Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership
In the last 10 weeks, I have travelled across England to meet with all 39 local enterprise partnerships. As part of those visits, I had a very productive discussion with the New Anglia local enterprise partnership in Ipswich on 25 February, where we discussed its strategic economic plan.
I welcome the positive discussions that my right hon. Friend the Minister had with the New Anglia LEP. May I urge him to make sure that we get the full responsibilities and powers that the New Anglia LEP board is seeking in order to accelerate the economy in East Anglia? Will he also pay tribute to Andy Wood, who is giving up as chairman of the LEP this coming Monday?
I will certainly pay tribute to Andy Wood. He is the chief executive of Adnams, one of the biggest and most prestigious businesses in East Anglia, and he has done a fantastic job, not only in negotiating two city deals but in laying the foundations for what is—having discussed it with him—a very ambitious local growth deal that will build on the success that the economy is experiencing in East Anglia and create many more jobs and apprenticeships.
Business Growth (Lancaster and Fleetwood)
I visited Lancashire twice in recent weeks and met with Edwin Booth, the Lancashire local enterprise partnership chair, to discuss its emerging strategic economic plan. Through the Government’s decentralisation agenda, we are giving local leaders the tools and resources they need to drive local growth. As my hon. Friend will know, in Fleetwood for example, we are supporting the creation and safeguarding of over 400 jobs through investment in the seaside regeneration scheme.
Fleetwood has a number of thriving fish processing businesses but needs modern buildings and a complicated land swap to allow them to expand to get a form of northern Billingsgate. Given that we have limited capital resources, is there any chance of some kind of national competition for local authorities to bring forward their most difficult regeneration schemes, which potentially could be the most rewarding if they are unlocked?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and the local growth deals proposed by Michael Heseltine afford precisely that opportunity. I know, having discussed the matter in Lancashire with Lancashire LEP, that it will have a keen eye on that particular proposal. The revival of the economy along the Fylde coast and in the rest of Lancashire is very much in all our interests and I know that it has my hon. Friend’s strong support.
One way to support the fish processers of Fleetwood is to address the issue of the A585, which is the main road into Fleetwood going through my constituency. When the Minister negotiates the new city deal for the area, will he bear in mind the critical importance of the A585 to the local economy?
I cannot fail but to bear it in mind, having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency—he brought a stellar delegation of local businesses and civic leaders to make precisely that point. I received it loud and clear and look forward to the negotiations of the growth deal.
Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership
I was in Oxfordshire on 30 January to launch the Oxford and Oxfordshire city deal, where I visited the Diamond synchrotron particle accelerator at Harwell. The city deal in Oxfordshire supports innovation through projects as well as investment in skills and transport improvements. I am delighted to see that the latest draft of the growth deal is going to reflect the comments made by my hon. Friend’s distinguished predecessor, the former Member of Parliament for Henley, Lord Heseltine.
It will come as no surprise to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Oxfordshire LEP has tried to contact me for the very first time in the last couple of days in view of my question. Notwithstanding that, will he join me in urging it to do more than simply talk and to turn a blank area on the map into something a little more active?
I would say to all local enterprise partnerships that they should engage with their Members of Parliament. My view is that MPs have a pretty keen view as to what are the economic priorities of their areas and LEPs would do well to take into account what they have to say. I think it would be almost as unwise to ignore my hon. Friend’s comments as it would be not to take into account the views of his neighbour, the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron).
Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership
On 5 February I visited Birmingham and met the LEP to discuss in detail its ambitious plans for growth. Its proposals focus on important economic opportunities, including the 143-hectare site around the proposed HS2 interchange in Birmingham.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP was one of the first LEPs to attract a city deal under wave 1. However, wave 1 LEPs do not currently attract funding for an advanced manufacturing growth hub. The west midlands, as he has found out, is the advanced manufacturing capital of the United Kingdom, so will he consider the decision so that we can get on with creating more growth in the west midlands?
I will certainly do that. Having been in Coventry yesterday to sign the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal, which focuses precisely on advanced manufacturing, I know that there is great recognition that the whole of the west midlands has a big opportunity to come together to ensure that the order books that are filling up can be supported by companies in the supply chain. I will take my hon. Friend’s representations on board as we negotiate the growth deals during the weeks ahead.
I would first like to say how delighted I am that Siemens has now confirmed its £160 million investment in wind turbine facilities at Green Port in Hull and at Paull in the East Riding. Together with an additional £150 million investment by its port partner, Associated British Ports, that development will support 1,000 new jobs in the area and demonstrates the huge economic potential of the green industry. I was delighted that the hon. Lady was able to attend the signing of the Hull and Humber city deal on 13 December, along with the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). As she knows, through the city deal the Government agreed an additional £9.2 million of funding to support the growth of Hull and Humber’s economy.
I think that we all agree that cities are best placed to make decisions about regeneration funding and what is best for their local populations. As the Deputy Prime Minister rightly points out, a great example of that is the announcement this morning of Siemens’s investment in renewables, which means that Hull will be not only the city of culture, but the city of energy. Given that that success was made in Hull, will he congratulate, in particular, the Hull business community and Hull’s Labour council, because without them this would not have happened? Finally, does he agree that if we had listened to the climate change-denying UK Independence party, those jobs would be going abroad?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady’s latter point. There is absolutely no way that a multinational such as Siemens would invest that amount of money if we were on the brink of pulling out of the European Union single market. I have been in several discussions with Siemens board members, as have many members of the Government, to persuade them to make that decision, and I am delighted that they have finally done so. She is quite right that Hull city council and the councils in the area—it is a triumph not only for Hull, but for the Humber area more generally—have worked together, and it has been a cross-party approach. None of that would have been successful if we had been on the brink of pulling out of the single market. That is why Siemens has continued to invest in our country.
I am delighted to say that I have a distant family connection with Hull, as my great-grandfather practised medicine there. Will my right hon. Friend explain how city deal regeneration will help rural and coastal areas, such as Thirsk, Malton and Filey, where we have flagging fishing and tourism industries that desperately need boosting?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. City deals are a template for the further decentralisation of powers and control over money and policy to local areas. Of course that should not be confined to urban areas, which is why we are extrapolating the approach through the local growth deals, which will be available to all areas—coastal or inland; rural or urban—and which we hope to conclude over the summer.
The Opposition support city deals. Portsmouth and Southampton are keen to work more closely together and to form a city deal, which we welcome. However, Hampshire county council is refusing to get involved in such a deal. What steps are the Government taking to open up city deals to such collaborations between authorities that might not be contiguous?
I know that the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), has had discussions with the Solent local enterprise partnership on exactly that point. Although this is of course a bottom-up process and we are reluctant to impose too many conditions in an old-fashioned, centralising way, he is making it very clear to everybody who is working towards local growth deals or new city deals that they must be based upon a partnership in the area. We want to ensure that the deals act as a catalyst for people to work across local authority boundaries, and indeed across political boundaries.
I am deputy chair of the Local Growth Committee, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister chairs and which brings together Ministers from a wide range of Departments to focus on local growth programmes, including the delivery of recommendations of the Heseltine review. Local enterprise partnerships are submitting their strategic economic plans at the end of the month, and announcements on the growth deals will be made later this year.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the review that the Communities and Local Government Committee is undertaking on devolving fiscal responsibility to London and cities throughout the country? Does he agree that this gives us the ideal opportunity to put back into the hands of local authorities the power that was taken from them?
I do agree. I am looking forward to giving evidence to my hon. Friend’s Committee next week in pursuance of that. However, I do not think I am letting the cat of the bag when I say that I am strongly in favour of the direction of the inquiry. The fact that the Mayor displays his usual muscularity in forcing this on to the agenda is very much an illustration of the power of the devolution of powers that has already taken place.
The Heseltine recommendations will work only where there is proper buy-in both to the planning policies and the economic policies for a local area. What discussions is the Minister having to make sure that local authorities—combined authorities where we have them—and local enterprise partnerships are working together to ensure that the populations themselves support that co-ordinated approach?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As a Manchester MP, he will know that the Greater Manchester combined authority is perhaps the best example of the fruits of the co-operation between local authorities. The relationship between the combined authority and the local enterprise partnership is very close, and that closeness of working has been one of the key contributors to the economic success of Greater Manchester in recent years.
The Minister will be aware that one of the recommendations of the Heseltine review emphasised the importance of businesses and others engaging with young people in colleges and schools. In Northern Ireland, the schools initiative model has made a difference in raising the electoral registration of young people to 50% more than would otherwise be the case. The Minister gets on very well with the Secretary of State for Education—better, I think, than the Deputy Prime Minister—so will he discuss with him bringing this model on to the mainland so that we can all see the benefits that Northern Ireland saw?
The House will know that I am very keen to make sure that every young person gets the chance to vote. One of the announcements that I made in recent weeks was to make £4.2 million available to every local authority in the country specifically to enable them to fund talks and exercises in schools in order to sign up young people to vote. I am glad that that has the right hon. Gentleman’s endorsement.
South East Local Enterprise Partnership
As with all local enterprise partnerships, I have met the South East LEP to discuss its growth deal proposal and to provide feedback and support on its draft proposals. When Lord Heseltine and I met the LEP earlier this year, we were encouraged by the direction that the proposal set out, particularly in addressing transport bottlenecks and support for small and medium-sized businesses.
I do agree. I know that that scheme will have a prominent place in South East LEP’s proposals. I should also like to commend the involvement of Sir Roger de Haan, my hon. Friend’s distinguished constituent and activist, who has been very much been involved in transforming the future of Folkestone. He deserves the congratulations and support of everyone in this House.
Is the Minister aware that in past times the South East England Development Agency spent £20 million in my constituency without creating a business partnership? We have seen a dramatic sea change. Does he agree that we should trust South East LEP, which has been doing an excellent job?
I do agree. Peter Jones, who chairs South East LEP, has done a fantastic job in building on the already excellent work of the county council. The relationships that have been forged with business are driving the prosperity of the coastal area of Kent in particular, which my hon. Friend represents.
Business Growth (Medway)
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), I have read the draft strategic economic plan produced by South East local enterprise partnership and had a very helpful feedback session with the LEP. I am particularly encouraged by the extensive proposals for supporting small businesses, which I know are particularly important in Medway.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that many businesses now rely on internet connectivity, and will he welcome the initiative in Medway to provide free wi-fi throughout the area, benefiting economic growth and improving the public’s access to the internet?
I do support that. It is very important that small businesses should have access to good internet connections. It is right to point out that even in our big cities and urban areas where connections are available, they are not comprehensive enough: about 5% of premises in urban areas cannot be connected to a high-speed connection. That is a very important feature to be corrected and I hope the local growth deal will do so.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
When he was a senior tax civil servant, Mr Dave Hartnett met the head of Deloitte 48 times, including one meeting in which he reduced the tax liability of one of its clients from £6 billion to £1.25 billion. The Public Administration Committee issued a report about the revolving door and its dangers 20 months ago. Why have the Government not replied?
Of course the Government will reply to the report, but, much more importantly, in Budget after Budget and autumn statement after autumn statement, we have taken steps to close the huge loopholes in our tax system that we inherited from the Labour party. We have recouped billions of pounds into the Treasury’s coffers that otherwise would have gone walkabout because of such large-scale tax avoidance and, indeed, illegal tax evasion.
The new figures show that there are now more people at university than ever before; that a higher proportion of youngsters from disadvantaged families are at university than ever before; that there is a higher rate of participation in higher education by youngsters from black minority ethnic backgrounds than ever before; and that there is a higher rate of applications to go to university from our youngsters than ever before. Surely, rather than speculating on what people may or may not earn in 35 years, the Labour party should celebrate the fact that more people are going to university and that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s bluster will not have disguised the fact that he has not answered the question. He said he had to back the Tories on tuition fees because it was too expensive not to. The truth is, as even the former departmental special adviser has now admitted, the Government “got its maths wrong”. There are now rumours that, to cover the costs of this incompetence, the Government could put up fees again. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he got it wrong on tuition fees in his last manifesto. Will he now confirm that the next Lib Dem manifesto will rule out any further tuition fee increase?
There is absolutely no need for a further increase. In fact, we announced at the end of last year that universities will be able to take an unlimited number of students. We are removing the cap on the number of British students going to British universities and there is no cap on the number of overseas students, so there is no need for an increase. The right hon. and learned Lady talks about the figures and the cost. What is the cost for individual students? Someone earning £24,000 was paying £67.50 per month under the fees system that her Government introduced. Under our system, they are paying not £67.50 per month, but £22.50 per month. Is that not the reason why, despite all the Labour party’s predictions that people would not apply to university, applications have gone up? Is that not the reason why, despite all the predictions by the right hon. and learned Lady and her colleagues that fewer people from disadvantaged families would go, the proportion has gone up? Those are the facts that really matter for students these days.
T7. The recently announced sale of AstraZeneca’s Alderley Park site to Manchester Science Parks is a vital step in creating a sustainable future for that site. Given that news, does my right hon. Friend agree that serious consideration should be given to the proposals for a science corridor from the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership and the neighbouring LEPs in their growth deal submissions? (903254)
I am delighted that AstraZeneca, with the support of the Alderley Park taskforce, has attracted a new owner that shares its vision for a sustainable, science-led future for the site. I know that Manchester Science Parks will continue to work with local partners to develop a clear vision for an exciting future at the site. It is very encouraging that the LEP is promoting the opportunities within the science corridor that stretches across Cheshire from Thornton in the west, through Warrington and on to Alderley Park and Jodrell Bank in the east. I very much look forward to receiving the proposal.
T2. Two weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat colleagues could have voted to retain the legal protection for successful hospitals that neighbour failing trusts placed into administration, but they did not. Instead, there was shameless posturing and then spineless behaviour when it came to the vote. What is his excuse this time? (903249)
We actually strengthened the provisions on local consultation. Given that the hon. Lady is so keen to reinvent history, how about this for a record? In Wales, which is run by Labour, the A and E targets were last met in 2009. It was her party that entered into a quarter of a billion pounds-worth of sweetheart deals with the private sector—something that we have outlawed in legislation.
T9. In January, the Deputy Prime Minister addressed a conference on mental health. There are concerns in my constituency that patients are having to travel long distances to get a bed. One patient in Medway was transferred 350 miles to Carlisle. What are the Government doing to ensure that patients get help and support within the community? (903256)
I strongly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. It is unacceptable for any patient to be transferred such a long distance to receive proper care in the mental health system. As he will know, and as I announced in January in respect of our action plan on mental health, we are the first Government to put mental health and physical health on the same footing in the mandate for the NHS. It is now up to clinical commissioning groups and other commissioners within the devolved structures in the NHS to reflect that parity of emphasis on mental health and physical health in their commissioning decisions. Until that happens, I worry that some patients will fall between the gaps. That is why I am keen that commissioners should act on the mandate that we have given them.
T4. The Deputy Prime Minister actively campaigned on the campuses of both the universities in my constituency on his solemn pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees. He has apologised for making that pledge. Now that the system is transparently broken, will he realise that his real mistake was to break it? (903251)
The system of the hon. Gentleman’s party meant that thousands of part-time students paid up-front fees. We ended those. His party’s system meant that people paid more out of their bank accounts every week and every month repaying Labour fees than they are paying under the current system. Under his party’s system, a smaller proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds went to university. Instead of constantly denigrating the fact that under this Government more youngsters are going to university than ever before, he should be celebrating it.
T12. Dorset is obviously not a core city, but it does have significant pockets of deprivation. How will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that there is a growth deal that builds on the opportunities of our air and sea ports, and the high potential for growth and job creation in a number of spheres? (903260)
I urge my hon. Friend and everybody in the private or public sector who is concerned about the economic future of Dorset to work together to assemble the best possible proposal for the new local growth deals which we stand ready to receive in the coming days. We will look at it as quickly as possible and will hopefully make a positive announcement in the summer for the economic future of Dorset.
T5. Last week’s Budget confirmed that this Government are to go ahead with a £600 million raid on the incomes of the working poor over the next three years by freezing the work allowance on universal credit. Is it not the case that what this Government give with one hand in the personal tax allowance, they will take away with the other under universal credit? (903252)
I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was his party’s monumental mismanagement of the economy that cost every household in this country over £3,000. I read last week that a former Labour adviser said—this is extraordinary—that
“you cannot trust people to spend their own money sensibly”.
I have got news for him: people do not want to trust Labour with their money.
I, too, welcome the news about the Siemens investment in Hull and congratulate the Government on their efforts in achieving that, particularly the Minister with responsibility for cities, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), for his work on the city deal. Will the Government give an assurance that they will now work hard to conclude the Able development on the south bank?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have visited the site with him. It is very important that the Siemens deal, which has finally been confirmed, is not the end of the story and acts as a catalyst for wider regeneration, particularly in the green and renewable technology fields in the whole Humber area.
T6. Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s keen interest in child care, will he commit to immediate help for low-paid families by increasing the percentage cover to 80% now, not waiting for the roll-out of universal credit, especially as that roll-out for families is disappearing over the event horizon? (903253)
The hon. Lady is pushing for an increase to 80% of all child care costs. We have gone much better than that: we have said 85% of all child care costs will be covered for those receiving universal credit. As she will also know, we are the first Government to deliver 15 hours of pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds; we are the first Government ever to deliver 15 hours of free pre-school support to two-year-olds from the poorest families; and we are the first Government ever to announce tax-free child care entitlements, which will be available to everyone with children up to the age of 12 as of next year. Those are huge changes. Yes, let’s all go further, but I hope she will agree that those are big, bold, progressive changes.
I do so strongly. I join my hon. Friend in recognising the joy of many same-sex couples who will finally be able to marry under British law this weekend. It is a great, great moment. It is a day that they will always remember, and I hope it is a day that the nation will never forget. It is a great step forward for us all.
T8. The Deputy Prime Minister promised to make mental health a priority for this Government, but on their watch mental health spending has been cut in real terms, hundreds of mental health beds have been lost, and services are now under such pressure that the police are having to legally section people with mental health problems just so that they can get a bed. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what happened to the promise? (903255)
As I said earlier, we have moved to provide a legal recognition of the status of mental health, which has for far too long been overlooked in the NHS as greater emphasis has been placed on physical health issues. In the mandate given to the NHS, they are now on an equal footing, but of course I accept that that parity of emphasis needs to be reflected in many individual commissioning decisions. I am not content when I hear that some clinical commissioning groups are not yet reflecting the equality of esteem for mental and physical health in their commissioning decisions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have put hundreds of millions of pounds into improving talking therapies, and hundreds of millions of pounds into improving mental health for children, but I accept that there is still a long way to go.
I understand that my right hon. Friend had discussions last week with a resident of North Cornwall about the disposal of dredge spoil in Whitsand bay in my constituency and is reported as being shocked that all sides are passing the buck. What action has he taken or is he taking?
I am sure the hon. Lady will have raised the matter with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which will need to look into it. If she has not done so, I strongly urge her to do so. I am keen to ensure that that happens. I was not aware of the issue, but I can certainly imagine that it is a matter of great concern to the local residents she represents.
T10. The Government’s bedroom tax has affected nearly 2,000 families in Redcar and Cleveland, putting some families into arrears and increasing the number of unused, vacant properties. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think his policy has been a success in relation to his portfolio of increasing social mobility? (903258)
The hon. Gentleman may wish to bury his head in the sand, but there is a problem. About 1.7 million people are unable to get into housing, many children in our country are living in overcrowded properties where there is no space for them to do their homework, and there are 1.5 million spare bedrooms. We somehow need to make sure that those who do not have space are provided with it, and we need to deal with overcrowding, and that is what the Government are seeking to do.
A few moments ago, the Deputy Prime Minister was a tad shy when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) asked him about the coalition policies that the Liberal Democrats had vetoed. Will he confirm that transparency is one of the principles that fall within the ambit of his responsibilities for constitutional reform, or do we have to wait until the general election and the Liberal Democrat manifesto to hear about the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to open government?
The hon. Gentleman wants some examples: I said no to proposals from his party that anyone could basically be fired at will with no reason at all; I said no to his party’s proposals for a snoopers charter; and I have said no to profit making in state schools and to prioritising tax cuts for millionaires when our priority should be tax cuts for many people on middle and low incomes. If he wants me to go on about how the Liberal Democrats are anchoring the Government in the centre ground to ensure that we build a stronger economy and a fairer society, be my guest.
T11. A recent answer to a parliamentary question reveals that by 2015 construction will have started on only 10% of schools in the Deputy Prime Minister’s priority school building programme. Is he happy with that record? (903259)
There has been a long record of ineffective use of the public funds provided to schools for their redevelopment. The Building Schools for the Future programme, for instance, was widely recognised to be inefficient in the deployment of funds. We are providing billions and billions of pounds of capital so that schools can be rebuilt across the country, and of course all of us, on behalf of our constituents, want that rebuilding programme to take place as soon as possible.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister encourage his colleagues to apply for a grant for Somerset from the European regional disaster fund before the deadline of 4 April? Gloucestershire had £31 million from the EU solidarity fund after the flooding in 2007; why not Somerset?
I know my hon. Friend feels strongly about that, but I hope she is also aware that there are a number of eligibility requirements when seeking to access funds from the EU solidarity fund. We have compared the damage today with the 2007 floods, and following contact with the European Commission, our assessment is that we have not met those conditions. Of course, that does not mean that there are not other avenues that we can explore. As I think she knows, we are having discussions with EU institutions such as the European Investment Bank to support the existing package of UK Government assistance, which includes £130 million for flood recovery in the south-west.
T13. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about another of his pledges—universal free school meals for infants from September, which were pioneered in Hull but scrapped by the Liberal Democrat council when it came to power? Will he confirm whether they will be hot school meals or cold packed lunches? (903262)
They need to be healthy meals that are provided to all toddlers and young children in the first three years at primary school. The hon. Lady is right that that has been piloted across the country, not only in her constituency but in Durham, Newham and elsewhere, and it has been shown to provide dramatic educational benefits. Of course the majority of the meals will be hot, but we are not going to prescribe, in the centralising way that I know her party is so fond of, that they are going to be hot in every single location across 24,000 schools in our country, but they do need to be healthy, hot and freely available. That will benefit families to the tune of hundreds of pounds and boost social mobility across the country.
The Deputy Prime Minister takes a lot of personal credit for extending free child care places for two-year-olds from families on low incomes from September. However, what advice would he give the headmaster of Carterhatch children’s centre, who is now telling fee-paying parents to remove their children from his school to make way for that expansion?
This is not a zero-sum game between better-off families and less better-off families. The evidence is overwhelming that if we want all children from all backgrounds to do well, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, we should use what available resources we have to give pre-school support to very small children—two-year-olds—from the poorest families. That is why it is a groundbreaking entitlement. I accept that it is of course a challenge for some nursery settings, but I very much hope and I think it is already the case that it is being implemented successfully across the country and will benefit children for many years to come.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister go back and think about universities, and perhaps talk to some vice-chancellors? Vice-chancellors who are giving evidence to the Higher Education Commission, which I co-chair, have said that they are extremely worried about the long-term financial sustainability of a higher education system based on a mountain of student debt.
What I find so curious is that the hon. Gentleman’s party now seems to be attacking our student loans repayment system for being too generous. It is more generous in many respects than the one over which Labour presided. Under Labour, graduates had to pay back the moment they earned £15,000; under our system, they do not have to pay anything back at £16,000, £17,000, £18,000, £19,000 or £20,000, but only at £21,000. The figures he refers to are predictions, which will of course vary wildly from one estimate to the next, about what graduates will earn not next decade, not the decade after that and not the decade after that, but in 35 years. Surely he should focus on the success of more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, rather than trying to make political mischief about what may or may not happen in 35 years’ time.
After the general election, I had the privilege to be the first MP to introduce 100 apprentices in 100 days for Eastbourne, which was a huge success. Since then, more than 3,000 new apprentices have started in Eastbourne, which is more than in the previous seven years put together. However, I have a real concern. A lot of the apprenticeships have come through on a level 2 pathway, which is crucial for people who are less academic, and I am concerned that the Labour party appears to be pulling that rug out from under them. What does the Deputy Prime Minister have to say about that?
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s pride in the fact that this Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the Business Department, have spearheaded the largest expansion of apprenticeships in living memory. I am utterly dismayed that the Labour party wants to pull the rug out from under hundreds of thousands of youngsters on level 2 apprenticeships by no longer calling them apprentices. What a great way to support young people in our country!
The Attorney-General was asked—
Proceeds of Crime (Confiscation)
Last year, the Serious Fraud Office collected £3.9 million in proceeds of crime, but it hoped to collect £32 million. Will the Minister explain why the shortfall occurred, what he intends to do about it and whether the £19 million requested Treasury bail-out has anything to do with that shortfall?
No, the shortfall does not have anything to do with that figure. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that money is recovered in different ways. More than £76 million has been returned to victims as a result of Serious Fraud Office activity since 2009, so it is wrong to ignore compensation and other moneys paid to victims when looking at the overall picture.
The Solicitor-General refers to the National Audit Office report—it was shocking, was it not?—which talks about how the confiscation of criminal assets is just not working at the moment. There are 27% fewer asset restraining orders than there were in 2010; £450 million remains unpaid, even after defendants have served extra time; and £285 million in foreign banks cannot be touched—I could go on, but I am sure that Mr Speaker would not wish me to do so. What plans do the Solicitor-General and Attorney-General have to strengthen enforcement of confiscation orders? Will the Solicitor-General improve our co-operation with overseas jurisdictions? How can we make sure that our justice system gets its hands on these ill-gotten gains?
The hon. Lady is covering a much broader area than that raised in the question. As I think she would agree, the Serious Fraud Office has a superb unit that is actively after the money that it leads on—£100 million—and it is believed to be extremely competent. [Interruption.] The extra money is nothing to do with this particular aspect. Overall, we do need a proper strategy to improve confiscation and asset recovery, and that is under way. Ministers are meeting on the matter, and a new strategy from the Crown Prosecution Service was explained in more detail when evidence was given to the Justice Committee. I think the hon. Lady is being over-critical, as it is not always easy to extract money that is overseas in complex trust arrangements and hard to recover.
The steps taken by President Putin to annex Crimea to Russia, including recognition of Crimea as a sovereign state, are a flagrant breach of international law and Russia’s international obligations. The United Kingdom, in common with the European Union and the majority of the international community, does not recognise the 16 March Crimea referendum or its outcome as legitimate or of any credibility or value. As has been made clear by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary at this Dispatch Box, Russian actions threaten the rules-based system of international order, a fundamental principle of which is respect for the territorial integrity of states.
My constituents of Ukrainian descent in Huddersfield are following this crisis closely. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this crisis should have been resolved through diplomacy and international law, and that we, and others, must not exacerbate the situation through such unilateral and provocative actions?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As he is aware from what the Prime Minister said, there was no basis or justification for Russia’s actions in Crimea, even before it moved on to annexation. Its decisions to do that are, as I said, in flagrant breach of its international legal obligations. The United Kingdom is co-operating with other states, including those of the G7 and the European Union, in making clear that such behaviour is unacceptable, and that there will continue to be consequences for as long as Russia does not de-escalate the crisis.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Although at times people call into question the mechanisms of international order under the charter of the United Nations, or in a European Context those of the Council of Europe, they have delivered over time real improvements in the way in which states behave towards each other. That is why the actions of the Russian Government in tearing up the rule book in this way are so sinister and so chilling.
I have no reason to think that the United Kingdom has not fulfilled its undertakings under the memorandum. The memorandum provided some important mechanisms and assurances for the Ukrainian Government when Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal, and it is clear that those have not been observed by the Russian Government.
So why does the United Kingdom not move to expel Russia from the Council of Europe? My right hon. and learned Friend has said in the past that if we do not give prisoners the vote we will be expelled from the Council of Europe, so surely on the issue of proportionality it is important that we spell out to Russia that it should leave the Council of Europe, and if not, it should be expelled.
As my hon. Friend is aware, and as the Prime Minister made clear at the G7 summit, the United Kingdom Government will, along with its partners, look at a range of sanctions and responses, depending on how the crisis unfolds and whether the Russian Government seek to de-escalate it. The best answer I can give is that nothing is ruled out at all.
Law Officers’ Departments (Running Costs)
Over the next two financial years, the total expenditure of the Law Officers’ departments will be reduced through measures such as shared legal services, reduction in non-front-line staff, increased digitalisation, rationalisation of estates and more efficient court listing practices.
How much is the Department spending to contest freedom of information and court decisions, in order to suppress information to the public? The claim has been made that information is available that would show that an important person is unfit to do his future job. Should we not allow the lobbying letters of Prince Charles to be made public?
The hon. Gentleman raises a case that involves issues of constitutional significance, including upholding Parliament’s intentions for the freedom of information regime and the Government’s ability to protect information in the public interest. It is important that the Government continue to fight the case in question. To protect public funds, if we are successful at the next stage of the legal proceedings, we would expect The Guardian to meet our legal costs in full.
My hon. Friend has a long interest in this matter in his role as vice chair of the all-party group on Hillsborough and because Anne Williams, who sadly died last April and whose son Kevin died at Hillsborough, was one of his constituents. As the hon. Gentleman may know, a number of pre-inquest hearings have taken place since the appointment of Lord Justice Goldring in February 2013. I am able to tell him that the inquests themselves are scheduled to commence next week on 31 March.
Tuesday 15 April marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Friends and relatives of those affected have waited far too long to find out what happened. With the inquests starting next week, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the press now have to be extremely careful in how they report the inquests, to avoid any form of accusation of prejudicing inquests?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The families have waited a long time, and I am very pleased that the inquest is going to take place. It is right that the coroner issued a warning on 11 February about reporting, and I issued a contempt advisory on 10 March. It is important that the issues that will be raised and considered at the inquests are not prejudged through comment in the media or social media, and that the lawyers representing the families, the coroner and the jury can get on with their work.
I thank the Attorney-General for his comments. As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) pointed out, we will soon mark the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. It is important to remember that we lost 96 individual people, and that thousands more were terribly affected. Will the Attorney-General join me in remembering the people we lost and offer his support to the memorial events taking place over the next month or so?
I am very happy to join with the hon. Lady in that respect. Having studied the papers that led me to make the reference to the High Court to seek a fresh inquest, I can understand the scale of the tragedy that took place very well indeed. For those reasons, I hope the commemoration goes well and is of use and help to the families. I join wholeheartedly in the sentiment she has expressed.
Rape (Charging Decisions)
The Crown Prosecution Service’s new rape and serious sexual offences units now advise police in all areas at the start of rape investigations. Rape charging decisions require meticulous attention and can include complex evidence. They are monitored by the Director of Public Prosecutions in all areas at six-monthly intervals, and recent improvements have resulted in the highest ever levels of rape convictions.
But figures unearthed by the Opposition show that it is taking prosecutors more than a month to charge alleged rapists—10 days longer than it took five years ago. Is it not awful for rape victims to have to wait that extra period, and does it not run the risk that they will withdraw their support for a prosecution? What are the Government going to do about that?
It is important to charge as soon as possible, particularly when vulnerable witnesses are involved, and there is a protocol to that effect between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. However, it is also important for the CPS to be able to take on more cases that are referred to it by the police than has previously been the case, and to take on more complex cases involving more vulnerable victims. It is doing that now, and the result is an improved conviction rate. While timeliness is important, it is also vital for there to be that careful attention to detail which results in a successful outcome.
It has had no impact whatever, because there has been a clear prioritisation of cases of this kind—involving specialist rape prosecutors—and, indeed, of child abuse cases. Cuts would certainly never affect performance, and the overall statistics show that they are not doing so
In a recent statement, the Minister for Crime Prevention said that he had
“held discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has agreed to establish a CPS-police scrutiny panel to look at how forces deal with rape.”
When is that panel likely to be set up?
This is part of the six-point plan that I outlined during an earlier Question Time. It is designed to establish why there are fewer referrals from the police, and, in particular, why that is the case in certain parts of the country. The national scrutiny panel will sit on 4 April with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the national policing lead on rape, and will examine evidence compiled from seven police force areas to see what the implications are.
A range of special measures can be taken in the courts themselves to make the experience of court less troubling for vulnerable witnesses. There are also witness care units. I have already mentioned the rape and serious sexual offences units, which are another part of our efforts to support witnesses. As the hon. Lady has implied, if prosecutions of this kind are to be effective, there must be confident witnesses who are prepared to explain exactly what happened, and that is what we are aiming to achieve.
Serious Fraud Office
I meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office regularly to discuss a range of matters, including finance. The SFO has a current core budget to enable it to carry out its work, but the nature of that work means that it will need additional funding from time to time for its very largest and most complex investigations and prosecutions, such as those relating to LIBOR. As with any other department, the principal arrangement is for the SFO to apply for any additional funding that is required during the year through the estimates process, as it has recently done.
As the Attorney-General has just explained, because the SFO is so underfunded, every time a major case comes along it must go cap in hand to the Chancellor for more funds. David Green, the director of the SFO, has described the arrangement as
“a mystery…inside an enigma”,
and has told the Justice Committee that he is
“keen that an appropriate and more certain funding model can be agreed by all those with an interest.”
Will the Attorney-General do as the director has repeatedly asked, and review the funding arrangements?
If I may say so, I always keep the funding arrangements under review, and I am always happy to discuss them with my colleagues in the Treasury. The nature of the SFO’s work load is very flexible, and I therefore think it almost inevitable that if it is to do its work effectively, there will be occasions when it will need extra funding, or will require funding in excess of what it needs. This is an interesting balance which we need to look at. That said, I am mindful of the fact that there may be other ways in which the funding can be delivered and I discuss that frequently with the director of the Serious Fraud Office.
I pay tribute to the work the hon. Lady has done in this area. The CPS prosecutes violent offences robustly, including cases where victims have been attacked on the basis of subculture. Targeting particular groups is treated as an aggravating feature in such cases.
I thank the Minister for that response. As he is aware, I have been working with the Sophie Lancaster Foundation. She was killed seven years ago and her mother has been tirelessly campaigning for police forces to record such crimes as hate crimes. Might it be part of the sentencing guidelines given to courts that they can sentence specifically in relation to hate crimes?
At present statutory provisions cover cases motivated by hostility or prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender identity, but none the less it is possible for a judge to sentence on the basis that the crime was motivated by hate of a different kind, as Judge Russell did in the case the hon. Lady mentioned, and to treat that as an aggravating feature. I think the hon. Lady is arranging a meeting at the House of Commons tomorrow at which the Sophie Lancaster Foundation will be having a listening event.