House of Commons
Tuesday 18 March 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
Motion made, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill to be read a Second time on Tuesday 25 March.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are implementing the reforms of litigation procurement and Crown court advocacy fees that we announced last month. Although making fee reductions is unavoidable, we have listened to the professions wherever we can and taken concrete steps to ease the impact of the changes. Moreover, the Justice Secretary has given a personal commitment that this Government will not seek further savings from criminal legal aid.
The Ministry of Justice and the Legal Aid Agency keep the operation of both the criminal and civil legal aid schemes under continual review. The Government plan to undertake a post-implementation review of the legal aid provisions within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 within three to five years of implementation. That review will include an assessment of the impact of the reforms implemented during that period.
The cost of legal aid came in at £56 million less than was budgeted last year, and research commissioned by the Law Society from Oxford Economics argues that falling crime will reduce the legal aid bill by £80 million by 2018-19. What assessment has the Minister made of the argument that the spending cuts will be delivered without the scale of service reductions he is currently proposing?
We need to look at the bigger picture and recognise that legal aid expenditure in this country—for England and Wales—is some £2 billion, which makes our system one of the most expensive in the world. Even after the reductions have gone through, the bill will still be one of the most generous in the world. We have to ensure that these reductions go through so that the legal aid budget remains sustainable.
After a legal aid-funded judicial review of a negative reasonable grounds decision, the Home Office agreed that a Sheffield resident was a victim of trafficking. Under the new regime she would not pass the residence test for legal aid. The Government have been making much recently of their commitment to tackle human trafficking, so will they now reconsider their decision to reject the recommendation by the Joint Committee on Human Rights to exempt from the residence test all cases where the status of a trafficking victim is contested?
It is important to put things into perspective. The 30% reduction applies to only a tiny number of criminal cases—they are called “very high cost cases” and constitute less than 1% of Crown court cases. The reductions we are making will ensure that the barristers who do that sort of work are still receiving good fee income.
It is generally recognised that the criminal legal aid provider market is fragmented, underinvested and unsustainable, so has my hon. Friend yet been able to assess whether his reforms will lead to the necessary market consolidation?
My hon. Friend makes a good point: it is important to recognise that the legal market has changed and we need to change with it. We very much hope that our proposals will ensure that we have a sustainable legal aid budget which ensures that those who need legal aid assistance will be able to get it, from both solicitors and advocates.
In their response to the JCHR report on legal aid reform, the Government agreed to exempt sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989 from the residence test. However, that exemption will not include judicial review, despite the fact that it is often the only remedy available, thereby apparently undermining the exemption that has been made. Will the Minister look closely at expanding the exemption to include judicial review?
20. On how many occasions has the Attorney-General had to appoint an amicus curiae as a result of the Government’s legal aid cuts? (903113)
Statistics show that the number of non-molestation orders issued by the English courts has recently increased, and there is some suggestion that they may be used as an additional route to obtaining legal aid. Will my hon. Friend undertake to investigate that further?
Does the Minister agree with his colleague the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), that the Government’s cuts to legal aid are “unarguably harsh”? Will the Minister correct his own overestimate of the earnings of legal aid lawyers, which the UK Statistics Authority yesterday called “potentially misleading”? Is it not time that the Ministry of Justice ministerial team put themselves in order?
It is rather rich of the hon. Gentleman to speak about legal aid. The Opposition’s manifesto made it abundantly clear that they would cut legal aid. He and his colleagues lack any credibility unless they put on the record what cuts they would make and, more importantly, whether they would reverse the cuts that we are making.
Will my hon. Friend look at the workings of the Legal Aid Board, so that we never again see a case such as the one in which the board in Essex awarded legal aid to a violent husband to employ a private detective to pursue a battered wife to my constituency?
We are making good progress with our transforming rehabilitation reforms, which will realign current probation structures to address the gap that sees 50,000 short-sentenced prisoners released on to the streets each year with little support. The new structures will come into effect on 1 June. The process of reallocating staff to those new structures is now complete.
The Secretary of State has a reputation for making policy based on ideology rather than evidence, as we saw with the shambolic Work programme that he bequeathed to the Department for Work and Pensions. Now his own officials have warned him that
“an unacceptable drop in operational performance”
“delivery failures and reputational damage”.
Why is he continuing with the reforms when all the informed opinion is shouting at him to stop?
The Opposition continue to refer to the planning document at the start of the project, and they cannot explain what they would do instead. Their policy is to leave 50,000 people walking the streets and likely to commit serious offences again with no support post-prison. Until the Opposition tell us what they would do to address the problem, which they identified when in government and did nothing about, they will have no credibility.
In some large areas, there have been only a small number of bidders for the service, and the award-winning Northumbria probation trust is down to three bidders. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly how many bidders have dropped out since the process started?
We have a strong slate of potential bidders in every part of the country, with a good mix of private and voluntary sector expertise and some attractive partnerships that can deliver real results for us. We will see later in the summer who emerges successfully from the bidding process, but I am completely confident that we have a strong candidate in every part of the country.
The Minister accuses us of looking backwards, but his transforming of rehabilitation services programme is controversial and fraught with difficulties. Does he agree with his permanent secretary, Ursula Brennan, who told the Public Accounts Committee last week that if the Ministry of Justice was not ready to take the next steps, it would not do so—or would he press on regardless?
It is precisely because we are confident in the process that we are moving to the next stage. We will take it a step at a time, and we will always take steps to address issues of public safety. The Opposition, having identified the problem of offenders going without supervision, and having legislated to deal with it while in government and then done nothing about it, are now attacking us for wanting to do something about it. They have no ideas themselves.
The benefit of having a national probation service that sits under the umbrella of the Department is that, were a bidder to fail, it would be possible for the Department to take operational control of that area while we retendered the contract. There are proper mechanisms in place to ensure that coverage would continue.
My hon. Friend is right, and this is at the heart of our reforms. Crime in this country is falling, which is good, and the number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system is falling, which is also good. Crime is increasingly being committed by those who are going round and round the system. My hon. Friend has put his finger on the rationale for our reforms. If we do nothing about this, there will be more and more victims of crime. I do not want to see that happen, although the Opposition are clearly happy to do so.
The Government support a greater role for mutual organisations in the provision of public services, and there has been welcome interest from mutuals in the rehabilitation contracts. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that mutuals will be well placed to participate in the provision of those services?
We have had some strong bids from employee groups within the probation service, and we have sought to provide them with as much support as possible. There is a unit in the Cabinet Office that has provided financial and professional support during the bidding process. I have no say in the final decision making process, but I have every hope that staff groups will be involved when those decisions are made in the summer.
18. My constituents cannot understand why the Government are seeking to use unproven, untested people to carry out this work when Humberside probation service does such a good job. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give to my constituents that he is not taking a risk with public safety? (903111)
The guarantee I can give the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is that we are not removing the people who are doing the job at the moment. We are freeing them operationally to innovate, and we are bringing new skills to the task of rehabilitating offenders. A much greater danger to his constituents would be to do nothing, and to leave all those thousands of offenders with no support or supervision, walking the streets, including in his constituency, and able to commit more crimes.
The fact is that the Secretary of State has had to delay his plans already. His work force are going out on strike, he has a payment-by-results model that pays regardless of results, and 200,000 offenders do not know who will be supervising them. Has he not become so enamoured of his project that he can no longer see, let alone deal with, its many serious flaws?
What a load of complete nonsense! The reality is that the Opposition have no idea how to deal with the problem of reoffending. They are in opposition, and we are now less than a year away from a general election, yet I have not the slightest idea of what they would do in our place. I am not prepared to allow a situation to continue in which people are left to walk the streets with no post-prison supervision, resulting in thousands of them reoffending, when we know from the experience of the pilot that we set up in Peterborough that mentoring those offenders can bring down crime significantly.
On 13 March 2014, the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 received Royal Assent. This Act addresses the gap that sees 50,000 short-sentenced prisoners—those most likely to reoffend—released on to the streets each year with no support, by providing those offenders with supervision in the community for the first time in recent history.
The Minister will be aware that a major reducing reoffending conference was held in Winchester earlier this month, organised by the high sheriff of Hampshire and the police and crime commissioner. Does he agree that although we must bring short-term persistent offenders into supervision, as we are doing, we must also invest heavily in treatment and give sentencers some real options if the system is to work? That has been done, and successfully, in the Right on Crime initiative in Texas.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we give flexibility to rehabilitation providers to do what they believe will work in turning someone away from crime. He is right that if someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, giving them the treatment that they require will help in that task. He will also recognise that for those with a mental health problem, it is better to divert them from the criminal justice system in the first place, and that is what we seek to do.
At my surgery on Friday, I met John who has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for murder. He wants to turn away from crime and do well in our society, but he needs a job. Is it not important that we look at this matter as a cross-departmental issue to get people back into a life where they do well and are really productive?
My hon. Friend is right that more than one Government Department needs to turn their attention to this. Of course he will know that we have allowed for changes to be made so that people can have access to the Work programme as soon as they come out of custody. As he says, it is important that all Government Departments work together with us on the rehabilitation agenda, as they have so far.
Reducing reoffending is something on which Justice Ministers right across the United Kingdom are working vigorously. Will the Minister ensure that discussions take place across the devolved regions to ensure that best practice is replicated right across the entire nation?
At the heart of the Government’s reforms is the large-scale tendering of services. Does the grotesque debacle of the electronic tagging contract with Buddi not demonstrate that the Minister’s Government is incapable of managing this process efficiently? This is yet another contract where the competition has been ended. A Ministry of Justice statement says that it has had to retender the contract for the supply of new tags.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I do not agree with the way the hon. Gentleman has represented the situation. The position is this. We will work with a preferred bidder to try to ensure that our needs are met and that we can reach agreement in delivering what will be impressive new technology to help us keep better track of offenders. If we cannot reach agreement with a preferred bidder, we must move on to another provider, and that is what is happening here. Four lots are involved in this particular process. On three of them, things are working as well as we could possibly have expected. In relation to the fourth, there are difficulties, but we are resolving them. What I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome is the use of the technology.
21. Given that one in four prisoners has a mental health problem, I welcome the news that the Government are providing £25 million to host mental health nurses in police stations. Will the Minister outline how the progress of that pilot scheme is being monitored? (903114)
My hon. Friend is right that the scheme operates from more than one Government Department. It is important that we work together with our colleagues in the Health Department to deliver what he is describing. We will monitor that progress, as will the Health Department. It will be monitored across Government because we want people with mental health problems to be diverted from the criminal justice system.
Under the transforming rehabilitation reform programme, there will be 21 contract package areas but 12 reducing to 10 women’s prisons, so not every area will have a women’s prison, but every area will receive women when they are released from prison. What arrangements will be in place to ensure continuity of support through the gate when a woman returns to a different area from the prison in which she has been incarcerated?
The hon. Lady is of course right that there are fewer female prisons than there are contract package areas, but that is in many ways a good thing because it means that we have fewer women to incarcerate. She is right that we need to think about how the new system will work. The way we will do that is to ensure that rehabilitation providers have the opportunity to be located in a prison. It may not be a prison located within their own contract package area, but they will have a presence so that everyone coming through the custodial system and being released out of it will have the opportunity to speak to a rehabilitation provider and to make the necessary connections while in custody.
Employment and Support Allowance
The hon. Lady will appreciate that the provision of this information is a matter for the judiciary. However, they have agreed to provide the Department for Work and Pensions and appellants with summary reasons for their decisions in employment and support allowance appeals. That approach was successfully piloted at four tribunal venues from June 2013 and will be rolled out later this year.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but the most recent statistics show that 45% of ESA appeals are successful. That is a slightly higher figure than in the previous set of statistics and suggests that the flow of information that could ensure that the decisions are right first time is still not happening. When will we see a published proper evaluation of what is going on?
The pilot programme is now being rolled out and we need to see its full impact. The DWP has found the information it has been given very useful and as a consequence it is in the process of revising the guidance for decision makers. It is to be hoped that the decisions taken as a consequence will be of a much better standard.
In Kettering, benefit claimants who appeal against refusals sometimes have to wait for more than 40 weeks for their appeals to be heard. That is completely unacceptable and involves some of the longest waits in the whole country. What is being done by the Department to tackle these long waiting times?
Judicial review is, and will remain, a vital means of holding public authorities to account, but the Government are concerned about the potential for unmeritorious judicial reviews being used to frustrate decisions that have been properly made, to generate publicity and to cause delay. Last month we announced a package of reforms designed to reduce the number of unmeritorious claims and speed up the process for those claimants who have arguable grounds and a genuine case to put. Most of our reforms will be given effect through the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently in Committee—a Committee on which the hon. Gentleman is serving.
Last week, the Public Bill Committee on the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill heard evidence from 17 leading experts in the field of judicial review. Is not the Minister just a little concerned that not one of them agrees with the Government’s position as set out in that Bill?
I am afraid that if the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at that evidence, he will find that one of the very last people to speak—I am thinking of only one person who comes to mind—said that the reforms would be helpful for development. Judicial review is a very good system of holding the Executive to account, but it is our intention to ensure that unmeritorious claims are dealt with so that those that are genuine can go through to help the economy and the taxpayer and ensure, ultimately, that those who want jobs can get them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that unmeritorious judicial reviews not only bring the judicial system into public disrepute but are frequently a significant financial burden on democratically elected local authorities, which might find their attempts to carry out the wishes of their electorate frustrated?
That is absolutely the case. Some local authorities are trying to help the economy through projects, only for them to be frustrated by unmeritorious claims. The taxpayer loses out because of the extra costs, the efforts of those who wish the projects to make progress or to have employment in them are stifled and, ultimately, the economy does not recover in the way that it ought to. That is what we are trying to achieve, to put right the consequences of the Opposition’s time in government.
I have had a number of conversations with the London Mayor regarding the provision of services, particularly those for victims, which I regard as extremely important. We have now been able to release an extra £12 million of victim funding for areas most affected by crime and, subject to the proposals that are made, that will potentially include the capital.
We continue to involve the Mayor and the Mayor’s office specialising in justice matters closely in our plans for prisons and probation, but I urge my hon. Friend to be careful about what he wishes for. There are others who are keen to take over MOPAC—the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime—and I have more concerns about their ability to do so. To pick an example purely at random, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was asked recently about his ambitions to be Mayor of London, and he replied that
“if I was at the edge of the box and the ball came my way and I thought I had the best chance of scoring then I might go for it”.
That might explain why he has written a manifesto for London that has no justice policies at all.
Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service continues to keep the use of its estate under review to ensure it meets operational requirements. Any new proposals to close courts or tribunals beyond those already announced would be subject to consultation.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as far as I am aware, there are no plans at present as regards Bolton magistrates court, but he will appreciate that the court estate has to be kept under review to ensure that it meets operational needs. In the event that anything happens, there will be a consultation. Nothing is planned for Bolton magistrates court.
In relation to court closures, Medway magistrates court has an excellent virtual court scheme. However, funding has not been renewed for the scheme, which has received national recognition. Will the Minister review that and confirm the Government’s commitment to virtual court schemes?
Prison Service (Staffing Levels)
As my hon. Friend knows, we have closed some prison accommodation for a variety of good reasons, and there have been staffing reductions as a result, all achieved without the use of compulsory redundancy. Staffing levels in prisons are currently subject to a detailed benchmarking assessment that takes account of the role and responsibility of each prison.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, particularly in regard to the closure of Northallerton prison. Can he say how many may have been affected by the use of the voluntary early departure scheme and where those currently working at Northallerton prison will be placed for future duties?
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, there will be a variety of different futures for those leaving Northallerton. She knows already that the decision to close that establishment is no reflection whatever on the efforts of the staff who were based there. I can tell her that 34 staff have taken up the option of voluntary early departure.
Prison numbers have been going up and prison staff going down. The Department’s own figures show that the national tactical response squad, the prison riot squad, was called out 72% more times last year than in 2010, more prisoners and prison staff are being assaulted and deaths in custody were the highest for a decade. To state the obvious, none of that is conducive to rehabilitation. Is any of this the responsibility of this Government, and what does the Minister intend to do about it?
Of course management of the prison estate is the responsibility of this Government, as indeed when the last Government were in power it was theirs. There is a variety of reasons why the tornado teams attend, and the serious incidents that they attend are at roughly half the level they were under the last Government, so the right hon. Gentleman needs to be clear about the statistics he uses. Frankly, if he spent a bit more time doing the job he has and a bit less time chasing the Mayor of London’s job, he might get those things right. But let us get something else very clear. It is important that we maintain a safe, secure and decent estate, and that is exactly what we will do. Where there are increased levels of assault, which I agree are a matter of concern, we need to address that in a number of ways, and that is exactly what we are doing.
Victims of Crime
The Government are committed to providing more support than ever to victims of crime, and to giving them a louder voice in the criminal justice system. We have implemented a new victims code that tells people what to expect at every stage of the process. We aim to spend up to £100 million to support victims to cope and where possible recover from crime. This is roughly double what we currently spend, with offenders paying a much greater share. Last month we announced the first dedicated fund of £500,000 to support victims of male rape.
No, I would not say that at all because among our other innovations is a Victims Commissioner, whose basic role is to ensure that the code of practice is taken seriously by the police and by all other parts of the criminal justice system. Victims have much greater protection under this Government than they ever had under the previous Government.
Every year, about 3,000 burglars with 15 or more previous convictions are not sent to prison. How does releasing these people back on to the streets to continue their crime spree help victims of crime? Is it not time that legislation was introduced to ensure that persistent burglars must be sent to prison?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the “Transforming Rehabilitation” proposals, which will mean that those receiving even sentences of under 12 months will for the first time receive help in prison, which will ensure that they are much less likely to reoffend when they come out.
Since May 2010, we have had 15 months with no Victims Commissioner at all, and two years with a part-time Victims Commissioner. What kind of signal does the Minister think that sends about this Government’s attitude to victims of crime?
About 550 people lose their lives in homicides throughout the country each year. For the families left bereaved by these tragedies, the dreadful impact can last for many years afterwards. Victims of crime often need long-term or even life-long support. Will the Minister therefore explain why the Government’s new homicide service will not be providing services to families who have lost a loved one prior to April 2010?
As the hon. Gentleman says, the homicide service will deal with those who have been bereaved by homicide over the past few years, but more money has gone to local police and crime commissioners, and they can commission additional services, which may well include some of the groups that I know are worried about the services they are providing to more distant victims of homicide. I can assure him that I am equally concerned about that, but the PCCs will deal with them.
Pleural Plaques (Compensation)
We have received a small number of representations on pleural plaques over the past few months, including some from Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents.
Does the Minister agree that the current system of compensation for pleural plaques is grossly unfair? People with pleural plaques living in Scotland or Northern Ireland qualify for compensation, but those living in England or Wales do not. Does he think that is unfair, and is he going to do anything about it?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are different legal jurisdictions, which means that there will occasionally be differences. In the light of the current medical evidence, the Government do not consider it appropriate to overturn the House of Lords judgment that the condition of pleural plaques is not compensatable under the civil law.
The hon. Lady will know that the Cabinet Office holds the key to releasing the remaining documents. I am grateful for the letter she wrote to me and hope she has received my reply. I am conscious that she has a family interest in the matter as well as a political one. I remind her that we adopted the system that was in place under the previous Government, according to which matters that touch on national security are subject to exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. We are talking about only one document and three paragraphs in each of three other documents. If she addresses her request to the Cabinet Office ahead of the review, I hope that she will get an encouraging response.
The Minister must accept that it is difficult to believe that, more than 40 years after the events, there could be any real national security issues. He is aware that on 23 January this House voted for the publication of the documents. Is he willing to meet me and other interested Members to discuss how we can ensure that the documents are published at the earliest opportunity?
The earliest opportunity will be next year, as I made clear to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) in the debate that he secured. I also offered him the opportunity to discuss it with colleagues, and I am very open to that. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Lord Chancellor satisfied himself that it was appropriate for the documents to be kept under Cabinet closure, but the matter will be open to full review next year.
Musical Instruments for Prisoners
In accordance with the revised policy on incentives and earned privileges, prisoners on the standard or enhanced level of the IEP scheme are allowed, if permitted by their governor, to have in their possession, and at their own expense, some musical instruments. As the hon. Gentleman knows, following changes to the scheme, prisoners must earn those and other privileges.
I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but I am quite a big fan of the late Johnny Cash, who performed in prisons, and Billy Bragg, who started the Jail Guitar Doors initiative to provide guitars to those in prison using musical instruments as a means of rehabilitation. Why have the Government banned the use of most of those instruments by ordering prisoners to return steel-string and electric guitars?
The hon. Gentleman, perhaps predictably, given his level of expertise, has reached a level of detail on musical instruments of which I am not currently cognisant, but I will look into the matter he raises. He is right that music can be a method of rehabilitation. We want prisoners to play instruments, either on their own or in groups, in appropriate circumstances, but he will understand that there have to be some restrictions. I will have a look and ensure that the restrictions are appropriate.
Sentencing Guidelines (Manslaughter)
Manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. There is no current Sentencing Council guideline for manslaughter. However, the Court of Appeal issued a guideline judgment in 2009 on sentencing for that offence in which it made it clear that attention should be paid to the problem of gratuitous, unprovoked violence in our city centres and streets.
In November last year Andrew Young, a constituent of mine, challenged a cyclist for riding on the pavement. For his troubles he was viciously punched in the head and tragically died the next day. His attacker was convicted of manslaughter a fortnight ago and received a sentence of just four years, so he is likely to be out in just two years. I am grateful for the Attorney-General calling the case in, but I hope that the Minister will agree that there is no excuse for such violent behaviour and that the sentence seems unduly lenient.
I certainly agree that there is no excuse for that kind of behaviour, and this is clearly a very tragic case. My hon. Friend is right to refer to the Attorney-General’s consideration of the matter. My right hon. and learned Friend will reach his own conclusions in due course. As I have said, I think it is right that we have high penalties available in appropriate cases. Of course, as my hon. Friend will recognise, it is for individual sentencers to decide how to use them.
Does my hon. Friend understand that, as there has been more than one instance of a low sentence in the event of taking a life under such circumstances, as illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), there will be a growing demand for mandatory sentences unless the courts respond accordingly?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern; he has an enviable track record in campaigning on these matters. It is important, however, that we all recognise that it is difficult to make an appropriate judgment on the adequacy of a sentence unless we have heard all the evidence and mitigation in the case; few of us have that advantage. The existence of the right of the Attorney-General to refer matters to the Court of Appeal where he believes there to be unduly lenient sentences is the right mechanism. As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the matter at the moment.
Freedom of Information Act
There has been good progress in extending the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act because the coalition Government pledged to extend its scope to provide greater transparency. We extended it in 2010 to academies, in 2011 to the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and last year to 100 companies wholly owned by more than one public authority. The next item on the agenda is to do with Network Rail, and we are awaiting a view from the Department for Transport as to whether it thinks it would be appropriate for that to be implemented this year.
We intend to extend it further as soon as is practical. One specific issue that I hope will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman—as it is to colleagues of his, including those who have come to see me about it—is that we intend to publish a revised code of practice to make sure that private companies that carry out public functions have freedom of information requirements in their contracts and go further than that. We hope that that will be in place by the end of this year.
There is one area where the Minister should perhaps look at narrowing the scope of the Act, because my understanding is that requests can be made by anybody anywhere on the face of the earth; they do not have to be British citizens. It is not the role of the British Government to be a taxpayer-funded research service for anyone on the globe. May I suggest that he narrow the scope to those for whom the Government work—citizens of our country?
I well understand my hon. Friend’s point. There will be two consultations this year: first, on precisely such issues about the scope of the current legislation to make sure that it is not abused while we retain freedom of information as a principle of Government; and secondly, on extending it to other areas where we have not gone so far.
I would like briefly to inform the House of some important changes I am making to the use of release on temporary licence for prisoners, in order to tighten the current system and better protect the public. In future, all prisoners released on temporary licence will be tagged. Temporary licences will be granted only where a prisoner has demonstrated a commitment to change and there is a clear benefit in reducing reoffending. There will be a more thorough risk assessment before temporary licences are authorised and a more robust response for prisoners who fail to comply. For serious or violent offenders, I am introducing a new scheme of restricted temporary licences that will involve more stringent risk assessments and a more robust monitoring regime. These measures will ensure that we make more effective use of release on temporary licence and that we take the steps necessary to maintain public safety.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Does he agree that the best way to bridge the gap between prison and normal life is through help by organisations such as the Oswin project, based in Northumberland, which provides paid apprenticeships and paid employment such that the individuals concerned, who are all ex-offenders, are better able to integrate and manage their way back into normal life?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to visiting Northumberland shortly and seeing some of the work that is being done. This is enormously important. It is particularly important that we have really close links between the efforts provided to help people into employment and the efforts put into helping them to sort their lives out once they have left prison. Those two areas are integrally linked, and that work is immensely important.
There is certainly a real issue. We have seen over the years the radicalisation of young men in prisons. We now have a first-rate team of imams in our prisons who are carefully selected and I have met a number of them. They are putting together carefully constructed programmes to help steer people away from radicalisation. I pay tribute to the work they do in often difficult circumstances and I believe they can really make a difference.
The sorts of things that the Prime Minister’s extremism taskforce, experts, governors and staff are saying are required are enhanced monitoring, better intelligence gathering, staff trained to recognise and deal with the issue, a dedicated expert unit within the Prison Service, a specialist programme to target prisoners and spare capacity for governors. What resources and how much personal attention is the Justice Secretary giving to that?
Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman that all of those things are, in fact, currently happening. The last meeting I had to discuss those issues took place in the past two weeks. It is a matter of great concern to my colleagues on the Front Bench and to me, and we will continue to work at it. I again pay the greatest of tributes to the staff involved in this work on the front line and the imams who are doing such good work in shaping the education programmes that can make a real difference. I think that there is agreement across the House that we need to ensure that the work is effective and delivers real results for us. I am very confident in the team who are doing it.
I have continual conversations about that and continue to resist any attempts to do it. One of the areas I have been most concerned about is the creation of the justice scorecard, the latest version of which was published yesterday. I believe it is a vehicle that theoretically allows the Commission to extend its legislative remit. I am pleased to tell the House that the United Kingdom is the only country that is wholly not co-operating with the justice scorecard.
T2. Legal aid used for injunctions and stays pending judicial review has been vital in preventing ordinary families from spiralling into homelessness and, indeed, in saving the public purse the costs of incorrectly made homelessness decisions by local authorities. Will Ministers confirm whether the changes made to legal aid in regulations last week have retained that specific protection? (903119)
The provisions are there and there are exceptions. The hon. Lady will be aware that the argument constantly put forward that legal aid is being taken away from everyone simply does not match up. For those who are in need and when people’s individual liberty is at stake, legal aid is provided, as is the case with other provisions.
As I detailed earlier, we have taken a large number of measures. Perhaps the most significant one will be literally to give them a voice in court: victims of crime will be able to make a statement in court after the verdict but before the sentence. Many victims have emphasised that that will empower them: they will be able to look the offender in the face and say what effect the offence has had on their family. That is a very significant change in the court process in favour of victims.
T6. It is estimated that this year there will be 42,000 applications to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which means that 15,000 people who would have been eligible under the old scheme will not get anything. Is the Secretary of State proud that he has taken away access to justice for so many victims of crime? (903123)
What we have tried to do in what are tough times financially is centre the resource we have on those who have been most badly affected by crimes. The reforms put together by my predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) were designed to ensure that those who had relatively minor injuries as a result of crime would not be where we focused our resource and would be excluded from the scheme. We have left in place discretionary funding so that in unexpected circumstances, where there is an unexpected impact, support can still be provided.
T5. I warmly welcome the use of mental health diversion pilot schemes in police stations pre-arrest, but more work needs to be done to ensure that the number of people with mental health conditions in our prison system is as small as possible. Which steps does my right hon. Friend intend to take to deal with that vital issue? (903122)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. For me, this issue is the next priority for my Department beyond the current reforms. I believe that we need to make better provision for people with mental health problems in our prisons. It is the next big piece of work that needs to be done, and I hope and expect that we will have the opportunity to put in place real change in the future that can make a difference for those people.
T7. Next Wednesday, I will host an event in Parliament on behalf of the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. Sophie and her boyfriend were Goths who were set upon by a gang and brutally kicked and beaten, and Sophie died of her injuries. What guidance is the Minister giving courts about treating such crimes and sentencing them as hate crimes? (903124)
May I first say that we in this House all abhor such horrendous incidents, and our hearts always go out to the families of the victims. The hon. Lady will of course understand that sentencing guidelines are created by the Sentencing Council, and that we as politicians do not have the power, unless we choose to legislate, to instruct courts how to act in particular circumstances. The message I would always give to courts is that it is the will of the democratically elected Parliament that horrendous and brutal crimes should be dealt with firmly and appropriately.
The recent orchestrated action by self-employed barristers in protection of their commercial interest is prima facie evidence of an anti-competitive cartel. Such a cartel would be illegal under EU and UK competition law. What can we do to uphold the law in this area?
The action taken by barristers recently is very regrettable. It caused a lot of inconvenience to victims and witnesses. I just want to assure the legal profession that the door of the Secretary of State for Justice and my door are wide open, and we hope that we can engage in constructive dialogue.
T8. Last autumn, Ministers said that no prisoners were being held in police cells, but figures show that there were 608 occasions on which prisoners were held in police cells between October and January. Will the Minister apologise? (903125)
No, because the hon. Gentleman is not correctly representing what we said. We said that Operation Safeguard was not in action, and that was true. He should understand that the use of police cells is routine—it was done under the previous Government—and occurs for a variety of reasons, some of which, for example, are down to courts finishing late and not being able to be get prisoners back to their home prison in time. Those things have happened under the previous Government and under this one. He might be interested to know that the use of prison cells last year was a little under 1,000; under his Government, it reached a peak of 50,000.
Given the level of support across this House for the decriminalisation of non-payment of the TV licence fee, does my right hon. Friend agree that the continued criminalisation of people whose only crime is being poor is completely untenable? What discussions has he had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on this issue?
I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. We are giving this issue careful consideration. I have had discussions both with my counterpart at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and with the Cabinet Office. The three Departments will continue to have discussions both with him and other Back Benchers with an interest in this issue, and with the BBC.
We have said to both G4S and Serco—I deplore the actions of those companies in the things that have taken place—that simply repaying money is not sufficient, and that we expect them to go through a process of corporate renewal, which will involve comprehensive changes to both personnel and ways of working internally. I am not in the process of destroying British companies; I am in the business of saying, “You cannot expect to work with Government unless you uphold high standards, take a transparent approach and absolutely do not try to rip off the taxpayer.”
If someone is breathalysed and found to be over the limit, their driving licence can be suspended straight away. However, if someone is found to be over the limit and kills somebody, it can take months. That was the experience of the family of Jamie Still, whose killer drove for eight months after killing him in 2010. Prosecutors do not ask for the suspension of a driving licence in a case of death by criminal driving. What discussions will the Secretary of State have with the Crown Prosecution Service about that?
Is the Secretary of State content with a system of justice in which people who have no criminal record can be dawn-raided, arrested and left in limbo for months and months, with their careers ruined? Is that the right sort of criminal justice system for our country?
It is impossible to answer that question without knowing the circumstances of the case and without understanding the reasons for what I assume are police actions. I want a justice system that acts appropriately, takes tough action where necessary and treats people fairly, including by giving them a fair trial. When people are found guilty, I want the system to treat them appropriately and punish them accordingly.
I took the trouble to look up that figure on the off-chance that my hon. Friend might ask for it. It is 10,689 as of last Friday, which, I am pleased to tell him, is a reduction from the last time that he asked for the figure and I told him it. It is important that he, I and other Members of the House support the Immigration Bill when it returns to this House, so that we can begin to deal with some of the obstacles to doing what he has described, which include the number of appeals that are available to some people to delay their return to the country to which they should go.
Humberside police have the highest number of reported child rapes. Last year, the figure was 176, alongside the 193 reported adult rapes. The cut to the money that is available to the Hull rape crisis centre will mean that the centre is no longer viable and that victims will have to travel 60-odd miles to Leeds to get the assistance that they need. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State look at that case to see whether the Ministry of Justice can support this very vulnerable group of people through the continuation of funding?
I will, of course, look at that individual case. However, I hope that the hon. Lady and the House will acknowledge that the Government are committed to funding 15 new rape crisis centres; that the 14th and 15th new centres will come on stream this year; and that we have provided an extra £4 million to allow that to happen. Inevitably, there are bids that cannot be met for perfectly valid reasons, but I will take a look at that case.
Will my right hon. Friend look again at the adequacy of the terms of reference and working practices of the Office for Judicial Complaints to deal properly with redress in the very rare cases in which our judiciary do not come up to the proper standards of behaviour?
I am happy to do so. Perhaps my hon. Friend will give me a bit more information on the detail of his concerns. I think that the office does a good job. My experience from my 18 months as Lord Chancellor is that it makes sensible decisions and takes a sensible approach when such issues arise. One hopes that they will not arise often, but I will look at his concerns.
May I ask the Secretary of State to correct the record? In the House, he said that family mediations had not fallen, but a letter from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) says that publicly funded referrals and family mediations have fallen.
The position is clear and I tried to clarify it in my letter to the hon. Lady. Sadly, there has been a drop in the number of cases that are going to mediation. There has therefore been a drop in the number of cases that are going through the process. The percentage of successful mediations has not dropped. That is the issue to which the Secretary of State was referring. The Government are committed to doing what she would want, which is to ensure that from next month, when the law changes, there is an increase in referrals to mediation and an increase in successful mediations.
Her Majesty’s prison Northumberland was privatised on 1 December 2013. In the four months since, there have been 180 redundancies. Nearly a third of the work force have been released. Is the Secretary of State confident that HMP Northumberland is a safe place for prisoners and staff?
We are having to take difficult decisions about staffing levels across the prison estate. I am confident that every one of our prisons is a safe place to detain prisoners. I have not pursued a privatisation strategy across the prison system but accepted the recommendations of the Prison Governors Association and others, and the benchmarking programme that we are putting in place across the prison system was recommended in-house by the public sector team.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I need your urgent advice on an important constituency case. As the local MP, I have been representing a family in a contested adoption case, including the birth mother, Miss P. In order to represent the family properly, I needed to see the final statements and assessments by relevant social workers. Norfolk county council then e-mailed my constituent, stating:
“I would be grateful if you could confirm whether or not your client has disclosed a copy of the assessments to Henry Bellingham. This would clearly be in breach of the family procedure rules and a contempt of Court.”
I then wrote to the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), and the president of the family division, Sir James Munby. Both the Minister and Sir James replied that since the case of Re N in 2009, the family procedure rules had been updated specifically to include MPs as interested parties who can receive all relevant statements and assessments. In other words, the county council was completely wrong.
Norfolk county council was either ignorant of that change in the law, which I find pretty staggering given that every family practitioner in the land will surely have known about the consequences of Re N, or it deliberately misled a vulnerable young mother about the law and conspired to stop MPs going about their duty. I take the matter very seriously, because I have been prevented from getting full and considered advice to Miss P. What protection can you give MPs, Mr Speaker? Is there a possible contempt of Parliament, and could Norfolk county council be referred to the Committee of Privileges?
Order. The hon. Gentleman springs to his feet with great alacrity, and we will hear from him in a moment.
I say to the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) that if he has a complaint on grounds of privilege, it will be necessary for him to write to me on that score. More widely, I thank him for his courtesy in giving me advance notice yesterday evening of his intention to raise the point of order. I am concerned as to his ability to act effectively in this matter, and I am sympathetic with the broad thrust of what he has said to me and the House. My clear understanding is that the relevant Minister is interested in coming in on the matter, and he should have the opportunity to do so. We will then hear from the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth).
I am most grateful, Mr Speaker.
Further to that point of order, may I put it on record that I have suffered precisely the same threat from Surrey county council about a potential adoption case in my constituency? May I suggest that it is a matter of relevance to you, Mr Speaker, because it strikes at the heart of the issue of privilege? It is extremely important that the evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) has just given you about the ruling by the president of the family division is widely disseminated to county councils throughout the country.
Look, I make one light-hearted point to the hon. Gentleman and one more serious one. The light-hearted one is that I cannot imagine that any attempt to threaten him could be successful. I have known him for 25 years, and he is not the sort of person to be threatened effectively, let me put it that way.
On the more substantial and substantive front, I am afraid that I must repeat to the hon. Gentleman that a complaint on grounds of privilege has to be put to me in writing. He knows very well that I am extremely concerned about the protection of parliamentary privilege and the need to guard against any threat to it, as manifested in the recent case involving the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). I believe that the hon. Gentleman is well familiar with the exchanges relating to that case. I am sensitive to his concerns, but let us now hear—preferably with brevity—from the Minister. [Laughter]
I have not said a word.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. the Ministry of Justice is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for raising the matter with us. It is of great constitutional importance and significance, and people in local authorities need to know what the law is. It is clear to me that the solicitor acting for Norfolk county council was wrong in what she said, which was that it would be clearly in breach of the family procedure rules and a contempt of court for the documents to be disclosed to the Member of Parliament of the person in question. The president of the family division has drawn the local authority’s attention to the case of Re N, where the judgment is clear. Since then, the family procedure rules have been changed and make it clear that unless a judge has ruled otherwise, parties involved in family cases can disclose information relating to their case to any person, including their constituency MP, as long as it is for the purpose of confidential discussion. The rules are above doubt and clear, and I hope that all local authorities will respect the role of Members of Parliament in representing their constituents.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 6 January this year I asked a named-day question about the introduction of fees for employment tribunals, and particularly the issue of pregnant women who are now being asked to pay £1,200 to go to tribunal. There is concern that there has been chaos in the system about the fee remittance available to that group. My named-day question was answered only on 17 January after I had submitted pursuant questions. The Minister said that he would write to me in full, but I have not heard anything and it is now two months later. Can you do anything, Mr Speaker, to ensure that Ministers respond to legitimate questions from Members of Parliament?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), made a written statement to the House regarding the impending closure of the Driver and Vehicle Agency in Northern Ireland, which will result in more than 300 jobs being lost, including 200 in my constituency. The matter has concentrated the minds of many people, including a petition of more than 40,000 people. A debate in the Assembly indicated unanimous support there, as well as the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister here. What further procedures are available to try to salvage jobs and services in Northern Ireland before that unacceptable decision is implemented?
The hon. Gentleman has already given the issue a somewhat higher profile by the very fact of raising it with such force on the Floor of the House. My simple advice is that he should repair to the Table Office from this Chamber, and seek advice as to the means he can deploy to take forward his concern and seek resolution. I hope that is helpful.
If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) has been so stoically and patiently waiting.
Brown Hare (Protection)
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 a close season for the hunting of the brown hare; and for connected purposes.
I shall try not to speak for the full allotted time as we have grave and serious matters to debate following this motion.
Hares are an iconic and much-valued part of our country’s wildlife, and I doubt there are many people who, having watched them in the wild, are not fascinated by their behaviour and beauty. I present this Bill in March, and we have all heard of mad March hares, which is traditionally when their behaviour is at its most celebrated. For a long time it was thought that the boxing that occurs was competition between males, but closer observation has revealed that it is usually a female hitting a male, either to show that she is not yet ready to mate, or as a test of his determination.
Over the past 100 years or so, numbers of hares have declined. In some parts of their range they are scarce, but in others they are still relatively abundant. The law currently allows them to be killed as game or to prevent serious damage to farm crops, but unlike other game animals they have no close season in which to raise their young. Some existing legislation cover hares, but I—along with many others—think that a close season is the least that these amazing creatures deserve.
As is so often the case, however, when a matter is looked into in more depth, the simple answer is not the full picture and there are many more complex issues to consider. I am grateful to many people who have helped me while I have researched this subject, particularly Lorraine Platt of Blue Hare, Humane Society International, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the Countryside Alliance. My proposals will probably not please any of them, but I believe they are a sensible middle-ground approach that will allow us to take the matter forward in legislation.
The welfare issue of how hares are killed is, I believe, covered by existing legislation. If those laws are broken, the perpetrators should face the consequences. In fact, the biggest human threat to hares almost certainly comes from illegal coursing and poaching. Gangs of unscrupulous people invade farmland, chasing and killing hares with dogs while trespassing over property, usually in a very aggressive manner. I have been told that this is a real problem for many farmers. Many have lost their hare population through this practice, or have been tempted to eradicate hares from their land to escape the attention of these criminals. I propose that penalties be strengthened and that proper resources be given to police forces to enable real action to be taken against these people.
I have spoken to many interested parties and what strikes me most is that hares are almost universally thought of in kind terms, not just by wildlife enthusiasts like myself but by countrymen and women generally. The reasons for their declining numbers are not shooting, but changing farming practices that leave little areas of cover, and predation, principally by foxes. A fully grown hare can outrun a fox but leverets are particularly vulnerable, so a population can quickly have an imbalance, with fewer young hares coming through. I have seen impressive statistics from the work of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust at its Allerton farm project that show how hare numbers increase dramatically when fox numbers are controlled.
It must be recognised that hares can and do damage crops. When I first considered introducing a close season, I was made aware of the danger that farmers who are concerned about that damage would, as a matter of expediency and as a precaution, kill as many hares as possible before the close season to minimise legally the numbers that would cause damage later. That is obviously not the result that I and others are looking for, so I have to concede that provision should be made to allow some shooting, if necessary, during the close season. I envisage something along the lines of section 7 of the Deer Act 1991, which provides a “farmer’s defence” whereby authorised persons may, in certain circumstances, shoot deer if they are causing damage in the close season. I am loth to bring in more bureaucracy, so how that could be enacted would have to be considered in more detail, but I believe this exemption would satisfy the needs of farmers who have genuine concerns about a close season.
The breeding season of the hare is a long one, and dependent somewhat on geography. The current code of practice has been agreed to by a coalition of country interests, including the Countryside Alliance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, among others. The work of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust on this subject has been extremely thorough. Its code of practice states:
“From 1 March to 31 July hares should only be killed if they are…causing serious crop damage (as opposed to them being a potential source of risk). Not shooting at this time prevents the orphaning of dependent young during the hare’s main breeding season.”
This period should be extended to start on 1 February and end on 31 August, and it should be enshrined in law. That is why I propose the Bill and why I hope it will be given leave to advance today. I do not believe that I am being sentimental about this magnificent creature, but I am taking a pragmatic attitude to help one aspect of its conservation for future generations to enjoy.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sir John Randall, Mark Pritchard, Caroline Nokes, Mr Adrian Sanders, John McDonnell, Angela Smith, Caroline Dinenage and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.
Sir John Randall accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 June, and to be printed (Bill 184).
[Relevant documents: 19th Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-xviii, Chapter 5; and 40th Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 83-xxxvii.]
We now come to the main business: a general debate on Ukraine, for which there are three hours, protected. Before I call the Foreign Secretary to move the motion, it may be convenient for the House to know that 26 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to contribute from the Back Benches. Obviously there is no time limit on Front-Bench speeches, but I feel sure that the Foreign Secretary and his shadow will wish sensitively to tailor their contributions in the light of the level of interest among their colleagues.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine is the most serious test of European security in the 21st century so far. The United Kingdom’s interests are twofold. First, we want to see a stable, prosperous and unified Ukraine that is able to determine its own future, free from external pressure or interference. Secondly, we have a vital interest in the upholding of international law and the United Nations charter, the honouring of treaties, and the maintenance of a rules-based international system. Russia’s actions in Crimea run roughshod over all those fundamental principles, and threaten the future of Ukraine.
I pay tribute to the extraordinary restraint shown by the Ukrainian Government, Ukraine’s military forces and its people in the face of immense provocation, with part of their country invaded and tens of thousands of forces massed on their border by a neighbour that refuses to rule out further military intervention against them. There is a grave danger of a provocation elsewhere in Ukraine that will become a pretext for further military escalation. We are working urgently to agree the mandate of an expanded OSCE monitoring mission to all parts of the country in the coming days.
On Friday, I met United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before their bilateral talks here in London. Russia was presented with a series of proposals to de-escalate the crisis and to address the situation in Crimea. After six hours of talks, Russia rebuffed those efforts, and on Sunday the referendum went ahead. The Crimean authorities claimed a turnout of 83% of the population, with 96.8% voting in favour of joining Russia. Yesterday the Parliament of Crimea formally applied to join the Russian Federation, and President Putin signed a decree recognising Crimea as a “sovereign state’” He has now announced, in the last two hours, new laws to incorporate Crimea in the Russian Federation.
It was regrettable to hear President Putin today choosing the route of isolation, denying the citizens of his own country and of Crimea partnership with the international community and full membership of a range of international organisations, and denying Russia its right to help to shape the 21st century in a positive manner. No amount of sham and perverse democratic process or skewed historical references can make up for the fact that this is an incursion into a sovereign state and a land grab of part of its territory, with no respect for the law of that country or for international law.
The referendum was clearly illegal under the Ukrainian constitution, which states that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is an integral constituent part of Ukraine, that it can resolve issues related to its authority only within the provisions of the constitution, and that only the Ukrainian Parliament has the right to call such referendums.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way so early in his speech. Does he agree that any referendum that is held at the barrel of a gun and on an electoral roll that is manifestly not fit for purpose cannot be taken seriously?
Yes. This was a vote in circumstances in which Crimea was occupied by more than 20,000 Russian troops, and indeed the meeting of the Crimean Parliament that announced the referendum was itself controlled by unidentified armed gunmen and took place behind locked doors.
Does the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that there are legitimate and acceptable ways in which to pursue constitutional change—[Interruption]—and that, in such a way, the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, and Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski have highlighted the forthcoming independence referendum in Scotland as an agreed process? [Interruption.] Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any referendum must fulfil the highest democratic standards, as in Scotland, and must not be held in dubious circumstances and at the barrel of a gun, as in Crimea?
The referendum in Scotland was, of course, agreed in this Parliament, and will take place in a legal and fully democratic manner. The referendum in Crimea took place at 10 days’ notice, without the leaders of Ukraine being able to visit Crimea and without meeting any of the OSCE’s standards for democratic decisions or elections, which include verification of the existence of an accurate voter registration list and, in this instance, confidence that only people holding Ukrainian passports would be allowed to vote. None of those conditions was fulfilled. So of course this referendum is at the opposite end of any scale from the referendum that will take place in Scotland.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that if Russia wants to be isolated, we should allow it to be isolated? Russia needs the west a great deal more than we need Russia. We should not be afraid of being robust in our actions against the nationalist actions of President Putin.
I shall come to the measures that we can take in a moment, but we have already suspended preparations for the G8. The decision must of course be made by the G7 nations, but I think that the actions that Russia has taken make it highly likely that they will wish to establish meetings of their own, including the meeting of Foreign Ministers that was due to take place next month in Moscow. I shall return to those points shortly.
The OSCE mission to Ukraine was refused entry to Crimea on 6 March, and there are reports of considerable irregularities including voting by Russian citizens, Crimean officials and militia taking mobile ballot boxes to the homes of residents to persuade them to vote, and a black-out of Ukrainian television channels. The outcome of the referendum also does not reflect the views of minorities in Crimea, as the region’s Muslim Tatar minority, who make up between 14% and 15% of the population, boycotted the referendum. Furthermore, the ballot paper asked the people of Crimea to decide either to become part of the Russian Federation or to revert to the highly ambiguous 1992 constitution. There was no option on the ballot paper for those who supported the status quo. The House should be in no doubt that this was a mockery of all democratic practice.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe stated unequivocally last week that the referendum was illegal and should not go ahead. On Saturday the UN Security Council voted on a resolution condemning the referendum as “unconstitutional” and “illegitimate”, which was co-sponsored by 42 nations. Russia was completely isolated in vetoing the text, while 13 members of the Security Council voted in favour, and China abstained. Indeed, the House should be clear about the illegality not only of the referendum, but of all Russia’s recent actions in Crimea. Russia has advanced several wholly spurious arguments to justify—or try to justify—what it has done—
The Foreign Secretary is being very generous in giving way. He has been absolutely right to be robust in his response to this Russian aggression. He mentioned that there were 20,000 Russian troops in Crimea. While no one is advocating military intervention, does this not remind us that perhaps we should be fundamentally reassessing how much we spend on our armed forces? Although we may have the fourth or fifth largest defence budget, we rank 30th when it comes to deploying those forces overseas. That is a nonsense, given the extent of our global interests.
What my hon. Friend has said may take us on to wider debates, but I should point out that we are one of the few countries in NATO that spend 2% or more of GDP on defence. I think that only four NATO countries do that now. I have argued in the past—including at NATO meetings—that other nations will need to increase their percentages over the coming years.
My right hon. Friend has not yet mentioned the Council of Europe. Will this Government move to expel or suspend the Russian Federation from membership of the Council of Europe for this most blatant breach of the 1949 statute?
The secretary-general of the Council of Europe and I will meet and be able to consider these things later this week when he visits London, but my hon. Friend makes a powerful case. Of course, the Conservative Members who are in the Council of Europe have already moved away from the group that they were involved in with Russian members. One of the Russians listed for sanctions yesterday at the Foreign Affairs Council is a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—in the Socialist Group. I say that not as a partisan point, but I hope Opposition Members will make their views on that clear.
I commend the Secretary of State on his strong stance on the recent situation in Ukraine. The EU has taken the step of imposing a sanction to stop 21 Russians. Does he feel the sanctions imposed by the EU, and at this moment the UK, will be strong enough to stop any more Russian incursions into Ukraine, especially east Ukraine, where there are clearly problems?
In 1994 Russia and all other key countries signed the Budapest memorandum, which preserved Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the clear breach by Russia of the 1994 memorandum, and how do we avoid reaching a situation in which we all feel the creeping threat of 1938?
That gives me the cue to run through, and make clear to the House, the spurious arguments Russia has advanced for its actions, including on the Budapest memorandum.
First, Russia says that it has acted in defence of Russian compatriots who were in danger from violence and facing a humanitarian crisis. However, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities has stated that there is
“no evidence of any violence or threats to the rights of Russian speakers”
in Crimea. Indeed, there is no evidence of Russian compatriots being under threat anywhere in Ukraine, or of attacks on churches in eastern Ukraine, as Russia has alleged. It is not true that thousands of refugees are fleeing Ukraine into Russia, nor is there any threat to Russian military bases in Crimea, since the Ukrainian Government have pledged to abide by all existing agreements covering those bases.
Numerous international mechanisms exist to protect the rights of minorities, and Russia’s own actions are the greatest threat to stability in Ukraine. On top of evidence of gangs of thugs being bussed across the Russian border to provoke clashes with communities in eastern Ukraine, over the weekend the Ukrainian Government reported that Russian forces have seized an oil and gas facility 5 miles outside Crimea.
Secondly, to respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), Russia claims not to be bound by any of its previous agreements with Ukraine, including the 1994 Budapest memorandum, on the grounds that the new Government in Ukraine are illegitimate. However, the interim Government, formed when former President Yanukovych fled his post, were approved by an overwhelming majority in a free vote in the Ukrainian Parliament including representatives from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. The Government have restored the 2004 constitution and scheduled presidential elections. Their legitimacy and their commitment to democracy are clear.
Moreover, treaties and international agreements are between states, not between Governments, and a change in Government does not in itself affect the binding force of those agreements. The commitments in the Budapest memorandum still stand, and Russia has flagrantly breached its pledge, in the words of the memorandum, to
“refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”.
Thirdly, although Russia still denies that its troops are in Crimea, the Russians maintain that former President Yanukovych, whom they describe as the
“legitimate president of Ukraine”,
is entitled to request military assistance from Russia. That, too, is false, since the Ukrainian constitution is clear that only the Ukrainian Parliament has the authority to approve decisions on admitting foreign troops. The President has no such right, nor does the Crimean Parliament. In law and as a matter of logic it is clearly ludicrous to argue that a President who abandoned his post and fled has any right whatsoever to make any decisions about the future of that country, let alone to invite foreign troops into it.
Fourthly, Russia argues that the people of Crimea have a right to self-determination and that it is their basic right to choose to join Russia, citing Kosovo as an alleged precedent, but there is no equivalence whatsoever between Crimea and Kosovo and, as Chancellor Merkel has said, it is “shameful” to make the comparison. NATO intervention in Kosovo followed ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity on a large scale. An international contact group, including Russia, was brought together to discuss the future of Kosovo after the conflict. The independence of Kosovo followed nine years of work by the Kosovan authorities to satisfy the conditions of independent statehood and mediation by a UN special envoy. None of these circumstances applies to Crimea.
In all those areas, Russia is attempting to find justifications in precedent or law to excuse its actions in Ukraine and to muddy the waters of international opinion. What we are actually witnessing is the annexation of part of the sovereign territory of an independent European state through military force. The fall of President Yanukovych and the change of Government in Ukraine was a massive strategic setback for the Russian Government, who had made no secret of their desire to prevent Ukraine from moving towards closer association with the EU. Seen in that light the annexation of Crimea is a bid to regain the advantage, to restore Russian prestige and permanently to impair Ukraine’s functioning as a country, and given that Russia still maintains it has the right to intervene militarily anywhere on Ukrainian soil, there is a grave risk that we have not yet seen the worst of this crisis.
Given that the Foreign Secretary referred to the unilateral redrawing of boundaries, which we have not seen for the last 25 years, neighbouring countries will become very important. Although Turkey is a member of the OSCE, have there been other, more detailed, discussions with Turkey as to how it could help the EU and the US efforts?
Yes, there have been many discussions, including regular conference calls between EU Foreign Ministers and Secretary Kerry, which have also included my Turkish colleague, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, so Turkey’s opinions are very closely aligned with the ones I have been expressing. It of course has a particular affinity with the Tatar minority in Crimea, so Turkey is extremely anxious about this situation. It must choose its own measures, however: it is not a member of the European Union and it will choose, of course, its own measures as a sovereign state.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if President Putin is willing to use the protection of Russian speakers as a pretext for going into Ukraine and he gets away with it, he might think about doing the same in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania where there are also Russian speakers?
This is a source of profound anxiety to people in the Baltic states and other states of the former Soviet Union. Russia should take note that there has been very little, if any, diplomatic support for its position from central Asian states, who perhaps have some of the same anxieties.
Is it not the case that Ukraine was one of the largest owners of nuclear weapons in the world and it gave up those nuclear weapons on the basis of peace and security, yet it has now been railroaded by Russia? What kind of example does this set for the world going forward?
That is a very powerful point. When the Budapest memorandum was signed and the commitment was made not to use armed force against Ukraine, that was in exchange for its giving up of nuclear weapons. It sends a terrible signal to other nations that may be seeking nuclear weapons for Russia to behave in this way. This all means that if we do not stand up to such a profound breach of international agreements and the use of force to change borders in Europe in the 21st century, the credibility of the international order will be at stake and we will face more such crises in the future. Russia and others could conclude that it can intervene with impunity in other countries where there are either Russian compatriots or Orthodox populations. Indeed, it has been a Russian policy over a number of years to encourage such links and dependencies, through the issuing of millions of Russian passports in Ukraine and other countries bordering Russia. Events in Crimea form part of a pattern of Russian behaviour, including in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) mentioned three states that are members of NATO, but two other relevant states, Moldova and Belarus, are not. Although it is Russia, rather than the European Union, that has made strategic mistakes in Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend agree that the EU should make sure that it does not make any strategic mistakes with regard to Moldova and Belarus, and that it is robust in its dealings with those states?
Of course we saw at the Vilnius summit the initialling of partnership agreements with both Moldova and Georgia, the two countries whose relationship with the EU is most advanced. It is very important that those agreements are signed and completed, and that our response to Ukraine sends out a message on our clear position against Russian interference in Moldova and Georgia, and indeed in other neighbouring states.
I wish to ask about the issue of impunity, because the Foreign Secretary is right to say that if Russia constantly learns that it can get away with things, it will continue to go further. For a long time this House has held the view that the people involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky and in the corruption that he unveiled should be banned from this country. Why will the Government not just do it?