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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2015

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership

1. What discussions he has had with Cornwall local enterprise partnership on devolving powers and responsibilities from Whitehall. (907512)

The Government have already devolved powers and responsibilities to the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership through the growth deal, which was agreed last summer and extended just two weeks ago. It will mean that around £60 million is invested in Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, including in a range of infrastructure investments in the area. In Truro, that will mean money for seven new low-floor buses to provide additional capacity for the city’s successful park and ride scheme.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer, but when will the European regional development funds for Cornwall be available to spend, and will the LEP make the decisions on how that vital money for the future of Cornwall is spent?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential that we get clarity as soon as possible on the use of the European structural investment funds through the so-called operational programmes. She may be aware that there has been lots of to-ing and fro-ing between the Government and the European Commission to ensure that the operational programmes are agreed as soon as possible. We are looking at everything to mitigate the impact of any delay. For example, we are looking at extending the deadline for spending on the 2007 to 2013 ERDF programme for some projects from the end of June to the end of September this year. Of course, every step of the way, the local enterprise partnerships are rightly involved in how that money is subsequently spent.

Further to that exchange, I would be grateful if the Deputy Prime Minister ensured that he impresses on the Communities and Local Government Secretary the importance of Cornwall achieving intermediate body status, because only by doing so can we proceed with making decisions.

As much as my hon. Friend points the finger of blame, it is pointed not so much at Departments in Whitehall but at the European Commission, which appears to struggle with the idea that there can be lots of different intermediate bodies within the United Kingdom. As he knows, London already has intermediate status. We have found it very difficult to persuade the European Commission to grant similar or analogous powers to other parts of the UK. We want to ensure that, while we make that case—everyone in the Government is making that case—we do not lose the use of the money. That is the balance we are trying to strike.

Electoral Register

2. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of his policies on the completeness of the electoral register. (907513)

I am pleased to report that the implementation of individual electoral registration is proceeding smoothly. [Laughter.] We have safeguarded the register by automatically transferring nine out of 10 existing electors on to the new system, and by ensuring that no one registered to vote at the last canvass will lose their vote in May. More than 5 million people have registered to vote since May; there have been more than 1 million applications since December; 35,000 people per day are registering on the Government’s new online system; and 166,000 people registered to vote on national voter registration day. In addition, the Government have invested £14 million in the completeness and accuracy of the register, working with local authorities and national bodies.

I missed the beginning of the Minister’s answer because of the hilarity it caused in the House. I understand that 1 million people have been lost from the register in the past 12 months. I asked him about the completeness of the register and the impact of his policies on that. Despite his very long previous answer, can he add anything that is pertinent to the question I asked?

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman revels in his 2011 nomination for the Total Politics Labour point-scorer of the year. In fact, he has plastered the information all over his website. To answer his question specifically, since December, 1.3 million have been added to the register. Each day and each month, more people are being added to the register, so it is about time the Labour party stopped creating fear and uncertainty where there is none.

15. What measures is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that people who live overseas and wish to register to vote are able to do so? Equally, has he taken account of the fact that people who have lived overseas for longer than 15 years should also have the opportunity to vote in this country? (907526)

My hon. Friend asks a very good question. With the introduction of online voting, people who live overseas can register to vote more easily. We have made it easier for them as they do not now need another British citizen to attest to their citizenship before they register to vote. There is no consensus within the Government to change the 15-year rule at the moment, but, as he well knows, the Conservative party’s manifesto pledge is that, when elected after 7 May, we will get rid of it.

14. In 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister talked about the need for the biggest shake up of democracy since the Great Reform Act 1832. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said, is not the reality that, instead of extending the franchise, millions of voters are being lost from the electoral register, including 4,000 from my own constituency. Will the Minister agree to delay IER implementation? If not, why not? (907525)

The hon. Lady talks about the register. Let me make it clear: Electoral Commission data show that 3 million people were missing from the register in 2000. By 2011, 7.5 million people were missing from the register. The deterioration of the register happened when the Labour party was in government. IER is part of the solution to get the register right. Under the old system, people moved house but the register did not. With online registration, we are making it simpler and easier for people to get on the register. That is how we will ensure that more people get on the register.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the initiative, by Facebook and the Electoral Commission, to contact 35 million users of Facebook and encourage them to register online? Does he agree that this sort of innovative approach will lead to better use of online registration?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. The way forward for the completeness and accuracy of the register is not to go back to the old system of block registration—I know the Labour party likes its block votes—but to use initiatives, such as using Facebook, to market to the vast majority of the British public who should be on the register but are not.

I join the Minister in welcoming the huge success of national voter registration day. Will he join me in praising the brilliant work of Bite the Ballot, which organised national voter registration day last week? If we are to maximise the number of young people on the register, will he think again about extending the Northern Ireland schools initiative so that it applies in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The Northern Ireland schools initiative was introduced after the introduction of IER, when Northern Ireland did not have the annual canvass, and voter registration rates plummeted to about 11%. In contrast, in the rest of the UK we moved to IER, but nine out of 10 electors are on the register. Specifically on schools, we are funding national organisations with experience of working with schools and getting attainers on to the register. I know the Labour party would like us to introduce some kind of duty on schools, but that would increase the burden on schools. We can do this through national organisations and electoral registration officers, who know their local area. In some local areas, the issue will be to do with the elderly population; in others, it will be to do with young people. There is no need for a legislative sledgehammer. We should leave it to EROs, who have a duty to maximise their local registers.

The Minister says it would be a burden on schools, but I spoke to the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school head teachers. It says that to have such a scheme would be “easily organised” and deliver real benefits. The Northern Ireland electoral registration officer says that the schools initiative has been

“very successful in improving the rate of registration amongst young people”.

The Minister talks about nine in 10 being carried across. That is right, but the one in 10 are disproportionately students and young people. Why is he so afraid of getting more young people registered to vote in this country?

If it is so easily organised, as the organisations the hon. Gentleman spoke to have said, then we do not need legislation. As I said, every local area would have differing circumstances as far as the register is concerned. What we do not want is EROs spending their time having to go to schools because of legislation, when to maximise the register in their areas they should be going to care homes and talking to elderly people.

The shadow Justice Secretary asks me what I am scared of. What we know is that the Labour party is not against IER. Labour Members are pretending in this House that they are interested in students and young people when they are not. It is all about the block vote—that is what they want.

Electoral Turnout

The low levels of electoral turnout are an important and long-standing issue. Turnout was 78% in 1992, it declined steadily to 61% in 2005, and it rose to 65% in 2010. The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that everybody eligible to vote is on the register—because if someone is not on the register, they cannot vote—which is why we are committed to maximising the register. However, it is the responsibility of politicians to set out an attractive offer that makes people want to vote, so the job of increasing turnout is a job not for the Government but for all of us in the House.

I have seen several proposals—some argue that moving elections to weekends would somehow increase turnout, others argue for compulsory voting—but the answer is not to introduce new processes and systems, but for us politicians to engage and excite the electorate. The huge turnout for the Scottish referendum had nothing to do with the day on which it was held—in fact, I think it was held on a Thursday.

I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend restate that it is the job of politicians and those who stand for election to enthuse voters and persuade them to vote. Does he agree that we should never blame voters if they choose to exercise their right to stay at home and abstain?

We want everyone in the country to have a say in who governs them, and we would encourage all people to vote, but it is the job of politicians to do so, not the Government.

On electoral turnout, does the Minister think he can learn from the Scottish referendum and that the non-delivery of the vow will increase turnout, as Scots vote for a strong SNP voice to counter the failure of the three parties, the three amigos, at Westminster?

I know that the hon. Gentleman would like to rewrite history, but there was a decisive result in the Scottish referendum, and the vow has been delivered completely and faithfully.

Medway: Growth Deal

The South East local enterprise partnership has a large portfolio of projects ready to start in April, including 22 in the Thames Gateway, 12 of which will have a direct impact in Medway. For example, a new Kent and Medway growth hub will deliver improved advice services to local businesses.

I thank the Minister for his answer and the Government for the £33.4 million given to Medway, which will create more jobs and businesses and get Medway moving with better transport infrastructure. I know that local authorities have received a letter, but when will the formal agreements be signed with them?

The money will be available from April, and my colleagues and I are going around signing the agreements, but no LEPs should wait to have the signature on the dotted line: they can plan with confidence in the projects that have been funded.

Order. I realise that hon. Members from Lincolnshire and Huddersfield feel that Medway could benefit from their wisdom, but on this occasion I am afraid we are going to move on, because there are many more questions.

Voter Registration

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but data are not available on the number of local authority areas in which people in more than 90% of households are registered to vote. As she is aware, each register is held locally. Aggregated electoral statistics are available from the Office for National Statistics, but these are not broken down by household. However, the ONS will publish its data at the end of February, by which time the Electoral Commission will also publish its assessment of the December register.

Ahead of that information being published, will the Minister explain to the House why his Department’s advice to local authorities made such a massive mess of capturing information on voters approaching the age of 18? The evidence suggests a catastrophic collapse in the number of attainers on the register. What will he do about that?

I do not agree that a catastrophic mess was made of the system. If the hon. Lady looks at the forms issued by the Electoral Commission to local authorities to get households to input all the names, she will see that it was clearly stated that people under the age of 18 should appear. This was user tested as well. In addition to the write out, electoral registration officers can knock on doors to make sure that people’s names are on the register. We have given EROs everything they need and everything they have asked for to get on the register everyone eligible to vote.

I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that registering involves faith in the political system. I am sure he agrees with me and the Deputy Prime Minister who said on 6 September 2010:

“Fewer, more equally sized and more up-to-date constituencies will help to bolster the legitimacy of parliamentary elections.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 40.]

Does the Minister agree that a failure of the Liberal Democrats, and particularly of the Deputy Prime Minister, to vote for his own Bill in 2013—he voted against bolstering the legitimacy of the parliamentary elections—has led to this diminution of faith in politicians, showing opportunism and political advantage at its worst?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Of course we regret going into another election with some constituencies such as Arfon having 38,000 electors and others such as the Isle of Wight having 110,000. Those are not equally sized boundaries, but, as they say, we are where we are.

Voter Participation: Young People

For getting young people on the register, I believe online registration makes it quicker, simpler and more convenient. It takes roughly three minutes and it will help get young people on the register. Indeed, more than 1 million applications from young people have been through the online process. We are funding a number of youth organisations who have a share of £2.5 million to promote voter registration among young people. These include the British Youth Council, UK Youth and the NUS. Finally, data sharing goes on at universities where academic registrars have to give data on enrolment to EROs, which is helping to boost registration rates at universities, as we have seen at Sheffield university.

Let me return to the value of enforcing the schools initiative from Northern Ireland, to which the Opposition are committed. As we have heard, it has been instrumental in bringing a 50% increase in the total population of young people on the register, which is really important. Why are Ministers, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who appears not to be answering questions today as he should be, not bothered about this? Why do they mention care homes, but do not want young people to get registered and get into the habit of voting?

If we did not want young people to get on the register, we would not be funding the very organisations that have the experience and expertise for getting young people to vote. That is the first point. The second is that the Northern Ireland system was paper-based, but we have an online system spanning 363 local authorities. This is a much superior system for getting young people to register from their laptops, smartphones or tablets and computers.

Topical Questions

I am grateful for such applause as I rise to my feet. As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives. Within government, I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister talks a lot about cleaning up political donations, yet his Liberal Democrats were perfectly willing to take a donation of £34,000 from the managing director of Autofil Yarns, a company that is removing 160 British jobs to Bulgaria to protect its profits. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret that? Is he going to repay it, or is this just another yarn that is being spun by the Liberal Democrats?

The puns come thick and fast. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why his party blocked party political funding reform recently, and whether his question was written by one of his trade union paymasters. Being lectured by the Labour party on how parties are funded really takes the biscuit.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what proposals are being made to devolve stamp duty to local authorities, and will he tell us about the other fiscal measures which, I understand, are being announced elsewhere today? (907539)

As my hon. Friend will know, a number of steps have been taken to devolve and decentralise what has traditionally been the very over-centralised way in which we raise and spend money. We are not just devolving unprecedented fiscal powers to the various nations in the United Kingdom, but, for instance, giving greater borrowing powers to local government in England. However, the journey is not yet complete, and, in my view, further steps towards further fiscal devolution and decentralisation should be taken in the years ahead.

We are fast approaching the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Over the last five years, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government have extended the use of secret courts, curtailed judicial review, and radically reduced access to justice by making massive cuts in legal aid. Which of those policies of his Government does he consider to be most in keeping with the spirit of Magna Carta?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not remember what his Government did to habeas corpus, and that great tradition? Does he not remember his Government’s flawed attempt to impose an identity card database, which we brought to an end? Does he not remember his push to fingerprint innocent children in schools throughout the country, and does he not remember wanting to store the DNA of innocent citizens throughout the country? For heaven’s sake, let him remember his own record and that of his own party before he starts trying to cast aspersions on this Government.

The Deputy Prime Minister has had five years’ experience of this arrangement. It works like this: we ask the questions, and he tries to answer them. Let me try one more question. It may be the last.

It is, of course, important for our country to use its influence with its allies to improve human rights abroad. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, the Ministry of Justice wants to enter into a £6 million contractual arrangement with the Saudi Arabian justice system to share “best practice”. Many people are rightly concerned about the sentence of 1,000 lashes that was given to Raif Badawi, and the regular use of execution by beheading in Saudi Arabia. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think about the British Government’s making money out of the Saudi Arabian justice system, and what is he going to do about it?

The issue is not whether the right hon. Gentleman has the right to ask questions. The issue is his absolute amnesia about what his Government got up to, from invading Iraq illegally to shredding civil liberties on an industrial scale. As for the question that he has asked, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), says that no contract has been entered into with Saudi Arabia.

Like the right hon. Gentleman and, I suspect, many Members on both sides of the House, I consider some of the practices that we have seen in Saudi Arabia to be absolutely abhorrent, and completely in conflict with our values. What every Government, including his own, have done in such circumstances is make a judgment on whether to cut off relations with other Governments with whom we disagree, or whether to try to influence them and bring them more into line with our values. That is clearly what his Government did, and it is what this coalition Government are trying to do as well.

T4. I understand that if the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union in a referendum—the United Kingdom as a whole—the Scottish Parliament will, under the vow, have to pass a legislative consent motion before it can happen. Is that not a recipe for constitutional crisis? (907540)

The right hon. Gentleman’s views and my views on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union may be at a variance, but I am starting to agree with him that stumbling into a referendum on such a momentous matter without really thinking through the implications for the country as a whole would not only result in a constitutional quagmire, but would possibly jeopardise millions of jobs in this country. That is why I would counsel him and his party not to make breezy commitments in the run-up to a general election which could leave this country much poorer.

T2. We have talked a great deal about students this morning, but the students about whom I am concerned are young adult carers, who often struggle financially because their caring means that they cannot take on paid work. Indeed, a survey by the National Union of Students found that financial difficulties were the main reason why young carers considered abandoning their courses. Enabling carers to fulfil their educational potential is meant to be one of the Government’s priorities, so will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us why so little has been done to help young adult carers to fulfil theirs? (907538)

I certainly agree that the hon. Lady identifies a problem that is by no measure solved. Carers young and old work under huge pressures. They are unsung heroes and heroines for society. We have taken a number of measures, for instance to try to give greater respite care to carers of all ages, but I accept the hon. Lady’s challenge that we need to do more.

T7. Given reports over the weekend that Tony Blair will play a prominent role in Labour’s election campaign and given the fact that he still draws the maximum allowance—£115,000 of taxpayers’ money—for his public duties, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that he and all former Prime Ministers should be covered by the Nolan principles of public life? (907543)

The public duty cost allowance limited to £115,000 per year was created to help cover expenses incurred by former Prime Ministers in meeting the continuing additional costs they incur because of their special position in public life. The Nolan principles apply to public office holders. There are no plans to extend their application to present or former politicians, whether Prime Ministers or not.

T5. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister at this eleventh hour to step in and save Jarrow’s NHS walk-in centre? I have made a plea to the Prime Minister, and I have made a plea to the Secretary of State for Health. Can the Deputy Prime Minister stop this? Some 27,000 people are going to be dumped on overloaded local GPs and A and Es. It is deliberate sabotage of the NHS, to get the private sector involved through the backdoor. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to help. (907541)

I am, of course, more than willing to look into that. I doubt very much, however, that it could remotely be as the hon. Gentleman characterises it, as this Government outlawed the sweetheart deals with the private sector that the previous Labour Government indulged in, and, of course, decisions on how local health services are commissioned are taken by local commissioners, not decision-makers in London.

T10. Traditional industries in my constituency such as the mills at Abraham Moon and Hainsworth have had growing exports recently and have expanded, but they have concerns about the skilled work force they will need. Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the skills funding in the local growth deals will help such important businesses to address their needs? (907546)

Yes, I absolutely can. As my hon. Friend will know, the local growth deal in his area places a particular emphasis on making sure that there are, over time, no youngsters whatsoever who are not in employment, education or training—the so-called NEETs—and the skills provided to youngsters in the area continue to be boosted. One of the achievements that everybody in the coalition parties can be proudest of is that we have massively expanded the number of apprenticeships available across the country: 2 million new apprentices have been taken on over the past several years.

T6. When the lobbying Act went through the House concerns were expressed that it would prevent organisations from engaging in the democratic process. Have any concerns been put to the Deputy Prime Minister about how the law is actually working with an election looming? (907542)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A number of concerns have been expressed, but I think they are misplaced. It is clear from the way in which the legislation was crafted that there was no intention to stop anyone making their views known at any time; the intention was simply to expect anyone who wants to influence a particular election in a particular constituency to abide by the same rules as those who are competing in those elections in those areas.

T11. A recent growth deal saw tens of millions of pounds being invested in the future of Gatwick airport station. May I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend that further growth deals will focus on improving transport infrastructure for the area? (907547)

: I am pleased that we were able to support Gatwick airport station redevelopment as part of the growth deal. The growth deals that have been announced are not, of course, the end of the story. In total, I think we have announced £7 billion of the £12 billion that it was envisaged would be committed to growth deals over time. Local enterprise partnerships have been encouraged to identify their own local growth priorities, so that they can submit their own ideas to future growth deals, which I hope will continue in the next Parliament.

T8. According to the latest figures, a staggering 23,500 voters appear to be missing from the electoral registration lists in Cardiff. We have already heard how the scandal is affecting young people and students, but it also appears that a significant number of people in the black and minority ethnic community across the city are missing from the register. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about this? (907544)

Nobody will have their right to vote taken away from them as we move to individual voter registration. What I find so fascinating as I listen to all this heat and fury from the Opposition is that when they were in government they supported the move to individual voter registration, and for good reasons. The previous system was patronising and out of date; it rested on the idea that the head of a household would register everyone in that household on to the electoral register. Do the Opposition now want to revert to that system? It was patronising, out of date and unfair to many voters.

T12. Since 2010, unemployment has fallen sharply and employment has risen dramatically, but all the while, we have had a large and growing trade deficit with the European Union. How does the Deputy Prime Minister square that with the Liberal Democrat myth that 3 million British jobs depend on our EU membership? (907548)

The figures cited are certainly not mythological; they have been arrived at independently by Government Departments and other researchers. It is not difficult to work out the economic value, given that the European Union, whatever its flaws and its present difficulties, is the world’s largest borderless single market, with more than 500 million consumers. It is also by far the largest destination for goods and services produced in this country, for the simple reason that we are a European country located in the European hemisphere.

T13. The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show a rise in youth unemployment of 30,000 compared with the previous quarter. May I offer the Deputy Prime Minister the opportunity to have a deathbed conversion tomorrow and to support Labour’s proposed bank bonus tax, which would help to get tens of thousands of young people into decent jobs? (907549)

It is—how can I put this politely?—brave of Labour to select jobs as the subject of its Opposition day debate. It is the party that crashed the economy in the first place. Youth unemployment is lower today than it was when the hon. Gentleman’s party left office. We have created countless more apprenticeships than Labour made available, and 1.8 million more people are in work now than when the Labour Government left office. Inequality, income inequality and relative child poverty are lower under this Government. He might not like the facts, but they speak for themselves.

May I welcome the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday on schools funding? I particularly welcome the fact that two schools in my constituency—Cheadle primary and Great Moor junior—will benefit as a consequence. Can he give me an assurance that investment in education will be protected while we continue to address the deficit?

I am very pleased that we have been able to make that significant announcement of a further £6 billion to be allocated from central Government to refurbish, rebuild and maintain school buildings up and down the country. We are now assisting twice as many schools across the country than were being helped under Labour’s school building programme. My hon. Friend makes an important point. All the political parties will need to set out their stall in the run-up to the general election. The Liberal Democrats have said clearly that we want to protect funding from cradle to college and from nursery to 19, and not to implement the kind of real-terms cut in the money going to our schools that other parties have recently revealed.

T14. The Electoral Commission’s own research shows that the electoral registration of private renters stands at 63%, compared with the overall level of 85%. Is not this yet another example of how this Government are totally disregarding “generation rent”? What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it? (907550)

Again, the facts speak for themselves. Since last summer, 5 million people have been entered on to the new individual voter registration system. Nine in 10 voters are transferred automatically on to it, and 1.3 million more people have been entered on to it since December alone. Of course we need to do more, across the parties and across the nation, to encourage people to register to vote, but it is the worst form of shameless scaremongering to suggest that a transition to individual voter registration—which the Labour Government advocated and introduced—is somehow entirely responsible for the fact that some groups are more under-registered than others.

I recently welcomed the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to Gloucester, where he saw at first hand the regeneration in Blackfriars. That regeneration will be helped by the recent growth award via the local enterprise partnership. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is potential for small city deals or county deals to help to devolve and boost regeneration projects in cities such as Gloucester, or would he encourage us to bid for the next growth deal via the LEP?

I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to do the latter. First, he is right to point out that decentralisation should not be only an urban phenomenon or just something granted to larger cities, although they were the pioneer areas where the city deals and growth deals first happened. We have made a good start, with the £12 billion growth deals that are under way, on ensuring that every part of the country—county, city, rural, urban—gets more powers handed down to it from Whitehall, and I very much want to see that.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain to 16 and 17-year-olds in my constituency why they were deemed mature enough to vote in the recent Scottish referendum yet his Government do not think they are mature enough to vote in the forthcoming general election?

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman; I have long believed that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. They take on responsibilities and duties as adults in so many other walks of life, and they showed themselves to be enthusiastic, informed and impassioned participants in the Scottish referendum. Unfortunately, we have not been able to secure agreement between the two coalition parties on this, but I look forward to the day when the House, on a cross-party basis, votes finally to give the democratic rights to 16 and 17-year-olds that they deserve.

I was reading the Hansard record of the previous Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, and the Deputy Prime Minister answered the first topical question in the same way as he did today. He said that his main purpose is to “support the Prime Minister” over a whole range of activities—after that, in brackets, was the word, “Laughter.” Can the Deputy Prime Minister name one thing he has done to support the Prime Minister?

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman, as I have it here. I said:

“As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 143.]

That does not mean “complete range”; it does not mean the whole, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Of course there are disagreements between myself and the Prime Minister, and of course there are disagreements between the coalition parties. I know the hon. Gentleman has not taken to the give and take of coalition government as readily as some Government Members have, but I think history will judge the two coalition parties kindly for having put the national interest first and working together, supporting each other, in order to fix the broken economy inherited from the previous Government. As he talks about support, I am delighted to hear that the Prime Minister and his party now support my party in, for instance, giving tax cuts to millions and millions of people on low and middle incomes—that was always our policy.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister be attending the lectures being given by the Rev. Lord Green, the chap who ran HSBC in such an ethical way? Apparently, he is giving lectures on “ethical banking”. Does the Deputy Prime Minister stand by the comments made by the Business Secretary when the Rev. Lord Green was made a trade Minister? The Business Secretary described Lord Green in terms of

“a powerful philosophy for ethical business.”

Even George Orwell could not have made that one up!

Again, the hon. Gentleman is a brave man to talk about regulation of the banking system from the Labour Benches, given his party’s total, singular failure to heed the warnings of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. I recall him standing there saying to the then Prime Minister, week in, week out, that the Labour party was heading for trouble because it did not regulate the banks properly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might want to ask questions of his own colleagues about why HSBC was able to get away with such outrageous business practices back in 2007 and 2008.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Human Rights

1. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. (907527)

6. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. [R] (907532)

7. What recent discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. (907533)

Hon. Members will know that I cannot discuss legal advice that I may have given to members of the Government, but I have regular discussions with colleagues about a large number of issues. Domestic and international human rights are an important aspect of our law and are a key consideration in the Law Officers’ work.

Can the Attorney-General tell the House whether he supports the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights, and whether he and the Solicitor-General are completely in agreement with the Government’s position?

The answer to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. On the first part, I do not support the Human Rights Act, but I do support the European convention on human rights. There is a misunderstanding here, perhaps on his part and certainly among some of his Labour colleagues, as the abolition of the Human Rights Act does not mean the abolition of human rights. The Conservative party is in favour of human rights and we have a proud record on human rights. What we do not agree with is the mess his party made of the relationship between this country’s courts and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg—we will do something about it.

May I follow up on the Attorney-General’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) by asking whether he agrees that last week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that British courts can hand down whole-life sentences without breaching human rights is a fine example of dialogue between our courts and Strasbourg? As we mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death, will the Attorney-General join me in celebrating the European convention as Churchill’s legacy and one that provides vital protections that we would be unwise to deny our people?

I welcome clarification from the European Court of Human Rights on whole-life tariffs, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not just the outcome of these cases that can be problematic but the time, effort and taxpayers’ money spent defending them. He is quite right that the convention is an excellent document; there is very little to disagree with in it. The problem is the way in which the European Court of Human Rights has interpreted that document. Once again, the Conservative party will do something about that, but, as far as I can tell, the Labour party in government would do nothing whatever about it.

One of the basic human rights is the right of association and, through that, the right to combine together in trade unions. Will the Attorney-General say why his Government are making it harder for civil servants to exercise that basic human right by withdrawing the right to have trade union subscriptions taken off pay at source?

I do not accept that we are taking human rights away from civil servants. Let me repeat the point that I made: the Conservative party in government has a proud record on human rights. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was a Conservative Home Secretary who brought forward the Modern Slavery Bill, of which we are very proud. Clearly, it was a “human-rights enhancing measure”. Those are not my words but those of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It was a Conservative Foreign Secretary, now Leader of the House, who has done excellent work on preventing the use of sexual violence in conflict—again, huge steps forward in the defence of human rights in this country and abroad. We are proud of that record, but see no reason to combine that pride with a blind and meek acceptance that every judgment of the European convention on human rights by the European Court of Human Rights, however eccentric, should be meekly accepted.

The Council of Europe and the European convention on human rights were set up to protect the citizens of Ukraine from the former Soviet Union. Should we not be doing more to protect the citizens of Ukraine with regard to their human rights at this present time?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. Of course she is right that when the convention was originally drafted, it was precisely to deal with the most egregious examples of breaches of human rights across the world. That is what we have always supported, and we will continue to do so. What we do not support is the extension of that franchise to discussing things such as the insemination of prisoners in prison, and whether prisoners should be given the right to vote in British elections. That is in no way comparable to what my hon. Friend is discussing.

Will the Attorney-General confirm that neither the repeal of the Human Rights Act nor a British Bill of Rights could in any way diminish Britain’s obligations under the European convention on human rights, or does he disagree with his predecessor on that point?

As I have said, there is no direct connection between what we decide to do on the Human Rights Act and what we decide to do in support of human rights, both nationally and internationally. We remain wholly committed to the preservation of human rights, both in this country and abroad. As for my predecessor, I think that he would wholeheartedly support that position.

The Attorney-General refers to the Government’s leadership in tackling modern slavery. Given that traffickers operate across jurisdictions, what is he doing to support other countries to have effective justice systems to protect the victims and enforce the law?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to think about how we assist other countries in the way in which they implement their justice systems so that we can work together to confront what is, as he says, cross-border problems. It comes back to the dilemma that was being discussed with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister around what we do in countries that do not have the best records in the preservation of justice and human rights. We have to get the balance right, but it is important that we continue to co-operate.

Domestic Abuse

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of introducing an offence of coercive control on prosecutions for domestic abuse. (907528)

I have been taking this welcome new measure through Committee with the support of Members from all parties. The new law of coercive control will help protect victims by criminalising sustained patterns of behaviour that stop short of serious physical violence but amount to extreme psychological and emotional abuse. It is likely to increase the number of cases of domestic abuse reported, which should result in an increase in the number of prosecutions.

I am grateful for that response. As the number of domestic abuse referrals has increased, which must be welcomed as people now have the confidence to refer such crimes of abuse, does the Solicitor-General agree that it is apparent that just as physical abuse should be consigned to the history books so should mental control, which is a form of torture that is equally unacceptable in this country today?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s remarks. Only today on the radio, we heard about people using mobile apps to control the movements and behaviour of their partners. Modern technology can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be very dangerous in the wrong hands. I believe that the new law will embrace that, too.

Female genital mutilation is a form of domestic abuse. Is the Solicitor-General as concerned as I am that there has been no successful prosecution for FGM in this country, following the acquittal last week of two of those prosecuted?

The right hon. Gentleman and I share a passion for ending this scourge. It was important that the prosecution was brought and the number of referrals continues to increase—we did not have any referrals before 2010. That shows that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are taking the matter very seriously. The message must be sent out to everybody that those who indulge in this form of abuse will be subject to the law and to prosecution.

May I welcome the Solicitor-General’s recognition of the importance of dealing with the psychological intimidation of witnesses, which, as those of us who have prosecuted a case of this kind will know, can be every bit as difficult as physical intimidation? I congratulate him personally on the initiatives he has taken in this matter and the work he has been doing.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. It was important that we fill the loopholes in the law. We now have the stalking and harassment legislation introduced by this Government and legislation on coercive control. We are doing everything we can to deal with the scourge of emotional and psychological abuse.

May I commend the Solicitor-General on his co-operative and informed attitude to the issue of coercive control and on the way in which he took the matter through Committee? I also thank him for sponsoring my ten-minute rule Bill on the subject last year; it would be remiss of me not to say that. On a more serious note, will he assure the House that prior to the commencement of the new law, welcome as we all say it will be, there will be sufficient time to train the police and prosecuting authorities and the necessary guidelines will be produced?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and I entirely agree that we must ensure that full training of the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and all the authorities that will be responsible for dealing with the new legislation is put in place before we bring it into force.

Historical Sex Abuse

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on funding for the Crown Prosecution Service to ensure effective prosecution of historical sex abuse cases. (907529)

The CPS is working closely with the Treasury to manage the impact of the increasing numbers of large and complex cases, including non-recent sex abuse cases, and to ensure that the CPS has the resources to prosecute serious crime effectively and efficiently. Future funding will be determined as part of the spending review process in the usual way.

The victims of historical sexual abuse have a right to justice, like anyone else, but, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, these cases are complex and require adequate funding. How confident is he that the CPS will be able to cope with the demands on it and can he categorically say that such cases will not be consigned to the dustbin of history for want of extra resources?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern and it is important to put on record that every case, regardless of the alleged crime, must be considered carefully by the CPS. The CPS must conduct the appropriate tests on evidence and on public interest, and these cases should be no different in that regard. We must certainly talk about resources, but we also need to talk about what also matters to victims, which includes being listened to in the first place, ensuring that the court process is as conducive as it can be to the giving of their evidence and ensuring that those who prosecute such cases are expert in what they do. All those things are important and we must ensure that the CPS is doing them. At the moment, the CPS is engaged in doing those things.

In his answer, the Attorney-General made it clear that funding is an issue and that discussions are going on with the Chancellor. Given that, is it sensible for the Crown Prosecution Service to commit millions of pounds to a retrial of journalists from The Sun when there is clearly no realistic prospect of conviction? The money could be much better spent pursuing some of the historical sex abuse cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). Are the cost of a trial and the likelihood of conviction together part of a public interest test that the Crown Prosecution Service should go through, because it seems to many people that a retrial is not justified on that basis?

My hon. Friend will understand that, as Attorney-General, I do not decide which cases should be prosecuted or commenced. He will also understand that whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction is already part of the test that the Crown Prosecution Service applies. Of course, it should also consider the public interest, which is what it has done in each and every case involving journalists—some have been convicted at the end of the process and some have been acquitted. However, I think that it is important to recognise two things. First, there should be no cases in which who a person is or what they do prevents the Crown Prosecution Service following the evidence where it leads—it should do so in every case. Secondly, some cases are complex and difficult and take time to prepare and to try, which increases their cost, but I do not think that we can say that we should not prosecute something because it is too expensive.

I welcome what the Attorney-General says, but the Director of Public Prosecutions has been to him on bended knee, begging for £50 million so that she can prosecute serious cases. Has he asked the Chancellor for that emergency funding—and if not, why not? If he has asked the Chancellor, what did he say about helping to plug the funding gap caused by the ill thought through cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service?

I do not think that the cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service have been ill thought through. They have certainly been significant, as I am afraid they had to be, given the huge economic mess we inherited when the hon. Gentleman’s party left office. We had to take those decisions, but I think that the Crown Prosecution Service has managed the reductions in its budget extremely well. It has not decided—I think that he would support this approach—not to prosecute cases where it thinks that it is appropriate to do so. However, we must recognise—the DPP recognises this in what she is saying—that there has no doubt been an increase in the number of complex and difficult historical sex abuse cases. We are talking with the Treasury about exactly that, and I am sure that it will understand the case we are making.

Serious Fraud Office

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the future of the Serious Fraud Office. (907530)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the future of the Serious Fraud Office. (907536)

I meet the Home Secretary regularly to discuss issues of common interest. The UK anti-corruption plan, published in December, announced that the Cabinet Office will take forward a review of the enforcement response to bribery and corruption more broadly and will report to the inter-ministerial group on anti-corruption in June.

Is the Attorney-General concerned that there is now a conflict, with the Solicitor-General allegedly involved in tax avoidance schemes? [Interruption.] Can he properly oversee the work of the Serious Fraud Office, given its role in prosecuting serious fraud and tax evasion? [Interruption.]

Order. I fear that, in so far as I could hear, the terms of the question did not engage with the question on the Order Paper. Therefore—forgive me—I do not think that it would be proper to ask for an answer.

In view of the fact that the police are being ineffective in prosecuting fraud, and given that reports to Action Fraud have gone up by 10%, what is the Attorney-General doing to ensure that the Serious Fraud Office has sufficient resources to deal with the most complex frauds? How much money has it got from fraudsters to enable it to fund future work?

The hon. Lady is right to refer to the fact that there are different kinds of fraud, which are dealt with in different ways in our system. The Serious Fraud Office, which falls within the ambit of the Law Officers’ superintendence, deals with the most exceptionally complex cases of fraud. To answer her question directly, in this financial year the Serious Fraud Office has recovered financial orders of £10.7 million. It is right to point out also that the way in which the Serious Fraud Office is funded is unusual. It relies on some core funding and also on what is called blockbuster funding for unanticipated, large and complex cases. I think that that is the right way to do it.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the invitation from some to subsume the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency is not one that he will accede to?

There is huge value always in looking at the way in which Government agencies do their business and in finding efficiencies and changes if it is beneficial to do so, but I think the Roskill model on which the Serious Fraud Office is based—that is, the combination of lawyers, investigators, prosecutors, accountants and the like, all in multidisciplinary teams—is a sensible model, and it is delivering effective results.

With the Serious Fraud Office doing some incredibly complex investigations into companies such as Barclays, Tesco and G4S, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a need for very close working between the Serious Fraud Office and other Government agencies, such as the NCA, the police and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Close working is always important and the Serious Fraud Office tries to do that. I am sure the intergovernment review will find better ways of co-ordinating if there are better ways to be found.

Human Trafficking

5. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of successful prosecutions for human trafficking offences. (907531)

The number of successful prosecutions in human trafficking cases has increased each year since April 2010, from 73 to 155, which is more than double. The Director of Public Prosecutions is seeking to increase the number of prosecutions further through the CPS contribution to the Government strategy on modern slavery.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the Modern Slavery Bill is a groundbreaking measure that will send a clear message to perpetrators?

I do, and I am grateful to Members in all parts of the House for their sterling support for legislation which is among the first in the world and the first in Europe.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that those of us who for many years have been involved in such cases, and involved in the problem of runaway children particularly, are still concerned about the number and level of prosecutions of those people, and now of gangs organising human trafficking? When will we see results—more people apprehended, charged, convicted and in prison?

Even if the hon. Gentleman’s palate is not yet fully satisfied, I hope he feels he has now had his hors d’oeuvre for the day.

The hon. Gentleman is right to be impatient—we all are—for progress in tackling this scourge. It exists not just here at home, but internationally. We have criminal justice advisers and liaison magistrates in 20 countries where we know that human trafficking is a source problem. Human trafficking will not be tackled just within these shores. The effort has to be international.

Crown Prosecution Service: Digital Working

8. What assessment he has made of the benefits of increased digital working by the Crown Prosecution Service; and what estimate he has made of potential savings from such changes. (907534)

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has made substantial progress in implementing digital working with other criminal justice agencies. Almost all police forces are now transferring over 90% of case files electronically. Savings are being made through business process change and other economies. By 2015-16, the CPS estimates that savings of approximately £30 million per annum will be achieved.

Clearly, there are benefits from not losing documents and removing huge piles of paper from cases. What further measures can my hon. and learned Friend take to speed up the process so that the interests of justice are served?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about more measures. That will come through initiatives such as the common platform between the Courts and Tribunals Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, so that everybody in the courts system is using digital technology. That will achieve real savings in the long term.

Vulnerable Victims and Witnesses

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on dealing with vulnerable victims and witnesses. (907535)

Measures to support vulnerable victims and witnesses are regularly discussed by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General’s office. The CPS works closely with the police and the voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses are well supported through the criminal justice system. The results of the first national CPS survey of victims and witnesses due in the summer will inform future actions.

The Crown Prosecution Service draft document, “Speaking to Witnesses at Court”, was published in January, and it is broadly welcome. However, will the Solicitor-General give some reassurance to those who are concerned that it might involve coaching of witnesses?

It is vital that everybody involved in witness care understands the old and well-established rule that witnesses must not be coached. Educating them in the process is absolutely right, but talking about the evidence and trying to coach them in some way would be wholly wrong.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Victims of human trafficking are the most vulnerable witnesses that can be had before the courts. Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after very well under the Government’s scheme, but child victims are not. Will the Solicitor-General look at ways in which we can improve protection and help for the child victims of human trafficking?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose track record in fighting modern-day slavery is well known to us all. The Crown Prosecution Service has clear guidelines that ask prosecutors to consider very carefully the public interest in prosecuting young people who are identified as victims of human trafficking where there is clear evidence of exploitation. That approach will turn people who used to be regarded as defendants into true victims of modern-day slavery.