House of Commons
Wednesday 11 March 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Political Parties: Donations and Loans
1. What progress she has made on her consultation with the Electoral Commission on the transparency of donations and loans to political parties in Northern Ireland. 
The whole House will have been deeply saddened by the passing of Lord Molyneaux of Killead. James Molyneaux was a distinguished second world war veteran and a fine parliamentarian who served Northern Ireland with great distinction for more than four decades, both in this House and the other place.
We are committed to ensuring the maximum transparency in party funding in Northern Ireland that the prevailing security situation allows, and progress has been made in detailed discussions with the Electoral Commission on finalising the new arrangements. I have spoken with the electoral commissioner, and I am confident that the necessary draft legislation will be ready to lay early in the next Parliament.
I add my condolences and those of my party to those expressed by the Minister to the family, friends and former colleagues of Lord Molyneaux.
During the passage of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, an undertaking was given here that last October the security situation would be reviewed again with a view to lifting the secrecy pertaining to party political donations. What progress has been made in that regard?
The hon. Lady is right that during the passage of the Act we discussed a review of the security situation and amending the measure accordingly. It is our aspiration to have full transparency in Northern Ireland, as we do in Great Britain. At the moment, our judgment is that the security situation does not warrant it and that we cannot take that risk, but we will keep the matter under constant review.
While looking at the transparency of donations to political parties, will my hon. Friend ask the National Crime Agency and the Chief Constable, when they are investigating organised crime, especially things such as fuel laundering in the border area, particularly South Armagh, to look carefully at the destination of funds arising from organised crime, given that the people taking part in crime—
Order. The right hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. I was indulgent towards him in not taking account of the fact that he has Question 8, but the substance of his question just now has nothing to do with Question 1.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, Lord Molyneaux of Killead, KBE, who served in this House as the Member for South Antrim from 1970 until 1983 and then from 1983 to 1997 as the Member for the new constituency of Lagan Valley. He is fondly remembered by my constituents. He was the consummate parliamentarian and provided strong leadership in very dark days in Northern Ireland. He will be fondly remembered and missed by many, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.
The Secretary of State and the Minister will be aware that Sinn Fein raises millions of pounds by various means each year for its electoral campaigns. There is a clear disparity in political party funding in Northern Ireland, yet Sinn Fein Members continue to draw hundreds of thousands of pounds in allowances from this House, despite not taking their seats. When will the Government address this disparity?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that that is a matter for the House, not me. It was last determined in 2006, and I would not wish to trespass further on the prerogative of the House.
Government’s Economic Pact
2. When she plans to make a progress report on the Government’s economic pact for Northern Ireland. 
3. When she plans to make a progress report on the Government’s economic pact for Northern Ireland. 
An annual progress report on the economic pact was published last July. The range of items so far delivered include improvements to business access to finance; funding projects secured from the Green Investment Bank; the continuation of 100% assisted area status for Northern Ireland; and a record year for inward investment following the G8 and follow-up investment conference.
With one in six people in Northern Ireland on low pay and intergenerational poverty remaining stubbornly high, should not the Government be getting a move on to raise the minimum wage to at least £8 an hour and get as many people as possible on to the living wage to make this a recovery in living standards for all the people of Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said he would like to see increases in the minimum wage. We are cutting taxes for those on the lowest incomes. We have cut taxes for 670,000 people in Northern Ireland, and those on the minimum wage have had their income tax bills halved. We have also seen unemployment in Northern Ireland fall for the 25th consecutive month—it has fallen by 1,700—giving many more people the security and reassurance of a pay packet.
Will the Secretary of State meet the Northern Ireland union leaders, as I did recently, so that she can understand the frustrations of squeezed teachers, bus drivers and health workers, and praise their vital work rather than condemn them for being forced to vote for industrial action?
I have met trade union groups on various occasions, including in Northern Ireland, and I am of course hugely supportive of the work done by our public servants and our front-line workers. It is important that the whole public sector takes part in the austerity programme, and the Government are doing everything they can to put our public finances right to ensure that we can continue to provide the best possible public services for the country.
What impact does the Secretary of State think another round of stalemate at Stormont will have on measures to attract investment and encourage growth in Northern Ireland?
There is no doubt that the announcement by Sinn Fein on Monday was a significant setback for the Stormont House agreement, but it is inevitable that there will be bumps in the road with agreements of this nature. That has been the case in the past. I will be working hard to get things back on track and to help the parties get this matter resolved. Political stability is, of course, crucial when it comes to attracting inward investment. That is one of the many reasons why we need to press ahead with implementing the Stormont House agreement.
Does the Secretary of State accept that people in Northern Ireland and those who observe the Northern Ireland political scene are stunned, bewildered—and, indeed, angry—at what Sinn Fein has done in reneging on its agreement on welfare reform, without any good reason whatsoever? Does the Secretary of State wish to spell out now from the Dispatch Box the implications for corporation tax and other issues of the Stormont House agreement not proceeding? It is clear that Sinn Fein is putting its own narrow party interests ahead of vulnerable people and the entire community in Northern Ireland.
As I have said, this is a serious setback. I believe that Sinn Fein’s change of mind is unhelpful and hugely disappointing. As I have said, however, the task now is for the Northern Ireland Executive parties to continue their efforts to implement the Stormont House agreement. I hope to get the party leaders together as soon as possible to discuss how to resolve this welfare question, but the Stormont House agreement will not be reopened; we need to press ahead with implementation. The corporation tax question is difficult. It is expressly linked with the resolution of welfare reform. The Bill contains a commencement clause, and there is no question but that this welfare issue must be resolved. The Executive must fulfil their obligations under the Stormont House agreement before the commencement clause can be operated. In the interim, the Government propose to continue with the legislation and to complete its parliamentary progress, because we are determined to implement the agreement fully and fairly. Let me be clear: Northern Ireland will not get these devolved powers until the Stormont House agreement has been implemented.
It is important now that people in Northern Ireland, this House and everybody looking at the political scene are clear that the responsibility for the current crisis lies squarely with Sinn Fein, which is reneging on its commitments clearly made and openly expressed in the Stormont House agreement. Will the Secretary of State be clear that she will not take this blanket condemnation or blame approach, but focus on the problem—Sinn Fein?
I will indeed focus on the problem. The right hon. Gentleman is right that this current setback is the result of the actions of Sinn Fein, which is, as I have said, hugely disappointing and unhelpful. To be honest, it was a significant surprise, too, given the enthusiasm with which the Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein were promoting the agreement. Now I think we all need to work together to try to get this sorted, because it would be a huge step backwards if the Stormont House agreement were to be jeopardised. It would potentially plunge us back into the sort of budget and political crisis with which we were grappling last year.
May I, on behalf of my party, associate myself with the tributes paid to Lord Molyneaux of Killead, and convey our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues?
Given the need to create economic and political stability in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State prevail on the Chancellor to reduce VAT on United Kingdom tourism products in next week’s Budget? That would have important financial consequences for the tourism industry in Northern Ireland.
Let me also take the opportunity to associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State about the distinguished record of Lord Molyneaux. He was indeed a very distinguished parliamentarian over many years, and this is a sad loss to Northern Ireland.
The Chancellor is well aware of the campaign for the tax change that the hon. Lady would like to see. Tax reductions are difficult because the imperative must be repairing the public finances, but the Chancellor has relieved tax burdens on business by reducing corporation tax, introducing an employment allowance and, of course, helping people into work.
May I associate my party with the comments that have been made about Lord Molyneaux?
As the Secretary of State has said, economic progress and political stability in Northern Ireland are inextricably linked. Does she agree that the unravelling of the Stormont House agreement would be an unmitigated disaster for economic and political confidence in Northern Ireland, and that now is the time for responsible leadership which accepts the need for a reformed welfare system that mitigates the impact of cuts on the most vulnerable while also being affordable and sustainable?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. Now is the time for level-headed consideration of how we can resolve this matter. In the autumn, Northern Ireland faced a budget crisis that was so serious that the very sustainability and future credibility of the institutions was at stake, and we were looking over a cliff at the possibility that devolution would collapse altogether. Returning to that position would be a huge step backward. The Stormont House agreement was a big step forward, and it is vital for all parties to work to ensure that it is implemented fully and fairly.
Does the Secretary of State intend to convene urgent all-party talks in an effort to put the Welfare Reform Bill back on track? By what date must the Bill be passed, if the Executive rather than civil servants are to set next year’s budget in Northern Ireland?
As I said earlier to the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), I expect to meet the five party leaders in the coming days. I hope to do so tomorrow, but that will depend on when the First and Deputy First Minister return from New York.
It is vital for progress to be made on welfare reform. That is a key part of the Stormont Castle and the Stormont House agreements. I will press for such progress, not least because without it the Northern Ireland Executive’s budget will become unsustainable, which will hugely impair its ability to function effectively.
4. What assessment she has made of the current political situation in Northern Ireland. 
7. What assessment she has made of the current political situation in Northern Ireland. 
The political situation suffered a setback on Monday following Sinn Fein’s withdrawal of support for the Welfare Reform Bill. It is very important for the Stormont House agreement to be implemented fully and fairly, including all the sections on welfare and budgets. I will continue to work intensively with the Northern Ireland parties to resolve the impasse.
What does the Secretary of State consider to be the wider political implications of Sinn Fein’s withdrawal of support for the welfare proposals?
The political implications are very serious. They put in jeopardy corporation tax devolution, a financial package of about £2 billion in extra spending power, and a fresh approach to the past which is designed to produce better outcomes for victims and survivors. All that is under threat as a result of what has happened this week, and I will do all that I can to retrieve the situation so that the Stormont House agreement can go ahead.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Her Majesty’s Government must take resolute action against Sinn Fein over its irresponsible and selfish behaviour, which is jeopardising the Stormont Parliament and everything that has been achieved in Northern Ireland so far?
As I said, the approach taken by Sinn Fein is hugely disappointing and dramatically different from everything that it has been saying over the past few months. I am urging Sinn Fein to change its approach. It is vital that we have a responsible and realistic approach to welfare. The welfare reform package agreed under the Stormont House agreement is a good one, a generous one and a fair one, and therefore it is vital that it is implemented.
May I wish all my friends in Northern Ireland the very best for the future? People often take for granted the peace and stability that has been secured in Northern Ireland since the 2007 agreement, but that was won only after conflict, terror and hatred going back centuries, through very difficult negotiations. It took dedicated skill and constant strong leadership by the Labour Government to achieve it. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining that progress requires nurturing by this Government and by any Governments to follow?
I do accept that. This Government will continue to do all they can to support and nurture that political settlement. That is a message that all parties need to hear, including Sinn Fein—that we should not take risks with political stability in Northern Ireland, because the consequences could be very grave.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that it is not just Sinn Fein, but their lapdogs in the Social Democratic and Labour party who have blocked welfare reform in Northern Ireland and put the Assembly in jeopardy? Will she spell out the consequences for corporation tax, the economic package and the long-term sustainability of the budget in Northern Ireland as a result of that irresponsible behaviour?
If this question is not resolved, if the welfare reform legislation remains permanently stalled, obviously the rest of the Stormont House agreement does not happen. That includes the financial package and the devolution of corporation tax, but we are not at that point yet. It is important to work intensively, and in the meantime the UK Government will do everything we can to continue to implement the agreement.
The Secretary of State will be at pains not to feed the sense of impasse that surrounds the Stormont House agreement. She knows that there were two elements to the understanding on welfare reform—one was the understanding about the amount of money from the Executive’s budget that could mitigate measures; the other was the degree of leeway within the welfare spending. Has anything changed in the lines from the Department for Work and Pensions that have given rise to the allegations that Sinn Fein is making against the Democratic Unionist party?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to do all we can to keep the situation as calm as possible. Unfortunately, episodes of this kind are characteristic of the implementation process of agreements. It will be helpful for as many facts as possible to be made clear about how the welfare reform programme will operate in Northern Ireland and how the top-ups will operate. It is a generous package, and once the details are clear I hope everyone will be convinced of that.
At this, the last Northern Ireland questions before the election, there is an air of some melancholy. Who knows where we will meet again or on what side of the Dispatch Box? May I ask the right hon. Lady what, in her three years as Secretary of State, in which she has been unfailingly courteous, she would consider her proudest—her finest—achievement?
Up to Monday, I would have said the Stormont House agreement—[Interruption]
Order. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) asked a question. I want to hear the Secretary of State’s answer, and she is entitled to have her answer heard.
Up until Monday, I would have said the Stormont House agreement. I think that is still the greatest thing that I have contributed to and it is still on the road. We have had a bump on the road, but the Stormont House agreement will carry on. The other thing of which I am proud is the progress that we have made towards devolution of corporation tax. I do not want to see that thrown off course by events that have taken place this week.
Flags and Parades
5. What further steps the Government plan to take to resolve outstanding issues relating to flags and parades. 
9. What further steps the Government plan to take to resolve outstanding issues relating to flags and parades. 
The Stormont House agreement identified a clear way forward on parades and flags. [Interruption.] The Government will continue to work with the five parties in the Executive on the implementation of all the provisions of the agreement, including on these issues. [Interruption.]
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, although I must admit I had trouble hearing it. Unrest around the parades has an unsettling impact on the community, on local businesses and on tourism. What steps are the Government taking this year to try to ensure a peaceful parade season?
I urge everyone involved in parades or parades-related protest to ensure that all activity related to parades and protest is both peaceful and lawful and that the determinations of the Parades Commission, as the lawfully constituted authority, are complied with. I continue to have a series of meetings to try to find a way forward on the parading impasse in north Belfast.
In Belfast, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) recently said that securing the peace process and a strong economy went hand in hand. Does the Secretary of State agree, and will she support the Heenan-Anderson commission to ensure that people at the margins are not drawn to violence on issues such as flags and parades?
I agree that politics and economics are intertwined in Northern Ireland. Political stability is crucial for a successful economy. I note the Labour commission on this, but I think the crucial thing is to stick to the Government’s long-term economic plan, because that is delivering economic recovery in Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the feeling of injustice in the Unionist community on the issue of parades? In my constituency we have waited 16 years to get a return parade—a church parade. When are we going to get a resolution?
I am very conscious of the concern felt in the community in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is crucial that the Parades Commission’s determination needs to be abided by, but it is also important to press ahead with a reformed and devolved system of parades adjudication, as envisaged by the Stormont House agreement.
Cost of Living
6. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the cost of living in Northern Ireland. 
10. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the cost of living in Northern Ireland. 
Cutting income tax, freezing fuel duty, welfare reform, dealing with the spectacular deficit we inherited and keeping interest rates low are practical examples of how this Government are helping hard-pressed families in Northern Ireland.
Labour has set out clear plans to raise the national minimum wage to at least £8 by 2020. What is the Minister doing to tackle low pay, when one in six people in Northern Ireland are in low pay?
I thought the hon. Gentleman would have started by welcoming the Government’s efforts to reduce unemployment in Northern Ireland—17,000 extra jobs in the private sector over the past year alone. If he was listening, he would have heard the answer to his question from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier
The Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action estimates that introducing the living wage would see 173,000 low-paid employees receive an average gross pay rise of £1,300 a year. Will the Government look at strengthening the living wage to help Northern Ireland, which has the lowest private sector pay in the UK?
The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, have seen the Institute for Fiscal Studies incomes report published earlier this month. It marked a major milestone, for it is now clear that average incomes in Northern Ireland are back from the pit they were in prior to Labour’s deficit crisis. The IFS further forecasts that incomes will rise above inflation in the year ahead, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.
Does the Minister recognise that the Democratic Unionist party’s long-term economic plan to see household taxes at their lowest and a freeze on the regional rate on household taxes for five years is working? However, this Government could have a direct impact by reducing energy costs for employers and consumers alike, and they should address that immediately.
The hon. Gentleman makes his points in his characteristically formidable fashion, and I am sure he will welcome the freeze on fuel duty, which will mean that by the end of this Parliament a tank of petrol will cost £10 less. He will also welcome inward investment to Northern Ireland, which I know he feels very strongly about given what has happened in his constituency, with, for example, Kainos, Randox, WhiteHat, Revel and PricewaterhouseCoopers. They will be creating 800 jobs in Northern Ireland—high-quality jobs—in the year ahead.
National Crime Agency
8. What recent progress has been made on the status and operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. 
I welcome the vote in the Assembly that will enable the full operation of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. This will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are afforded the same protections from serious and organised crime as those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
When the NCA is up and running in Northern Ireland, will my right hon. Friend speak via the Chief Constable to ensure that the agency investigates the destination of funds from serious and organised crime? Many of the serious and organised criminals in the border area are the people giving funds to the IRA, and it is important that those funds do not fund political parties.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but I know that the full implementation of the NCA in Northern Ireland is a welcome step. I pay tribute to the Justice Minister and others for securing that result, and I know that they will bear down on all the perpetrators of such activities and on any who receive the funds that those activities create.
Last but not least, Mr Gregory Campbell.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the National Crime Agency specifically target the organised criminal gangs that are engaging in subterfuge and in the organised criminal activity of fuel laundering along the border areas of Northern Ireland?
That is a significant problem, and the House will have the chance to debate it later. Significant cross-border co-operation is under way, and the authorities in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the police services on both sides of the border are determined to tackle the problem and bring the perpetrators to justice.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 March. 
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
Our allies are warning of a dangerous gap between us and America on this, so will the Prime Minister tell us what will be more important to him in the next Parliament: protecting our armed forces or introducing tax cuts?
What is important is combining economic security and national security, and the two go together. We inherited a £38 billion black hole in our defence budget, but because of the excellent stewardship of the economy by this Chancellor and this Government, we have filled that gap. We are investing in defence, our economy is strong and our country is safe.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in connection with the Post Office mediation scheme, the Post Office has just sacked the independent investigator, Second Sight, and told it to destroy all its papers? Does he agree that it is essential that Second Sight’s second report should not be suppressed, but should be supplied to sub-postmasters and MPs, starting with the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) and the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he has consistently raised the concerns of some sub-postmasters about the operation of the Post Office IT system and the matter of the Post Office mediation scheme. The Business Committee is currently taking evidence on this issue, and it should be given all the relevant information. The Government should not interfere with the independent mediation process, but I will ask the Business Secretary to write to my right hon. Friend about his concern and to ensure that the Business Committee can do its job properly.
Less than two months ago, the Prime Minister said in this House that he wanted a head-to-head debate between me and him. He said it was game on. When did he lose his nerve?
If the right hon. Gentleman wants a debate, I have offered a date: the week starting 23 March. Why won’t he say yes to it?
I am going to be at the debates set by the broadcasters on 2 and 16 April, but I am asking the Prime Minister about a two-way debate between him and me. The original proposal for the two-way debate did not come from me or from the broadcasters but from him. He said:
“I’ve suggested…we need a debate where the two people who could actually be Prime Minister debate directly with each other.”
It was a good proposal then, and it is a good proposal now. Why does he not just name the day?
The right hon. Gentleman said “anytime, anyplace, anywhere”. I have told him: 23 March —let’s hold that debate. But I will tell him what has changed: it is now obvious that Labour cannot win without the Scottish National party. He says we need the two leaders, but we need the two leaders who can call the tune—that is me and Alex Salmond. Let us have the debate.
The Prime Minister says it is all about leadership. He says it is about him and me— [Interruption.]
Order. Nobody in the House of Commons—[Interruption.] The Government Chief Whip should not be smirking about it, as it is not a laughing matter. Nobody in the House of Commons should be shouted down. I have got news for Members: however long it takes, it is not going to happen—Members will be heard.
These are pathetic, feeble excuses. Can we now take it that there are no circumstances in which he will debate with me head to head between now and the general election?
We have had four years of debates and we have found out he has got no policies; he has got no plan; he has got no team; and he has got no clue about running the country. The truth is this: Labour is now saying that it cannot win the election. I have here the leaflet that Labour put out in Scotland—I think the SNP might be interested in this. It says:
“At the General Election we need to stop the Tories being the largest party.”
Labour is not trying to win; it is just trying to crawl through the gates of Downing street on the coat tails of the SNP. The right hon. Gentleman has to prove he is not a chicken and rule that out.
There is only one person preparing for defeat and it is this Prime Minister. He is not going to be able to wriggle out of this. This is what he said before the last general election:
“we have the opportunity to debate…at prime minister’s questions. But that is a very different matter to a proper television debate during a general election campaign…when Parliament is not sitting, and when people will be most receptive to engaging in political discussion.”
We know he lost to the Deputy Prime Minister last time. Why does he not just cut out the feeble excuses and admit the truth: he is worried he might lose again?
Amazing! The right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the future of a television programme; I want to talk about the future of the country. Four questions, three weeks to go, and he cannot talk about jobs because we are growing jobs. He cannot talk about unemployment because unemployment is plummeting. He cannot talk about inflation because it is at a record low. The truth is he is weak and despicable and wants to crawl to power in Alex Salmond’s pocket.
If the Prime Minister is so confident, why is he chickening out of the debates with me? Everyone can see it. Mr Speaker, I will tell you why this matters. It matters because it goes to his character. The public will see through his feeble excuses. Instead of these ridiculous tactics, why does he not show a bit more backbone and turn up for the head-to-head debate with me—any time, anywhere, any place?
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what goes to character: someone who is prepared to crawl into Downing street in alliance with people who want to break up our country. What a despicable and weak thing to do, risking our defences, risking our country, risking our United Kingdom. If he had an ounce of courage, he would rule it out.
There is only one person who is a risk to the integrity of the United Kingdom and it is this useless Prime Minister. [Interruption.]
Order. The question will be heard. The noise calculatedly being made by some Members on both sides of the House is a disgrace to the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) will be heard and the Prime Minister will be heard. That is the end of the matter.
There is only one person who is a risk to the integrity of our country, and that is this Prime Minister. On the head-to-head debate, we have learned something about him: like all bullies, when the heat is really on he runs for cover.
The right hon. Gentleman has been offered a debate any time, any place, anywhere, but he will not take it. The truth is that Labour has nothing to say on policy and nothing to say on the economy. Its only way into Downing street is on Alex Salmond’s coat tails. It is an alliance between the people who want to bankrupt Britain and the people who want to break up Britain, and the British people will never have it.
On 25 March, the Penrose inquiry, which has been looking at the tragedy of contaminated blood in Scotland, will finally report. It is likely to have implications for the rest of the United Kingdom. The time scale means that it is highly unlikely that there will be a full response by this Government before the end of Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend, who has taken a great personal interest in this—as have more than 100 Members of this House—give an assurance that the matter will not slip from his or the Government’s agenda, and that as soon as possible in the new Parliament there will be an attempt at closing this terrible tragedy in our country?
Let me first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for leading on this issue. I suspect that, like me, every Member of Parliament has heard moving stories at their surgeries from constituents who have hepatitis C or HIV because of contaminated blood. It is right to wait for the Penrose inquiry. Let me make it clear that that is not an excuse, because I want us to take action. I am not sure whether that action will ever fully satisfy those who want this wrong to be righted, but as a wealthy and successful country we should be helping these people more. We will help them more, but we need Penrose first, and if I am standing here after the next election it will be done.
Q2. Before the last election, the Prime Minister repeatedly promised to cut immigration. Instead it has gone up. Net immigration is now three times higher than he promised. Why has he failed? 
We have cut net migration from outside the European Union. We have created more jobs than the rest of the European Union put together, so we now need to reform welfare to ensure that people who come from other European countries cannot claim unemployment benefit, leave after six months without a job and have to work for four years before they get tax credits. That is what people will get if a there is a Conservative Government after the next election.
In celebrating international women’s day, the Prime Minister can be congratulated on making it happen for women: we have more women in work than ever before, more female-led businesses than ever before, more females on boards than ever before, and more child care provision than ever before. Given that women are core to the long-term economic plan, will my right hon. Friend support the creation of a women and equalities Select Committee to ensure that future Governments do as much for women as the current Government have?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in agreeing to that. Of course we still have to break down disadvantage and barriers in our country, but there are more women in work than ever before; the pay gap for the under-40s has been eradicated; we are doing more to help with child care and to help people with caring responsibilities; and we have tried to help women around the world, not least by campaigning and working to cut out female genital mutilation and to put an end to the horrors of forced marriage. This Government have a good record on promoting women’s issues and rights, not just in the UK but right around the world.
Q3. Does the Prime Minister share my admiration for The Brick, a Wigan charity that last year gave 6,000 food parcels to local families? Will he tell those families why, 30 years after the miners’ strike, yet again our community is having to compensate for its heartless and hopeless Government? I would be ashamed of that record; is that why he will not go head to head and debate it? 
I shall tell the hon. Lady what we inherited in Wigan: since we came to office, unemployment has come down by 44% in terms of the claimant count. In the north-west, we have seen 124,000 more people in work. Those people are now able to provide for their families. That is what is happening. We have a growing economy because we dealt with the mess left by the hon. Lady and her party.
Q4. We can be rightly proud of our science and technology research base, but there is a danger that Government spending on that important area is falling behind. When my right hon. Friend is returned as Prime Minister in only a few weeks’ time, will he commit to a real-terms increase in the science budget, thus supporting Basildon’s innovative industries, maintaining our world standing in the sciences and helping to create the high-paid jobs that we need to deliver our long-term economic plan? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention science. Of course, we ring-fenced the science budget during this Parliament because it is absolutely essential to building the modern manufacturing and advanced economy that we want to see. We can also see excellent initiatives such as the Newton fund, the Alan Turing institute and the Sir Henry Royce institute—all big investments in science in the next Parliament.
It has been estimated that entrenching market structures in the NHS, for example through tendering, bidding and contracting to the private sector, costs over £10 billion a year. Why does the Prime Minister not think that that money would be better spent on patient care?
What we have done is save money by cutting out bureaucracy, so we are seeing an extra £4.5 billion go into the NHS. If the hon. Lady is saying that there is no occasion at all when anyone from the independent, charitable or voluntary sectors can help in our NHS, I think that she is wrong. I think of the work that Macmillan cancer nurses and Marie Curie Cancer Care do, helping with the end of life. The idea that there is only one way to deliver health care in our brilliant NHS, which is expanding under this Government, is completely wrong.
Q5. Despite record numbers of new jobs, people with a learning disability can still find it tough to get into work. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the Basingstoke inclusion zone, which will recognise the commitment of local employers to people with a learning disability, whose talents and ability in the workplace are too often hidden? 
I certainly join my right hon. Friend in praising the great work of the inclusion zone, which is launching this Friday. We need to build on the success we have already, with employment of disabled people up by 141,000 over the past year. We need a change not only in action, but in culture, which is why the Disability Confident campaign is so important for encouraging employers to join in and give employment opportunities to disabled people. We now have over 1,000 committing to change their practices with disabled people, and I want to see that go right across the country.
Q6. I am sure that the Prime Minister will want to join me in congratulating Titanic Belfast, which this week beat competition from the London Eye and the Eiffel tower to become the best international group visitor attraction. Does he therefore share my frustration and anger that in the same week the much bigger prize of political stability and economic progress is being jeopardised by Sinn Fein reneging on promises made in the Stormont House agreement? 
First, let me join the hon. Lady in praising the Titanic exhibition, which I have been to see myself. It is an absolutely brilliant visitor attraction and yet another reason to visit Belfast, and not only for people from across our United Kingdom, but for people from across Europe and around the world. I agree that what matters now is implementing the Stormont House agreement. Everyone should do what they signed up to do in that agreement, including Sinn Fein. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working very hard to try to ensure that everyone fulfils their pledges.
Q7. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the many dedicated health professionals who work at St Ann’s hospice in my constituency, and does he agree that the decision to devolve £6 billion of NHS spending to Greater Manchester presents a tremendous opportunity to integrate health care services better and secure a more positive long-term funding arrangement for our local hospices? 
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. The hospice movement is another good example of something that provides vital health and social services in our country but is not necessarily owned and operated by the NHS. I am a parent who used a hospice in Oxford regularly, and I was absolutely amazed by the brilliant work they do. We have allocated over £100 million of capital funding to hospices since 2010, and that is in addition to the £10 million for children’s hospices. I would welcome more NHS money being made available to hospices, as he says, and I think that the Greater Manchester decision is a way of ensuring that decisions are made between local authorities and the NHS and are made closer to the patients who they are serving.
A leaked NHS report shows a looming deficit of £200 million in Staffordshire in three years’ time. Last year, 10 more of these reports were commissioned into distressed local health economies around the country, and yet, after repeated stonewalling, health Ministers are now saying:
“Consultancy firms were not commissioned to produce reports on the local health economies, as described in the question”.
May I ask the Prime Minister why, election or no election, the Government are engaged in a cover-up of what lies in store for large parts of the NHS around the country?
There is a pattern, which is that Labour MPs in Staffordshire are determined to try to frighten people about the future of the NHS, and they are the last people who should do that after the appalling mess they made in Mid Staffordshire. We are seeing £12.7 billion more money going into our NHS and a strong future for the NHS in Staffordshire that will be continued as long as I am in this place.
Q8. This is the third time in four months that I have raised at Prime Minister’s questions NHS England letting down the 180 or so people with ultra-rare diseases, some of whom are outside the House today, who have been failed by a flawed process. Some of those children will lose access to their drugs from May, and their conditions will deteriorate irreversibly. We have two sessions of Prime Minister’s questions left. Can he tell me that, in that time, he will announce when we will get interim funding for the drugs that these children and these people need? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, because these are very rare and debilitating conditions, and there are drugs that can help the children who have them. Having looked at this—and I know that the health and science Ministers have looked vary carefully at it and met the families and the drug companies, as well as NHS England—my understanding is that NHS England is holding a review, which will be completed by the end of April, and the companies are currently funding these drugs until the end of May. So I do not see any reason why there should not be continuity of care and continuity of drugs, and that is what I hope we can achieve.
Spending 2% of GDP on defence is not only significant as part of our NATO commitment—it is also a commitment to being a reliable ally. Only last September, the Prime Minister still thought it was important when he lectured other NATO countries on meeting Britain’s commitment. Is he not just a little bit embarrassed that he himself has now reneged on that?
This country has met its NATO commitments, not only for 2% but to spend the money on deployable equipment and forces, which is just as important a commitment. What I would say to the hon. Lady is this: how does she feel about her leader contemplating a deal with the SNP, who want to strip this country of their defences? That is what they are prepared to do. He will not rule it out. It says very clearly in his leaflet: they are only trying to be the largest party; they are not trying to win a majority. That is the risk we face: no Trident, no protection for our country—defence stripped bare by a Labour party in hock to the SNP.
Q9. With unemployment falling in Southend, enterprises expanding and 310 new businesses being created, will my right hon. Friend describe to the House which Government policies will see this recovery continuing so that the irresistible and unstoppable case for Southend to be made a city actually happens? 
May I once again commend my hon. Friend on the consistency of his campaign to see Southend recognised in that way? He asked me what policies will make a difference and continue to bring businesses to Southend. We are cutting the jobs tax for businesses and charities, and that is helping; we have got the lowest rate of corporation tax in the G7, and that is helping; we are abolishing national insurance contributions for under-21s; and we are extending the doubling of the small business rate relief. All of these things, sticking to our long-term economic plan as the OECD, IMF and others have advised us to, can make sure that Southend can continue to grow and perform well.
Q10. In protecting universal benefits, the Prime Minister said that pensioners “deserve dignity” when they retire. Retired constituents in West Lancashire say, “What’s the point of a bus pass when there are no buses?” [Interruption.] There are not even trains, as the Conservative borough council has pocketed the additional money that would have been used to allow pensioners to have access to trains. Will the Prime Minister do the right thing—[Interruption.] 
Order. The hon. Lady needs to bring her question to a close, but that question, notwithstanding a display of very considerable rudeness towards her, will be heard. That is the end of it. It will be heard however long it takes; it does not matter to me.
Will the Prime Minister do the right thing and ensure that concessionary travel for all pensioners is fair and equitable?
Of course, buses are the responsibility of the county council, so I think the point made was a fair one. I have talked about dignity and security in retirement, because we have kept our commitments and upgraded the pension by the triple lock, so pensioners in the hon. Lady’s constituency will have £950 more in terms of the basic state pension than when I become Prime Minister in 2010. We committed to keeping the free bus pass, keeping the free television licence, keeping the freedom from prescription charges. We have kept each and every one of those promises. We have gone beyond that by saying to pensioners that they do not need to buy an annuity: it is their money, their savings, and they can spend it as they choose. This has been a Government who have recognised that people deserve that dignity and security, and we have delivered in full.
Seventy-five per cent. of our schools contain asbestos, more than 20 teachers a year are dying from exposure to asbestos and our children are known to be particularly vulnerable. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Government publish their completed policy review on asbestos in schools before Dissolution?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue, which has been well broadcast and covered in the media in the past couple of days. That is why we are carrying out an asbestos review going through all schools. We will publish it in due course, and action will have to be taken.
Q11. I was thinking of raising with the Prime Minister the Conservatives’ so-called long-term economic plan—like Pinocchio’s nose, it grows longer and less attractive by the day—but with just two Prime Minister’s questions to go, I thought that I would ask the Prime Minister whether he shared my imminent relief that neither he nor I will have to pencil in 12 noon on a Wednesday any longer. 
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, as he will shortly be leaving the House? As a new Back Bencher, I will never forget coming to this place in 2001 and, in the light of the appalling terrorist attacks that had taken place across the world, seeing the strong leadership he gave on the importance of keeping our country safe. He is a remarkable politician, a remarkable man. I remember once in the Home Affairs Committee that, even though he could not see who we all were, he knew exactly who was concentrating and who was not. I do not know how—he has this extraordinary gift—but he is an extraordinary politician. I pay tribute to him, and I know the rest of the House will join me in doing so.
During his conference speech, the Prime Minister rightly warned voters flirting with UKIP that if they went to bed with Nigel Farage on 7 May, they could end up waking up with the Leader of the Opposition on 8 May. May I put it to the Prime Minister that the outcome could actually be a lot more unpleasant? Is it not now the case that if voters go to bed with Nigel Farage on 7 May, they could wake up not only with the Leader of the Opposition, but snuggled up next to Alex Salmond?
That is the point. Who knows who you could wake up in bed with? It might not just be Alex Salmond; it might be Nigel Farage. It could be any number of people. [Hon. Members: “It could be Nick Clegg.”] Yes, of course that is an option too. It all points to the difference between the competence of the Conservatives and the chaos of the alternatives.
Q12. People in Northern Ireland have once more seen the issue of sexual abuse put under the spotlight as members of the IRA stand accused of holding kangaroo courts, re-traumatising victims as a result. Will the Prime Minister help to establish a cross-border inquiry with the power to call key witnesses, to try to bring some form of closure and justice, especially to young people who have been abused and whose abusers have been sheltered by the IRA? 
I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman has said. The Stormont House agreement includes a set of measures and proposals to try to deal with the issues of the past in a fair and accountable way—perhaps this is one such issue that could be dealt with in that way.
Q13. In Gosport we have a proud history of supporting the armed forces, and the recent £420 million contract to service the Chinook helicopter fleet will help local companies such as Vector Aerospace to preserve those links. With that in mind, will the Prime Minister reassure the House of his commitment to defence spending, the defence industry, defence procurement and defence jobs? 
I can certainly make that commitment. We have said that the £160 billion equipment programme over the next decade is fully protected and will grow in real terms, and I have recently been to Portsmouth to see for myself the new docks that are being put in to welcome the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, and the massive investment that will go into Portsmouth for ship servicing. My hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit from the Chinook contract—a new order of Chinooks pumping money into our defence industry and leading to the training of apprentices, jobs and livelihoods for many years to come.
A couple with two children where the man earns £25,000 and the woman earns £10,000 will be £9,417 worse off in tax credits if they stay together, as opposed to if they break up. Is that brutal attack on working families another reason why the Prime Minister will not go head to head in a pre-election debate with the Leader of the Opposition?
This Government have obviously helped all couples by lifting the first £10,600 that someone earns out of tax, and we are the first Government to introduce a married couple’s tax allowance, which I seem to remember the hon. Gentleman voted against. If he cares about couples and commitment, he should be voting with us.
Q14. It has been an honour and a privilege to be the Member of Parliament for North Warwickshire for the past five years, and I am particularly proud that in that time crime in North Warwickshire has fallen. There are more doctors and nurses in the George Eliot hospital, and the number of schools rated as needing improvement has halved. Perhaps most importantly, unemployment in North Warwickshire has fallen to the lowest level since constituency records began in 1983. Does the Prime Minister agree that that shows that gripping the economy, gripping the deficit, and having an effective long-term economic plan is not just empty rhetoric but makes a real difference to people on the ground? 
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he has done. The claimant count in North Warwickshire has come down by 70% since the election, and the long-term youth claimant count has come down by 64%. I know that, working with Craig Tracey, he will work hard to ensure that North Warwickshire continues to benefit from our long-term economic plan.
Q15. The Prime Minister may know that this could be my last Prime Minister’s questions after 20 happy years representing Bradford South. He will be pleased to know that I am making my retirement plans—what are his? 
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on his service in this House but on winning a by-election. Any of us who have taken part in by-elections—I remember the Bradford South by-election, not entirely happily from my point of view—knows what daunting prospects they are. We all have plans for after 7 May, and people who we want to spend more time with, and less time with. I have a little list, and I suspect he has one too.
Members of the Scottish National party have been licking their lips in public at the prospect of blackmailing one of the two main parties into delaying or abandoning the replacement of the Trident submarines. Will the Prime Minister confirm that if he is still Prime Minister in 2016, as he should be, he will ensure that the maingate contracts for four successor submarines are signed that year?
I can reassure my hon. Friend. For me, Trident and its replacement are non-negotiable. They are an absolutely vital part of this nation’s security. Let me just remind Labour Members of the leaflet going out across Scotland. It says this:
“At the General Election we need to stop the Tories being the largest party.”
They have given up trying to be the Government and trying to win a majority. They want to crawl into Downing street on the coat tails of the SNP and put our country at risk. The British people will never have it.
Seventeen thousand police officers have gone in this Parliament. Under the Chancellor’s spending plans, another 30,000 would go in the next Parliament. The outgoing president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, has warned that it would no longer be possible adequately to protect the public from criminals or from the growing threat of home-grown terrorists. Is he right?
What we have seen in this Parliament is that, yes, we have made difficult decisions on police spending, but crime is down, including crime in the west midlands.
As for the shadow Chancellor’s dossier this week, he briefed against it before we even had a chance. I have heard of him briefing against the leader, but he has beaten his own records. He now briefs against himself.
Several hon. Members
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I need to declare an indirect interest. I seek your advice, because I would hate for a Minister to have unwittingly misled the House. Is it in order for the Chief Secretary to return to the Dispatch Box and supply the correct figures for social house building? Yesterday, in response to me, he said that the Government
“have the highest annual rate of social house building than under the previous Government”.—[Official Report, 10 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 145.]
The UK Housing Review, published on Monday, had within it a Department for Communities and Local Government live table, which had the following figures for social rent starts and completions: in 2009-10, there were 39,492 starts and 30,939 completions. The figures in 2013-14—the last full year—were 3,961 and 7,559 respectively. As you can see, Mr Speaker, the Chief Secretary’s statement is wrong, and his Government have not out-built the Labour Government.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order and for notice of its likely content. She has put her point on the record. I hope she will understand if I say that the content of Ministers’ observations in the House is not a matter for the Chair. If the Chief Secretary, upon reflection, judges that he has made an inaccurate observation, it is of course open to him to correct the record in one or other of a number of different ways. I hope the hon. Lady will not take offence if I say—it is meant as a compliment—that she is a wily character. She has largely achieved her objective by putting her point on the record in prime time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have always advised Members of this House of the importance of showing respect to others in the workplace. In that regard, is it appropriate, in this House, which is a workplace, that a female Minister should be referred to as a washing machine?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. I certainly did not say that a Member was a washing machine. If I caused offence to an hon. Member on Monday afternoon in the course of Question Time, in rebuking her for a long answer—it did result in a somewhat shorter one after that—and if I caused offence by what I said, I very happily apologise to that Member. I intended to cause no offence to her and hold her in the highest esteem. I hope I ordinarily treat Members with great courtesy. It was an off-the-cuff remark, it may well have been a foolish one, and I apologise for it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In this House, during a Division, if Members wish positively to abstain, the option of walking through both the Aye and the No Lobby is available to them.
No it is not.
It is possible to walk both through the Aye Lobby and the No Lobby and—
No, it is not.
Order. Please, Mr Bryant, I know you are an exceptionally clever man. No one is more aware of your cleverness than you, but you can leave me to deal with this matter.
We are, of course, regularly reminded of that, not least by the hon. Gentleman himself.
In a deferred Division, when one wishes to abstain, as I tried to recently, I was told that if one fills in both the Aye and the No Lobby one is recorded as “not voting”. Was that advice correct, or should it be possible, in the same way that one can vote in both Lobbies, to do the same in a deferred Division?
I am advised that the advice the hon. Gentleman was given is correct. The hon. Gentleman will have heard that the Acting Clerk has confirmed the accuracy of that advice to the Chair.
More widely, perhaps I can take this opportunity to make it clear—I think this largely deals with the concerns of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—that the occasional practice, and it is usually a very occasional matter, of a Member going through both Lobbies as a means of abstaining has long been deprecated by the Chair. It is not a breach of any particular rules, so far as I am aware, but it has long been deprecated by the Chair. It did happen on a piece of legislation a couple of years ago. I have to say, I strongly deprecated the decision of a particular Member to abstain in that way. I think it is an unsatisfactory way to behave and it is better avoided.
I think we have dealt with the matter, but if the hon. Member for Rhondda now wants to have his say on his feet, rather than from his seat, doubtless he will do so.
Standardised Testing for Diabetes (People Aged 40 and Over)
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Keith Vaz, Mike Freer, Andrew George, Grahame M. Morris, Jim Shannon, Mark Durkan, Mark Reckless, Mr Adrian Sanders, Dr Julian Huppert, Valerie Vaz, John Robertson, Mr Jim Cunningham, Mr Alan Campbell and Phil Wilson presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to provide annual standardised tests for diabetes for those aged 40 and over; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 186).
National Health Service
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Caroline Lucas, Andrew George, John Pugh, Mr Michael Meacher, Chris Williamson, Mr Roger Godsiff, Kelvin Hopkins, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Dr Eilidh Whiteford, Hywel Williams and Katy Clark presented a Bill to re-establish the Secretary of State’s legal duty as to the National Health Service in England and to make provision about the other duties of the Secretary of State in that regard; to make provision about the administration and accountability of the National Health Service in England; to repeal section 1 of the National Health Service (Private Finance) Act 1997 and sections 38 and 39 of the Immigration Act 2014; to make provision about the application of international law in relation to health services in the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 187).
Horses and Ponies (Live Export)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about improving and enforcing the arrangements for the regulation of the export of live British horses and ponies from the United Kingdom; to require the Secretary of State to commission and publish a study of the effectiveness of such arrangements, including their efficacy in distinguishing between the transportation of live horses and ponies for sports and those for meat; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would require the Animal and Plant Health Agency to take full responsibility for enforcement of horse health and welfare laws at British ports. It would require them to use the Government Agency Intelligence Network to involve Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and other authorities to crack down on the illegal trafficking of tens of thousands of British horses, ponies and donkeys each year.
The UK can be proud of its laws that protect the welfare of every one of our country’s 1 million equines, including protecting them from indiscriminate export for slaughter. Indeed, if I want to export a horse legally I must complete various papers and declarations citing the purpose of export, the destination address, the veterinary certification that I have obtained stating that the horse is in good health, and details of the horse passport and microchip numbers. Ponies must also be above a certain value—at least £145, depending on size—if they are to be eligible for export. One might think that the information declared in these export applications would be occasionally checked and the destination address validated to ensure it exists. Sadly, it seems that this simply does not happen.
One might think that, at the very least, the health certification of animals leaving or entering our country would be checked by the APHA at our ports, but that does not happen. One might also think that occasional checks are made to ensure that the horses listed in the export declaration are the ones on the given lorry, but that does not happen, either. One might think that occasional checks would be made to ascertain the transported animal’s welfare, as advised by the European animal transport regulation, but that does not happen, either. In fact, horses and ponies can effectively be shipped anywhere, for any purpose, in any condition, despite our laws, which are meant to protect them.
For instance, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that there have been no applications to export horses for slaughter for very many years. However, World Horse Welfare, which I thank for its help in preparing the Bill, has clear evidence that many horses and ponies exported under the pretence of sport or leisure are actually taken directly to addresses associated with the meat trade, including markets on the continent where slaughter buyers are present. We are not talking about a few dozen horses slipping through the net; we are talking about tens of thousands of horses and ponies each year.
For example, over just one weekend of monitoring in 2013, World Horse Welfare saw 51 shipments exported from Dover to France and 41 shipments imported, on vehicles taking between two and 22 horses. Not a single check was observed being carried out by the APHA. It is no secret that these low-value horses and ponies are probably being exported with fraudulent identification documents, thereby allowing them to be entered into the meat trade on the continent. Without proper identification, these horses could not be considered safe to enter the food chain, but European abattoirs are much more likely to be fooled by false UK paperwork than our own abattoirs here in the UK. We are watching this happen and, it appears, doing nothing. I am afraid that this is exactly the kind of complacency that contributed to the horsemeat scandal. Horses, unlike other livestock, are relatively unregulated, so trafficking in them is easy to get away with.
Organised criminals are also exploiting the fact that horseboxes can sometimes travel in and out of Britain without a single check or search. Imagine the tax revenue we are losing by letting this trade flourish under the radar, never mind the value of the proceeds from crime. The case of a horse dealer from Northern Ireland, caught smuggling nearly 25 kg of cannabis worth nearly £250,000 in his horsebox, is just one example of the kind of trade we are dealing with. The charity World Horse Welfare estimates that a lorry load of 20 horses could be worth anything from £5,000 to £10,000 at the meat markets, and that trafficking 10,000 horses per year would fetch criminals £2 million to £5 million.
There no enforcement because there is no longer a workable line of responsibility or, it appears, the effective resources to enforce the laws. Instead, we seem to have a dysfunctional system where responsibility appears to be shunted between DEFRA, the APHA and local authorities. As the competent authority, DEFRA is responsible for the enforcement of the laws governing the welfare, transport and trade of animals. However, it has delegated that duty across different agencies. The APHA is clear that it does not enforce those laws. That is a job for local authorities through trading standards or other agencies, but trading standards will not consider enforcement unless there have been reported breaches in compliance. Even then, it must meet its public interest and proportionality tests. As the APHA does not have an intelligence capability, it can only act on specific intelligence. Without intelligence, the APHA is reliant on assessing the declared information of compliant individuals, which does nothing to identify or assess the non-compliant trade. Effectively, therefore, we have no enforcement whatsoever and criminals will continue to profit from horse suffering.
My Bill would, I hope, change that. First, it would require the Secretary of State to commission and publish a study of the effectiveness of the current enforcement in horse exports. Secondly, DEFRA would make the APHA the enforcement authority for all equine exports and imports, including health, welfare and documentation. That streamlining of enforcement would be effective and simple to implement. A similar scheme was in place some years ago when checks at our ports were carried out by the State Veterinary Service before the current arrangements were put in place.
Penalties for breaches would be increased and the maximum imposed to serve as a deterrent. The penalties imposed for breaches of welfare-in-transit laws are usually insignificant—cautions or brief suspensions—despite the courts having the option of fines of up to £5,000 per animal. Penalties for breaches of other laws, such as the use of false horse passports or vehicle violations, are also relatively small and are therefore also too often not considered worth the time of local authorities. However, if it follows the national intelligence model the APHA could target prolific offenders collectively and significant penalties could be imposed through the courts, thus delivering much-needed revenue to the Government, never mind what tax officials and the criminal enforcement agencies might be able to recoup from the proceeds of these traffickers’ crimes.
My Bill would also require the APHA to put in place an effective collaborative framework to gather, assess, disseminate and act on intelligence regarding equine health, welfare and documentation irregularities as well as suspicious patterns in the trade. The APHA claims that it already conducts intelligence-led enforcement but it has no effective system to hold, analyse or act on that intelligence. Non-governmental organisations such as World Horse Welfare have extensive intelligence that they share with Government agencies and are keen to share with the APHA. Many NGOs are ready and willing to do all they can to help.
Finally, my Bill would require greater transparency and therefore accountability for the APHA by publishing enforcement actions and suspensions, as happens with vehicles through traffic commissioners and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency. I hope that the House will support the Bill so that we can better protect our horses, stop this criminal trade and ensure that the Government receive their due revenues.
Question put and agreed to.
That Gregory Barker, Mrs Anne Main, Zac Goldsmith, Sir John Randall, Caroline Nokes, Jim Fitzpatrick, Simon Kirby, Joan Walley, Michael Fabricant, Charlie Elphicke, Andrew Rosindell and Mr Shaun Woodward present the Bill.
Gregory Barker accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March and to be printed (Bill 188).
[19th Allotted Day]
General Election Television Debates
I beg to move,
That this House recognises the potential value of broadcast general election debates between party leaders; notes however that neither the broadcasters nor politicians can escape the charge of self-interest in their organisation, and that they should best be left to an independent body to arrange; further notes that the broadcast debate formats proposed for 2015 have been inconsistently and incompetently formulated so far; further notes that there exists a substantial danger as a result that these debates will now not happen; and believes that the point of any debates which do happen must be to benefit those who watch them, not those who appear in them or broadcast them.
Mr Speaker, you are the first among us to mention when the public think we are doing a good job of debating and whether we get it right or wrong. You, sir, do a much better job of ensuring that debates happen than the broadcasters do and, if I may say so, of ensuring that all the relevant people turn up, including Ministers. In this Parliament, Ministers have certainly been made much more accountable than they have been in previous Parliaments, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful for that.
With just eight weeks to go to polling day, there are as many questions as ever about the proposed television broadcast debates. Who will be debating with whom? Who is invited? Who will actually turn up? When are the debates happening? On not one point has agreement been established, and we heard again today at Prime Minister’s questions that the controversy continues to rage. The situation is completely unsatisfactory and deeply disappointing.
Before the broadcasters report critically about us, they must first ask what they have got wrong in this process. Did they engage constructively and sensibly with all the parties? Can they honestly say that they have had at the front of their minds the interests of the voters, their viewers? Has not the self-interest of the broadcasters been rather too evident in much of the many mistakes they have made so far?
When we put ourselves before the voters, we hope for a fair hearing. Does anyone think that the broadcasters have had that, rather than ratings and spectacle, in mind? If they did, how does one explain their oscillation from one format for debates to another?
Did the right hon. Gentleman welcome, as I did, the intervention by Lord Grade, the former chairman of the BBC and chairman of ITV? He knows what he is talking about when he says that the arrangements for these debates are deeply flawed.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. The intervention in a letter to The Times this morning from the noble Lord was interesting and pertinent. It is interesting to note that someone who might have a party political affiliation but who is so experienced in broadcasting for ITV and in the world of the BBC is speaking so forthrightly about how broadcasters have handled the situation. It has to be said that that is particularly the case with the BBC, which has a responsibility as a public broadcaster to be fair and impartial to everyone. One issue that concerns television licence fee payers in Northern Ireland is the deliberate exclusion of Northern Ireland parties when other parties from Scotland and Wales that stand only in their respective countries are included. That prompts serious questions about the impartiality and fairness of the BBC, in particular.
I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last point. It is no good the broadcasters saying that the Welsh nationalists and Scottish nationalists can take part in the debates if the parties from Northern Ireland cannot. He should pursue his case vigorously.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. I am also grateful for the support that has been evident from Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, I have with me letters from the leaders of other parties throughout the United Kingdom defending and supporting our inclusion in the national debates.
Let me make the position of the Democratic Unionist party very clear. We want the national debates to happen and we do not want to intrude or ask to be involved in a national debate involving the national parties. For instance, we are quite happy that there should be a head-to-head debate between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition or a debate among those parties that are deemed to be national and have sufficient standing to stand in all parts of the United Kingdom. We did not raise any objections to that or ask to be included in that debate. When the broadcasters decided that they would invite the Scottish National party from Scotland and Plaid Cymru from Wales to be involved in the national debate, however, that prompted the question of why they would include a party that stands only in Scotland and a party that stands only in Wales but not the Democratic Unionist party, which has more MPs and more votes than Plaid Cymru and more MPs than the Greens, Plaid and the SNP put together. The whole thing is ludicrous.
We met the BBC at our request after it had proposed its second formulation. As I understand it, the BBC never asked to speak to any of the parties in Northern Ireland. Not only did the BBC not speak to the political parties in Northern Ireland but, as I understand it, the BBC mandarins and fonctionnaires did not even speak to their own journalists in Northern Ireland. I am not sure what happened in other countries or regions of the UK, but they took the decision without consulting the people directly involved in Northern Ireland. I hear them talk about consulting all the parties, but it is clear that they have not fulfilled their obligation, because they have not consulted us, despite our size and contribution and the potential for a hung Parliament on 8 May. These are serious questions, particularly for the BBC, that need to be answered. I reiterate our position: we are concerned with the national debates only because parties from other countries are to be involved but Northern Ireland is to be excluded, and there will be parties in those national debates putting forward candidates in Northern Ireland, and therefore it is prejudicial to Northern Ireland parties, particularly the DUP.
It is sometimes said by the BBC and other broadcasters, “Well, there will be local debates in Northern Ireland among the main parties. That is the opportunity for Northern Ireland politicians and parties to debate in front of the Northern Ireland electorate and set out their policies.” That is all fine and well—we have no objection to debating in that format—but I understand that such debates will also take place in Scotland and Wales. Yes, let us have those debates, but when it comes to the national debates, we cannot have one rule for parties chosen arbitrarily at the whim of unaccountable broadcasters deciding what is best for everyone else and having a different rule for Northern Ireland. That is totally unacceptable.
Lord Grade is reported as having accused channel bosses of breaking their legal duty of impartiality in threatening to stage the debates without the Prime Minister, but does that duty not also extend to the DUP, which is well represented in this House, given the inclusion of Plaid Cymru and the SNP?
My hon. Friend raises the important point, which the noble Lord referred to in his article, about the duty of impartiality that is placed on the BBC and to which I think other broadcasters should show due high regard. It remains to be seen what happens. Significantly, in this debate about debates, people have been forthright in saying, “This will happen”, but the reality keeps turning out to be very different. In the first formulation, the broadcasters assured us that there would be three debates with invitations to four parties—the Conservative party, the Labour party, the Lib Dems and UKIP—and that if anyone did not turn up, they would be “empty chaired”, but then of course they changed their minds.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but is it not paradoxical to have party political broadcasts that virtually nobody watches but not to have debates that 23 million people watched the last time they took place? Are the broadcasters not trying simply to step into the vacuum that the House has left, and should we not legislate to ensure fair debates across the UK and in the nations and regions of the UK?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point to which I shall return. Indeed, our motion states that the matter has been so badly handled by the broadcasters—undoubtedly political self-interest has raised its head as well—that steps should be taken, as a result of this debacle, to ensure a fair and equitable basis on which to agree proper and fair debates. This experience makes that point very strongly—although whether it should be done through legislation is another matter.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, and he makes his point about regional differences very well. Of course, the BBC and commercial stations can put on regional programmes involving regional politicians—regional parties are emerging in England, such as the North East party now standing in my seat, and Cornwall has a tradition of regional parties—but does he agree that the broadcasters need a model that fits all future purposes, whether for regional or national broadcasts, and that can determine which parties participate? They need to express a model that makes sense.
Until now, the broadcasters have made it up as they have gone along, responding to pressure here, there and everywhere. They have responded to the latest opinion polls—the exclusion and then inclusion of the Greens was done on the basis of opinion polls—but polls go up and down, so a decision on whether someone should be included will depend on when one takes note of the polls. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. A model needs to be designed in good time, well before a general election—especially because with fixed-term Parliaments everybody knows when the election will be—and with maximum agreement, setting out fairly and squarely the rules that will apply come what may. It needs to be fair to all parties and all regions and countries of the UK. We cannot have one country excluded and one major party in the House disadvantaged compared with other smaller parties. It cannot go on like this—he is right about that.
The broadcasters came up with their first formulation—three debates, four parties—but then they changed their minds and told us that seven parties would be invited. Not only did they completely change the proposed format and bin the nonsense about dissidents being “empty chaired”; they came up with proposals that, among other fascinating things, told us that the Liberal Democrats and Plaid amounted to pretty much the same thing—I mean no disrespect to either party when I point out to the broadcasters that there is quite a big difference between them in terms of size and appeal across the UK.
Until last week, no one had agreed even to that second unsustainable debate format—Labour had not agreed; UKIP had not agreed; the Liberals were vigorously denouncing the prospect of being relegated to football conference status; and the DUP had not agreed either. We have been absolutely consistent. As I said in response to earlier interventions, we can entirely see the case for the parties that Ofcom deems “the big four” debating with one another. One can debate whether Ofcom is right, but that is what it has said, so we can see the case for the broadcasters organising the debates on that basis. At a stretch, we can see the case for including the Greens—it is arguable, although it would make for much better television, from the broadcasters’ point of view—but we do not accept that the BBC and other broadcasters can pick and choose which parties from the countries and regions of the UK they deem fit to attend.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem arose when the broadcasters broke their rationale simply to include UKIP, rather than sticking with the previous elections as the basis on which to decide who should participate? That is where the rot stems from.
The hon. Lady raises the point I referred to about Ofcom’s definition for deciding which the main parties are. It is for Ofcom to make its own decisions and explain its rationale, and she certainly has a point, but we are where we are with that decision. It goes back to the point made earlier by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). We cannot go on making it up as we go along. We need a set of rules, well in advance of the elections, that are clear, rational, fair and understandable.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is coming on to the issue later in his speech, but the question of thresholds is relevant. Will such arrangements or models contain some sort of threshold, based perhaps on current representation in this House or some other method? Such a system would have various features, which could be explained in advance, and then used on every occasion.
The hon. Gentleman is right. That is certainly part of the debate that should happen, but it should happen well in advance—not in the heat of a general election and not in the run-up to the election when so many vested interests are at stake. As we have discovered, people who were previously enthusiastic have become less enthusiastic, depending on their particular vested interest. Likewise, others who were not so keen have suddenly become very keen indeed.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a compelling argument. Does he agree that the wider body politic and all our constituents right across the community would like to see us debating the substance of the issues that impact on them on a day-to-day basis, on which the general election will be decided?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, which is why it is important to have a debate about ensuring that that happens. As things stand, it looks likely that the public, who watched the debates in considerable numbers last time, will be denied the opportunity to hear the contributions from the various party leaders who could form the Government. The public would be very interested to hear about the priorities for the smaller parties that could play a significant role one way or the other—what is their general outlook and how would they see things shaping up? I agree entirely with the hon. Lady.
As I have said, at this time no one has any idea what debates, if any, are going to occur. The broadcasters can say what they like about being determined to proceed and can make threats of empty-chairing, but there is no consensus at all about whether these debates are going to occur.
I want to make it very clear to the House and people beyond it that Northern Ireland Members will certainly not tamely accept any attempt to pick and choose the parties to the detriment of Northern Ireland. We are part of the United Kingdom; we play a very significant role in the House. The Democratic Unionist party has eight MPs, but there are other Northern Ireland Members from other parties, and indeed no party, who play a role here, too. They deserve to have their voice heard on behalf of the people they represent. They should not be excluded, especially in a context where the Democratic Unionist party could play a much more significant role on 8 May than some of the parties that are going to be included in the debates. People across the United Kingdom need to know where we stand on the national issues.
I agree with virtually everything the right hon. Gentleman has said in this debate so far. Let me ask him about timing, which is a huge concern to me as a candidate. By having the TV debates within the last three or four weeks of the campaign, we convert it into a sort of “X Factor” whereby people will decide how to vote on the basis of looking at the television screen. The role of the hundreds and hundreds of candidates out there campaigning will be completely sidelined by this process if it takes place in the last few weeks of the campaign. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman intends to cover this, but I think the timing of these debates in a short campaign, which devalues the role of candidates, is an important one.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I think should be discussed in the wider context of setting out a model for how these debates should be run in the future. The timing is extremely important. I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman said about the effect of these big debates and the attention they receive. The Prime Minister’s argument about sucking the life out of the campaign is relevant, particularly to local campaigns.
Having said that, however, I also have a lot of sympathy with the view that the public are interested in having these sort of debates between people who might become the Prime Minister and form the Government. It is a question of balance, and looking at when these debates should happen is relevant, but I am not going to be prescriptive about it. It should be discussed and debated, and we need an independent model to take it all into account. It is wrong to say merely that we should go along with what the broadcasters have outlined because they believe that it is the right approach, and that anyone who disagrees with that does not have the interest of the wider public at heart. I do not believe that that is the right approach; it is a question of balance.
My right hon. Friend has alluded to the fact that after 8 May Democratic Unionist Members could have a say on who walks into Downing street as Prime Minister. That being the case, is it not right and proper that the national audience should know where smaller parties such as ours stand on the issues of national defence and the Union, on grammar school education, health care, taxation, the cost of living, defence spending and so forth? The public are entitled to know that; it will help them to decide which parties should help to create and form the next Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is in the interests of people throughout the United Kingdom. If we are to hear the views of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, it is absolutely right for people to hear the views of the Democratic Unionist party and others on the national issues, because this could have a major impact on the next Parliament.
When the leader of my party, Peter Robinson, and I met the BBC in Belfast, we heard this argument: “We have included the SNP and Plaid in addition to UKIP, the Greens and the three major national parties, but it would be difficult now to include the DUP. We recognise the strength of your numbers; we recognise the role you could play in the next Parliament; we recognise that you have more votes than Plaid; we recognise that you have more seats than Plaid; we recognise that, unlike some parties, you are genuinely going to weigh up the options after the election on the basis of proposals that come forward. You are not in the pocket of any party; you have not already sold your vote. You have not already said that you are going to oppose the Tories, come what may, or that you will never go into coalition with the Labour party. All that is perfectly valid, but it will be very difficult to broadcast a debate because we would have to invite all the Northern Ireland parties, which would make it very unwieldy.”
So it comes down to a problem the broadcasters have created by the inclusion of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, leading them to say, “It is too difficult to cover Northern Ireland because we would then have to include more parties than the DUP”. It is a problem of their own creation. It is hardly fair to blame the DUP or Northern Ireland when this is a problem that the broadcasters have created themselves. When they came forward with this formulation and created this problem, they must have done so with their eyes wide open. They must have known that the effect would be to exclude Northern Ireland completely and that they would have to resort to a weak argument along the lines of: “It would be very unwieldy in broadcasting terms and it would not be a great television show.” I have no reason to doubt that functionaries at the top of the BBC and elsewhere are reasonably intelligent people, so they must have known the implications, but they were prepared to proceed nevertheless. In my view, that is a gross dereliction of their duty of fairness and reasonableness.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is blatant arrogance coming from the BBC. This is an organisation funded by the general public who pay the licence fee. The public want to hear what the parties have to offer. This is just blatant arrogance.
That is absolutely right, and I think the BBC will live to regret that arrogance. The way it is treating the political parties of Northern Ireland displays a great level of contempt for the people of Northern Ireland.
I shall start my conclusion as I know other Members want to speak. Where are we at the moment? We are, preposterously, supposed to believe the threat from the broadcasters that they can legally contrive debates during the short general election campaign at which the Prime Minister is not present while many of his political opponents are. Reference has been made to what Lord Grade has said today. Some people may believe that that is possible. Some people in the BBC, including broadcasters, may believe that it is possible, although I should add, in fairness to the BBC’s employees, that I have yet to meet a BBC journalist who believes that it is. It would do the BBC Trust, and indeed Rona Fairhead, some good to listen sometimes to what members of their front-line infantry are saying.
Even now, it is not too late to do what should have been done long ago. A matter of such importance—putting the electoral choices of the British people directly in front of them—should be raised above the level of partisan squabbling or media meddling. Even at this late hour, a Speaker’s conference would start to take us where we need to go, towards the establishment of an independent commission to superintend broadcast election debates. Of course the public want to hear from us, but they must hear from us fairly, without bias and without the blatant incompetence that we have seen here before getting in the way.
Throughout the world, broadcasters work with independent commissions arranging political debates of this kind, and the end result is that in other countries, those debates happen. Here, it seems that the broadcasters know best. They know how to organise the debates, and they go ahead and try to do so on their terms. What has been the end result here? Chaos and confusion—and, eight weeks before the general election, no one has any idea what is happening about any of these debates.
Lord Grade, whom I mentioned earlier, writes that the BBC and the broadcasters
“are not the guardians of democracy.”
He also writes that they are “unequivocally playing politics.” Surely those are not characteristics of an independent BBC, and surely that means that an independent body to arrange the debates is required.
Again, my hon. Friend has made an important point. We must remember that we are sent to this House, having been elected by the people, to speak for the people: that is our role. We must take some responsibility, and learn the lessons of this debacle. We need to ensure that the debates happen in future, but on the basis of a model that sets their organisation and formulation aside from broadcasters and politicians.
I want the debates to happen. I sense that many Members on both sides of the House want them to happen, and that many members of the public do as well. The public want to see their politicians in front of them, debating the issues, at the appropriate juncture. The tragedy is that, at present, it is the broadcasters who are getting in the way,
During Northern Ireland questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) referred to the late Lord Molyneaux of Killead. Let me, as leader of the DUP group at Westminster, add my own tribute. I know that Jim Molyneaux, who was a distinguished and valiant Member of the House for many years, would have relished the excitable mess—as he would have put it—that people have got themselves into. He would have been getting them together and counselling them to sit down and find a way through it, calmly and rationally. He conveyed such a sense of authority that I think he was almost born an elder statesman, rather than growing into the role. He wanted people to engage in politics in sentences and paragraphs rather than in soundbites, and that is what these debates should be about. We should be seeking to place serious, coherent, cogent arguments before the public. That is one of the reasons I believe in a debate. I believe that, sadly, Prime Minister’s Question Time has become largely an exchange of soundbites, all sound and fury and very little elucidation.
Lord Molyneaux was adept in another respect. At the time of the last hung Parliament when Unionists held the balance of power, he showed that Ulstermen, and indeed women, are very good at doing politics when the occasion arises.
My right hon. Friend has made a very pertinent point, but I think it is a debate for another day.
Obviously my party will always stand up for Northern Ireland, and in raising this matter today, we are standing against an illogical and unreasonable attempt by some broadcasters to exclude us from the debates. However, the issue is wider than just us. Who are these debates for? Are they for the people who take part in them? Are they for the people who so desperately want to produce them? No, they are not. They are for the people who watch them, and who then decide whether we are to come back to this place. If the broadcasters cannot be trusted to put the interests of the voters first, in all parts of the United Kingdom, we must remember our historic role. We speak for the people because we are elected by the people, and others should never dare to presume to get in the way of the people when they are trying to hear their elected representatives speak and debate with one another. I commend the motion to the House.
I thank the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) for giving us an opportunity to debate this matter, and for making such a powerful speech. I also thank him for evoking the spirit of Lord Molyneaux, whose presence, given the respect that he enjoyed in this place, would no doubt have been very welcome during these rather turbulent discussions.
This may be a debate about debates, but it still matters. Millions of people watched the televised debates at the time of the last general election, and I think that it was a positive step for our democracy that the electorate were able to reflect on the choices that were put before them. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), television debates are not the only feature of a general election campaign, and the intensity and concentration of their sequencing tends to generate a close interest which, as the Prime Minister put it, sucks some of the life and vitality out of the campaign itself. That was certainly the case last time. Three years ago, the Prime Minister proposed that we should agree on a set of debates that would, ideally, take place before rather than during the short campaign, so that campaigning in the constituencies would not be overshadowed by the very important aspects of the debate.
Does the Minister believe that such debates should take place before the publication of party manifestos?
As was made plain today during Prime Minister’s Question Time, there is plenty to talk about. I think that the choices between the parties are pretty clear, and I see absolutely no reason why we should not have a debate. The Prime Minister proposed that we should have one during the week beginning 23 March, and I hope that his proposal will be taken up.
The right hon. Member for Belfast North was ingenious in drafting the motion. This is not, of course, a matter in which the Government have any direct legislative say. I think it important for the press—and broadcasters specifically, as part of the press—to be recognised as being robustly independent, and I would not want to breach that in any way
The Government have no direct role in the conduct of the leaders debates, which, in my view, is entirely proper. Government policy extends only to the framework by which broadcasters are regulated in the United Kingdom. Under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s independent communications regulator and competition authority, is required to set the standards for programmes on television and radio, which are embodied in the broadcasting code. The code applies to all broadcasters who are licensed by Ofcom. Crucially, it contains specific rules that apply during election periods and require licensed broadcasters to ensure that their coverage is duly impartial. That includes the requirement for due weight to be given to the parties.
In parallel the BBC, whose output is overseen by the BBC Trust, has editorial guidelines and election guidelines that set out the requirements for impartiality and accuracy generally, and specifically within an election period. The role of the press has been debated extensively during this Parliament and I know that all Members will support me in recognising the principle that independence and the requirements for accuracy and impartiality should be at the heart of broadcasting in this country.
Let me say a little about the particular contention in this debate. The aspect that the right hon. Member for Belfast North raised is who gets the power, in effect, to decide who gets a platform and who does not, and the way in which that has been conducted. He made a powerful case on behalf of his party and all parties in Northern Ireland. He expressed forcefully their concern about their exclusion from the arrangements proposed by the broadcasters. He referred to the fact that at the last election the Democratic Unionist party won more votes than one of the parties that is included in the seven-way debate, and more seats than four of them.
To try to cut through the logjam, the Prime Minister made an offer to participate in a seven-way debate before the start of the campaign. The leader of the Labour party said that he would debate the Prime Minister “any time, any place, anywhere”, as I understand it. The Prime Minister has proposed a time: he proposed that there should be a debate the week after next. The offer has been made; it is now up to the Leader of the Opposition to accept it.
As for the specific line-up of the parties, the Prime Minister has said, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North will be aware, that the leader of the DUP should be permitted to make his case for why he should be included, but that case should be made to the broadcasters rather than to the Government.
May I take the Minister back to the point about the timing of these debates? Of course the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition can find plenty to talk about. No doubt they could fill an hour arguing every day of the week, but the point is that in elections the electorate has the opportunity to vote for a manifesto. Is it not absurd for the Prime Minister to propose a debate before the manifesto is published? That is a con on the electorate.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is plenty to debate, as he is kind enough to acknowledge, week after week. There will be no shortage of points that can be made in the debate and it would be a good thing to get on with it. I hope the Leader of the Opposition will change his mind and agree to participate in the debate.
In every part of the United Kingdom, we are living through a time of rapid political change. Between one election and the next, we have seen major shifts in voter support, so it is vital that we do not see the result of previous elections fossilised in the format of the TV debates. It is for this reason that the Prime Minister objected to the exclusion of the Green party from the broadcasters’ original proposal. To people who ask, “Why should he care?”, let me give an answer that should appeal to all of us in the House. The more we are seen as turning our back on the legitimate expectation that people whose parties enjoy some support in the country should be able to make their case, the more we risk increasing the sense of alienation between this place and the country we represent. I also think it is a good thing to put the smaller parties on the spot. We know they can protest, and they often do so vociferously, but the question is whether they can propose workable solutions to the problems that they draw attention to. That is a different matter.
Speaking of workable solutions, it is clear, as the right hon. Gentleman affirmed in his remarks, that the broadcasters have failed to produce one in regard to the debates. Today’s debate demonstrates that the proposals made thus far have not achieved the breakthrough or the consensus that three years ago the Prime Minister said should have been engaged in ahead of the general election. Lord Grade’s letter, which many hon. Members have spoken about today, comes from a very distinguished and experienced broadcaster and regulator, who should obviously be listened to with respect. My party entered into negotiations with the broadcasters in good faith and repeatedly made the case for a more representative debate structure. Initially this was unilaterally disregarded, as the exclusion of the Green party made clear. The follow-up proposal was made without any consultation.
The motion before the House today proposes a new way forward—the creation of an independent body with responsibility for arranging the debates. The right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that it is rather late in the Parliament to debate the proposal, but he proposes it to reflect his dismay at the arrangements that have been suggested. It gives us the opportunity to raise the key questions—most fundamentally, who would the independent body be independent of? How would it be established and how would it be funded? Which debates would it produce? Who would it invite and how would this stand up to challenge? How would it succeed in convening the parties at all? Would they be compelled to participate? How would it secure the distribution of the debates by the broadcasters?
The Minister mentions the possibility of parties being compelled to participate. As a great student of politics, he will know that rule 101 for incumbency is, “Don’t give your opponent a platform.” Does he accept that those in power will try not to have such debates, as we are seeing right now?
I can only speak for my party, but a platform for the Leader of the Opposition is something devoutly to be wished for by those of us on the Government Benches. I do not know whether that breaks rule 101, but I very much hope that the Leader of the Opposition will accept the invitation.
On that point, the Leader of the Opposition has agreed to the broadcasters’ proposal for a head-to-head debate with the Prime Minister. Why is the Prime Minister refusing to have that debate?
The Prime Minister has made an offer. The Leader of the Opposition said that he would debate “any time, any place, anywhere”. The Prime Minister said that he would appear in the debate the week after next, and I look forward to the Leader of the Opposition appearing there.
The proposal for an independent body is not a new one. The House will be aware that the Select Committee on Communications in the House of Lords examined these questions and published its findings on 13 May 2014, in good time before the general election. Though recommendations were explicitly not made to the Government, reflecting the point that I made earlier, the Committee’s key conclusion questioned whether an independent body was required. It said that it had considered carefully the potential case for a body to be established independently of the broadcasters to oversee and produce broadcast election debates, but it has not been persuaded. It found no good arguments for the introduction of such a body.
Given the events of the past year, others, no doubt including the right hon. Member for Belfast North, will insist that the status quo is not working, and would perhaps invite that Committee to reflect on its proposals. In the immediate term, this is the purpose of the Prime Minister’s offer of a televised debate before the campaign proper, but time is running out. If the Leader of the Opposition does not make up his mind soon, it will be too late. Inevitably, he wants to distract us by insisting that the debate be restricted to the Prime Minister and himself alone. He does not want the scrutiny of the other party leaders—
The hon. Gentleman will have his chance.
The Leader of the Opposition does not want the scrutiny of other party leaders, including the leaders of other parties who are entitled to their say—the point that the right hon. Member for Belfast North made.
The Leader of the Opposition has already had his chance. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was debating with him again today. I have calculated that they have spent nearly 40 hours facing each other across this very Dispatch Box over the past four and a bit years. The latest instalment of this long-running televised head-to-head debate took place just a few minutes ago, and it will continue up to the moment that Parliament is dissolved. I can understand that the Leader of the Opposition might like one more chance to get it right—he tends not to come off the better in these head-to-head debates—but if it has not happened yet, I suspect it never will.
I read in the papers that the latest wheeze from the official Opposition is a law to make the TV debates mandatory. It is hard to know where to begin, or where the legal action from excluded parties would end. If participation in the debates is to be made compulsory, then, goodness me, are we to make watching them compulsory too, as part of the edification of voters? Indeed, it sometimes seems that the Opposition’s way of thinking is: why achieve anything through voluntary action when we can use the power of the state to enforce our will? It is very revealing of the instincts of the Labour party that, faced with a difficulty, it reaches for legislation and compulsion rather than agreeing a consensual way forward. In making this ludicrous proposal, the Labour leader has done more to reveal the likely chaos that would ensue from the election of a Labour Government than any number of debates could achieve.
On voluntary or compulsory participation, does the Minister agree that the ideal solution would be some form of independent commission for the next election five years hence, which every party is obligated to agree to, and with fairness as the essence of the decision about how the debate would be constructed? In that way, no one would have any excuse for running away from the debate.
I listened with respect to the proposal from the right hon. Member for Belfast North and his party. I understand the frustration they feel and why they are proposing this, but it is rather late in the day. I put on record my concern that compelling voluntary organisations to participate is not in the spirit of the way we have conducted these things. I accept the spirit in which the proposal has been made, however, and I do not think the intention is to put this on the statute book, but rather to explore the issues.
To assist in this matter, could a Speaker’s conference be brought into existence immediately after the election to ensure we have a way forward for the following election?
This will be a matter for the next Parliament, and the Government have not taken a view to that extent—and, speaking for the Government, I think it is right for me to record that. No doubt, however, having raised the debate this side of the election, if the Members of the hon. Gentleman’s party are returned after the election, they may well come back to it. The right hon. Member for Belfast North said in his speech that if anyone should compel the party leaders to give an account of themselves, it should be in this House by Mr Speaker, not by an unelected quango. This is, thank goodness, a parliamentary democracy. We do not have a presidential system, although if it was the presidential system of the United States of America, it could be that the Leader of the Opposition will be spending more time in the USA with his brother before long. Before that, however, let us give him one last chance through his spokesman here: an opportunity to appear before the nation with the other party leaders to explain why he should be Prime Minister. Our offer of this televised debate before the campaign starts still stands. Is he up for the challenge, or is he frit?
I thank the Minister for giving way; I thought he had sat down and had not allowed me in. Will he answer this question clearly for the record, because he has not done so yet: has the Prime Minister ruled out a head to head, potential Prime Minister with potential Prime Minister? Has he ruled that out, and am I correct in thinking that the debate he is offering is just one with other leaders?
I am always happy to extend my remarks to include the hon. Lady. What we have seen—I think this has been attested to in the speeches so far—is complete chaos and confusion on the part of the broadcasters. The Prime Minister has made an offer—an offer he first made three years ago—to have a debate before the election campaign starts. The offer is there on the table; I very much hope the Leader of the Opposition takes it up.
I join the Minister in congratulating the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) on securing this timely debate on this important subject. As has been said, the general election is just eight weeks away. In the 21st century, it is surely right that the public have an opportunity, in the weeks before polling day, to see the party leaders and potential Prime Ministers debate the issues.
Voter turnout has fallen significantly in recent years. Trust in politics and politicians is at a low ebb. We must do more to confront these challenges, and television debates are an opportunity for the party leaders to reach out, to inspire, to answer concerns and to attempt to engage with people. In 2010, nearly 10 million people watched the first TV debate between the leaders, eclipsing even “Coronation street” and “EastEnders”. It is an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to people, many of whom have not remotely started thinking about the election yet, and to give them the opportunity to hear from the leaders of the political parties. To reject that opportunity would be to show a disregard for the British public, who have made it clear that they want these debates to happen.
On this side of the House, we want these debates to happen. We have said that the broadcasters should make proposals, and we have accepted their proposals for three debates during the campaign. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) just reminded us, the Leader of the Opposition wants to debate the issues head to head with the Prime Minister. Realistically, there are only two leaders who could be Prime Minister after this general election, and the country should have the opportunity to see them debate head to head, and the broadcasters are proposing that there should be such a debate, alongside two others. That is why the Leader of the Opposition has said, to use his much quoted term, he will debate with the Prime Minister any time, any place anywhere. Of course, regardless of who is in power, we might expect the Leader of the Opposition to be bullish.
Does that offer extend to appearing in the week commencing 23 March?
If that is the proposal that comes forward and is supported by other parties, but not as the only debate. What the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister are proposing is an election debate before the campaign has even started. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) have said in this debate, party manifestos will not even have been published in that week. If the citizens of the country are going to have an opportunity to question, and listen to, party leaders, that should happen after manifestos have been published.
As the hon. Gentleman said, part of the Leader of the Opposition’s phrase was “any time”, but the hon. Gentleman is now saying that there is a certain time before the election that is not acceptable. How does he reconcile that with the commitment to debate any time, any place, anywhere? Why not the week commencing 23 March?
Because we do not believe these are decisions to be cooked up between the party leaders. They should not be being made by the party politicians. They should be taken away from them. The broadcasters have proposed three debates, two with seven parties and one a head-to-head debate, and we have accepted those proposals. Why can the Conservative party and the Prime Minister not accept those proposals? Does the Minister want me to give way to him so he can tell us why they are so reluctant to accept a head-to-head debate?
If not, I give way to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert).
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case as to why we need to have debates, and I share his characterisation of the Prime Minister as a bit too scared to want to be properly involved, but why was neither his leader nor the Prime Minister prepared to take part in debates before the European elections? They both turned down invitations to debate with the leader of my party and the leader of the UK Independence party. If the Prime Minister continues to refuse to show up, is the Leader of the Opposition prepared to debate with the Deputy Prime Minister, leader of my party, or is he too scared to have that head-to-head debate?
The reality is that the two people who may become Prime Minister after this election are the leader of my party and the current Prime Minister. I very much doubt that the Deputy Prime Minister, even in his most wildly optimistic moments, is expecting to form a Liberal Democrat-led coalition or majority Government after this election.
We want a debate between Labour and the Conservatives. Two of the debates proposed by the broadcasters would include the Liberal Democrat leader and other party leaders. The broadcasters have proposed a head-to-head debate as the third of three debates and we think that that makes sense. We accept that proposal.
I absolutely understand why the hon. Gentleman would like to return to two-party politics, with the two parties that get a larger share of MPs than their share of the vote. I understand why that is in his interests, but is he saying that his leader is not prepared to debate with the leader of my party head to head?
I am not saying that at all. I am saying that we are prepared to have a debate with not only the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party but the leaders of a number of other parties. We accept the proposals of the broadcasters. We want a head-to-head debate with the leader of the Conservative party because there are two main parties in this country that poll consistently higher than the other parties, and nobody is seriously arguing that there is a prospect of anyone other than the current Prime Minister or the leader of the Labour party being Prime Minister after 7 May. If the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) wants to intervene on me to say that there is a serious prospect of the Deputy Prime Minister moving into No. 10 on 8 May, I will give way to him one more time.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. It is very hard to tell what will happen. I understand that he would be concerned, given the performance by my leader in the three-way debates last time, but it is a great shame that his leader seems to be too scared to take part in such a head-to-head debate. Maybe we should have three head-to-head debates: one between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition; one between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister; and one between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. That could be a fascinating series of debates for the public.
If the broadcasters come forward with such a proposal, we will of course take it seriously.
Bearing in mind the shambolic nature of the proposals from the BBC, does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there are Members in this House who have no confidence whatever in the BBC or in the other broadcasters that are arranging the debates?
I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Belfast North when he opened the debate today, and I entirely understand the concerns that he raised. We certainly do not see the case for treating Northern Ireland any differently from Scotland or Wales. However, we strongly believe that it is for the broadcasters, not the politicians, to determine the nature of the debates. Even at this late stage, we hope that agreement can be reached.
Before I took those interventions, I was quoting my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It could of course be said that parties in opposition will be bullish about these matters. Five years ago, when the current Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, he said:
“I absolutely believe in these debates and think they are great”.
He agreed with us, saying:
“I think it is great we are having these debates and I hope they go some way to restoring the faith and trust into our politics because we badly need that once again in this country”.
I agree. In 2010, the then Leader of the Opposition was exasperated by any suggestion that the debates would not happen, saying:
“I’ve always wanted these debates to happen. I mean, they happen in every country. They even happen in Mongolia, for heaven’s sake, and it’s part of the modern age that we should be in.”
Even as recently as last year, when he was no longer Leader of the Opposition but Prime Minister, he said:
“I’ve just always believed that these need to happen. It’s good for democracy. It’s good to see”;
and only five weeks ago, he said:
“I want to go and debate”.
But when push comes to shove, the Prime Minister is running scared.
We heard from the Minister today that the Conservatives want an election debate before the election campaign and before there are any party manifestos for the party leaders to be interrogated on. The Minister also talked about Prime Minister’s questions being the forum for debate. The current Prime Minister used to argue that Prime Minister’s Question Time was not a substitute for proper television debates, but he is now attempting to use it as his way out. We know what happens at Prime Minister’s questions: the Leader of the Opposition and other MPs ask a lot of questions and the Prime Minister does not answer them. The idea that that is a debate that could be a substitute for a forum in which party manifestos could be held to account is unacceptable.
Has the Prime Minister lost his nerve, or has Lynton Crosby lost the Prime Minister’s nerve for him? This is perhaps typical of this Prime Minister. He used to hug a husky and clamour for the green vote. That has gone. He used to talk about compassionate conservatism, but that has gone. He used to talk about a new way of doing politics, including the importance of TV debates, but now he is even turning his back on that, too.
We cannot allow future Prime Ministers, of whatever party, to play games with these TV debates, and I welcome what the right hon. Member for Belfast North said about creating a set of rules. We have said that a Labour Government would put the requirement to stage a fair and impartial leaders debate on a statutory footing. The Minister has done his best to make that proposal sound incredibly Orwellian and statist, but it would simply introduce a system that would work along similar lines to the current party political broadcasts, with the Broadcasters’ Liaison Group having the power to come up with proposals for the debates.
In keeping with what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, we believe that we shall have an opportunity in the next Parliament to get this right and to learn from what has happened during this Parliament in the lead-up to the election campaign. We suggest a deadline of 2017, midway through the next Parliament, for the proposed changes to be put in place. That would give everyone plenty of time to plan for the debates before the subsequent general election. This would be an important constitutional change, introducing a mechanism for the increased accountability of the Prime Minister and other party leaders. In our system, such reforms would be welcome.
I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman’s proposal. Will he tell me whether it would appear in the first Queen’s Speech of a Labour Government? Would it be such a priority for the running of the country that it would appear in a Labour Government’s first legislative programme?
As the Minister well knows, neither he nor I can indicate what would be in either of our party’s Queen’s Speeches at any stage. We have fixed-term five-year Parliaments, so I am not going to comment on the timing. However, we welcome the opportunity to debate that important reform, and I hope that he will engage in a serious debate on it.
The Prime Minister’s politics tutor at university, Vernon Bogdanor, has welcomed our proposal, saying that
“the public are entitled to see how party leaders perform in debate, and also how the Prime Minister and alternative Prime Minister perform.”
A Prime Minister, of whatever party, should not be able to duck debates and thereby potentially cancel them for everyone. If a party representative refused to appear on BBC “Question Time” on a Thursday night, the show would go on. These debates are important for the credibility of this election. How can the Prime Minister, as leader of his party, look the British public in the eye, having been so overt in his support of debates, when he is now running away from them? Why should he have a veto on the opportunity for the public to hear from other party leaders?
Does my hon. Friend not think that it is actually slightly worse than that? The Prime Minister is saying he will debate, but he is not saying he will debate head to head. He is trying to bamboozle people by saying he will take part in that debate. He is just saying things that are not really true.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Our right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has been quoted as saying that he will meet the Prime Minister “any time, any place, anywhere”, and we have accepted the broadcasters’ proposals for three separate debates—
What about 23 March?
As the Minister confirms from a sedentary position, the Prime Minister will debate only with the other leaders, and only in a week before the election campaign, before the manifestos have been published. This Prime Minister is not prepared to debate head to head with the Leader of the Opposition after the manifestos have been published. That says a great deal about this Prime Minister and about the Conservative party’s approach to this election.
We on this side of the House are keen to make this happen, and we believe that there is still time for the Prime Minister to join us in accepting the proposal from the broadcasters. For the sake of democratic engagement, I really hope that he and his advisers will reconsider their opposition to these debates. Before the last election, the leader of the Conservative party—now the Prime Minister—said:
“I think people have the right to look at the people putting themselves forward as the next Prime Minister”
in TV debates. That could not be clearer. We agree. The public agree. Let’s get on with it.
To paraphrase the words of the famous comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, this is another fine mess they’ve gotten us into. I refer of course to the broadcasters.
We have heard a series of proposals, and a series of responses to those proposals, and it seems to me—and, apparently, to virtually the entire population of the United Kingdom—that we have a thoroughly unsatisfactory, unfair outcome as things stand at the moment. And who knows what tomorrow may bring? Initially, the broadcasters seemed to be looking favourably at what would have been a fair debate: the potential Prime Minister coming from the largest party in the opinion polls going head to head with the other potential Prime Minister from the second largest party. For a national debate, most people would have said, “Let the debate continue.”
The broadcasters moved from that position to include a range of smaller parties, but the threshold appeared arbitrary in that they included some parties but not others. That was particularly the case when they included the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. The defence I read after they had reached that conclusion was that Plaid Cymru and the SNP were facing the other parties in their respective jurisdictions, whereas, for example, the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland was not. What the broadcasters did not deal with was the fact that in the national debate that they are currently proposing, the UK Independence party, the Greens and the Conservative party will all be facing us in Northern Ireland, yet we will not have the opportunity to respond to issues that our competition will be putting forward in that debate. The current position is therefore totally untenable.
We are seeking a resolution for the upcoming and immediate election. It needs to be reached within the next day or two, so that the parties can debate adequately and, more importantly, so that the general public can understand what the issues are, make their minds up about those putting forward the positions and determine whether how they intend to vote is affected. In the longer term—this is why we have worded the motion in the way we have—there must be no repeat of this Horlicks. That is what it is: a complete Horlicks. I have heard no reporter from any broadcaster seek to defend it, because it is indefensible.
Beyond this election we must get some independent mechanism that will use a fair rationale for arriving at a debate. It could be a series of debates, one featuring the two potential Prime Ministers and then another debate among a series of parties, either including regional parties or excluding them. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say, “We want a head to head. Then we are going to open up a regional debate, but we are only going to include some regions. We are going to include Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.” This is indefensible and unjustifiable and it cannot be promoted, explained or rationalised by any sensible individual.
Given that my throat is about to give up, I shall call it a day.
I rise to support the motion, but I do so with some reservation, because although I come from a part of the UK where we are well accustomed to talks about talks, I suspect that with debates about debates there is a similar relationship between public interest in the debate and the amount of time we spend debating the debate—an inversely proportional one. The timing of this debate is particularly unfortunate, as it feels slightly self-indulgent for us to be debating who is able to debate the issues instead of using parliamentary time actually to debate some issues that matter to our constituents and which would make a difference. As Northern Ireland MPs, we get a relatively limited amount of time on the Floor of the House to be able to engage in those issues where Westminster has a direct impact on our constituencies. So it is unfortunate that we end up today in something that could be viewed by the public as slightly self-indulgent: a discussion about how parties will engage with each other in the run-up to elections.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I want to move on, because I have said my piece on that.
How do the public view this? They will be weary of the debate around it. However, I did rise to support the motion; although I am not sure this is the right time or place, on this occasion I am not disagreeing with the proposal made. I believe there is an inherent unfairness in the way this whole situation has been handled. I agree with the motion because it is not about individual political parties or the amount of air time they get in the run-up to the election; it is about allowing members of the public to engage with the issues and to hear what those people who may beyond this general election have an influence on the formation of a Government—that could be any of us who stand for election to this place—would do in terms of the kind of Government who would be subsequently formed. So it is important that every party is treated fairly and equally.
Previously, two rationales were given to us as to why Northern Ireland was not included in those debates. The first was about the threshold at which parties “validly” could argue their position for being in those debates. The Liberal Democrats made a strong case on the last occasion, managing to find a way to be part of the debate, even though their prospects of providing a Prime Minister were very limited. That was the first point at which the normal rationale, about the parties that would provide a Prime Minister, started to break down.
We then moved beyond that to a basis of opinion polls and of elections of a different kind, whereby UKIP should also be included because of its performance. Previously, however, elections of a similar kind had been used as the basis for making those judgments. So the comparison between a European election, where UKIP’s policies perhaps have a particular resonance, and a general election, where wider policy may play a greater role in people making their decisions, would not have been taken into account in the same way. The inclusion of UKIP in the debate suddenly gave us another crack in the façade of the rationale as to why people were or were not included in the debate.
We moved on from that to discussing the political challenge around the debates, then demanding that the Green party ought to be included because it also ran in a national way across all of Great Britain. Of course that relates to the second logical reason for the exclusion of the Northern Ireland parties, and indeed the Scottish and Welsh parties: they did not run candidates in every part of the UK.
It may have been a slip, but I am sure the hon. Lady did not mean to say that when we talk on a national basis, we talk about Great Britain—the nation is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
I think my views on that are well known. I did make the point that the Greens ran in all parts of the UK, so when I refer to the UK, that is what I am referring to.
The logical reason being given was that our Northern Ireland parties did not run candidates throughout the UK—that was the second rationale for our being excluded. However, when we remove that second rationale, no argument can be made for why a party that has one Member elected to this House in this Parliament—the Green party—ought to be in those debates, yet other parties that have eight Members, three Members and one Member are excluded. There is no logic to that. There is no rationale, and that is because this is all being done on an ad-hoc basis.
I believe that the logical reason was always there; there was a clear and concise reason and rationale for how the debates were structured, one that was clearly understood by the public, and clearly understood and respected by the political parties. However, when that was abandoned in favour of a kind of populism and things were thrown open, we opened a Pandora’s box. Wherever the line is now drawn it will feel unfair and arbitrary to some party in Parliament. Plaid Cymru could be included in the debate but the Social Democratic and Labour party excluded. Why would that be the case? It makes no logical sense whatsoever.
The problem is that, having opened Pandora’s box, no one seems clear about how to close it again. Let me make it clear that I am not standing here to make a pitch to be included in the national debate, or for the SDLP, the DUP, Plaid Cymru, or the SNP to be included in the debate. I say that not because I want to see any of our parties excluded, but because if the purpose of these debates is to engage the public and to make them interested in what the next Government and the leadership—particularly the Prime Minister—might look like, we will end up with a panel that is so large and unwieldy that any real debate, exchange of ideas, or engagement will be absolutely stifled.
What we need to do is return to a situation in which the panel size is reasonable and in which the rationale is clear, legal and justifiable. Given the mess, the time scale, and the challenges that could hold serious sway if they were taken up by a number of parties, my fear is that we will end up risking the situation. I say that not because of the debate we are having about the debate, but because of the unwieldiness of any subsequent panel. The number of people on the panel could outstrip the number of people who actually want to watch the debate. The biggest crime of all would be to disengage the public further. We need to stop debating the debate and to get a clear rationale, which must be fair and apply to all parts of the UK and not disadvantage those whom we represent.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), not least because, on this occasion, I agreed with everything she said. When I say that it is important that we do not spend too much time here today debating this issue, I am not criticising the DUP for its choice of debate. Someone from the media said to me, “Is it not a bit much that Parliament is spending time debating this?” I made the point that the media are spending more time debating the matter, in between covering Jeremy Clarkson and other matters. It is a bit rich for them to criticise us for taking a bit of time in Parliament to debate the issue.
As other Members have said, the broadcasters have made a hames of the whole situation. They thought that they had to scramble together an offer, that a proposal on high from them would have to be accepted and that everyone would have to comply. Then they found themselves being played into different corners by the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister who has created this situation with the broadcasters.
Last week, headlines said that Downing street had issued its final offer to the broadcasters, which did not look good. We are talking here about the office of the Prime Minister. It would have been one thing for Conservative party headquarters to say it, but it was Downing street, and the letter came from the director of communications, who is on the civil service payroll. The broadcasters should not have allowed themselves to be drawn into such a situation.
This is an unseemly mess. The way in which this debacle is playing out does no one any credit—the parties, the political process and the broadcast journalists. As the hon. Lady said, I do not think that any of us would have huffed or grumbled if a clear decision had been made that the main focus of the debate should be between the parties and the party leaders who are hoping to lead or to form a Government. That would have been clear. Even the broadcasters seem to accept that one of the debates should have that sort of bespoke focus, so no one contends with that principle. Once they started drawing in others, they took inclusion to the point of ridicule. By assembling such a large number, they will create the effect of a game show. The only problem is that the viewers will not have the joy of seeing people eliminated or have the opportunity to vote people off as the exercise progresses. Instead, people will switch off.
It is nonsense to have a studio-centred Tower of Babel presented as some sort of rational political debate. But we must remember that that idea came not just from the broadcasters, but from the Prime Minister. I never saw him as someone who was particularly concerned about the inclusion of all parties, even the small regional parties. We are seeing a whole new side to the Prime Minister. Certainly, he seems to be keener to hear people in debates than he is to hear people in this Chamber. This is a whole new dimension to him.
Why does the Prime Minister insist that we need this wide-level debate? I know that TV screens are getting bigger and wider, but they are not wide enough to take a pan shot of the debate that the broadcasters and the Prime Minister seem to want. It is all about the clear electoral strategy of the Conservative party. The Prime Minister wants to create this idea that the only alternative to a single-party Tory Government is the Leader of the Opposition and an absolute ragbag coalition of a rabble of other parties. He wants that image around the debate precisely because it suits the Conservative election message. Some Members have said that Lord Grade’s intervention was a neutral one, coming as it did from someone who has experience in so many different media outlets. However, his intervention is informed entirely by the fact that he is on side with the Prime Minister’s agenda to use these debates to create a picture that reinforces a basic Tory message in this election campaign. The intervention was entirely biased. The broadcasters have allowed themselves to be played into this situation.
I agree with the salient point in the DUP motion that, rather than having these confused and stylised arguments and rumours between the broadcasters and the politicians, all of whom will be accused of vying for their own interests and advantage, there should be some credible and neutral authority, whether it is set up specifically for the purpose or a hybrid between the Electoral Commission and Ofcom, to make judgments about how the debate should be framed. There will be other opportunities for wide diversity in debates. Many of us—even those who were not in Scotland—were absolutely transfixed and excited by the referendum debates in Scotland. Those debates took many forms, the most powerful of which were not necessarily those that included the party leaders. Some had strong inputs from studio audiences, which included young people. Just as there was a diversity in the type and range of debate in Scotland, so too should there be here. The broadcasters and the Prime Minister should not pretend that the only way of including the small parties is in the big head-to-head debates. That is why our party is not joining the queue to say, “Oh, no, it has to be us, too. If you are going to have Plaid Cymru, you must include us.”
On the point about which other parties to include, perhaps the broadcasters should have come up with some rationale around the number of candidates who were standing. Perhaps they would have been able to draw the line in that way. If parties are putting up candidates right across the UK and backing them up with a campaign effort, perhaps some regard should be given to that, as well as to factors such as opinion polls and seats in Parliament, when considering who is eligible to take part in the debate. We were told at the time of the recent by-elections that the results could change who would have to be in a TV debate. I found it hard to believe that a single by-election result could have that effect, but apparently that was what was understood in media circles. Other rationales could credibly be used to frame a debate sensibly, and a range of wider broadcast opportunities could be used to allow fair access for parties of all scales.
There are parties in Northern Ireland saying that, because of their size and standing in Northern Ireland, they should be included in just the same way as parties standing in Wales and Scotland, but some of them will not even be standing in all constituencies in Northern Ireland, because there will probably be electoral pacts and other factors. It is a bit much for parties that might not even stand in all Northern Ireland constituencies to insist on equal rights in a TV debate with parties that are hoping to form the next Government.
The fact that we have all been sucked into these arguments goes back to the false calls that were initially made by the broadcasters. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) was right to criticise the broadcasters for scrambling their original proposals, and for doing so without sounding out parties or journalists, even those available to them within their own organisations. That is what created the problem. We have to find a more sensible way of doing this. Let us be clear that politics also lies behind the debacle we now have, because that debacle suits one party and one party leader, and we should not pretend otherwise.
I was amused by the comment made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the need for wide-screen TVs if all parties take part in the debates. The hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) said from a sedentary position that it would be a bit like the game show “Take Me Out”. I am not sure that I would want to take part if Sinn Fein was involved, because “take me out” might have slightly different connotations. Perhaps “Blankety Blank” would be a more appropriate name, given that Sinn Fein Members do not take their seats in this House. That is a serious point that it is worth making in this debate.
In Northern Ireland we have traditionally had debates with the local political parties that participate in elections, and that has worked reasonably well. I do not think that the DUP would have raised this matter today had it not been for the proposal, particularly from the BBC, to include parties that contest seats only in certain regions of the United Kingdom—the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. An important principle was breached: that the main debate was about the national scene. I think that there is a lot to be said for the idea that the debate should be between the two leaders who are most likely to be Prime Minister and to lead the next Government of the United Kingdom.
If that debate is extended, especially to include parties that contest seats only in certain regions, then there is no valid reason to exclude Northern Ireland. If that occurs, the question, as others have asked, is this: why, then, would only one party from Northern Ireland be included? If we look at the political parties represented in this House, we see that the Democratic Unionist party is the fourth party in Parliament, and four of the parties that it is now proposed should take part in the national debate have fewer seats in this House than the Democratic Unionist party. That puts us in a unique position with regard to the national issue.
My second point is that everyone out there who is commenting on the likely outcome of the general election—including, most recently, Lord Mandelson—is saying that a hung Parliament is inevitable. Therefore, with regard to the complexities of the next Parliament and the question of who will form the next Government, there is a strong possibility that the Democratic Unionist party will be a factor in determining who forms the next Government. There is no prospect of Sinn Fein being a factor, since its Members do not take their seats. Therefore, their participation in debates at the national level is, frankly, irrelevant. I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the SDLP, but I do not think that it will play a major role in determining who forms the next Government, since it is already aligned to one of the parties that could form the next Government.
Therefore, with regard to the national debate and the public interest, it could reasonably be argued that the Democratic Unionist party is the only party from Northern Ireland whose policies would be of interest to voters from other parts of the United Kingdom, since they might have a bearing on who forms the next Government.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point about Sinn Fein, because one of the broadcasters’ arguments for including the SNP and Plaid Cymru was that they will compete against parties that could form the next Government and so could play a role in the formation of the next Government. However, they also say that if they go to Northern Ireland, they will have to include all the parties, especially Sinn Fein, because they get votes and have seats. The reality is that there is absolutely no point in listeners hearing from Sinn Fein Members because they do not come to Parliament, they will not be voting in Parliament and they have no role to play in Parliament, and that is of their own volition. It is clearly a nonsense argument that the broadcasters are using.
Order. I have been very generous, but we must try to have shorter interventions.
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is interesting, is it not, that Sinn Fein declares itself to be the strong supporter of Irish freedom and independence yet wants to take part in a national debate that is relevant to the United Kingdom. The very same party is acting in a way that suggests it wants to hand back all the powers we have in our devolved Assembly and Executive to the national Parliament of the United Kingdom, and it really raises a question about their credentials as Irish republicans that they are in favour of returning to direct rule, rather than honouring the agreements that have been reached and are moving forward—but I digress.
The hon. Member for Belfast East said that we should not really be debating this issue because there are more important matters to debate. I simply point out that on every opportunity that the Democratic Unionist party has had, as the fourth party in this Parliament, to discuss matters—this is relevant to the wider issue—we have sought to focus not on issues that are relevant only to Northern Ireland, but on issues that are relevant on the national stage, and they are issues that are important to the people we represent. This afternoon we will debate another motion that is of national significance as well as of importance to our constituents in Northern Ireland.
We are all concerned about declining participation in the democratic process in the United Kingdom, with voter turnouts and membership of political parties going down, so this is an important issue. In fact, I would argue that few issues are more important than encouraging people to respect and participate in the democratic process, because that is about democracy itself. Indeed, one of the two gentlemen who may well be the next Prime Minister seemed to think the question of TV debates important enough to devote the entire exchange in Prime Minister’s questions to it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that all this could create a certain ennui or weariness among those in the wider body politic, who are interested in what we, Parliament and Government could do for them in delivering on the issues that matter for them rather than wider issues about debates and who should take part in them? That is what people are saying to me.
I must say that most of my constituents do not mention the TV debates to me. Nevertheless, I repeat the important point that someone mentioned earlier: the TV debates had a massive audience the last time round. We should all welcome that, and it is why it is important that we get this right.
The formula that we should be looking at, at the national level, is a debate involving the two leaders who are most likely to be the Head of the next Government of the United Kingdom. We in Northern Ireland are happy to participate in debates among the political parties at the regional level, but we are not happy with being excluded on the basis that Northern Ireland is the only region not to be represented in the proposals.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be wrong for elected representatives in this House to fail to speak up for Northern Ireland, bearing in mind that they ought to be heard across the United Kingdom if the Democratic Unionist party were indeed able to assist any Government in governing the United Kingdom in future?
I agree. I have great respect for the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), but I have to say that my father, who is one of her constituents, would be very upset if he lost out on the opportunity to see these debates in the general election, because he is an avid watcher of political affairs.
I hope that these matters can be resolved. Our motion is an attempt to push the issue forward and to get some common sense applied. I hope that common sense will be the outcome. The outcome that must not occur is one that excludes Northern Ireland but includes other regions where political parties are represented that do not participate or put up candidates in other parts of the United Kingdom. It would be deeply unfair if Northern Ireland were the only region that was excluded on that basis.
I emphasise at the outset points that other hon. Members have made. We brought this debate forward not because we have some selfish party political interest, but because we believe that if there are to be debates about the shape of future government, and the input that parties will have, or potentially have, into future government, including in Northern Ireland, then the public should have the widest possible information about who will be involved and the ideas that will be put forward.
We recognise that even in a hung Parliament our role may be quite marginal, so we would have been quite happy for the parties that are most likely to form the Government of the United Kingdom to have their leaders debating the issues before the general public. We are not as arrogant as the BBC or some of the other broadcasters. We do not believe that we have some God-given right to be included just because we happen to have Members in the House of Commons or are putting people forward to be Members. However, once the rules were manipulated, changed, twisted and warped to include some smaller parties, but not all, we had a right to make the demands that we have made to the BBC and the other broadcasters that are included in this motion.
I do not believe that the debate about the debates has done politics any good at all. Despite what has been said, I do not see this as a problem that was made by politicians, although some people would happily point the finger at the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition. The problem was primarily caused by the broadcasters. We probably all have our own interpretations of what their motives were. Was it simply that they believed that they could imperiously wave their fingers at the politicians of this country and tell them, “We will give you broadcasting time. Here are the conditions on which you will have it, and if you do not obey the rules that we have set down, we will punish you”? Another interpretation is that they simply wanted to sex up the broadcasts, and saw that perhaps a good head-to-head row between the Prime Minister and the leader of UKIP would do the job. Alternatively, given the left-wing bias of the BBC—I have sympathy with the views of some Government Members on this—perhaps it mainly wanted someone present who would take on the Prime Minister. I have a great belief in the left-wing bias of the BBC. Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, were you to give me time—I know that you will not, because I would be diverging from the motion—I could wax eloquent on that matter for a long time, but I will not do so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the left-leaning bias of the BBC with regard to these broadcasts again opens up the debate that should properly take place about whether we should be paying licence fees for such an organisation to exist?
I will desist from getting into a discussion about licence fees, the payment of licence fees, the non-payment of licence fees, the compulsory payment of licence fees, or whatever. That is another favourite topic of mine, but it is not quite relevant to the motion before us.
Whatever the reason for it, we now have an unbecoming shambles that is not doing politics any good. Despite what is said about how rubbishy people think politicians are, I think there is a general desire among the public to hear debates on the issues. However, those debates have to be in a fair and properly structured format. The unbecoming shambles that we now have brings politics in this country further into disrepute.
We have put forward an unassailable case. We would prefer a much tighter arrangement for the debate, but if it is to be opened up—I add the qualifications put forward by Members from the Alliance party and the SDLP, and ourselves—there are absolutely no grounds for saying that the fourth largest party in this House, which stands only in a regional capacity but is no different in that regard from Plaid Cymru or the SNP, and has more members than many of the smaller parties that will be included, and could have the same influence as all those parties, should be excluded. That is especially the case because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said, it is not as though we operate in some kind of bubble in Northern Ireland and will not be competing against some of the parties that are represented on these Benches and that will be participating in the debates.
I will have a UKIP opponent and perhaps even have a Conservative opponent and, by proxy, I will have opposition from Labour in the form of the SDLP and from the Liberal Democrats in the form of the Alliance party. When I say “opposition” from competitors I mean it in the loosest possible sense of the word, because such opponents will be somewhere down at the bottom of the pile when it comes to counting the votes. I will also have an opponent from the Greens, but given the fact that the Greens in Northern Ireland want to prevent the good constituents of East Antrim from eating bacon butties on a Monday in order to save the planet or from seeing adverts for flying to the Mediterranean because they will put too much CO2 into the air—
Order. I think we will both agree that this is not about debates between the party leaders, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman wants to get back to that.
The point I am making—
Never mind what point you are making. The point is that you are offbeat. Get back to the debates.
I am trying to explain my point, Mr Deputy Speaker. My point is that the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Greens in the debates will not make any difference because their policies are so outlandish that nobody will vote for them anyway. However, they have been included, and given that they are a small party and much smaller than our party, our argument is that we ought to be included as well.
The problem, which has of course been created by the broadcasters, is that if we end up with seven parties, as we now have, or eight or nine parties, we will not have a debate—or even a beauty contest given some of the people involved. We will have a shambles or, as the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) said, a Tower of Babel—utter confusion—with points not being properly debated.
The problem created by the broadcasters is one reason why we believe that there should be some attempt, even at this late stage, to resolve the issue either by accepting the inclusion of all parties with a sizeable representation and candidates standing nationally and regionally, or by finding some way to narrow the number down. We cannot have the worst of all worlds, which is including some and excluding the others.
Another part of the motion that has generated a fair range of comment is about how we proceed. The proposal for an independent body to make an adjudication may well come too late for this election, but that is not to say that it should not be considered for future elections; otherwise this shambles might be repeated. On the one hand, there are the politicians who have their agendas, but on the other hand, the broadcasters have their own agendas, as we now know. The broadcasters are no less guilty in all this than those that some of the public may see as self-seeking politicians. We therefore believe in the creation of an independent body.
The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), asked how independent the body should be and how it could be made independent. Such an idea has already been rejected in the House of Lords, but only because greater faith was placed in the broadcasters than should ever have been placed in them. Now we have seen that they are incapable of the degree of independence and objectivity required to ensure fair, reasonable and rational debate on the issues, we must look again at having an independent body. It should be no more difficult to create an independent body to oversee broadcasts during elections than to have an independent body for any other job for which such a body is required. The Minister’s point about how we ensure the body’s independence should not cause us a great deal of concern.
Another issue that hon. Members have raised is whether whatever is decided should be mandatory, as the Labour party wants, or voluntary. Our view is that the job of the independent body should be to set the rules. If the rules are set fairly, there will be no need for coercion. People will be able to sign up to the conditions attached to the rules, so there should not be any unseemly rows. At the end of the day, I must say that I am not attracted to making participation mandatory. Even once the rules have been set and the parties have agreed to them, there should still be a right and an opportunity for the parties—they will have to explain the circumstances to the electorate—to decide whether to participate.
Let me make it clear that I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. We are suggesting not that participation in the debates should be mandatory, but that it should be mandatory for the debates to be held.
We agree that, once we have a framework for the debates, people should have the right to decide whether to participate in them.
The final issue is whether the debates should be held before or during the election campaign. I do not like the argument that if the manifestos have not been published, there could not be a debate. What do debates consist of? Very often, they are as much about looking back as about looking forward. They are about looking at the parties’ record in the past, because that is sometimes a far better way of judging what they will do in the future than what might be in their manifestos, given the cynicism of much of the electorate about manifesto commitments. We only have to look at the Liberal Democrats to think of how they made a major commitment, but moved away from it very quickly. A debate on the basis of manifestos may not be all that productive.
I can see the argument for having a debate in the period up to an election without its sucking the lifeblood out of the election campaign. As the hon. Member for Foyle pointed out, there are many formats for debating the issues. He mentioned the variety of formats used during the Scottish referendum campaign. Whether the broadcasts are straightforward head-to-heads between the two main protagonists, panel discussions, debates involving audience participation or a range of other things, they can be done in many ways, so we are not all that worried about their timing.
I must say that I can see the Prime Minister’s point that a shambolic debate, especially with seven different parties all fighting and squabbling for a bit of time in a one-and-a-half hour debate, might not be all that edifying in an election campaign and might distract from many of the other good ways in which parties and individual candidates seek to communicate with the electorate.
One issue that the independent commission must sort out—the hon. Members for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and for Foyle made this point—is the basis on which we make judgments about the parties, which is where this debate started. Should a television debate include all parties, those that reach a certain threshold of Members of the House, or those putting forward a certain number of candidates? Do those candidates have to stand nationally? Will the debates be based on the results of the last Westminster elections or the latest opinion polls? If we are to have a fair framework those issues must be considered by an independent body.
In conclusion, we cannot afford in this election to have the same shambles as we experienced in the previous one: it is not becoming to democracy or to the parties involved, and it is distracting. I suspect that the debate about the debate will be more interesting than the debate itself, especially if we end up with a seven-party squabble on TV, or a debate where the main issue is, “Why is the Prime Minister not sitting there and why is there an empty chair?”, or whatever.
Sometimes there are things that we as politicians can be blamed for, but I do not believe that the finger of blame in this instance can be primarily pointed at us. It is unfair that all the attention is directed on the Prime Minister, because he had a reasonable case for saying that the BBC was setting rules that placed him at an unfair advantage, so why should he co-operate in its game. If we are to avoid that in future, some of the proposals in this motion should be adhered to, followed through and worked on, so that even if we do not sort it out this time, we can sort it out for the next election.
We have, once again, a debate about debates, and as the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), said at the outset, these things matter in a democracy. Debate and discussion is how we arrive at consensus in a democracy, and how we inform the electorate about our respective views as parties and what we plan to do. It is important to have this debate today, although I recognise the comments by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) that in some quarters members of the public will be wondering why we have been talking about this issue for so long.
This is an important debate and it is surprising that, 60 days from the general election, the main opposition party in this House is more content talking about debates than about any other issue. What about the deficit, the fantastic employment figures, the fact that unemployment is down and wages are going up? Labour is willing to talk not about those things but about a debate—[Interruption.] As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said from a sedentary position, Labour did not initiate this debate today, but the Leader of the Opposition chose to focus on the TV debates in Prime Minister’s Question Time. He had the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister six important questions, but he focused on that debate, which is surprising.
I understand why Labour Members want the public to see more of the Leader of the Opposition before the election. I want that too. What is surprising, however, is the usual hue and cry that we have heard from the Labour party: “Let’s have legislation, legislation, legislation.” My right hon. Friend was right to ask whether, if we make debates compulsory, we will make watching them compulsory too. I dare say that Labour is staking a lot on having the Leader of the Opposition in the television debates. The understanding is that somehow after five years in this House, and four hours of debating at Prime Minister’s Question Time, an hour in the TV studios will make the British public finally see him as a future Prime Minister, but I think Labour is staking a lot on that idea.
Will the Minister give way?
I have a short amount of time so I cannot take interventions.
All I am waiting for from Labour is a judge-led inquiry into the debates. The crux of Labour’s argument this afternoon—I will come on to the substance of the debates in a moment—is that we need a head-to-head debate, but the moment that idea was introduced we realised some of the problems with it. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) immediately asked, “Why don’t we have a head to head between the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition?”
I will carry on with my speech. The important point, while we discuss a head to head, is to remember that we are a parliamentary democracy and do not have a presidential system. People in this country vote for a party, and the leader of the party that is able to form a Government becomes Prime Minister. For me, the emphasis on the head to head is somehow misplaced, and the discussion about how the smaller parties can be incorporated and involved in that TV debate is important and powerful.
The Democratic Unionist party has more seats than four of the parties that it is proposed to include in the seven-way debate, and more votes than one of them. That raises a question about the influence and power of broadcasters to decide who is involved in debates and who is not. The right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) made a powerful and eloquent case, forensically analysing that issue. He spoke about the BBC’s handling of the matter, and the questions that it raises about the BBC’s impartiality. His central point was that the BBC cannot pick and choose which parties matter for the election, and he rejected the idea that any broadcaster should do that. Three years ago the Prime Minister proposed that we should hold debates and that they should be as inclusive as possible, but that was disregarded. He also said that it would be helpful for the debates not to be held in the short campaigning period, because we do not want them to be the only focus during the campaign. The broadcasters rejected that out of hand, and as a result there has been a lot of discussion that could have been avoided.
The Prime Minister did respond to the Leader of the Opposition saying that he would debate with my right hon. Friend “any time, anywhere”, but it turns out that the Leader of the Opposition meant, “any time, anywhere, but not the week commencing the 23rd”.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Let me be absolutely clear: it is any time, any place, anywhere. Only two people can seriously be Prime Minister after the election, so we want that head-to-head debate. Why is the Prime Minister running scared of it?
A key point that the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his speech today was that voter turnout is low and we need to engage and involve the public. One of the biggest features of British politics in this Parliament is the support going to the smaller parties. Why should not we have a debate that includes those smaller parties? That was the Prime Minister’s focus.
A point was also made about the timing of the debate and holding it before the short campaigning period. I understand the concern that if so many parties are involved in the debate, as the hon. Member for Belfast East said, it might resemble the television programme “Take Me Out”, but at least we would be giving the public a say and hearing from smaller parties, who would be put on the spot about the policies they are advocating. I believe that is as important as focusing on the policies of the main parties.
I want to make a quick point on the BBC and impartiality, and on consultation with the DUP. There is no specific requirement for the BBC to consult, but it would be for the BBC Trust to judge whether, by not consulting, editorial impartiality guidelines had been breached. It is worth putting that clearly on the record.
The DUP made a clear call. It wants an independent body to be in charge. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office raised a number of questions that need to be answered. How would it be established and funded? Which debates would it produce? Whom would it invite, and how would it stand up to challenge? How would it succeed in convening the parties, and how would it secure the distribution of the debates among broadcasters? It is an interesting suggestion, but it is obviously not a matter for the Government. Those are some of the questions that rightly need to be answered.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) talked about an unseemly mess that does not credit anyone. If the Prime Minister’s formula from three years ago had been followed, that unseemly mess could have been avoided. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no clear rationale for what the broadcasters advocate in terms of which parties are included and which are not.
The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said that voter turnout makes the debates important. He made a powerful point that it is deeply unfair if Northern Ireland is excluded on that basis.
I always enjoy listening to the mellifluous tone of the oratory of the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). He dwelt on the inconsistency of the approach to the different parties and said that the problem was caused by the broadcasters. I was surprised by his suggestion of the Green party’s campaigning approach in East Antrim—it is stopping people eating bacon butties to save the planet. I believe that was a caricature of Green party policy rather than its actual policy.
The hon. Gentleman made an insightful comment that elections are as much about track record as about what the party promises for the future. For most voters, track record gives credibility to what a party promises for the future. For that reason, it is possible to have debates before manifestos are pledged. In fact, we know where a lot of the main parties stand on some of the big issues, such as the deficit and the economy. We have debated those issues a number of times in the House. We can have debates before the short campaign.
This is obviously not a matter of Government policy. There have been a number of debates within today’s wide-ranging discussion. Several different party views were represented. That attests to the reasons why this is not an easy problem to address, but it was a worthwhile discussion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House recognises the potential value of broadcast general election debates between party leaders; notes however that neither the broadcasters nor politicians can escape the charge of self-interest in their organisation, and that they should best be left to an independent body to arrange; further notes that the broadcast debate formats proposed for 2015 have been inconsistently and incompetently formulated so far; further notes that there exists a substantial danger as a result that these debates will now not happen; and believes that the point of any debates which do happen must be to benefit those who watch them, not those who appear in them or broadcast them.
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the continued prevalence of serious organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland on a cross-border basis in relation to fuel smuggling, fuel laundering and the counterfeiting of consumer goods; recognises that this has had a significant and detrimental impact on HM Treasury; regrets the lack of prosecutions in relation to this activity; and calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HM Revenue and Customs, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI so that this criminal activity can be eradicated.
It is a great pleasure to move the motion tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
According to the Home Secretary, organised crime costs the UK at least £24 billion a year. In Northern Ireland, police assessments indicate that there are more than 140 organised criminal gangs in operation. We are all acutely aware of the audacious attempts by such gangs to carry out all sorts of crimes, including the laundering and selling of illegal fuel, and the counterfeiting of consumer goods.
Although the criminals respect neither borders nor victims in their illegal pursuits, Northern Ireland is unique within the United Kingdom in that it shares a land border with a foreign country. The findings of a recent British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly report show that law enforcement agencies in both jurisdictions work together; that illicit trade and smuggling are some of the largest challenges faced by cross-border agencies; and that the number of border area fuel laundering plants, and the number of filling stations selling illicit fuel, is alarming. The report called for a cross-border approach with a permanent multi-agency taskforce to deal with illegal activity and to tackle tobacco fraud, and for legal changes to prevent filling stations prosecuted in connection with illegal fuel from reopening within months of conviction.
I echo the comments made by Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan when he spoke in a debate at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on the report. He said that authorities were turning a blind eye to illegal activity in the border area, motivated by an “appeasement” process of replacing the cowardly butchery wing of the IRA with the racketeering wing, in what has effectively been considered a bandit area, which has helped to support claims that the Real IRA is the ninth richest terror group in the world.
Fuel laundering is currently worth around £400 million a year in lost tax revenues in Great Britain, and £80 million in Northern Ireland, where the problem is particularly acute. According to Mr Pat Curtis, a senior official at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, organised crime gangs have established sophisticated laundering plants to remove the giveaway dye, sourcing chemicals from China and using the internet to improve their techniques.
Figures for 2012-13 indicate that the illicit market is worth 13% of the total. HMRC is responsible for investigating fuel fraud, including fuel laundering—as part of that work, it cleans any sites it uncovers—but in 2012 the Northern Ireland Environment Agency commenced a fly-tipping pilot in partnership with local councils. Between June 2012 and January 2015, Antrim borough council, which is in my constituency, had one fly-tipping incident. The cost incurred by NIEA was £346.76. In the same period and in stark contrast, Armagh city and district council had 114 incidents at a cost of £266,743.65, and Newry and Mourne district council had 198 incidents at a cost of £585,333.94. Those figures are startling.
In 2013-14, some 38 fuel laundering plants were dismantled in Northern Ireland compared with 13 plants in 2003-04. Although a fuel laundering plant is detected every 10 days in Northern Ireland, and despite the fact that this criminality is filling terrorists’ coffers and bankrolling the IRA and Real IRA, no one has been jailed for fuel fraud since 2002. Such statistics are preposterous, and the Northern Ireland public have a right to know whether that is the price of keeping republicans bought off for the sake of the peace process, or whether fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids.
One challenge is that the nature of the fuel laundering process means that people do not need to be present. Part of the difficulty is catching the right evidence. The Northern Ireland Department of Justice is trying to ensure that evasion of the duty becomes a criminal offence so that people can be put in jail for it. That is much easier to prosecute.
I thank the hon. Lady for that helpful comment. I trust that that will be a warning to those participating in that illegal activity.
I am sure my hon. Friend will mention this, but does he recognise that the criminality extends to drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and many other things in addition to fuel laundering? Does he also recognise that it is not the sole preserve of republican paramilitary organisations, but that some of the loyalist paramilitary organisations have moved into organised crime, and are corrupting our young people in many communities in Northern Ireland?
I concur. This is not an issue for just one community. However, there is an area of the Province along the border that lends itself greatly to cross-border crime, and republicans are up to their neck in that.
There is a query about whether fuel launderers are tipped off ahead of raids. After the 2013 major cross-border police raid on Thomas “Slab” Murphy as part of Operation Loft, the authorities at the time believed that the IRA chief of staff and his associates had been tipped off just hours before, as salvaged from the embers were the burnt remains of laptops, documents and computer discs. The status quo approach to tackling fuel smuggling and laundering is untenable. When the operators of filling stations are successfully prosecuted—this is not really happening at the moment—for selling illegal, laundered fuel, provision should be made in legislation to ensure that these outlets cannot simply be reopened again after a few weeks, as happens at the moment. The community is sickened by this.
The challenges we face are grave. We must take them head on and the Government ought to take them head on. These fraudsters must be stopped and the criminals must be put behind bars. However, a number of questions must be asked regarding Government proposals that are supposed to tackle this problem. Why are the Government continuing to designate the Dow fuel marker in legislation, when they knew a year ago that it was not fit for purpose? Why do the Government not support their own British science company, when its fuel markers are the only IMS-proven—invitation to make submissions—indelible markers recommended? Why did Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs director, Mike Norgrove, give evidence to the 2012 Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry that he would travel anywhere in the world to find a solution for fuel fraud, when he personally turned down an invitation a year earlier by the same British science company that saved the Brazilian Government billions of US dollars and reduced fuel fraud to less than 1% by 2012? Why would any Government allow billion-pound fraud to continue, when a British science forensic solution already exists? Even more troubling to me, however, is that I am told that a Treasury Minister wrote to the NIAC Chairman asking him to keep the Dow launderability confidential. We must do all within our power to stop illegally traded fuel raking in massive profits for the criminal gangs mentioned today.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from the loss of revenue to the Exchequer and the financing of criminal gangs, immense problems are being caused to the environment as a result of toxic chemicals being poured into water courses?
Concern for the environment was also mentioned by a Minister of the Irish Republic recently. The House should be taking this matter very seriously, because damage is being done and we cannot turn a blind eye. The concern that many of us have is that the Government could do more. I cannot understand why those involved in this activity have not been brought before the courts. That is totally unacceptable. The last time anyone was brought before the courts was 2002, even though there are those who are known to have committed this crime.
Does the hon. Gentleman think the problem might be that HMRC has the lead duty to investigate fuel laundering? Perhaps, given that this involves serious organised crimes, the Police Service of Northern Ireland ought to have lead responsibility in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it would be more effective at bringing prosecutions.
I believe there are many agencies—when I am winding up I shall draw attention to this—that could work together to resolve this situation. I also accept what my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson) said. We must turn our attention to the cross-border drugs and alcohol problem.
I turn now to another serious organised criminal cross-border activity: the counterfeiting of consumer goods. Although smokers have been warned of the serious health threats posed by illicit tobacco, the current price of duty-paid tobacco makes cheaper tobacco more readily available to the young and the vulnerable. For example, a notorious black market cigarette brand, Jin Ling, which is known to contain asbestos, was recently found on sale in Belfast. Smuggling black market cigarettes is extremely lucrative for organised gangs, which can make huge profits and which cost the UK £2 billion a year in lost taxes.
Last month, almost 1 tonne of raw leaf tobacco and 10,000 suspected illicit cigarettes were seized in raids by customs officers at a farm in south Armagh. HMRC said they were worth an estimated £236,000 in lost duty and taxes. In separate searches on the same day, 10,000 illegal cigarettes were recovered. A number of private and business addresses in County Down were inspected. A vehicle and the cigarettes were removed, worth an estimated £2,800 in lost duty and taxes. It is truly remarkable that no arrests have yet been made in relation to either operation. The question we have to ask is: why?
It is believed by many in the Province that the authorities are turning a blind eye, because this is a way to keep some paramilitary groupings sweet. Those groupings are able to fill the coffers of their organisations and even stand in elections against those who seek to do things in a legal and proper fashion. Although earlier this month five people from County Tyrone and County Down were arrested as part of an investigation into a suspected tobacco fraud worth £110 million, the situation highlights Northern Ireland as an attractive region for international crime gangs owing to the inertia in past months of parties failing to support the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland. It is through these statistics that we are now clearly seeing the out-workings of not having the NCA in operation over the past year-and-a-half. It is no accident that these quantities of illegal substances are being smuggled across the border into Northern Ireland. These gangs know only too well that at present if the gang leaders are caught, some of their assets cannot be taken from them. For the past 18 months, we have been a soft touch for smugglers and criminal gangs. Although the NCA is now expected to be operational in Northern Ireland by May, it is largely a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Nothing surprises us about the intransigence of Sinn Fein and their hostility to the introduction of the NCA. They have a vested interest in seeking to hinder investigations into the skulduggery of their republican mates. However, others have dithered in their support for the NCA and have denied the Exchequer millions of pounds in lost revenue that could have ultimately benefited the people of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive. The difficulties of policing the area along the border are well documented. As recently as last month, a south Armagh man was injured in an explosion while taking down a poster, put up by republican criminal gangs, which claimed that a second individual was a security forces informer or “tout”. However, while it is clear that there are tensions within republicanism, there remains a prevalence of fear in the community about co-operating with the police to bring those behind such threats and attacks to justice.
In conclusion, the motion calls on the Government to ensure greater co-operation between HMRC, the National Crime Agency and the PSNI in combining their investigative prowess to eradicate the scourge of criminal activity from our society.
I am very grateful for this timely debate. The motion, tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and his DUP colleagues, is a good one and we support it. I am conscious that many in this House have given a great deal of attention over the years to the various issues under discussion. For example, I am happy to acknowledge the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in its 2012 report on fuel laundering and smuggling. I also pay tribute to the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, whose committee report, “Cross-border Police Cooperation and Illicit Trade”, which was published last month, the Government are studying closely. I also congratulate the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) on presenting his remarks in typically robust fashion. I will try to address the points he has raised as far as I can.
The motion lists a schedule of serious criminal activity, but before I address each of them in turn I want to put on the record the fact that crime rates overall in Northern Ireland are low and that Northern Ireland is a safe place to be. I say that because it is important to pay tribute to the various agencies that operate in Northern Ireland for the work they do in ensuring that safety, and to give a message to those who are looking at Northern Ireland as a good place to invest and a good place to be. Many of us grew up in the 1970s and ’80s and, although we did not live in Northern Ireland, every night we saw images on our television screens that portrayed a very different Northern Ireland. That is, mercifully, a thing of the past and, in order to foster the economic security that goes hand in hand with security, we need to give the right message to those who may be seeking to invest in Northern Ireland. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels as strongly as I do about that.
The DUP is right, however, to bring the issues under discussion to the attention of the House. Northern Ireland has particular issues regarding criminality. It is a very particular place and the challenges are peculiar to Northern Ireland, and we cannot ignore them. We owe it to people in Northern Ireland to address them to the best of our ability.
The hon. Gentleman effectively described the situation of fuel laundering, which is a clear and present danger that is particular to Northern Ireland, given that it has the United Kingdom’s only land border. Fuel laundering and fuel smuggling come at a great cost to the Exchequer, honest businesses and the environment. The hon. Gentleman also touched on the possible cost to security. The Government take the problem of oils fraud and crime very seriously indeed. The hon. Gentleman should be assured of that and I hope to be able to give him some examples of the efforts we have made to drive it down. Moreover, with the assistance of the agency to which he referred, I hope we will have further successes in the months and years ahead.
Fuel duty plays an important role in a range of Government objectives—social, environmental and fiscal. Fuel duty is also the fifth largest revenue stream for the Government at around £27 billion a year. Clearly, we cannot ignore it. The rates of fuel duty for all of the UK are set by the Chancellor, taking a wide range of factors into consideration. To support motorists and businesses, the Government cut fuel duty in March 2011 and have cancelled all subsequent planned increases until the end of the Parliament, a point I touched on during Northern Ireland questions earlier today.
The Government have a comprehensive strategy in place to tackle fuel fraud and crime. The oils anti-fraud strategy was originally launched in 2002, as the hon. Gentleman has said, and has driven down the estimated illicit market considerably in both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Indeed, the latest tax gap figures published by HMRC indicate that the estimated illicit market share for diesel for Northern Ireland has fallen from 26% to 13%. By any measure, that is quite an achievement. The strategy was aimed at making it much harder for fraudsters to obtain rebated fuels, and to track and analyse the supplies of them, including a requirement for all dealers to register and submit returns. The registered dealers in controlled oil scheme has been a key weapon in our fight back against fuel fraud.
In Northern Ireland, the Government have close and productive co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the authorities in the Republic. Co-operation and intelligence sharing through the Organised Crime Task Force and the cross-border fuel fraud enforcement group has been invaluable in applying multi-agency pressure to tackle oils fraud, including fuel smuggling and laundering.
On combating fuel fraud, will the Minister confirm that the new fuel marker that is about to be introduced in Northern Ireland has no roadside test capability whatsoever and that, therefore, the Government are about to put in a marker that cannot be tested on our roadsides?
The road marker has been a long time in the making. It has been trialled both in the UK and in the Republic and both countries are happy with it. I am assured that it will be robust and that it is extremely difficult to remove.
I will have an argument with the Minister about its capability in a moment, but I am asking a specific question about roadside testing. We cannot combat crime if we are not able to stop someone who has the fuel and test it at the roadside. One of the requirements of the IMS test was to have roadside capability, so will the Minister confirm that the Dow marker has no roadside capability?
What I can confirm is that the marker is capable of being discovered; otherwise, frankly, there would be no point in having it, would there? What would be the point of going to the expense of putting in a marker if it was not possible for criminal justice agencies to determine whether the material was illicit or not? [Interruption.] Perhaps I will be able to come back to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, but if I cannot deal with them satisfactorily perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who will be in the hot seat shortly, will be able to shed some further light to his satisfaction.
In the financial year 2013-2014 alone, HMRC dismantled 38 laundering plants, closed 79 huckster sites and seized more than 500,000 litres of illicit fuel in Northern Ireland. I accept that the hon. Member for South Antrim is frustrated by the failure to eradicate this particular form of criminality, but that is quite an achievement and it represents considerable downward pressure on organised crime in Northern Ireland. Although we are all impatient for more, we sometimes have to celebrate successes as well as take note of failures.
The Minister refers to progress, but what about the issue mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) about the lack of prosecutions and of people being put through the courts and convicted? A lot of people in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, anyone watching the debate, would find it incomprehensible given the scale of the illegal activity that so few people are brought before the courts.
There have been prosecutions and perhaps I can enlighten the right hon. Gentleman about them later in my speech. Clearly, we all want to see prosecutions for criminal activity and the hon. Member for South Antrim rightly highlighted the introduction of the NCA into Northern Ireland, which everybody in this House would welcome, I hope. We are doing that to drive down further organised criminal activity in Northern Ireland and to get the convictions that the right hon. Gentleman seeks.
Does the Minister not realise that the community finds it absolutely abhorrent that filling stations that sell illegal fuel are not only not prosecuted but open the following week to sell fuel again? In many cases, the community has seen such filling stations closed down on a number of occasions without any court case following.
I would certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration if there has been criminality without prosecution. Of course, these matters do not rest with me but when crime exists we want it to be expunged and dealt with. I would start to part company with the hon. Gentleman, however, on the suggestion that there has been some complicity or a deal done. I have seen no evidence to suggest that that is the case. I can understand his suspicion, of course, but I would like to downplay some of his suggestions that in some way agencies have been allowing things to go on or have not been prosecuting or pursuing cases when, of course, the law would require them to do so. That is a very serious charge and were there to be substance in it I would expect it to be reported to the appropriate authorities and investigated.
I join the Minister and others in welcoming the fact that the NCA will now have a remit in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the DUP and all those who pressed the Government and other bodies to ensure that that happened. Given that the NCA now has this much wider remit, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has recommended in the past, will it receive any additional resources to deal with these issues?
Part of the difficulty, of course, has been that the PSNI has had to deal with a lot of these matters itself. The Chief Constable will say that he is well resourced, but he has been subject to considerable restraints, as have all police forces in the United Kingdom in recent years. That inevitably has an impact on what he can do. The fact that the NCA has not been able to operate at anything like its fullest extent in Northern Ireland has meant that there has been a deficit in policing in Northern Ireland. That is now, mercifully, being remedied so that the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the full entirety of policing to which they are entitled. That will clearly have resource implications, which I hope will be beneficial, for the PSNI.
On the question of concerns about the lack of custodial sentences, after running a consultation in summer 2013 the Northern Ireland Department of Justice implemented legislative change in December of that year allowing the referral of unduly lenient excise fraud sentences to the Court of Appeal. The consultation and the resulting measure had the Government’s full support, of course. I can report to the House that in the period 2013-14 six individuals were prosecuted for fuel fraud in Northern Ireland. I accept that that is nothing like enough, given the extent of the problem, but it gives the lie to the suggestion that there have been no prosecutions as there clearly have. However, I would share the assertion made by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that there need to be more. I hope that the introduction of the NCA will play a part in that.
On the specific issue of fuel laundering—
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will in a minute.
Hon. Members might be aware that the UK has worked closely with Ireland to identify a new fuel marker. It will come in in May and represents a significant improvement on the current fuel marker. It gives much more protection against fraud.
Will the Minister give way?
I think that we have exhausted this particular point, and I did say that I would come back to the hon. Gentleman. However, I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills).
While we are talking about the lack of prosecutions, the sentences that are given out are somewhat more lenient than we might hope for an offence of such seriousness. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a problem in that a lot of people perceive fuel laundering and illegal sales of tobacco to be victimless crimes whereas—this is certainly the case in Northern Ireland—they are serious organised crime offences that fund other serious activity and should be treated with that seriousness by the public, by all the authorities and by those who give out the sentences when people are caught?
I agree it is not a victimless crime, as is clear from the figures I have trotted out—there is the cost to the Treasury alone. All of us who rely on the largesse of the public services we enjoy are victims of this crime, so I would certainly agree with my hon. Friend. On the leniency of sentences, I will be interested to see what the Court of Appeal decides.
I think the Minister said—I stand to be corrected on the exact wording—that the Government were confident that the marker would work, but a test carried out in Bellingham with Queen’s university and others, to which HMRC had to be dragged kicking and squealing, along with the Irish Revenue, proved that the Dow marker could effectively be removed by simple distillation. We must have confidence in the marker, but this one cannot do it.
I am certainly not going to assert that any marker or anything added to a substance is incapable of being removed, but clearly it is perfectly possible to launder fuel at the moment—it happens all the while—and although the pattern of fuel laundering is changing, as was touched upon by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), nevertheless it remains and brings with it financial and environmental costs, and costs in terms of criminality, security and all the rest of it. I am advised that the new marker, which we will introduce in May, is an improvement on what we currently have.
I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman does not agree, and I am sorry if I cannot give him an absolute assurance that any substance we add could never be removed, but he will have to accept that it is an improvement on what is happening at the moment, which is patently inadequate.
Well, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks when he makes his contribution.
Mention has been made of fraud and tobacco—topical given the deferred Division at lunchtime. To be clear, our aim is to maintain the downward pressure on the illicit market in cigarettes and hand-rolling tobacco. HMRC’s anti-smuggling strategy is effective and has been adapted continuously to deal with changes in criminal behaviour. Since HMRC first launched its strategy to tackle tobacco smuggling, the illicit cigarette market has reduced by half and the illicit hand-rolling tobacco market by a third, which is substantial.
The motion refers to greater co-operation between the PSNI, the NCA and HMRC on combating serious criminal activity. This cuts to the heart of today’s debate and the point on which we pin so many of our hopes for the future. Extensive multi-agency cross-border co-operation is a key element of the operational response to fuel fraud. HMRC chairs a multi-agency cross-border fuel fraud group that meets quarterly and has representatives from HMRC, the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, the NCA, the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and their Republic of Ireland equivalents. This group shares intelligence and information on operational activity, as well as co-ordinating joint operations. The joint UK-Irish project that identified the new fuel marker is a prime example of that co-operation, notwithstanding the remarks from hon. Gentlemen this afternoon.
I am delighted that the House has agreed legislation to extend fully the remit of the NCA in Northern Ireland. This follows the vote in its support last month in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Serious and organised crime groups do not operate in isolated pockets of each region, and nor do they respect borders or force boundaries. The PSNI estimates that there are between 140 and 160 organised crime groups active in Northern Ireland and 800 active criminals. Nearly one third of these groups are assessed as having links to international criminality, and another third are linked to criminality in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Since it was created just over a year ago, the NCA has begun to make a real impact on the threat to the UK from serious and organised crime, but until now the fight against such offences in Northern Ireland has been inhibited. There have been a number of significant PSNI investigations that the NCA would have been better placed to lead, given that key criminals and their associated infrastructure have been based outside Northern Ireland. It has also been difficult for PSNI to access the specialist resource and capability that the NCA holds. Northern Ireland has been left at a greater risk from child sexual exploitation, cybercrime and economic crime because the specialist resources that the NCA has developed have not been available.
Civil recovery has been affected. Since June 2013, civil recovery investigations are down by more than 50% and property-freezing orders by more than 70%. This is worrying, because denying criminals the proceeds of crime is one of the most effective ways we have of disrupting their activities. However, the NCA will soon be able to deal with serious and organised criminals—no matter where they are—and I am confident that the people of Northern Ireland will now have the same protection against serious and organised crime as those in the rest of the UK. That is surely their right.
As I have said, we do not doubt the seriousness of these types of criminal activity and the harm they cause to society and security. We and devolved colleagues are, as I have outlined, working in co-operation with partners elsewhere to address these problems vigorously. There is often close co-operation with counterparts across the border, and I would say that it is increasing, but we need at all times to ensure that the fullest pressure is maintained on the perpetrators, wherever they may be, and the Government will seek to go on doing just that.
Several hon. Members
Order. I now have to announce the result of the deferred Division on the question relating to the draft Standardised Packaging of Tobacco Products Regulations 2015. The Ayes were 367 and the Noes were 113, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for bringing home both the scale and seriousness of the threat in Northern Ireland. I welcome the initiative of the Democratic Unionist party in bringing this motion before us, because the DUP is absolutely right to bring home the scale of the problem, and to argue for determined action to deal with what is a serious threat, involving effective co-ordination of all the agencies concerned within Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
The motion is right, too, to argue for vigorous enforcement of the law in circumstances where, to be frank, enforcement in the past has sometimes been lamentable. In particular, for vigorous enforcement of the law, it is necessary to make an example of the worst culprits and to go after their ill-gotten gains, sending an unmistakeable message that crime will never pay. Sadly, at the moment, it too often does, which is wrong and must be put right.
David Ford, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister who chairs the Organised Crime Task Force in Northern Ireland has said, as the Minister mentioned, that there are between 140 and 160 gangs operating in Northern Ireland. Criminal gangs in Northern Ireland are not just involved in what one might call “traditional criminal activity”, but are now turning to computer-based cybercrime and operating in rural areas. A report released last November on “Serious and Organised Crime” in Northern Ireland states that
“serious and organised crime ranks among the most serious risks of harm to the community in NI”.
It went on to say:
“Organised crime also has very significant consequences with the impact of, for example, drug dealing, robbery and fraud and other insidious forms of organised criminality. It has significant consequences for individual communities and for society as a whole. Both serious and organised crime…has a detrimental impact on public finances.”
That is absolutely right, because the consequences of serious and organised crime can include, with particular respect to the drug trade, the ruining of lives. Those who commit fraud and online crime and prey on the vulnerable may leave them bankrupt and destitute. There is also the impact on the taxpayer. The Minister mentioned the overall tax take of £27 billion from fuel duties, but too many people in Northern Ireland who are operating across the border get away with paying no duty at all.
The Northern Ireland Omnibus Survey, which measures perceptions, found that nearly two thirds of respondents believed that the problem of organised crime was widespread in Northern Ireland. Indeed, having recently reported its findings in Dublin, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly expressed alarm at the extent and scale of the fuel-laundering business along the border. On a fact-finding visit, members of the group witnessed no fewer than 12 diesel-laundering fronts in operation on the border area between south Armagh and the Republic. As a result, they made several recommendations with the aim of curbing the lucrative black market that currently exists. They urged, for instance, that
“every possible effort must be made by law enforcement authorities in their collaborative efforts to shut down these operations, despite the difficulties in policing some of these areas.”
In the context of fuel laundering and the avoidance of fuel duty, may I press the Minister further on the issue of the Dow Chemical Company? I should like to know how confident the Government are about that issue, because some serious questions have been posed to us. It was proved to HMRC and the Republic’s revenue authorities that the Dow marker was defective, in what we understand to have been a private test. Is that true? Both sides said that they would carry out a scaled-up version of the test. That has now happened, and a report is available. The report states that the Dow marker can be removed completely, and cost-effectively, in a scaled-up field test. Is that true? We are told that Ministers may not know exactly what is happening. We do not know; is that true? What does the Minister know, and what would he be prepared to tell Parliament?
Instead of opting for the immovable British marker that came top in the test but was more expensive, the Government are sticking to a flawed marker which may well not work. That cannot be right in the context of combating fuel laundering, and it also cannot be right for a good British product to be turned down in favour of an alternative that is flawed.
I have had sight of a letter to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) from the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), the present Education Secretary, who was then in the Treasury, which deals with the question of whether the test is defective. In the letter, the right hon. Lady wrote that she was aware that the hon. Gentleman was focusing on the issue of the marker, and that his Committee was discussing it. She also wrote:
“I would be grateful if you could otherwise treat the contents as confidential as any information regarding theoretical weaknesses could alert fraudsters.”
Are there weaknesses, theoretical or otherwise? I think that the Government need to tell Parliament, because if we are finally and fully to combat the menace of fuel laundering, we need to be absolutely confident that what we have works.
It is clear that more needs to be done to combat such illicit activity. In fact, the report “Serious and Organised Crime: An inspection on how the Criminal Justice System deals with Serious and Organised Crime in Northern Ireland”, to which I referred earlier, recommended that
“The OCTF should develop a new jointly agreed strategy with clear outcomes focused on co-ordinated joint enforcement operations and linked to explicit underlying harm reduction strategies.”
The setting of such an objective is welcome, not least because crime groups are highly mobile and flexible, operating across national and international borders and criminal sectors. If there is a gap in our defences, including in respect of asset recovery and coverage, it affects everyone. These problems are not confined to Northern Ireland and can bleed through to Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and beyond, and vice versa. In some cases, the root cause is yet more nefarious than mere profit, because historically some of the gangs concerned have had strong links to both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. Dissident republican groups, which continue to be a threat to the peace process and to the stability of Northern Ireland, are heavily dependent on organised crime. Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, too, have been known to be involved in extortion, loan sharking, robbery, drugs, burglary, theft and money laundering, and the list goes on.
With reference to the powerful speech from the hon. Member for South Antrim, we are rightly concerned about the link between organised crime and dissident republican groups because that puts peace and stability in Northern Ireland at risk, but the problems of organised crime being linked to paramilitaries is not exclusive to the republican community.
I pay tribute to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, for all the work that he has been doing to address these issues. However, the motion from the Democratic Unionists is right to say that we need to be more vigorous in our approach at the next stages, with strengthened and more effective co-ordination between all relevant bodies to enhance law enforcement and bring more people to justice in order to stamp out fuel and drug smuggling for criminal profit and, in some cases, terrorist ends.
On the extension of the National Crime Agency to Northern Ireland, we warmly welcome the fact that the impasse has finally been broken, the law has been changed and we will see the extension of the NCA’s coverage to Northern Ireland. It is an objective that we have supported for some time. We have encouraged parties to come together in Northern Ireland and agree that objective. It is not right that there were some who dragged their heels, but at last the remit of the NCA has been extended, which is to be welcomed. Wherever racketeering and exploitation take place, action should be taken to tackle those serious crimes.
I welcome the fact that in this place there was cross-Chamber agreement, with all parties coming together to say that the extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland was a sensible measure, not before its time. At the next stage, co-ordinated action is crucial, as the motion calls for. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) about the effective resourcing of that was well made. In circumstances where the lack of prosecutions is lamentable, the enforcement of the law and—I stress this again—a much more vigorous approach are needed to pursue the ill-gotten gains of those involved in serious and organised crime. Although the extension of the NCA to Northern Ireland is a welcome step, it needs to take a much more vigorous approach to going after those who benefit from the proceeds of crime. During the passage of the recent Serious Crime Bill we sought to strengthen the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and some progress was made, which we welcome, but there is enormous room for improvement in future.
Recently I heard Keith Bristow, head of the NCA, saying that the agency had seized only £22.5 million in criminal assets in its first year, and he went on to say that more than £1.3 billion of the £1.46 billion owed by convicted criminals to the taxpayer is unlikely ever to be recovered. As with so many other issues, this is an issue where, here in Britain but also in Northern Ireland, we must be more vigorous in our approach to recovering those ill-gotten gains and starving criminals in Northern Ireland of their resources.
This is a welcome debate at a crucial moment. There is a determination across communities in Northern Ireland, as here in Britain, more seriously to tackle serious and organised crime, but it is not enough that we simply pass motions in this House or elsewhere; it is about what is done to see the law implemented. There must be effective action against that which remains a serious threat. Tackling serious and organised crime is important no matter where we turn in the UK, but it is all the more important in Northern Ireland because of the tremendous progress that has been made in terms of the peace process. It remains in some respects fragile, and there are those who challenge it, but the last thing we want is that those who challenge it, particularly republican paramilitaries, being able to benefit from serious and organised crime to fund their nefarious activities. We strongly support the motion.
It is a great privilege to speak in this timely debate. We have debated this subject before. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has done a report on it, and it has been ongoing for some time. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) used the word “Horlicks”—and that is exactly what this is. It is costing the Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds. I predict that the Government will introduce this Dow marker, and it will not reduce the problem. That is my prediction, because the tests we have witnessed and those that have been carried out show that it does not work.
I will be brief as I know other Members wish to speak, but I need to put a number of questions to the Minister. Can the Minister or his officials tell us why Dow Chemical Company was not thrown out of the IMS—invitation to make submissions—tendering process for the marker under European law, when in 2013 it was fined $1.1 billion for fraud? It was fined $1.1 billion, yet it is part of the tendering process, and we are about to introduce a dye that comes from that company.
The Minister was asked a question earlier to which we did not get an answer, but perhaps his officials or the representation from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs today can provide the answer: why was this technology awarded to Dow with no roadside test when the other, British recommended company had a roadside test?
A number of years ago—maybe 10—I was asked to pay a visit to South Armagh by a political activist who lives there. He rang me and said, “David, you have raised issues of fuel smuggling. Would you like to see some of them?” I spent the day going around 15 distilleries and seeing their fuel laundering equipment—or whatever the terminology is—and got within 100 metres of Slab Murphy’s house and his laundering facilities. We moved back up the road a mile, on a hill, and the lorries were freely going in and out of Slab Murphy’s facilities, with nothing being done about it—absolutely nothing.
Right up to the present day, no one has been imprisoned for this. The Minister corrected one of my colleagues on the subject of prosecutions, but this is costing the Government and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. We spoke earlier about the budgets. There is no money in the budgets, and I understand that there are to be further cuts after the general election to try to clear the deficit. There will be issues if that is the case, because we are suffering and the amount being lost to the Revenue every year could be used to build several hospitals.
Is my hon. Friend talking about the same Slab Murphy whom Gerry Adams described as a decent businessman?
After we had seen the activity I have just described, we reported it to what was then the RUC, and several moves were made to close some of the laundering facilities. These activities are unfair to the ordinary everyday workers and businessmen in Northern Ireland who are doing their best to pay their taxes and keep their businesses going. They are completely above board, yet other individuals are profiting from their activities. That is totally wrong, and it has been going on for far too long.
Whether the Minister has been furnished with all the information or not, the information I am giving him is factual, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) will certainly be able to give him a lot more when he winds up the debate. This issue needs to be got right. It has gone on for far too long and it has become a laughing stock. At the beginning of the debate, it was suggested that this arrangement might have been a pay-off for the republicans. When we were talking about the National Crime Agency earlier today, someone in the House remembered that the deal involved 2p to the pound. I would hate to think that any Government had done any kind of deal with republicans and criminals or given them 2p to the pound to keep their mouths shut. It would be a travesty if that were the case. There is something rotten about this whole process and system. There is something wrong and we need to get to the bottom of it.
This might be a laughing stock, but it is certainly no joke. This is a very serious matter. Did my hon. Friend hear the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) say that the British-Irish grouping went out on a fact-finding mission and saw 12 of these facilities in operation? If they could see 12 of them operating on that one day, where was HMRC and where were the authorities at the time?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question. Someone was sleeping on their watch, if indeed they were watching at all.
I have another question for the Minister. Why would the Government not support their own world-leading British science company when its fuel markers are the only IMS-proven indelible markers that are recommended? I want to ask him a further question. Given that the IMS is a joint UK-Republic of Ireland process, why was a single Dow marker IMS awarded when the Government knew that they needed a minimum of two indelible markers? I have asked a series of questions. I do not expect to get the answers today, but it is important that we try to get to the bottom of this.
Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman with a fuller account if he wants me to. This whole debate appears to be revolving around the Dow marker. That is fine, but hon. Members need to understand that the tendering operation was free and open. The Government are bound by rules in that respect, so there was no shady deal in which a British company was disadvantaged or in which Dow was given preference. That would have been madness. The alleged laundering method does not appear to be a viable large-scale proposition. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks that a marker exists that can never be removed. The experiences in the laboratory and in the field are very different, as I think he will probably, on quiet reflection, understand.
On the other point about markers and whether we would be able to detect at the roadside whether something was illicit or not, clearly we are not going to remove the marker we already have until we are completely happy with the new one and it is proven. So the hon. Gentleman can be assured that the two will run in parallel and, thus, there will be no disadvantage. I am hopeful that the new marker will be an advantage, but certainly we will be running the two in parallel. I hope that gives him some reassurance.
Not really, but I will say something about the process. My understanding is that a year ago the Dow marker was tested and found not to work, yet a year down the road we are introducing it. I cannot understand that. If something does not work, why are we spending millions of pounds on introducing it? We are trying to get to the bottom of this and we need the proper marker introduced.
The Minister said he is “hopeful” that it will work, but I am not sure that will inspire confidence. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the Minister said that the Government were bound to accept the bid—suggesting that because it was a cheaper bid they were bound to accept it—that was not a correct reading of, among other things, European procurement rules, because ultimately what is procured has to work?
We do not necessarily have to take the cheapest option—it has to work.
I understand that 23 markers from 12 companies were assessed side by side, and clearly the one that worked was chosen. I hope that is helpful.
As I have said, time will tell. I think this is going to be an expensive exercise that will be proven in time to be not as effective as the Minister has been led to believe.
If we are introducing something, surely it must work—millions of pounds will otherwise be lost to the Exchequer. If those millions of pounds are not needed here, I assure hon. Members that they would be very welcome in the coffers of the Northern Ireland Executive, given the deficit we face. Surely this has to work and we have to be sure that it works. We are not doing this on a trial-and-error basis; we have to be sure that we have something that works.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he is correct about that. The matter is too serious for the marker not to work. This situation has been ongoing, and the amount of money that has been lost and wasted over the past 10 to 15 years—or longer—is just horrific. It could have done a lot to help many vulnerable people, not only in Northern Ireland, but on the mainland. We are where we are and time will tell, but I know my colleague will have a few other statistics and figures to give in his winding-up speech.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) for bringing this motion to the House today. This important issue is often overlooked because in many ways it is a hidden crime, and, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, it is often viewed as a victimless crime. It is anything but. It is important that as well as trying to combat it through the various agencies that have a role in addressing organised crime, we communicate carefully with the public about their role in combating it and about the risk it poses to them. People often simply see cheaper goods and that is the only aspect they see of organised crime; they do not see the risks to them, the other criminality that goes with it, the danger, or the money taken from revenue that would otherwise be invested in services.
Obviously this is a complex area. Others have mentioned how difficult it has been to secure convictions, and I shall move on to discuss that. First, however, I pay tribute to the law-enforcement agencies for the work they are doing on both sides of the border. A complex collection of agencies has to deal with this complex area of crime. We have the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Garda Siochana and the National Crime Agency. We welcome the fact that we now have the additional resource of the NCA, because while we focus on one border, criminals operate across many borders, so having that national organisation involved is hugely important. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Revenue commissioners and Border Force work closely together in order to share intelligence, to disrupt those who try to perpetrate crimes and to ensure that they are eventually brought before the courts. When people are brought before the courts for participation in organised crime or for benefiting from taking goods that are clearly only available as a result of organised crime, the penalties should be a deterrent.
The impact of fuel laundering has been discussed at considerable length. The scale of the problem in Northern Ireland is undeniable. Fuel laundering is not just a cross-border issue: the uncollected revenue from fraudulent diesel in Northern Ireland was estimated by HMRC to be £80 million in 2012-13, which is 13% of the overall market share in Northern Ireland. That is a significant sum of money, especially when we compare it with the GB figure for illicit market share, which was about 2% in the same year. That gives us a clear indication of the scale of the problem, but it is not just a Northern Ireland issue, because that revenue is being denied to the UK as a whole. There is a genuine interest here in Parliament to address the issue robustly, because it is Great Britain’s schools and hospitals as well as our schools and hospitals that lose out as a result of the revenue not being collected.
The nature of fuel laundering means that sites themselves are not regularly attended, which can make it difficult to establish a clear link to the perpetrators. In Northern Ireland, we often say that everyone knows who does things, but knowing and proving are two different things when it comes to the law. Part of the strategy is to disrupt those who are involved in illegal activity, and part of it is to try to catch them. Trying to balance those two things can be very difficult. It is often hard to make that clear link to the perpetrators. It requires the seizure of records and the scene of crime work, which is complex and slow. Prosecutions in this field often do not come to court for many years after the breaking up of the illegal fuel laundering plant.
There has been an increase in the number of fuel laundering plants dismantled—the number has risen quite quickly over the past few years. There has also been an increase in the number of convictions, but the problem is that not one person has received a custodial sentence of more than 10 years, which seems ludicrous given the impact that the crime has on society.
The challenge in making arrests and obtaining the evidence is something of which the Department of Justice and my colleague David Ford are fully aware. As the Minister rightly said, the Department of Justice has introduced legislation adding the evasion of duty in relation to fuel and tobacco to the list of offences that can be referred by the Director of Public Prosecutions from the Crown court to the Court of Appeal when a sentence is considered to be unduly lenient. That does not resolve the issue entirely, but it does mean that there is a fall-back position when judges are seen not to have taken seriously enough someone who is brought before them in connection with these crimes.