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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Devolution of Power (Cities)

1. What steps he is taking to devolve power to Bradford and other cities and large metropolitan areas. (906783)

The Government have agreed a city deal and growth deal with the Leeds city region, of which Bradford is, of course, a part. The result is new transport, housing and regeneration schemes, such as the One City park, which will directly benefit Bradford. The city deal has already ensured more than 600 new apprenticeships, and 69% of 16 and 17-year-olds involved in the devolved youth contract pilot have been supported into education, employment or training. We are also in active negotiations on a devolution deal to give the area more control over key policy levers, and we hope to make an announcement shortly.

First, I wish the Deputy Prime Minister a very happy new year. I very much welcome his comments, but can we avoid having to have a metro mayor in the Yorkshire region? Will he reaffirm his belief that the greater devolution, which is very welcome, should not be at the cost of local people deciding the governance arrangements for the Yorkshire region?

I wish my hon. Friend, and Members on both sides of the House a happy new year. On the governance arrangements, clearly we need improved, strengthened governance when we give an area more power. As he rightly suggested, however, this should be a bottom-up process; there should not be a one-size-fits-all blueprint imposed from above. So it is not the Government’s policy to say that every area that has a new devolution deal has to subscribe to a particular form of new governance, be it metro mayor or otherwise. That needs to be driven by each local area, and I suspect that they will arrive at different proposals, according to their needs.

Twenty-odd years ago, before I came to the House, I was the leader of Bradford city council. At that time, there was great budgetary flexibility and councillors had flexibility as to how they spent the money. That flexibility has now gone. Should we not be looking at merging some of these councils in order to cut the bureaucracy? We should keep the accountability but seek to merge some of the bureaucracy to improve the conditions for West Yorkshire.

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that the more different local authorities can do things together to protect and improve front-line public services, the better. I do not entirely agree with his characterisation of the freedoms that local areas now have to use the moneys available to them. We have actually removed a lot of the ring fences that used to mean that Whitehall micro-managed the way money was spent locally, and we have also provided new borrowing powers. For example, tax increment financing is a major new financial innovation that local authorities can deploy.

I, too, wish the Deputy Prime Minister a happy new year. As he will know, Telford & Wrekin council represents a semi-rural area, yet a back-door deal is currently being done with Wolverhampton city council, which covers an urban area. Does he agree that there should be a full consultation with the people of Telford & Wrekin before any such merger? I represent a semi-rural borough, not an urban area.

As we have discussed on numerous occasions, the devolution process is not just an urban phenomenon. We need to make sure that power flows from Whitehall to all parts of the country, be they suburban, urban or rural. It is for each area to decide, when entering a new growth deal, how much they do so not just for cities or city centres, but for the outlying areas. Again, that is left to local discretion.

It is great to hear that the Deputy Prime Minister wants a bottom-up process for Bradford, but I wonder why he did not extend the same courtesy to the people of Greater Manchester. We now have an imposed mayor, appointed for several years before anyone gets a say at all. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give me a cast-iron guarantee that this imposed, appointed mayor will last no longer than 2017, which was the date mooted when this cosy backroom deal was announced? How long must my constituents be denied a voice?

I suggest that the hon. Lady speak to the leaders of all the councils in the area, including all the Labour leaders, as my understanding is that they advocated this—

Well, it is not my problem if local Labour council leaders have not consulted people locally—they made this decision. As she will know, shortly afterwards, on the other side of the Pennines, we entered into a very ambitious deal devolving new powers to Sheffield, without following the metro mayor model entered into by council leaders in her area.

Political and Constitutional Reform

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that the residents of Birmingham benefit from the Government's political and constitutional reform proposals. (906784)

A happy new year to you Mr Speaker and to colleagues.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have led the negotiations for a city deal and a local growth deal with Birmingham. The city deal has already delivered almost 3,000 apprenticeships in the city and established the Institute of Translational Medicine, which opens in the summer. The growth deal invests a third of a billion pounds in road, rail and metro improvements, including links from the black country to the new HS2 station, as well as investing in skills and industrial facilities.

England cannot succeed through London and the south-east alone. A new devolution settlement is essential. The Minister will know that Birmingham and the west midlands are ambitious to make progress, but does he understand the sense of disappointment that progress thus far has not been what was hoped for and, crucially, that, at the very moment we are talking about greater control over our finances, the Government are cutting in excess of half a billion pounds—the biggest cuts in local government history—from Birmingham city council?

The leader of Birmingham city council warmly welcomed the growth deal and said that it was a great step forward for Birmingham. The city deals have been welcomed by leaders across the political spectrum and across the country as far more ambitious than anything that has been done for decades. Of course every council across the country needs to make savings. I understand from what the Opposition were saying yesterday that they would go further than that. The hon. Gentleman should be clear that Birmingham is on the rise. The economic prospects and the performance of Birmingham have turned around. In the previous Parliament, the number of net private sector jobs contracted; it is now increasing in Birmingham. That is good news.

Order. By the content of his answer, the Minister has opened matters a bit beyond Birmingham and we might even stretch to Wiltshire. I call James Gray.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the political and constitutional reforms that would most benefit the people of Birmingham, as well as the people in North Wiltshire and elsewhere in England, would be the early introduction of English votes on English matters?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we correct an anomaly. That should happen as well as the devolution of power within England, which this Government have been pioneering.

The Political and Constitutional Committee has just issued a report on voter registration. Some 56% of young people in Birmingham are not on the electoral register, and only 44% actually vote. What more can the Deputy Prime Minister do to get those young people on the register in Birmingham and voting?

The hon. Gentleman knows this area; we have debated it before. It is incumbent on all of us to encourage people to vote. Now that we have individual electoral registration, it is easier than ever before for young people to register; they just need to go to the website. Over the next few months, we need to encourage all citizens, especially young people, to exercise that right.

We are talking about devolving power to local people, but money is power. When my constituents find out that the central Government block grant for Birmingham is £640 per person when a combined grant for Leicestershire is £240 per person, the reform they will call for is fairer funding for rural areas.

Right across the country, we take the view that local people can be the best judges of how they spend the money. It should not be decided in Whitehall. Whether the money is spent in rural areas or in cities, we are pioneering a programme of getting money out of Whitehall and into the hands of local people.

The best way to make constitutional change is for it to be led by the people and not by politicians. There is now wide support for a people-led constitutional convention. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister agrees with that. When will the Conservatives join the growing consent for such a convention?

The difference between this Government and the previous one is that we have got on with devolution whereas they just talked about it. The Labour leader of Greater Manchester said that this Government have achieved more in their four years in office than the previous Government did in 13 years, so this should not be kicked into the long grass; we should continue with the programme on which we have embarked.

Local Growth Deals (Lancashire)

3. What discussions he has had with Lancashire local enterprise partnership on the second phase of local growth deals. (906785)

The Lancashire growth deal agreed in July transferred £230 million from central Government to investments in Lancashire. I have met the chairman of the Lancashire local enterprise partnership to underline the importance of encouraging growth in every part of Lancashire in the next round of growth deals, which are being negotiated at the moment.

The second phase of local growth deals proposed by Lancashire local enterprise partnership includes a scheme to regenerate the largest redundant mill complex in the county, Brierfield Mill. That scheme is in my constituency and I have raised and discussed it in detail with the Minister. Although I appreciate that he will be receiving many invitations from colleagues across the House to visit their constituencies, may I encourage him to visit Brierfield Mill at the earliest opportunity to see the exciting plans we have?

My hon. Friend is right that he has raised this with me before and I am keen to see the scheme that he paints in such glowing terms, so if he is free to see me a week on Friday I will come up to his constituency and view the mill. I am confident that it will be as attractive as the picture he paints of it.

Regional Growth Fund

The regional growth fund has already helped create or safeguard more than 100,000 jobs across the country and more still in the supply chain and it is contributing to the 1.75 million more people in work since 2010. I will shortly announce the outcome of round 6 of the regional growth fund, with £200 million available for investment in further job creation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to underpin that work, things such as GREEN at Berkeley—the Gloucestershire renewable energy, engineering and nuclear project—in which the Government have invested to improve training in engineering, energy and renewable energy, are exactly the way to ensure that we have jobs that are lasting, sustainable and productive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we want high-quality jobs to be sustained in the future, we need to invest in skills. That is why the Gloucestershire growth deal will see substantial investment in training in such skills at the former Berkeley power station. I know that he has been a big champion of that.

May I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker, and the Deputy Prime Minister a happyish new year—[Interruption.] A little humour, Mr Speaker. May I push the Minister on regional growth funds? The fact is that none of us will turn down help from the regional growth funds and my own constituency has some, but, at the same time, we have a totally demoralised democratic local government in this country that is desperately short of funds and desperately unable to meet the needs of local people. Is it not about time we had democratic, well-resourced local government in this country?

The news from the shadow Chancellor will not be welcome in the hon. Gentleman’s patch, as the shadow Chancellor has said that there will be more cuts for local government. He might want him to explain that. The leaders of the councils in Leeds warmly welcomed the growth deal concluded in July, which establishes a £1 billion transport fund for west Yorkshire that will benefit the hon. Gentleman’s constituents as well as others across west Yorkshire. That was warmly welcomed by leaders across the region, so I think that he should talk to them.

Surely the best way to achieve regional growth and to help areas such as the north of England is for good neighbours in Scotland to have full fiscal autonomy to counterbalance what the Minister’s colleague from Twickenham, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, called the great suction machine pulling life from the economy of other parts of these islands. Why is it Government policy to maintain a system that protects London at the expense of other areas?

That is complete nonsense. The record of job creation over the course of this Parliament shows that the vast majority of jobs have been created outside London. One thing we negotiated was a city deal with the city of Glasgow that was well received in that great city.

Local Growth Deals

Funding for the local growth deals begins in April this year, but strong progress is being made in implementing the deals even in advance of this. In Gloucestershire the growth hub, which gives advice and support to small businesses, opened at the university of Gloucestershire in October and is already being well used by local businesses.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the university of Gloucestershire’s growth hub in the city of Gloucester is making real progress already. May I invite my right hon. Friend to visit it and, while he is there, to take the opportunity to see our exciting plans for the regeneration of Blackfriars in the city centre, which are a key feature of our LEP’s next bid?

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) was right to predict a spate of invitations. Of course I will come and visit the new growth hub in Gloucester in the company of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham).

14. I thank the Minister for the Medway growth deal, which is providing over £30 million to the local area. At the heart of the growth is the development of skilled people. Will he join me in welcoming South East LEP’s new skills capital fund, which is using £22 million for the further education sector to help provide the skills our businesses need to grow? (906796)

I will indeed. The Medway towns have benefited substantially from the growth deal, which is investing in the skills that are required if the jobs of the future are to be well paid and offer the satisfying careers that people want locally.

I welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister to Wiltshire last month for the formal signing of the Wiltshire and Swindon local growth deal. Funding in that deal for the redevelopment of Chippenham railway station could also be of great benefit to Corsham if it enabled the reopening of a platform for local train services. Does the Minister recognise that the benefit would be much wider than to Chippenham alone?

The benefits of growth deals go beyond their particular location and help improve the economic prospects of the whole area. The hon. Gentleman is fortunate in Wiltshire in having the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), as an important advocate for such schemes. The important point is that they are bottom-up and they are proposed by local people.

Devolution of Power (Cities)

Cities and their surrounding counties and districts prosper together, which is why I am delighted that the Plymouth city deal, signed last year, also includes businesses and councils in Devon and Cornwall. By opening up South Yard in Devonport to create a commercial marine engineering centre, high-quality jobs will be created not only in Plymouth, but across the south-west.

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming down to Plymouth to sign our city deal this time last year. Plans for a maritime industrial campus are at a good stage, and we would very much welcome his coming down to have a look at them. To give an extra boost to that city deal proposal, I urge him also to speak with the Treasury about ensuring that we have an enterprise zone in that part of the dockyard.

I am keen to see South Yard be a success—I am certain that it will be. Many of the advantages of an enterprise zone are already available to councils, through simplified planning rules and discounts on business rates, but I will of course study my hon. Friend’s proposal in detail.

It is quite obvious how to devolve more powers to large metropolitan areas, but how do we deal with towns, such as Telford, that sit outside large metropolitan areas? Would it not be better to throw the issues about broader devolution right across England into a constitutional convention?

It would not, because that would delay the progress we have made. With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world, if we go to local people and ask them to work together with their neighbours, right across the country we are seeing that they are able and willing to do precisely that. All the deals that have been struck have been proposed locally and are having a big impact on local economies, including in Telford.

Given that the voters of Bury, when asked in a referendum, made it quite clear that they were against the idea of having an elected mayor, and given that across Greater Manchester’s 10 local authorities there are already 645 elected councillors, if 645 elected councillors cannot solve the problems of Greater Manchester, what makes my right hon. Friend think that 646 elected officials will make any difference?

The proposal was agreed unanimously by all the councils in Greater Manchester. It is important to be clear that the mayor is taking powers that were previously exercised from Whitehall, so this is not about taking powers away from any of those authorities; it is about transferring to a successful city—that is what Greater Manchester indubitably is—the ability to advance its prospects even further.

Electoral Roll

Research by the Electoral Commission on the completeness and accuracy of the register shows that the decline in registration levels between 2000 and 2010 has stabilised since 2011. The Government take seriously the need to have a complete and accurate register, are making electoral registration more accessible through online registration and have invested £4.2 million, shared between every local authority and five national organisations, to get those in harder-to-reach groups on the register.

Can the Minister tell the House how many fewer voters there were on the electoral register for England and Wales in December 2014, compared with the previous year, and whether he is alarmed at the reduction?

The full December register has not been published yet so it is impossible to tell the state of the register as at December. As the hon. Gentleman knows, individual electoral registration is a two-year project. We are mid-way through it and it is proving very successful. Nine out of 10 electors were transferred to the electoral register, and online registration is proving very successful. [Official Report, 21 January 2015, Vol. 591, c. 1-2MC.]

Many thousands of east Europeans have chosen to come to live and work in this country. The register published in my constituency shows some 3,000 east Europeans who are not qualified to vote, yet some 4,000 people with similar names are shown as eligible to vote in the general election. Will my hon. Friend order an urgent review of this to make sure that only those who are eligible to vote can do so at the election?

Individual electoral registration is about the completeness and accuracy of the register so that only those who are eligible to vote are on the register. If there is a specific problem in my hon. Friend’s local authority and local area and if he writes to me about it, I will look into it.

Even before the move to individual electoral registration, 7.5 million eligible voters were not on the register. As a result of the move, there is a risk of a further 5 million people falling off the register. Many accuse the Electoral Commission of being ineffective. Remarkably, the Electoral Commission has said that as long as the electoral register does not deteriorate further, this is a measure of success. Does the Minister agree that the Electoral Commission has not been ambitious enough?

I cannot speak for the Electoral Commission, but as the right hon. Gentleman knows, individual electoral registration is the biggest modernisation of our electoral system for more than 100 years. He also knows that nobody who was on the register in January 2014 will not be on the register come the 2015 election, so there is no risk there. Finally, the £4.2 million that the Government have invested in ensuring that we reach under-represented groups is well targeted. Authorities that have more under-represented groups received more money. We have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland, which went through the same process, and have safeguarded the existing system.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives—[Laughter.] I do not understand the hilarity. Within Government I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister says that he supports the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy; I should think that as the Deputy Prime Minister he supports the Prime Minister on the whole range of Government policy. The Government have been incredibly complacent about the role of individual voter registration. I have over 10,000 students in my constituency, many thousands of whom are not registered. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about that? How is he going to spend the £10 million emergency fund? Is it not a recognition that this is a huge problem across the country and should be dealt with?

The new system is supported on all sides of the House. It was originally planned by the previous Government to move to a system of individual voter registration, so that we move beyond the paternalism which assumed that the head of a household would always register the people in that household. The new system gives everybody the individual right to decide for themselves how and when they want to be registered. As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), just explained, we are providing resources and are considering providing more resources to local authorities in those areas where certain groups are at present under-registered.

T5. Across the world hundreds of thousands of Christians are being perniciously persecuted for their faith, beaten with nail-studded wooden clubs in Sri Lanka, abducted and killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon, burned to death, forcibly married and on death row in Pakistan, and children are chopped in half or sold into slavery by IS in Iraq. We know of this in this House, and of much more. What are the Government doing about it? Is it not time for this country to appoint a global ambassador for religious freedom? (906812)

I am sure everybody is shocked not only by the news but by the litany of abuse, persecution and violence that is inflicted on Christians and all religious denominations that are persecuted minorities around the world. The Government, through bilateral engagement and working with partners in international organisations, funding projects, and providing religious literacy training for Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, do a lot to counter this. There is also, as the hon. Lady will know, an active advisory group on international freedom of religion or belief, which we strongly support. The question whether we should go further—of course, we should always keep an open mind on this—and create an envoy or an ambassador on religious freedom is not quite as straightforward as she implies. Other countries that have taken that step have found that those ambassadors and envoys are excluded from visiting certain countries. That is why the best course of action at present is for each of the Foreign Office Ministers to retain the responsibility for promoting freedom of religion and belief in the areas of the world which they cover.

Yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was the Liberal Democrats who put the heart into this Tory-led Government. Can he tell us where is the heart in the bedroom tax, where is the heart in making low-income people worse off, and where is the heart in giving tax cuts to millionaires while more people go to food banks? If there is a heart in this Government, it is a heart of stone.

At the election, there were 600,000 more people in relative poverty than there are now. There were 300,000 more children in relative poverty, 200,000 more pensioners in relative—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not what to hear this, but the right hon. and learned Lady seems to think that we lived in a world of milk and honey before 2010 and that all the problems in the world were created by this coalition Government. Manufacturing declined three times faster under her party’s Government than it did under Margaret Thatcher. Inequality is now lower than at any point since 1986. We are a Government who have sorted out her mess, and done so fairly.

Once again, the Deputy Prime Minister has shown that he will say anything to defend the Government and that he is completely out of touch. The reality is that without the Liberal Democrats, there would be no VAT hike, no trebling of tuition fees and no dismantling of the NHS. No one is fooled by the Lib Dems’ attempts outside this House to distance themselves from the Tories. The public know that this Government have not got a heart, and the right hon. Gentleman is making a mistake if he thinks the public have not got a brain and do not realise this. That is why no one will trust the Lib Dems again.

I will tell you what I think is heartless and incompetent: going on a prawn cocktail charm offensive to the City of London in the run-up to the last election and allowing the banks to get away with blue murder. The banks blew up on the right hon. and learned Lady’s watch because they did not heed our warnings that they were getting up to irresponsible lending practices. I will tell you what is heartless: crashing the British economy and costing every household in this country £3,000. I will tell you what is heartless: giving tax cuts to very, very wealthy folk in the City and making their cleaners pay higher taxes through income tax. Come next April, we will have taken over 3 million people on low pay out of income tax—the majority of them women. That is fair; and it is something we did that she did not.

T14. In his speech yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared to revive the spirit of “The Wizard of Oz” when he claimed that Lib Dems would put heart into the Conservatives and spine into Labour. As Deputy Prime Minister, does he see his role as Dorothy, in a dream world on the yellow brick road, the Wizard, who turns out to be all smoke and mirrors, or the Scarecrow, who needs a brain? (906821)

Order. Whether the question is well prepared or not is not for the Chair to decide; what the Chair does want is to hear the answer.

A well prepared and obviously much rehearsed question. My view, as the hon. Gentleman’s party hares off to the right and the Labour party hares off to the left, is that the majority of the British people want us to stick to the course of fixing the economy but doing so in a spirit of fairness and compassion. That is why my party, unlike the other two, will remain firmly camped on the centre ground.

T2. A high-skill, high-wage economy needs more of our young people going into apprenticeships, so will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how last year 6,000 fewer young people started an apprenticeship than the year before? Is not this simply a Government who have betrayed the promise of Britain’s young people? (906809)

That is an absolutely ludicrous assertion. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has presided over the biggest expansion of apprenticeships in this country since the second world war. We have seen 2 million new apprenticeship starts under this Government—a far, far higher rate of apprenticeship starts than ever occurred under 13 years of the Labour Government.

T15. Despite the fact that London is the powerhouse of the economy and continues to subsidise the rest of the United Kingdom, there are still pockets of deprivation. What powers will my right hon. Friend propose be devolved to the Mayor of London and to London’s local authorities to combat those areas of deprivation? (906822)

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the growth deal for London had a particular focus on giving greater flexibility and freedom to decision makers in London to address the skills gaps not only in the economy as a whole but in London in particular. As he rightly alluded to, there are of course pockets of real deprivation in our capital city, but there are also pockets of folk, both young and old, who simply do not have the skills needed to get themselves back into the labour market.

T4. From Lincolnshire to London, chief constables are expressing mounting concern over the Government’s proposed cuts to policing leading to neighbourhood policing being hollowed out, response times getting longer, victims being let down and, crucially, public safety being put at risk. Are they right? (906811)

Of course, the police have had to absorb 20% reductions in their budget and it is extraordinary—we should all pay tribute to police forces up and down the country for this—that they have none the less equally presided over a decline in crime rates to historically very low levels indeed. I am extremely confused this morning—[Interruption.] Let me explain, and the confusion will then be on the other side of the House, not on this side. The Labour party has vilified the coalition Government, day in, day out, for taking difficult decisions to balance the books, but I read this morning that it would actually inflict more cuts on local government and would not relieve the public sector pay restraint on millions of people in the public sector. I would be interested to know what Labour’s solution really is. It criticises us for things it now apparently wants to do itself.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to acknowledge that one of the singular successes of the Scottish referendum campaign was the engagement of new first-time voters from the age of 16 and above? Given the imminent general election, will he encourage local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to build on that groundswell of young people’s engagement with politics—I cannot believe, and I am sure my right hon. Friend does not, that what happened in Scotland is not a reflection of the level of potential interest that exists throughout the rest of the UK as well—with a view to building, perhaps in a future Parliament, what Holyrood is likely to do for next year’s Scottish elections and extending the franchise for House of Commons and all levels of parliamentary elections in the future?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope that those who doubt the wisdom of moving towards extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds—there are, of course, some in this House who still doubt it—will look carefully at the experience of the Scottish referendum, which mobilised huge public participation not only across all communities and age groups, but, perhaps most especially, among 16 and 17-year-olds. I think that any doubts anyone might have had about the wisdom of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds should be dispelled by that experience. I, like my right hon. Friend, look forward to a time when we have genuine cross-party consensus about giving all 16 and 17-year-olds across the United Kingdom the right to vote.

T6. This summer, one or two former Ministers may seek gainful employment in the corporate sector. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is effective at ensuring that big corporate interests are not able to buy inside influence improperly? (906813)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the point of the advisory council is precisely to ensure that improper influence is not secured by the employment of those who have recently held ministerial office. Of course, the rigour with which the advisory council operates should always be kept under review, and if the hon. Gentleman has suggestions about how we can make it more rigorous I am very keen to hear from him.

Further to the earlier exchange on Bradford, may I urge the Deputy Prime Minister not to devolve more powers to Bradford council, which has consistently shown that it does not care about Shipley in its district, but only about its central Bradford heartland? My constituents feel that decision making in Bradford is just as distant, if not more so, than decision making in Whitehall. May I urge him instead to allow my constituents in Shipley and Keighley the opportunity of a referendum to decide whether they want to break away from Bradford and form their own unitary authority, which would be the same size as Calderdale council and allow some genuine local decision making?

I do not want to comment on the prospects of Shipley splitism and separatism, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s sense of grievance about where decisions are taken—in Bradford or Shipley—will not dim his enthusiasm for something that this coalition Government have pioneered, which is the devolution of power from Whitehall to all parts of the country. I hope that these local difficulties can be resolved, such that we can devolve more power to all areas of the country.

T7. It has been reported in The Guardian, so it must be true, that the Deputy Prime Minister is spending at least two days a week in his constituency because he fears losing his seat to Labour’s Oliver Coppard. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the role of Deputy Prime Minister is now part time; and if it is, will he give up half his salary? (906814)

It is a novel concept for the hon. Gentleman to seek to criticise me for doing the work that I have done with great pleasure and relish for the past 10 years, which is to be a dutiful constituency MP, as well as a party leader and Deputy Prime Minister. I make no apologies for the fact that week in, week out I attend—as I hope the hon. Gentleman does—to constituency duties as a constituency MP.

May I wish the Deputy Prime Minister a happy new year? I have made a resolution not to be nasty to the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] No, I am not going to break it. He has been very courageous. He has been a courageous leader of the Liberal Democrats. He has socked it to the Labour party at the Dispatch Box today. He is supporting the Prime Minister. He is even sounding like a Tory. Has he thought of joining us?

I could give the hon. Gentleman so many reasons why I would never join him. Without in any way seeking to breach the festive spirit, I would say that he stands as a constant reminder of why I would never join his party.

T8. With people falling off the electoral register—potentially 12 million by the next election—does the Deputy Prime Minister support our plans to trial online voting and to look at holding elections at weekends? (906815)

Of course we should have an ongoing debate about how we can make voting easier, bring it more up to date and make sure that the whole experience of participating in elections is a 21st-century experience and not a 19th-century one. Debates on those kinds of proposals should continue, but they should not be to the exclusion of making sure that we introduce individual voter registration successfully. That is the reason we are making particular efforts, not least by giving substantial support to local authorities in parts of the country with the highest numbers of unregistered voters so that they can go out and get them on the register.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he clarify what he said to me at his last Question Time? He said that the failure to support the Boundary Commission’s changes was linked in some way to House of Lords reform. I have gone back and studied the coalition agreement, and it is quite clear that there was no such linkage whatsoever; it was linked to the alternative vote referendum. Will he put the record straight, and explain why he introduced a measure in 2010 and then voted against it in 2013? Was it purely for party political advantage?

As the right hon. Gentleman will have seen from looking at his well-thumbed copy of the coalition agreement, the section on constitutional and political reform floated a package of measures, including House of Lords reform, boundary reform and party funding reform. Unfortunately, on a number of those crucial items—for instance, on party funding reform and House of Lords reform—his party decided not to see through those reforms. I just think that most people accept that constitutional reform is best done, first, on a cross-party basis and, secondly, not on a piecemeal basis. That is why I think it was right, when it became obvious that there was no longer cross-party consensus in favour of ambitious constitutional reform, that the deal was off.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister accepted over £30,000 in donations from Autofil in Nottinghamshire, which is transferring 160 British jobs to Bulgaria. If those jobs were in Sheffield, would he still be taking the money? (906816)

As I said in response to an earlier question, it is of course for a private company to decide how it makes its own arrangements. I certainly make no apologies for the transparent way in which I and colleagues in my party receive donations—a lot more transparently and a lot less in hock to vested interests than the huge dollops of subsidy that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues receive from the trade unions.

From suicide crisis to life-threatening eating disorders, too many of my constituents with mental health problems find it difficult to get timely help. What can the Government do to ensure, in a supportive way, that the NHS treats mental health as seriously as physical health?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and for a long time one great injustice has been that mental health services have been treated like a sort of Cinderella service in the NHS. We are finally starting to right that wrong by putting mental health on the same legal footing as physical health in the NHS, and next year we will introduce new access and waiting standards for mental health, as have existed for physical health for a long time. I hope that my hon. Friend knows that a few weeks ago I announced a complete overhaul of the way in which eating disorders—particularly those suffered by youngsters—are dealt with, so that that is done more properly than in the past.

T11. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister and his Lib Dem Ministers are rowing back from coalition policies at Olympic speeds, why are they still carrying red ministerial boxes and taking ministerial salaries in a Government whom they are so antagonistic towards? (906818)

First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her honour—I am sure I do so on behalf of the whole House. I hope she will understand a rather simple distinction between our pride in the things that we have done in this coalition Government—taking people out of tax, expanding apprenticeships on a scale never done before, giving healthy meals at lunchtime to children, providing two, three and four-year-olds with more child care and pre-school support than ever before, and revolutionising our pension system so that the state pension is provided at a decent rate—and the disagreements about the future that of course political parties have, whether in coalition or not. I disagree with the Labour party’s mañana, mañana approach to never really dealing with the deficit, and with the Conservative party’s approach of carrying on with cuts even after the deficit has been dealt with. That is a perfectly reasonable disagreement about the future that we will all argue about over the next four or five months.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Domestic Violence

1. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute cases of domestic violence. (906833)

New guidance on handling cases of domestic abuse was announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions on 29 December last year, and that will help the CPS to deal effectively with a projected 20,000 more cases this year than two years ago. The updated guidance sets out the handling of all aspects of domestic abuse offending, including the many ways that abusers can control, coerce and psychologically abuse their victims. The new proposed offence of coercive and controlling behaviour announced by the Home Secretary will be introduced in the Serious Crime Bill.

I congratulate the Solicitor-General on the progress made so far, but a recent study showed that families experiencing domestic violence are 23 times more likely to abuse their children under the age of five. Does he acknowledge that children, who are more often than not the victims, often inherit those domestic violence traits themselves, and what is he doing to protect children from domestic violence abusers as early as possible?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s continuing work in this field, both when he was a Minister and as a Member of Parliament. The CPS guidelines are clear that the presence of children must be treated as an aggravating factor when deciding whether or not to prosecute. Often, criminal justice procedures are difficult for children and young people, who feel that they have to take sides, and special measures are available if they have to give evidence. I will do everything I can to ensure that children are protected within the criminal justice system.

Last spring in my constituency two women were brutally murdered by their partners within a three-week period, one alongside her toddler daughter. In both cases, families, friends and others in the community were aware that abuse was taking place. Is the Solicitor-General content that evidence gathered by the police from others outside the direct situation is being used effectively and passed to the CPS to aid in prosecutions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I cannot comment on those specific cases, but she makes an important point about collaboration among agencies, whether social services or other arms of local government. The CPS and the police are clear that there needs to be even better collaborative working to ensure that tell-tale signs are not missed before it is too late.

I welcome the announcement of a new measure on domestic abuse by coercive and controlling behaviour. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm whether this important proposed legislation, which could have had a real impact on the life of Hollie Gazzard, who was brutally murdered in Gloucester not long ago, will be complete before this Parliament comes to an end?

My hon. Friend raises a tragic case. The Government have such cases very much in mind when making sure that the full course of domestic violence conduct is reflected by the criminal law. The Serious Crime Bill will be in Committee next week, and is the platform on which these important reforms will be introduced. I very much hope that Royal Assent will be achieved before the Dissolution of Parliament.

Recent press reports have suggested that cuts to legal aid have been putting victims of domestic violence at a disadvantage, and even deterring them from pursuing their cases at law. Will the Attorney-General be making representations to the Justice Secretary on this serious matter?

My particular concern is the prosecution of cases involving domestic abuse. I am happy to say that numbers continue to rise, both in terms of the proportion of conviction rates and the absolute number of police referrals. In fact, we have now reached the highest number of police referrals ever recorded.

Social Media

2. What steps he is taking to develop a greater level of public understanding of the legal framework applicable to social media. (906834)

Where appropriate, I publish online warnings about potential prejudicial reporting that had previously only been given to the mainstream media. We also send tweets warning social media users of the risks of being in contempt of court. I intend to look again at whether there is anything more that can be done to raise awareness in this area. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service publishes online its guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. These set out the approach that prosecutors should take when deciding whether to prosecute.

The inappropriate use of social media can cause immense harm to innocent people; there was a case just before Christmas of a young man who was driven to suicide by the actions of online bullies. What actions can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that people understand that their unlawful conduct online is subject to precisely the same sanctions as such conduct offline?

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend’s point. It is important for everyone to understand that if they engage in behaviour online and on social media that would be punished under criminal law in other circumstances, it will be punished under criminal law. As I said, the CPS is making an effort to publish its guidelines on a number of matters. This is one of them and there was a public consultation prior to it. We all need to play our part to ensure that people understand the law in this area.

Does the Attorney-General share my concern about the increase in Islamophobia and racism on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the inability of site owners to take the postings down? Will he have a meeting with the companies concerned to urge them to take down these postings, rather than face prosecution?

I do share that concern, and I am very happy to meet social media providers and others to discuss what more we can do. As the right hon. Gentleman says—I am sure the House generally agrees—it is important that everyone understands that social media is not a space where one can act with impunity. Social media providers, and all those who use social media, need to understand clearly that criminal law applies.

What steps can be taken to ensure that the judiciary, as well as members of the public, understand that at the commencement of trials it is absolutely imperative that no proceedings are communicated via social media, particularly in relation to very high profile legal proceedings?

The hon. Gentleman is right. In all cases, the judiciary need to give clear directions that social media is to be used cautiously and, for jurors, not to be used at all. It is important for jurors to understand that, which is why we have put in statute offences that jurors may commit if they use social media to communicate what they are doing, or in other ways behave inappropriately and not in accordance with their oath. We will always look at ways to explain that more clearly to all who are involved in court proceedings.

Assault against Prison Officers

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that assaults against prison officers are more effectively prosecuted. (906835)

I believe very strongly that assaults on prison officers should be taken seriously and dealt with robustly by prosecutors. The CPS is currently working with the police and the National Offender Management Service to develop a national joint protocol on crimes in prisons, focusing on offences against prison officers. This is something I helped to instigate as prisons Minister and I am very pleased to see it happening. The CPS legal guidance on prison offences also outlines that if the victim is a prison officer performing his or her duty, the public interest is heavily in favour of prosecution.

I thank the Attorney-General for his answer. As he knows, my constituency contains two prisons and a secure training centre, so I would like to be sure that a prison officer who is the victim of assault would be entitled to exactly the same service as other victims outside prisons.

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The custodial institutions he refers to are on the boundary between his constituency and mine—I know them well—and like me he represents people who work in the prison system. They are entitled to protection; in particular, they can make a victim impact statement, as can other victims of crime. In addition, it is possible—and I would encourage the use of these—for a prison community impact statement to be made. Prisons are unique communities and can be affected substantially by criminal offences, so it is important that sentencers take that into account when sentencing.

We know that with the shortage of prison officers the number of assaults on individual officers has increased. Has the number of prosecutions for those assaults also increased?

The hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on particular prosecution decisions, but she will know that in my last job and this one I have made my views plain: I think it is important that where there is evidence Crown prosecutors prosecute in cases where prison officers are assaulted. Such assaults should never happen, of course, but we have tightened the protocols to make it clear that where they do so and evidence is present Crown prosecutors should proceed against those who assault prison officers, because those who work in our prison system are entitled to the full support of the law in what they do.

Given the increasing incidence of violence in prisons, I welcome the personal interest that the Attorney-General has taken in the issue and his determination that prosecution will follow assaults on prison officers. Does he agree that it is essential that the state protects prison officers with the full force of the law, given the important work they do on our behalf?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I restate the point that, as he and the House understand, it is not for politicians to make decisions on individual prosecutions, but it is important that we send the clearest guidance we can to Crown prosecutors about when prosecution should follow. It is important, too, that sentencers make full use of the sentencing guidelines in this respect. The sentencing guidelines are clear that where an offence is committed by a serving prisoner, the sentence that follows, if a conviction occurs, should be consecutive and not concurrent. It is important that prosecutors do their bit to make that clear too.

The officers at HMP Risley in my constituency are concerned about the increasing violence in prisons, but other public sector workers, such as hospital and ambulance workers, are also on the front line. Will the Attorney-General ensure that the CPS takes a stand on those cases and prosecutes them rigorously, and will he discuss with his colleagues in government the need to introduce a particular offence, carrying an exemplary sentence, of assaulting a public sector worker in the course of their duties?

I certainly agree that it is important that where public servants are assaulted their public service is taken fully into account not just by prosecutors but by sentencers. The hon. Lady will be aware that assaulting someone while they are serving the public is an aggravating feature for sentencers to take into account. That is as it should be. However, we will continue to consider whether the law needs to be strengthened. She will know that many people, in this Government and the previous Government, have considered whether a specific offence should be created for assaults on those serving the public.


4. If he will take steps to encourage the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute people for treason in cases where that offence is suspected to have been committed. (906836)

In all cases referred for a charging decision, the CPS should use whichever offence, including treason, is appropriate to the facts of the case. However, modern criminal offences, including terrorism offences, usually offer a better chance of a successful conviction than would a prosecution for treason.

British jihadists who go abroad to support ISIS are aiding and abetting the Queen’s enemies, and now that we have the horrific spectacle of British citizens beheading other British citizens and citizens of allies on international television, should it not be made clear to these people that it is worse than murder and terrorism—it is treason—and that should they ever be apprehended they should be prosecuted for such?

I have a good deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. The point I would make is a purely practical one. I think it important that treason remains available to prosecutors in appropriate cases and I wish to see that continue, but I also think it important to recognise that there are specific practical difficulties in the prosecution of treason—whether it be the establishing of the direct or constructive levying of a war under one limb of the offence or indeed defining the sovereign’s enemies under the other. It is important that we prosecute effectively.

Stalking and Harassment

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that prosecutors are able more effectively to prosecute stalking and harassment cases. (906837)

Most recently, a joint police and CPS protocol on stalking was launched in September last year. The CPS legal guidance has also been revised to reflect this development, and training has been provided to prosecutors on the new stalking offences. Prosecutions for these offences have increased by more 20% in the last year.

My constituent, Jane Clough, a nurse at Blackpool Victoria hospital, was murdered in 2010 by her stalker, Jonathan Vass, who stabbed her 71 times and then slit her throat in the hospital car park. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that stalking is a serious offence that often leads to even more serious crimes?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him for his work with Mr and Mrs John and Penny Clough, Jane’s parents. In fact, their work on the Justice for Jane campaign and the dignity with which they have conducted themselves in order to achieve important changes in the law is a real exemplar of how to achieve something positive from something so appalling.

Between November 2012 and June 2014, 1,447 CPS lawyers completed the cyber-crime cyber-stalking course, which was developed by the CPS for all prosecutors. However, in a written answer from the Solicitor-General in October 2014, I was advised that a lower figure now applied. Will he please give us an update on the progress of how many CPS lawyers are undertaking this very important training?

May I in a very gentle way say that lawyers’ questions and answers tend to be learned and lucid, but also rather long? Perhaps the Solicitor-General can disprove the trend.

The right hon. Gentleman and I share a continuing interest in, and passion for, reforming the law on stalking and harassment and ensuring that implementation is carried out. I am able to update him. As of 31 December last year, 1,402 CPS employees had undergone the training.

Service Prosecution Authority (Sex Offences)

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Service Prosecution Authority on its effectiveness in prosecuting rape and other sexual offences in the armed forces which took place (a) in the UK and (b) overseas. (906839)

The Attorney-General and I meet the director of service prosecutions regularly and discuss casework issues at those meetings, including the prosecution of rape and other sexual offences, whether they are alleged to have been committed here or overseas. The Service Prosecution Authority has adopted CPS best practice guidelines to make sure that sexual offences are prosecuted to the highest standard.

Does the Minister agree that decisions to prosecute allegations of rape and sexual assault in the military should be subject to an independent review, given that only five cases of alleged rape were prosecuted in 2013?

It is difficult to compare the CPS with the SPA because the sheer number of cases before the SPA will be much lower. When it comes to decision making on prosecution, CPS best practice is replicated in the SPA, and joint training and a lot of joint working takes place. The problems identified by the Liberty report, among others, are more to do with the investigation of offences as opposed to their prosecution.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very nice to be popular.

Does the Attorney-General agree that the very low level of rape and sexual assault prosecutions in the military is a direct result of both a lack of independent scrutiny by civilian authorities and the discretion given to commanding officers to hear cases summarily themselves? Does he think it would be helpful if regular inspections of the Service Prosecution Authority were to be put on a statutory footing?

May I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position and offer warm congratulations to him? The point he makes is perhaps more relevant to other types of sexual offences that are not included in the schedule to the Armed Forces Act 2006. When it comes to rape and serious sexual offences, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the rigorous standards used by the CPS are those adopted by the SPA as well. The joint training and joint working I mentioned allow the Attorney-General and I the reassurance we need to make sure that these serious matters are prosecuted effectively.

Errors in Law (Costs)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the cost to the public purse of errors in law made by the Crown Prosecution Service when bringing forward prosecutions. (906840)

There are a number of safeguards, both in the CPS and in the criminal justice system, to minimise the impact of errors in law. They include the CPS casework quality standards, judicial oversight, and the appeal process itself. There is no central record of the overall cost to the public purse when such errors of law occur, but whenever errors are identified, the CPS works to address them.

May I encourage the Solicitor-General to try to calculate the cost? Obviously, we should like to know what impact staff cuts in the CPS might have on the costs of cases, and, in particular, how they might affect the ability of the CPS to prepare and present cases. In that spirit, will the Solicitor-General undertake to try to identify the cost and let the House know what it is?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the spirit in which he asked his question. I can tell him that the total value of cost awards against the CPS was only 0.2% of its budget, and that, within that percentage, identifying specific errors of law was going to be very difficult. However, I can assure him that only 142 appeals against conviction were allowed last year, and that very few of those will have involved an error of law on the part of a CPS lawyer. An error might well have been made by the trial judge, or might have been made at some other point in the system, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the number of errors of law committed purely by CPS lawyers is very small indeed.

Pre-charge Bail

I regularly meet the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss matters affecting the CPS, as my hon. Friend might expect. We discussed the Home Office’s consultation paper on limiting police pre-charge bail before it was published, and I expect the CPS to contribute to that consultation.

How would my right hon. and learned Friend feel if, like one of my constituents, he was subjected to the ignominy of a highly publicised arrest, suspended from his job, and put on pre-charge bail for 11 months before being released without charge? How is such oppressive treatment of innocent people consistent with the spirit of Magna Carta?

I do not think that oppressive treatment is consistent with the spirit of Magna Carta. In this of all years, we should consider very carefully what my hon. Friend has said, and I think that that is why the Home Secretary initiated the consultation. We need to consider all aspects of this matter. It is right to balance against the important points that my hon. Friend has made the need to ensure that, in complex cases, investigation is given its proper time, and that victims and witnesses are protected, as they can be, by conditions attached to pre-charge bail. However, he is right in what he says, which is why we are considering the issue.

I have encountered a case in which someone was bailed for even longer without being charged. That has ruined the lives of two people, and it has gone on and on. What is the longest period of bail without charge of which the Attorney-General is aware?

I cannot answer that question off the top of my head, but I will of course write to the hon. Gentleman, and I agree with him. We need to consider this issue carefully, and to ensure that in the generality of cases there is a clear expectation of a maximum length of time that people should spend on pre-charge bail before minds are made up about what to do in such cases. That is what the consultation is about, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others will contribute to it.