House of Commons
Tuesday 16 December 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
HMCTS treats such applications with the utmost urgency. Hearing notices are served by hand and hearings before a judge are listed urgently, normally immediately after the two days’ notice period. Warrants are enforced by bailiffs as a matter of priority.
I thank my hon. Friend for helping me to resolve an urgent constituency case involving a mass trespass in Letchworth, and for doing so speedily. Is it his Department’s policy, and are the courts aware, that it is vital that these cases are dealt with speedily in order to avoid the risk of nuisance to local residents, as happened in Letchworth?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his kind comments. It was a pleasure to be able to help out in his constituency matter. He is right: there are existing processes that enable such cases to be dealt with and I am keen that they are dealt with speedily. I will certainly make sure that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is made well aware of that principle.
I would like to applaud the swift work of Basingstoke and Deane borough council in stopping unauthorised activity this year at Dixon road in my constituency, with the Crown Prosecution Service successfully prosecuting last week those who felled up to 800 trees on that site. Does the Minister agree that tougher fines might also help to deter this sort of criminal activity?
Immigration and Asylum
In 2009-10, 10% of recorded appeals, lodged from inside the UK, raised human rights grounds; in 2010-11 the proportion was 28%; in the last three years the proportion has been 34%. Information is not available for appeals lodged from outside of the UK.
My hon. Friend’s comments are timely given that next year we will commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. The House will be aware that the Government agreed in the coalition agreement that no major changes would be made to the human rights framework in this Parliament, but as he rightly says, the Conservatives believe that we need major reform to the way in which human rights operate in this country. We believe that we need to curtail the ability of the European Court of Human Rights to tell our courts what to do. We have an excellent record in this area, of which we should be proud, but Conservatives believe that a new British Bill of Rights and responsibilities would remain faithful to those basic principles of human rights while restoring much-needed common sense to their application. This is a debate that we will have over the next few months and I look forward to debating it with the Opposition, when they are prepared to listen, as well as with the Lib Dems and the British public.
It is obvious that Magna Carta in the 13th century was a great step forward and I am glad the Minister recognises that. Will he also recognise that the European convention on human rights and the universal declaration of human rights were massive steps forward, not just for this country but for humankind? Does he not recognise that the narrative of trying to leave the European convention on human rights and the Court diminishes our human rights, the human rights of everyone in this country and the human rights of people across the continent? Will he please rethink this narrative and be slightly more sensible about the universal need for human rights?
The hon. Gentleman talks about being sensible. He will be aware that it was only very recently that the convention was amended by the Brighton declaration, which was welcomed by all the countries concerned and made sure that nation states had a greater say in their own cases. That has to be good because it means that Strasbourg can deal with the urgent cases that should be dealt with there rather than having a backlog—there is a huge queue—because nation states cannot deal with a lot of the cases that should be dealt with domestically.
May I tell the Minister that my constituents in Dover and Deal feel that the level of immigration and asylum appeals that are being made undermines our border security? They want to see human rights reform to ensure that our borders are safer and more secure.
In relation to general human rights issues, does the Minister agree with the opinion of his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) that non-compliance with the European convention on human rights calls into question the devolution settlements for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland?
The Government are taking forward a whiplash reform programme that will deter unnecessary, exaggerated or speculative claims. Reforms to control the costs of claims were implemented on 1 October, and on 2 December we announced further plans to have independence and quality safeguards in the system for obtaining expert evidence.
What evidence does the Minister have to demonstrate that his measures have been effective in cracking down on fraudulent whiplash claims, as it would seem that, as a nation, we are happy to allow both the profits of insurance companies and our reputation for having the weakest necks in the world to go unchallenged?
This Government have made and continue to make major changes to deter fraudsters and reduce the number and cost of whiplash claims. We have already seen an impact from these reforms and industry data show that they have contributed to a 14% reduction in premiums since February 2012.
Some years ago, I was shunted up my rear end—by a car on the M1, Mr Speaker—and I was then contacted by a number of companies that all said, “Surely you are suffering from whiplash. You should be making a claim.” Does the Minister agree that such actions are reprehensible?
I very much hope that there are no long-lasting effects from the experience my hon. Friend had. The Government take insurance fraud very seriously and have recently set up a taskforce to tackle this important issue and drive down premiums. The taskforce will consider insurance fraud across the board, and will aim to publish an interim report by March 2015 with a final report issued by the end of 2015.
Fraudulent whiplash claims are criminal activity, plain and simple, and everybody in the House would condemn them. Will the Minister also condemn those insurance companies that created third-party capture, massively contributing to the number of these claims in the first instance? While he is at it, does he have any evidence to suggest that medical practitioners are failing their obligations under civil procedure rules—CPR—35?
For too long, honest drivers have been bearing the cost and, with that, higher insurance premiums because of the whole issue of whiplash. Government reforms have been robust. We have set up a system whereby we hope to deter unnecessary or speculative claims and ensure that those who are genuinely injured can claim. We have clamped down hard on the insurance companies. We have been working with them, along with the medical profession and the lawyers, to try to make the system a lot better. Medical reports from now on will cost £180 and lawyers will carry out previous claims checks on potential claimants in order to combat fraudulent claims. That will, of course, impact on the insurance companies.
Former Prisons (Disposal)
Canterbury prison was sold earlier this year. We have also exchanged contracts on Shrewsbury prison, and we are finalising commercial negotiations on Bullwood Hall, Shepton Mallet, Dorchester, Kingston and Gloucester prisons. When we dispose of surplus property assets, we will always seek best value for the taxpayer.
It is good to see that progress is inching forward as the former HM prison Gloucester is key to the regeneration of the city centre. Will my hon. Friend confirm, first, that the agreement will include provisions making the buyer subject to the broader aspirations of our master plan for Blackfriars, which will be published in January; and, secondly, that there is clear intent on both sides to finalise everything before the end of the financial year?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of Gloucester. Such a clause would be problematic to a bidder, given that master plans can change, but a purchaser seeking to develop the site inappropriately would not obtain planning consent from the local planning authority. We hope to give my hon. Friend and Gloucester an early Christmas present by exchanging contracts before Christmas if possible, with completion proposed for April 2015.
We have disposed of 14 prisons, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when we disposed of Ashwell, Latchmere House and Canterbury prisons recently, we raised nearly £31 million. In general, we have a “new for old” policy. We are closing down old and inefficient prisons that are expensive to run, and creating new prisons that are better for prisoners and prison officers.
Since May 2010, 18 prisons have closed—some of which, as the Minister accepts, remain unsold, at substantial cost to the taxpayer—and one third of prison officers’ jobs have been cut. That has led to what the chief inspector of prisons has described as a “political and policy failure” resulting in increased overcrowding, violence and suicides. The highly regarded chief inspector was doing his job of telling the truth about the Government’s prison crisis, but he was effectively sacked by the Justice Secretary.
If we are to rehabilitate offenders effectively, we need prisons that work and chief inspectors who are able to do their jobs properly, without fear or favour. What does the Minister think the chief inspector meant by “political and policy failure”, and will he confirm that non-sycophants can apply for the vacancy created by his departure?
I have a very good relationship with the chief inspector, whom I meet regularly.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what a real prison crisis looks like. A real prison crisis happens when 80,000 prisoners are let out early—many of whom, including terrorists, go on to commit further offences—and when it is necessary to spend £75 million on locking up prisoners in police cells.
Freedom of Information Act
The coalition Government are committed to increasing the accountability of private companies that deliver public services, including through freedom of information. As the Justice Committee recommended during its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act, the best way in which to achieve that is to include transparency provisions in contracts. I am working to ensure that a revised code of practice and revised guidance are in place by the end of the current Parliament in March.
Transparency is at the core of the Government’s agenda, especially in the context of health. May I urge them to act more quickly, so that commercial confidentiality can no longer be used as a blanket term to obscure information to which the public should be entitled, and which would be available in the case of an equivalent public provider?
I am at one with my hon. Friend. Contracts between the Government, Government agencies or local councils and the private sector for the delivery of services on behalf of the public ought to meet at least the same standard of transparency as the Freedom of Information Act applies to contracts with public sector organisations. That is what the guidance and the new rules will say. Companies should do better than that if they can, but the public are certainly entitled to a similar amount of information. It is 10 years since we introduced the Act. We have extended it in this Parliament, and will extend it further before the end of the Parliament.
I agree with what the Minister has said about transparency, but should not the same level of transparency apply to lobbying companies which represent wealthy corporate clients, and which are trying to procure public sector contracts on behalf of those clients?
The rules about lobbying do not fall into the same category. They are dealt with by legislation, and the hon. Gentleman has been present for debates on it. We have legislated in relation to lobbying companies; the question relates to contracts for the provision of public services, and the need—about which I hope the hon. Gentleman and I agree—to ensure that the public know exactly what is going on. As a Liberal Democrat, I hope that we can extend the rules to other public companies and to private companies that are effectively public sector monopolies, such as the water companies, which are not currently covered by freedom of information.
The Government have never dissented from the principle advanced by the Justice Committee that information that would be available under freedom of information in the public sector should remain so when a service is outsourced to the private sector. While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s efforts in this direction, is he looking back at some of the older contracts to see whether that principle has been applied?
The answer is yes. My right hon. Friend and his Committee have been very clear as to the right way forward. We agree with them. There has been good practice and bad practice. The intention of the new guidance and the new code of practice is that we should monitor the situation carefully, and where bad practice follows, that should be made public so that we can name and shame those who do not deliver at least the standard that freedom of information legislation requires.
I am a bit confused. We have had one Minister answering questions on behalf of the Conservatives and now another Minister answering on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to answer this on behalf of the Government: have the Government looked at what the Public Accounts Committee said about the heavy reliance on a very small number of private sector contractors in justice, in health and anywhere they have been privatising our public services? Can we have more scrutiny? Can we have more information about who gets these contracts and how?
On behalf of both parties in the coalition, the answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes, we want maximum scrutiny of all those who have contracts with the public sector, and of at least as good a standard as legislation imposes on public sector authorities. The question of who gets the contracts—the PAC question—is a different question for different Ministers on a different day, but with the same commitment to openness on behalf of both parties in the coalition.
But does the Minister, who after all used to be a Liberal, agree that what he is proposing simply does not give the same rights to the public as they would have had with a public body under freedom of information legislation, and that the community rehabilitation companies this Government have set up, with the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money that is being given to them, should be subject to FOI in exactly the same terms as a public corporation, so that we can see not only how they are spending that money, but their links with others in the justice sector?
The community rehabilitation companies are part of a programme to do what the hon. Lady’s Government never did, which is to ensure that those who are in prison for a year or less come out and have support in a way that will reduce reoffending. The answer on accountability is, yes, they will be as accountable and transparent—
Crime Reduction (Ex-prisoners)
10. What steps he is taking to reduce reoffending. (906643)
Despite investment, reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. We are fundamentally reforming rehabilitation services by opening up the market to new providers and incentivising them to focus relentlessly on reducing reoffending. For the first time in recent history virtually every offender released from custody will receive statutory supervision and rehabilitation and mentoring in the community. We remain on track to deliver these key reforms early in the new year.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Notwithstanding the fact that I hope he would agree with my constituents that there are cases where offenders should remain in prison for considerably longer, what assessments has he made of the effect of extending supervision to the group of offenders who leave prison having served less than 12 months?
As was said earlier, this is the key part of the reform we are pushing through. There was a group of people who were literally left to walk the streets with £46 in their pockets, and not surprisingly the majority of them reoffended very quickly. From 2015 all those people will receive a 12-month period of mentoring, support and supervision after prison to try to turn their lives around, and we know from trials in different parts of the country that this can make a real difference to the level of reoffending.
Probation works best when the service has close relationships with prisons, councils and others, but under the Justice Secretary’s reforms is there not the real risk that police intelligence will not be shared with the new companies? Not only will that put at risk the tackling of reoffending, but it also runs the risk of jeopardising public safety.
The reason that that is simply not true is that, under the last Labour Government, we had examples of police control rooms being contracted out to private organisations. If the police are happy to share control room data with private organisations, there is no earthly reason to believe that they will not work together with providers of all backgrounds on the rehabilitation of offenders.
One in seven offences are committed by foreigners, and many of those foreigners are ex-convicts from foreign countries. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that only people with good records can come into our country?
Of course, this is predominantly a matter for the Home Office, but I can say that we are working closely with the Home Office. I stand second to no one in desiring to see foreign national offenders moved out of this country. I hope very much that the European prisoner transfer agreement, as it comes on stream and is completed by 2016, will make a real difference to ensuring that offenders in prisons in this country are able to be returned to their home country as quickly as possible.
23. Given the amount of upheaval in probation caused by the Government’s reckless privatisation, I echo colleagues in saying that we need a strong, independent chief inspector in order to reduce reoffending by ex-prisoners. How can the current postholder possibly fulfil his duties, given his links to winning bidders? Why did the Justice Secretary appoint him, given that these links were known to him at the time? (906657)
Let us be clear: I regard the current chief inspector as a man of great integrity and great skill, who has been doing a very good job for the past few months. He was selected on merit by my Department and his appointment was approved by the Justice Committee. The fact that an issue has now arisen with the very recent appointment of a member of his family to a senior position in one of the providers clearly has to be addressed. It will be addressed sensitively and I will report to the House when it is appropriate to do so.
The deportation process should mean that these people are not entitled to re-enter the UK. Of course, the increased sharing of data between European police forces is one way of ensuring that we know who they are before they try to enter the country and that they do not return. My hon. Friend and I share the same ambition of ensuring that people who have committed terrible crimes in other countries simply cannot come to live here.
The Lord Chancellor is correct in describing the chief inspector of probation as a man of great integrity, because his report yesterday contradicts somewhat the description of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme that the Lord Chancellor has just provided us with, even though the chief inspector’s wife runs half the service now. The chief inspector said that splitting the probation service in two has caused problems with process, communication and information sharing—I am not being funny, but some of us have been saying that for quite some time. Is it not now about time the Lord Chancellor woke up to the reality of his risky, shambolic privatisation?
I do wish the hon. Lady would get her facts right. She just said that the chief inspector’s wife is running half the service at the moment, but of course that is not true. The service remains, as of today, entirely within the public sector, and she might get her basic facts right. Had she read that report, she would have seen that the chief inspector identified a number of long-term systemic problems that predate any change we have put in place and were ensuring underperformance. He said that it was necessary to move to a steady state—in other words, to complete the reforms and get things bedded in for the long term—as quickly as possible.
Judicial review plays a crucial constitutional role as an essential component of the rule of law. When used properly, it allows public authorities to be held to account. But it can be misused, with unmeritorious challenges brought simply to cause delay. The Government’s package of reform, in particular the clauses in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, will limit the potential for abuse without undermining judicial review’s vital role.
I am grateful for that, but the Secretary of State’s proposals to reform judicial review have been condemned by, among others, the senior judiciary, leading civil liberties organisations and charities, and they have now been forcefully rejected by wide cross-party majorities twice in the other place. Will he now admit defeat, see sense and withdraw these unnecessary proposals?
Let me refer the hon. Gentleman to a wise comment about judicial review:
“Removing the constant use of judicial review, which frankly has become a lawyers' charter, will not remove the basic freedom to apply due process of law.”
“Oh dear!”, says the new shadow Solicitor-General. That quote came from the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), the former Labour Home Secretary. The reality is that we are pushing forward a sensible package of reforms, most of which have been approved in the other place. There are only two items left to be passed through.
There is clearly a balance to strike between trivial judicial reviews and defending the rule of law. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Pannick amendment, 102B, helps to strike a good balance between those two? Will he think carefully about whether he can recommend that we agree with the compromise suggested by that amendment?
I am giving careful consideration to that matter in the wake of the Lords debate. In the new year, I intend to return to the House with further thoughts on how we take matters forward. As my hon. Friend will understand, I will not set out those plans until I have carefully considered with my colleagues what we are going to do.
How does the Secretary of State intend to respond to what the Daily Mail calls his latest humiliation yesterday at the hands of the Master of the Rolls and the Court of Appeal? Having lost seven judicial reviews, does he now think it is time that he as Lord Chancellor stops acting unlawfully? In January, he will have a third chance to abandon his attempt at muzzling judicial review following two defeats in the other place. But will he tell us now—he does not need to wait until then—whether he intends to protect the rule of law or carry on getting confused by his own legislation and behaving like some tin-pot dictator?
May I start by extending my commiserations to the hon. Gentleman? It was widely expected on the Government Benches that he would become the shadow Attorney-General. He did not manage that, and we all express our disappointment about that and extend our commiserations to him. By retaining him on the shadow Front Bench, we will continue to enjoy in these sessions on a monthly basis the usual load of nonsense that he so often comes up with.
Recent figures show that the number of judicial review applications lodged between 2000 and 2013 increased threefold, and many of them related to immigration and asylum cases. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that the judicial review process is used appropriately?
I absolutely do. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) talks about the views of the judiciary, but it was one of the immigration judges who said, 18 months ago, that judicial review was being abused for those cases. Opposition Members must understand that they themselves in Government said that the system needed to change. We are changing it in a measured and sensible way that will make a difference without compromising its principles. That is the right way to approach this matter.
Private Sector Contracts
A contract management improvement programme has been running at the Ministry of Justice since early 2014 in order to implement and embed best practices in contract management. As part of that programme, we have established new governance committees, strengthened our assurance of major contracts, clarified roles and responsibilities and improved the skills of our people. We have also renegotiated or retendered a number of our significant contracts to improve value for money from our private sector contractors.
Does the Secretary of State really think that guaranteeing a decade of profits to private companies as compensation when a probation contract is cancelled represents value for money? It is unprecedented and a scandal. What will he do to reverse that typical Tory rip-off?
For public accounting purposes, many of the charities and new social enterprises that are coming into being to help with managing ex-offenders will be considered to be private contractors. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House how he will measure the performance of these charities and social enterprises so that we can demonstrate that it is possible to have payment by results and to get better support for ex-offenders?
The mechanism for monitoring the performance of all our providers in the private, voluntary and social sectors is very simple: are they successful in bringing down reoffending? This is not a payment by results programme as ambitious as the Work programme because we have to fulfil the orders of the court over which there is no discretion. But they still represent good value for the taxpayer as they ensure that we pay when we get results. That is the way that Government should operate.
If the Government want to improve value for money, they should start by scrapping the £85 million contract for a secure college, which is a flawed proposal that has twice been rejected by the other place. Given the universal opposition, how close we are to the general election and the fact that the project is facing difficulties obtaining planning permission, will the Secretary of State agree that the contract should not be signed before 7 May so that we can avoid saddling the taxpayer with a huge bill for this untried, untested and unworkable project?
I am baffled by the attitude of the Labour party. The secure college will take troubled 16-year-olds out of prisons with iron bars and put them into a modern, supportive environment that is focused on education. My view is that we are much more likely to turn a troubled 16-year-old into an untroubled 16-year-old in a nurturing and supportive environment than we are by leaving them behind iron bars. I am astonished that the Labour party does not understand that.
Claims Management Companies
A number of reforms have been made or are being made, including a new set of toughened rules to crack down on abuses, a new power to impose financial penalties on CMCs from later this month and extending the legal ombudsman’s remit to consumer complaints against CMCs from January 2015.
Among other things, the bad behaviour of CMCs has contributed to car insurance premiums that are not only unacceptable, but unaffordable, particularly for many young people. Many have argued that the regulatory oversight of CMCs is simply too light. Does the Minister agree that, as the British Insurance Brokers Association has suggested, there is a strong argument that if the regulation were overseen by the Financial Conduct Authority, CMCs would have to abide by the FCA’s 11 principles of business, which would provide a more effective way of bringing down car insurance premiums?
It is important that the hon. Gentleman bears it in mind that since 2007, when regulation began, licences of over 1,200 CMCs have been removed across sectors, and others have left the industry after the commencement of enforcement action. We have introduced tough measures. From later this month the regulator will reinforce its enforcement tools with a new power to impose financial penalties of up to 20% of a CMC’s turnover. Next month, from 28 January, we will extend the legal ombudsman’s jurisdiction to deal with complaints from clients dissatisfied with the service provided to them by authorised CMC’s. The legal ombudsman will provide a new avenue of redress for clients of CMC’s and will assist the claims management regulator in driving up poor standards and practices in the market.
Victims of Crime
We published “Our Commitment to Victims” in September, which sets out a broad package of reforms, including a victims law that we will bring forward. Money is not everything, but we have increased the budget to £100 million for victims and victim support.
The whole House knows how much the Justice Secretary detests being held to account for his actions by judicial review, but because of this Government’s actions, 40% of women subjected to domestic violence are denied access to justice as a result of changes to legal aid. Does the Minister agree that a sign of a healthy democracy is groups such as Rights of Women challenging the lawfulness of the Government’s actions? Does he also agree that for so many women suffering domestic abuse to go without access to justice is a national disgrace?
Looking after victims and witnesses is one of the most important things that any Government can do, and I would have thought that there was cross-party agreement on the sort of work we all need to do to ensure that they are looked after. The hon. Gentleman’s question was very detailed, so I will write to him, because that is how we should answer questions when they are that long.
It is important that victims and witnesses have the confidence to go to court and give evidence in a way that they feel comfortable doing. We must amend the way that the court process works, and we must use video much more, particularly with young and vulnerable children. That is the sort of thing we are going to do as we go forward, and I would have thought that that had cross-party support.
Does the Minister agree that before a prisoner is downgraded to being suitable for an open prison, the victim of the crime should be consulted on whether that is appropriate? Can my hon. Friend guarantee that in all cases that will start to happen?
The Government take enforcement of compensation orders very seriously and remain determined to find new ways to ensure that they are paid and that those who do not pay are traced and have to pay.
In the past five years on average only about 42% of compensation orders awarded to victims by the courts have been paid by the perpetrators of those crimes to those victims. Does the Minister think it is right that victims are victims of the crime and then victims because they are not paid compensation by perpetrators? What will he do to improve the situation?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman from the outset. He has written to me on several occasions about particular constituency cases which we have, I believe, resolved. The real problem, which is not new for this Government and has been going on for many years, is that the courts impose a fine or compensation or both and the person does not have the money to pay that. It is important, for instance, that the benefits system works with the courts and with the Ministry of Justice. I would be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman as many times as he wishes so that we can try and get this right.
The coalition Government are clear that reducing reoffending through effective rehabilitation of previous offenders is the most effective way to cut crime and reduce the victims of crime. As the hon. Lady knows, female offenders disproportionately have short sentences. The new reforms will for the first time mean that all those leaving will have targeted support on release. We are reconfiguring the women’s estate so that women spend the bulk of their time, if they are in prison, near where they will be released so that they have the best links with the community.
The Minister will be aware that maintaining good relationships with one’s family while in custody is a particularly important factor in rehabilitation, and for women in particular maintaining relationships with their children. But Women Moving Forward, a group of women offenders in Manchester has told me that a tightening of release on temporary licence provisions is making it more difficult for them to have time with their children. Will the Minister take a look at this situation, which is not just important for reducing reoffending among those women, but is in the interests of their children?
I am completely persuaded by the argument that women need more time with their children. We are expanding the capacity for that in all prisons. I will be up in Greater Manchester next month meeting colleagues and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady in Manchester with colleagues. We are clear that women in prison need to have maximum time with their children, and that children need to be protected as much as possible from the adverse effects of having their mother away from them.
In the previous Session of Parliament, the Justice Committee identified that under this Government the progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Corston report on women prisoners had stalled. What has happened in the past year to address that and to make sure that the different needs of women, particularly in preventing reoffending, are being properly addressed by this Government?
There is a list of steps that the Government are taking. I cannot give them all now because Mr Speaker would not allow me. We have legislated to make sure that women’s interests are specifically provided for in the rehabilitation process. There have to be specific programmes to meet the needs of women. We have made sure that in each of the women’s prisons there will be the capacity for women to have spaces outside the walls on a gradual programme, so that they can be rehabilitated more quickly. I am clear that the needs of women are entirely different from the needs of men in prison, not least because of their family responsibilities, and that is written through—as through a stick of rock—all that we are seeking to do in relation to women in custody. I will give the hon. Lady the full list later.
Mediation (Family Disputes)
The Government are committed to advancing mediation as the best way of reducing the stress on separating couples, alleviating pressures on the court system, and saving money for taxpayers. Last year, seven out of 10 couples who went into mediation had a successful outcome. In the past few months, we have set up a system where the first mediation session is free for both parties if one of the parties is legally aided, and we are already seeing an increased take-up in mediation as a result.
In the summer I made a clear commitment to make sure that the voice of children and young people is always heard, not just in the courts but in mediation too. The advisory group is due to make recommendations about best practice in February next year—in two months’ time. I am clearly of the view that the voice of children and young people must be heard in every single case where there is family breakdown so that their needs are taken into account and not just the needs of the parents.
22. Two cases have recently been referred to me where mediation has been used to review court orders for child custody arrangements. In both cases, one of the parties refused to co-operate and did not turn up to the mediation sessions. Will the Minister consider imposing penalties for such behaviour so that mediation can play a full role in settling such disputes without recourse to expensive legal proceedings? (906655)
I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but the honest answer is no, because mediation requires both parties to agree, and it has to be a voluntary process. When people have a breakdown of a relationship, there is often anger and frustration at the beginning, but if they can get over that, it is far better for them to agree a solution with the other party than to go to court, where they may get something that neither party wants or something that they themselves might not be happy with.
May I start by sending, on behalf of the whole House, the condolences of this Parliament to the people of Pakistan after this morning’s terrible terrorist attack?
I would like to inform the House about the continuing work that we are doing to help victims of rape and sexual violence. I can announce that we have established a fund which, for the very first time, has been created specifically to help male victims of sexual crimes. We have dedicated more than £1 million to provide services to support those male victims, including funding for face-to-face centres as well as creating a national website and online support service. Approximately 75,000 men are victims of sexual assault or attempted assault each year, while 9,000 men are victims of rape or attempted rape, yet fewer than 3,000 offences of male rape or sexual assault were recorded in 2013-14. We want to change this. We hope to encourage male victims to break the silence on a topic still seen as taboo by giving them access to crucial information and emotional support, either in person or online if they find that way more accessible. This Government will continue to put supporting victims of serious and sexual crime at the forefront of their plans.
I spent this morning at Kids Company helping to wrap some of the 20,000 Christmas presents that it will be giving out to children this year. I was told that 80% of the kids who go to Kids Company are involved in some way in criminal activity, but very few of those who spend time there go on to continue that activity. Will the Minister acknowledge that that sort of intervention is far more successful than putting kids in youth custody centres, and so we should be supporting it?
I think we would all pay tribute to the work done by Kids Company. I have been to see its work as well. Like many similar charities around the country, it makes an enormous difference to the support provided for people in the most difficult circumstances. The work that it is doing combines with the work done in our troubled families programme and with the work done in our schools to try to help those who start school behind to catch up before they go on to secondary school. Those are all important parts of the jigsaw puzzle of dealing with the real need to use early intervention to keep people out of the criminal justice system where we can possibly do so.
T3. A development that has the potential to create 4,000 jobs in my constituency is being further delayed by judicial review, despite its being approved at local, ministerial and parliamentary level. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the use of judicial review in such circumstances should be curtailed? (906660)
That is precisely what we are trying to stop. My hon. Friend makes the valid point that those opposed to essential developments in our country are able to use judicial review, on technicalities, to try to prevent them from going ahead or to delay them. It does nobody any favours that that can happen. It uses up huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, it wastes the time of essential projects and project teams, and it must change.
I find the Justice Secretary’s answer interesting, because there is a widely held view that one of the reasons why this Justice Secretary is so hostile to judicial review is that it means the unlawful decisions he makes can be challenged in court. In the past few days, he has been held to have acted unlawfully in relation to his decision to ban the sending of books to prisoners. Does the Justice Secretary accept the decision of the court and, very simply, will he now acknowledge that it was a stupid policy and that he acted unlawfully?
Let us be absolutely clear: I took no decision to ban the sending of books to prisoners. I simply unified across the whole of the prison estate the rule that existed under the previous Government, in almost all of our prisons, not to allow parcels to be sent into prisons. Once again, we hear the hypocrisy of the Opposition.
The right hon. Gentleman briefs his Back Benchers and the right-wing media that he is banning books, but when he has been found to have acted unlawfully he says something very different in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
We know this Justice Secretary is obsessed with repealing the Human Rights Act 1998, walking away from the European Court of Human Rights, making it very difficult to bring a claim for judicial review, and making access to justice almost impossible for people with limited means by ill-thought-through deep cuts to legal aid. When the highly respected, legally qualified and knowledgeable former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), talks about politicians who risk “eroding” Britain’s legal framework for the sake of populism and short-term political gain, who does the Justice Secretary think the former Attorney-General is referring to? Why does he think that a highly respected and knowledgeable colleague has views so different from his own?
T2. We know that sport has a vital role in rehabilitating prisoners, and evidence is mounting that limiting the sporting activities to which violent offenders have access can severely limit their rehabilitation possibilities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this matter, and will he assure me that we will put practical reality over prejudice in getting outcomes? (906659)
I fully appreciate the positive impact that being a member of a sports club can have on release. The National Offender Management Service is keen to discuss options for how it can improve links between England Boxing, in which I know my hon. Friend has a particular interest, so that offenders can benefit once they have left custody. If she has new ideas to share on this matter, I will of course be delighted to meet her.
I can confirm that all MPs who have had their calls listened to have indeed been informed. I can also inform the hon. Gentleman that I have now received an interim report from the chief inspector, which is being made available to Members of Parliament through the Library. The chief inspector’s interim findings are that there is no systemic problem and that the situation has improved substantially since 2012, but he recommends a number of other things we can do to improve the situation still further.
The coalition Government are clearly committed to making sure that we reduce the reoffending and imprisonment of women. As my hon. Friend knows, at the moment I chair an advisory board on female offenders, which is very helpful and successful—indeed, it is meeting this afternoon—in making sure we have a good policy. The introduction of a women’s justice board has been put forward. As it happens, our party, the Liberal Democrats, supports the policy. It is not yet an agreed policy across government, but I am determined that we will do as much as we can with the present structure in the rest of this Parliament, even though we might be able to change it in the next Parliament.
T9. Since the Government introduced employment tribunal fees, there has been a drop of 84% in the number of women who have been able to bring discrimination claims. Does the Minister accept that, because of the up-front fees of £1,200, many women are being denied justice under his Government? (906667)
The situation is a lot more complex than the hon. Lady makes out. First and foremost, anyone who does not meet the financial criteria has a waiver and can go to court. Secondly, there have been a lot of pre-determinations by ACAS. Employment is going up and there are fewer applications. There are a lot of factors and she does herself no credit by simplifying matters.
T5. Following the introduction of my private Member’s Bill, which calls for a tougher stance on repeat driving offences, will the Minister confirm that those matters are being reviewed fully, and will he clarify when the Government will respond to the review? (906662)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in that area. As a former Transport Minister, I have looked at this issue for many years. I will continue to look at the review and we will come forward with proposals. We are determined that whatever proposals come forward will be fit for purpose. His work will be very helpful.
The international child abduction charity, Reunite, reports that the wrongful overseas retention of children is up by 30% so far this year. We need urgent action to implement the welcome recent recommendation from the Law Commission that wrongful retention should be made a criminal offence. Will the Minister say when the Government will respond to that recommendation, and can he give a date by which we can expect to see the legislation that is needed?
Kidnap and child abduction can have devastating effects on victims and their families. It is vital that the law reflects the gravity of the offences, and that those who commit them are punished accordingly. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who formed a group in this House to argue for a change in the law. In the past, people could be punished for taking their children out of the country, but not for keeping them illegally out of the country rather than bringing them home. The coalition Government asked the Law Commission to consider the issue. It has reported back and recommended a change to the Child Abduction Act 1984. We are looking at that recommendation actively and I hope that we will be able to make progress in this Parliament.
T6. What steps can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his Department take to ensure that young people do not regard vehicle insurance as an optional extra, as is the case now due to the monopoly and cartel that is operated by the insurance companies? (906663)
While I was a Transport Minister, it was my honour to bring forward the continuous insurance legislation, which made it compulsory for all vehicles that are registered on the road to have insurance. We will continue to look at how we can stamp down on the hard core of people who do not have insurance, because they are a danger not only to themselves, but to others.
Does the Secretary of State agree that sex crimes against children are among the worst crimes on the statute book? Does he also agree that it is time that we had a national institute to look at the prevention of crimes of that nature against children and to help perpetrators—a “what works” foundation of the sort that he kindly supported on early intervention and policing?
First, the hon. Gentleman has a track record of addressing these issues to compare with anyone in the House. I commend him for the work that he has done. I share his view on sex crimes against children. That is one reason why the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill contains a provision to end automatic early release for those who commit such horrendous crimes. He has expressed an interesting thought today. We cannot have too long a conversation about it across the Dispatch Box, but my colleagues and I would be happy to hear his views.
T8. The Minister is aware of my request that the former Keighley magistrates court in Bingley be sold off as soon as possible. The failure to do so is wasting taxpayers’ money and preventing an important town centre building in Bingley from being regenerated and brought into use. There seems to have been a lot of faffing about between the Ministry of Justice and West Yorkshire police. I urge the Minister to get on with it and get the building up for sale to allow this regeneration to take place in Bingley and to save the taxpayer some money. (906665)
The Ministry of Justice has massively upgraded its prediction for the prison population, which could be up to 100,000 by 2020. Does that suggest a total failure by the Government to take seriously the reduction of reoffending, and was privatising the probation service precisely the wrong policy?
The Government are expanding prison capacity, and four house blocks are under construction and will open early next year. We have a new prison in north Wales, and we keep such matters under review. We will always have enough places for those sent to us by the courts, unlike what happened under the previous Government.
My hon. Friend is right to mention that issue, and I think that around 10% of Timpson’s work force are ex-offenders. Other companies such as Greggs do similarly good work, and I have been particularly impressed by the Halfords training academy at Onley prison. There is good work, and we need more companies to carry on in the same way.
In his drive to make savings in his Department, does the Secretary of State think it is time to start listening to legal advice that would save his Department an awful lot of money in lost cases in judicial review proceedings?
The hon. Gentleman talks about saving money, but I have waited in vain to hear how Labour would address the spending challenge. Last week, Labour Members said that they would deliver a spending reduction in this and other Departments year on year, but as of today we have no idea how they would do it.
My right hon. Friend recently visited Purfleet in my constituency where he saw the mile long fly tip that has been left following an unauthorised Traveller encampment. Does he agree it is important that the police and local authorities use the powers at their disposal so that public confidence in our justice system is maintained?
The scale of what happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency is shocking and the local police, local authority, and police and crime commissioner must learn the lessons to ensure that such a thing cannot happen again. If powers need to be taken at national level to help in that battle, the Government will certainly consider how we can contribute.
Two women a week die at the hands of their partner or ex-partner. Let me press the Minister on his earlier remarks. Is it acceptable that 40% of domestic violence victims cannot get access to legal aid?
I simply reiterate that we have tried to drive through the necessary change to meet a financial challenge in the most sensitive way possible. The changes that the hon. Lady describes in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 were considered in detail in this House and the other place. Time again I hear from the Opposition Benches that Labour would do things differently, but although Labour Members have said that they will match our spending plans, they have yet to give any sense of what they would do to save money elsewhere.
As always, I commend my hon. Friend’s persistence on this issue. There are 10,319 foreign national offenders in custody—down from 11,153 in May 2010—and that figure is the lowest for the end of any quarter since March 2006. That is in marked contrast to the Labour Government under whom the number of foreign national offenders doubled.
We are not closing it; we are re-roling it to put in adult male prisoners. I am sure the hon. Lady welcomes, as I do, the reduction in the number of young people in custody. We must take account of that and will use Hindley young offenders institution for adult male prisoners.
Devolution (Implications for England)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Command Paper on the implications of devolution for England, which the Government publish today. The House will recall that on 19 September my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a commission, chaired by Lord Smith of Kelvin, to take forward the commitments to further devolution in Scotland made by all three UK pro-Union parties during the referendum campaign. On 27 November, after the publication of the Smith commission’s report, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced to the House that draft legislation to implement its recommendations would be prepared by 25 January, and presented in a Bill to Parliament following the general election. The Prime Minister also said that a new and fair settlement for Scotland must be accompanied by an equivalent settlement for all parts of the United Kingdom.
This is a fundamental issue of fairness for all the people of the United Kingdom. Just as the people of Scotland will have more power over their affairs, so it follows that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have the opportunity to have a bigger say over theirs. The Wales Bill has completed its final stages in Parliament, and the Secretary of State for Wales is leading a cross-party process to move towards a fair and lasting devolution settlement for Wales. The Northern Ireland Secretary is hosting talks on a number of issues, including reforms to make the devolved institutions work more effectively. Depending on progress, in particular putting the Executive’s finances on a sustainable long-term footing, the Government stand ready to introduce legislation to devolve corporation tax, with a view to seeing it on the statute book during this Parliament.
Today’s Command Paper covers proposals on decentralisation within England and proposals on English votes on English laws. It sets out the position of each of the coalition parties, just as the Command Paper on Scotland did for three parties. We invited the Labour party to submit its own proposals for publication, but it declined to do so. The Secretary of State for Scotland has been able to work on a cross-party basis. The talks held by the Secretary of State for Wales have been on a cross-party basis. It is only on matters concerning England that the leadership of the Opposition are hostile to cross-party talks. However, the contribution to our thinking by leaders of local authorities, including those from the Labour party, has been welcome and constructive.
There has been a significant shift in where power resides in the United Kingdom in recent years. Since 2010, the Government have undertaken the most radical programme of decentralisation within England in a generation. In addition to the significant new powers for local communities, there are now five combined authorities, 15 directly elected local authority mayors, a metro mayor in London, and plans for a metro mayor to be elected for Greater Manchester in 2017. The regional growth fund, growth deals and growing places fund have been made available to all local areas. This summer, the Government set out plans to create a northern powerhouse and consulted on Northern Futures. Taken together with what we are doing on science and transport infrastructure, this Government have the most ambitious and substantial plan for the north of England of any Government in decades.
Both parties of the coalition wish to continue this major progress towards decentralisation of power in England, and their ideas are set out in the Command Paper. In the Command Paper, the Liberal Democrats call for a process of devolution on demand to be delivered through an English devolution-enabling Bill, under which areas would be able to demand powers from Westminster and Whitehall from a menu of options. This would include many powers devolved to the Welsh Assembly, although the exact powers available would be subject to cross-government confirmation, and the UK Government would retain a list of reserved powers. In order to claim powers, a given area would need to demonstrate that it met tests on geography, population, competence, local democratic mandate, a fair electoral system, and a transparent and accountable governance structure.
For our part, the Conservative party wishes in the next Parliament to continue with the empowerment of neighbourhoods and parishes in England, as well as seeing the type of arrangements being created for Greater Manchester agreed elsewhere. This includes a large further increase in neighbourhood planning, greater local accountability and use of direct democracy, such as local referendums on local issues. In addition, Conservatives want to work with local enterprise partnerships and councils to promote jobs and growth, to help local authorities join up different public services, and to work with local business to support jobs and improve quality of life locally. We strongly believe that localism must not be a way of imposing new taxation. We believe that the Westminster Parliament is and should remain the English law-making body.
Decentralisation within England cannot on its own create fairness for England as a whole on policies decided at the UK level but which apply only in England. On the crucial question of the implications for England of devolution in the rest of the UK, fairness for all the people of the UK now requires this issue to be addressed decisively.
Devolution to other parts of the United Kingdom has created the situation in which MPs representing constituencies outside England may vote on legislation that does not affect their constituents, while English MPs are not able to influence these policies in other nations where they are devolved. Both coalition parties believe that this so-called West Lothian question needs to be addressed and have put forward their proposals in the Command Paper.
The Liberal Democrat party believes—[Interruption.]
At least the Liberal Democrat proposals are set out in the Command Paper, unlike any proposals from the Labour party.
The Liberal Democrat party believes that English MPs at Westminster should have a stronger voice and a veto over English-only issues. Their preferred method of addressing this would be for there to be votes for Westminster elections using the single transferable vote system. However, accepting that there is currently no cross-party consensus on this—which is certainly true—they instead propose that the composition of those serving on any new stage, such as a Grand Committee of English MPs, should reflect the votes of the electorate in England. The Liberal Democrats also believe that measures that unambiguously affect England only and are not devolved below the Westminster level should be subject to a new parliamentary stage before Third Reading or equivalent, composed of MPs proportionately representing the votes cast in England to allow them to scrutinise proposals and to employ a veto if they so wish.
The Conservative party believes that equalised constituency sizes remains necessary to fairness for all voters. We set out three options in the Command Paper for resolving the West Lothian question. All of them represent a stronger and more binding version of English votes for English laws than the work of the McKay commission, but all rest on the guiding principle set out by McKay, that
“decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England (or for England-and-Wales) should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England (or England-and-Wales).”
The first option, which was put forward by Lord Norton of Louth in 2000, is to reform consideration of Bills at all stages. All stages of legislation relating only to England, or only to England and Wales, would be determined by MPs from England or from England and Wales. The key advantage of this proposal is its simplicity and the absence of any need for any new stages in the legislative process.
The second option is to reform the amending stages of Bills, as proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in 2008. Under this proposal all amending stages of legislation relating only to England, or only to England and Wales, would be determined by MPs from England and Wales. Committees would be in proportion to party strength in those countries. The key advantage of this proposal is that it allows MPs from England, or from England and Wales, to have the decisive say over the content of legislation while not excluding other MPs from other stages and not introducing any new stages to the legislative process.
The third and final option is to introduce a reformed Committee stage and legislative consent motion, providing an effective veto. Under this option, the Committee stage of legislation relating only to England, or only to England and Wales, would be considered only by MPs from those parts of the United Kingdom. Report stage would be taken as normal by all MPs. An English Grand Committee would then vote after Report, but prior to Third Reading, on a legislative consent motion. English, or English and Welsh, MPs would therefore be able to grant their consent or veto a Bill, or relevant parts of it. Such decisions would have the same status as those of the Scottish Parliament on devolved matters. The key advantage of this proposal is that it would give English, or English and Welsh, MPs a crucial say over the content of legislation and a secure veto over its passing while not excluding other MPs from its consideration in the full House of Commons.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats invite comment and views on all the options in the Command Paper—[Interruption.] We await the views of the Opposition. For hundreds of years, the constitutional arrangements of the UK have evolved successfully through taking account of the needs in each century and decade for the giving or withholding of consent. The pursuit of devolution in recent years has been based on the importance of establishing the consent of parts of the UK for the policies particular to them. The next stage of our constitutional evolution must involve that principle of consent being applied to all parts of the UK.
Whichever option is ultimately decided upon must be clear, decisive and effective in producing fairness for the whole United Kingdom. The Government encourage debate so that this matter can be fully considered and resolved for the long-term strength of the United Kingdom. It is an issue that too many people have avoided for too long, and that can no longer be put aside.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. September’s referendum was momentous because of its fantastic turnout and the decisive way in which the Scottish people voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and also because of the way in which it unleashed a devolutionary vigour up and down the country. We are a party with an unequalled record on devolution, and this is a debate that Labour embraces and seeks to lead. We welcome Westminster further releasing its grip on the levers that run this country. I hope that, despite the Prime Minister’s 7 am jitters on the morning after the referendum, Members on both sides of the House will welcome the fact that, through the Smith commission, we are delivering on the vow to the Scottish people.
This is only the beginning of the change we need to make to the way the country is run. In England, cities and towns are demanding a greater say in the running of their affairs. Labour has responded to those demands and made a commitment to introducing an English devolution Act in our first Queen’s Speech. This will devolve skills, transport and economic development. In Wales, we will take forward the proposals of the Silk commission for further devolution, and place Welsh devolution on the same legal footing as that for Scotland.
It is also right that we should look at how Parliament works, as more power is shifted away from Westminster. We need a democratically elected senate of the nations and regions to replace the House of Lords. And, yes, we need to consider the ways in which English MPs—or English and Welsh MPs—can have a greater say on legislation that affects only England, or England and Wales.
But what we must not do, only months after the Scottish people voted to keep our kingdom united, is allow the division of our country by the back door. Nothing we do should jeopardise the future of the Union. Last year, the Government commission led by Sir William McKay looked at that very issue. Its report included the option of a change in the way legislation is dealt with at Westminster. It would involve a Committee stage made up only of English MPs, who would scrutinise and amend legislation that applied only to England. We should consider Sir William’s approach to an English— or English and Welsh—Committee stage, because it is right that English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, should have a key role in considering such legislation. We will study the Command Paper published today by the Government, but our criterion would be not what is in the interest of the Conservative party but what is in the interest of our country. Uniting our country is more important than uniting the Tory party. Ultimately, the way in which we bring about constitutional reform has to change. The old “Westminster knows best” approach will not wash any more.
Labour, like the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and others, is prepared to put aside tribalism and put its faith in a constitutional convention to determine a bold, new way of delivering political reform. The convention will not just be made up of elected representatives; it will give members of the public the loudest voice. That would encourage the debate that the Leader of the House talked about in his statement. The convention should consider the McKay commission approach of an English Committee stage. We hope that the Conservative party will also support the constitutional convention approach, helping us to achieve the cross-party consensus that the convention idea deserves.
On the back of the statement I have a number of questions for the Leader of the House. Does he genuinely believe that politicians cooking up deals behind closed doors is still the best way to go about long-lasting constitutional reform? Does he agree that for reform to be successful there needs to be consensus? Therefore, what are his specific objections to a people-led constitutional convention? We are all agreed that change is needed when it comes to laws applying only to England, or to England and Wales. But as the Command Paper shows, there are several options available. What are his objections to a constitutional convention deciding on the best option available, rather than partisan politicians? Labour is proposing to devolve more than £30 billion to the cities and counties of England. Do the Government support that? If the Conservative party cares about a stronger democratic voice for England, why is it so opposed to introducing democracy in the House of Lords? Given that the House of Lords is dominated by politicians from south-east England, do the Government agree that it is time for a democratic second Chamber, drawn from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom?
When it comes to constitutional change, we must consider the unintended consequences of our actions and think through the way changes are interrelated and interdependent. There should be no more backroom stitch-ups.
There is clearly a little bit of common ground, in that across the House we are determined to implement the recommendations of the Smith commission and to meet the commitments made in the Scottish referendum. As many of us have often made clear, that is not conditional on any of these other considerations or deliberations. Certainly that is common ground. The right hon. Gentleman did say that the Command Paper should be studied; that is certainly common ground.
There, perhaps, it comes to an end, because the right hon. Gentleman’s attempt to suggest that the Labour party was embracing and attempting to lead this debate is at the risible end of the scale of parliamentary statements. Saying that Labour has responded to cities and towns demanding greater say over their affairs when, for 13 years, those rights and powers were not given to the cities and towns of England is extraordinary.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about deliberations behind closed doors. The reason we have published options for consultation today is so there can be a wide debate and everybody’s views can be taken into account. But the people who have taken part in the deliberations have included the Labour leaders of many local authorities. I have welcomed into my office to discuss these things the Labour leaders of Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Sheffield and Liverpool. It is not that this process is out of touch with local authority leaders in the country; it is that Labour Front Benchers are out of touch with their own local authority leaders. They have performed the remarkable feat in politics of being out of touch with themselves in this process, with part of their party willing to engage and other parts determined not to, hoping that this will go away.
We have achieved something in terms of the Opposition’s deliberations, in that they have now said that they are open to the idea of Committee stages of Bills being dealt with by English, or English and Welsh, MPs. That is drawn from the McKay commission. But as the right hon. Gentleman knows, McKay presented a range of options, including that. We believe on this side of the House that as further devolution is now taking place to Scotland, it is necessary to have something stronger and more binding than the McKay commission recommended, which is why the addition of legislative consent motions is an idea put forward by both coalition parties.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the upper House. I remind him that legislation could have been enacted in this Parliament to reform the House of Lords, had the Labour party been prepared to help get such legislation through.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about a constitutional convention. The Command Paper sets out the arguments on a constitutional convention and the Government are open to ideas on that—but a constitutional convention cannot be an excuse for delay on what needs doing now in the British constitution. No one is arguing that the Smith commission recommendations should be delayed in order to wait for a constitutional convention. No one is arguing that the work on the Silk commission, and the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, should be delayed for a constitutional convention. Similarly the resolution of the issue on English votes and English laws cannot be delayed for a constitutional convention. That must be resolved and these are the options for resolving it.
England expects English votes for English issues. We expect simplicity and justice now: no ifs, no buts, no committee limitations, no tricks. Give us what we want. We have waited 15 years for this. Will he now join me in speaking for England?
Yes, for the whole of the United Kingdom, I hope, including England. My right hon. Friend has made a strong case for a long time that this issue needs to be resolved, in his view through advocating a particular option. But any of the options presented in this Command Paper would provide a substantial change in our arrangements and an effective veto for English Members over matters that affect only England, which I think is what he means by speaking for England.
First, may I give the Leader of the House a spot of advice? He should not go on too much about the Conservatives’ record on devolution. When he was leader of the Opposition, his policy was to oppose devolution to Scotland and to Wales and a Mayor of London.
On a more consensual note, does he accept that the fundamental problem is that England is so dominant within the Union of the United Kingdom? We have to be very careful about the way in which we proceed. I welcome the endorsement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) of what is in the McKay commission, which provides a way through that is similar to the proposal from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Does the Leader of the House accept that, to some extent, this is a bigger problem in theory than in practice? My recollection of the last 35 years is that, in practice, the Government of the day of the Union have also had a majority of English MPs in this House. Will he therefore, as a contribution to this debate, ensure that there is published a list of legislation that, in the judgment of officials or of himself, would not have gone through this House if it had been endorsed only by English or by English and Welsh MPs?
Yes, it would help everyone to have that analysis. The right hon. Gentleman is right: this should be thought about in a way that respects the fact that England is such a dominant proportion of the UK as a whole. That is why we are not setting out here plans for an English Parliament equivalent to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly. These are various forms of plans to ensure that English consent is signified, or not, to legislation that has a “separate and distinct” effect for England, in the words of the McKay commission. That is an example of treating this sensitively and proportionately and respecting the overall nature of the UK. I will certainly seek to provide to the House the analysis that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the great majority of occasions in the post-war world, there has not been a party difference between an English majority and a UK majority. There might be occasions nevertheless where even such Parliaments produced different results on issues that relate only to England. I will certainly have such an analysis published.
Where there are clearly devolved functions, Scottish and other MPs from devolved parts of the United Kingdom have no justification whatever to vote on exclusively English matters—and the voters get this. I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that this matter is dealt with in the near future by amendment of our Standing Orders as I proposed, and not by legislation—thereby avoiding interference by the courts. Will he do this?
There is a very strong case for these matters to be dealt with by Standing Orders. In the consultation we have had so far, some have made the case for a piece of legislation such as a “Statute of the Union”, but that brings the disadvantage of bringing in judicial considerations. There is a very good case for what my hon. Friend suggests, and when we are ready to advance a single option, I hope it will be possible to debate it here. Indeed, I hope the House will be able to vote on it, having due regard to my hon. Friend’s point.
In the light of the contribution from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), perhaps the Leader of the House as a reasonable man would reaffirm that our constitution does not belong to any individual political party or any individual Government. Secondly, does he accept that the history of constitutional change over recent years has not exactly been one that we would wish to emulate. In view of the alternative vote or the shambles we saw over the House of Lords proposals, would it not be sensible to take a deep breath and address these issues for the long term in a way that I believe the right hon. Gentleman would agree with if we met after 7 May next year in genuine debate outside this House?
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that these matters do not belong to any one party or any one part of the United Kingdom. That is why we brought forward this Command Paper on a cross-party basis. I regret the fact that the Opposition did not want to supply their ideas and proposals to be considered on that cross-party basis. There will be continuing opportunities to do so, however, and we have set out a number of options in order to facilitate debate on them. Let us hear the argument about all the options; then the House can consider them together exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says.
I very much welcome the statement made today and the progress made so far. Does the Leader of the House agree that fairness has to be at the centre—fairness not only to England as a whole, but to English voters—and that the proportional element is of vital significance? Does he also agree that the absence of any proposals from the Labour party makes a proper comparison of these matters very difficult?
It is about fairness, and I think that issue is now strongly felt by people across the United Kingdom, and most intensely in recent months by people in England. The issue must be addressed and visibly addressed; it is dangerous for the UK for it not to be addressed. On the issue of proportionality, of course we have a different view within the coalition. We have discussed electoral reform for many years and had a referendum on it, which produced a very clear outcome. We have a different view within the coalition on that, but the principle of establishing English votes on English laws is one on which we in the coalition can agree.
Does the Leader of the House accept that 23 million people—more than voted Conservative and Labour combined—did not vote at the last election; that 10 weeks ago we came within 400,000 votes of the Union dissolving; and that a right-wing party is now coming in at 15% in current polling? Does he accept that the people are saying, “It’s broken; we ought to fix it”? Does he accept, too, that failure to include a comprehensive English devolution settlement based on the vehicle of independent local government and to substitute it with a minor issue of moving around the green benches of the Titanic on English votes for English laws just does not meet the historic need put to the right hon. Gentleman to do this job of putting forward a Cabinet Committee on devolution—not EVEL. Has he not missed that historic opportunity?
I agree with a good deal of what the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his remarks, and I am grateful to his Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for its input so far and its discussion of all these issues. This is partly about decentralisation and devolution to local government in England. However, I have seen nothing to suggest that that will address the problem here in this House where laws are made with some Members able to vote on things outside their own constituencies and other Members not able to do the same. That is why we have to make sure that, in addition to decentralisation, we address that further issue here as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s statement because of the democratic deficit that exists. I ask Opposition Members to imagine what they would think if we English Members of Parliament were to sit on the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament and vote on their issues. I am sure they would find that equally galling. I caution my right hon. Friend about taking the advice of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). It is no good saying that we should just look at the historical facts, because we cannot anticipate what may come up in the future that would need a veto from English Members of Parliament on English matters.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point. It will always be valuable to look at the historical record, but we cannot forecast the composition of future Parliaments, or indeed the issues they debate. Irrespective of issues and party considerations, we have to try to put in place arrangements that are fair to the whole of the United Kingdom—including England.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I never expected to hear such a load of rubbish from such a normally sensible person? It is inappropriate to call it a dog’s breakfast because any sensible dog would turn up its nose at it! The principle ought to be inviolable that the vote of every Member of this House should be equal on all issues that come before it. I give notice to the leadership of both sides that I shall vote against any other proposal whoever puts it forward, and including a Labour Government. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Well, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) just made the case that it is broke. The right hon. Gentleman may prefer different solutions from mine, but as I say, some of his hon. Friends are advocating that it is broke. The right hon. Gentleman has to understand that there is not an equality between Members of Parliament now because, of course, what we are able to vote on is already different as a result of devolution. That is the point that he is not taking into consideration. We all take due note of his concern and his opposition to any of these proposals, but it will not be possible to suppress and avoid this debate. This issue has to be resolved.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s proposals to rebalance the constitution and to put right an injustice to England. Does he recall that 15 years ago the Procedure Committee unanimously recommended changes to our procedures, since when we have had endless debates here and numerous reports have been published, culminating in McKay 18 months ago. Nothing is being rushed, but with the imminent transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament, is it not now urgent to address this issue in the remainder of this Parliament?
Yes, it is; I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with him. This issue, as he points out, has been discussed for many, many years—from the recommendations of the commission on strengthening Parliament in 2000 and for the last 14 years. Two of the three options we are putting forward have been discussed for many years—from 2000 and then again from 2008—while the other is based on a stronger version of the McKay recommendations. It is now time for us to make decisions about these issues and to do so in the coming months.
I cannot help but wonder whether the once great Conservative and Unionist party understands its own notions of Unionism any more. It certainly does not understand federalism, although it is now drifting towards it and idealising it. Is the Leader of the House seriously saying that he wants to reform the way in which we vote in the House of Commons and leave the House of Lords untouched—or are we going to have English Lords for English laws?
Personally, I have always been in favour of House of Lords reform—radical House of Lords reform—but I believe that linking that issue to this issue of the implications for devolution of England is a recipe for delaying it for a very long time. In fact, I suspect that that is why the Labour party wants to link this issue to reform of the upper House. It is, however, an issue that must be dealt with on its own merits.
At the beginning of his statement, my right hon. Friend said that commitments to further devolution of Scotland had been made by all three pro-Union parties during the referendum campaign. Those commitments were not approved by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. There are many Members on both sides of the House who want a wholesale rather than a piecemeal solution and who want a swift solution, but who also believe that the processes should be concurrent and not consecutive.
I also believe that they should be concurrent. The commitment is to legislation at the beginning of the next Parliament to implement the recommendations of the Smith commission, and it will be a commitment met, I believe, by whoever wins the general election. I hope that then, before then or by then, decisions will be made on the implications of devolution for England, so that the processes will indeed be concurrent.
The Leader of the House will of course know that the Scottish National party does not vote on English-only issues. [Hon. Members: “You did last night.”] We think that that is quite an easy principle to observe, and if the Leader of the House had bothered to pick up the phone, we could have told him how it could be done. Will he assure me that any legislation will not be tied, will not be conditional, will not be in tandem, and will not be concurrent with any consideration of more powers for the Scottish Parliament?
I respect the fact that the Scottish National party does not usually vote on such issues, although I think that it breaks that self-imposed rule now and again. [Laughter.] I was putting it politely. However, there is nothing conditional about any of these proposals. We have made it clear time and again—the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and, I believe, the Leader of the Opposition have made it clear—that the implementation of the Smith commission proposals is not linked to any other constitutional change in any other part of the United Kingdom. Of course we can express the wish, on our part, that we will deal with the issues concurrently, but they are not conditional and not tied.
Any change in the statutory functions of English local government that involved an associated reduction in the local government grant would, of course, have Barnett consequentials, How does the Leader of the House intend to reconcile the understandable view that those would be English-only laws with the continued operation of the Barnett formula?
My hon. Friend is aware of the commitment to the Barnett formula, but he is also aware that as tax-raising powers are devolved to Scotland, that will become less relevant over time. He is right to suggest that the level of local government finance in England has consequential effects on other parts of the United Kingdom, but the distribution of local government finance within England does not have such consequential effects, and a strong case can be made for the distribution of such finance within England to require the consent of English Members of Parliament.
Does the Leader of the House accept that the sense of disillusionment with the over-centralisation of our politics and economy in London and the south-east is as keenly felt in regions such as the south-west of England as it is in Scotland? What the people of cities like mine want is more meaningful control over their own affairs, not some political stitch-up by Westminster politicians which is being rushed in this way by the right hon. Gentleman.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said, apart from the partisan element of it. People do want more control over their own affairs. That is the way of the 21st century, and the Government are delivering it, although there is much more to do. The new general power of competence for local authorities, the devolving of planning functions to neighbourhoods, community rights to bid, local referendums, business rate retention by local authorities, city deals and growth deals are all in operation now. My Government colleagues and I want those policies to continue, so that there can be a greater degree of truly local control.
I welcome the statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that England is more than a clutch of regions, and that, as such, it is entitled to its own devolution? In respect of the point made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), we are not suggesting the establishment of an English Executive, and that in itself is a restraint on English devolution. Is it not right to give as much autonomy as possible to English MPs to make English laws? I personally think that there is a very strong case for the Norton proposals.
My hon. and learned Friend has himself made a very strong case. He is right to say that England is more than a collection of regions. That is one of many reasons why a federal solution is not available to us in this context, and why it is important for the proper rights of the representatives—the parliamentary representatives —of England to be enhanced.
The Leader of the House referred to the voting powers of Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament, although not, I think, to those of Northern Ireland Members. As more powers are devolved to London and combined authorities in England, will MPs from those areas continue to have full voting rights on all matters, including devolved matters, in the House as well?
As I made clear in my statement, it is certainly the view of the Conservative party that law-making powers should reside here at Westminster, for England. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, they have put forward a different concept that can include the devolution of legislative power within England, but I am not advancing that cause. Laws that relate to England would continue to be made in the House of Commons, and, according to our options, would require the consent of English Members of Parliament.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong to equate the positions of Wales and Scotland? Does he, as a former Secretary of State for Wales himself, acknowledge that a great many people in Wales rely heavily on services that are delivered in England, and that it would be wholly wrong for the representatives of those people to be denied a voice on issues that so clearly concern them?
Some of the options that are presented in the Command Paper provide opportunities to deal with that difficulty. Option 3, for instance, would allow Members of Parliament from the rest of the United Kingdom to continue to vote and speak on all issues, although they would require the consent of the English MPs to legislate on English matters. In respect of a small number of cross-border issues involving a strong structural dependence—health care in Wales is one such instance—there is a strong case for a wide definition of what constitutes an English matter, so that others can be involved.
This issue is not new to the House of Commons. As the Leader of the House will recall, the Conservatives have not won a general election since 1992. I have been hearing this debate ever since 1992, and it has been Conservative policy to use a veto to diminish the influence of Scottish Members of Parliament ever since 1992. However, I am concerned less about the problems that the Tories are having with UKIP and so forth than about the impact that these proposals would have on the Barnett formula. We need to hear a clear denial that they do not provide a back entrance to its destruction. If we take away the right of Scottish Members to vote on issues that determine the Barnett formula, we shall be seeking to destroy it.
Order. The Leader of the House has given very succinct replies, but we must have shorter questions; otherwise, some Members will not be able to ask their questions, and will be disenchanted. That will be perfectly avoidable if Members show a bit of consideration for each other.
I will give even shorter answers, Mr Speaker. What we are talking about is not some veto over Scotland, but a potential veto over what is decided in England by English Members of Parliament. I hope that the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Mr Hood) will bear that in mind.
There is nothing about the Barnett formula in these proposals. That is a separate consideration. The commitment to the formula was made clear during the referendum campaign, and nothing in these proposals changes that debate and that commitment.
Does my right hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that those who shouted loudest for extra powers in Wales and Scotland are now doing as much as they possibly can to prevent powers of a similar nature from being given to England? As a proud Welshman and a proud Unionist, may I urge him to proceed with these proposals as quickly as possible before the general election, so that the English can be given the voice that they deserve?
Yes, I absolutely agree. I think there is sometimes a desire on some parts of the Opposition Benches to try to suppress debate on this issue and hope that nobody will talk about it over the coming months or years. That will not be a successful approach. People across England now expect this issue to be addressed.
The tragedy is that we are so close to a lasting settlement for England and the Union. We could agree on devolution in England, we could agree on an elected second Chamber, and we could also clearly agree on changes here. Does the Leader of the House not understand that his partisan and highly political desire to rush to an early vote in the Westminster club on just one element puts at risk the constitutional change this country needs?
I do not think it is open to the Labour party to opt out of a cross-party process and accuse the rest of us of being partisan. This is a Command Paper on which two parties have participated. There would have been no harm at all in the Labour party putting its own proposals into this Command Paper, and the reason we have set out a number of proposals is so that there can be a debate, not a rush to a single proposal, and there can be consultation about those proposals. I look forward to the comments on these options from the right hon. Gentleman.
Why has my right hon. Friend rejected the simple and straightforward solution precedented in the Government of Ireland Act, what happened in Stormont and, indeed, in the Scotland Act itself, that if a part of the United Kingdom has less power for its own MPs, those MPs should be reduced in number? Would that not make it possible to ensure a better solution? It also means that the reduced number of Scottish MPs would at least have full voting rights in this House.
There is of course a precedent for that in relation to Northern Ireland in the past. [Hon. Members: “And Scotland.”] My hon. Friend is talking about a reduction below a proportionate representation in this House of Commons, and that has not been done for Scotland, to correct the hon. Members opposite. There is a precedent for that, but I do not think it is the answer to this question. When it comes to decisions about peace or war and major issues of foreign policy or economic policy for the entire United Kingdom, I think it is very important that all parts of the United Kingdom should be able to share equally in that on the basis of equal constituency sizes, which is a matter we will have to return to.
In the north-east of England, the right hon. Gentleman’s statement will sound like Tory votes for Tory laws. Without inviting him to repeat all the generalised superficial remarks contained in the Adonis report, could he say something to the House about regional policy?
Yes, indeed. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, regional policy has been pushed forward very seriously by the whole approach to city deals, local enterprise partnerships and local growth deals, and parts of the north-east are already benefiting from that. Indeed, there are city deals involving Newcastle and Teesside. So there ought to be greater opportunity for that whoever is in government in the coming years. That opportunity, however, does not resolve the issue of law making, which requires us to address issues in this House.
I am very grateful to the Leader of the House for the work he is doing to introduce EVEL—English votes for English laws. Will he ensure that the English can vote as quickly as possible, particularly to protect smaller island and rural areas from city deals and metropolitan areas like Manchester and Birmingham?
It is important that the ability to have greater powers at the local level is available to local authorities of every kind, and that that applies in rural as well as urban areas. Indeed, that is why a lot of our work has taken place at the neighbourhood and parish level. For instance, more than 1,200 parishes have now adopted a local neighbourhood plan with a local referendum, so increased localism and local decision making is available to people across England, and I hope they will make full use of that.
There are times when I have been very proud of this House rising to the great occasion, but today I feel ashamed of the House and the way it is tackling this big issue of a fundamental change in our constitution and in the basis of parliamentary sovereignty. We are inevitably going to be getting rid of the United Kingdom as a concept and a reality, and not one of my constituents has ever been consulted, and nor have the people of this country, through a proper constitutional convention or a referendum.
Discussion of a constitutional convention is in the Command Paper. We have, of course, provided an opportunity for cross-party discussion of all these issues, and I am happy to provide further opportunities. The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the issue, which is why we made every effort to ensure this could be a Command Paper issued by three parties together, with parts of it put together by three political parties. His party opted out of that; perhaps he should advise it to do differently in the future.
The principle of English votes for English laws is unassailable, particularly given now the greater devolution of powers to Scotland, but can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that there is nothing in this Command Paper that will lead to further layers of local or regional government, and that there is nothing in it that will result in extra cost to the taxpayers?
Yes, I think I can reassure my right hon. Friend about that. None of these options involves additional tiers of government and we are very clear in the proposals we are putting forward on local government and decentralisation that this is working with existing authorities, giving them greater power and giving power at the neighbourhood level. So it does not involve adding to the tiers of government, nor is it intended to add to the expense to the taxpayer.
As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, this statement is not about the Barnett formula; it is about our constitutional arrangements. The position on the Barnett formula is well known, and as tax-raising powers are devolved to Scotland, of course the Barnett formula becomes less relevant over time, as is well understood.
After spending decades debating the West Lothian question, it is difficult to see how anyone could argue that this issue is being rushed, so may I urge my right hon. Friend not to pay any heed to those who want to kick this issue into the long grass by setting up another convention to spend years looking into it? My constituents want to see action on this matter now.