Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Twenty-eight city deals have now been concluded and each one is bespoke to the area that negotiated it. Together the city deals have brought about new investment in roads, support for small businesses, the regeneration of derelict sites, employer-led skills training and an expansion in the number of apprenticeships.
Southend is not just the alternative city of culture 2017; under this Conservative-led Government, it is also increasingly seen as the place to do business and to invest. Will my right hon. Friend share with the House what progress is being made on the delivery of the Southend city deal programme?
I will indeed. I had the great pleasure of visiting Southend in March with my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). This is a very good deal for Southend and it is being implemented. Its focus is on supporting small businesses in Southend. Everyone knows that Essex has a formidable reputation for the entrepreneurialism of its people, and that is now supported in Southend. The deal will have the further side-effect of helping to regenerate the area of Victoria avenue, and I know my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) has long championed the need to improve that area.
The Minister said that city deals are bespoke entities and I certainly welcome the Greater Manchester devolution package. One of the benefits of the regional development agencies that this Government scrapped was that they brought in strategic thinking outside city region boundaries, but that has now gone. What is the Minister doing to make sure that we get proper strategic thinking and strategic planning in place so that we do not just end up with a patchwork of city deals, but get proper decisions that suit areas wider than city regions?
There is more strategic thinking going on in Manchester, in conversation with the Government, than ever took place when it was suppressed under the regional development agencies. It is a tragedy and a disgrace that a city of the eminence of Manchester should be suborned to a region that was designed in Whitehall and enjoyed no local affection. It is emerging from that and emerging strongly, which is much to the credit of the leaders across Greater Manchester.
The city deal with Glasgow was signed during the summer and it is proceeding apace. The medical research centre will be one of the most exciting, cutting-edge opportunities in the country. It involves a long-awaited connection to Glasgow airport and the city. I have received indications from other Scottish cities that they would welcome very much a city deal of their own. No decisions have been taken as to whether that is possible, but I listened very carefully to the representations.
The Minister will know that Huddersfield is part of the Leeds economic partnership area. We are not against city deals—we are very interested in them—but, strategically, what is their democratic content? What is the plan for long-term democratic participation? How are we going to attract good people to come in and be the democratically accountable people who run the city deals?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. One of the sadnesses of the tendency to suck power away from our great cities to Westminster and Whitehall is that it reduces the authority and the influence of the leaders of the cities, towns and counties. Empowering the cities and getting them to enjoy their renaissance is a powerful incentive for people to come forward with the ambition and aspiration to lead them, and that is what we are doing.
12. My right hon. Friend very kindly gave a city deal to Plymouth earlier this year. Does he agree that, in order to maximise it, we have to make sure that we have good transport links down into the south-west? (906057)
I agree. It was a delight to be at the Devonport dockyard to sign the Plymouth city deal in the company of my hon. Friend. Of course, the south-west relies on good transport connections. He will know that the south-west growth deal included a lot of investment in roads. He was kind enough to come to Exeter for the signing of that deal. I encourage him to work with his local enterprise partnership to put forward the best new projects for what I hope will be the next round of growth deals.
The Minister will not be surprised to know that I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) about Edinburgh being an ideal location for the next round of city deals, particularly for one focused on the regeneration of Leith docks, which happens to be in my constituency.
Local Growth Deals (Lancashire)
The first round of growth deals gave a major boost to local economies by investing in transport, skills and housing, and by helping businesses to create thousands of new jobs. I am determined to build on the momentum of the growth deals, so I have invited local businesses and civic leaders from across England to propose the next set of projects to be funded from the local growth fund.
On 15 October, I met representatives of the Lancashire LEP, and I have since made my views known to them about the importance of Brierfield mill and other projects in my constituency. I have also made my views known to the Minister. How does Lancashire fit into the Deputy Prime Minister’s Northern Futures project and the Chancellor’s northern powerhouse project?
Lancashire is absolutely fundamental to the northern powerhouse. For our country to prosper at its optimal level, every part of it needs to be firing on all cylinders, and that certainly includes Lancashire. My hon. Friend has made a powerful case for the Brierfield mill development. I look forward to having the chance to see it in person before long. I encourage him and all Members of the House to engage with their local enterprise partnerships. In my view, Members of Parliament have a pretty good idea of what the most important economic priorities are, so they should feed those priorities into the LEPs.
Political and Constitutional Reform
The Government have a full agenda for political and constitutional reform for the remainder of this Parliament. We are currently awaiting the recommendations of Lord Smith of Kelvin on the process of devolving further powers to Scotland, and we will publish draft clauses on that in January 2015. The Wales Bill, which will devolve further power to the Welsh Assembly, is continuing its passage through Parliament. Work continues to be done to investigate the impact of devolution on all nations, particularly in relation to the so-called West Lothian question. We have introduced a Bill on the recall of MPs. We are implementing legislation to deliver a statutory register of consultant lobbyists, which will increase transparency and help to drive up standards in the industry.
I am grateful for the fact that the Minister’s answer did not include plans to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 or to threaten to withdraw from the European convention on human rights. Does he agree that such plans would diminish our standing in the world, take rights away from millions of people in the United Kingdom, and cause great harm to the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister made very clear at the Conservative party conference the Conservative party’s position on the European convention on human rights. As I have said, we have a full agenda for the remainder of this Parliament, which will satisfy all the nations of the United Kingdom.
Given the recent announcement of a metro mayor for the Manchester area, it appears that elected mayors are fashionable once more. One barrier to having more elected mayors is the requirement that 5% of the local electorate must sign a petition to trigger a local referendum. Will the Minister therefore consider reducing the 5% threshold to 2% or 1%?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am advised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the Minister responsible for cities, that councils can resolve to have a mayor and go ahead on that basis, so the 5% threshold should not be a barrier.
9. I will give the Minister a second opportunity to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain). How are the Tories’ attacks on human rights and the removal of critical protections for citizens against the state meant to help the public? (906054)
The Prime Minister’s position and that of the Conservative party is very clear: the Human Rights Act should work in the interests of the British state and of British people, but it does not always do so. That is why, if there is a future Conservative Government, we will look to exit the Human Rights Act.
My right hon. Friend is well aware that a programme to reform the House of Lords was brought before this House and was unsuccessful. However, we have since reformed the House of Lords. The Steel Bill has brought some reform to the House of Lords, in that peers can be made to retire and, if guilty of serious wrongdoing, can be removed from the House of Lords. The Government remain committed to reform of the House of Lords in future.
Surely an obvious reform would be full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, not only to end the disproportionately greater Scottish contributions to the Exchequer that there have been for the past 33 years, but so that we in Scotland can arrange tax and spend to grow the economy, jobs and communities. Full fiscal autonomy for Scotland—there you go.
There was a clear referendum in Scotland and a clear result for Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom. I advise the hon. Gentleman to wait for the proposals of the Smith commission, from which there will be heads of agreement at the end of this month and draft clauses in January, for the full answer to his question.
The Minister will know that last Friday the UK Youth Parliament met in this Chamber. Its priorities were shaped by more than 800,000 young people across the country. Does he agree that that shows again that many young people are engaged in politics? In learning from that and from the experience of the Scottish referendum, is it not time that we finally lowered the voting age to 16?
The hon. Gentleman has asked that question—[Hon. Members: “How old are you?”] [Interruption.] How old are you?
The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) has asked that question a number of times. As he is aware, there is no consensus within the Government on the issue, and therefore there are no plans to lower the voting age in this Parliament. It is great to see young people taking an interest in politics—I was at the rock and roll event held in Parliament yesterday as part of Parliament week—but there is no consensus on lowering the voting age at this point.
I have made clear my support for a constitutional convention to ensure that a new constitutional settlement is robust, fair and engages the public. It is clear, especially in the wake of the Scottish referendum and the ongoing work of the Smith commission, that our current constitutional settlement needs root and branch reform, but it must come from the bottom up and be based on the views of the voters, not politicians. I very much hope that we will be able to secure cross-party agreement for a full constitutional convention in the near future.
The First Minister of Wales, the right hon. Carwyn Jones, has asked for a long time for a full constitutional convention, which would allow people from all parts of the UK to discuss a complex issue with the sobriety and time that it needs. Will the Deputy Prime Minister stick by that, or does he intend to jump on the bandwagon of the Prime Minister’s knee-jerk proposals?
I do not think there is anything knee-jerk about the constitutional questions that are now being examined, regardless of whether a constitutional convention is established. The Smith commission needs to, and will, proceed according to the timetable that has been set out in mapping out the next chapter of radical devolution north of the border. Within Government, we are of course looking at the arrangements in this House for debating and voting on matters that affect only English and Welsh MPs. However, all those things can proceed without disrupting the wider need to embrace the public and generate ideas across the country, so that we can introduce root and branch constitutional reform across the United Kingdom, which I think will be needed in the next Parliament.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) has reportedly asked the Deputy Prime Minister to do a deal with the Tories on English votes for English laws. I heard the Deputy Prime Minister’s earlier answer, but can he unequivocally rule out such a deal and promise that the question of devolution will be decided not in Westminster but by the British people as part of a constitutional convention?
I urge the hon. Lady’s party to engage in this issue of what is called English votes for English matters. It is difficult, and it is a dilemma. My party has been clear that what we want is for the people’s votes to be reflected in any arrangement in this House, not simply the allocation of votes to one particular party. That is where there is a difference of opinion between the coalition parties. We should grapple with that, and, as ever with constitutional issues, the more we can do that on a cross-party basis the better.
We have a great democrat at the Dispatch Box at the moment, and as usual he of course is right that we should get on with constitutional reform where we can. The House voted by 283 votes to nil for the European Union (Referendum) Bill. Not a single Liberal Democrat voted against it, yet some vicious rumours are going around in the media that the Deputy Prime Minister blocked the money resolution so that debate on the Bill would be halted. Will he take the opportunity to put that lie to rest and say that he was in favour of the money resolution?
I would be delighted. I was fully in support of the money resolution for that private Member’s Bill, and for the Affordable Homes Bill on the spare bedroom subsidy, which the Conservative party blocked. If the hon. Gentleman did not like what happened, he should address his own party’s leadership, not me—[Interruption.]
I was quite enjoying that, Mr Speaker.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the anti-Westminster mood around the country, and he has spoken of anomalies in the way our country is governed. I welcome his support for a peoples-led convention, which the Lib Dems, the Labour party and other parties all support. Why does he think the Conservatives are so against that proposal?
My understanding is that all parties are reflecting on this matter, but as the right hon. Gentleman says, many individuals believe that at this important juncture in the constitutional development of our country, we cannot just hoard the debate here in Westminster; we must open it up to the public and ensure that we look in the round at all the different bits of the constitutional jigsaw. I think—as does the right hon. Gentleman—that that can be done only through a constitutional convention, and I hope that all parties will agree with that in the not-too- distant future.
Leeds LEP (Devolution)
(Mr Mick Clegg) I am pleased to confirm that negotiations on future devolution to the Leeds city region are under way, and I am hopeful of an announcement in the coming weeks. These negotiations build on the growth deal that I recently signed on behalf of the Government, which devolved £573 million to the local enterprise partnership from April next year.
Although I welcome the move away from centralisation that was prevalent under the previous Government, a number of my constituents have raised concerns that devolution of power may still feel centralised from their communities by city centres. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give that the allocation of resources will be based on proven need?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the growth deal process that was agreed was based on the needs of the entire functional economic area—namely the £55 billion economy that covers both urban and rural areas in that part of the world. The significant transport fund worth £1 billion will lead to a step change in people moving not just between city centres, which he alluded to, but to moving around all of West Yorkshire. While it might be called a city deal, it radiates out to other non-urban areas in that region.
What can the Deputy Prime Minister do to ensure that local MPs have a formal role in the decision making process, particularly for transport funds in the Leeds city region, and that decisions are not just carved up by five Labour councils scratching each other’s backs to fulfil their priorities, while excluding other parts of the region that have equally important needs?
As Deputy Prime Minister I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policies and initiatives—[Laughter.] Oh yes I do—most of the time. Within Government I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reforms.
More than 1 million people in this country are now surviving thanks to food banks. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret backing the Tories’ war on the poor, and bringing in things like the bedroom tax and changes to council tax that have put so many people in that plight?
Members across the House will be concerned to help those who need support, but before the hon. Gentleman gets on his high horse, he must remember that under his party’s stewardship and the previous Government, youth unemployment rose by 45% and the gap between the rich and the poor was larger than in the 1980s, and because they crashed the economy in 2008 £3,000 was wiped off the household budget of every home in this country. That is not a record to be proud of.
T2. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his interest in Wiltshire and Swindon’s local growth deal. He will have seen our second round bid for the digital Corsham project. Can he assure me that in future these deals will go beyond our much-needed investment in local transport infrastructure and lay the foundations for the skills and businesses of the digital economy? (906089)
As my hon. Friend knows, growth deals are not just focused on transport; they very much respond to the proposals put forward by local areas and local enterprise partnerships. I was very pleased that we were able to agree, with the local enterprise partnership in round 1, almost £200 million for the Swindon and Wiltshire growth deal. As he will know, there was over-subscription in the first round. We hope to hold further rounds and I hope the proposal for a digital hub in Corsham will be included from his local area.
The Deputy Prime Minister and his Tory best friends claim that they have turned the economy around, but the facts are that under this Government more and more people are on zero-hours contracts, the income of people who are self-employed has fallen by 14%, and low-paid and insecure work is leaving more people reliant on benefits to top up their pay and to help to pay their bills. While millionaires enjoy a Tory-Lib Dem tax cut, everyday working families are on average £1,600 a year worse off and struggling to make ends meet. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whose recovery this is?
Almost every time we meet across the Dispatch Box, the right hon. and learned Lady repeats the extraordinary suggestion that we have somehow been responsible for tax cuts for people in the higher tax bracket, when for 95% of the time that her party was in power the top rate was 40p. It is now 45p, which is 5p higher than it was under Labour. As I said earlier, the gap between rich and poor was higher under her party’s stewardship of the economy than it was in the 1980s, manufacturing declined four times more than it did under Margaret Thatcher, and we have taken more than 3 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax at all. That is the contrast between our records, of which I am very proud.
The fact is that the Government have cut taxes for millionaires while they have cut tax credits for everyday working people. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are borrowing £190 billion more than they planned. They said they would balance the books by 2015, but the deficit is likely to be £75 billion by then. Stagnant wages and too many low-paid jobs have led to a shortfall in tax receipts, meaning more Government borrowing. With thousands more people reliant on in-work benefits, it emerged last week that the Government have spent £25 billion more than they planned on social security. [Interruption.] At least the facts I am putting to the Deputy Prime Minister are accurate, unlike the facts he misrepresented. His Government have left hard-working families not knowing how they will make ends meet. Why will he not admit it? He says they have rescued the British economy, but this recovery is only for a privileged few.
Say that to the fact that there are now more women in work than ever before. Say that to the fact that youth unemployment is lower than it was when we inherited the economy from the right hon. and learned Lady. Say that to the fact that we are now days away from being able to confirm that 2 million new apprenticeships are being formed under this Government—twice as many as under the Labour Government. We have cut tax for people on the minimum wage by two thirds. During Labour’s time in office there was the ludicrous and unacceptable situation where stockbrokers paid less tax on their dividends than their cleaners did on their wages. We have changed that. We have fixed the economy. They messed it up in the first place.
T3. I was languishing on the Front Bench for some time, so I did not have the opportunity to ask the Deputy Prime Minister a question about consistency that has been bothering me. In 2010, he introduced a measure to equalise the electorates in each constituency. That seemed to me to be very fair and he was very eloquent in saying how important it was to be fair and for each vote to have the same value. Two and a half years later he voted against it. Please could he tell me, the House and the good British people why he did that? (906090)
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is now languishing—as he puts it —elsewhere and is able to ask his question. He appears to have forgotten that the proposal to equalise constituencies was part of a wider package of constitutional reform. A deal is a deal, and his party, having committed solemnly to the British people to push for House of Lords reform, flunked it. Quite understandably, therefore, the deal could not be proceeded with.
T5. Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen today’s report from the cross-party Higher Education Commission that shows how awful the situation is that students in debt face for the rest of their lives? Some 68% of them will never pay back their loan, and many will never get a mortgage, because he deserted them, broke his pledge and voted for £9,000 fees? (906092)
I am perplexed. When those controversial changes were introduced, the hon. Gentleman said they would be too harsh on students, but now he is criticising them because students will not have to pay off their outstanding loans. It cannot be both. He predicted at the time that fewer people would be going to university, but there are more youngsters on full-time courses now then ever before; he predicted that fewer kids from disadvantaged backgrounds would be going to university, but there are now more kids from poorer backgrounds at university than ever before; he predicted that kids from black and minority ethnic backgrounds would not go to university, but there are now higher rates of participation in university among kids from BME backgrounds than ever before. Why does he not stick with the facts?
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I will have been in the same Lobby back in 2011 when we introduced legislation on behalf of the coalition guaranteeing in law something that could not be tampered with by future Governments and Parliaments: the circumstances in which a referendum on our membership of the EU would take place—when the rules next change and we are asked to endorse a new treaty. That was our view then, and it remains my view now. It is perfectly free to do so, but his party has decided to change its mind radically since then.
T6. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to reform the bedroom tax, so why did the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues not support the Bill brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) to exempt the 60,000 unpaid carers being hit by this unfair policy? (906093)
The hon. Lady is right that, on the basis of research we commissioned in government, we think that amendments need to be made so that new social tenants receive only the housing benefit they need for the number of bedrooms they have, but the Liberal Democrats feel that disabled adults should be treated the same as disabled children and that those offered an opportunity to downsize should have the provisions applied to them. That was the subject of the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George). If we had been granted a money resolution, we could have voted on it in this House.
T9. May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for recently visiting my constituency to promote the northern futures initiative? Does he agree that the idea of giving real power back to the great northern cities is long overdue, and will he give the House an update on recent progress? (906096)
As ever, it was a great pleasure to visit my hon. Friend in his constituency. He is right that through city deals and local growth deals we are finally loosening the clammy grip of Whitehall that for too long has stifled innovation and autonomy in our local communities, particularly our great cities, in the north and the elsewhere, which should be powerhouses able to make up their own minds, rather than being hamstrung by Whitehall red tape.
T8. On Friday, the UK Youth Parliament held its sixth annual sitting in this Chamber. Last year, its members chose votes at 16, and this year they chose mental health services and the living wage, as their main campaigns. Could the House mark the importance of the Youth Parliament perhaps by having an annual debate on the subject chosen by it? (906095)
Of course, I defer to you, Mr Speaker, and the usual channels, but I hope we can take up that idea. In selecting mental health for debate, the Youth Parliament was right to shine a spotlight on the sometimes awfully under-resourced and badly organised children and adolescent mental health services around the country. They need reform and improvement, and it was right to push the House to do that. I hope we can take up the hon. Lady’s suggestion of an annual debate on the topics the Youth Parliament selects in the future.
T10. My right hon. Friend made it very clear that he would grant a money resolution necessary for the EU referendum to proceed once the same facility was in place for the first private Member’s Bill that dealt with the bedroom tax or spare room subsidy. What can he do to make sure that the Prime Minister respects the decision of Parliament and does not abuse the privilege of Executive power? (906097)
On the private Member’s Bill and the Prime Minister’s decision to withhold the money resolution, the Prime Minister will need to reply directly to my hon. Friend. But the convention of granting money resolutions to private Members’ Bills is a long-standing one that, broadly, should be respected.
T12. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that with so many different constitutional processes under way and so many different views being expressed on our country’s constitutional future, we are in danger of creating an even bigger dog’s breakfast than we already have? (906099)
As I explained, excessive neatness—the idea that we have everything rolled into one single process and decided simultaneously—is probably unrealistic and undesirable. But especially in the wake of the Smith commission and the debates we are having about how we administer votes in this House on English and Welsh matters, we need a wider constitutional convention stretching into the next Parliament to bring all the different threads together in the way that the hon. Gentleman implies.
T11. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for the energy that he has put into making the northern futures project work. Does he agree that growth in investment in infrastructure is a fundamental part of that? Does he also agree that getting the second phase of the Hazel Grove by-pass in my constituency has to be a part of that process? (906098)
I am sure that the Hazel Grove by-pass weighs heavily on the mind of the Chancellor, much as it does on my right hon. Friend’s and mine. He is right to say that revamping our national infrastructure, particularly those parts of our transport infrastructure that are still Victorian and in some cases somewhat dilapidated, is a major national mission that we must persist with over many years.
T13. Talking of great northern cities, I know that Hull is outside the Deputy Prime Minister’s golden triangle. Will he explain to my constituents why, in his statement of 6 November, he did not back Hull’s privately financed bid to get rail electrification to Hull in time for 2017 and the city of culture and why he said that we would have to wait until the 2020s? (906100)
The hon. Lady says I did not respond at all. As she will have noticed this morning, there are many Members of this House who have local infrastructure projects and who, quite rightly, want to see them advanced. I defer to nobody in my zeal to see road and rail improvements across the country. I know that this is an alien concept to those on her side of the House but affordability is something that one must attend to. If she is saying that there is a fully formed and fully affordable means by which electrification can be provided, of course that is something that all of us would back.
T4. Across London, and in my constituency in particular, some 10% of the adult population now come from eastern Europe but only about 3,500 appear on the electoral register as EU citizens not eligible to vote. There are now 4,000 EU citizens registered to vote who may think that they have a vote in the general election. Could my right hon. Friend do something to clean up the electoral register so that those who are entitled to vote can vote? (906091)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this but we are not aware of individuals from EU countries being on the electoral roll for UK parliamentary elections. EU nationals are entitled to vote in the UK in European Parliament elections and local elections, and EU nationals on the electoral register have a separate mark against their name to indicate that they cannot vote in UK parliamentary elections. That system has served us well, but I and other Ministers will look at the issue that he describes.
As I said, all constitutional issues are always best dealt with on a cross-party basis. More than that, I think it is best dealt with when we embrace the public rather than make it just for politicians sitting in this Chamber—including, dare I say it, for such an anti-establishment figure as the hon. Gentleman. That seems to me to be the real thing that we should be doing—opening up this constitutional discussion to involve as many members of public as we can in the years ahead.
I think a fair amount is being done. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the time limits that operate with respect to people exercising their right to vote here if they live abroad, but British citizens who live abroad will be very mindful of their rights and can take them up very easily. Many British citizens living abroad do take them up on a regular basis.
I am not aware that we are planning to do that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have progressed with individual voter registration—first advocated by Labour when in government—and we have transferred data from other databases on to the individual voter registration database to ensure that the vast majority of voters are transferred on to individual voter registration without having to do anything themselves.
I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend and others to support the Greater Cambridge city deal, which will make a huge difference for transport and housing needs in the Cambridge area, but does he accept that if we had more devolution of powers to Cambridge we could do better—not just for ourselves, but in our contribution to the rest of economy? Will he look very carefully at what other powers could be given?
My hon. Friend is quite rightly proud of the astonishing economic dynamism of Cambridge and the surrounding area, which was of course reflected in the first city deal. I think it is a good thing that there is now such ambition to build on that city deal and go further. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has listened very carefully to my hon. Friend’s representation and is keen to push this further.
The Attorney-General was asked—
Unduly Lenient Sentences
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of matters, including the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. In the year to 30 October, the Law Officers considered 362 cases under the scheme and referred 100 offenders to the Court of Appeal. Some 69% of those offenders then had their sentences increased by the court for some of the most serious violent and sexual offences, including murder, rape and sexual assault.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply, and welcome the fact that many sentences have been increased. My constituents, however, find many sentences passed by the courts to be far too lenient. It is clearly important to maintain public confidence in the sentencing process, so what other steps does my right hon. and learned Friend intend taking to ensure that that is the case?
Of course, this is a remedy for those exceptional cases where the judiciary pass what are considered by the Court of Appeal to be unduly lenient sentences, and I think it is right that we have that mechanism available to us. I believe that the judiciary generally get it right, but that when they do get it wrong it is important to have a mechanism to correct things.
I raised with the Attorney-General’s predecessor the case of Elena Fanaru, a young woman who was killed by a driver who did not have insurance and got a shockingly lenient sentence. The key is keeping in touch with either the victims or, where they are deceased, the families of the victims. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman reassure us that that is happening throughout this process?
Yes, I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. As he says, it is important that people affected by offences of this kind have an opportunity to invite the Law Officers to consider the matter. As he will know, not every offence is currently included in the scheme and not every case that is referred to the Law Officers will subsequently be referred to the Court of Appeal, but I think it important that those people have an opportunity to raise their concerns, and that others who have no connection with the case have that opportunity as well. I emphasise again that only in exceptional cases will the matter be taken further.
My constituent Mr Christopher Adams pleaded guilty to three offences of sexual activity with a young woman in my constituency who had the mental age of a child. Although he had pleaded guilty and had been told by the judge that he should expect a lengthy custodial sentence, he actually received only a community order—not even a restraining order to keep him away from the young girl concerned. That case cannot be referred under the unduly lenient sentence scheme because it does not qualify: the system does not consider it a serious enough offence. My constituents feel that it is a serious enough offence. Is it not time that we examined that case and others of its kind with the aim of enabling them to be reviewed if the sentence imposed was not strict enough?
I commend my hon. Friend not just for raising that case today, but for communicating with me about it more than once. He feels very strongly about it, and I understand why: it is clearly a very terrible case. At present, as he will know, the balance is struck between a manageable system that enables us to pass truly exceptional cases to the Court of Appeal and ensuring that people have an opportunity to raise their concerns. I can tell him, however, that I am looking at the unduly lenient sentence scheme again to ensure that its scope is appropriate and that it is coherent and sustainable, and I will take careful note of what he and others have said as I do so.
As the Attorney-General knows, I refer a number of cases to him for appeal against unduly lenient sentences, and I am very grateful to him and to the Solicitor-General for the way in which they consider them. The Solicitor-General has now begun to view the behaviour of offenders after their conviction to establish whether they have gone on to the straight and narrow as a factor in the decision on whether to appeal. On that basis, is it not time that we increased the period during which people can appeal against unduly lenient sentences from 28 days to perhaps double that, so that everyone has more of a clue about the path on which the offender has embarked after he has been sentenced?
That is certainly one of the criteria that are considered, but it is not the only one. Most consideration concerns whether the judge applied the information that was available to the sentencing judge appropriately in determining whether a sentence was unduly lenient.
The issue of the time limit for making a reference under the scheme is a vexed one, and I know that my hon. Friend has raised it before. I think it is important for there to be certainty and a fixed end point, and for defendants to understand clearly that after a fixed period they will know what sentences they will be serving. For that reason, I am not currently minded to extend the time limit, although, as I have said to my hon. Friend, I am considering other aspects of the scheme very carefully.
Pro Bono Work
The Attorney-General and I are the pro bono champions for the Government, and part of our responsibility is to uphold the rule of law. I am helped by two pro bono co-ordinating committees, which bring together the leading organisations dedicated to the delivery of pro bono legal help and representation both here and abroad. The Attorney-General and I attended a number of events as part of the recent national pro bono week to highlight the importance of pro bono, and to encourage the profession to continue its engagement with pro bono initiatives.
Let me begin by declaring an interest, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a solicitor.
I commend the Solicitor-General for encouraging members of the legal profession to do pro bono work. Does he agree that we should encourage other professionals, such as accountants and surveyors, to do likewise?
As a non-practising Scottish advocate, I congratulate and pay tribute to the legal profession for its generosity in the pro bono work it does. Will my hon. and learned Friend assure the House that we are reimbursing all the costs in particularly costly family law and custody cases? I have had a number of difficult ones in North Yorkshire, which has been a pilot scheme for early adoption. We must make sure the full costs are awarded for legal representation in these very difficult emotional cases.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The amount of money or financial equivalent now being generated by pro bono work is about £601 million-worth of work. A number of family case judgments have recently caused a lot of interest. In two of them in particular I am glad to say civil legal aid was awarded after full information was obtained. In another case, there were particular difficulties with the application of the threshold test in an application to discharge an adoption order. I know those matters are concerning the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure my colleagues in that Department will be able to deal with the issues as they arise.
The firms and individuals who engage in pro bono work are to be commended, but we in the UK are not alone among continental neighbours in being behind the curve in terms of our pro bono offer at the same time as legal aid has of course been cut. Does the Minister, as pro bono champion, anticipate that pro bono will now fill the gaps left by the withdrawal of legal aid?
Pro bono work is never a substitute for legal aid. It is an adjunct to legal work, but not a substitute. That has applied throughout the development of pro bono work, and at various times we have seen previous Labour Governments make changes to legal aid. I think it would be wrong to correlate the two.
I work with a man called Glyn Maddocks, who puts an enormous amount of pro bono time into miscarriages of justice, and many solicitors and legal people do that. Does the Minister share my concern, and will he talk to the Law Society about this, at increasing evidence of lawyers—solicitors—working in a grey area where I believe they are becoming very suspect in the way in which they handle their affairs?
I listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. The Solicitors Regulation Authority deals with professional misconduct and I know that it takes all complaints very seriously indeed. The solicitor profession has a long and honourable tradition of quality work and I know solicitors would want that to be maintained, so if there are any particular cases, I urge they be taken up with the SRA.
Hate Crimes (Disabled People)
The proportion of successful outcomes of disability hate crime cases increased from 77.2% in 2012-13 to 81.9% in 2013-14. To build on this improvement, as recently as last month the CPS published a new disability hate crime action plan further to improve the prosecution of disability hate crime and the experience of disabled victims and witnesses.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that response. In my constituency, I have worked with various organisations and individuals who have highlighted to me the fact that from a BME community background this can often be a culturally taboo subject to talk about. May I impress upon my hon. and learned Friend the importance of being mindful of that? We should send a strong, robust message on hate crime, through not just his own good offices but those of other organisations as well?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I hear very much what he says, and I am sure the CPS hears it too. All discrimination cases should be treated equally. It is troubling that disability hate crime remains the lowest strand of offences prosecuted, which is why the CPS action plan is a vital step forward.
My thoughts are with the family and friends of Erick Maina, who was tragically found dead over the weekend after apparently taking his own life. Shockingly, racist graffiti referring to Erick appeared in my constituency in the days after his death. Will the Minister commit to reversing the recent decline in prosecutions so that appalling acts of hate crime such as that linked to Erick’s death are dealt with in the strongest possible way?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a grave and serious case, and it is one of a number that are concerning us as constituency MPs. The 10-point disability hate crime action plan will help to reinforce the message to prosecutors and to the police that hate crimes can take many forms. An example is people who befriend individuals with learning difficulties, then use coercive control to commit crimes against them. That is a hate crime.
As a member of my local Mencap organisation, I am well aware of the concern about disability hate crime. I hear what my hon. and learned Friend says about the progress being made on conviction rates, but is he confident that he will continue to make progress in that regard, and will he say a bit more about how an improved conviction rate can be achieved?
My hon. Friend has mentioned Mencap, whose “Hear my voice” campaign is playing an important part in raising awareness of disability hate crime. In the prosecution of these cases, it is important that we widen the ambit to consider the entire experience of people with learning difficulties and lifelong conditions in the criminal justice system. Frankly, it has not been a good one, and I will do all I can to offer leadership to ensure that real change in the criminal justice system can be obtained for people with learning difficulties and disabilities.
Prosecutions for hate crimes are down, compared with the figures for 2010-11, even though the Home Office evidence and our own postbags show that incidents of hate crime— particularly disability hate crime—are increasing. What is the Solicitor-General doing to determine the cause of the drop in prosecutions, and to improve the response of the law enforcement agencies?
Order. I am sorry to embarrass the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), but I must make this point because this is the second time today that this has happened. An hon. Member must not leave the Chamber while the exchanges on his or her question are in train. Members really ought to know that, and I think that most do. The hon. Gentleman is normally the most courteous of individuals, but he must stay, whatever other commitments he might have, until those exchanges have been completed. That is the courtesy that we expect of Members.
Coming back to the question from the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), she is right to make that point. It is encouraging to note that prosecutions have increased from 150 or so five years ago to between 400 and 500 now, but the action plan contains provisions to offer further training to prosecutors and the police so that they can be fully aware and put themselves into the shoes of people with learning difficulties. There was also a high-level management conference last week at which a service user with disabilities came to speak to prosecutors and to lay it on the line about their experience.
The proportion of cases being successfully prosecuted is impressive and increasing, but the overall number of convictions is still very small. I reckon that it is nine a week, out of a population of 63 million. Which parts of the country are doing this best, and how can the other parts of the country learn from them?
I do not have the specific figures, but I know from a recent report from Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate that there have been examples of best practice in the north-west and the north-east. Those examples could be followed by other CPS areas to help to increase the number of prosecutions.
7. What recent assessment he has made of how effectively police and prosecutors co-operate in securing convictions of perpetrators of child abuse. (906109)
The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes child abuse cases robustly. In 2013-14, the number of child abuse prosecutions rose by 440 to 7,998 and the conviction rate rose to 76.2%—the highest ever, and a reflection of the close co-operation between the police and the CPS.
I thank the Attorney-General for his response. The excellent recent report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) raised concerns in relation to child sex exploitation and grooming in the Manchester area that negative comments by the CPS about the victims’ behaviour had influenced the decision not to bring charges. Will he ask Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate to review those charging decisions made by the CPS to ensure that the new guidelines—which do not allow prejudices and stereotypes about the victims to be taken into account—are now being adhered to?
Yes, I have seen the report by the hon. Member for Stockport and I agree that it is an impressive and particularly striking piece of work. I hope the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) will be relieved to know that updated guidance for Crown prosecutors on this type of offence is already available and makes precisely the point to which she refers. A number of myths need to be addressed, and not only in the minds of prosecutors; there needs to be communication with courts and juries to make sure that some expectations that some jurors and some prosecutors have of how victims of this type of offending ought to behave are challenged and dealt with. That guidance is in a much better place now, and the CPS is serious about it.
The excellent report by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport showed that there had been 13,000 complaints of serious sexual assault against children in six years but only 1,000 convictions. Is it not time to review not only the guidance for prosecutors but how the police handle these cases, how they deal with victims and the kind of evidence they collect, to ensure that these crimes are taken seriously and that they realise that these are children who cannot give consent, whatever their circumstances?
Yes, the hon. Lady is certainly right about the last point she makes, and it is important that everybody keeps that in mind in these cases. As she will understand, I do not take responsibility directly for what the police do, but it is important that Crown prosecutors have the earliest possible interaction with investigators to make sure these cases develop in the right way. Again, that forms part of the updated guidance and we are keen to see that it happens. In addition, it is important that we have specialist prosecutors who understand these cases well. The CPS is now taking that approach and it is a positive move forward, which will mean that these cases are prosecuted in the most effective way.
These statistics are shocking and I am grateful for the Attorney-General’s reassurance that they will be reviewed. Will he be discussing with the Home Secretary today’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary about the non-recording of 200,000 reported sexual offences?
Yes, and clearly this matter is of great concern. The hon. Lady will understand that that report was commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who I know will wish to take up some of its recommendations very clearly, and I will certainly discuss with her what more the CPS can do to assist. The hon. Lady will also understand that, notwithstanding the point I made to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) about the need for Crown prosecutors to be engaged at an early stage, these prosecutors cannot be engaged right from the outset. It is important that once they are, they engage properly and prosecute these cases effectively.
Edward Graham, a retired serviceman, was recently sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment for 23 counts of sexual abuse, after a trial by a court martial. I understand that a court martial should be used for service personnel only for matters of military discipline, so will the Attorney-General have discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice and the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that all future cases not involving matters of military discipline are investigated by the police and tried by the civilian courts?
Let me be as brief as I can, Mr Speaker. I understand that the only way of prosecuting this man was via a court martial, because the offences took place before the law had changed to allow for the prosecution of this type of offence in a civilian court in this country. So if a British court was to take it, it had to be a military court. It was a good example of the effective prosecution of historical abuse claims.
There have been several recent instances of victims of child abuse being subjected to intimidatory and vicious cross-examination by defence barristers, which will be a deterrent for those people coming forward in the future. Is there more we can do to raise standards in this regard?
Yes, I hope there is. First, I should say it is right that the defence case is put to prosecution witnesses and to complainants, and that will often be a difficult experience. However, aggressive cross-examination is not necessarily the same as effective cross-examination, and it is important that defence advocates as well as prosecution advocates understand that clearly. I know that the Lord Chancellor is interested in talking to the legal professions about the best way to ensure the necessary training is delivered, and, as I have said, as far as prosecutors are concerned that is already being done.
My view is that the Crown Prosecution Service should pursue cases where the evidence exists to wherever the evidence leads regardless of the position held by the person being investigated. If evidence is brought to light to justify such an investigation, I would expect it to be carried out.
Rape and Domestic Violence
The Crown Prosecution Service has taken a number of steps to prioritise effective prosecutions of rape and domestic violence. In June 2014, the CPS published, with the police, a national rape action plan to improve the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. In addition, in May 2014, the CPS launched a public consultation on legal guidance to prosecutors on cases involving domestic violence.
Although it is important to improve conviction rates, we must also look at why so few rape cases make it to trial. Today, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary published a critical report, which contained some really troubling findings, especially in relation to the handling of sexual offences. The inspector found that serious sexual offences were not being recorded. They included 14 rapes where offenders had simply been issued with an out-of-court disposal, and in many of those cases they should have been prosecuted. I have been expressing concern for some time that there needs to be far greater CPS oversight of police decision making in cases of rape and other serious sexual offences. Does the Solicitor-General agree that this report illustrates that that plan is the right one to take, and will he support Labour’s proposals to ensure that before a rape case is dropped a CPS lawyer must look at it?
The hon. Lady makes proper points about a report that raises serious concerns. It is right to note that, in the year ending June 2014, the Office for National Statistics recorded a 29% increase in reported and recorded rapes, so progress is being made, but much more needs to be done. The national rape action plan is a vital part of ensuring that more is done by police and prosecutors to monitor why cases are not followed through. We know that sometimes the reasons for that are quite complex and varied.