House of Commons
Tuesday 14 October 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Rochester and Strood in the room of Mark John Reckless, who since his election to the said County Constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, in the county of Buckingham.—(Michael Gove.)
Committee of Selection
That Mark Hunter be discharged from the Committee and Jenny Willott be added.—(Greg Hands.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership
During negotiations on the growth deals, I met all local enterprise partnerships, including D2N2. The growth deal in my hon. Friend’s area will mean that £174 million previously held by central Government will be devolved to his area, creating jobs, investing in the skills needed by local employers, improving roads and supporting small businesses. I am determined to build on that deal and will visit the area shortly to discuss what further powers and resources can be devolved.
I am familiar with that proposal. It was not put forward as a priority by the local enterprise partnership but, as I have said, I am keen to have a further look at what other schemes will make a big impact locally. My hon. Friend has made a powerful piece of advocacy for it today, and perhaps when I am in the area I will look at it.
LEPs are elected in the sense that every one of them contains the democratically elected leaders of their local councils, but they also contain the business leaders of the area, which is important. For example, in the deal we did with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the technology director of Rolls-Royce, which the hon. Gentleman will concede is a very important employer in Derbyshire, said that the focus in the LEP strategy on growth and investing in infrastructure is exactly what is needed, and that it aligns with the company’s objectives. Bringing business and the democratically elected council leaders together is the right way to go.
No one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth. What ought to count is how hard people work and the skills and talents they possess. Of course, the UK is still a long way from achieving that ideal. Income and social class background have a significant and lasting impact on a child’s future life chances. That is why our 2011 strategy, “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers”, established improving social mobility as the principal goal of the Government’s social mobility policy. We have committed to reporting regularly on a set of key indicators and have created a new social mobility and child poverty commission. I chair a group of key Ministers to oversee delivery of the strategy.
The Deputy Prime Minister will know that a child’s life chances are determined in the first few months and years of their life. We have previously discussed getting the right kind of quality into child care, but does he agree that supporting families to encourage children with their language, their bonding and their security is also critical? What, therefore, does he make of the Government’s record? There are 628 fewer Sure Start centres, despite the huge increase in the birth rate over the same period.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that the number of families using children’s centres has actually gone up very significantly. Support to families is, of course, provided in lots of different ways. That is why we have the pupil premium—in particular, the early years pupil premium—channelling money precisely to the early years in a child’s education in the way she describes. That is something that this Government have done; it did not happen under her Government. It is why, for the first time, all young children in the first three years of primary school are getting a free, healthy hot meal at lunch time. It is why we have expanded the amount of free child care and pre-school support available to all three and four-year olds, and to two-year-olds from the 40% of most disadvantaged families. These are very big steps, all of which are devoted precisely to the objective she describes, which is helping children when they are young.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that social mobility is often impeded in unhappy relationships? This is typified when one of the partners starts tearing a strip off his partner in public, often motivated by declining self-worth and familial support. Is not divorce the better option?
I think the problem is when one party feels bitter from the first day they are caught in a relationship they feel they should not have entered into in the first place. I know the hon. Gentleman wants to call time on this political relationship and instead enter into a sort of lock-in with Nigel Farage, but I am not sure that that relationship will make him any happier.
I do not know why the council took those decisions. Other councils have not had to take such dramatic decisions and have managed their finances more effectively. As I said in my previous answer, this Government have been responsible for a significant reallocation of money to help children in the crucial early years. Through the Youth Contract and other initiatives we now see youth unemployment lower today than it was when this Government first came into office.
What are the Government doing to increase the number of pre-school children who are reading books and engaging in reading? We know that that has a big impact on social mobility, particularly for those in D and E and poor areas where they do not have access to books. Reading is vital and I do not think we are doing enough.
I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman: the huge and positive effect of getting children to enjoy and relish reading is well demonstrated. In fact, a new campaign has recently been launched, with the support of The Sun and a number of campaign groups, to get children reading more. I was at a primary school just yesterday to play my bit in advertising the campaign. The more that hon. Members from both sides of the House can get involved the better, because it will mean more children reading at an earlier age.
That is a characteristically sour question. I have never sought to hold myself up as some paragon of social mobility. What I care about, and what I suspect everybody in this House cares about, wherever they come from, is that we live in a country where people can live out their dreams regardless of the circumstances of their birth.
Individual Electoral Registration
3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of online individual electoral registration; and if he will make a statement. (905400)
Voter registration is now easier and more convenient than ever before with the launch of online registration. Applying to register now takes as little as two to three minutes. It has been a big success so far. More than 90% of users who have provided feedback on the “Register to Vote” website have said they are satisfied or very satisfied with the service. To date, more than 2.5 million applications have been made under individual electoral registration, with the majority made online.
I welcome the growth in online registration, but is the Minister satisfied that the procedures for those with a learning disability are sufficiently robust to allow them to participate fully in the online process? Does he have any record of the numbers currently utilising that assistance?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are taking action to target all those missing from the electoral register, such as students, those in residential care homes or those with learning disabilities. We have learnt lessons from places such as Northern Ireland. We are currently funding not just electoral returning officers but a number of organisations, including Mencap, to ensure that people end up on the register.
One problem with the electoral register in my constituency is that in areas with lots of students and rented properties those on the register will often have moved, so one can imagine more and more people being registered at the same property. What steps are being taken to remove people from the register when they no longer live at a property?
First, let me clarify that no one who registered to vote at the last household canvass will be removed from the electoral register before the general election. Secondly, those who did but were not automatically confirmed—a small minority of those registered to vote—have at least until the end of 2015 to register. It is the job of the electoral returning officer to contact people and ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.
I have concerns about people missing from the register, but I am also concerned about extra people on it. What obligations will there be on EROs to ensure that those on the register are real people? Concomitantly, does that mean that people will have to prove their identity when they vote?
I thank the hon. Lady for a very good question. The purpose of IER is to match people on the register through the Department for Work and Pensions matching service and local matching. Currently, 80% of people on the register have been matched, but the job of EROs is to ensure it is as complete and accurate as possible, and that involves writing to people and, where there is not a match, getting further proof of identity.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment.
In the other place, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Roberts has moved an amendment to the Wales Bill placing a duty on EROs to organise voter engagement sessions in schools and colleges. The amendment is supported by all four main political parties in Wales. We will support it: will the Government?
The Government are conscious that as part of the move to IER we must make efforts to maximise the register. To do that, we have allocated £4.2 million to 363 local authorities and partnered with five national organisations. We will obviously take a look at what is happening in Wales, but we are already taking steps to maximise the register.
10. Having stood in his shoes, I support my hon. Friend’s work on registration. Does he agree that the time has come to consider updating our voting methods to include online and mobile options, in line with the way in which an entire generation lives its life in other spheres? (905408)
That is a good point. It is worth noting that the move to online registration, which the Government introduced, represents the biggest modernisation of our electoral registration system in more than 100 years. However, registering to vote is very different from actually casting a vote online. Currently, if there is an error, we can check it, but if someone voted online and there was an error there would be no mechanism for checking it. So that is a step we will not be taking at this moment.
When IER was introduced in Northern Ireland, the number of people registered to vote plummeted. If a similar proportion of the register disappeared in London, nearly 1 million people would lose the ability to vote. How on earth does that increase democratic engagement and participation?
IER was first introduced by the Labour party; the coalition Government have taken it forward. It is an incredibly good modernisation process, ensuring for the first time that the head of household does not determine who gets on the electoral register, which I am sure Opposition Members welcome. As I said in a previous answer, we already have an 80% match under IER, and the Government are taking steps to maximise the register further. No one who was on the canvass before the introduction of IER will not be on the electoral roll come the general election in 2015.
Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership
I was in Cornwall last week to meet the members of the local enterprise partnership and to sign the growth deal with Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The deal is worth £200 million to the economy of Cornwall and Scilly, and will fund a range of infrastructure projects. It will include upgrading the Night Riviera sleeper service—which provides one of the most delightful railway journeys it is possible to take in the country—and relocating the maintenance centre of that service from London to Penzance; improving road junctions throughout the county; and dealing with some of the congestion around the A38 at Saltash.
I am very pleased that the Minister was able to bathe not only in the sunlight of my constituency but in the achievements of the Liberal Democrat and Independent-led local authority, as well as the campaigns on which I have been working, and the signing of the growth deal. To make certain that the deal succeeds, will he ensure that the Deputy Prime Minister’s excellent policies for delivering devolution are implemented not just in urban areas, as the Government propose, but in rural areas such as Cornwall, so that growth deals and European programmes can also be delivered?
I must tell my hon. Friend that not just one part of the coalition was responsible for those achievements. I negotiated rigorously with the leaders of all the parties in Cornwall, and we secured a very good deal, which will enable more decisions and resources to be devolved to Cornwall for the benefit of the people who know and love the area best. That is a big achievement, which was widely welcomed in Cornwall.
Order. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is a legendarily cheeky chappie. Hexham, in Northumberland, is a very considerable distance from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, on which this question is exclusively focused. I say that by way of explanation.
Constitutional and Political Reform
8. What his priorities are for constitutional and political reform for the remainder of the Parliament. (905406)
The referendum in Scotland has led to demands for political and constitutional reform across the United Kingdom, and marks a new chapter of constitutional renewal. It will start with the devolution of significant new powers to Scotland, which will establish, in effect, home rule there. The Prime Minister has asked the Leader of the House of Commons to lead a Cabinet Committee that will examine the constitutional implications of devolution across the United Kingdom, including the so-called West Lothian question. Particular attention will be paid to the decentralising of more powers away from Whitehall to communities in England. As we move towards a more federal system, we shall need to codify the devolution of labour between Westminster and the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and set out a clear statement of the values that we all share. I believe that that can best be done through the establishment of a wide-ranging constitutional convention during the next Parliament.
Last month tens of thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds took part in a democratic election in these islands for the first time. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with Opposition Members that there is no reason whatsoever for any 16 and 17-year-old in any part of the United Kingdom to continue to be denied the right to vote by any democratic institution, and what work is he doing in the Government to ensure that that right is conferred as quickly as possible?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, my party and I have long been in favour of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. I agree with him: I think that the sight of so many 16 and 17-year-olds rejoicing in exercising their votes in the referendum merely confirms and strengthens the case. However, as the hon. Gentleman also knows, that extension has not been agreed across the Government, and the debate will therefore continue.
The Scottish referendum showed the importance of actively engaging with people in determining their future. Why do the Government think it acceptable for the English to have their constitutional change and their future determined by a Cabinet Sub-Committee?
As I said earlier, any Government Committee can only put forward proposals for wider debate here and with the public. I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s implication that we should be involving the public as actively as possible. That is why—as I also said earlier—my own view is that a constitutional convention needs to be established as all the different moving pieces evolve within the United Kingdom. My strong preference is for the first step in that convention to be a public one, and for what would effectively be a citizens jury to be created, as has happened in other countries. That could get the ball rolling.
It is estimated that more than 5 million British citizens living abroad would be entitled, prima facie, to vote in next year’s general election. Why is it not one of the Government’s priorities to ensure that we increase the proportion of those who are registered? Their number is currently fewer than 16,000. Is that not shameful?
It is important for my hon. Friend to be aware that although city deals were the first deals to be struck in the longer journey of devolving and decentralising powers from Whitehall to other parts of the country, they were succeeded by growth deals, which were just as significant in scale and covered all parts of the country, rural as well as urban.
I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s words about the need for a constitutional convention and about 16 and 17-year-olds rejoicing at the chance to vote in the Scottish referendum. He has always been an advocate for 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote. Bearing in mind the fact that, if we are honest, MPs have nothing to do between now and May—[Interruption]—in Parliament, why does he not work with us to try to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote by the time of the next general election? It can be done this time. There is a willingness on his part, and on our side, too.
The right hon. Gentleman can speak for himself if he thinks he has nothing to do. It may be why he is pursuing other ambitions. There is quite a significant legislative agenda still to be examined and debated in this Parliament. It is an open secret that there are differences between the two parties on extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. My view—I suspect it is the same as his—is that that change will happen, but a bit more slowly than I would like.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
I do not know whether the Deputy Prime Minister has had a chance to look at the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government report “Devolution in England: the case for local government”. It argues that devolution should happen in England, that it should be based on local government and that initially it should happen in the major cities and the city regions, including Sheffield. Crucially, it argues that devolution has to involve tax-raising powers as well as spending powers. Does he personally agree with that way forward?
I agree with two important assertions that the hon. Gentleman makes. First, we should not reinvent the wheel in terms of the institutional architecture that we have. I alluded earlier to the fact that we have started, through the city deals and growth deals, to build new powers, handed downwards, on travel-to-work areas around our great cities. Secondly, decentralisation without money is hollow and meaningless. That is why we have introduced tax increment financing and new borrowing powers for local areas, and localised business rates.
T2. Like many in the Chamber, I welcome the fact that we will devolve more powers to cities and to the west midlands in particular, but will my right hon. Friend be mindful of the fact that the character of the constituency that I represent and the city of Wolverhampton do not wish to be consumed by or subsumed in a Greater Birmingham authority? (905345)
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s pride in the identity of his constituency and of the constituents he represents. Equally, working collaboratively across the west midlands is the best way to draw on the strengths of the region. That can be done effectively, while retaining local identity, through the partnership between Greater Birmingham, Solihull, the black country and other places in the west midlands. It is that combination of collaboration and retaining local identity that is the secret to the success in his area.
The NHS is one of people’s biggest concerns now. People have to struggle to get to see their GP; many are having to wait longer in accident and emergency; operations are being cancelled; and NHS staff are demoralised while billions of pounds are squandered on an NHS reorganisation that no one wants. In the light of that, will the Deputy Prime Minister admit that it was wrong for his party to vote for the top-down NHS reorganisation? Does he now regret that?
I am always struck by how brave the right hon. and learned Lady is in being as pious about the NHS as she appears. Her Government were the Government of Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay. It was her Government who introduced six times as many managers as nurses and entered into sweetheart deals with the private sector, which wasted a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money on operations that never helped a single NHS patient. We do not need to take any lectures from her or her party on protecting the NHS.
The Deputy Prime Minister has sunk to a new low in responding to a question on the NHS by eliding and comparing the whole of the NHS with the abomination of what went on at Mid Staffs. That is absolutely reprehensible, and it is typical of this Deputy Prime Minister to defend the indefensible. He might not have any regrets, but yesterday The Times reported that a senior Cabinet Minister—evidently not him—called the NHS reorganisation their biggest regret. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think is the biggest regret for voters: the NHS reorganisation or voting Liberal Democrat?
I am not going to retract for one minute the point I made that it was the right hon. and learned Lady’s party that wasted a quarter of a billion pounds on sweetheart deals with the private sector—sweetheart deals that we made illegal in the Act she now criticises—and I do not regret that the numbers of people waiting longer than 18, 26 and 52 weeks to start treatment are lower than at any time under her Government. I do not regret for one minute that we have spent £12.7 billion extra on the NHS—money that she has not supported—or that the cancer drugs fund has already helped over 55,000 people, or, as I announced last week, that we are finally giving parity of esteem to patients with mental health conditions, which her Government denied for so very long.
T3. Recalling the failed Liberal-inspired AV referendum, and recalling the failure of the Liberal party to support proposals to reduce the number of MPs by 50, will the Deputy Prime Minister, after his delightful party conference speech, please now address the West Lothian question, and not block proposals that only Members of Parliament representing English constituencies will in future vote on English matters? (905346)
I note first that the hon. Gentleman’s party blocked House of Lords reform when it was a manifesto commitment and party funding reform, but on the point he raises, far from blocking it, my party has put forward a proposal, unlike any other party, on how to deal with this issue. We are saying that we should create, in this House, a Grand Committee composed of MPs reflecting the votes cast in England, such that if there is a Bill that affects only England and Wales, they can say whether or not they want to exercise a veto on that Bill. That is our proposal; so far, I have heard a deafening silence from all other parties on this important debate.
T5. As individual voter registration will reduce further the number of young people registered to vote, will the Deputy Prime Minister support Labour’s policy of following Northern Ireland’s successful schools initiative, whereby local authorities automatically register young people to vote, which has dramatically increased the number of young people on the electoral register? (905348)
It is actually an answer to the question. The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that it is not the question, but the question is how do we make sure that there is the maximum number of people on the register as we move to individual voter registration? We have done much more than she suggests, and much more than her Government ever did, to ensure that people are automatically transferred to the individual voter register, and I think that will prove to be very successful.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s implication that there has in effect been institutionalised discrimination against patients with mental health conditions compared with those with physical health conditions. While I pay tribute to the previous Government for introducing waiting times for patients with physical conditions, it is only now—we have had to wait several years—that we have started to introduce the same entitlements for mental health care patients. For instance, if a child has a first episode of psychosis, from next year there will be the guarantee that the vast majority of them will be seen in a couple of weeks, just as if someone was diagnosed and referred with cancer, and someone suffering from depression will be referred to talking therapies and will receive those talking therapies within six weeks, and 18 weeks at the maximum. That is a big step in the right direction.
T7. I can see why the Deputy Prime Minister might not be chasing the student vote in 2015 in quite the way he did in the last election, so will he tell the House what he is doing to encourage students to register and vote? (905350)
It is worth remembering what is happening right now. Despite all the controversy of the recent changes, more young students are applying to go to university than ever before, there is a higher rate of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before, and a higher proportion of youngsters from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are going to university than ever before, confounding all the predictions that the hon. Lady’s party made at the time of the change. I suspect that the effects of individual voter registration will confound all its predictions as well.
T6. Is my right hon. Friend considering further devolution of economic development powers to city regions such as Plymouth? (905349)
My understanding is that my hon. Friend came to the signing of the growth deal last week. He will be aware that, since the launch of city deals in December 2011, we have made it clear that we want to see more and more city deals and growth deals being entered into. So far, 28 city deals and 39 growth deals have been negotiated, and the cities and local growth unit—working to the Minister of State —continues to work with local areas on that agenda so that we can announce further deals in the future.
T9. As part of a community consultation in the city that the right hon. Gentleman and I both represent, I have spoken to hundreds of people over the past few weeks. One of the main concerns that they raised was the consequences of the cuts to local authority spending, particularly on adult social care. Will he explain why, on the Government’s own measure, Sheffield council will have had a 22% reduction in spending power over this Parliament, while areas of lesser need such as Wokingham have had an increase? Does he think that that is fair? (905352)
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated this before. As he knows, those reductions have been spread across the country as fairly as possible to ensure that areas with the greatest needs have those needs reflected. He will be equally aware of my dismay at the actions of the local Labour council in Sheffield in cutting and closing swaths of public libraries, depriving local communities of their libraries when so many councils in a similar position in other parts of the country have not done so.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his personal contribution to the Alderley Park taskforce, and to the constructive approach taken by AstraZeneca, which has created a strong platform for a sustainable future at the site, with a strong life sciences core. I congratulate everyone involved in the Alderley Park taskforce on securing a £15 million investment fund to support the growth of small to medium-sized businesses on the site. My hon. Friend will also be aware that, in the July growth deal announcement, Cheshire and Greater Manchester secured a provisional allocation from the Government of £20 million towards their £40 million local enterprise partnership life science investment fund. These are all important steps in the right direction.
T10. I am sorry, but the Deputy Prime Minister needs to get into the real world. Of course cuts are being made in the national health service, and they are being caused by the reorganisation because the billions that it has cost need to be recouped. In Jarrow, that vandal Dr Walmsley, who is doing the Government’s dirty work, is cutting a walk-in centre that is used by more than 27,000 patients a year. And the Deputy Prime Minister says there are no cuts! (905353)
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a few facts. There are more doctors and nurses than at any point under the last Government. There are 12,500 more clinical staff, 6,100 more doctors, 3,300 more nurses and 1,700 more midwives. There are more nurses than at any point during the last Government, and over 20,000 fewer administrative staff. I just do not think that some of his assertions are sustained by the facts.
T12. During the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent appearance on his weekly radio slot on the excellent LBC, he said that he wanted a speedy and timely resolution to the question of English votes for English laws. Will he therefore confirm that he will support the proposal for changes to Standing Orders that could bring about that resolution in a speedy and timely manner, as he indicated? (905355)
As I said in answer to an earlier question, my party has put forward a sensible proposal to deal with this issue. I do not agree with those who say that this is a clever wheeze that would in effect give an unfair advantage to one party in the House of Commons to the exclusion of all others. Nor do I agree with those Labour Members who want to stick their head in the sand and not address the issue at all. We have proposed a solution, and I look forward to the other parties coming forward with equally well considered proposals.
T11. This follows on from the question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that following the disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012, seven out of 10 NHS services put out to tender have been awarded to private health care companies? These contracts are worth more than £16 billion—20% of the NHS budget—and this would not have been possible if the Lib Dems had not propped up that legislation every step of the way. (905354)
This collective act of amnesia is extraordinary. It was the hon. Lady’s party that paid the private sector 11% more in these rigged tariffs with private sector providers than it paid the NHS. It was those rigged contracts between the Department of Health and private sector providers that we, not the Labour party, outlawed in law.
T13. Yesterday I was at the launch of Kirklees business week at Kirklees college, where we discussed the devolving of powers and responsibilities from Whitehall to the Leeds City Region local enterprise partnership. What role does my right hon. Friend see that playing in helping to deliver much needed transport infrastructure improvements in West Yorkshire? (905356)
I congratulate my hon. Friend because he has been a huge advocate for the groundbreaking growth deal we announced for the Leeds City Region LEP on 7 July, which provides up to £600 million of local growth funding over 20 years for the West Yorkshire Plus Transport Fund. The fund puts decisions on local transport spending into the hands of those who know the area best, and it will be a trailblazer for similar funds and initiatives in other parts of the country.
I would not support, as I am sure the hon. Lady would not—I doubt anyone on either side of the House would—the TTIP negotiations if there was any risk that in doing so we might undermine our right to run our NHS in the way we want, as voted on in this Parliament. I am absolutely confident that we are able to do that, but if we need to make that even more clear and put it beyond any reasonable doubt, clearly we should set out to do so. It is important that we debunk some of the myths that somehow suggest that TTIP is undermining our sovereign right to run the NHS in the way we want.
I am looking forward to the debates, as they were a really good innovation and people want them next time. I can understand the concerns of parties with only one MP in this House, but as a leader of a party with 55 MPs I do not want any of the larger parties to use the angst among the very small parties with only one MP to serve as an alibi for foot-dragging. Let us get on with it and have these debates.
The North East LEP has done great work, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that in rural Northumberland we need the LEP to support rural connectivity and economic regeneration projects such as The Sill and the Gilsland station rebuild?
If those issues are not covered by the growth deal that has already been entered into, they are precisely the kind of items that my hon. Friend and others locally may wish to push for in the successor rounds, because devolving control over transport investment decisions is emerging as one of the common themes in all the different growth deals across the whole country.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that any devolution package for the devolved Administrations will not be uniform but will recognise the wishes and the capacities of each Administration? Given Sinn Fein’s fiscal irresponsibility in Northern Ireland, does he agree that the devolution of additional fiscal powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to be considered carefully?
I certainly agree that there is no straitjacket solution to devolution across the United Kingdom or even in areas in England. One thing we must avoid is the trap of excessive neatness. Each part of our diverse nation is different. I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment that there is this stand-off, which, in the long run, will mean that if budgetary gridlock ensues it will be the poorest and most vulnerable in Northern Ireland who will suffer most.
As a Greater Manchester MP and, until yesterday, a member of the local growth sub-committee, I am, as the Deputy Prime Minister knows, very supportive of the Manchester bid, which could have a considerable positive impact across our city region. Will he confirm whether we are any closer to getting this bid signed off?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all he did in the Government Whips Office and indeed in the regional growth sub-committee, working with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. His work is hugely appreciated. My understanding is that the initiative to which he alludes is being worked on and, subject to a few t’s being crossed and i’s being dotted, announcements will be made very shortly.
The Attorney-General was asked—
The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police and voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence are well supported. Special measures such as intermediaries, screens and live video links are used to help them give their best evidence in court. Additional support is also available for victims from independent sexual violence advisers and domestic violence advisers who guide them through the criminal justice process.
I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer. Two cases of domestic violence in my constituency have come to my attention. Both victims were put through more anguish and turmoil as a result of the support offered by the police, the courts, the voluntary sector and the CPS not being properly joined up—the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. Will he confirm that the CPS will work with all other parties to provide seamless and co-ordinated support?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that those services are co-ordinated, and that victims of such offences are taken seriously from the outset, that they are listened to and that they are supported throughout the process, so I take what he says seriously. If he can supply me with details of the cases, I will certainly investigate and see what may have gone wrong.
I commend the work of the Peterborough rape crisis care group based at Rivergate in Peterborough. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the opening of 15 new rape support centres since 2010? What more can be done to focus efforts on local providers who give help to those who need it most?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating those who are involved in the work in his constituency. He is right that the voluntary sector has a huge part to play. He will know that the key concern of many who work in this sector is not just the existence of funding but the continuity of funding, which is why we have been keen to give some security to this sector with £40 million of funding for domestic violence more generally over the course of this Government.
Since the publication of the Jay report, a further 29 cases of child abuse have emerged in Rotherham. Given what Professor Jay said about the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies, how can the Attorney-General reassure the House that everything possible is being done to support those victims and to bring the perpetrators to justice?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He will understand that, because some of these investigations are ongoing, there is a limit to what I can say about them, but he is right that it is important in cases such as what may have gone on in Rotherham that we take seriously victims of abuse and that we support them throughout the process. He can be assured that we keep a very close eye on these particular prosecutions as they develop and will do everything we can to ensure that they are conducted properly.
Back in November 2013, Keir Starmer, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, launched a protocol under which the police, the social services and prosecutors would work together to share information on child sex abuse cases. What proportion of local authorities in England and Wales have adopted that protocol, and what consideration has the Attorney-General given to making it compulsory?
As the hon. Gentleman may anticipate, I will have to write to him with the figure but I can tell him that we consider the protocol to be very useful. I shall add one of the things that he did not mention to the list of those measures that are important in these cases: to ensure that prosecutors are properly trained and experienced to conduct these kinds of cases. That is precisely why, as he knows, we now have a pool of specialist prosecutors for rape cases and for child sexual abuse cases to ensure that that happens.
As I suspect the hon. Lady knows, not all of the victims’ budgets are devolved to PCCs, but for that part that is, we need to trust those who are locally elected to understand clearly that the needs of victims must be pre-eminent within the criminal justice system. I think that police and crime commissioners, from whatever party, generally speaking do understand that. I am sure that she will have productive conversations with her own PCC to make sure that that is the case.
Fraud/Serious Financial Crime
I discuss with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office the effective prosecution of fraud and financial crime. Both the Crown Prosecution Service specialist fraud division and the SFO have conviction rates of around 85% for 2013-14. This month the first plea of guilty has been entered in the LIBOR case. In the first six months of this year the SFO obtained financial orders worth over £23 million in total and it has successfully recovered around £9 million in confiscation orders from serious criminals.
It is certainly worth considering whether we can do better in overcoming the gap in the law as it relates to finding those within the corporate world who are responsible for what are very serious crimes. The appropriate approach to politics is to take ideas from wherever they come and consider them carefully, which is exactly what the Government will do. When we are in a position to bring forward proposals, we will do so.
One of the new weapons that prosecutors have at their disposal is the deferred prosecution agreement, which I hope will be made use of in the near future. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that he and our hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General are determined to maintain the Serious Fraud Office as an independent investigating prosecutor and that it is under no danger of being subsumed into any other piece of the Government machine?
My hon. and learned Friend is a distinguished former Law Officer and played a significant part in bringing forward deferred prosecution agreements. He should be proud of what he did in that regard. So far as the future of the SFO is concerned, I take the view that the Roskill model on which it is based, which combines lawyers, investigators and experts of other kinds into specific teams to deal with what are very complex and difficult investigations and prosecutions, is the right model. As I have said, it is achieving some creditable results. Although I do not set my face against any change in the future, I do think it is worth preserving that model. I know that the Solicitor-General and I will wish to make that argument very strongly.
The hon. Gentleman may know that the funding model for the Serious Fraud Office is very unusual. It receives core funding, but it is recognised, not least by the Treasury, that there are a number of cases that, because of their nature and scale, require additional funding. That is standard practice for the SFO in terms of its funding. It received a large extra amount of money to deal with those so-called blockbuster cases last year and that will no doubt be the case this year. When we are in a position to set out figures for this year, we will do so, but it is in no way unusual that that should happen and it is a sensible model for what is effectively a demand-led organisation.
My hon. Friend will appreciate that corruption cases might be prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office or, on a lower scale, by other bodies. We seek to present the evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, if that is the appropriate body, and for it to consider in accordance with the usual test whether the evidence is there and the public interest is met for pursuing a prosecution. He will understand and know clearly that the Government’s commitment to dealing with corruption at every level is very strong, and that commitment will continue.
Is the Attorney-General aware of the difficulties in obtaining successful prosecutions and the seizure of assets against criminal gangs operating from Northern Ireland involved in money laundering as a result of the non-operation of the National Crime Agency in that part of the United Kingdom?
Yes, of course. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Crime Agency’s writ does not run to Northern Ireland, but he is right that we need to work closely with the agencies that do work in Northern Ireland to ensure that we do the best we can to recover these assets. We will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that that continues to happen.
The simple reality is that when county police forces deal with fraud without their area as well as within it, it simply does not work. I have been very frustrated going from pillar to post between those agencies and the Serious Fraud Office. What role does the National Crime Agency now play and should it not be bringing such cross-border cases together?
The Serious Fraud Office certainly works very closely with the National Crime Agency on its case load, but it is also important that we recognise what has happened within the CPS with the creation of a specialist fraud directorate, which tries to bring together some of the prosecutors, not least those from other Departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that we have the necessary expertise to pursue fraud wherever it is found. We will continue to do that, because it is important that we recover these assets and that we prosecute those responsible for fraud, which in many cases is effectively fraud on the taxpayer.
I wish the Attorney-General the best of luck in his new role, particularly in explaining to this legal illiterate Government their obligations under international and national law to uphold the rule of law. I also wish him the best of luck with Home Office empire building, and that is the purpose of this question. Will he confirm reports in The Times and the Financial Times that Ministers are discussing the abolition of the Serious Fraud Office and will he give this House a clear assurance that he will fight such attempts to dismember the SFO so that we continue to have an independent combined investigator and prosecutor of serious economic fraud?
I am grateful—I think—for the hon. Lady’s welcome. May I reassure her that this Government fully understand their legal obligations, both national and international, and that they will continue to do so for as long as I am Attorney-General? As for the Serious Fraud Office, let me repeat what I said to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier). It is crucial that we maintain, as she says, the unique model of combining investigators, lawyers and other experts in specific teams to address very complex and difficult cases. That is a model well worth defending. It would be foolish for any Minister within any Government to set their face entirely against any change that might produce a better outcome and, conceivably, a better deal for the taxpayer, but I think it is important to defend that model and she has my absolute assurance that I will continue to do so.
Proceeds of Crime
The Government are committed to improving our ability to recover criminal assets by amending the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 through the Serious Crime Bill, currently in the other place, including by increasing sentences for failure to pay confiscation and the enhancement of investigatory powers after a confiscation order is made. The Home Office is leading a wider programme to improve asset recovery, with which prosecutors are fully involved.
I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his response. It is good to hear him acknowledge that more needs to be done, but may I make an extra suggestion? The National Audit Office has found that the number of asset-freezing orders has fallen by a third and my understanding is that that might be because the CPS is timid and concerned about being stung for the costs when lawyers appeal the asset-freezing order. Perhaps he will consider capping the costs that could be recouped by lawyers in such circumstances, as that might make the CPS bolder.
I am always receptive to ideas about the ways in which costs can be capped, but it is right that I remind the hon. Lady that the CPS still performs the lion’s share of confiscation orders, and that in 2013-14 £97.69 million was recovered. The new CPS proceeds of crime unit, which was set up in the summer, will bring together in a more effective way the regional asset recovery teams in order to achieve the results that both she and I want to see.
My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that last month’s incredibly successful Invictus games were supported by £1 million from the LIBOR fund. What other projects have benefited from money confiscated as a result of fraud and criminal activities?
My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the huge publicity that the Invictus games brought to the victim surcharge. It is now being used to help a range of victims—victims of rape and domestic violence and families bereaved by murder and by road traffic crimes involving a fatality.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman cared strongly about legal aid and the restrictions on advice given to our constituents. Would it not make sense to restrict to such levels the legal costs that can be claimed by those appealing against confiscation of funds obtained through criminal activities?
I repeat that I am always receptive to new ideas. Quite clearly, more needs to be done to rein in some of the excesses of the cases that both the hon. Gentleman and I know about, but it is important that we focus efforts on getting the orders right in the first place and making sure that they are realistic and can be enforced. Enforcement is probably the most important priority.
Contempt of Court
7. If he will take steps to raise awareness among jurors of the law relating to contempt of court. (905421)
The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently being considered in another place, will make it a criminal offence for jurors to engage in conduct which is currently a contempt of court. By making juror misconduct a criminal offence, it will reinforce the message that such behaviour is unacceptable and threatens trial by jury.
At present it is for the Attorney-General to prosecute cases of contempt of court in these instances, and there have been five prosecutions of jurors since 2010. It is not that we anticipate a large number of additional prosecutions as a result of this change, but rather that we want the message to be very clear to jurors that there are consequences should they decide not to abide by their oath, and that there is wider damage that may accrue to the concept of trial by jury if jurors do not abide by their oath. That is what we seek to achieve.
I think my hon. Friend is referring to an emerging difficulty that we face: not only do we wish jurors to abide by their oath—the oath is very clear, and they should be fully cognisant of what it requires of them—but we need to address the fact that in the age of social media, people can get themselves into trouble without realising it. That is why, beyond even jurors, we have tried to set out clearly in the social media arena what contempt of court might involve so that people can avoid it. We have sent out on social media clear messages, I hope, as to what should be avoided, and we will continue to look for ways to do that.
The Attorney-General has admitted that there have been only five such prosecutions, but will he look more thoroughly at the wonderful people who come and do jury service and are treated abominably, both in my constituency and throughout the country—kept waiting, never knowing what is going on, sent home and brought back? Why do we not improve their situation?
I agree entirely that we should pay tribute to all those who engage in jury service. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is a tiny minority of those jurors who cause any difficulty at all, and it is also right, as he says, that we should treat those jurors as well as we can. Having practised in the criminal courts, I know that there has long been an issue with jurors being kept hanging around and not given clear information as to what is going to happen next. Some of that, as he will appreciate, is a simple function of the uncertainties that criminal trials bring about, but I will certainly speak to my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary about how we can do better for jurors. The hon. Gentleman is right—they deserve the best treatment we can give them.
Vasiliki Pryce: Prosecution Costs
In the cases of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, the prosecution costs application to the court was £108,541 for Mr Huhne and £48,695 for Ms Pryce, despite the fact that Mr Huhne had no trials and Ms Pryce had two. Given that the court costs to the Ministry of Justice for Ms Pryce’s two trials were an estimated £30,000 on top of that, can the Solicitor-General explain the rationale for the discrepancy in those costs applications?
We have to bear in mind that an appeal is in process in relation to the costs of the defendant Huhne, which is due to be heard at the end of this month. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of that application. However, I will say that a large number of disclosure applications and other preliminary applications were made in the case of the defendant Huhne, which might have some bearing on the issue my hon. Friend raises.
Interesting reading for the long winter nights ahead.
Taxation of Pensions Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Secretary Duncan Smith, Danny Alexander, Mr David Gauke, Steve Webb, Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the taxation of pensions.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 97) with explanatory notes (Bill 97-EN).
Carers Bedroom Entitlement (Social Housing Sector)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that people in receipt of Universal Credit and Housing Benefit and accommodated in the social housing sector be entitled to an additional bedroom related to caring responsibilities or overnight care; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would exempt households with one additional room from the bedroom tax if a member of the household is entitled to carers allowance. It would also widen that exemption to households in which a person needs overnight care. Those simple measures would have a significant impact on a group of people who deserve support, rather than being unfairly hit financially, as they have been by this Government. I fully support my party’s plans to abolish the bedroom tax if elected in 2015, but it is also right that we should focus on the impact of the bedroom tax on the financial situation of unpaid family carers right now.
More than 6.5 million people across the UK are unpaid family carers, and they face a host of financial, emotional and practical challenges due to their caring. Ignoring that, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of this House voted for the bedroom tax to hit at least 60,000 of those carers. Since then, confusion has been caused by Government Members suggesting that unpaid carers are somehow exempt from the bedroom tax; they are not. A disabled person who needs overnight care from a paid care worker or non-resident relative is exempt from the bedroom tax, but where that care is provided unpaid by a partner or another carer living in the same house, they are hit by the tax. That is inconsistent and unfair.
I commend the work that other hon. Members have undertaken to try to address the problems caused by the bedroom tax. We have had many powerful debates on its unfairness and the impact it is having on our constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) brought in a Bill to abolish the bedroom tax, and the House voted overwhelmingly to support it. The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) has also sought to secure wider exemptions from the bedroom tax for disabled households. Unlike other Members of his party, he has fought against the bedroom tax. The House also voted strongly to support his Bill, and I wish him success with it, but at the moment I doubt whether Conservative Ministers will work with him to allow it through.
My Bill differs in the fact that it relates specifically to carers. It proposes simple measures that would improve the financial situation of carers and their families. If it progresses, it would address one of the most unfair outcomes of the bedroom tax: the impact it has had on unpaid carers.
Subjecting carers to the bedroom tax was always illogical as well as unfair. One aim of the bedroom tax was to improve work incentives for working-age claimants. The Government’s assumption was that if households were not able to downsize they would be able to seek work or increase the number of hours they worked to pay the bedroom tax, but for many unpaid carers that is not an option. Entitlement to carers allowance means that a person is caring for someone for over 35 hours a week—in effect, full-time caring. These are the carers with the heaviest work load. It is not possible for them to move into employment or to seek extra hours, as both would reduce their ability to care. Carers UK tells us that 2.3 million people have given up work to care. For me, it is an insult to carers who have had to make the difficult decision to give up work so that they can care for a family member to be penalised even further for that decision.
The Government have suggested that people subject to the bedroom tax could take in a lodger, but this is also impractical for many carers. It is inappropriate, in my view, to expect a person caring for a family member with a severe disability or with many health needs to have to take in a lodger. In any case, the need that many carers have is for a separate room so that they can get some sleep. Taking in a lodger would mean that the additional room would not be available for them to do that.
I would like to thank Carers UK for helping with the drafting of this Bill. Carers UK and Salford Carers Centre have given me examples of the impact of the bedroom tax on carers. I will talk briefly about one case from Salford, but Carers UK has examples from other parts of the country. If hon. Members talk to carers centres or carer support groups in their own constituencies, they will be able to find many similar stories.
Mr C is a full-time carer for his wife, who has multiple physical health problems. He has a demanding caring role that includes personal care for his wife, as well as cooking, laundry, shopping, emotional support, and attending medical appointments with her. They were rehoused into a two-bedroom social housing sector bungalow that is adapted to meet Mrs C’s needs. Due to Mrs C’s health problems, she finds it difficult to sleep at night and is very restless. Mr C uses the second bedroom to get a good night’s sleep so that he can cope with his caring role.
When the couple were rehoused, they were eligible for full housing benefit, but when the bedroom tax came in they were classed as having a spare bedroom. Mr and Mrs C are unable to move to smaller accommodation because the bungalow is ideal for them in all other ways. They have applied for, and been awarded, several discretionary housing payments that have partially made up the shortfall in housing benefit. However, like carers across the country, they know that there is no guarantee that any future applications for discretionary housing payment will be successful. Carers UK tells me that having to apply for discretionary housing payments causes stress to carers and increases their worries about household finances. I believe that the case from Salford is typical of the situation for many carers.
Government policy reflects a complete misunderstanding of the circumstances most carers find themselves in, and it fails to treat carers with the dignity and the respect that they deserve. To address this, my Bill calls for all households with one additional room where someone is entitled to carers allowance to be exempt from the bedroom tax. That would recognise the contribution that carers make to our economy through their caring and their consequent inability to change their financial circumstances.
The second part of the Bill addresses the issue of overnight care. Current exemptions to the bedroom tax fail to recognise all those who need an additional bedroom for care needs, because they apply solely to the overnight care needs of the tenant or their partner, and only when a non-resident provides that care. Those people are denied an additional room if the partner or other person living in the home provides the care unpaid. If a disabled child, older parent or another disabled relative lives with them and needs overnight care, those needs for an additional room are not taken into account either. The exemption for disabled children relates only to those who cannot share a room with a sibling, not to those who need overnight care. My Bill would address that imbalance and widen the exemption to any person in the house who needs overnight care, not just the tenant or partner. I know that that anomaly has had a negative impact on many carers and their families.
I have described a case where an additional bedroom is needed by the unpaid family carer to get the sleep needed to be able to continue to care. My Bill would make simple changes to exempt many carers from the financial burdens imposed by the bedroom tax, and help to free them from the uncertainty of relying on temporary discretionary housing payments. These are small changes which would have a big impact on unpaid family carers, who are already coping with all the challenges of caring. We owe it to those carers to recognise the contribution that they make through caring. We owe it to them to remove the one financial burden which should never have been imposed on them. I urge Members on both sides of the House to support this Bill.
I rise to oppose the motion. Let me say at the outset that the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), in moving the motion, has demonstrated once again her long-standing concern for carers, and I am sure that that concern is shared by Members on both sides of the House. There is no doubt that in every constituency there are thousands of people who sacrifice their own interests to look after the welfare of others who need special care. Very often, but by no means always, it is for a member of their own family, and, of course, it is true that were it not for the support that carers provide, the burden of providing that care and support would very often fall on the state.
The issue under discussion, however, is not whether carers provide valuable support, but whether it is right that taxpayers should be asked to pay for the provision of rooms in social housing which for the vast majority of the time stand empty and unused. [Interruption.]
We must never forget why the Government changed the rules for housing benefit to remove the public subsidy for spare rooms. There were two principal reasons. First, the change was necessary because the previous Labour Government were borrowing £1 for every £4 they spent. It was vital that public expenditure was brought under control and that the country started to live within its means. With the present coalition Government committed to increasing spending on our national health service, it was necessary to look for savings in other areas and that included reducing expenditure on welfare. Those changes to housing benefit essentially brought the rules that apply to people renting in the public sector into line with the rules for people renting in the private sector, which were introduced by the previous Labour Government.
The need to control public expenditure and ensure that the country lives within its means is not the only reason it is right for the state to stop subsidising spare rooms. With about 300,000 people living in overcrowded accommodation, it clearly makes sense to encourage the most efficient use of our public housing stock. Some 820,000 spare rooms were being provided by housing benefit before the reform was introduced.
The changes to housing benefit already take into account the specific needs of carers. Housing benefit is based on the occupation needs of the household, and the resident carer is allocated, and entitled to, their own bedroom. The regulations do not allow a claimant an extra bedroom for a non-resident overnight carer, but local authorities already have the discretion to determine whether an extra bedroom should be provided even when a qualifying benefit is not being paid to a claimant, if there is sufficient evidence that they require care during the night from a non-resident carer.
As was made clear on Second Reading of the Affordable Homes Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) on 5 September, it is extremely difficult to define in advance all the possible reasons why there may be good exceptions to the housing benefit changes. It is for that reason that discretionary housing payments exist. These payments allow local authorities to consider each case on its merits and ensure that where vulnerable claimants need special support, such support is available. Last year, more than 392,000 awards were made by local authorities. Over the past two years, £345 million has been made available for these payments. Although some may have thought that insufficient, the fact is that only a quarter of local authorities applied to access the £20 million reserve fund retained by central Government in the last financial year.
Given the very narrow scope of the Bill that the motion seeks leave to introduce, it seems to me that a more effective way for the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South to bring about the legislative change she wants would be to persuade the House to amend the Affordable Homes Bill. Bearing in mind that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition have pledged to reverse the housing benefit changes if they win the general election next May, many inside and outside the House will be as surprised as I am at her apparent lack of faith in her party’s chances of winning the election and consequently being able to restore the subsidy for spare rooms as they have pledged to do. Given that, even if the motion is agreed to, the resulting Bill will join a long list of private Members’ Bills—they already number more than 70—and that even with a fair wind it is unlikely to receive Royal Assent until just before the end of this Parliament, the Bill’s effect would at best be minimal if an incoming Labour Government reversed all the housing benefit changes.
The motion is a good reminder to the public that the election of another Labour Government would signal a return to the something-for-nothing culture that this Government have put an end to. I do not propose to divide the House, but I have placed on the record some of the points that will no doubt be expanded on if and when the Bill receives a Second Reading.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
That Barbara Keeley, Alex Cunningham, Dr Hywel Francis, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Diana Johnson, Mr Virendra Sharma, Jim Shannon, Andrew George, Hywel Williams, Caroline Lucas, Laura Sandys and Andrew Gwynne present the Bill.
Barbara Keeley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 November, and to be printed (Bill 95).
Devolution (Scotland Referendum)
[Relevant Documents: The parties’ published proposals on further devolution for Scotland, Cm 8946; First Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on Devolution in England: the case for local government, HC 503; Third Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2012-13, on Prospects for codifying the relationship between central and local government, HC 656, and the Government response, Cm 8623; Fourth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Session 2012-13, on Do we need a constitutional convention for the UK?, HC 656; Oral evidence reported by the Welsh Affairs Committee on 29 April 2014, on Silk Commission Part II: devolving legislative powers to Wales, HC 1239.]
Before I call the Leader of the House to move the motion, I should inform the House that, on account of the very large number of Members seeking to catch my eye, I have imposed a six-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions, which will start with the fifth speaker in the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered devolution following the Scotland referendum.
I am delighted to open this debate on devolution, following the clear decision of the Scottish people to remain part of this great United Kingdom. The referendum campaign electrified politics in Scotland, and we saw one of the most remarkable demonstrations of democracy in British history, which I believe showed an unmistakeable strength and vitality in our politics.
With similar energy, we have to build a better and fairer constitutional settlement for all in the United Kingdom, working together as a family of nations, bound by a rich history and the strength of our democracy—and we have to do so with that sense of renewal across the country. Make no mistake, Mr Speaker, the need and demand for renewal is palpable and serious. Across the United Kingdom, we must find that better and fairer settlement. I believe that dither or delay is not an option on these issues.
Today sees the funeral of Angus Macleod, and I am sure that the Leader of the House and Members of all parties will pay tribute to the doyen of Scottish print journalism. I would like to pay tribute to everyone who took part in the referendum and respect its result, especially the 1.6 million people who voted for independence. A great many people voted no because of “the vow” that promised “extensive” new powers. Why is there no mention of extensive new powers in the Government’s Command Paper, and where is the Prime Minister?
I will come to the political and partisan points of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but first I join him in paying tribute to Angus Macleod, a journalist respected by all Members and known to all, particularly for a very distinctive Scottish voice on the radio. We all remember his family and friends at the time of his funeral today. As I say, I will come to the other points the hon. Gentleman raised—
My hon. Friend is right to make that point as Chair of the Procedure Committee. I certainly give him that guarantee.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland set out yesterday, it is vital that we unite Scotland within a United Kingdom. The cross-party process being undertaken by Lord Smith of Kelvin is the first step in finding the common ground that will create something that is better and fairer for Scotland and that cements its place in our family of nations.
I want to say at the beginning that we must not only meet the vows that were made to Scotland, but deliver a balanced settlement that is better and fairer for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is why, in addition to the cross-party process being undertaken by Lord Smith of Kelvin, the Prime Minister has asked me to chair a Cabinet Committee to look at the devolution—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make just one more point.
The Prime Minister has asked me to chair a Cabinet Committee to look at the devolution of powers across the United Kingdom. There will be every opportunity for decisions on the future rights of England and devolution to Wales and Northern Ireland to be made on a cross-party basis, unless, that is, any party chooses not to participate in the discussions. That is a point to which I will return.
The hon. Member for Moray made the point about 1.6 million people. We should pay tribute to all those who voted in the referendum. He might not want to remember so easily that more than 2 million people voted for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. They voted for a stronger Scottish Parliament, backed by the strength and security that comes from being part of the United Kingdom. Before the referendum, the three pro-Union parties of the United Kingdom made clear commitments to devolve further powers to Scotland on a clear timetable that was put forward by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who is in his place. That was supported by the three party leaders.
Yesterday, the Government published the Command Paper on Scotland ahead of schedule. It sets out the published proposals of the three UK political parties on further devolution in Scotland. Lord Smith will oversee a process that takes forward those commitments. He has already begun his work and has written to the groups that were formed during the referendum campaign, inviting them to give their views on further devolution. I welcome the fact that, for the first time, all the major parties are involved in shaping devolution for Scotland, with the Scottish National party and the Green party tabling their proposals too. Lord Smith will talk simultaneously to the political parties, civic institutions and the public, with a view to reaching the heads of agreement by 30 November. As the House heard again yesterday, draft clauses will be published by the end of January, so that the legislation is ready to be implemented after the next general election.
The Leader of the House will know that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, has produced extensive work on a written constitution, devolution to English local government and the need for a constitutional convention. Will he ensure that Parliament is represented on and has input into his Cabinet Sub-Committee, which will discuss those much bigger and much more important issues than the one on which, I suspect, many Members will focus, which is English votes for English laws?
It is true that on devolved matters, English MPs do not have a vote, but neither do Welsh MPs, Scottish MPs or MPs from Northern Ireland. However, SNP MPs have traditionally resiled from voting on some such matters because they believe that that will help to lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Would not any such proposal be part of a slippery slope towards the break-up of the United Kingdom?
Let me come to that matter. I propose to work briefly and logically through the nations of the United Kingdom in my remarks and I will come to the question that has become known as English votes on English laws. However, I reject from the outset the idea that fairness for England is disruptive or dangerous for the United Kingdom. It is part of the effort to keep the United Kingdom together, just as fairness for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has always been.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of us in England, including many of my constituents, were willing the Scots to remain part of this great United Kingdom? However, we do want fairness for England. We still have a procedure in this place, Standing Order No. 97, that allows Scots MPs to deal with Scots legislation. Why on earth can we not do that for England? That is a simple solution to a simple problem. It is a matter of fairness.
That is, indeed, one solution that could be adopted. I will come to the alternative solutions in a moment.
Let me finish what I was saying on Scotland. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said in his statement, the three main pro-UK parties made a vow that will be delivered whatever the outcome of the election next year and whatever deliberations we have about England. I know that it suits the Scottish National party to pretend that it has already been betrayed somehow, but the proposals for Scotland are not tied to our deliberations on other parts of the United Kingdom in the sense that they are conditional on them. It is right to consider those things together, but there was a vow. The British Government—this Administration and past Administrations—have delivered on devolution commitments in the past and will do so again.
I will give way in one moment.
This Government delivered the Scotland Act 2012 and introduced the Wales Bill that is being debated in the House of Lords. We believe passionately in the United Kingdom. We recognise the benefits that it brings to all its citizens. We will deliver on the commitments that were made to the people of Scotland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will confirm that the SNP will stop pretending that we are not seeking to deliver on those commitments.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way eventually. If the vow swayed 6% of the Scottish people, it served its narrow political purpose at the time. It was an unconditional vow that became conditional as the hangover set in. Why was the Prime Minister not straight with the Scottish people about the vow before the referendum? Where is the Prime Minister this afternoon?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the vow is unconditional. I think that I can also speak for the official Opposition on that. It was an unconditional vow from the Leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister. The Scottish nationalists should stop pretending that people are reneging on the commitment when they are not.
I thank the Leader of the House for making it clear that the vow is unconditional and that the process for Scotland will go ahead as promised. Are not the interventions from the Scottish National party Members very telling in that they do not recognise the result of the referendum? If anything, the result of the referendum showed a clear desire to stay part of the United Kingdom. The merits of whatever happens in the process should be judged against that.
As someone with a strong Scottish highland heritage, I want a fair settlement for everyone in the United Kingdom. Has my right hon. Friend received the commitment from all political parties that they will participate fully in the process?
The Scottish process will be presided over by Lord Smith of Kelvin, not by me. The Cabinet Committee that I chair will ensure that the British Government feed in information as necessary and when it is requested by Lord Smith. I believe that all parties are committed to taking part in that process—the three main UK pro-Union parties, as well as the Scottish National party and the Greens. I welcome that.
May I say gently to my right hon. Friend that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) did not speak for me or my constituents when he gave that undertaking? Although I fully understand that the leader of our party is entitled to make that commitment, because he is responsible for policy, it was not the mandate on which I was elected. I and my constituents expect the issues of differential expenditure and English votes for English laws to be addressed at the same time and before devo-max is delivered.
I will make a bit of progress. Otherwise we will stop on that point.
As in Scotland, the Government have been making good on our promise to deliver further devolution to Wales, with the referendum on law-making powers, setting up the Silk commission and introducing the Wales Bill. The Bill takes forward almost all the recommendations of the Silk commission’s part I report and devolves a significant combination of tax and borrowing powers to the Assembly and to Welsh Ministers. It is important that Wales, too, is at the heart of the debate on how to make the United Kingdom work for all nations.
One third of my constituents are currently served by hospitals in England. The railway service goes from England to Wales. In their thousands, people in my constituency work in businesses in England, which are governed by English Departments. Are the Leader of the House’s proposals to stop me voting and speaking on those issues right and proper?
As I have said, I will come to the position of England, although the right hon. Gentleman might want to reflect that one reason why Welsh people use English hospitals is the record of the Labour party on the NHS in Wales. Of course, there are important connections. There are and always will be a mass of transport and public service connections between all UK nations, particularly between England and Wales, and between England and Scotland, but that has never stopped people advocating devolution in Wales and the Welsh Assembly having greater powers. It has never stopped advocacy of greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, we reach a point at which it is necessary to provide fairness for England, bearing in mind his point.
When one looks at Welsh devolution, is not one problem that the legislation has been so badly drafted that it is unclear what has been devolved and what has been reserved? Does that highlight the fact that, if we are to carry out a proper revision of our constitutional arrangements, we must look at the totality of them, while at the same time honouring the commitment we have made in Scotland?
There is a good case for that. The structure of the devolution settlement in Wales is an important matter for our consideration, particularly as the Silk commission recommended a move to a reserved powers model in its part II report, partly for the reasons that my right hon. and learned Friend gives. It will fall to the next Parliament to introduce legislation to make that change, but my right hon. Friend the Wales Secretary has made it clear that he wants to hear views from across the political spectrum in Wales. He has invited the leaders of the Welsh parties to discuss the way forward, and I believe he held a productive meeting yesterday. As he has announced, the first step in giving further devolution to Wales is to amend the Wales Bill by scrapping the lockstep and allowing the Welsh Assembly the power to vary income tax rates. The new income tax powers are a tool to help the Welsh economy potentially to become more dynamic and to make the Government in Wales more accountable. If used correctly, we hope they can boost economic growth, meaning more people in Wales in jobs and enjoying a better standard of living.
I want to pick up on the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the health service in north Wales. As a former Secretary of State for Wales, he knows that, for good demographic reasons, specialist services are supplied to the people of north Wales, including Wrexham, by excellent hospitals such as the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt orthopaedic hospital in Shropshire, Christie’s, and the Walton specialist centre in Liverpool. The right hon. Gentleman should not therefore suggest—I am surprised he took such a cheap shot—that such provision is a matter of choice. It is how the health service works for the people of Wales and for the United Kingdom.
As I was saying a moment ago, it is of course true that there are a mass of connections in public service and transport, although it is also true that the NHS in Wales has not been performing as well as the NHS in England. Both points are true. There are a mass of connections, but I reiterate that that has never stopped the hon. Gentleman and others making the case for devolution in Wales and for greater control in Wales over, for instance, health and education services. It is therefore not surprising that English Members want greater control of health and education services in England, acknowledging that services on both sides of such a border must continue to serve those on both sides.
May I point out to my right hon. Friend that we are having increasing difficulty accessing services across the border between England and Scotland, and that increasingly, barriers are being erected? I express the hope that the settlement that Scotland is staying in the United Kingdom will mean that people can continue to cross borders for the best health provision.
Yes, that is important for all of us in the UK.
As is well understood in the House, the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland is different from the ones for Scotland and for Wales. It has emerged out of cross-party talks over a very long period. At its heart is power sharing between Northern Ireland’s two main traditions. The provision of additional powers to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly would involve changes to the Belfast agreement. It is therefore essential that any changes to the settlement have the support of parties in the Assembly. One area on which we have had discussions is the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland. As the Prime Minister has made clear, we will make an announcement on that no later than the autumn statement.
It is more important that the three devolution settlements I have discussed work in the best interests of the people of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland than that they are identical, but the nature of the development of devolution in the past two decades has left the UK with an asymmetrical Union.
No, I think I will make progress.
Hon. Members completely respect the legitimate need for greater autonomy and devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but let us be clear that there is no widespread demand for regional government in England. Indeed, voters in the north-east emphatically rejected that in 2004. The public do not want an extra tier of burdensome politics that increases the cost of government overall.
My right hon. Friend is right that there was no appetite in Yorkshire for that proposal, but there is a sense of neglect and frustration that the votes of people in Yorkshire are being diluted by those who represent areas where decisions have no effect. That cannot be allowed to continue and it must be tackled now. Further delay is not acceptable to my constituents.
The Leader of the House is right to remind us that regional assemblies were rejected wherever they were considered, not just by the ballot in the north-east. However, there are 2.5 million people in Greater Manchester. It is almost exactly the same size by population as Wales, and half the size of Scotland. There is a real desire for both resources and powers to be devolved to Greater Manchester. Is he considering that?
I will first answer the point made by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer).
There is a legitimate demand for greater autonomy at a local level. We have an excellent record in recent years of devolving powers to the cities and regions, including to Manchester. I, like other members of the Government, hope that more can be done on decentralising power from Whitehall. In this Parliament, we have introduced city deals. Eight core deals were signed in the first wave, and we are close to finalising the conclusions on the second wave—18 of the 20 contracts have been signed. We have delivered local growth deals, and £2 billion will be devolved per year to local enterprise partnerships from next year. Many hon. Members would like more such progress, building on the excellent work of the Department for Communities and Local Government. That is part of what we need to do in the United Kingdom, including in England, but it does not resolve the basic issue of fairness that my hon. Friends have raised regarding decisions on legislation affecting England.
We share a constituency boundary and the Leader of the House knows, as I do, that our constituents feel that too many decisions are London-centred. They want more power closer to them. Is not the problem with English votes for English laws that it changes the job description of Members in this House, but does not actually take power nearer to people?
These issues are not mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible to believe that there should be greater autonomy at the local level, including for the hon. Lady’s constituents and mine. However, if she is talking, as she did at the beginning of her intervention, about what people feel, I think she will have to acknowledge that they also feel, whether it be in Yorkshire or County Durham, that Scottish Members should no longer be voting on matters that have been devolved to Scotland. That is the local opinion.
The Leader of the House is absolutely right that we should have English votes for English Members of Parliament on English affairs. With regard to further devolution to the localities within England, I would ask that we do not just talk about cities but the historical counties of England, which deliver a lot of responsibilities already.