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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Voter Registration

The House will know that on 10 June the Government launched online electoral registration, making registering to vote quicker and simpler than ever before. This is the biggest change to electoral registration in generations. Applying to go on the electoral register now takes as little as three minutes, and I can tell the House that it is proving to be a huge success. As of midnight last night, 93,000 applications have been made since 10 June, 93% have been made online, and 98% of those using the online service said that they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the experience.

The Minister will be aware of Mencap’s “Hear my voice” campaign, which is encouraging learning-disabled voters to engage with Members of Parliament in the run-up to the general election. He will also know that in 2001—the most recent election for which we have data—only one in three people with a learning disability exercised their vote. What more can the Government do to ensure both that this important group of voters are on the electoral register and that they exercise their voting right?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady, who will know that Mencap has been funded specifically by the Government to carry out its important work in making sure that we correct that figure so that everyone takes up their right to vote, including those with learning difficulties.

A disproportionate number of those not registered are among the 200,000 members of our armed services. Many of them are either not interested or are registered in places where they used to live or used to be based. What more can the Government do with the Ministry of Defence and our armed services to encourage our servicemen to register to vote and then, of course, actually to vote?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One of the great advantages of online registration is that it is available to our serving servicemen and women around the world. It is a huge step forward that they do not need to rely on the post.

In the Sheffield city region, which, of course, includes Bassetlaw, students are particularly keen to vote at the next general election. What specific assistance are the Government giving to colleges and, in particular, further education colleges to ensure they can play their role in maximising the number of students who are able to vote?

I am sure there are lots of people in Bassetlaw who are very keen to vote, but it is hard to say whether they will vote for or against the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right that, in times past, a smaller number of students have been registered to vote in other places. That is why under the funding formula more money now goes to every place where there is a substantial student population, including Sheffield: £47,000 has been allocated to Sheffield city council specifically to drive up electoral registration.

Last time, I asked the Minister about the schools initiative advocated by Bite the Ballot. I welcome what he has told the House today about the early take-up of online registration, but does he agree that there is no need for an either/or option? May I press him again: can we not combine online registration with a duty on schools and FE colleges so that we ensure that we have a maximum number of young people on the new register?

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a great deal of respect, needs to update his brief. Online registration is now live. There is no point in going back to the system that prevailed in Northern Ireland when only paper-based voting was needed. The group most likely to take up the opportunity of electronic registration is young people. In fact, the latest figures show that 43% of those registering are under 30, so online is the way to go with young people.

Electoral Register

The introduction of individual electoral registration will help enhance the accuracy of the register, with applications being verified against Government records. The Electoral Commission is conducting a study of the accuracy and completeness of the final electoral registers before IER, which were published in February and March. They were compiled entirely under household registration and the commission plans to report its findings in July. It will then conduct a similar study of the electoral registers when the transitional arrangements for IER come to an end.

Is the Minister aware that if when a voter presents at a polling booth a presiding officer has doubts about their identity, there is no process to substantiate the identity of that member of the public? Is it not time to consider what many other countries have done, including Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, which is to have presentation of voter identification?

I understand the point my hon. Friend makes, but it is important to bear in mind the fact that there is a very low incidence of voting fraud in this country. I do not want that incidence, which is very small, to be used as a pretext to bring in a national form of identity cards, which would be a step backwards.

The precise figure for the number of times that there have been successful prosecutions for electoral registration fraud is one: there has been one case since 1999, and that was in 2007. Since 2007, there have been no cases of voter electoral registration fraud. Does the Minister think that the Electoral Commission has gone overboard with its recommendation for photo ID for voters?

I have said that I do not agree with that. It is perfectly proper for the Electoral Commission, as an independent body, to put forward proposals, but it is also important for them to be considered and debated in this House before they are in any sense approved. I have made my views known to the commission and to the House.

Coalition Government

People said that the coalition would collapse within days, but we have proved them all wrong. As a Government, we have cut the deficit by a third and returned the economy to growth, cut tax for more than 26 million people, overseen more people in work than ever before, created 1.7 million apprenticeships, introduced a pupil premium to help the most disadvantaged schoolchildren—the list goes on. Bearing in mind the record of the previous Government, perhaps the question should instead be about how a single party could govern more effectively.

Actually, I tabled the question out of genuine curiosity. As the right hon. Gentleman is the Minister responsible for the functioning of the coalition, I want to know how it is possible for a policy such as allowing unqualified teachers, which was not in the coalition agreement—he fundamentally and profoundly disagrees with it, as does his party—can become Government policy.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the Liberal Democrats in the coalition feel that all teachers—in whatever classroom, and whatever the nature of the school or the nameplate of the school—should be qualified or seeking qualification, which is what most parents expect. The Department for Education took a decision that, in its executive capacity, it was entitled to take, but in my view it will not stand the test of time, because most parents want to know that their children—their sons and daughters—are taught by properly qualified teachers.

In a spirit of fraternity with my right hon. Friend, would not the best way of improving our electoral chances, and indeed of improving the functioning of Government, be to end the coalition now and to let the Conservatives govern on our own?

The hon. Gentleman’s party did not win a majority last time; let us see whether it succeeds this time. I think that coalition Governments are likely to recur in future, just because of the volatility of British politics, and I remain enormously proud of what we have achieved in this Government.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those who do not particularly favour the coalition Government are taking industrial action on Thursday, including a large number of people on low wages who have been forced into acute hardship? Do I take it that the Deputy Prime Minister will condemn those people exercising their democratic rights, as his Tory colleagues will?

I point out to the hon. Gentleman, who is, as ever, livid in the delivery of his question, that the reason we have to make savings is the disastrous mismanagement of the economy by the Labour party. There is nothing fair or progressive about simply shrugging your shoulders, saying that no difficult decisions need to be taken on public sector pay and handing on this generation’s debts to the next generation. Government Members remain united, if not on all issues, on clearing up the unholy mess bequeathed to us by the people on the Labour Benches.

Local growth deals undoubtedly improve the functioning of the coalition Government. Would the Deputy Prime Minister care to explain why that is?

The local growth deals, which we announced yesterday—I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister who has been leading on this in Government—are one of the most significant transfers of money, decision-making authority and policy powers from Whitehall to localities around the country. I am delighted that, among the Government’s many other achievements, we have overseen the greatest wave of decentralisation for a generation.

Devolution and Decentralisation

4. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the Government's policy on devolution and decentralisation. (904711)

I have had fruitful discussions with ministerial colleagues on the devolution of powers and funds to our cities, towns and counties, resulting in 39 growth deals, which I announced yesterday as part of our long-term economic plan. I am delighted that Blackpool features so strongly in the Lancashire growth deal, which takes £233 million from Whitehall and puts it into the hands of the business, civic, university and college leaders of Lancashire.

I welcome the £233 million that was announced yesterday, and I was pleased to be in Blackpool to do so. Will the Minister confirm that this is the beginning and not the end, not merely because I have a lengthy shopping list for my constituency but because we want all our great northern cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds—and maybe even Sheffield—to form a real economic powerhouse to rival London?

My hon. Friend is right, and there is no greater champion of the north-west and Blackpool than he. I can confirm that such has been the success of the growth deals—three and a half times oversubscribed, with projects that bring in a lot of private sector funding—that we will proceed immediately to negotiate further such deals, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will talk to the authorities in Blackpool to further their case.

In his discussions, is the Minister reconsidering whether it would be wiser to have strategic, directly elected mayors in some of our regions so that we do not just give them the money, but have democratic accountability for areas greater than the current boundaries?

The hon. Lady and I share an enthusiasm for directly elected mayors. If we look around the world and at the example of London, and now Liverpool and Bristol, we see that it makes a difference to have someone with a mandate who can speak for the whole city. That is not the current Government’s policy, but various members of the Government have made statements in recent days that might form part of a future Government’s plans.

7. Is the Minister aware that the devolving of power, which has led to funding the smarter routes to employment project, the Woodside link road and the Leighton-Linslade engineering construction skills centre in my constituency, very much reflects the local priorities to improve skills, create more jobs and spread prosperity as widely as possible? (904714)

I agree with my hon. Friend. He elucidates the principle of the deals. It makes no sense for people in Whitehall to claim to know what is needed in a very local sense across the country. It is far better to give local people and local businesses the opportunity to make those decisions and to bring in private investment. You get a bigger bang for your buck that way.

Will the Minister explain why there was no representative from Liverpool there when the Deputy Prime Minister announced the Northern Futures board on Friday? Will he or the Deputy Prime Minister work with local MPs to ensure that Liverpool’s voice is not lost?

There has been no shortage of ministerial visits to Liverpool in recent days. I pay tribute to the mayor and the authorities across the north-west for the international festival of business in Liverpool, which has been a huge success and drawn people from around the world. We were delighted in the Liverpool growth deal to confirm that the second such festival will take place in two years.

Constituency Boundaries

5. What plans he has to discuss constituency boundaries with the Boundary Commission; and if he will make a statement. (904712)

Ministers do not generally meet the independent boundary commissioners to discuss the setting of parliamentary constituency boundaries, and I currently have no plans to meet them.

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply, but does he agree that there is a serious, pressing need for fewer MPs, sitting for constituencies with fairer, more equitable boundaries? Will he in future push for that reform as hard as possible?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the legislation on the statute book will lead to a further review in the next Parliament, ahead of the 2020 general election, and it sets out the basis on which those decisions are made. There is an interesting discussion, not least in the academic survey published recently— just last week, I think—about precisely how such a review will be conducted in future so that communities are not split up and the integrity of wards is maintained.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister commit to look again at further boundary revisions? If, at a time when individual voter registration is being introduced, it turns out—it might or might not—that there has been a substantial fall in registration, will he commit not to press ahead immediately with further revisions?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are confident that we are doing everything we can—we are taking a belt-and-braces approach—to ensure that registration levels do not fall. We have learned from the experience of Northern Ireland and have worked on a consensual, cross-party basis to get this right, because all parties accept that we need to move to individual voter registration. I do not anticipate that the situation she predicts will arise.

Assuming that the next boundary review will be—we hope—on a UK basis, will the Deputy Prime Minister look at the unhappy experience of this Parliament and the exceptions that were granted for the Isle of Wight, and the northern and western isles? The manifest absence of any such willingness to appreciate the vast geography of the several constituencies of the highlands and islands of Scotland means that my constituency has one Westminster MP and no fewer than eight Members of the Scottish Parliament serving it. That cannot make sense.

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that, as the reviews occur in future, we shall need to be mindful, first, of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), ensuring that there is enough latitude in the rules so that boundary commissions are not forced to split up naturally formed communities; and, secondly, of the need not to create such unfeasibly large constituencies that it is almost impossible physically to represent them in this place.

Individual Voter Registration

6. What steps the Government are taking to avoid a fall in the number of people registered to vote as a result of the introduction of individual voter registration. (904713)

As part of the transition to individual electoral registration, we are using data matching to confirm the majority of current electors on the existing register without their having to make a new application. The transition is being phased in over two years, which means that no one registered to vote at the last canvass will lose their right to vote at the general election in 2015. The Electoral Commission will have an awareness campaign; in addition, the introduction of online registration makes electoral registration much more accessible.

I understand that two thirds of electoral registration officers have not data matched their records with Government databases. What action will the Minister take to ensure that they do so?

No, the hon. Gentleman is out of date. Of the applications made since 10 June, more than 90% have been successfully confirmed with Government data, so it is going extremely well. The electoral registration community around the country is pretty pleased with the progress.

I welcome the Minister’s good news about the take-up and about online registration. To go back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), is the Minister aware that more than 250 local authorities have not confirmed whether they have data matched their registers with central Government databases, as they were supposed to do, and that almost 100 have failed to conduct a door-to-door canvass at least once in the past five years of those who are not on the register? Will he look into that and tell us what he is going to do about it?

The right hon. Gentleman is getting ahead of himself. The new system started on 10 June. There is a big campaign in which every electoral registration officer will write to every household in the weeks ahead. They will then follow that up with the door-to-door canvass. After that is the time to see how they have performed. The right hon. Gentleman needs to reflect on the current rather than the past system.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

I support the Deputy Prime Minister’s policy to get some of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds into free child care. However, does he share my concern that nearly two thirds of councils recently reported that they have vulnerable two-year-olds in poor quality settings? What is more, the Sutton Trust says that that is likely to get worse in September as the scheme is expanded. What assurances can he give that no vulnerable two-year-old will be in a poor-quality child care setting?

I am glad the hon. Lady takes such an interest, because providing that free pre-school support to two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families is a progressive and significant policy. I believe she is referring to the data released on 26 June which, it is worth pointing out, were from a census carried out in January. We are obviously looking at the data very carefully. As it happens, there are now around 280,000 vacant child care places available around the country. As she will know, the offer to two-year-olds will be expanded to twice as many families, so we need to ensure that there is a funded place available to around 260,000. The demand and supply are there, but she makes a valid point that the care needs to be of a high quality and standard. I am keen to take on board any ideas she has about how we can ensure that happens.

T3. May I take the opportunity to welcome the “devolution revolution” represented in the growth fund announcement yesterday? Specifically, the announcement about the Henbury line—after a lot of pestering it shows that pester power can work—is very welcome. For local residents, having a loop line soon is an absolute priority, before housing in north Bristol creates absolute gridlock. Will the Deputy Prime Minister work with the local enterprise partnership to ensure that the public’s priorities are represented in the LEP’s priorities? (904695)

First, I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the phrase “devolution revolution”. We should have used that yesterday—it would, perhaps, have given us even more coverage. On the Henbury loop line, she is right to say that this has been warmly welcomed by the local community. I pay tribute to all the work she has done to make sure that that is the case. In terms of the plans the local enterprise partnership comes up with, the whole point of LEPs is precisely that they speak on behalf of the community and that they do not represent a top-down quango approach. My understanding is that as part of the growth deal with the west of England, we have agreed to co-invest in several jointly agreed priorities, including the MetroWest project, which reflect local needs and local wishes.

With more people going to A and E, not least because of the difficulty of seeing their GP, the average time people spend in A and E has gone up, not down, despite what the Prime Minister tried to claim last week. Last year, nearly 1 million patients had to wait more than four hours in A and E—the worst year in a decade. Is the Deputy Prime Minister, like the Prime Minister, just going to deny this, or will he get his Government to do something about it?

What I find so curious about the right hon. and learned Lady’s line of questioning is that it comes from the party of Mid Staffs and the party that doubled the number of managers. This is the party that refused to commit to the £12.7 billion funding increase that this Government put into the NHS. Above all, it was her Government who entered into outrageous sweetheart deals with the private sector that meant that a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money was handed over to private sector health providers without helping a single NHS patient.

Of course we need to work hard to support our A and E services. They are under greater pressure than ever before, but her party’s approach—cutting the budget, employing more managers and not more nurses, and handing out sweetheart deals to the private sector—is not the way to do it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that the terrible things that happened in Mid Staffs were representative of the situation in our fantastic NHS as a whole? Shame on him! People will see that there is no chance of the Government sorting out the problems in A and E when they are just intent on pretending there is no problem. It is the same old story when the Tories are in power: the NHS is undermined and people suffer. Does he realise that his plan to differentiate his party from the Tories is doomed to fail while he is supporting the Tories on the NHS every step of the way and smearing the NHS as well?

If the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government were not responsible for Mid Staffs, which Government were? They were in power at the time. The reports made it quite clear that it was because of the manic approach to targets that health professionals in Mid Staffs and elsewhere were taking such false decisions. Does she deny that her party still has not supported our budget increase for the NHS? Does she still deny that it was her Government who gave sweetheart deals to the private sector, and imposed botched privatisation and competition on the NHS? We do not need to take any lectures from her on the NHS.

T5. I welcome the investment for Kent announced yesterday in the local growth fund proposals, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Government and the South East local enterprise partnership should give further consideration to supporting the Folkestone seafront development, a scheme that could have a major impact on the further regeneration of the town? (904697)

I know how keen the hon. Gentleman and many of his constituents are on securing funding for the Folkestone seafront regeneration. I know that he is disappointed that it was not included in the growth deal announced yesterday, which was, of course, a significant one. It is worth £440 million between now and 2021, and in his area it is principally focused on some transport projects. I simply urge him to carry on making the case for the Folkestone seafront regeneration because the growth deals announced yesterday were not the final word; we want to continue with this approach and I very much hope that the Folkestone seafront regeneration project will finally be agreed.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that if individual voter registration is to work, we are all, in part, responsible for making it work, including civic society? May I ask him, very politely and very nicely, if he will consider the Bite the Ballot schools initiative? I heard what was said about this earlier. The Deputy Prime Minister used to be a good democrat; will he actually come out in favour of it? (904694)

I have attended a session in a school in my constituency under the so-called Rock Enrol! programme organised by the Bite the Ballot team, an excellent team with whom I have worked over many years. They are brilliant people who organise motivational schemes for young people who, almost invariably, are much more interested in voting as a result. All of us, as constituency MPs, must play our part in working in partnership with the organisation in schools in our local areas.

T6. The Government have repeatedly stressed the importance of rail connectivity to economic development, and did so again yesterday in the excellent announcements on local growth deals. May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a proposal in a consultation document from the Department for Transport that suggests the ending of three services between Cleethorpes and Manchester, which could have a detrimental effect on the private sector investment that yesterday’s announcements were aimed to attract? (904698)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are currently considering options for services between Manchester and Cleethorpes in the new TransPennine Express and Northern franchises. So far the analysis of the journeys made by people has found that the majority of passengers from Cleethorpes are only travelling as far as Sheffield, or connecting at Doncaster or Sheffield for onward services. That is why we are considering the case for terminating the current direct services from Manchester at Doncaster, with a replacement service from Sheffield to Cleethorpes, but the consultation runs until August and I encourage him and anyone with an interest in this proposal to share their views through that process.

T4. The Deputy Prime Minister has previously brought forward proposals for the reform of the House of Lords that would have increased the percentage of bishops, giving them 12 out of 300 seats. Given that the Church of England is not the established Church in all parts of the UK and has shown a much less than enthusiastic approach to adopting UK equality legislation, particularly on women and same-sex marriage, will he consider in any future proposals he brings forward either reducing the percentage of bishops or removing them altogether from the House of Lords? (904696)

The representation of the Church in the current or a reformed House of Lords must, like anything in this area, be subject to cross-party discussions. I have my own views; the hon. Lady has hers. Personally I would like a completely directly elected second Chamber. That is a normal approach but, as she knows, her party, for reasons that only she can explain to me, decided not to support a reform that the Labour party was supposed to have made for generations. I say, “Shame on the Labour party.”

T7. May I press my right hon. Friend on ensuring that people who are in the military can be registered? May I make a practical suggestion, which is that responsibility be given to the adjutant on the base to make sure that all members of the military fill in the forms? (904699)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Online registration is making registering to vote quicker and more convenient than ever before. It helps those based overseas, such as military personnel. He may know that we have removed the requirement for applications from overseas voters to be attested, except where identity cannot be established against the public record. The Ministry of Defence conducts extensive information campaigns with the support of the Electoral Commission every year to encourage service personnel and their families to register to vote. I hope that that will continue to raise the levels of registration among those personnel.

T8. I am not sure whether the Minister of State understood the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). Since 2008, it has been law that electoral registration officers must knock on the doors of householders who do not return their electoral registration forms. Since then, 98 EROs have broken the law, and West Devon has broken it five times. This breaking of the law has been tolerated by the Deputy Prime Minister’s Department and by the Electoral Commission. When is it going to stop? (904700)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and there is obviously no dispute either that the law must be applied or about the importance of door-to-door canvasses. Under the system, the Electoral Commission has formally to request the Government to issue a direction that EROs should act where this is not being done. We have not yet received that request from the Electoral Commission.

T9. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister met Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan. Did he raise with him the need to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute and prosecute minority communities, including the Christian community? What was Mr Sharif’s response to such representations? (904701)

I did indeed raise a range of human rights concerns with Prime Minister Sharif during his recent visit. I know—I think this has been confirmed to the hon. Gentleman—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister discussed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws with Mr Sharif during the same visit. I want to pay tribute, as I am sure all Members will, to those brave people in Pakistan who are pushing for debate and reform. We will not shy away from raising this issue with the Pakistan Government or Prime Minister Sharif. After his visit, if not before, he is certainly clear of the seriousness with which we treat the issue that the hon. Gentleman has rightly raised.

T11. Earlier this year, the Deputy Prime Minister said it was an exaggeration to suggest that rising food poverty was linked to the coalition’s welfare reforms, yet when the all-party inquiry into hunger and food poverty visited South Shields last week, we heard person after person say that benefit delays and sanctions had led them to rely on handouts. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think my constituents are exaggerating? (904703)

I think the hon. Lady is being extremely partial in her description of my views on this issue. Of course this is something that we need to take extremely seriously; no one wants to see people needlessly going hungry in our society. Rather than seeking to boil down the complex reasons for why people might go to food banks into a simple soundbite, she should recognise that under her Government, relative poverty was higher than it is now, unemployment was higher, youth unemployment was higher, more children were living in relative poverty—300,000 more than there are now—and more pensioners were living in relative poverty. Before she starts casting stones, she should look at her own party’s record in government.

T12. As we approach the Scottish referendum, in which the Deputy Prime Minister wants to see a no vote, which polls suggest is likely, will he commit the Government finally to answering the West Lothian question? (904704)

“Finally” is the operative word for something that has bedevilled debate in Westminster for more than 100 years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in January 2012 we set up the McKay commission to consider how the House of Commons should deal with legislation that affects only part of the United Kingdom. The commission’s report—an excellent one—was published in March, and the Government are now considering it in detail. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that if this question were so straightforward to sort out, I suspect someone would have done it a long time ago.

T13. Under the Deputy Prime Minister’s flagship school meals programme, he pledged that every infant child would receive a hot, healthy school meal. How many children will be eating cold sandwiches in September because, once again, he cannot keep his word? (904705)

Even by the hon. Lady’s standards, it is a bit sour to try to undermine a policy that has not yet been implemented. It will be implemented in September and is a really progressive policy. All the evidence shows—as did the pilots conducted under the previous Government in Durham and parts of east London—that this will not only save families on low income a lot of money, but help to raise the educational performance of children from lower-income backgrounds and provide a powerful way of creating cohesion among young children as they share a meal together. We are working intensively with thousands of schools across the country at the moment, so I cannot give the hon. Lady a precise answer, but the overwhelming majority of those schools are already ready to provide this service. We are working with them over the summer to make sure that if there are any exceptions in the provision of those healthy school meals at lunch time in September, there will be only a very small number of them.

My right hon. Friend recently visited Solihull college in my constituency, and saw for himself the brilliant work that it is doing with skills and apprenticeships. Will he join me in welcoming the Birmingham and Solihull LEP growth deal, which will, among many other things, make an aviation engineering training centre a reality, and help Birmingham international airport to become the go-to place for the world’s airlines when they need engineering, maintenance and repair work to be done?

I certainly join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to everyone who worked on the growth deal in her area. Over the next few years, growth deals collectively will represent a transfer of £12 billion of Government money away from Whitehall—out of Departments here in London—and into the hands of local communities and local enterprise partnerships. That is a really big, bold act of decentralisation, which I think will finally break the back of the excessive centralisation from which we have suffered for far too long.

T14. The coalition agreement provided for a limit on the number of special advisers, but since 2010 the number has increased. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what he personally will do to place a limit on it? (904706)

As the hon. Lady will know, special advisers play a very important role in all Governments. Of course they need to be held to account, and of course we need to be entirely transparent about how many are employed, what they are paid, and so on. We have taken unprecedented steps in publishing that information. Special advisers play a particularly important role in a coalition. We have two parties seeking to work—as we generally do—productively and co-operatively within the Government.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the growth deal for Coventry and Warwickshire will provide huge benefits through investment in advanced manufacturing at Ansty Park, which will complement the excellent work of the manufacturing technology centre which is already on the site?

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am delighted that so many Members are as excited as I am about the fact that the growth deals mark such a dramatic break from the past. Now, finally, people can take their economic destiny into their own hands, rather than having everything dictated to them from Whitehall.

T15. I represent a city that introduced free hot, healthy meals for all primary school pupils, which were then scrapped by an incoming Liberal Democrat council. Is it not the case that one in five infants will be in receipt of cold sandwiches from September onwards? Have we not seen enough of these half-baked promises from the Liberal Democrats? [Hon. Members: “Half-baked!”] The Deputy Prime Minister has got this wrong, and he needs to rethink it. (904707)

My head is swimming with the idea of a half-baked cold sandwich.

As the hon. Lady knows, the local Liberal Democrats objected to some of the plans of her local party because it was stealing from Peter to give to Paul. It was taking money away from low-income children in Hull to pay for that particular policy. We are giving schools far more time to deliver the free school meal commitment to children in the first three years of primary school than they were given by the pilot projects that were conducted by the hon. Lady’s party in government. We are providing an unprecedented amount of support. We have set aside a huge amount of money, and we are working intensively in schools. Instead of seeking to denigrate such a big, progressive policy, she should support it.

I welcome the emphasis on advanced manufacturing in Swindon and Wiltshire’s local growth deal, which was announced yesterday. That manufacturing extends well beyond Swindon, as I was able to show the Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier this year. Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that we need to make investments to ensure that our local industry remains competitive if employers are not to go the same way as Dunlop, for example, in the automotive supply chain?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the vital principles of rebalancing the British economy is getting away from the over-reliance on one square mile, the City of London, and instead catering for thousands of square miles across the country. That means giving as much equality of esteem to manufacturing as has traditionally been given to financial services. Under Labour, manufacturing declined three times faster than it did under the Thatcher Government, but it is now finally rebounding in a healthier way than it has for many years.

When is this coalition going to start breaking up? It is obvious that we have only nine months left for an election. At some point, the Deputy Prime Minister will have to make some announcement from that Box to say that it is breaking up.

I have an idea. There is a big march on Thursday, against pay levels, the wage freeze and everything else. Students will be on the march. The Deputy Prime Minister could join them. He could imagine that it is five years ago—he could take his little pledge card and promise them the moon. When is he going to do it?

I still marvel and admire the zeal and energy with which the hon. Gentleman delivers every question—well, they are not questions really; they are a sort of outpouring of bile. This Government will see the course through to the end of this Parliament. We have legislated for a fixed-term Parliament. That is an important constitutional innovation. As I said earlier, I personally think that coalition Governments of different compositions are more likely in future. That is why, among many other reasons, it is important that we do what we say and see through this Parliament from end to end until May 2015.

It is my ambition one day to be as youthful and dynamic as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). Last but not least, I call Mr Peter Bone.

I understand that, to strengthen the coalition, there may be a reshuffle on Monday. How does that work? Does the Deputy Prime Minister have specific posts that he appoints, such as the post of Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills? Can he appoint only Liberal Democrats to those posts, or can he approach other Members? If so, does he have my mobile telephone number?

There is no better way to finish Deputy Prime Minister’s questions than with the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I am afraid I do not have the mobile telephone number of the hon. Member for Wellingborough. I am not going to ask for it; I hope he does not take that too badly. He is a versatile politician, but I do not think in anyone’s wildest imaginings he could ever approximate a decent Liberal Democrat.

I have allowed this to run on because there are fewer questions to the Attorney-General, but to those questions we now come.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Conviction Rates

1. What recent discussions he had with the Director of Public Prosecutions about tackling regional variations in conviction rates. (904725)

5. What recent discussions he had with the Director of Public Prosecutions about tackling regional variations in conviction rates. (904729)

The Crown Prosecution Service delivers a reliable and consistent service, achieving an overall conviction rate of 85% or above in each of the past four years. The CPS is introducing new casework quality standards and standard operating procedures to seek to ensure that a consistent approach to quality is adopted across each CPS area.

I thank the Attorney-General for his answer, but prosecution and conviction rates for rape and other sexual crimes in particular vary widely across the country. What are the Government going to do to seek to ensure that all such crimes are prosecuted and convictions achieved, wherever the crimes occur?

There are indeed some regional variations, although overall when looked at in the round they are perhaps less significant than might be appreciated. However, the CPS has put a great deal of effort into prioritising cases of violence against women and girls, including rape. I am satisfied that, particularly when one looks at those areas that have had the lowest performances—London is a good example of this—the efforts that have been made recently, particularly by Baljit Ubhey, the new Chief Crown Prosecutor, should, with the reviews that have taken place, lead to significant improvements, and indeed they already have.

I am sure that the Attorney-General would like to join me in congratulating Durham CPS on achieving a conviction rate of almost 82%. What is he doing to support Durham in sharing that best practice, so that we can get an overall improvement in conviction rates, which is very much needed?

I seek to support Durham CPS in a number of ways. First, I go to visit Durham CPS; it has been a pleasure to visit its area offices. Secondly, I have a dialogue with the Director of Public Prosecutions on a monthly basis, and if necessary more frequently, when we keep the statistics under review. I have often said that statistics can sometimes become a bit misleading if one becomes obsessed with them, but they are a very good benchmark of quality. Linked to that is the feedback that we get. Equally, what I pick up through the unduly lenient sentence system enables me to evaluate whether the system is working properly in the case of court presentation.

For all those reasons, although I am certainly not complacent and I know that we constantly have to drive this agenda, I am satisfied that the CPS has performed outstandingly on overall conviction rates. On issues concerning rape and violence against women and girls, raised by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), while I clearly have anxieties about areas where there may be lower rates, the performance overall seems, particularly in the hon. Lady’s area, to be very good indeed.

On his visits around different CPS offices, will my right hon. and learned Friend try to get a handle on whether there are regional variations in how we prosecute people who assault vulnerable people, particularly those with dementia? He will be aware of a constituent case of mine, where the public interest test was cited as the reason for not taking forward a prosecution of an assault on someone with dementia. That has caused great concern. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look into this?

Yes, I am happy to look into it. I am aware of the case, but my hon. Friend will not be entirely surprised that in addition to that I do not think I can give him an answer about the statistics. If we can find some figures on that type of offence to see whether there are variations, I will provide him with that information.

Not only conviction rates are important; referrals to the CPS also show huge variations. Cheshire tops the table, with 65% of rape allegations being passed to the CPS and 33% of domestic violence incidents being reported to the CPS, but in Warwickshire the figure is only 3.5%. Has my right hon. and learned Friend given any consideration to regional variations in reporting to the CPS?

The Government as a whole are giving a great deal of attention to regional variations in reporting. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have both made this a priority issue. Indeed, I am also aware that the Opposition have taken this issue very seriously, as we all should. There are reviews of why there might be inconsistencies in the reference rates. I wish to see those evened out. I also wish to see the agenda driven forward, as indeed I know does the Director of Public Prosecutions, and as did his predecessor.

Lenient Sentences

2. On how many occasions he has referred a criminal sentence to the Court of Appeal as unduly lenient in the last 12 months.


In the period from 1 July 2013 to 4 July 2014 the sentences of 105 offenders were referred as unduly lenient and have either been heard or are due to be heard by the Court of Appeal. My office releases annual statistics for unduly lenient sentence referrals from the previous calendar year, and my office will release the 2013 statistics in the near future.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer. Can he clarify which type of offence has most often been referred to the Court of Appeal, and on how many occasions the Court of Appeal has increased the sentence? Will he confirm that his Department has received representations to review the sentence in the Rolf Harris case?

I can confirm that the Attorney-General’s office has received a request to review the sentence in the Rolf Harris case. I can give this clarification: for the same period, from 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014, the type of offences most often referred to us are, indeed, sexual offences. That includes rape, indecent assault and assault by penetration and other offences. Thirty-one such cases were referred in that period, 25 of which have been heard, and all sentences have been increased. Six cases are yet to be heard.

I have referred cases from my own area to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s office when I have thought that the sentence was unduly lenient. Is that a common practice? Does he receive that kind of information from large numbers of Members of Parliament?

I get some references from Members of Parliament. I do not have the exact figures, but in a given year we receive somewhere between 350 and 400 references. They come from everywhere, including MPs, and I would like to emphasise that if a Member of Parliament feels a sentence is unduly lenient, they should feel free to make such a reference. Each reference will be treated with equal weight, and whether I receive 600 references or one on one particular case, they will be given due consideration.

Of course, we all want fewer references and fewer referrals, and much clearer sentencing guidelines and sentences that are fit for purpose. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman give me and the House an assurance that that will be the case when we get the much-heralded review of sentences for criminal driving?

If I may say, the evidence is overwhelming that we are moving to greater consistency in sentencing. The Sentencing Council and the progressive rolling out of sentencing guidelines is an immensely helpful tool to judges in ensuring consistency in sentencing. In addition, if the judge has not explained any inconsistency with the guidance, that usually provides a good basis for my making a reference in those cases which are referable. I think we are moving in the right direction, and that progress is totally supported by the judiciary. I therefore hope that, as we move to new areas in which guidance is provided, the need for me to make references will go down.

Child Abuse (Prosecutions)

The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes child abuse cases robustly. In 2013-14, the number of such prosecutions rose by 440 to 7,998, with a conviction rate of 76.2%. Steps to prosecute the cases include piloting pre-recorded cross-examination of children, prioritising cases involving children aged 10 and under, and applying a new approach to child sexual abuse cases generally.

I am grateful for that answer. The Director of Public Prosecutions recently announced a series of measures regarding cases of rape because of the decline in referrals from the police to the CPS. Will such measures be considered in cases of child sex abuse, given that there has been a decline in referrals of such cases from the police to the CPS since 2010-11?

The emerging evidence is that the referrals are beginning to increase, which is good news. However, there are new guidelines, issued last October, for child sex abuse cases, which provide that there should be specialist prosecutors; a focus on the allegation, not the victim: early third-party material; and a challenging of myths and stereotypes.

Given that historic child abuse cases are being revisited because there is a chance of successful prosecution, can the Solicitor-General clarify the policy of his office and of the CPS on the destruction of documents, and what has been the policy over the years?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Home Secretary announced yesterday an inquiry that will look into the way in which paedophilia and institutions have operated. A separate inquiry, which he knows about, is looking into the documents and dossiers, including those of my former hon. Friend Geoffrey Dickens. A lot of work is being done to discover the history. As far as the present situation is concerned, the Government are for maximum security and care in looking after documents and want to see transparency in everything they do.

May I press the Solicitor-General on that answer? He is aware that there is acute public concern at the suggestion that Government Departments, particularly the Home Office but also the Director of Public Prosecutions, failed to act on a series of child abuse allegations brought to their attention by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP. It has been reported that although documents outlined in those allegations were presented to the DPP in 1983, the CPS can no longer locate them. The Home Secretary has instigated an inquiry, but perhaps the Solicitor-General can clarify a couple of matters now.

What is CPS policy on document retention from the DPP’s office in the early 1980s, and does the apparent disappearance of the documents suggest that an exception was made to that policy, or was it breached? What explanation has the Solicitor-General received about the absence of the files? What steps has the CPS taken to try to recover the documents, and can he say what action, if any, was taken regarding the allegations by the DPP or the CPS in 1983 or at any time thereafter?

The hon. Lady does always have the alternative recourse of an application for an Adjournment debate.

Indeed, but this can be dealt with now. What I was gently, diplomatically, politely suggesting to the hon. Lady was that one question ordinarily suffices, and it is not necessary to have five in one go.

I do not think I will be able to answer all those questions, but I will certainly write to the hon. Lady when I have reflected on all the detailed points she made.

I want to make the point that the sort of decisions made in 1970 or 1998 occurred under a very different approach from the courts. I think the hon. Lady would accept that since that time the maximum sentences for indecent assault have been increased; the way in which corroboration is dealt with by the courts has changed; and the ways in which character evidence and historical allegations are looked at have changed. For now, I would say that in the current situation the Crown Prosecution Service makes the prosecution of these cases a top priority, and there are new guidelines and all the sorts of approaches I have already mentioned. We are living in a very different world, but I will write to her on the detailed points.

If lawyers were paid by the word, they would be multi-millionaires by now. I would like to get through a bit more, preferably with the co-operation of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), in the form of an exceptionally pithy question.

Will Law Officers take every available step to ensure that public servants and former public servants are not prevented, by terms of severance agreements or the Official Secrets Act, from providing information on which the inquiry is contingent?

As the Home Secretary said yesterday, it is the Government’s intention to have a transparent inquiry, and the Attorney-General’s office stands ready to support that.

Bribery Laws

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that offences against bribery laws are prosecuted successfully.


The CPS is the principal prosecutor of domestic bribery, and the Serious Fraud Office has lead responsibility for enforcing the provisions of the Bribery Act 2010 in respect of overseas corruption. I hold regular meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the SFO to discuss issues affecting their respective organisations. I am satisfied that both organisations are well positioned to enforce bribery laws, as is well illustrated by the major investigations into cases of suspected foreign bribery that the SFO has commenced.

If the SFO wants to investigate a major bribery case, it has to go cap in hand to the Treasury to beg for funds. What steps is the Attorney-General taking to ensure that the SFO is not just independent, but seen to be completely independent?

I do not think that the SFO does have to go cap in hand to the Treasury. The SFO can go to the Treasury for special funding. The difficulty has always been that some cases require a lot of funds, and if they are not being inquired into, the SFO is probably receiving more money in any given year than it needs. I accept that this is an issue, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it, but I am satisfied that the SFO has not been prevented by financing from investigating any cases it wishes. That is a good starting point.

Criminal Assets

7. What recent estimate he has made of the total value of criminal assets subject to Serious Fraud Office confiscation orders that are hidden overseas.


The Serious Fraud Office estimates that, as at today, approximately £32.1 million of criminal assets subject to confiscation orders in SFO cases are hidden overseas. Sophisticated criminals often transfer their assets to other jurisdictions and misuse legal ownership structures to make recovery difficult, but since 2009 the SFO has managed to recover £76 million for victims of crime.

Given the amount of money criminals have hidden overseas that is owed to the SFO, will the Solicitor-General support Labour amendments to the Serious Crime Bill to increase the power of prosecutors and increase penalties for suspects who hide their assets overseas?

As the hon. Lady knows, that Bill is part of the Government’s serious and organised crime strategy, and it includes measures to strengthen the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and enhance our enforcement powers during the fourth parliamentary Session. Of course the Government will always look at what amendments are and whether they improve the situation, and I am sure that will be case in this matter, as always.

Vulnerable Witnesses

8. What the Crown Prosecution Service is doing to ensure that adequate support is given to vulnerable witnesses in cases of sexual abuse or domestic violence.


May I welcome my hon. Friend to Law Officers questions?

The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police and voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence are well supported. Special measures include: intermediaries; screening at court; and use of the video live link to help victims give their best evidence, supported by independent sexual violence advisers and domestic advisers who can guide them through the criminal justice process.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that new measures such as pre-recording evidence with vulnerable witnesses before a trial go a long way towards helping victims? Will he join me in thanking local organisations such as the Newark Women’s Aid and refuge which have campaigned on this for several years?

Yes, I am delighted to do so. I am also delighted to tell my hon. Friend that the Crown Prosecution Service in the east midlands is due to commence a pilot in Nottinghamshire shortly, whereby victims of domestic violence will be offered the chance to give evidence by video live link. A number of other measures have been put in place by the CPS to try to improve victims’ experience of going to court to give evidence in those very difficult cases.