House of Commons
Wednesday 26 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—
National Crime Agency
It is important for the security of people in Northern Ireland that the NCA should be fully operational there. I continue to raise this issue with the Northern Ireland parties, the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply, but she will be aware of the concerns about the issue of human trafficking, which is a problem across the United Kingdom, including trafficking from Northern Ireland into Scotland. Can she confirm that despite the fact that the National Crime Agency is not yet operating in Northern Ireland, the PSNI does have the full resources to enable it to tackle this heinous crime?
I fully share the hon. Lady’s sentiments about the horrific nature of the crime of human trafficking. Because it raises immigration questions, the NCA does have power to act in this area within Northern Ireland, so I can give her the assurance that it is providing the PSNI with all the support that is required on those matters. It is on crimes within the devolved sphere that the NCA’s capacity is currently restricted.
At the moment, the NCA cannot carry out police operations in Northern Ireland, and last year the Police Service of Northern Ireland had to draft in officers from around the UK. Will the Secretary of State confirm her intention to see a fully staffed Police Service of Northern Ireland above the minimum number identified by the Chief Constable, before the marching season and before other commemoration parades take place?
The Government have provided significant extra funding for the PSNI—£200 million in the current spending review and £30 million in 2015-16. I continue to support and encourage the discussions between the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department of Justice and the PSNI on the Executive’s contribution to police funding. It is also important that the NCA provide as much support as it can to the PSNI, within the constraints it is under because of the lack of a legislative consent motion.
On the prevention and detection of crime, does my right hon. Friend share the shock of many of us that the Executive seem to have interfered in the Downey case and others and in the actions of the police and the prosecution? Will she assure me that it will not be the policy of this Government to blur the lines between the Executive and the judicial process in an unacceptable way?
Clearly, the failure to operate the National Crime Agency as a result of republican blocking of that is a disgrace and it is undermining policing and justice. But equally, the Downey decision has undermined confidence in policing and justice. Will the Secretary of State now publish the numbers of letters that have been sent to these people—the names, the contents of these letters; and would she now rescind this disgraceful and shameful back-door scheme?
I fully understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and it was clearly a very difficult day for the families yesterday. As I published in my written ministerial statement, we believe that around 200 cases were processed through this scheme. The individuals were sent factual letters indicating whether or not they were wanted for terrorism offences. It was not an amnesty and it was never intended to be such. There was always the recognition that if further evidence of further offences was produced, a prosecution was then a possibility. The reason for the outcome of the Downey case was that unfortunately a grave mistake was made, when Mr Downey was sent a letter saying he was not wanted for offences when in fact he was.
The grief, the words of devastation from the families of the soldiers concerned in the Hyde park bombing are an indictment of what is going on. There is outrage, not just in Northern Ireland but right across the country, about this—how an official’s letter can trump due process of law in this country. Will the Secretary of State realise how serious this is, not just for the process of law and order, but for the very stability and continued existence of devolution in Northern Ireland, where the Assembly has full responsibility for policing and justice, but these facts were withheld from the Justice Minister and the First Minister? This has very, very serious implications for devolution.
I am very much aware of the very serious implications this case has, and they have also been conveyed to me by the First Minister, whom I look forward to meeting this evening to discuss this matter with.
As I announced yesterday, the Northern Ireland Office, along with the PSNI, is undertaking an urgent check of all letters that were issued under the scheme to establish whether any further mistakes were made that could lead to the same outcome that was witnessed in relation to the Downey case. It is also vital that we get to the bottom of why such a very serious mistake was made within the PSNI and why the PSNI did not draw it to the attention of the Northern Ireland Office, and of course I will be discussing this matter with David Ford and the First Minister.
Public Sector Jobs
The long-term sustainable answer for the Northern Ireland economy must be a private sector revival. There have been significant labour market improvements over the last year and private sector jobs are up by more than 10,000 from the beginning of 2012.
I thank the Minister for that response. Ireland, like Wales, has traditionally been reliant on public sector jobs. It is estimated that 26,000 public sector jobs in Northern Ireland will be lost by 2017, so has the Secretary of State had a chance to study the active industrial policy of Wales, which in the last week has seen jobs attracted to Pinewood studios in Wentloog and to General Dynamics UK in Oakdale in my constituency?
Actually, I have not studied the experience of Wales, although, as the hon. Gentleman will know, my family comes from his constituency. However, through the Northern Ireland Executive, we have agreed the economic pact, which understands the need to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy further towards private sector involvement and less towards public sector employment. For instance, in terms of Pinewood studios we have got a rather interesting programme called—what is it called?
May I just say that the programme a “Game of Thrones” is made in Belfast now? I do not recommend it personally, Mr Speaker, having watched the lot.
We are taking steps on the digital economy and indeed, throughout the United Kingdom, we are going for digital by default. We are very keen that more is done in Northern Ireland in terms of the use of internet and digital in general. We are very clear about that, but this matter is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and we help them with it through the economic pact.
Contrary to the views of the Minister, and given the importance of public sector jobs to the local economy, what further measures will be taken to protect and retain Driver and Vehicle Agency jobs in Northern Ireland as well as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs jobs in Newry?
The hon. Lady, for whom I have a great respect, has raised this matter with me before. What I would say about both public agencies is, first, they are not our responsibility: the DVA is, of course, the responsibility of the Department for Transport; and HMRC is the responsibility of HMRC. However, I would also say that we need to see in Northern Ireland and elsewhere—this refers to the last question—
It is the DVA in Northern Ireland.
In relation to the last question, those of us in the rest of the United Kingdom, for instance, register our vehicles online; I certainly do and I guess most other Members of the House do. People need to be able to do that in Northern Ireland as well. Changing working practices means that there will be changes in employment. We do not want to see anybody out of work, but we do need changes in working practices.
To follow on from the question by the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), the loss of the DVA jobs in Coleraine and the loss of HMRC jobs are very specific to Northern Ireland and will affect the economy. What discussions has the Minister had with Arlene Foster, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, to ensure that private enterprise can create jobs for those who are losing jobs?
There is a real drive towards getting more private sector jobs. For instance, only this month EE, the mobile phone company, has said that it will create 250 jobs in Northern Ireland; my hon. Friend will know that Arlene Foster and Ministers from the UK Government have visited the Singapore air show, and they hope to bring back potential contracts worth £479 million with Bombardier; and 100 jobs are being created with a £32 million investment in County Antrim. We are keen to get private sector jobs up there. We are getting private investment—the Government are on to exactly that. The economic pact and the investment conference last year are driving this forward, and we very much hope that by working together with the Northern Ireland Executive we get better employment.
The UK Government continue to support and encourage party leaders in Northern Ireland as they pursue the Haass issues. A cross-party agreement on flags, parading and the past would deliver significant benefits for Northern Ireland.
Next month, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach meet for their second annual review of progress on the joint agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that that offers an opportunity for both leaders to send out a strong message to all the parties in Northern Ireland about their commitment to securing agreement and advances on all the issues covered by Haass and papers, including the past?
Both the Irish and the UK Governments are strongly supportive of the efforts made by the Northern Ireland parties to reach agreement on those three matters, including the past. I cannot anticipate exactly what will be in the communiqué, but I am sure that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will continue to express their support for the process, and the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, continues to be in close touch with me on these matters.
Of course, any new structures would have to be compliant with the UK’s obligations under the Human Rights Act. As for resources, as I have said on a number of occasions, the UK Government would primarily expect the block grant given to the Northern Ireland Executive to be the source of funding for new arrangements on the past. If there is a proposal for additional funding, that would be considered seriously.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if Northern Ireland is to have a prosperous future, it needs to reach full accommodation with the events of its past? What steps will she personally take to ensure that the progress that was made in the Haass agreement is carried forward into full agreement in future?
I continue to urge the parties to seek a way forward and to set out the benefits that an agreement on flags, parading and the past would bring to Northern Ireland. I continue to engage closely with the Irish Government on these matters, and I shall continue to do all those things.
As the House has already heard, the Downey case raises very serious issues. It is absolutely right that we all reflect on the consequences of that decision, and that there is a thorough investigation into the grave mistake by the PSNI which, I am afraid, led to the outcome in the case yesterday.
It has been suggested that a culture of trust needs to be developed. Will my right hon. Friend consider looking again at what are effectively the amnesties that were handed out? We need to look at that if Northern Ireland is to prosper in future.
The scheme was created by the previous Government and, to be fair to them, it was never an amnesty, as I have explained to the House. These letters set out in a factual way whether individuals were believed to be wanted by the police in Northern Ireland or elsewhere in the UK. The current Government looked at the scheme in 2012 and decided that future inquiries should be sent to the devolved Administration in line with the devolution of policing and justice.
There has been much discussion of deadlines and timetables. I certainly think that it would be very helpful if the parties felt able to put together a road map towards reaching a full agreement, but I fully appreciate how difficult these issues are. As we have heard this morning, they have probably been made more difficult to resolve by the events of the last 24 hours.
On the past and the Downey case, I agree with the Secretary of State that there was never any question of an amnesty. May I also say that I make no apology for being part of a process that brought Northern Ireland from the hideous horror and evil of the past to the position where old enemies have now governed together for seven years in a stable, devolved Government—no apology for that at all? Just as we had to do deals with my Democratic Unionist party friends sitting over there to get to this point, so we have had to do deals with Sinn Fein to get to this point, and that was necessary for the negotiations to succeed and for peace to be established.
Clearly, many difficult decisions were made as a result of the peace process. Some aspects of the Good Friday agreement were hard to swallow for many in the House, but I think that it is important that we reflect on the implications of the John Downey case and how a very serious mistake came to be made. Of course, as I have said to the House, we are urgently checking to ensure that similar mistakes were not made in any other cases.
It is rather disgraceful that any former Secretary of State could compare the DUP to terrorists. Has not the Downey revelation in reality made the Haass talks a farce and destroyed any process Haass has ever started? Does it not erode confidence among the general law-abiding community, and is this not indeed a dark day for justice as far as the United Kingdom is concerned?
My primary thoughts are with the families of those who died on that terrible day in July 1982. This whole episode must have provoked very painful memories. I am sure that it is a source of sadness and regret for them, as it is for us, that no one has been brought to justice for the Hyde park bombing. Despite the long shadow that this case is likely to cast, I hope that the Northern Ireland parties will continue to work together to see whether a solution can be found to deal with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland.
As I have said, these are hugely important matters. It would be of great benefit to Northern Ireland if an agreed way forward could be found. Some very important work has been going on in recent weeks between the party leaders, with real dedication to try to find a way forward. There is no doubt that finding a way forward will now be more difficult, given the events of the past 24 hours, but I continue to encourage the parties to do so.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a key reason why we must deal with the past is the need to assure people that we did not end the dirty war just to end up with a dirty peace? Is that not even more imperative after yesterday’s revelations, which prove that some of us were right when we warned the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) and others that they were blighting the peace process with their penchant for side deals, pseudo-deals, sub-deals, shabby deals and secret deals, which are now doing fundamental damage to the Haass process and to the process more widely?
I know that the hon. Gentleman was one of the foremost opponents of Labour’s proposed legislation on an amnesty, which was also opposed by both coalition parties. I cannot agree with him on his characterisation of Northern Ireland’s troubles as a dirty war. I believe that the vast majority of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the military served with great integrity, distinction, courage and bravery, and we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude for creating the conditions in which peace was eventually found.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the issues raised by the judgment in the John Downey case underline the importance of the Government supporting the all-party talks to reach an agreement that puts truth and justice for victims at the heart of dealing with the past? Can she confirm that the current Government have sent out a number of letters to on-the-runs as part of the scheme covered by the Downey case? Today it is important that above all else we remember the soldiers who lost their lives in Hyde park on that dreadful day in July 1982 and the suffering that their families continue to endure. That act was heinous and, like all terrorist atrocities, totally unjustifiable. The PSNI is right to apologise to the families of the victims and commit to an investigation into how such a horrendous error could have occurred.
I agree that a way forward on the past must put victims at its heart. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I remain very supportive of efforts through the Haass process to find a way forward. I can confirm that 38 cases were dealt with by the current Government under the OTR administrative scheme. That was reviewed by the current Government, who decided that it was better for any future cases to be referred to the devolved authorities, in line with the devolution of policing and justice, but we did process a number of cases supplied prior to the general election. I also believe that it is absolutely vital that the PSNI investigates thoroughly why things went so badly wrong in relation to this case and that all of us in this House convey our deep and grave sympathy to the victims of the terrible atrocity that took place in Hyde park.
Order. First, there are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Secondly, I very politely ask the Secretary of State please to speak up a little. Mr Lewis, I am sure that the second question will be much shorter than the first.
At a time when the Haass talks are seeking to focus on truth and justice for victims and their families, will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that the Government will stop buck-passing between Departments and prevent the Survivors for Peace programme going to the wall? At the invitation of Labour’s excellent parliamentary candidate in Warrington, Nick Bent, I had the privilege of visiting the Warrington peace centre last week. The Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace, under the inspirational leadership of Colin and Wendy Parry, does a tremendous job and deserves support from this Government.
I, too, have had the pleasure of visiting the peace centre; Colin Parry has done a wonderful job there. I am keen to work with my excellent hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) to see whether we can find a way forward on the victims’ support charity. I assure the House that the future of the peace centre is secure; I understand that it is separate from the victims’ support charity. However, I fully appreciate the importance of seeking to find a way forward to resolve the difficulties that Colin Parry’s charity faces.
Neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State nor I have held any discussions with members of the Finucane family or their representatives recently.
Today, when people have been speaking of the four soldiers murdered in Hyde park, one of whom I knew—and let us not forget the seven bandsmen murdered in Regent’s park at the same time—we should remember that the overwhelming majority of soldiers, RUC and Ulster Defence Regiment, served with distinction and with honour, as Desmond Da Silva said. Secondly, let me point out to the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister has already apologised twice for the collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane, which was of course disgraceful. The review by Desmond Da Silva found, I think, all the facts that needed to be known. The Secretary of State has indicated to the family that she will meet them should they wish to see her. However, there is a judicial review going on which queers this pitch slightly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House can have full confidence in the justice and objectiveness of Sir Desmond Da Silva’s report, Sir Desmond Da Silva being a very distinguished international lawyer who has prosecuted war crimes in Sierra Leone, with the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, and recently led the inquiry into war crimes in Syria?
I think we can all agree with that. Sir Desmond is a very distinguished lawyer who found out the facts. As I understand it, Mr Ken Barrett has already been convicted of the murder of Pat Finucane. I do not think that a public inquiry like the Saville inquiry would reveal more than we know already.
The Government have belatedly taken a very forthright view on the inquiry on the Pat Finucane case. Does not the firestorm around the Downey case ensure that the Government should take a position, stick to the position, make it clear that they are not moving from the position, and allow everyone to know that?
I think the firestorm to which the hon. Gentleman refers is one on which we should all reflect. It is important that we move forward. An enormous amount has been achieved in terms of peace in Northern Ireland, and I am concerned about where such actions as took place yesterday may actually lead.
7. What recent assessment she has made of the Government’s economic policies on youth unemployment in Northern Ireland. (902704)
Specific measures to address youth unemployment in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the Executive there. The Government’s efforts to reduce the largest structural deficit in UK peacetime history are now bearing fruit. This, more than anything, will help deliver a sustainable economic recovery and so directly assist young people to find employment.
But the fact remains that this Government continue to fail the young people of Northern Ireland even more than the young people of the rest of the country. Youth unemployment, at 23.8%, is a full 25% higher than the UK average, and that is bad enough. It is clear that special measures are required; does the Minister have anything specific in mind?
We are all concerned about youth unemployment; we must be. However, the hon. Gentleman should know that under the previous Government the number of under-25s in work dropped from 124,000 to 107,000. Under this Government, the number of under-25s in work has risen, and over 3,000 young people in Northern Ireland have come off benefits. It is a growing and improving economy across the United Kingdom that will deliver work to young people.
I am sorry, but that is just not good enough. We are in danger of seeing a lost generation. Nearly half of those who are unemployed have been unemployed for more than 12 months. What specifically are the Government doing so that we do not lose another generation of young people?
As I have, said, we are all concerned about youth unemployment, but this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, not for us, because we have devolved that responsibility. It is a rising tide of economic recovery that will bring work to young people. The chief executive of the Prince’s Trust in Belfast has said:
“We’re quietly optimistic about the economy improving this year…it will take months if not years to filter through to…young people”.
That is what we want to see happening.
The Secretary of State will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) recently visited the Secret Garden project, which employs young people with learning disabilities on the Hillsborough estate. They face redundancy. Will the Secretary of State reconsider her decision not to compensate the charity for the £400,000 investment it made in improving the site, and ask Historic Royal Palaces to consider retaining its involvement?
We all, of course, applaud any work with people with learning disabilities. However, that does not mean that this is the best way in which people can be served by a charity in Hillsborough, which would diminish the opportunity for Historic Royal Palaces to look after Hillsborough castle. I question the figure of £400,000 and think we should go back and look at the accounts more carefully.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I thank the Prime Minister for his answer, but I think we should congratulate Team GB on its tremendous success at the recent winter Olympics.
This week HSBC announced staff bonuses of £2.3 billion and a 140% pay rise to its chief executive. When ordinary British families face a cost of living crisis and too many people languish on the dole, is it not time for this Government to listen to Labour and to tax bank bonuses to get our young people back to work?
Let me join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Team GB on its best medal performance at a winter games since 1924. It was a huge honour to welcome them to Downing street, where I had an explanation of the tasks of skeleton bobsleighing and, indeed, curling. Our congratulations go to everyone involved and all those who helped to train them.
Bank bonuses are well down from the appalling situation that was left by the previous Labour Government, but what we need to see is the proper control of all forms of pay and bonuses. What I do not want to see, and what I think we would get from the Labour party, is a focus only on bonuses, because, of course, you can claw back a bonus, but you cannot claw back pay. We do not want to go back to the days of Fred Goodwin, where you could be paid well for an appalling performance.
Q2. Does the Prime Minister recognise that it is part of the job of Church leaders to challenge Governments about poverty? Will he discuss with them measures that can help people out of poverty, like the pupil premium, cutting tax on low pay and measures to help troubled families? There is nothing particularly moral about pouring even more borrowed money into systems that can trap people in poverty and dependence on state benefits. (902669)
My right hon. Friend, who is himself a distinguished churchman, talks perfect sense. There is nothing moral about running up huge deficits and out-of-control welfare bills. If we do not deal with those problems the whole country will be poorer. We should listen to the words of George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that
“the churches should beware of the dangers of blithely defending a gargantuan welfare budget that every serious politician would cut as a matter of economic common sense.”
I think that serious politicians have to engage with this, and that should go for everybody.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Graeme Morrice) and the Prime Minister in congratulating Team GB on a brilliant performance at the winter Olympics.
As the immediate threat of floods passes, there are still thousands out of their homes; parts of the Somerset levels are still under water; and hundreds of businesses and farms are still struggling to recover. The Committee on Climate Change, the House of Commons Library and the UK Statistics Authority have all now said that Government investment in flood defences has fallen. In the light of this and of the events we have seen, does the Prime Minister think it is right to revisit the plans for investment in flood defences?
We will look very carefully at the plans for flood defences, but of course we have set out spending figures all the way to 2020, not all of which are fully committed, which are major investments in flood defences. As I said two weeks ago, as the waters recede and as the Environment Agency and others can look at what happened, we can review and see what new measures might be necessary. Let me just repeat the point that in this four-year period, and indeed in this Parliament, overall spending on flood defences has gone up.
I am afraid that the figures the Prime Minister is quoting are phoney, and I believe he knows it. This is what the UK Statistics Authority says—[Interruption.] I know that Government Members do not want to hear it, but it says:
“government funding for flood defences was lower in both nominal and real terms during the current spending period than during the last”.
The only way to claim otherwise is by ignoring inflation and claiming credit for the money that other organisations—other than Government—spend. Why does the Prime Minister not admit it? They have cut flood defence spending, and he has been caught out.
The fact is that in the period from 2010, when I became Prime Minister, to 2014, the spending has been £2.4 billion—more than the £2.2 billion in the previous four years. In the five-year period of this Parliament, during all of which I will be Prime Minister, the spending is higher than for the previous five years. Those are the facts.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I think having this debate is slightly pointless. The whole country should be coming together to deal with flood defences. The fact is that from the moment he turned up in a flooded village with the Labour candidate alongside him, he has completely misjudged the mood of the country.
First, let me say to the Prime Minister that if it is a simple choice between the UK Statistics Authority and him, people will believe the UK Statistics Authority on what has happened. The assessment of how much to invest in flood defence depends significantly on an assessment of the risks posed by man-made climate change. In opposition, he said this about climate change:
“It’s easy to do the softer things like ride your bike, visit glaciers and rebuild your house to make it green”—
it is he who said it—
“but it’s only clear you mean it when you do the tough things as well. Like telling the truth about climate change.”
So what is the truth about climate change?
The truth about climate change is that this Government have a programme to reduce carbon right across our economy. We started with the Government themselves: compared with the Government the right hon. Gentleman left in 2010, when he was Energy and Climate Change Secretary, the Government’s own carbon emissions are down 14%.
Let me just return to the issue of flood defence spending, because I think the people of this country will want to know this. The right hon. Gentleman is committed to a zero-based spending review. [Interruption.] “Yes, we are,” says the shadow Chancellor in an unusually helpful intervention. A zero-based spending review means that the Opposition cannot pledge to match the flood spending we are making in 2016, 2017, 2018 and all the way to 2020. The people of this country have absolutely no guarantee that they will take either climate change seriously or flood defences seriously.
What total nonsense, and the Prime Minister knows it. It is very interesting, because someone who in opposition wanted to talk as much as he could about climate change is now desperate to get off the subject. I asked him a question: will he just set out for his party and for the country his views on man-made climate change?
I believe that man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world face. That is why we have the world’s first green investment bank here in Britain. That is why, unlike in the 13 wasted years of Labour, we are building the first nuclear power station for 30 years in this country. That is why we have cut the carbon that is emitted by the Government by 14% since coming to office. That is why we have set out, year after year, carbon budgets for this country. The Opposition talk a good game, but it takes people to come in and govern effectively to deal with it.
Excellent; we are getting somewhere. I agree with what the Prime Minister said about the importance of climate change. The reason this matters is that people in the most important positions in his Government are going around questioning climate change. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said:
“People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries,”
and he refuses to be briefed on climate change. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), when asked about climate change, said:
“You are not going to draw me on that. I’ve not had time to get into the…climate change debate.”
That is the Energy Minister! Will the Prime Minister clarify his position? Is he happy to have climate change deniers in his Government?
This is obviously the new approach to Prime Minister’s questions: the right hon. Gentleman comes to the House and praises the Prime Minister for his commitment on climate change and the environment. I like the new style. I thought that I might miss Punch and Judy, but this is much more refreshing.
The Government have a solid track record of cutting carbon, negotiating internationally and investing in nuclear. We have the biggest renewable energy programme in our country’s history. For the first time in a long time, we are on track to meet our renewables targets. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to get up again and congratulate me on that excellent record on the environment.
The whole country will have heard that the Prime Minister cannot answer the question about whether people need to believe in man-made climate change to be part of his Government. He has gone from thinking that it was a basic part of his credo to thinking that it is a matter of individual conscience. He used to claim that it was his passion above all else. Here’s the thing: if we are properly to protect—[Interruption.]
Here’s the thing: if we are properly to protect the British people against the threats that they face, we cannot have doubt and confusion in the Government on the issue of climate change. The Prime Minister needs to rediscover the courage of his past convictions and tell his party to get real on climate change.
People can measure the courage of my convictions by my acts in government: the green investment bank, the cuts in carbon, the investment in renewables and the investment in nuclear. The right hon. Gentleman talks a good game, but he did not achieve anything in office. The most serious form of denial in British politics today comes from the reality deniers of the Labour party. What is their plan for the deficit? Nothing. What is their plan for welfare reform? Nothing. What is their plan for long-term investment, because that is what is required in respect of climate change? It requires long-term investment like high-speed rail, long-term investment like nuclear power and long-term investment like fixing our economy. That is what this Government are doing. All he does is get up and deliver a lot of hot air.
Q3. Will my right hon. Friend seek advice on the report by the whistleblowing commission set up by Public Concern at Work, which was led by Sir Anthony Hooper and included Michael Woodford, the whistleblower at Olympus, and see whether he can bring together people in Government to consider its recommendations and how we can stop the persecution of people like Dr Kim Holt, who was the whistleblower before the baby P case, and others whom I will not mention now? (902670)
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. As he knows, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 protects most workers from being unfairly dismissed by their employer when they have reported a matter of concern—when they have blown the whistle. We strengthened those protections in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. We will always back whistleblowers when they challenge poor standards, particularly in large organisations. I am happy to ensure that he discusses with the relevant Minister—probably the Minister for Government Policy—any further steps that we need to take in that direction.
Does the Prime Minister get the depth of the hurt among victims’ families, and the deep sense of public outrage right across the country as a result of the outcome of the Downey case? He needs to understand that for a letter signed by an official to trump due process and the courts of this land without any parliamentary, legislative or statutory underpinning, is deeply offensive to the public in this country. Will he now scrap these get-out-of-jail-free letters immediately, and will he do everything in his power to reverse the despicable decision in the Downey case, so that justice can be done for the families of the bereaved?
First, I completely understand the depth of anger and concern that people will feel right across the country about the appalling events that happened in 1982, and the fact that the person responsible is now not going to be appropriately tried. Of course that is absolutely shocking, and our first thought should be with those 11 soldiers and their families and friends. It may have happened 32 years ago, but anyone who has lost someone in a situation like that will mourn them today as if it happened yesterday. We should be absolutely clear: Downey should never have received the letter that he received. It was a dreadful mistake, and we now need to have a rapid factual review to make sure that this cannot happen again. Whatever happens, we have to stick to the principle that we are a country and a Government under the rule of law.
Q4. My right hon. Friend has taken swift action to help flood-hit communities, and I welcome the £10 million relief fund for farmers. The grade 1 farmland in the Alt-Crossens basin is at risk from Environment Agency scaremongering to reduce land drainage and close pumping stations. In light of recent events, will my right hon. Friend reassure growers in my constituency that the necessary protections will be given to their land, and that as well as being able to react swiftly, the Government are planning for the long-term security of this profitable industry? (902671)
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I am glad that she is advertising to her farmers the availability of the £10 million fund, which I hope will be useful for those who have lost productive land because it has been under water for so long. The point she makes about farmers, landowners and others being nervous about dredging and draining their land because of EA rules is a good one. As I have said before, I think the pendulum swung too far against dredging, and that needs to change and that will change. It is not the only answer or the whole answer to the problems she discusses, but it does have a proper part in properly managing the landscape.
Q5. The tragic death on a Birmingham street of Sarah Child devastated her family and shocked the community. A much-loved sister and daughter, she was killed, and her sister Claire—who was pregnant—was severely injured by a speeding driver doing 64 mph, who got but four years in prison. Does the Prime Minister agree that the time has come to look again at the sentencing of those who kill with a car? (902672)
First, my heart goes out to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent who was tragically killed in this incident, and to her family. I do think it right to look again at motoring offences and the penalties that are given. I have discussed this issue with the Secretary of State for Justice, who has already made some proposals and changes in that area. I am sure he will be listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Q6. The response of NHS Wales to Sir Bruce Keogh’s e-mail recommending a Keogh-style investigation into Welsh hospitals of concern was that it would respond only to legitimate concerns. Is the Prime Minister as astounded as I am that NHS Wales thinks that the views of the chief medical director of England, and now the Royal College of Surgeons, are not legitimate, and will he work with the Leader of the Opposition and try to persuade him to get his party in Wales to reverse that terrible decision and carry out an investigation into Welsh hospitals that could save lives? (902673)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point and Sir Bruce Keogh’s views should be respected and listened to by the NHS in Wales. In particular, she makes a point about the Royal College of Surgeons and what it has said today, which is effectively that there are people on NHS waiting lists in Wales who are dying because waiting lists are too long and because the NHS is not being properly managed, properly funded and properly reformed in Wales. That is a matter for the Labour Welsh Assembly Government, and they need to get their act together.
Will the Prime Minister accept the overwhelming humanitarian case for guaranteeing long-term support to victims and survivors of terrorism? If so, will he agree to meet with me, Colin Parry and survivors of the 7/7 London bombings who have benefited from the services of the Survivors for Peace programme, which is now facing imminent closure? In doing so, will he remember his pledge that survivors of terrorism must know that they always have the support of the whole country?
First, may I commend the right hon. Lady for the extraordinary work she did in government and continues to do in opposition to help the survivors of terrorist attacks, particularly the dreadful attacks that took place in London? I have seen at first hand the experience and brilliant touch that she brings to this important work. I am very happy to have the meetings she discussed. The Foundation for Peace is a unique charity that does an extraordinary job in supporting victims and families. I will be discussing its future with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) too. Obviously, we want to make sure that all these institutions can continue their excellent work. I am happy to hold those discussions with the right hon. Lady and, as I said, with my hon. Friend.
Q7. We all want to see a more balanced economy. Does the Prime Minister agree that today’s stonking upward rise in business investment of over 9% shows that British business and British entrepreneurs are really rising to this challenge? (902674)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Right across this House, many experts have been saying that what we need is a balanced recovery—one that sees increases in exports as well as increases in consumption, and one that sees increases in investment from business. The uprating of the GDP figures showing an increase in exports, and, as he says, a very large increase in business investment, is hugely welcome for our country.
Q8. Given yesterday’s court revelations of a secret scheme, does the Prime Minister believe that, as well as the parties in Northern Ireland progressing the elements on dealing with the past from the Haass talks, there is a need for transparency from the two Governments regarding the confused and shabby ways in which they sought to deal with the past since the agreement, remembering that Downing street was involved in this matter? (902675)
I agree with the hon. Lady that the Haass talks made some good progress. They were trying to deal with some of the most difficult issues in Northern Ireland, in terms of flags and parades, and perhaps the most difficult issue of all, the past. It is going to take a lot of courage and bravery from people on all sides in order to make progress in this way. She wants to point the finger, apparently, particularly at Downing street. I would argue that, when it has come to dealing with things like the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the de Silva report, Downing street is very happy to play its role in helping to bring parties together to make sure that we continue with peace in Northern Ireland.
Given what the Prime Minister has called the Leader of the Opposition’s new approach and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s forthcoming visit tomorrow, does he think that there is something we can learn from her about an even broader based approach to coalition building that would unite the whole country? While it is true that under such circumstances he would have to give some red meat to Labour and some red meat to us, it would have the huge advantage for all of us of leaving the Liberal Democrats where they belong.
My admiration for Angela Merkel is enormous and there are many things that she has achieved that I would like to copy, not least getting re-elected, but a grand coalition is one thing I do not want to copy. I think the idea of a grand coalition is a bit too much for me.
Q9. What steps will the Prime Minister and the Government take to insist that the National Crime Agency co-operates with the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the legislation to tackle people trafficking in Northern Ireland? Will he give an assurance that those involved in criminality in Northern Ireland will not be in possession of a letter that is their passport to freedom, ever mindful that the NCA does not have free reign in Northern Ireland? (902676)
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I have been very impressed by the work the National Crime Agency is now doing. I think it is a huge improvement on its predecessor. It has got real strength, heft and numbers in terms of being able to tackle organised crime. It is bad for Northern Ireland that the NCA is not able to properly operate there. I hope that over time, with talks between the parties, it will be possible to make progress. That would be good for Northern Ireland and good for our fight against organised crime.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your new role as chancellor of Bedfordshire university?
In the last three years, 99 brave soldiers have given their lives for this country in Afghanistan. In the same period, 264 British women have been murdered—murders perpetrated by men—and over three quarters of those women were stalked before they were murdered. Will the Prime Minister please give a guarantee that this Government will introduce legislation to protect women from that fate in the future, particularly given the ease with which stalkers can now begin their stalking activities via social media and the internet?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she says. She is right that stalking is an appalling crime. It can destroy lives and we need to do as much as we can to crack down on it. We have, of course, introduced a new offence to make absolutely clear the view that we take of it. The new stalking laws are also equally applicable to online, cyber-stalking and harassment, and the Crown Prosecution Service has published guidelines for involving communications sent via social media, so we tackle this in the online world as well as the physical world. However, I am very happy to write to my hon. Friend with all the detail of all the things we are doing and to see whether there are further steps we can take.
Q10. When the Prime Minister was asked about the bedroom tax last year, he said:“what we have done is to exempt disabled people who need an extra room.”—[Official Report, 27 November 2013; Vol. 571, c. 254.]Now that we know that people with terminal illness who cannot share a room, those who have to store equipment such as dialysis machines and families with severely disabled children who need occasional respite are all subject to this pernicious tax, would he like to revise that answer and to apologise to the disabled people to whom he gave false hope? (902677)
First, let me repeat—this is a basic issue of fairness—that people who are renting in the private sector do not get additional money for rooms that they do not use, so it is not fair to have a different set of rules for the social sector. But we also have a large discretionary payment system in order to help families such as the ones the hon. Lady mentions.
Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree that the increase in jobs—or, as has been said, the “stonking” increase—in the private sector is leading the UK’s economic recovery and is helped, if I may say so, by the range of engineers, manufacturers and retailers in Erewash, who are employing people and sending their exports round the world? (902678)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We now have 1.6 million new private sector jobs, meaning that there are 1.3 million more people employed in our country. We are seeing that growth in employment in every region of the country. Some are growing faster than others, and we need to keep up the work to make sure that this is a broadly balanced recovery, but one of the indicators of economic success is that week in, week out, the leader of the Labour party comes to the House of Commons and cannot mention employment. He cannot talk about the economy or about jobs, investment and growth, because all the things he said would never happen are happening in our economy.
Could the Prime Minister focus on the fact that Atos now wants to give up its contract for the work capability test? Is it not time to change the test back to one based on the medical evidence of the consultants of those who are applying? When 158,000 appeals are upheld, surely it is time for him also to rescind his decision to charge people for appeals.
First, I hope it is not too uncharitable to point out that the Atos contract was actually awarded by the last Labour Government. Of course we are now discussing and debating with the company how this should be taken forward, but the fact is that we do need in this country a way of determining whether people are fit for work. When it comes also to the issue of sanctions in our benefits system, frankly it is right that people who are offered a job and do not take it should now face a sanction. I think that will be the choice at the next election: one party in favour of hard-working people; another party obsessed by bigger and bigger benefits.
Q12. Britain’s armed forces are the best. They defend our interests at home and overseas and, as we are witnessing, are taking essential action in flooded areas. Prime Minister, please recognise the folly of reducing the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces and stop sacking full-time servicemen and women. (902679)
First, let me take this opportunity to praise the extraordinary role that armed forces personnel have played during the floods in our country over the past few weeks. It has been extraordinary to see their work.
What we have done, in terms of defence, is remove the £38 billion black hole that we were left. Of course, that meant making difficult decisions, including difficult decisions about the size of the Army, Navy and Air Force, but we now have one of the top five defence budgets in the world, in terms of spending. We are coming to the end of all the redundancy schemes, and we can now point loudly and proudly to the extraordinary investment that we shall be making in type 45 destroyers, new aircraft carriers, our hunter-killer submarines and our A400M aircraft—the best equipment that any armed forces could have anywhere in the world.
Q15. Yesterday I met Billy. He is 24 years old, and he had worked since the age of 15 until he lost his job a year ago. Billy told me that he had to resort to going through supermarket skips to find out-of-date food just so that he could eat. Billy is desperate to work. Why will the Prime Minister not offer him a job guarantee, rather than his having to scavenge for food in Iceland’s bins? (902682)
What we are doing for Billy, and for thousands like him, is offering jobs and hope that simply were not there under the last Labour Government. Opposition Members come here week after week to try to say that the country is somehow poorer or worse off under this Government, but let me remind the hon. Lady what it was like in 2009. In 2009, there were 1 million more people in poverty, 500,000 more children in poverty, 150,000 more unemployed people, and 750,000 more people claiming benefit than there are today. So yes, there is more to do, but we have a proud record of giving people jobs, because we are sticking to a long-term economic plan.
Q13. Just over a week ago, I joined year 5 and 6 pupils at Revel primary school in Monks Kirby, in my constituency. I asked them what they would like to ask the Prime Minister. One of them said that he would like to know why the Government kept on making so many new laws. I wonder if the Prime Minister could tell my young constituent what his Administration is doing to reduce the burden of legislation. (902680)
I think that my hon. Friend’s constituent could have a promising future in this place, because that is the sort of attitude that we need. I would say to my hon. Friend’s constituent that this will be the first Government since the war to leave office at the end of their term with fewer regulations in place than were there at the beginning. That is because of the excellent work of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and of the Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who have done a brilliant job in taking regulation off business so that we can create the wealth and jobs that we need.
The Prime Minister will know of the disappointment that there has been no oral statement to the House about the future of Stafford hospital. University Hospital of North Staffordshire is expected to take on the entire running of the combined sites for the people of north Staffordshire. Does the Prime Minister accept that at the last count there was a funding gap of £39 million in capital costs and £4 million in revenue costs? Will he ensure that whatever the new arrangements are, there will be an opportunity to question the Government, and that these changes will not proceed at the expense of the health of people in north Staffordshire?
What I can say to the hon. Lady is that a written statement is being made today about the future of Stafford hospital. It has been very difficult to try to deal with the appalling situation that we were in with that hospital. I am sure that there will be opportunities to debate the issue in the House, but I think the hon. Lady will see that what are being proposed are good steps to ensure that A and E continues at Stafford hospital, and hard work to establish whether it will be possible to continue consultant-led maternity services in the future so that people can go on having their babies delivered at the hospital. That is what I want to see. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will set out his proposals later, and I am sure that there will be many opportunities to debate them—and, indeed, to debate all the lessons that need to be learnt from the failure of Stafford hospital in the past.
Q14. Earlier this month, millions of Londoners were inconvenienced by a pointless Underground strike which was supported by only 30% of union members. Will my right hon. Friend agree to conduct a review with the aim of increasing the threshold so that pointless strikes in our public services can be outlawed? (902681)
My hon. Friend has made a good point. When we see how many people rely on essential public services, we know that the time has come to consider what changes we can make, and whether it is possible for us to see fewer of these strikes in future.
Another problem is that, despite repeated requests, the Labour party has completely refused to condemn what was a totally unnecessary strike. However, I do not think that we should be surprised, because this week they are all going on a cosy weekend with their trade union masters. We were told that they were heading for divorce; I think that they are going to renew their vows.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As I set out in a written statement to the House this morning, and further to yesterday’s written statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the prosecution of John Anthony Downey on four charges of murder and one of causing an explosion with intent arising out of the Hyde park bombing in 1982 has been stayed. I apologise to hon. Members who have read my written statement because, of necessity, a large part of what I say will repeat it.
Hon Members will know that the alleged offences arose out of the notorious bombing carried out by the Provisional IRA in Hyde park on the morning of Tuesday 20 July 1982. As members of the Blues and Royals Regiment of the Household Cavalry rode along South Carriage drive on their way to Horse Guards for the changing of the guard, a car bomb exploded.
The effect was devastating. Four of the guard were murdered—Lieutenant Anthony Daly, who was aged 23, and Trooper Simon Tipper, who was aged 19, died at the scene; Lance Corporal Jeffrey Young, who was aged 19, died the following day; and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Roy Bright, who was aged 36, died two days after that. A total of 31 other people were injured, a number of them seriously, and seven horses were destroyed.
Mr Downey was arrested on 19 May 2013 at Gatwick airport when he was en route to Greece. On his arrest, he produced a letter stating that he was free to enter the jurisdiction without fear of arrest. Despite that letter, he was charged by the Crown Prosecution Service with four counts of murder. Before he was charged, my consent was sought, as the law requires, for him to face a charge of causing an explosion, and I gave that consent. I believed that it was right to do so, and I remain of exactly the same view today.
As acknowledged by the judge, the allegations faced by Mr Downey were of the utmost seriousness. The bombing was an attempt by the Provisional IRA to bring its terrorist campaign to London and to attack armed forces personnel who were on ceremonial duties. Whatever the circumstances in which the letter had been sent, and it is now clear that its assurances were wrongly given, it was right that the matter should be tested in court. Neither I nor the CPS were prepared to accept that the letter and the circumstances in which it had been given were such as to automatically prevent Mr Downey’s prosecution. The prosecution of a very serious offence of that kind is plainly in the public interest.
The court heard full argument and considered a great deal of documentation. The judgment given is a detailed and careful assessment of the case and the circumstances in which Mr Downey received his letter. It is worthy of note that the defence offered four grounds on which they argued that the case should be stayed, and that on three of those grounds the judge found for the prosecution.
At no point did the judge suggest that it was inappropriate for the prosecution to be brought—indeed, he noted that
“the public interest in ensuring that those who are accused of serious crime should be tried is a very strong one”.
My own very strong view is that it was entirely appropriate and proper for this matter to be considered in a court of law.
Notwithstanding that, the judgment has now been given, and the CPS and I accept that judgment entirely. We do not consider that it gives rise to any prospect of a successful appeal, and we have therefore notified the court that we will not be appealing. My sympathies above all are with the families of those who died and with all those who were injured on that day.
I should like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, and I thank the Attorney-General for his statement. May I explore some of the background to this matter? It has been clearly stated that the letter did not constitute an amnesty, but if that is the case, why did the judge take the decision that he took? In these circumstances, it would surely be appropriate for the Government to consider making an appeal.
May I also explore how we have arrived at this situation? I was a shadow Northern Ireland Minister when the Northern Ireland offenders Bill was withdrawn because it was obviously not going to get through Parliament. There was no mention at the time of any other deal being likely. Does the Attorney-General not consider what has happened since then to be a discourtesy to Parliament? Does he, like me, wonder who authorised the scheme that seems to have replaced the legislation? That must surely have been the then Prime Minister. Will the Attorney-General tell us who wrote the letters to the people who are often referred to as on-the-runs? What was in the letters? And I am afraid that I have to ask why the Police Service of Northern Ireland gave an assurance to Mr Downey that no other police force in the United Kingdom had any interest in him, when it knew that that was not the case.
May I also ask the Attorney-General how many people have received letters under the scheme? Will he tell me whether all those who have received such letters are from a republican background? At a time when the PSNI is advertising for Bloody Sunday witnesses to come forward, does he not think this situation risks undermining the entire criminal justice system of the United Kingdom?
May I first make the point that it is clear from the judgment and the supporting material that the administrative scheme was not, and never could be, an amnesty? That might have been what the previous Government sought at one time, but an amnesty could be achieved only through legislation, and no such legislation was put through the House. Parliament never approved an amnesty.
This was an administrative scheme that operated independently of the Government and was intended to identify those individuals who, although they might believe that they were unable to return to the jurisdiction without fear of arrest, would in fact face no prosecution or arrest if they were to return. The PSNI would check whether individuals were wanted for arrest or for questioning. If the individual had already been considered for prosecution, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland would make a careful assessment of its files to determine whether any prosecution would follow if the individual were to return. Many of the offences were historical, and in some cases, with the passage of time, essential witnesses might have died or forensic evidence might be no longer available.
The test applied by the Public Prosecution Service and approved by my predecessors in office was not simply whether the evidential test was no longer met, but whether it could no longer ever be met. Only in those circumstances would an individual be told that they were free to return. The position was also conditional on no further evidence subsequently coming to light of involvement in an offence. As to what happened in this case, it is quite plain that a serious error was made within the PSNI in relation to the information that it collated and provided to the Government. So far as the number of letters is concerned, I think that the better course would be for me to write to my hon. Friend, as I would not wish to give a figure that subsequently had to be adjusted, even very slightly.
I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in paying tribute to the four soldiers from the Blues and Royals who were murdered in the Hyde park explosion and to the seven members of the Royal Green Jackets who were murdered on the same day in Regent’s park. Our thoughts are with their families, because they must be reliving their suffering all over again at this time.
I wish to make it clear that the Opposition completely understand and support the Attorney-General’s decision to proceed with the prosecution. We accept that the Downey judgment raises serious issues about how the scheme for dealing with on-the-runs, which, it must be and has been made clear, never offered immunity from prosecution to anyone, has been administered by successive Governments and agencies, and, in particular, about the role of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Can we be assured that we will be told how this grave mistake occurred and how we can be sure that it will not happen again? Can the House be told how many letters to the so-called on-the-runs have been issued since this Government took office? I understand that the Attorney-General will write to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), so perhaps he could copy me in on that letter.
Will the Attorney-General or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland come to the House to make a statement once the investigations into this matter have been concluded? Perhaps the Attorney-General also shares my concern about the Prime Minister’s comments earlier this afternoon. I presume he has heard them. He may well agree with me that perhaps the Prime Minister misspoke and that it would be to the advantage of us all if the Prime Minister clarified exactly what he meant by them.
The sending of this letter was a terrible mistake, as was the failure to act when the mistake came to light. But this mistake, egregious though it was, does not discredit the Good Friday agreement and subsequent agreements. Very difficult decisions needed to be made, and very important leadership needed to be shown and was required on all sides. Northern Ireland has been delivered from a past of violence and sectarian hatred to a place where there is power sharing between old enemies, and that is what is happening at the moment. The people of Northern Ireland will not lose sight of that and our resolve to make sure that this peace process works must not be diminished.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her supportive comments about how the CPS and myself approached this case. I think that she knows that an inquiry will be held, and questions for that should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. That matter will be dealt with by the PSNI and the independent ombudsman. Clearly, answers will be needed as to what has happened. In addition, I entirely accept that the public will want to be reassured as to whether this is an isolated instance of a letter being sent mistakenly or whether there might be other such examples, in which case people will want to know what can be done about that. My understanding is that since the current Government came into office some 38 letters have been sent out. I hesitated to comment about what happened under the previous Administration, but once I have that information I will, of course, supply it. It is right to say that the person who had been charged, Mr Downey, denied responsibility for any role in this outrage.
The final comment I would simply make is this: the victims, including those who survived but were seriously injured, and their families are a matter that the House has constantly to keep in mind. The rule of law requires that those who are accused of grave crimes should be brought to justice, unless there is some overwhelming public interest to the contrary, and I have to say that in this case it was clear to me that the public interest was entirely in favour of seeking to bring this prosecution.
This country prides itself on its Government operating solely under the rule of law, so I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive a layman’s question about the law in this case. He describes an administrative system, but under what law is this administrative system created whereby a well-respected judge in this country accepted that this letter should, in effect, give this man an amnesty? Whether or not the Attorney-General describes it in those terms, that will be how it is seen both in this country, including in Northern Ireland, and abroad. So under what law is this constituted? Can he give the House an absolute assurance that he is sure that the criteria that he laid down—the administrative ones—have been followed in all cases?
My right hon. Friend is, of course, right that judges should interpret and implement the law, but I have to say that I have no reason to fault the judgment in this case. As well as the public interest in prosecuting, clear issues of fairness in the way in which prosecutions and investigations are conducted are involved, which are subject to the potential for abuse of process applications—that is what took place in this case.
The judge provided reasons, clearly set out, as to why, in respect of one of the four grounds advanced, which centred on the letter that had been sent, it would in his view be wrong and an abuse of process if the prosecution were allowed to continue. That centred on the fact that the person concerned, Mr Downey, had been misled by the letter. I do not think that I can say any more than that.
As to the principles underlying the other letters, this was an administrative process—one that was certainly lawful—in providing information solely to those who were not wanted. As I said earlier, it is quite clear from this instance that something went badly wrong. Whether it went badly wrong in other instances is not a matter about which I can, at the moment, help the House.
May I welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has described the process as lawful? Will he confirm that it was overseen by the Law Officers, including the Attorney-General? The fact of the matter is that the process was designed to address 200 or so individuals. The whole situation was an anomaly. To achieve and lock in the peace process following the 1998 Good Friday agreement, 400 prisoners were released, some of whom had committed terrible atrocities. That angered victims at the time, which I understand, but it was an essential part of getting to where we are now. Similarly, addressing the question of the 200—that anomaly—was part of that as well.
As for the idea that this was some secret thing out of the blue, I told the House on 11 January 2006 that, in withdrawing the legislative approach to addressing the anomaly,
“the Government still believe that the anomaly will need to be faced at some stage”—[Official Report, 11 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 288.]
No one should have been surprised that we had to do that. It was necessary to get to a position in which Northern Ireland could escape its hideous past of evil and terrorism and enter into a period of almost universal peace and stability, with old enemies negotiating and governing together. That should be welcomed and our role as a Government in achieving that should be commended, and I hope that the Attorney-General will do so.
I am extremely mindful that the right hon. Gentleman and others on both sides of the House worked hard during the peace process. Indeed, they continue to do so, as this process is by no means complete. I am the first to pay tribute to him for the work that he did.
There is an important distinction between releasing prisoners under an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, as part of a peace settlement, and any suggestion of an amnesty. Those two things are rather different. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there was no such amnesty. Indeed, any suggestion that we might move towards an amnesty was firmly rejected by widespread views expressed in Parliament.
And the Government accepted that. For those reasons, we have a system. The right hon. Gentleman says that he explained to the House—he certainly did—about looking at other methods. I think that it is best for him to explain what publicity or otherwise that may have attracted. He is quite right that the system of giving an assurance to an individual that they are not wanted because they are indeed not wanted and there is no current basis for wanting them is not an unlawful process in which to engage.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised the oversight of the Law Officers. He is quite right that, during this process, the office of the Attorney-General operated as the co-ordinating point, because the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland could not and would not communicate directly with Northern Ireland Office, and therefore collated the information that was supplied. In fairness to my predecessors, it is probably right to say that they would have had no independent means to verify whether or not someone was wanted, and reliance for that was placed on the PSNI and its links with other police forces in the other jurisdictions of this country.
This was a horrible and brutal murder, and the outcome is clearly grossly unsatisfactory. If the Attorney-General is sure that nothing further can be done in this case, I accept that, and I hope that he has exhausted all possibilities. Will he say more about how he will check that no other errors of this kind are waiting to come up later?
Those checks are now being conducted. They will not be conducted by me. My office might be involved in them, but I think that they are primarily for the Northern Ireland Office to carry out. I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that that is exactly what is happening.
As to my hon. Friend’s first point, if I had thought there were proper grounds on which this decision could be appealed, then of course the Crown Prosecution Service and I would have taken a different view. However, it is not in the public interest to pursue appeals that are pointless.
I too pay tribute to the families who have been left bereaved as a result of the Hyde park bombing and other such incidents. There are victims everywhere who are feeling very hurt today. The Attorney-General says that it was right to bring the prosecution. Does he still believe that it is right that no stone should be left unturned in the pursuit of justice in this case, and what further action will he now take, given that this case has only been stayed, to ensure that justice will be done, and be seen to be done by the victims?
In the light of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), many of which were not answered—I thank him for raising them in the House today—does the Attorney-General also agree that there is a strong case for a full inquiry to bring out all the facts, such as under what authority the scheme was set up, who knew about it, who was informed, what the letters said and who they were sent to? That would mean that, for once, Parliament could examine the scheme. There has been no knowledge or even a hint of information about it, which is a scandalous abuse of Parliament and the people’s representatives.
I will, if I may, take the right hon. Gentleman’s final question first. Let me emphasise to him that of course this is a legitimate matter of debate, and he may wish to raise it, but it is not one that I, within my departmental responsibilities, could address. It would have to be looked at elsewhere. So far as the stay is concerned, yes it is indeed a stay, but lifting a stay requires specific grounds. I know of no basis for thinking at the moment that a stay is ever likely to be lifted in the future. Obviously, I am not for any reason pre-empting that. If something were to come to light that justified applying to have a stay lifted, then that is a matter that would be considered.
As for the other cases and whether they will be pursued, I would like to make the position absolutely clear. My responsibilities as far as criminal justice is concerned lie within England and Wales; Northern Ireland is now devolved. If cases are brought to the Crown Prosecution Service suggesting the commission of very serious crimes by individuals who can be apprehended and brought to justice, then what I said earlier must be the case. It would generally be in the public interest—it would be very rare to think of where it would not be in the public interest—for such a prosecution to be pursued. That is quite irrespective of the amnesty provisions of the Good Friday agreement, which may reduce, for example, the period of time somebody might spend in prison. It is always in the public interest that crime should be prosecuted.
Does the Attorney-General understand that all these fine words about errors and administration mistakes will not wash with the people of Northern Ireland who will see that this has been an amnesty under another name? It is an amnesty that has been put through without this Parliament’s permission when it specifically decided, when the Bill was withdrawn, that it did not want it to happen for on-the-runs. I want to know why we are blaming an individual in the police for writing or sending those letters; they did not write them without somebody at the very, very top of Government telling them to do so.
As for the hon. Lady’s views about how this would be viewed in Northern Ireland, I suspect that it would be viewed in the same way on this side of the Irish sea. I do not have any reason to differ with her analysis. Most right-thinking people will be shocked and profoundly troubled by what has happened.
I disagree with her characterisation of the letters being tantamount to an amnesty; I do not think that they were, if written as they should have been and sent to the recipients who should have received them. Unfortunately, in this case, as we know, somebody received a letter that they should not have received. I do not wish to comment further. The PSNI has indicated that it takes responsibility for the information that was supplied. The hon. Lady believes that fault might lie elsewhere; I am in no position to comment on that one way or the other. I can only say that the information I have at the moment does not suggest that the fault lies elsewhere.
I hope, given these awful events, that the Government think long and hard about the perception that will be apparent if we are giving an amnesty to one group of people while actively pursuing others, like potentially the soldiers who were involved in the Bloody Sunday incident. Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that reconciliation and justice and forgiveness apply to both sides, not just one?
I understand my hon. Friend’s comment. As I have also tried to make clear, I do not believe an amnesty is in place. Ultimately, in relation to offences committed in Northern Ireland, now that justice and policing are both devolved, these are not matters for me.
May I offer my sympathy and the sympathy of my party to the relatives of those who died in Hyde Park, and of the seven Royal Green Jackets who died the same day? There are a lot of unanswered questions and I thank the Attorney-General for his information so far. We are told that this was a mistake—an error—but people want to know what aspect of the deal was a mistake. Was the mistake just because this came out? Or was the mistake just one mistake—this one letter—or were there 187 mistakes?
People want to know about the trade-off. People have been asking me how many of the people receiving letters were British agents. Victims and survivors out there want answers—honest answers. All the victims and survivors deserve honesty, openness, straight answers and, ultimately, justice. They deserve to know why and how their loved ones died, and they deserve to know what was at the back of the deals that were done and the basis for the deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, we had a dirty little war. Victims and survivors want to know that we are not going to be burdened with a peace contaminated by dirty little side deals.
As I understand the matter, and there may be others in the House who are better able to answer on the policy background, it arose out of a desire to provide reassurance to those who feared coming back into the jurisdiction that they could do so on the basis that there was no prospect of their being prosecuted on the evidence currently available to the authorities—the PSNI, as in this case, or other police forces. That was the basis of what happened. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right: the wider way in which the peace process has been conducted is a legitimate matter for political debate, but in my role as the Attorney-General I endeavour to focus on what I see as the issues, and as I said earlier, there was nothing unlawful about the letters. There was no amnesty. But, as I accept, it is quite clear from the court judgment and the facts that emerged in the case of Mr Downey that Mr Downey should never have been sent the letter.
My heart breaks for the families and the victims of this appalling atrocity. Five months after it happened, my soldiers were killed in Ballykelly. Seventeen people—11 soldiers and six civilians—were killed. I gave evidence against the five people who were charged with that crime—five people. Does that mean that others who were involved in this appalling atrocity are not being chased vigorously by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and brought to justice?
I have enormous regard for the Attorney-General, and this Attorney-General knows perfectly well that the European convention on human rights guarantees an effective remedy for every breach of the rights guaranteed in our convention. I am sure that the Attorney-General and others in the House would agree with me that the right to life is the most important right of all. I am absolutely disgusted, and extremely upset and angry, that we now discover that successive British Governments have secretly, wilfully and intentionally deprived families of an effective remedy when their loved ones have been murdered by the IRA. How this Government can hold their heads up and talk about respect for human rights and the right to life and the rule of law beats me, but I am sure the Attorney-General will assure me and the House with very nice words that in fact that is the case.
I am not sure whether I can use nice words, but I shall do my best to answer the hon. Lady’s question honestly. Had the scheme operated in the way that was intended, then I have to say that I do not think there was any prospect of anyone, relatives or otherwise, being denied justice in relation to anybody who received such a letter. But that is on the basis that the scheme operated properly. It is quite clear that in this case it did not operate properly because Mr Downey should not have been sent this letter. We will have to wait and see whether this is some wider failure, which applies elsewhere, but certainly from the information that I was given when I looked into this matter at the outset, there was a system in place to try to ensure that every nook and corner was looked at before such letters were sent.
However it is presented, the recipients of these letters are above the law. That is what this court decision has made clear. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that a balanced approach will therefore be taken as regards former soldiers serving in Northern Ireland? We have heard that the authorities are already advertising for witnesses in the case of Bloody Sunday. Will he also answer one question that has not been answered so far? Who in the Government authorised these letters?
No; it has not decided that the letters placed people above the law. If the letters had been correctly sent to recipients against whom there was no evidence at the time on which criminal proceedings could be brought against them if they returned to the jurisdiction, they had no possibility of putting them above the law, and as I mentioned, the letters leave open the possibility that if evidence were to come to light implicating such individuals, they could still be prosecuted. The difficulty in the case of Mr Downey was that the evidence against him was already available at the time the letter was sent, which is why he should not have been sent the letter.
I am not in a position to comment on the position of former soldiers. I simply make the point that the general rules and principles of the rule of law apply, irrespective of who may or may not have committed an offence. But in any event, my own direct responsibilities do not extend to the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.
Those are the two points I would wish to make, but I reiterate that these letters did not amount to an amnesty.
Regardless of how the Attorney-General tries to paint this issue, this shoddy, shabby, sleekit, behind-the-door deal is, in effect, seen as an amnesty, and in the case of Downey it has, in effect, been an amnesty. If the Attorney-General wishes to dispel any collusion in this by the current Government, given the fact that he has open to him appeal, judicial review and removal of the letter, will we not see one or all of those actions taken to give assurance to the public that this Government have got no part in the deal that the Labour Government undertook behind the back of this Parliament?
Our prosecutorial services are independent. If the Crown Prosecution Service thought that it was justified in appealing the decision that has led to the stay, it would be wholly within its discretion to decide to do so. It is right that I discussed the matter with the CPS. It was quite clear from that discussion, and indeed I concur with the view, that there was no basis for taking the matter further.
Anthony Daly was one of those killed by this bomb. He was a friend of mine, a man I knew well and a great man, and he perished in the service of his Queen and his country. May I ask the Attorney-General, first, what steps have been taken to ensure that safeguards were put in place for these kinds of letters, and have remained in place or been strengthened? Secondly, what measures were taken to discipline the people responsible for issuing this letter, at any level of the chain of authority? Thirdly, what measures will now be taken to ensure that those people make some public apology for what has been done?
I should say first of all that the police have already apologised for what has happened through the Chief Constable of the PSNI, and as I indicated there will be an inquiry by the police ombudsman. I have no doubt that that inquiry will be wide-ranging as to how this problem emerged. I hope that it will be able to provide the best safeguards, linked with the other work that will be done by the Northern Ireland Office and others, to ensure that there is never a repetition of this.
I, too, extend my thoughts and my sympathies to those who suffered that day in Hyde park and have continued to suffer ever since, and who have suffered again as a result of this shabby and secretive side deal that was done as part of the peace process by Labour. I also want to disabuse Members of the idea that this deal bears any comparison with the early release scheme in the Good Friday agreement, which was voted on by the people of Northern Ireland and accepted by them, as opposed to this deal, which was shabbily driven through behind the backs of even the representatives in this Parliament.
The Attorney-General has confirmed that 38 letters have been sent since 2010. That is an important date, because it marks the devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This process continued after devolution, yet had profound implications for the work of the Historical Enquiries Team and the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and it continued without the knowledge of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland or the Policing Board. Who administered the scheme? Who negotiated with devolved institutions behind the back of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, so that this scheme could continue?
The hon. Lady raises a large number of highly pertinent questions, and I hope she will forgive me if I say that I do not think I am in a position to answer all of them at the Dispatch Box today, particularly because my remit and responsibility in this matter is confined to a number of very specific things.
The hon. Lady says that she considers the scheme to be a shabby side deal; I am sure that will be noted in this House by those who had cause to develop or operate it. I do not think I can comment further on it than that. She makes the point that it is quite different from the Good Friday agreement, and I have no reason to disagree with her about that; I commented on that myself and said that it is quite distinct. Nevertheless, I come back to the point that I raised before, that my understanding is that it was done with the intention of taking the peace process forward, and done in a way that was not intended to prejudice, first, the rule of law and, secondly, the right of victims and relatives of victims to see justice be done. That was the basis on which it was proceeded with and not on some other shabby basis, as she describes it. However, I have to accept, in the light of what has happened in this case, that while I suppose it might be argued that had the letter never been sent, Mr Downey would never have appeared at Gatwick airport, nevertheless the circumstances of what has happened are very unsatisfactory.
Will the Attorney-General confirm whether it would be effective for this Parliament to pass a resolution, or an amendment to a Bill, saying that these letters have no effect and should be ignored by the court in considering staying prosecutions?
The letters were statements of current fact. I do not think that, in themselves, they make any difference to the matter. It would be a matter of debate, on which we could engage, whether the letters could be rescinded, but that is a matter that would have to wait for another day.
I also pay tribute to the families, who will again go through a lot of trauma. Yesterday was a very sad day for British justice. Let us remind ourselves that these on-the-runs were murdering scum who destroyed and ruined lives in Northern Ireland by shooting and bombing. When someone receives a letter saying that there is no longer an interest in them, or that no police force has an interest in them, what do they take from it? It is an amnesty in all but legislation. It is a disgrace and we need a full inquiry into it.
May I associate myself with remarks in support of the victims of this and other appalling crimes that go unpunished? I was not aware that the chief of staff to the then Prime Minister or officials in the Northern Ireland Office had any role in policing or prosecution, and I am amazed that letters are being sent from that part of Government relating to issues that are bound to be referred to in a court of law. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that that manipulation—that misuse of the process—will not recur, and that those who are responsible for prosecution and policing send letters in their own name rather than through Government Departments?
My hon. Friend makes perhaps an important point. It is right to say that the letters were sent on the basis of decisions taken by both the Public Prosecution Service and the PSNI, in the context of Northern Ireland, and if domestic matters elsewhere in the UK were concerned, by their prosecutorial authorities. To that extent, it was an administrative system independently conducted of Ministers; I want to make that quite clear. However, it is also right that, at the end of the process, it was ministerial letters, or letters from officials, that constituted the giving of the information.
This is a sad and sorry affair, which unfortunately is written in the blood of our brave servicemen on the streets of this wonderful city. We should never lose sight of that. However, does the Attorney-General recognise that the case law now established by this case and its outworking has done grievous harm to the rule of law and how it is considered across the whole of the United Kingdom, and will continue to do so unless he takes specific steps to rescind all the letters to all the individuals, and does his best to find fresh factors or new evidence to prosecute—once again—Mr John Downey?
So far as rescinding of the letters is concerned, that is not a matter for me. [Interruption.] No, it is not a matter for me, acting in my capacity; I accept that it could be a matter for Government, but it is not a matter on which I can give such an assurance to the hon. Gentleman.
On the question of case law, let me make the position quite clear. There is very well-established case law about abuse of process, and cases being stopped on the basis of an abuse of process, particularly in relation to assurances given that an individual might not be prosecuted for something, has not just suddenly emerged. It is perfectly well established in our law and indeed is part of our rule of law, for the very good reason that assurances given by public administrations may be binding upon them if they lead somebody to do something to their detriment.
In this case, as I have made clear, we took the view that there were arguments that could properly be put forward to the court that, although there was an error, it did not amount to an abuse of process and was not justified. The court has taken a different view, but I do not think that one can draw general conclusions about other cases from this case, which falls on its own individual facts.
First, may I applaud the Attorney-General for the way in which he has handled this case by authorising prosecutions? My question relates to what he has just said. If there are other cases with similar circumstances and similar letters, will they still be prosecuted in the light of the judgment and the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service has not challenged that decision?
As I have indicated, all the background facts relating to each letter that has been sent will be checked, and that should disclose whether any error has been made. I want to reiterate the point that if it were to emerge that no other letters contained errors the suggestion that those letters in some way amounted to an amnesty simply cannot be right. They would be mere statements of fact, and of the position that existed at the time at which those letters were written.
Given yesterday’s announcement in the court system, what assurances can be given to families—who are awaiting justice in relation to the deaths of their loved ones and what happened surrounding those deaths—that they will not face similar revelations about side and shoddy deals?
The ending of criminal proceedings against John Downey is deeply disturbing, so will the Attorney-General confirm that while criminal proceedings are preferable and what we all want to see in the House, there should be no bar to civil proceedings against Mr Downey by the victims’ families?
No one can fully understand the hurt felt by families whose loved ones have been murdered, and sympathy from politicians for families of innocent victims will not be enough to heal that hurt. Indeed, at times, politicians’ actions can add to that hurt, as in this case. John Downey is believed to have participated in the cold-blooded murder of the innocent. Does a letter signed by a Government official abort the right to justice? Who else has received these letters? For example, have Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness received similar letters? Have soldiers and police officers received similar letters to give them immunity from prosecution, or are these special letters simply for terrorists, gangsters, thugs and murderers? What other dirty deals have been done behind the backs of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the hurt of the relatives of victims and, indeed, if they survived, of the victims themselves is a matter of which the House should be well aware. I suspect that it is right to say that there are very few Members who do not know people personally who have been affected by the violence in Northern Ireland. I certainly do.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s other points, the best course of action, if I may recommend it to him, rather than asking me questions which, in truth, within my responsibility, I cannot answer, is to initiate the things he wishes. There is a wider review as to what has happened, but first he may wish to see what the police ombudsman has to say in the internal inquiry report. Then, of course, the House is a Chamber in which these matters may be debated.
I choose my words to my hon. Friend with care because, over time, the letters may have been approved in slightly different ways. Let us be quite clear: these letters were ultimately the responsibility of the Governments in office at the time at which they were sent. I will not accept the suggestion that it was otherwise. That is a completely distinct issue from that of where mistakes may have been made in the factual analysis before the letter was sent.
This is not just about some unsatisfactory circumstances. This is traumatising victims, and it is scandalising the public. The court seems to have been misled into thinking that all parties agreed at Weston Park—that is implicit in the judgment. All parties did not agree at Weston Park, nor did they agree in the submissions that we made to Government papers after Weston Park, and certainly, all parties but Sinn Fein opposed the disgraceful Hain-Adams Bill that purported to give an amnesty through legislation.
Will the Attorney-General address the implication of a judgment that basically says that even the wrong word of a Government official as part of a secret scheme should trump due process and the transparency of the rule of law? Is there not a danger in allowing that as the going rate for the future, if there is no appeal in this case? As for the status of the letters, could Parliament legislate to rescind or qualify the import of them?
Can I try to deal with both matters in turn? I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that the court’s decision is in some way an infringement of the rule of law. I recommend, if he wishes, that he read the judgment. Far from its being an undermining of the rule of law, I have to say, while it may be a result with which I am uncomfortable and would hope that it might have been otherwise, it is actually an upholding of the principles of the rule of law, even when it has an outcome that we may find extremely uncomfortable, because it emphasises the fairness at the heart of our criminal justice system. As for the other matters that the hon. Gentleman raised, it seems to me that they are matters, as I said earlier, for wider debate.
Having worked in the criminal justice system for over 15 years, and having dealt with applications to stay prosecutions, this strikes me as an appalling travesty of justice. May I press my right hon. and learned Friend about the prospect for an appeal? Stays of prosecutions and stays of proceedings can be reversed by the Court of Appeal. These things are open to different interpretations by different judicial persons. The terminology in the letter might possibly be open to an alternative interpretation, and the source of the letter is questionable as not having come ostensibly from a prosecutorial authority. Will he not reconsider the possibility of an appeal to the Court of Appeal against this stay?
There is palpable anger and concern about the decision to give John Downey freedom as a result of that letter, and it poses many questions. Four young Ulster Defence Regiment men were killed in Ballydugan in Downpatrick. Eight people were arrested and questioned, then freed. The three IRA men who killed Kenneth Smyth, a sergeant in the UDR, and his best friend, Danny McCormick, in December 1973 have never been tried. An IRA man killed Lexie Cummings in Strabane, and I secured an Adjournment debate on the matter in the Chamber, which was attended by my good friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). A former Minister of State replied to it, and referred to the HET inquiry. The question is whether the HET even knew that someone was on the run.
From Strabane to Ballywalter, for both Protestants and Roman Catholics, the anger is real and makes us all wonder just how many of those involved in these murder cases that I have mentioned and others wander around with a bit of paper, which is their passport to freedom, while families and loved ones grieve. Will the HET and the PSNI be given the details of 200 names for inquiries that they have yet to carry out?
The starting point, I think, will be the inquiry carried out by the PSNI and the ombudsman. I hope that that will enable the facts to be established, and will enable some reassurance to be provided—or not, as the case may be—as to whether there are other examples of errors that have been made in these cases. I come back to the point that, on the basis that there were no other errors made, it is quite clear to me that no individual has acquired any immunity from being proceeded against for crimes that they might have committed during the course of the troubles.
In my 15 years at the Bar I prosecuted or defended in well over 50 abuse of process claims, and I regret to have to inform the House that very occasionally such mistakes take place. Although my heart goes out to the victims and their families, and while that is clearly a travesty, it occasionally takes place. I entirely endorse the Attorney-General’s approach on that point, but does this case not show that a review by the United Kingdom Government of such sensitive cases is now required, whether in the Northern Ireland context or for other conflicts, by independent counsel, so that such a travesty does not occur again?
My hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point, and I would hope—obviously, I cannot predict exactly how the matter will unfold—that as a result of the PSNI’s inquiry there will be a wide-ranging review of not only how the letters were sent, but whether anything else needs to be done in that respect.
I certainly accept that what happened was unusual, but I do not think that there was anything unlawful—I have made this point repeatedly—in indicating to a person that they were not sought and that there was no evidence against them in respect of any offences. If my hon. Friend analyses the information, he will understand why that is the case.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not often raise points of order, as you know, but I seek your guidance briefly. We have just had an urgent question in which the Attorney-General was asked directly who first authorised those letters, but we have not yet had an answer. How best could we go about gaining one?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I try to pick my words with care so that the House is in no way misled. I am sure that the information can be supplied to my hon. Friend. I indicated that the letters were the collective acts of Government. It may be that we can go even further and identify who sent the letters, if they were Ministers. That is the proper answer to give. It was not the intention to try to conceal that information from him in any way.
We are grateful to the Attorney-General. I was simply going to advise the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) that these matters can of course always be the subject of further questioning. I know from experience that he is as tenacious in the Chamber as I have found him to be on the tennis court over the years, so I see no reason why he will not pursue these matters if he is so inclined.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received any notice from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that he intends to come to the House to make a statement on his Department’s decision to suspend reassessments of employment and support allowance claimants because his assessors cannot cope with the volume? His Ministers made no mention of that during oral questions on Monday, despite knowing that it had happened. Many applicants are faced with unacceptable delays and want to know what is happening.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, but the short answer to her question is that I have received no notification of any intention on the part of the Secretary of State to make a statement. I made an observation a moment ago about tenacity in respect of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and, from my experience, am sure that it applies with equal force to the hon. Lady.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 20 November the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee. When I questioned her on inappropriate social security sanctions, she agreed to an independent review being undertaken “on how sanctions in the duration are working”. I subsequently wrote to her and received a letter on 1 February expanding on what she intended to do. However, I have received yet another letter that calls into question whether the independent review on sanctions will now take place. I am extremely concerned that she is reneging on her original commitment made to the Committee and to me in writing. I seek your guidance on how best to hold the Department and the Minister to account.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her attempted point of order. I think that it is fair to say that, on the strength of what I have heard, although the matter is of extreme concern to her, nothing disorderly has occurred. As the Minister is present, she is free to respond from the Dispatch Box if she so wishes, although she is under no obligation.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I did indeed reply to the hon. Lady. I know that she has tried to extend the commitment to an independent review. We said that we would monitor and review, and we currently have replies coming back in relation to a review by Matt Oakley. I know that that is the correct reply and that she has received several replies. I hope that that is the matter closed for the time being.
Domestic Violence (Legal Framework)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the investigation of allegations of domestic violence, for duties on the police in respect of domestic violence, for risk assessment and training in connection with related criminal proceedings in England and Wales; and for connected purposes.
In March 2013, a new cross-government definition of domestic violence was adopted. It defines domestic violence as
“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological; physical; sexual; financial; and emotional”
harm. At present, not all those behaviours are criminal offences, meaning that there are gaps in the current law that are failing victims of domestic violence. Perpetrators are thus able to abuse their partners without facing arrest for that behaviour.
The principal gap in current legislative provisions is that coercive control is not considered an offence in the law of England and Wales. In the Government’s definition, coercive control is defined as
“an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”
That is not currently a legal definition. The Bill I am seeking to introduce today would therefore give the Government’s definition of domestic violence statutory underpinning, meaning that a perpetrator could be arrested for an incident or pattern of incidents of abusive behaviour encompassing, but not limited to, those provided for in the Government’s definition.
The Bill would also provide that a court should request a pre-sentence report prior to sentencing and would give the option for courts to rule that a perpetrator must attend a domestic violence programme when in prison. If found guilty, an offender would be liable, on summary conviction, to serve a community order or up to 12 months in prison, while an offender on conviction on indictment for more serious circumstances could face up to 14 years in prison.
Domestic violence is pervasive in our society. Every minute, police across the country will receive a domestic violence-related call. In 2011-12 there were 2 million victims of domestic abuse in the UK, with 7% of women reporting that they had suffered domestic abuse in the last year. Two out of every three incidents reported to the police are reported by victims who have suffered more than one incident of abuse. Women, on average, report abusive behaviour to the police only after they have suffered at least 30 incidents of abuse. Crime data released by the Office for National Statistics have revealed that reports of domestic violence increased by 2.5% in England and Wales last year, with 838,026 cases in 2012-13.
Those are not trivial incidents. However, according to Women’s Aid, in the five years up to 2011 only 6.5% of domestic violence incidents reported to the police resulted in a conviction. Every week, two women are killed by a partner or ex-partner. Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, has said that each domestic violence homicide costs the state £1.3 million, quite apart from the obvious personal and family suffering. In 2008 the physical and mental health care of abused women cost the NHS a staggering £1.7 billion.
Anyone can become a victim of domestic violence, regardless of financial means or cultural background, and we therefore need to see a fundamental change in the way in which allegations of domestic violence are treated by the police. I certainly do not think that changing the law, by and of itself, will solve this, but it will go some way towards emphasising the prevalence of this behaviour and its impact on victims.
As I said, the absence of an offence of coercive control is a contributing factor to the low rates of reporting, arrests and convictions in domestic violence cases. At present, our criminal system is perhaps too focused on the physical evidence of violent crimes committed against a victim. Coercive control, on the other hand, does not leave scars or bruises, but is every bit as debilitating. That is why I am concerned with securing greater redress for the predominantly female victims of domestic violence; they can be male as well, of course. From 2011 to 2012, I had the privilege of chairing an independent parliamentary inquiry into reforming the law on stalking, which resulted in new offences of stalking being introduced in March 2012. Inasmuch as it focuses on the psychological impact of a non-physical crime on a victim, the new section 4A offence of stalking involves putting someone in serious alarm or distress. That was pioneering, and it has formed the basis of my recommendations in the Bill surrounding the criminalising of coercive control.
I would suggest that defining a crime in respect of its impact on its victim is the pattern that should be followed in this regard. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that several police forces are choosing not to make use of the more serious section 4A offence of stalking. Regrettably, the vast majority of police forces have yet to implement training in the new stalking laws for all officers. Having said that, I am pleased to note that the latest figures are more encouraging. In the year ending in December 2013, 566 alleged perpetrators reached the first stage in court, of whom 144 were charged with the more serious section 4A offence. Were any new offences relating to domestic violence introduced, it would of course be crucial that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service were made to undergo training in the realities of domestic violence cases and, crucially, the dynamics of abuse. That is why the Bill would place a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that training is given to criminal justice professionals in any new legislation covering domestic violence. Police would also have a duty to develop and implement domestic violence policies that encouraged the arrest and charging of perpetrators and made investigation of complaints a priority.
In recent months, there has been a great deal of discussion about the need for a more victims-focused justice system, and that is right. Indeed, Keir Starmer has called for a victims’ law—a call that I and many others in this House, I am sure, wholeheartedly support. I believe that any new legislation would need to be informed by the experience of victims. Next week, a coalition of organisations in the domestic violence sector, including Paladin, Women’s Aid and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation, will launch, as part of a wider campaign, a sector survey and a victims’ survey, both of which seek to identify gaps in the current legislation surrounding domestic violence. I hope that in the coming months the Government will listen to the findings of those surveys and act on them accordingly.
My Bill is only a starting point for discussions on this topic. It is a working draft, if you will, which I hope will ignite a debate in this place—and beyond, of course—about the changes that need to occur to give greater protection to victims of domestic violence and to ensure that perpetrators of this offence are made to answer properly for their behaviour. I extend my thanks to the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group and to the National Association of Probation Officers for sponsoring the Bill in its current form. I also thank the Members from all parties who have lent their support to the Bill, several of whom are present in the Chamber today. The fact that the Bill has received such cross-party support is really indicative of the appetite for reform that exists in this place.
I end by emphasising that the views of victims must inform whatever changes take place. It is they, after all, whom we are trying to protect, and it is for them that these changes need to occur.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Mr Robert Buckland, Sandra Osborne, Mrs Cheryl Gillan, Mr John Leech, Sir Bob Russell, John McDonnell, Sir Edward Garnier, Caroline Lucas, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Jeremy Corbyn and Hywel Williams present the Bill.
Mr Elfyn Llwyd accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June and to be printed (Bill 176).
We now come to the Opposition business, beginning with the prayer against the housing benefit regulations of 2014 in the name of the Leader of the official Opposition. The debate is limited to 90 minutes under Standing Order No. 16(1). I remind Back Benchers that there will be a six-minute time limit on their speeches.
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing Benefit (Transitional Provisions) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 (S.I., 2014, No. 212), dated 4 February 2014, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5 February, be annulled.
The motion also stands in the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) and others.
Let me set out our reasons for calling this debate and forcing this vote today, and the circumstances that have brought us to this position. The matter before us takes us to the heart of this Government’s shabby and shameful record. By statutory instrument, the Government are trying to close a loophole in the bedroom tax legislation without even understanding how many people are affected by these changes. Instead of trying to close this loophole, the Government should finally try to do the right thing and scrap the bedroom tax altogether. This Government promised that they would not balance the books on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable, but that is exactly what they are doing, and in such a careless, clumsy and cack-handed way that we see chaos, confusion and uncounted costs piling up around us as they compound the injustice of their policies with utter incompetence in their delivery.
This Government’s bedroom tax has been a fiasco from the very beginning. More than half a million households have been hit by this mean-minded measure. Two thirds of those affected are disabled and 60,000 are carers. More than 200,000 families with children are affected, many of whom are already bel