, and I will, of course, look into it and find out what has happened.
T7. Sunderland’s courts are in urgent need of rebuilding, as the Department has previously recognised, spending nearly £2 million in preparation. I am grateful for the meeting that took place with the Minister, but we have been in limbo on this since 2010. When will a decision be taken? (902369)
As the hon. Lady acknowledges, we have had a meeting, and I can assure her that of the 500 buildings the court estate encompasses, the ones to which she refers are very much at the forefront. She will appreciate, however, that we have a large estate and we keep matters under review, and we will keep her and her colleagues informed as soon as we are able to do so.
T5. More than half of the prisoners serving indeterminate prison sentences have passed their tariff date. Will the Secretary of State look at the parole and risk assessment process and review all cases where prisoners have complied with their sentence conditions but significantly exceeded their tariff? (902367)
As my hon. Friend knows, we have abolished those particular sentences because we do not believe they are the best way to deal with such serious offenders. However, that is not a retrospective change, and a number of prisoners in the estate are still serving such sentences. He will also appreciate that the decision on whether someone is released from such a sentence is to be taken by the independent Parole Board, not by Ministers. He must also recognise that the tariff is the minimum period to be served in custody, not the maximum. None the less, we will do everything we can to ensure that the process of these sentences is as efficient as it can be.
T10. The Secretary of State may recall that some years ago the police used a method called “trawling”, which became discredited, in order to find evidence about allegations against teachers and social workers. That destroyed many innocent people’s lives through false allegations of abuse. I understand that Operation Pallial is using trawling again, and many other hard-working social workers and educationists are being put in limbo and having their lives ruined. (902372)
I will happily discuss that issue with the National Crime Agency, which is in overall charge of that area, and will write to the hon. Gentleman with the results of my investigation.
T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that prisoners released on licence who reoffend or breach the terms of their licence should serve the remaining part of their original sentence in prison in full? If he agrees, what is he doing to ensure that that always happens? If he does not agree, why not? (902368)
As my hon. Friend knows, I have a lot of sympathy with him on these matters in areas such as breach of licence and automatic early release. For resource reasons, I cannot do everything that he would like me to do, but when he reads the Bill that is due to be laid before this House tomorrow, he will find things in it that are at least a step in the right direction.
There are 33 firms doing legal aid-backed criminal work in South Yorkshire, but only one in four or five will get duty contracts in the future, which means less competition, less choice and less access to justice. Surely what we are seeing is the slow, lingering death of legal aid at the hands of the Justice Secretary.
The argument for consolidation in the legal aid world goes back well before the last election to reviews carried out, and arguments made, by the previous Government. Our current reform proposals allow those firms to retain own-client work, which is what they argued for. What we are setting out around duty work is designed to ensure that, in tough times, we can guarantee that everyone arrested and taken to a police cell will always have access to legal advice.
T8. I welcome the Government’s transforming rehabilitation programme to cut reoffending, but will the Secretary of State reassure me that those suffering from mental health problems, both inside and outside prison, will also get the help they need? Will he outline what steps or initiatives his Department is taking, in conjunction with the Department of Health, on the matter? (902370)
My hon. Friend will know that, in relation to sentencing options, the courts have a number of choices they can make over mental health disposals. On the point he makes about co-ordination, he is right that the best thing we can do is ensure that people with mental illness are diverted away from the criminal justice system as soon as possible. To that end, we have been working with the Department of Health on liaison and diversion programmes. We are spending a considerable amount of money on that this year and over the next couple of years. We expect to have full coverage of all police custody suites and courts in the next three years or so.
Given the continuing high level of tribunals overturning Department for Work and Pensions decisions, particularly in employment support allowance cases, why did the Department offer up to the Deregulation Bill a provision that would take away the duty on the Senior President of Tribunals to report on the standard of decision making? Surely reporting on that might lead to better decisions being made in the first place.
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Department for Work and Pensions have been working very closely to ensure that decisions by tribunals on social security and child support matters are passed on to the DWP. That is happening and, as a consequence, DWP decisions are being influenced and its decision-making guidelines have been changed.
T9. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State knows my interest and that of other colleagues in the reform of the criminal law of child neglect. Will he update the House on the progress he is making with regard to reviewing that particular provision of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008? (902371)
Why is the Legal Aid Agency expanding the public defender service and recruiting barristers when reports from as far back as 2007 have found that it is between 40% and 90% more expensive than the independent professions? Furthermore, it cannot act in cases of conflict.
The Secretary of State will recollect the prisoner deportation shambles of 2006, when huge numbers of foreign prisoners were allowed to stay in the country on release simply because of administrative incompetence. Will he assure me that foreign prisoners who should be considered for deportation are now properly being so considered?
My hon. Friend will know that that is primarily a matter for the Home Office, but none the less I can assure him that those of us who work in the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office do everything we can to ensure that foreign national offenders are deported as soon as they can be.
The House will be disturbed to learn today that since the CPS guidance on rape was amended in 2011 the number of people charged with rape over that period has fallen by 14%. There is concern that cases are being dismissed that could be successfully prosecuted. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that the CPS has the appropriate resources to ensure that no victim of rape in this country is let down?
I am sure that the hon. Lady heard the answer I gave a few moments ago about the action we are taking with the Director of Public Prosecutions, police and crime commissioners and chief constables to look beneath the detail of that and ensure that all proper cases are referred. I am happy that the facts do not bear out her accusation that this is anything to do with resources, as in nine police areas the number of referrals has gone up over the two years since the new guidelines came in.
The maximum sentence for causing death when driving disqualified, uninsured and drunk is only two years and because of the rules of custodial sentences, the actual sentence served is only eight months. Does my hon. Friend agree that that only increases the sense of injustice felt by my constituent Mandy Stock, whose husband was killed in that way in Tredworth, Gloucester?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the advocacy he has engaged in on behalf of the Stock family. He will recall that we discussed the points he makes in the debate last Monday and I am happy to repeat what I said to him then, which is that the Government are considering carefully all that was said in the course of the debate and whether the sentencing is right for such offences. As he knows, we have particular sympathy for his points about those who cause death while disqualified.
As the right hon. Gentleman will remember, as he was in the Chamber for the debate, two things are happening. First, next year there will be a Cabinet Office review of the papers that are held and, secondly, a court reconsideration is in process. As a Government, we are ensuring that we increase transparency wherever possible but there will always be some papers that must be withheld on the basis of national security.
No, they have gone down. Let me correct the hon. Gentleman, whose mathematics is faulty. Last time, the figure was 10,789 and this time it is 10,692. I hope that is clear.
On Nigeria, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we will make every effort in conjunction with our colleagues in Nigeria to remove Nigerians by the end of the year.
One of the many excellent things the Secretary of State inherited from the previous Labour Government was an outstanding Probation Service in County Durham, which is now at risk from the Government’s privatisation. Will he now pay attention to the many issues raised in the Select Committee on Justice’s report of 22 January, and scrap that botched privatisation?
I do not recall the Justice Committee asking us to scrap our plans. Although good work is being done around the country by probation officers, we cannot go on with this situation in which 50,000 offenders are released from prison every year and left with no supervision on our streets, so that tens of thousands of crimes are committed, with victims around the country. We cannot go on in that way.
Sri Harmandir Sahib
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Cabinet Secretary’s report on the Indian operation at Sri Harmandir Sahib—also called the Golden Temple—in Amritsar in June 1984.
The House will recall that on 13 January concerns were raised regarding two documents released to the public in the National Archives. The documents relate to the painful events that followed the occupation of the temple site by Sikh dissidents in December 1983, which led to a six-month stand-off with the Indian authorities. In June 1984, a three-day military operation by Indian forces known as Operation Blue Star took place. Official Indian Government figures estimate that 575 people died. Other reports suggest that as many as 3,000 were killed, including pilgrims caught in the crossfire.
That loss of life was an utter tragedy. Understandably, members of the Sikh community around the world still feel the pain and suffering caused by those events. Given that, we fully understand the concerns raised by the two documents. They indicate that in February 1984, in the early stages of the crisis, the then British Government sent a military officer to give advice to the Indian Government on their contingency planning. Many in this House and across the whole country rightly wished to know what connection, if any, there had been between that giving of advice and the tragic events at Amritsar over three months later.
Within hours of the documents coming to light, the Prime Minister instructed the Cabinet Secretary to carry out an urgent investigation in four critical areas: why advice was provided to the Indian authorities; what the nature of that advice was; what impact it had on Operation Blue Star; and whether Parliament was misled. The Cabinet Secretary was not asked to investigate Operation Blue Star itself, or the actions of the Indian Government, or other events relating to the Sikh community in India. Although he has investigated those specific matters, I can make it clear that during his investigation no circumstantial evidence has been offered, or has surfaced, of UK involvement in any subsequent military operations in the Punjab.
The investigation has been rigorous and thorough. The Cabinet Secretary and officials have met Sikh organisations to ensure that their concerns informed the investigation. They have spoken with individuals associated with the two documents, although some officials are now deceased. They have examined Hansard records from 1984 to the present day. They have carried out an extensive and thorough search of the files held by all relevant Departments and agencies from December 1983 to June 1984. Their search through some 200 files and over 23,000 documents found a very limited number of documents relating to Operation Blue Star.
The report notes that some military files covering various operations were destroyed in November 2009, as part of a routine process undertaken by the Ministry of Defence at the 25-year review point. They included one file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans for Sri Harmandir Sahib. However, copies of at least some of the documents in the destroyed files were also in other departmental files. Taken together, those files provide a consistent picture of what happened.
The Cabinet Secretary’s investigation is now complete. Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and it is now being published on the Government website. The report includes the publication of the relevant sections of five extra documents that shed light on the period but would not normally have been published. We have taken that step because the whole investigation has been based on a commitment to the maximum possible transparency. We want to be as open as possible with the British public, in so far as that does not undermine the principle, upheld by successive British Governments, of not revealing any information relating to intelligence or special forces.
The main findings of the report are as follows. First, on why the UK provided advice to the Indian Government, the Cabinet Secretary has established that in early February 1984 the then Government received an urgent request to provide operational advice on Indian contingency plans for action to regain control of the temple complex. The British high commission in India recommended that the Government respond positively to the request for bilateral assistance from a country with which we had an important relationship. That advice was accepted by the then Government.
Secondly, the Cabinet Secretary then examined the nature of the advice that was provided to India following that decision. He has established that a single British military adviser travelled to India between 8 and 17 February 1984 to advise the Indian intelligence services and special group on contingency plans that they were drawing up for operations against armed dissidents in the temple complex, including ground reconnaissance of the site. The adviser’s assessment made it clear that a military operation should be put into effect only as a last resort when all attempts at negotiation had failed. It recommended including in any operation an element of surprise and the use of helicopter-borne forces in the interests of reducing casualties and bringing about a swift resolution.
This giving of military advice was not repeated. The documents show that the decision to provide advice was based on an explicit recommendation to Ministers that the Government should not contemplate assistance beyond the visit of the military adviser, and this was reflected in his instructions. The Cabinet Secretary found no evidence in the files or from discussions with officials involved that any other form of UK military assistance, such as equipment or training, was given to the Indian authorities. The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited, and provided to the Indian Government at an early stage in their planning.
Thirdly, the report examines what actual impact UK advice had on the Indian operation, which took place between 5 and 7 June 1984, over three months later. The report establishes that during that time the planning by the Indian authorities had changed significantly. The number of dissident forces was considerably larger by that time, and the fortifications inside the site were more extensive. The documents also record information provided by the Indian intelligence co-ordinator stating that after the UK military adviser’s visit in February, the Indian army took over lead responsibility for the operation, and the main concept behind the operation changed. The Cabinet Secretary’s report includes an analysis by current military staff of the extent to which the actual operation in June 1984 differed from the approach recommended in February by the UK military adviser. Operation Blue Star was a ground assault without the element of surprise and without a helicopter-borne element. The Cabinet Secretary’s report therefore concludes that the UK military officer’s advice had limited impact on Operation Blue Star.
This is consistent with the public statement on 15 January 2014 by the operation commander, Lieutenant-General Brar, who said that
“no one helped us in our planning or in the execution of the planning”.
It is also consistent with an exchange of letters between Mrs Gandhi and Mrs Thatcher on 14 and 29 June 1984 discussing the operation, which made no reference to any UK assistance. The parts of the letter relevant to Operation Blue Star are published with the Cabinet Secretary’s report today.
The Cabinet Secretary has also examined two other concerns raised in this House and by the Sikh community—namely, that Parliament may have been misled or that the decision to provide advice may have been linked to UK commercial interests. The report finds no evidence to substantiate either of these allegations. The investigation did not find any evidence in the files or from officials of the provision of UK military advice being linked to potential defence or helicopter sales, or to any other policy or commercial issue. There is no evidence that the UK, at any level, attempted to use the fact that military advice had been given on request to advance any commercial objective. The only UK request of the Indian Government made following the visit was for prior warning of any actual operation so that UK authorities could make appropriate security arrangements in London. In the event, the UK received no warning from the Indian authorities before the operation was launched.
The Cabinet Secretary also concludes that there is no evidence of Parliament being misled. There is no record of a specific question to Ministers about practical UK support for Operation Blue Star, and he concludes that the one instance of a written question to Ministers related to discussions with the Indian Government on behalf of the Sikh community after the operation.
In sum, the Cabinet Secretary’s report finds that the nature of the UK’s assistance was purely advisory, limited and provided to the Indian Government at an early stage; that it had limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded at the temple three months later; that there was no link between the provision of that advice and defence sales; and that there is no record of the Government receiving advance notice of the operation.
None the less, we are keen to discuss concerns raised by the Sikh community. The Minister responsible for relations with India, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), and my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, the Minister for faiths and communities, will discuss them with Sikh organisations when they meet them later today. This reflects the strong, positive relationship the Government have—and all British Governments have had—with the British Sikh community, which plays such a positive role in so many areas of our national life.
We are also determined to look at the wider issues raised by these events with regard to the management and release of information held by Government. Under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, the 30-year rule has been superseded by a 20-year rule, so that from 2022 all annual releases will be after 20 years. However, it is not clear at the moment that this change is being approached in a uniform fashion by all Departments. The Prime Minister has therefore decided to commission a review to establish the position across Government on the annual release of papers and the ability and readiness of Departments to meet the requirements of moving from a 30 to 20-year rule, including the processes for withholding information. This review will be carried out by the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, Sir Alex Allan.
Nothing can undo the loss of life and suffering caused by the tragic events at Sri Harmandir Sahib. It is quite right that the concerns that were raised about UK involvement have been investigated. It is a strength of our democracy that we are always prepared to take an unflinching look at the past. I hope, however, that this investigation and the open manner in which it has been conducted will provide reassurance to the Sikh community, this House and the public and, in that spirit, I present it to the House.
May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this morning?
May I also take this opportunity to thank colleagues who have campaigned to help uncover the truth about the tragic events of 1984? I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and for Warley (Mr Spellar) and my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds). They have done important work on behalf of many of their constituents, and it is only right that this House offers them its collective thanks for their determined efforts.
As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, the 1984 raid on the Golden Temple complex—code-named Operation Blue Star—resulted in hundreds of deaths, devastating damage to the temple itself and rising levels of sectarian violence, which ultimately saw the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later that year.
I welcome what light the report sheds on the British Government’s alleged involvement in those events and the fact that some of the key documents relating to the event in question, and the British Government’s alleged involvement, have now been published.
Serious questions continue to be asked, however, about the involvement, conduct and contribution of the British authorities at the time—going up to the highest level—in the events that surrounded the storming of the Golden Temple and that ultimately cost so many innocent lives. In the light of that, I would like to ask the Foreign Secretary the following questions.
First, I regret that the Government have so far refused to accept our call that all relevant documentation relating to the incident that can be should now be made public. I welcome the publication of five further documents as part of today’s report, but, given that the report itself cites “officials interviewed” over the course of this investigation, will the Foreign Secretary now commit to publishing a list of those officials, and will he confirm whether any surviving Ministers who served at the time were interviewed as part of the investigation? Will he also confirm whether these testimonies will be made public?
Secondly, on the terms of this investigation led by the Cabinet Secretary, I welcome the fact that, following representations by the Sikh community, the Cabinet Secretary published a letter detailing the scope of the inquiry. Will the Foreign Secretary explain, however, why there was a more than three-week delay in publishing those terms of reference? Will he further explain whether the terms of the inquiry changed over the course of the inquiry?
The terms of reference, as published in a letter from the Cabinet Secretary on 1 February, did not include specific reference to the time period covered by the investigation, yet the final report sets out a time frame of December 1983 to June 1984. Will the Foreign Secretary explain why that time frame was not made public at an earlier stage?
Many have already expressed regret that the investigation seemed to be covering only the first part of 1984, given the significance of events in the weeks and months after June 1984 and their direct link to the storming of the Golden Temple.
Will the Government therefore task the Cabinet Secretary with setting out whether he believes that there might be grounds for a full inquiry covering a longer period?
Turning to the substance of the findings, the report states that the UK military adviser in India from 8 to 17 February 1984 advised the Indian Government that
“this type of operation should only be put into effect as a last resort when all other courses of negotiation had failed”.
Based on the documents that he has seen, but for understandable reasons may not be able to publish, will the Foreign Secretary set out what type of operation was referred to in that case?
The report also sets out that a “quick analysis” by current UK military staff confirms that there were differences between the June operation and the advice from the UK military officer in February. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the nature of the quick analysis undertaken on such a central part of the investigation? Does he expect a fuller review of that aspect of the evidence to be conducted?
The report touches on the allegations that the potential sale of Westland helicopters was linked to the provision of military advice. It claims that no evidence was found to substantiate that allegation, but none of the annexed documentation so far released pertains to that issue. The report cites
“ongoing contacts between UK and Indian officials around the time of Operation Blue Star on potential defence related sales”.
Will the Foreign Secretary commit to publish this correspondence?
A few moments ago, the Foreign Secretary spoke about the exchange of correspondence between Prime Minister Gandhi and Prime Minister Thatcher, yet only Prime Minister Gandhi’s letter appears to have been published today. Will he undertake to publish the response of Prime Minister Thatcher?
Everyone in this House is aware of the continuing pain felt by the Sikh community around the world at the events of 1984—not just at the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the deaths and destruction that followed, but at the anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi, and the emergency period that saw arbitrary arrests, and accusations of torture, rape and disappearances that are still unresolved today.
Although there are of course differences within the Sikh community on the issue of a separate Sikh state, there is unanimity in their horror at those events. For British Sikhs over recent weeks, there has been the additional burden of worry that their own Government may have been involved in those actions. The Government therefore have a responsibility—indeed, a duty—to address those very widespread concerns and fears. If they can provide answers to all those concerns and questions, we as the Opposition will support them in that endeavour.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. He is right to draw attention to the efforts of several of our colleagues, on these and other issues, always to find out the truth about events in the past as well as in our own times. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal) is another example.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to the anxiety about these events that many people have expressed during recent weeks. That is why we should do everything we possibly can to set out the truth of the matter, in so far as that can be discovered from documents and from discussions with officials. Taking what I said earlier as a whole, I think that the story is a reassuring one for the House, the public and the Sikh community.
The right hon. Gentleman asked certain specific questions about the process. He asked whether we would publish a list of officials. No, I do not think that that would be appropriate. It is important to protect the anonymity of some of the officials and military personnel involved. He asked whether Ministers have been spoken to. Yes, the Cabinet Secretary’s investigation included discussions with the senior Ministers of the time. He asked whether the terms of the inquiry changed. No, they did not change, except that the Cabinet Secretary’s work was expanded to cover some additional concerns that were raised during the past few weeks—we may come to some of them later during questions—but the terms of the inquiry remained the same.
There is no mystery about the dates. At the beginning, the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to investigate the specific events—whether there had been UK involvement in the specific events leading up to and during Operation Blue Star in June 1984—and the time frame was therefore from the start of what happened at the location in question in December 1983 to the Indian operation in June 1984. As the right hon. Gentleman will have gathered from my statement, the Cabinet Secretary was able to go beyond that to say that in the 23,000 documents he has seen no circumstantial evidence of British involvement in any subsequent military operation in the Punjab. One of the questions raised is whether there could have been British military involvement in subsequent Operations Black Thunder I and II. From everything that the Cabinet Secretary has seen, having examined hundreds of files—200 files—the answer to that is no.
The relevant documents—those that can be published while, as I have said, upholding the publication principles that all British Governments have always observed—that relate specifically to Operation Blue Star have been published. There will of course be publication over the coming years of many more documents concerning British relations with India at the time. I certainly do not want to suggest that no more documents will be published that can shed light on relations between Britain and India through the 1980s. As I understand it, the 30-year rule—it will become the 20-year rule—is implemented on the basis of 30 years from files coming to an end, but such files contain documents from earlier years. Therefore, other documents will of course be published about this period. However, the relevant files have all been searched, and these are the documents that shed light on Blue Star.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the quick analysis by the military. I do not think that the word “quick” should be used in a pejorative sense. The report has been quite quick, given that concerns arose only a few weeks ago, and military experts have provided an analysis, but it is clear even to a layman that the military operation mounted was very different from any that was discussed in the documents. As I mentioned earlier, it was entirely different: it did not have the element of surprise; there were no helicopter-borne forces; and it was conducted by the Indian army, not by the paramilitary forces present when the UK military adviser was there in February. Even to the non-expert on such matters, the military operation mounted in June was clearly fundamentally different from any discussed in February 1984.
Overall, I therefore think that this report has the right degree—a strong degree—of transparency, and is a thorough and good job by the Cabinet Secretary, and we should be prepared to support it as such.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his swiftness in making a statement in the House. Most importantly, it is right to recognise that British involvement was not in any shape or form malicious, and particularly to recognise the line that the military option was going to be used only as a last resort.
None of us can change what happened yesterday, but we can change today and tomorrow. If documents cannot be released to the general public, will my right hon. Friend take the unusual step of making sure that they are released to the widest possible audience, but within a proper environment? In addition, will he work with fellow parliamentarians, Sikh organisations and the Indian high commission to start a process of truth and reconciliation so that, after 30 years, victims and families can finally start to feel a sense of justice?
I fully accept my hon. Friend’s points. It is important, in doing everything we can to establish the truth when controversies such as this arise, to help in the process of being able to move on from these terrible events and to encourage people to live and work together successfully.
I will certainly look at my hon. Friend’s point about the release of documents. That is one of the issues that the review on the release of documents can cover, because questions arise over when documents should be withheld and how the 30-year rule, which is to become the 20-year rule, is implemented. Those are fair questions that can be looked at in Sir Alex Allan’s review. We all want to ensure that the same reassuring transparency evident in the Cabinet Secretary’s report continues as further documents are released in future years.
I must take issue with the Foreign Secretary’s conclusions. In 1984, the Commons was told that a march to commemorate the thousands of massacred Sikhs was cancelled on public order grounds, but newly revealed Cabinet minutes show the real reason. They state:
“In view of the importance of the British political and commercial interests at stake, it would be necessary to explore every possibility of preventing the march from taking place. Export contracts worth £5 billion could be at stake.”
In the year in which we will commemorate the loss of 80,000 Sikhs in the 1914-18 war, is it not the least we can do to apologise to the Sikhs who were misled in 1984?
I can only explain the facts as they have been presented by the Cabinet Secretary. The evidence from the 23,000 documents is that there was no such link. The Cabinet Secretary is not saying that such matters were not of importance in wider relations or other matters of policy between India and the UK. He is saying that on this issue, that is what the documents show. We all have to work from what the documents show.
Given the distress that is felt by the Sikh community and its desire for clarity on the events at Sri Harmandir Sahib, it is obviously very regrettable that a key file was destroyed in 2009. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House at what level oversight would have been exercised or permission given for the destruction of that file? Do we need to review the procedures to ensure that such sensitive and important material is not destroyed in future?
That is an important point and the review by Sir Alex Allan that I have just announced will be able to cover it. Such decisions are made at official level and go on all the time under all Governments. They are not made on any political basis or conducted by Ministers. The implementation of the 30-year rule and, as in this case, the reviewing of documents by the Ministry of Defence at the 25-year point are continuous official processes. Judgments have to be made all the time about what is released and, as in this case, what is destroyed. We can all question that particular judgment in retrospect. The review that has been established must consider such issues so that we can all be satisfied that important files will not be destroyed in future.
This issue has caused great sadness to the Sikh community in Scotland, across the UK and across the world. That community enriches our economy, our culture and our society, and the very least that it deserves from this process is closure. It will never overcome the sadness or get those lives back. Sadly, I do not think that today’s report gives it the closure that it needs. I urge the Foreign Secretary to have a further investigation that looks into the full communications that took place between the UK Government and the Indian Government in the lead-up to the storming of the temple and during the events that followed.
I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman the extent and thoroughness of what the Cabinet Secretary has done. Twenty-three thousand documents is not a small number, even by Government standards, and 200 files is not a small number. The investigation has been conducted by the Cabinet Secretary, not by me or any other Minister. Having read the report, I have no reason to think that it is not a very thorough piece of work. I think that it helps all of us, including people in the Sikh community, whom the hon. Gentleman was quite right to speak about in the terms that he did, to understand the events and to see them in their true light. As I said earlier, I hope that it will be of some reassurance to the Sikh community, the House and the wider public.
Given the strong and deep links between the Sikh community in my constituency and India, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the reaction of Sikhs in Britain on the publication of the documents not so long ago was entirely understandable? He mentioned the possibility that further documents that reflect back on the period in question will come to light in due course. Will he use his best efforts to ensure that similar surprises are eliminated or at least mitigated to prevent such an understandable reaction happening unnecessarily in future?
I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend that people were right to feel very concerned and anxious when they heard about this matter last month. I do not think that we can avoid all surprises on all issues when Government documents are published. We want such documents to be published. In fact, we want them to be published faster. This Government have brought in the 20-year rule. There will be surprises on other issues, no matter which Government or party was in power. We cannot screen them out. When issues are raised that cause great concern and when there is a legitimate demand for past events to be investigated, we should investigate them in exactly the way that we have on this occasion.
The Foreign Secretary is right to describe the loss of life in 1984 as an utter tragedy. My constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members have raised their concerns and shared their personal stories of family members who were affected. Understandably, this will not be the end of the matter. My constituents will want to have time to study the report, to be able to raise questions and to reach what other Members have described as closure on this terribly tragic matter. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to ongoing dialogue and meetings with representatives of the Sikh community so that people feel that their needs and questions have been heard?
The hon. Lady is quite right. She is right to say that people will want to read the report. It was only published to the public as I began my statement. I hope that it is widely read and discussed. She is also right to say that the process of dialogue and understanding should go on. That will happen this afternoon as the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), holds meetings. We are all happy to carry on that process in the Foreign Office, as are those in other Departments. My noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who is the Minister for faith and communities, will be involved in such meetings. That process of discussion, which may help to bring closure, will certainly go on.
My hon. Friend has managed to ask an interesting question, even though he was not expecting to. It is not obvious from the documents why we were consulted. We can all guess why it was. In facing this situation, India wanted expertise from the rest of the world. British expertise in tackling difficult security situations was renowned at that time, as it is today. British advice was therefore asked for. I think that that is the simple explanation.
As a Punjabi, having been born and brought up there and having studied in institutions run by the Sikh community back in Punjab, I fully understand the feelings and sentiments that exist. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) asked, will the Foreign Secretary commit to investigating further the points that he raised in his statement?
The hon. Gentleman understands well that the statement and the Cabinet Secretary’s report are about specific events. There are many other aspects of relations between the UK and India—many positive ones, and sometimes controversial ones. Whenever there is something that we feel should be investigated we must be prepared to do so, but I have not seen, and the Cabinet Secretary has not turned up in producing the report, other circumstantial evidence that we think requires such investigation. Of course, we do not know what evidence will ever be turned up in future, so we cannot rule out all investigations for the future.
It is important to put issues such as this in context. The incident was in 1984, just three years after the Iranian embassy siege, which the UK’s security forces dealt with successfully. Does the Foreign Secretary agree—this may answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)—that given the expertise in handling such situations that had been developed at the time, a request for help in the circumstances was completely understandable?
My right hon. Friend has answered the spontaneous question that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) asked. I am glad that this discussion is going on in the House without the need for me to intervene in it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) is right. The Iranian embassy siege had taken place a few years earlier, and it was known across the world that British forces were skilled in conducting operations with minimal loss of life. That is always the spirit in which they give advice, and from everything we can see, that was the spirit on that occasion, although it is not for us to defend or promote the decisions made 30 years ago. He is almost certainly correct.
The Foreign Secretary said that there was no evidence of Parliament being misled. As he is aware, my predecessor as MP for Slough was told by a Foreign Office Minister on 30 July 1984:
“As this is an internal Indian matter, we have not sought to discuss it with the Indian Government.” —[Official Report, 30 July 1984; Vol. 65, c. 111W.]
The rest of the paragraph answering my predecessor’s question was simply a description of the nature of that question. The Foreign Secretary has informed us that the Cabinet Secretary did not examine papers from after 5 June, so it would seem impossible to know from his inquiry whether there had been discussions with the Indian Government by 30 July. Will the Foreign Secretary agree to examine whether there were discussions with the Indian Government after 6 June, at a time when killings were continuing?
There are several parts to the answer to that question. First, the Cabinet Secretary has said that there is no evidence in the documents, even after that point, of any British involvement in subsequent military operations in the Punjab. That goes beyond June 1984. It is also clear in the letter from Mrs Gandhi that there is no reference, for instance, to thanking the UK for any participation, support or advice. From everything that we have seen, and having read the report, I do not think there would be much to add to what the Cabinet Secretary has already said.
May I add to the answer to the spontaneous question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh)? It is difficult for the present generation to realise how close our relationships with India still were at that time. My father and grandfather were both born in India, and I knew Indira Gandhi very well. I visited her a fortnight before she was assassinated at her home, after the Golden Temple disaster, and asked her whether she was wise to be surrounded by the Sikh bodyguard, who looked magnificent in their uniforms. She said that they were absolutely loyal to her, that some of them had served her father, and that if she were to get rid of them it would be regarded throughout India as an insult to the other Sikhs. There was nothing sinister at all about Britain, and many Brits at various levels, being asked for advice during that terrible period.
There was a remarkable prescience in my right hon. Friend’s questions to Mrs Gandhi at that time. As always, we are not in the least bit surprised to find that he knew her, and indeed knew several generations of the Gandhi family. He is right to put the matter in that historical context. The requests for British advice, however they were then responded to, should be seen in that light.
The Foreign Secretary spoke of reassurance. I do not believe that members of the Sikh community in my area will be reassured by the fact that a UK Government were willing to provide any military support to desecrate the most holy place on this earth, or by the fact that there was no semblance of an apology today. Nor do I believe they will be reassured by files going missing, or by the fact that this was an internal inquiry. May I urge him to move swiftly for a full public and independent inquiry?
No, and I think the facts have been set out clearly by the Cabinet Secretary, a respected official and the most senior civil servant in the country, who has served Governments of all parties in a non-partisan way. These are sensitive matters, and everyone should be careful about how they phrase things. To say that the UK gave military support to desecrate the temple is obviously a wild distortion of events, and the hon. Gentleman should regret that.
Unlike the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), may I thank my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his statement and welcome the reassurance that it gives the UK Sikh community about these events? However, many Sikhs in my constituency not only have questions about Operation Blue Star but have wider questions about what happened in India in 1984. Most of the answers will lie in India, but will he commit to a full disclosure of any information that the Government hold about the custody, interrogation, torture, disappearance and murder of thousands of Sikhs during that period?
My hon. Friend draws attention to wider events, which others have also referred to, which caused enormous distress to the Sikh community and in which many people suffered. It is entirely understandable that people should raise those events, although they were predominantly within India and we are not able to inquire into the Indian Government’s actions. The investigation is about any question of UK involvement in one particular set of events. As I mentioned earlier, over the next few years more Government documents will be released. The Cabinet Secretary has examined the ones relating to the specific events in question, but other documents about relations between the UK and India will be released, and we will of course ensure that they are released promptly and transparently.
The Sikh community in Leicester has expressed to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who unfortunately cannot be here today, its deep concerns about the attack on the Golden Temple and the wider events of 1984. Is the Foreign Secretary confident that all the documents have been properly investigated and that the Government are publishing as many of them as possible? In this day and age, when trust in politicians and institutions is so low, I believe people want to judge for themselves.
That is a very good point and a fair question. This investigation is not by Ministers but has been presented by the Cabinet Secretary to the Prime Minister, and we should have confidence in that. It has involved going through a huge number of documents, and the publication of additional documents that would not normally be released, and those things should be helpful in providing the necessary assurances to people. On top of that, as I announced in my statement, there will be a review of how we release documents, to ensure that all Departments are living up to their responsibilities and doing so in a uniform way, and that includes looking at the processes for withholding information. I hope that all that, and the fact that we are moving from a 30-year rule to a 20-year rule, will fortify or produce some public confidence in the transparency of the processes.
The events of 1984 were tragic and still impact on the lives of many Sikh families in my constituency. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be a disservice to the victims and their families if some Members of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition made this a party political issue, rather than a pursuit of truth, transparency and closure for those families?
Of course I agree with that, but I am not accusing anybody in the House of doing anything other than seeking the truth about these matters, and it is important we do that across parties. Procedures for the release of documents have been established across parties and different Governments over a long period of time, and I hope that if we improve and change those procedures, that will also command cross-party consensus. Let us hope that Members across the House will always approach the issue in that spirit.
The core fact exposed by the release of documents a few weeks ago and in the Foreign Secretary’s statement today is that advice was given by this country in the run-up to an attack on the holiest place in Sikhism. Given that fact, and given the tremendous pain and grief over the broader events of 1984 in India, does the Foreign Secretary understand that there will be calls in the community for an apology or gesture of reconciliation from the Government, and will he give the House his response to those calls? What can the Government do internationally to get to the full truth of this matter, because the British Sikh community feels that that full truth has never been told?
There are several parts to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. I think the report should be acknowledged, even by those who criticise it, as a big step in establishing the truth about many matters. It is clear and covers many documents, and is a thorough piece of work by the Cabinet Secretary. It is important for us to support all processes of reconciliation, and to do so through the dialogue with the Sikh community which I am sure the Government will continue, as, I hope, will all political parties in this country. When it comes to judging these past events for ourselves, if I or any of us thought that this country had at any time materially contributed to unnecessary loss of life, it would be something that we should say was a mistake, for which the country should apologise. That case cannot be made for these documents, however, and we must respect what they say.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. It is a wounding time for many of my constituents, who have contacted me, and I appreciate the candour that he has displayed at the Dispatch Box today. Together, I am sure, with many other hon. Members, I would like to gather these now public documents and get them back to our constituents so that they may see for themselves. I congratulate the whole team on putting this package together. It will help calm matters down.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and as I said earlier, I hope people will read the report and documents, and see for themselves that the Government are being as transparent as possible about this matter and that there is information for people to read and digest.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. While accepting that nothing we can say or do can undo the tragic loss of life and hurt felt within the Sikh community—we in Northern Ireland know about such things over 30 years—is the Foreign Secretary certain that the Cabinet Secretary’s report and examination of all issues surrounding the Indian operation has been thorough, rigorous and factually correct, and that there has not been, nor will there be, any cover up of the facts?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that nothing any of us can do or say makes up for what so many people experienced during those events, and we must understand that. It is important that we set out what happened as we understand it as clearly and transparently as possible, and I can give a clear yes to the whole of his question.
As a former Army officer who represents a constituency with a large number of Sikhs, I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for the serious and rigorous way they have approached this issue. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that had the distinguished SAS Major’s advice been taken, there would have been a much lower level of violence? Indeed, if that advice had been taken in full, there would have been no violence at all, rather than the—to my mind—appalling behaviour of the Indian Government in the assault in Operation Metal, and the weeks and months that followed. We must remember that, for the victims of that, justice remains in very short supply.
Of course, we can never know for sure what would have happened under different circumstances or a different plan. It is clear from the Cabinet Secretary’s report that the UK military adviser gave advice about using negotiations and using force only as a last resort, and the military advice he gave was partly based on the desire to reduce casualties all round. It is important that those points are fully brought out and understood, as my hon. Friend suggests.
As chair of the all-party group for British Sikhs, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) for bringing this matter to light in the first place. I also thank the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for their swift and transparent report. Does the Foreign Secretary agree, however, that the knowledge of even one military adviser going over in February 1984 will cause anger and hurt to the British Sikh community? Will he consider the possibility of a further report into the consequences of the attack on the Sri Harmandir Sahib?
I understand how any of the matters that we are discussing can cause worry, speculation and suspicion, and we must be as transparent as possible about such things. The hon. Gentleman asks about a further report, but it is important to remember that we can only investigate and inquire into what we or our predecessors were responsible for. The Cabinet Secretary’s report makes clear that there is no evidence in the documents of any subsequent British military involvement in any military operations in the Punjab. There are many other wider issues and controversies that understandably cause people great distress to this day, but they are predominantly matters under Indian sovereignty, and part of the Indian people’s responsibility for their own affairs. There is a limit to how much the United Kingdom can inquire into those things.
In his question, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson) rightly placed these issues in the context, for many British Sikhs, of a search for justice and truth about the atrocities in 1984. In the consultation his colleagues will undertake with Sikh organisations and others, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will listen to the wider issues and that he will go beyond the national organisations to listen to local organisations, too?
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that Coventry has a relatively large and very successful Sikh community. He will also probably know that for the past 30 years, since the incident happened, I have been lobbied in this House repeatedly by the Sikh community. We had hoped that his statement today would bring closure, but I fear it will not. One of the problems is the military files that have been destroyed and much of what I have received from the Sikh community recently has been on that point. His statement today said that that “included one file on the provision of military advice to the Indian authorities on their contingency plans”. Only some of those other destroyed military documents have been found in other files—only some. Can he reassure the House that the bulk of the destroyed files did not relate to the critical period of February and June, and then immediately after June?