Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Devolution of Powers
I am a member of the local growth committee, which is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and brings together Ministers from a wide range of Departments monthly to focus on local growth programmes, including the delivery of the recommendations of the Heseltine review. To date, we have completed 24 city deals and by the summer all 39 local enterprise partnerships, which have submitted their economic plans, will have been assessed and we will make the announcements of local growth deals at that point.
Further devolution has taken place to Scotland and to Wales, and it has now been a year since the London Finance Commission reported on proposals for devolution to London and the great cities. What progress has my right hon. Friend made in his discussions with Treasury colleagues on devolving property taxes to London and the other great cities of this country?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of empowering our great cities—he is a distinguished leader of a London council—and he knows we have made great progress in this area. He will know that the devolution of business rates, for example, allows London, and other parts of the country, to keep 50% of business rate income. That is worth £3 billion a year to London, and those retained business rates have helped to pay for the £1 billion Northern line extension to Battersea, so this is working in London.
May I press the Minister a little more on real devolution to the regions of this country? Yorkshire now has no democratic voice; it has no organisation that strategically focuses on Yorkshire in the coming years. Yorkshire has a bigger population than Scotland, so when can we have that kind of focus and leadership?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. I have a great deal of respect for him but he has not noticed the creation of the combined authority in Yorkshire, which has brought together the councils in the area for precisely that purpose. It has included the signing of a city deal, which has been hailed by the people of Yorkshire, including the leader of Leeds city council, who says:
“This…spells…a fundamental shift in the relationship between Whitehall and the regions. It marks the first steps of a new era”
That will allow the north to “truly control” its “own destiny.” I think the hon. Gentleman should talk to Councillor Wakefield.
Would the Minister concur with the view that in the event of Scotland rejecting the independence option in September, the option of devolving power from Westminster and Whitehall represents a post-referendum way forward—but that it can be only one side of a two-sided coin, with the other being more re-dispersal of power within and across Scotland? The highlands and islands have lost power from Highlands and Islands Enterprise to Edinburgh, from the Crofting Commission to Edinburgh, and over regional and local control of our emergency services. That is not what those of us who were arguing for devolution before some Scottish National party Members were Members of this House had in mind.
The policy and the practice of this Government has been to devolve power from this place to our great cities across the country. I do not think that has been the policy of the Administration in Scotland, who have centralised power and reduced the influence of our great cities north of the border.
I am a great fan of the hon. Lady’s efforts to promote Birmingham, which she does very successfully in this House, and to make sure that that great city has the powers and the future that are a tribute to its glories in the past. Through the city deals we are giving more control of the very considerable expenditure that currently is made in Birmingham but which is handled by central Government. If we do that, we can come on to address proposals that Birmingham is making on other matters.
Local Enterprise Partnerships (Devolution)
I met the board members of Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership, including Christine Gaskell and Howard Hopwood, and the council leaders of Cheshire east, Cheshire west and Chester, to discuss their strategic economic plan on 19 March. We are considering their proposals in their plan and expect to make an announcement on the growth deal in July.
One project being promoted by the Cheshire and Warrington LEP is electrification of the west coast main line from Crewe to Chester and beyond into north Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that and other such proposals show the importance of LEPs acting as strong local champions for critical infrastructure projects?
My hon. Friend is right, and he is exactly such a strong local champion. As a result of his impressive campaign, that proposal features very strongly in the Cheshire and Warrington strategic plan. I know that it has also attracted attention from Sir David Higgins and his report on HS2, which mentions the case for further improvements east and west, so he is doing a good job. We will be considering those plans over the next few months, but he has made his point very forcefully today.
This Government have instituted the most radical devolution of power and financial autonomy to local councils and community groups for a generation. It is our policy to empower local leaders in cities, counties and districts. Local leaders support that approach. Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, said that there has been more progress on giving cities control of their destiny in three years of this Government than under 13 years of Labour.
The route we have taken is to empower the leaders of our great cities and counties to provide that leadership of their area. We do not want to send, as the previous Government did, governors-general from Westminster and Whitehall to preside over the regions. That is why our 24 city deals have been based on what local leaders and businesses want; it is their ideas that they have put forward and we back them.
The Government have conceded the principle of territorial Ministers in England with the appointment of the City Minister for Portsmouth. As I understand it, the reason the Government did that was economic development-led. Surely the case for the north-east of England is far stronger, with unemployment rates being higher.
The right hon. Gentleman was a regional Minister in the previous Government. Let me just reflect for a moment on my home town of Middlesbrough. I carry around with me a medallion that was struck to commemorate a statue, publicly unveiled, to the first mayor of Middlesbrough. We are still waiting in Middlesbrough to see a public move to erect a statue to the former regional Minister of the north-east. We want to empower our local leaders, and what we are doing is the right way round.
I do agree with that. Having cited the first mayor of Middlesbrough, Henry Bolckow, and noted that a statue erected by public subscription was made to him, I think that it would be good if we had a rash of them across the country in tribute to the leadership that mayors can play.
That is not the view of council leaders in the hon. Gentleman’s area, who have been extremely enthusiastic about the city deals that have been struck. The chair of the Sheffield city region, in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is involved, says that the powers that have been devolved through the city deal will
“drive forward real economic growth and create jobs”
for the whole region, including for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Trade Union Funding
The Government have always been clear that any reform of party political funding is best achieved by consensus. Despite seven meetings, it is disappointing that, as on previous occasions, there has been no agreement between the three parties on beginning party funding reform.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that new laws to restrict the money and influence of trade unions in British political life are required? Will he join the Prime Minister in supporting reforms to strike laws to protect the public from unnecessary industrial action?
I certainly agree that all parties need to get big money and vested interests out of party funding. That can best and only be done through consensus. It did not happen this time; I very much hope that all parties will make a commitment that everyone will stick to in the next Parliament.
It is really important that vested interests representing one part of society or another do not dominate the funding of one major political party, as with the Labour party. That does not seem to be right for the Labour party or for the quality of democracy in this House.
Local Enterprise Partnerships (Devolution)
I was in Leicestershire on 24 March this year to launch the Leicester and Leicestershire city deal, when I visited the Loughborough university science and enterprise park. The city deal will support the expansion of the science park by opening up new employment land. It will also increase investment in youth employment schemes and give tailored business support.
Last Friday, I spoke at the “North West Leicestershire means business” event at the world-famous Donington Park race track in my constituency. At the event, we heard contributions from the Leicester and Leicestershire enterprise partnership about their efforts to promote economic growth. Will my right hon. Friend outline how he believes the recent city deal will help to promote further economic growth across the county of Leicestershire?
I will indeed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his support for the city deal, which includes not only the city of Leicester but the whole of the county of Leicestershire. One of the features of the city deal proposed by local businesses was to give support and guidance to small businesses that are seeking to expand. Grants of up to £1 million are available to small businesses throughout Leicestershire that have that potential. I know that he drew the scheme to the attention of his businesses and I hope that he will continue to do so.
This Government have instituted the most radical devolution of power and financial autonomy to local councils for a generation. After ever-increasing centralisation under the previous Government, we believe that all regions, cities and towns can play a part in securing the economic recovery and in building a better and stronger economy for the future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving local enterprise greater control over its own destiny has helped to rejuvenate the entrepreneurial spirit of local areas? Will he commend the ambition of Birmingham and Solihull LEP’s strategic economic plan, which aims to create 41,000 jobs for a Government investment of only £86 million next year?
I will indeed commend that ambition. It is appropriate that the enterprise partnership that brings together Birmingham and Solihull has the great good fortune to be led by Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis and one of the country’s most admired business people. It is fantastic that he is devoting his time to helping the local economy to grow and providing that private sector leadership, which is in marked contrast to the regional development agencies that we had in the past, presided over by governors-general such as the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown).
The social economy is becoming an increasingly important driver of innovation and growth. We have 75,000 social enterprises in this country, employing 1 million people, and one in four businesses in the European Union is now a social business. Will the Minister commit in his conversations about city deals and about local enterprise and growth to ensure that social enterprises and the social economy are at the heart of that drive to reinvigorate the regions of this country?
I certainly will. I completely agree with the right hon. Lady. I recall going to Brighton to sign the Brighton city deal in a social enterprise—a hub for start-up tech businesses, brought together by the voluntary and social enterprise sector, that is thriving. Part of the deal was to expand it. That is a model to which I hope other places in the country will aspire.
Does the Minister agree that the Government are right to pursue the principle of decentralisation, because local communities are best placed to make public investment decisions in their area? An excellent example is the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal, building on the strength of the area, which is advanced manufacturing.
I do indeed agree and my hon. Friend was a stalwart in campaigning for the city deal. The people who know and understand their areas best are those who live and work in them. That is the simple principle behind our city deals and the policy of this Government.
May I thank the Minister for his answers and his commitment to this area in general, which we support? Council leaders of all parties in London and the Mayor of London believe that greater powers, including financial responsibility, should be devolved to London. The Minister answered the question from the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) about business rates—a move that we welcome—in the past tense. Do the Government have any plans to transfer power from Whitehall to city hall and town halls in London?
Yes. I know that the right hon. Gentleman takes a personal interest, as he is hoping to move on from this place to city hall, although he might face a tough fight in doing so. We are committed totally to moving power from here to the city halls and town halls of the country. At the moment, we are negotiating a £2 billion a year transfer of funds from the centre to every city and county across the country, including London, to put control of these resources in the hands of local people rather than officials in Whitehall.
Individual electoral registration will help to enhance the accuracy of the electoral register by verifying applications against Government records. We will also use data matching to ensure the completeness of the register during the transition to the new system by confirming the vast majority of existing electors. Five national organisations and every local authority in Great Britain are sharing £4.2 million of funding aimed at maximising registration. The introduction of online registration will be of particular help to groups such as overseas voters, students and young people.
With respect, the hon. Lady is bringing together two different points. The Electoral Commission has already said that individual voter registration should proceed, stating:
“We have independently assessed how ready the plans are for this change…and have concluded that it can proceed.”
The decision on whether to close the transition is a decision for the next Government and the Electoral Commission has said that it will provide advice during the next Parliament.
When individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland, the registration of young people fell dramatically. A duty was then placed on schools and colleges to help register their students and Northern Ireland now has registration rates among young people that are higher than those in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister introduce a similar duty to apply to schools and colleges in the rest of the United Kingdom so that we maximise the number of young people who are registered?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in this matter, as he knows. We have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland and that is one reason we have provided the funding we have to enable groups of people to go into schools and encourage people to register. One of the differences from which we have learned a lesson concerns the importance of online registration, which was not available in Northern Ireland. Our approach to registering young people is to encourage them to register online, and that will be carried out across the country.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (904003)
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 the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
The hon. Lady might have forgotten that when we came to power her party had left an absolute economic catastrophe behind. The great Labour recession in 2008 cost every household in this country more than £3,000. Her party predicted that more than 1 million more people would be unemployed when in fact 1.7 million new jobs have been created, of which we are very proud.
T5. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has been somewhat exercised about minimum terms for knife crime, but he must be aware of the repeated guidance of senior judges and the residual discretion that will exist in the proposals to reflect other minimum terms. What is his beef? (904007)
It is important that sentences fit the circumstances of a crime and that, in seeking to address knife crime, which is a concern that unites the House, we do not unwittingly do something that can lead to higher reoffending rates. As we know from bitter experience, decanting young people into prison for short sentences leads to a revolving door of crime. I want to see less crime, not more, and that is why I want us to be smart, not simply to talk tough on crime.
Not least as a result of difficulties in being able to afford to buy a home, 9 million people are now renting. That figure includes 1.3 million families with children, for whom security and continuity are particularly important. Does the Deputy Prime Minister back our plans to move from one-year tenancies with unpredictable rents, to three-year tenancies with predictable rents? Will he back our proposal to stop letting agencies charging tenants as well as landlords?
The right hon. and learned Lady makes an important point about the virtues of longer-term tenancies. We are working on a model tenancy agreement that will support tenants and families who want a longer fixed-term tenancy, and will publish the final agreement in the summer.
Although the right hon. and learned Lady rightly identifies the problem on agencies’ charges, the solution that she suggests may lead to higher rental costs for people renting properties. That is why we will announce today that we will place new obligations on agents to publish with full transparency the fees that they charge, so that people can shop around and get the best deal available.
But transparency is not good enough. We need to be sure that letting agents do not rip tenants off by, as well as charging the landlords, charging the tenants. There will be a vote in the House today. Will he vote with us to protect people in rented accommodation, or will he back the Tories in standing up for the rip-off letting agencies?
As I explained, we all share the right hon. and learned Lady’s concern about those charges. We just want to make sure that the solution does not make the situation worse, because once rents go up, they tend to stay up.
The fundamental problem, for which her party bears a heavy responsibility, is that we are simply not building enough affordable homes in this country, and have not done so for a long period. Under the previous Government, fewer social homes were built than under the Thatcher Government. Now, the rate of affordable house building is higher than it has been in the past 20 years.
T6. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that consumers deserve to have clear labelling of all halal meat in stores and restaurants? If my constituents go to Pizza Express, they expect the guidance and labelling to be on the menu, not just on the website. (904008)
I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. Consumers need the right information about the food that they are buying. Some meat is already voluntarily labelled as halal or kosher. This is an issue that provokes strong responses, and for some people it is important that all meat is labelled clearly. We are working with other EU countries to look at the best options for compulsory labelling, to give consumers the choice they want. A study into this matter will finish this summer, and we will review the options then.
T3. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that he has lowered taxes for poorer households by raising the personal allowance, but will he confirm that the localisation of council tax support is raising taxes for the very worst off? (904005)
As I said earlier, we inherited a situation in which we needed to restore stability to the public finances, create growth, create employment and create an incentive for people to work. That is why there have been some controversial reforms, but we have also introduced the biggest change in the personal income tax system in a generation, taking 3 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax.
Despite some claims to the contrary, this policy has been researched and worked on for many years, including two two-year pilots. The evidence shows not only that children get a health benefit from eating more healthy meals and a social benefit as they sit together to share those meals but that the policy is having dramatic effects on closing the attainment gap, which is still too wide in far too many of our schools across the country.
T4. Last week, I met a disabled Sheffield grandmother who helped her two daughters to stay in work by looking after her grandchildren a few times a week, but two of her three bedrooms were deemed surplus by the Government. In tears, she told me that she could not make ends meet because of the bedroom tax. The Deputy Prime Minister is trying to distance himself from the Conservatives, but why not on the bedroom tax, which was only voted through with his support? (904006)
As the hon. Gentleman and I have debated in the past, the fact that many families, including in Sheffield, live in overcrowded properties where there is no space for young children to do their homework, and not enough space for people to live in decent conditions, is a fundamental problem. Overcrowding is a real issue, yet we have many other places where people live in social rented accommodation with rooms that they do not need. In some way—I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to put his head in the sand like the rest of his party and does not want to deal with any of these difficult issues—we need to make sense of that, and that is what we are trying to do.
T8. Cummins Turbo Technologies, David Brown and Huddersfield university have benefited from regional growth fund investment. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have for further rounds of that investment scheme, which is sustaining, safeguarding and creating sustainable jobs in my part of west Yorkshire. (904010)
I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of the regional growth fund. I have visited a number of the projects that he mentioned. Rounds 1 to 5 of the regional growth fund have awarded Yorkshire and Humber £270 million across 52 projects and programmes, which is expected to generate 64,000 jobs and private investment of £1.7 billion. There are many examples, as he himself has cited. The next round—round 6—will open this summer, so local bidders will be able to make further bids for regional growth fund money at that point.
I will send the hon. Gentleman the statistics. The amount of expenditure by third parties at election time has increased dramatically. What all of us on both sides of the House want to avoid is an American-style situation in which more and more organisations effectively seek to influence the electoral contest in different areas and constituencies, but do not abide by the same levels of transparency as political parties. All we are doing is saying to people who want to influence the outcome of an election that they need to publish the same amount of information in the same transparent way as we do as representatives of our political parties.
T11. It is very welcome and appropriate that the Government officially recognise that Cornwall has a significant role to play in the celebration of diversity in the UK, but given the Government’s clear desire to devolve, will my right hon. Friend ensure that Cornwall is given the appropriate powers within the EU funding programme to make decisions and drive the programme itself? (904013)
I share with my hon. Friend the good news that the Government have formally recognised the distinct identity of the Cornish people and, indeed, have provided more support for the teaching of the Cornish language. On the issue of the so-called convergence programme and the management of EU funding programmes in Cornwall, discussions are ongoing. Cornwall will have full input through the growth programme board and through local committees.
T10. The Government are keen to talk up their investment in cities, but they are doing nothing to ensure that superfast broadband is rolled out properly, with a third of businesses in Shoreditch, where Tech City is, not having access to it. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take that up in government? What will he do about it? (904012)
If the hon. Lady wishes to write to me about a particular instance in which she feels that progress has not been made, I am more than happy to take that up. As she will know, huge progress has been made in rolling out superfast broadband across the country, but she is right that there are bottlenecks that we are working constantly to alleviate. If she wants to raise any specific instances with me, I am happy to make sure that they are addressed.
T12. Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s chairmanship of the Home Affairs Cabinet Committee, does he agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the vast majority of the British people that it would be in the country’s best interest to have a net reduction in net migration? (904014)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a significant reduction in the number of people coming to our country from outside the European Union. I have never been an advocate of specific net migration figures, because there are many factors—not least freedom of movement across the European Union—over which we do not have any control. I want to have an immigration system that is tough where it needs to be tough. That is why I am a leading advocate of the reintroduction of exit checks—which were removed by previous Governments—so that we can count people out as well as in, but being welcoming to those people who want to play by the rules, pay their taxes and make a contribution to British life.
T14. It is difficult to hit a moving target, Mr Speaker. There are enormous variations in the numbers registered by electoral registration officers: the best figure is in north Wales, where up to 97% of eligible voters are registered, but it is clear that some areas are not doing the same job. What will the Deputy Prime Minister do to encourage these English laggards to catch up with the splendid example set by Wales? (904017)
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course, we need to see the highest rates of registration possible. That is why, as we move towards individual voter registration, there will be several opportunities to transfer people automatically on to the new register and to make sure that there are door-to-door visits by electoral registration officers to give people the opportunity to register properly. I believe we are putting in place all the belt-and-braces measures we can to make sure that registration levels increase.
T13. Tomorrow, the Chester-based Registered Digital Institute, along with supporting charities such as Childnet, the Internet Watch Foundation and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, will come to Parliament to demonstrate the new friendly wi-fi scheme, which will help ensure that public networks are safe for families and children to use. Will my right hon. Friend support this worthwhile new initiative to improve online safety? (904015)
I welcome, as no doubt does my hon. Friend, any initiative taken by industry to help parents keep their children safe online. I warmly welcome the initiative that he is involved with tomorrow. The more we can encourage partnership between industry and Government, the police and other agencies, the better for the safety of our children.
The outgoing chief executive of the North Eastern local enterprise partnership has said:
“I have six big programmes, most are £100 million-plus, with a six-person team. That simply does not work.”
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with those comments and, if so, what are the Government going to do about it?
If I understand it correctly, that is an issue about the resources which are allocated in the council to those big projects. One of the answers—the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) alluded to this earlier—is ensuring that there is greater devolution, greater control, greater autonomy and freedom to local councils and local areas. That is why the city deal, for instance, has been so warmly welcomed in the north-east.
Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether there are any plans to extend into Basildon the £20 million TIGER—Thames Gateway innovation, growth and enterprise—fund currently directed at Thurrock?
The Government have hushed up an opinion poll from the taxpayers who paid for it at a cost of £50,000. The poll reportedly shows a surge in support for Scottish independence. Tory and Labour scare stories are not working. There should be no Government secrecy, so will the Deputy Prime Minister be straight with the public on independence and publish that poll? There is no reason that it should be kept secret.
I have learned to try to be a bit wary about opinion polls. The only poll that counts is the poll that will take place on 18 September. I very much hope, and people such as me who do not have a vote—those of us south of the border—fervently hope that the Scottish people will decide to remain part of the family of nations that makes up the United Kingdom, because there is so much that we can do together that we simply cannot do apart. That is very much the argument that I hope will prevail on 18 September.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that not just local councils’ work, but economic development through the local enterprise partnership, is centralised? Will he give the House an assurance that York will remain with York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership?
Many of the decisions about exactly where the lines of the maps are drawn in respect of the remit of local enterprise partnerships should, wherever possible, be driven heavily by local consensus—by people agreeing among themselves, rather than having some diktat imposed from above. Inasmuch as my hon. Friend’s view reflects local opinion, which I do not know as well as she does, we would like to reinforce that in Whitehall as well.
Both the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that we want to proceed with proposals on recall, and when we do they will be properly scrutinised; the early drafts have already been scrutinised by the relevant Select Committee. We are trying to strike the right balance between ensuring that the public feel that they have a right of recall in circumstances in which serious wrongdoing has occurred and avoiding this becoming a sort of kangaroo court arrangement, with people simply seeking to take actions against each other. That is the balance we are trying to strike. We will of course bring forward proposals in due course.
On the same issue, given recent events, does the Deputy Prime Minister still believe that voters will be satisfied with a recall system that is triggered by the Standards Committee, rather than constituents? Does he still believe that, despite recent controversies?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were quite open in the coalition agreement, right at the beginning of the Government—I know that he does not like this—about feeling that there needed to be some triggers to prove that serious wrongdoing had occurred before recall takes place. I actually have quite a lot of sympathy with his much more radical approach, but I doubt that it would curry much favour across the Floor of the House. I want to get something done, rather than aiming for the stars and ending up with nothing.
Further to the answer the Deputy Prime Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), does he recognise the inconsistency of his position on minimum sentencing for knife crime, given that he voted for it in 2011 on amendments I introduced with the Government for mandatory sentencing for knife crime offences?
That was for a different offence, as the hon. Gentleman knows. His proposal would make simply possessing a knife an offence, assuming that the individual already has a knife-related offence against their name. In those circumstances, in which judges would have no discretion whatsoever, the proposal could, in my view, lead unwittingly to precisely the revolving door of higher rates of reoffending that we saw time and again under the Labour Government, when endless populist gimmicks led to higher rates of reoffending. One of the things that I am proud of is that this coalition Government, by avoiding that approach, have seen crime fall to the lowest levels ever recorded.
The Government are not doing nearly enough to move public sector jobs out of London and into the regions. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think we should be doing to move organisations such as the Care Quality Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to places such as Darlington?
I am always open, as are the Government, to proposals on moving further parts of the public sector from Whitehall and London to other parts of the country. Sheffield has benefited enormously from that, with the Department for Work and Pensions and the business bank being established there. The BBC, a public sector body, has had a huge imprint on the north-west. We will of course look at any sensible proposals in the same direction.
In assessing LEP plans from across the country, will the Deputy Prime Minister be kind enough to pay particular attention to the need for an extra junction on the A14 near Kettering, which features in the plans of both the Northamptonshire and South East Midlands LEPs?
The Attorney-General was asked—
The Crown Prosecution Service is supporting victims, strengthening investigations, raising awareness among front-line professionals, and improving data collection. The data for 2013-14 show an increase in the number of defendants prosecuted. The CPS is actively involved in the development of provisions in the Government’s draft Modern Slavery Bill.
Yes, I very much agree. The forthcoming Bill will play a vital role in tackling the abhorrent practices of human trafficking and modern slavery. It will strengthen the law and protect and support victims. I am a member of the inter-ministerial group, and my officials and the CPS have been closely involved in developing these measures under the leadership of the Home Secretary, who is widely admired for her stance on this issue.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that an important part of the process of increasing the number of prosecutions for human trafficking is to ensure that there is sufficient support for victims of this terrible crime? What further support is the CPS providing to victims in this regard?
Yes, I entirely agree. A focus on supporting victims, stronger prosecutions and better data collection is key. In December, the Director of Public Prosecutions held a meeting with voluntary bodies and others, and he has produced an action plan that is very much focused on supporting victims.
My hon. Friend has raised this issue before, and it is very important. The new National Crime Agency has a focus on organised crime gangs at a regional, national and international level. The Crown Prosecution Service has officials in other countries working to strengthen capacity and ensure that prosecutions are properly evidenced. Joint investigation teams are an important feature. On 9 April at the Vatican, the Home Secretary set up the Santa Marta group, which is a group of senior enforcement officers from across Europe and the world. This was highly praised by Cardinal Parolin of the Vatican and by the United Nations.
What use does the CPS make of the National Crime Agency’s database to identify victims of human trafficking in order to ensure that any prosecution that follows takes into account the relevance of the fact that they have been trafficked?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. There needs to be a very strong effort to ensure that the victims of trafficking are treated as such in cases where it is possible that they should be prosecuted, if they are victims rather than the main perpetrators. All the resources of the sort she mentions, and others, are to be looked at. I think she will be pleased when she sees the Modern Slavery Bill in its new form.
What does the Solicitor-General think about extending the period of reflection from the 45 days that are currently allocated to a longer period to ensure that there is full support for victims of trafficking who may then be more willing to be witnesses in any prosecutions?
The hon. Lady will appreciate that that is not a decision for the Law Officers. It is important, however, that all support for victims should be considered within the inter-ministerial group, and I will certainly ensure that it is fully considered. In other terms, I cannot go much further.
Nigeria is the largest source country for people trafficked into the UK. Given that there is widespread fear that the girls who were kidnapped a month ago could become victims of trafficking, what special efforts are the Government making to work with and support the Government of Nigeria, and agencies there, to prevent that from happening?
As the hon. Lady may know, the Crown Prosecution Service has had staff in Nigeria and has worked hard on capacity building. The response to the Boko Haram outrage is being dealt with by other Departments, but I know that right across the House there will be very great concern for those girls and their families, and that is certainly something I share.
The Crown Prosecution Service will review any cases referred to it by the police, in accordance with the two-stage test set out in the code for Crown prosecutors. Following observations by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, the Department of Health is developing further guidance for practitioners on the procedures to be followed when a woman requests an abortion, and that will be taken into account when future decisions are made about prosecutions.
My right hon. and learned Friend will have seen reports arising from recent freedom of information releases about 67 doctors who pre-signed abortion certificates effectively authorising abortions without ever having seen or had any knowledge of the women involved. He will also be aware that the General Medical Council failed to report those cases to the police. Will he assure the House that they will now be dealt with by means of a thorough investigation and on a case-by-case basis? No one should be above the law, particularly in such cases.
I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. She will appreciate that, in the first instance, this is a matter for investigation by the Metropolitan police, not the CPS, which, obviously, has no investigative capacity. Should the matter come to the CPS, it will indeed be considered on a case-by-case basis. She will be aware that when this matter has been before the House in the past, it has been pointed out that the essential ingredient is that a doctor has to act in good faith in the advice and opinion they give. If there is evidence that a doctor has not acted in good faith, that will clearly be one of the important evidential components taken into account when deciding whether any prosecution should be brought.
Accounts of abortion on the grounds of gender are of increasing concern to many in this House. Will the Attorney-General confirm that the strongest sanction possible will be brought against individuals, whoever they may be, who are implementing abortion on the grounds of gender?
I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I want to make it clear—as, indeed, I have made clear in the past—that, on abortion on the grounds of gender, we have to look at the question of the good faith involved in allowing such a thing to take place. The tests have been well explained by the previous DPP and any case in England and Wales would be viewed according to them. To make the position clear: abortion on demand, as it is sometimes described, is not provided for by the Abortion Act 1967.
My hon. Friend takes me gently by surprise. I think it depends on the nature of the offence under the Abortion Act, but my recollection is that the procurement of an abortion illegally is a very serious offence. I will write to him as to the exact penalty.
The Department of Health seems to advise that it would be okay if neither of the two signing doctors had actually seen the woman referred for an abortion. Does the Attorney-General believe that that is some distance from a strict reading of the 1967 Act?
As I understand the matter, the form exists so that two doctors may make an independent evaluation of whether the abortion is necessary for the health and well-being of the woman concerned. It seems to me, as a matter of logic, that that requires a conscious act of assessment. I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to work out whether a conscious act of assessment is going to take place on the pre-signed form.
Justice Systems: Developing Countries
The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the United Kingdom and international partners to deliver targeted justice assistance in developing countries of priority to UK national security. It does this on a range of important threats and topics, such as counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, asset recovery and cyber-crime.
The CPS has until reasonably recently had an important programme in Afghanistan, although it is currently at an end. The programme enabled prosecutors to work with local counterparts to deal with narcotics and corruption investigations and prosecutions, one of which was the massive Kabul bank fraud, which saw two former bank chiefs convicted and jailed in March 2013. I visited that project when I was in Kabul.
In addition, there are projects in Nigeria, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has referred and which have been complimented by the Chief Justice of Nigeria for speeding up the criminal process. There has also been a major project in the Indian ocean area that has led to 110 pirate cases being prosecuted by CPS prosecutors.
Some crimes committed by British companies or British citizens can be tried in this country or in a foreign country if they are transnational financial crimes committed in a foreign country. What is the Crown Prosecution Service doing to equip developing countries with investigative mechanisms to ensure that more of those cases are tried in the countries in which the offences are committed?
It is important to understand that the Crown Prosecution Service has limited capacity, but it has prioritised for co-operation a series of overseas aid projects in a number of countries, including the United Arab Emirates, the ones I have just given, and St Vincent and the Grenadines. In addition, it is worth bearing in mind that the United Kingdom Government use the assistance of non-governmental organisations, such as the Slynn Foundation and the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, to provide capacity building as well. Simply to give an example, I have seen projects in the west bank being brought forward with the help of those organisations, so not just the Crown Prosecution Service can help in this area.
Corruption and bribery are major factors undermining the rule of law in many developing countries. However, the serious fraud squad has yet to land a secure conviction under the Bribery Act 2010. What steps has the Attorney-General taken to ensure that the agency has the resources it needs to investigate these important cases?
The director of the Serious Fraud Office is quite clear that, for him, bribery is a priority area. I am fairly confident, from the cases currently being investigated and looked at, that we will see such prosecutions brought successfully. In so far as resources are concerned, if there was any case in which he had difficulty in respect of resources and felt that he was not able to take it forward, he would certainly come to speak to me about it.
Serious Fraud Office
I meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office regularly to discuss the continuing progress that it is making under his leadership. The Serious Fraud Office underwent an inspection by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate in 2012, at my request, and a follow-up inspection of the SFO is currently taking place. I will discuss the outcome of that inspection with the director following publication of the report.
The year 2010 was the last in which a criminal sanction was imposed on a corporate defendant by the Serious Fraud Office. Does the Attorney-General agree with the Opposition and the director of the Serious Fraud Office, David Green QC, that there should be a review of our highly restrictive laws on corporate liability, with a view to securing more prosecutions?
I have great sympathy with the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. In my judgment, this is an area that ought to be looked at and on which there may, indeed, be a degree of consensus across the House. Of course, if we were to do that, we would also have to make sure that such a process operates in a fair and reasonable way, but I have to say that I have listened very carefully to what the director of the Serious Fraud Office has said, and it seems to me that his remarks have considerable force.
Yes, but the Attorney-General will agree that the rule of law means that no one is above the law. It is, of course, very important that those who commit complex fraud should be prosecuted as the common criminals they are. Will he not therefore take this opportunity to express his dismay at the fact that meticulous cases taken to court by the prosecuting authorities may be stopped because such people cannot be tried, because in turn they cannot be represented, because in turn there is insufficient legal aid? If the Attorney-General wished to have my support in his meeting with the Lord Chancellor to explain the rule of law, I would be very happy to help him.
As the specific case to which the hon. Lady refers is before the Court of Appeal and, therefore, sub judice, I will not comment on it. On the general point that she makes, I certainly agree that it is clearly in the public interest that alleged serious crime should be prosecuted. We will have to await the outcome of the case to see whether the resources that are made available in this instance are satisfactory.
Contempt of Court
Since taking office, I have been active in ensuring that the public are better informed of the law of contempt and, in particular, the dangers of online commentary. I have done that in a variety of ways including education, delivering speeches, attending symposia on contempt, and review by asking the Law Commission to look at the law of contempt and legislation. New criminal offences of juror misconduct and amendments to the law of contempt are being introduced in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. Finally, where necessary, I institute contempt proceedings against contemnors.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I welcome the new offences in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. How does he see the interrelation between those new offences and the existing law of contempt working? In other words, how will judges be expected to deal with the often knotty problems that come before them when jurors misbehave?
I hope that the benefit of this change to the law will be to emphasise the criminal nature of the conduct of a juror who fails to follow the judge’s directions and acts in a way that undermines the fairness of a trial process. At the same time, by providing that it is an indictable offence that is triable by jury, there will be better safeguards for jurors in terms of fairness if they are prosecuted as a result. I trust that the combination of those two things will enable judges to be more robust in their directions to the jury at the outset when explaining that it has an important function to perform, and that that must be performed within the framework that the judge lays down in his directions. In my experience, jurors are, for the most part, animated entirely by good will towards the public interest, so I feel that if we do that, some of the regrettable problems that we have had may be further reduced.
In recent years, the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to express opinion has increased significantly. What advice can my right hon. and learned Friend give those who are taking part in court proceedings to ensure that, in using those methods of communication, they are not in contempt?
The change that we have introduced is that we tweet and post online the advisories that we issue. Whereas in the past those were sent confidentially to the media, they are now accessible in a similar, if not identical, form to individuals who may take an interest in the trial process. We hope that individuals will thereby be warned about the dangers of inappropriate comment and that, as a result, fewer proceedings against those who abuse the system will be necessary.
Female Genital Mutilation
The first prosecution is under way. Lead prosecutors have been appointed for each CPS area. The Director of Public Prosecutions and I have written to Ministers in the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health to suggest ways in which the criminal law could be strengthened.
My hon. Friend is right that a prosecution is, in a sense, a failure because we want to diverge from this activity, stop it happening and change minds in communities. That is the essence of what the Government are trying to achieve, although we have to have prosecutions where necessary and we have a strong action plan to achieve them.