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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
24 March 2015
Volume 594

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Northern Futures Project

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1. What progress he has made on the Northern Futures project; and if he will make a statement. [908252]

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Before I turn to my answer, I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in saying how shocked I am to have heard about the very serious air accident that appears to have happened in the Alps in the last couple of hours, with the reported very large loss of life. I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of everybody in all parts of the House are with the families and friends of those who were on board.

Northern Futures has been a great success. It has helped us to engage thousands of people across the country in a debate about how we rebalance the economy and has helped to generate the political consensus needed to tackle the over-centralisation of power in Whitehall. Specifically, it paved the way for more than £7 billion of much needed road and rail investment announced in the autumn statement and for a set of radical decentralisation deals with Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Northern Futures is a major part of the coalition Government’s efforts to rebalance the economy after decades of over-investment in and focus on London and the south-east. Constituencies such as Cheadle, where unemployment is now just 1.4%, are key beneficiaries. Does he agree that this will be one of this Administration’s greatest legacies?

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Yes, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. After such a long period of over-centralisation of decision making in Whitehall, the fact that this coalition Government have finally been able to set Greater Manchester, Cheadle and other parts of the country free from excessive Whitehall control is a great achievement that has been accompanied by a rebalancing of the economy. Sixty per cent. of the net growth in jobs has taken place outside London and the south-east. That contrasts very favourably with Labour’s record.

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Is the Deputy Prime Minister actually going to tell me, or the people in Yorkshire where I represent the town of Huddersfield, that this late conversion to the northern powerhouse and all this talk is anything more than pie in the sky? The Government should have been doing something about the northern regions in the past five years.

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What an absurd thing to say for a member of a party whose Government presided over a decline in manufacturing that was three times faster than under Margaret Thatcher, and who saw the north-south divide open ever wider during the 13 years of the Labour Administration. We have not just started this in the later stage of this Parliament; we have introduced city deals and local growth deals, we have devolved more funding, and we have devolved control over business rates—something never, ever undertaken by Labour.

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Health devolution will allow decision makers to prioritise health inequalities in Manchester, but does my right hon. Friend agree that health professionals in the NHS need to be involved in the detailed discussions to make sure that we get the best deal for patients in our local NHS?

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Yes, of course. Any change in something as complex and important as the NHS in any part of the country needs to be done with the fullest possible participation of the health professionals who will be delivering that change. I regularly encounter—I am sure that my hon. Friend has found the same—health professionals who complain about the straitjacket of decision making from Whitehall and who will welcome the idea that more decisions can be taken locally to suit the health needs of local communities.

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First, may I echo the Deputy Prime Minister’s words about the tragic air crash in the Alps?

Over the past five years, average cuts to local authorities have been £80 per person, but in the Deputy Prime Minister’s city of Sheffield the figure is almost three times higher, and in my city of Liverpool it is almost five times higher. Will he take this final opportunity at the Dispatch Box to admit to the House that the Conservative Government whom he has supported for five years is no friend of the north?

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I know that the hon. Gentleman’s party is in perpetual denial about the economic mess it bequeathed this Government. The problem is that, because of mismanagement on Labour’s watch, the economy blew up, the banks, which it was sucking up to, held a gun to our heads, and 6% was wiped off the value of our national economy, which took £2,400 off every household in this country. That is what the Labour party did. We have had to pick up the pieces. Of course, given that local public spending represents about a quarter of the total, savings need to be made locally as well as nationally, but that is a direct consequence of Labour’s mismanagement of the national economy.

Devolution: England

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2. What progress he has made on further devolution in England. [908253]

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5. What progress he has made on further devolution in England. [908256]

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This Government have a proud record of devolving power from central Government to the cities, towns and counties of this country: we passed the Localism Act 2011; we have initiated and negotiated 28 city deals; we are devolving at least £12 billion of central resources to local places through growth deals; and, with the Greater Manchester agreement, and agreements with other cities to follow, there is now unstoppable momentum to continue that success.

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I am grateful for that answer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the constitutional reform priority should be to ensure a fair and balanced devolution settlement for every part of the UK and to introduce English votes for English laws?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Leader of the House has made it very clear that the return of a Conservative Government will correct that injustice and there will indeed be English votes for English laws.

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As well as English votes for English laws and, indeed, devolution to our great cities, can my right hon. Friend assure me that a future Conservative Government will devolve more authority on service delivery to the great counties of England, which have a strong track record of democratic delivery? I welcome the growth deal from which West Sussex has benefited.

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Indeed I will. My hon. Friend was a distinguished leader of one such county. It is clear that the success of the city deals has introduced a model that other capable authorities can take up. I encourage all our county leaders to prepare their plans to take powers from central Government and to be in charge of those budgets that were previously tied up in Whitehall.

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The devolution proposals for Greater Manchester have been widely welcomed, but the proposal to appoint an interim mayor with no executive powers is less welcome. Does the Minister agree that it should be a priority to arrange for primary legislation so that Greater Manchester can have an elected mayor?

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I do think there should be an elected mayor for Manchester—that is exactly what has been agreed with every one of the Greater Manchester authorities. One of the consequences of the agreement with Greater Manchester is that it will have a directly elected mayor who will be a hugely important national and international figure, as befits that great city.

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Devolution of power and responsibility to Wales required an Act of Parliament and a referendum of the people, yet Manchester and elsewhere are seeing ad hoc devolution that heralds the break up of the NHS. Is it not time to do this properly, rather than play a political game in the run-up to an election?

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I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman seems to be against the devolution that has been welcomed right across the country and that has led to the leaders of Cardiff approaching the Government to request a city deal. I will visit Cardiff later this week to begin negotiations. They will be very concerned to hear that the hon. Gentleman is against it.

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The population of Essex is more than double that of Cornwall, and the population of the six counties of the east of England is considerably greater than that of Wales, so may we have devolution to the powerhouse of the six counties of the east of England?

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Through the Government’s programme over the past few years, we have devolved—and we will complete the devolution of—£12 billion of resources that were previously administered by Ministers and officials in Whitehall to Essex and other great counties. That is work in progress, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we can and should go further.

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Can the Minister see the regions or cities of England one day having more devolution than Scotland currently has?

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The progress we have made in England has been significant. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have also concluded a city deal with Glasgow. Some of the reflections I have heard from Scotland state that the Scottish Government have been a rather centralising Government and that they will look to the model of decentralisation that we have pursued in England to try to save them from that over-centralisation.

Individual Electoral Registration

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3. What steps he has taken to uphold the integrity of voting in introducing individual electoral registration. [908254]

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Increasing the integrity of the electoral process is one of the fundamental reasons behind the introduction of individual electoral registration. Unlike the previous system, under which the head of the household registered people, people now have to register and have their entry verified against Government and local authority records. That is one way in which we are ensuring the integrity of the register. Furthermore, we have ensured that anyone wishing to vote by post or by proxy at the elections on 7 May must have been verified through IER. That safeguards the integrity not only of the register but of the ballot.

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There are almost 4,000 so-called red voters—I hope the colour is not symbolic—who were already registered in Gloucester before IER was introduced. They cannot vote by postal vote, but if they exist, they are entitled to vote in person. What steps has my hon. Friend’s Department taken to ensure that people do not impersonate others in polling stations?

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I thank my hon. Friend for a very good question. On the numbers of people, the number of voters carried forward from the last annual canvass who have lost their postal vote is actually very small—it is about 3% in total—and the remainder have been confirmed against Government records. This is in the context of an important safeguard that was introduced during the transition to IER, ensuring that no one registered to vote at the last annual canvass will lose their vote in May. I would add, however, that any attempt to impersonate someone at a polling station is a criminal offence.

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Order. We are immensely grateful to the Minister.

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Further action that we have taken is £500,000—

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Order. We are extraordinarily obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I was going to thank him for the notable comprehensiveness of his response, which is a polite way of exhorting him to resume his seat.

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Will the Minister tell the House what he believes has been the effectiveness of individual and continuous registration in Northern Ireland? Does he accept the importance and value of continuing the annual household canvass to achieve robust electoral registration?

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We have learned the lessons from Northern Ireland. One of the things we have preserved in the transition to IER is indeed the annual canvass. That is also why we have carried over people from the last annual canvass to ensure that no one who was registered to vote as at January 2014 will lose their right to vote come 7 May.

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Voting integrity is obviously important. There are real concerns that many students, particularly first-year students, will not get on the register. I have been trying to encourage them to register and to vote. What has the Minister done to make sure that they have a chance to vote?

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Ensuring that everyone who is eligible to vote is on the register and can exercise that right has been a priority of the Government throughout the transition to IER. We have made £500,000 available to the National Union of Students to run a programme to register students to vote. We are also working with universities so that they can provide data to local authorities, which can then chase up students not on the register to get them on to the register.

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Despite the warm words from the Minister, at the end of this Parliament there will be many millions who are entitled to vote but missing from the electoral register. The Government’s cack-handed and rushed move to individual electoral registration has made things worse. Fortunately, others are trying to repair the damage—Hope not Hate, Bite the Ballot, Operation Black Vote, the Daily Mirror, trade unions, Operation Disabled Vote, faith groups, the Labour party and many others. Will the Minister join me in thanking and commending all those working hard to ensure that all those entitled to vote are registered to vote?

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I will take no lessons from the right hon. Gentleman. The Labour party left office with 7.5 million people missing from the register. IER was Labour’s policy, and this Government have taken it forward. Of course the Government have worked with a whole series of groups, including private organisations such as Facebook, to promote registration. Indeed, national voter registration day saw 166,000 people register to vote. Operation Black Vote has received funding from this Government to get people on the register. You left the register with 7.5 million people missing; we are putting it right.

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Order. I have done no such thing.

Devolution: South-west

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4. What plans he has to devolve powers to Cornwall. [908255]

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In January this year, I announced that we will devolve to Cornwall an extra £11.3 million from the local growth fund, bringing the total investment devolved to Cornwall to £60.2 million. I have made it clear that I would like to go much further and pass legislation in the next Parliament to allow the Cornish people to have a Cornish assembly with power over housing, health care and transport, if that is what the people of Cornwall want.

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I hope that my right hon. Friend does not think that I am damning him with faint praise when I say that he is the best party leader by far. He will therefore recognise that Cornwall will benefit a great deal from the proposed devolution-enabling Act. Does he agree that under those proposals Cornwall and places like it could redesign their planning and housing systems to put local need above speculators’ greed and the increase in second homes?

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As my hon. Friend rightly suggests, we should push ahead with devolution and decentralisation across the United Kingdom in the next Parliament, but not to a fixed blueprint. Some areas may want to go further and faster than others. If, in Cornwall, it is felt that a Cornish assembly, born out of the existing county council—it would not be yet another talking shop for politicians, and could even cut the number of politicians if it wished to—should have powers over planning, such as those that he suggests, I would hope that we would empower it in that way.

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13. The Plymouth and south-west peninsula city deal, which was announced recently along with the enterprise zone, will ensure that there is significant investment in Devon and Cornwall and that there are new jobs. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that if, by some misfortune, the Labour party got into power, the focus would no longer be on Devon and Cornwall but elsewhere? [908264]

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My hon. Friend is right to say that the Labour party has never sought to look after the interests of the south-west, nor the interests of the national economy more broadly. Without a stronger economy, it is impossible to create a fairer society in which power is distributed to all parts of the United Kingdom, including the south-west.

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Last but not least, I call Debbie Abrahams.

Constitutional and Political Reform

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6. What steps he is taking to ensure that residents of Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency benefit from the Government’s constitutional and political reform proposals. [908257]

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The residents of the hon. Lady’s constituency will benefit from the biggest devolution of powers from central Government to local government for decades. The Greater Manchester city deal and the growth deal agreement will put the transport budget in the hands of the people of Manchester; see the building of 15,000 extra homes over the next 10 years; devolve the skills budget, securing more and better training; allow 100% of business rate revenue to be retained locally; and bring together £6 billion of health and social care budgets to join up services. That is all part of this Government’s northern powerhouse initiative.

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More than 112,000 people were made homeless in 2013, which was an increase of 26% on 2010. That can be directly attributed to the Government’s welfare policies, including their new sanctions regime, and to the lack of affordable housing. My office has been inundated with homelessness cases over the past few months. How does the Minister think the increase in homelessness will affect voter registration?

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The hon. Lady’s initial question was about how the Government’s policies on devolution and constitutional reform have benefited her constituents and I set that out in terms. I would have thought that she would want to recognise that, as did the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). The front page of the Manchester Evening News put it in this way: “We’re All Winners!” Part of the gain for Manchester is that local people can make more of the local decisions, including those on housing, as I mentioned in my previous answer.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908267]

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As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy initiatives. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I urge him to intervene in the campaign to get the drugs that are needed for those with Morquio syndrome, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and tuberous sclerosis. The Prime Minister said that there should be continuity of treatment, yet we have found out that that will not be delivered by the Department of Health. Katy Brown, the mother of my six-year-old constituent Sam Brown, has said that that is at best “misleading, at worst underhand”. This situation is disgraceful. We need to fund those drugs now on an interim basis. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Prime Minister and get it sorted this week?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way he has sought to represent his constituent Sam Brown, and all the other children and their families who are—quite understandably—concerned about the continued provision of these drugs. As he heard from the Prime Minister when he raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago, the understanding is that NHS England is conducting a review that will conclude by the end of next month. In the meantime, drug companies will continue with the provision of these drugs until the end of May, so that continuity is assured. Given my hon. Friend’s concerns, I will undertake to look urgently at the matter again.

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In an interview last week the Deputy Prime Minister pronounced that

“the way in which politics works is bust”

and that “Westminster is a joke”. When he said that, was he referring to himself?

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I wonder what answer I should give to that. No, of course not.

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He went on in that interview to say that he is now “more anti-establishment” than he was five years ago. Were those the same five years in which he took the ministerial car, the ministerial salary and the Tory Whip? Were they the same five years in which he trebled tuition fees, imposed the bedroom tax, put up VAT and cut taxes for millionaires? However he describes himself, the only thing people in this country will remember him for is giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Yes, Prime Minister.”

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I cannot blame the right hon. and learned Lady; she certainly finished in the style to which we have all been accustomed for the last five years by reading out pre-rehearsed questions. I think that the era of single-party government in this country is over. I know she does not like that idea and that the establishment parties—those Members sitting both behind me and in front of me—do not like it either, but I think it is over. This coalition Government have, in very difficult circumstances, presided over what is now the fastest growing economy in the developed world, with more people in work than ever before, and more women in work than ever before, after the absolute economic mess she bequeathed us. That is quite an achievement.

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T5. I welcome the focus that growth deals are giving to investment priorities in north-east Cheshire and across the country. What steps are being taken to help boost and support the life sciences corridor in Cheshire and across Manchester, and to help boost jobs in Macclesfield as well? [908271]

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I know that the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities was recently at Alderley Park, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s personal contribution to the Alderley Park taskforce. I am pleased that through the local growth deals Cheshire and Greater Manchester secured an allocation from the Government of £20 million towards their joint £4 million LEP life science investment fund. More broadly, we must build on strengths in the health care sector in the north of England. That is why in last week’s Budget £20 million was announced for the “health north” initiative, which will enable better care for patients and promote medical innovation in the north of England.

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T2. Through local growth deals and local enterprise partnerships the Government claim to be giving local communities greater control over spending priorities with one hand, yet they savagely make cuts with the other. That means a real failure to deliver projects in places such as West Lancashire that are on the edges of our cities, and they are missing much of the investment that could be made. In the final stages of this Government, will the Minister acknowledge that that has not been fair to all our communities? [908268]

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This is the second time the issue has been raised, and it would be so much easier to take seriously the hon. Lady’s concern about savings that have been asked of local government were it not for the fact that the shadow Chancellor has said that hundreds of millions of pounds would be asked of local government in further cuts if the Labour party won the next election. Which is it? Does the Labour party believe that further savings need to be made from local government, or not? Officially it says that those savings will need to be made, even in the next Parliament as we continue to balance the books, yet in this House the hon. Lady and her colleagues somehow think that no savings are required whatsoever. I am afraid savings will continue to be required until we have finished balancing the books and balancing them fairly.

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T6. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of representations that there should be a tax on family homes in London and the south-east to pay for nurses in Scotland? Does he agree that we need to have a fair Union and a strong Government, not a weak Government dancing to the tune of, and held to ransom by, the Scottish National party? [908273]

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I certainly agree that in the same way as it would be very ill-advised to put the UK Independence party in charge of Europe, it would be very ill-advised to put the SNP in charge of a country it wishes to pull apart.

On property taxation, as the hon. Gentleman knows we have a property tax system, the council tax, which rather eccentrically ends at a certain level. My party therefore believes it is logical to extend the principle of banded taxation for properties higher up the value chain, both here in the south-east and elsewhere.

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T3. Given the overwhelming dominance of London and the south-east in the unelected second Chamber, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that an elected senate of the nations and regions would be a good way to give the regions of England a stronger say in how the country is run? [908269]

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Yes, that would be an excellent idea. I only wish the hon. Gentleman’s party had actually abided by his wisdom when we had the chance to vote for an elected second Chamber. For specious procedural reasons, the Labour party turned its back on its long-held traditional view in favour of democracy in the second Chamber. I agree that one of the virtues of an elected second Chamber is precisely that it would provide an accurate reflection of the regions and nations of the United Kingdom at the other end of the building.

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T7. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, has said that by 2020 the NHS will need an extra £8 billion a year at the very minimum to provide the services we all need. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is our duty as politicians to find that funding, and that any party going into this election saying that it will provide less than that is, no matter how it spins it, actually saying that it will underfund the NHS? [908274]

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Simon Stevens’s analysis of the financial needs of the NHS specified that by the end of the next Parliament there would be an £8 billion funding gap. That is not some sort of easy throwaway figure; it was identified on the basis of certain assumptions about considerable continued savings in the NHS. The Liberal Democrats have specified how we would find that £8 billion. It is now for other parties in the House to come clean on how they would find the money identified by Simon Stevens.

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T4. The Deputy Prime Minister and I have not always seen eye to eye, but as it is his last appearance in the Chamber I will go easy on this occasion. He failed to mention, when he answered Question 1, that Liverpool is a part of the northern powerhouse. What guarantees can he give that my city will have a seat front and centre at the top table of the northern powerhouse? [908270]

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I very much hope it is not the last time the hon. Gentleman and I interact across the Floor of the House of Commons—and in this configuration as well. Liverpool already has a seat at the top table of the Northern Futures and northern powerhouse initiatives. The significant rail and road transport projects, which were confirmed just last week, had Liverpool very much at their heart. They will lead to significantly improved road and rail connections from Liverpool to the rest of the north-west and to the rest of the country. The good thing is that those proposals were developed on a cross-party basis—of all parties—and in a consensus of both national Government and local government, including in Liverpool.

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T10. As someone who was initially sceptical about the longevity of the coalition Government, I am very proud of our achievements and very pleased with our successes. Consequently, I would award the current Government nine marks out of 10. How many marks out of 10 would the Deputy Prime Minister rate the current Government? [908277]

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I will leave the marking and the scores to other people. I look to hearing the scores that will no doubt be delivered by other, more critical voices shortly. I agree with my hon. Friend that the durability of the coalition Government was not widely predicted when we were formed. I remember, when the coalition started, reading almost daily portentous predictions that the coalition Government would not survive. We have survived for half a decade and we have done so in the national interest.

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T8. The Deputy Prime Minister promised in the coalition agreement to set a limit on the number of special advisers. There were 71 under Labour. There are 107 now, including 20 in his office, at a cost of £1,200,000. Does he believe in leading by exhortation rather than example? [908275]

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We have been more open and transparent about the employment of special advisers than any previous Government, and I have never hidden the fact that in a coalition Government of two parties, clearly both parties will wish to employ special advisers in order to facilitate the mechanics and workings of government.

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I call Mr Richard Graham. [Interruption.] Get in there, Mr Graham; your moment is now.

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T11. May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister’s office warmly for all its hard work in ensuring that growth deals for Gloucester and Gloucestershire have been delivered over the past five years, and may I exhort him to do more of the same in the next Parliament? [908278]

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I thank my hon. Friend. I agree that the growth deals have set an important precedent in handing more power, money and decision-making authority to local communities, and I hope it sets a trend that will not be reversed in the next Parliament.

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It is no surprise that the previous career of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was as a Foreign Office diplomat. He is able to react to any situation, even when he is busily consulting his iPhone. We are deeply obliged to him.

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T9. I notice that the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for building strategic relations with Europe. Given how weak our country is in Europe and NATO and how so many people compare this Prime Minister with Neville Chamberlain, is he proud of the job he has done promoting Britain in Europe? [908276]

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The hon. Gentleman gets very worked up. It is no secret that there are differences of opinion in this coalition Government on some of the big long-term issues concerning Britain’s future in the EU. My party will never argue for withdrawal from the EU, because we think it is in our overwhelming national interest to remain part of it. I would say this, however: political and diplomatic strength is directly related to economic strength, and, in my view, if we stay the course and finish the job—and finish it fairly—of fixing the finances and continuing to rewire the British economy, within a generation it could be the largest and most potent economy in Europe, which will deliver considerable clout to future generations.

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T12. Given that London’s economy is greater than Scotland’s and Wales’s combined, as we devolve power to Scotland and Wales and the northern powerhouse, what plans does my right hon. Friend have for making sure that devolution flows to London as well? [908279]

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I agree that the process of devolution and decentralisation not only to the different nations of the UK but to the different parts of England is an ongoing process that should benefit all parts of the country, including London. Just last week, announcements were made of the further devolution of powers to the London Mayor’s office, in addition to the considerable powers he already possesses. That could be built upon in the future.

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The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals for the alternative vote system were roundly defeated in a referendum. Will he tell the voters whether he is now prepared to take no for an answer?

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I would like the hon. Lady to confirm—perhaps by raising a hand—which party had AV as its manifesto commitment in the last election. It was not the Liberal Democrats; it was not the Conservatives—oh, it was the Labour party’s policy. We put to the British people her party’s own policy, and she now wants me to disown it. Honestly, of all the topsy-turvy accusations I have had levelled at me, that really takes the biscuit.

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T13. For the last five years, I have tried to irritate the Deputy Prime Minister by asking him questions exposing Liberal Democrat failures, and he has always answered with good grace and good humour—although never the question I asked, of course—and I think that history will look on him as having been courageous in bringing his party into a national Government at a time of crisis. He should take great credit for that. My final question to the Deputy Prime Minister is simple: will he confirm whether he intends to serve another full term as Deputy Prime Minister? [908280]

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I have enjoyed answering—or in the hon. Gentleman’s view, not answering—his questions on many occasions and perhaps look forward to doing so again in the future. I would happily settle for two terms as Prime Minister.

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Because the Prime Minister has listed a number of people who might want his job and because a leadership contest might come much sooner than he wishes, would the Deputy Prime Minister like to indicate those of his colleagues who are likely to wish to replace him? One obvious candidate is not present at the moment.

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Er, no.

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T14. I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement on additional funding for childhood and adolescent mental health services. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that we will never again see children and adolescents being held in police cells because there are insufficient in-patient beds? We need more tier 3 and tier 4 facilities for young people. [908281]

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I strongly agree. It is very good indeed that something close to a cross-party consensus has emerged over the last few years in favour of dealing with generations of discrimination—and it is discrimination—against mental health in the NHS and, within that, an almost institutionalised form of cruelty through which very vulnerable children and adolescents with serious mental health conditions have not been treated and cared for. This cannot be reversed and corrected overnight, but we can make a start. We have done that, and last week’s announcement in the Budget of a £1.25 billion investment in children and young adult mental health services will have a transformative effect on the tens of thousands of children who will now be better treated than they have been for a long time.

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My constituents, I am happy to say, voted for AV in the recent referendum, but they were not among the majority. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that with a five-party system at the UK level—and even more throughout the nations and regions of the UK—we need to look again at the electoral system and that this should be a priority for a constitutional convention hopefully set up under a Labour Government?

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One should not expect to ask a Liberal Democrat about electoral reform and fail to get a hearty answer—well, perhaps not a hearty answer, but the hon. Gentleman knows what I mean. The electoral system we have is woefully unrepresentative of the way people vote. As he rightly suggests, it is becoming ever more unrepresentative as the old duopoly of politics gives way to something much more fluid and plural. Our electoral system—and, indeed, the way in which we conduct our business here—is stuck firmly in the past. It is anachronistic; it will have to change; in my view, it will change one day.

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Is the Deputy Prime Minister as disappointed as I am that the groundbreaking devolution deal announced for West Yorkshire received a less than generous response from certain West Yorkshire council leaders?

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I agree. I was struck by the rather churlish and sour note coming from a number of Labour leaders in West Yorkshire about a deal that amounts to a very significant transfer of power, money and responsibility to Leeds and the west Yorkshire area. It was warmly welcomed by Roger Marsh, the chair of the local enterprise partnership. It would be much better if we could work on a cross-party basis to welcome rather than denigrate those steps towards further devolution.

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Only days ago, the Government appointed a Conservative Member of Parliament to the £45,000 a year job as chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Today we learn that another Conservative MP is about to be appointed to another office of profit under the Crown. Is this not a flagrant example of jobs for the boys, and will the anti-establishment bit that is left in the Deputy Prime Minister condemn such appointments?

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I am not entirely sure which specific instances the hon. Gentleman alludes to, but everybody remembers the explosion in quangocracy under the Labour Government when legions of placemen and women were dotted around the country by the Labour party. In fact, many of them are still in post.

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The Government have devolved an awful lot of funding down to Labour-controlled west Yorkshire councils for their transport priorities. What can be done to make sure that we get some true devolution, so that the money can flow down to places such as Shipley for the much-need Shipley eastern bypass, and so that the money is not just kept by these Labour councils for pet projects in Labour heartlands?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Every time we enter into local growth deals, particularly those that are centred on big metropolitan authorities and big urban areas, there is legitimate concern—which was reflected in his question—about the possibility that some outlying or linked rural communities will not get a slice of the pie. Growth deals should be constructed in a way that allows both rural and urban areas to be included at every stage.

Attorney-General

The Attorney-General was asked—

Stalking: Prosecutions

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1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken in the last two years to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute stalking and harassment cases more effectively. [908283]

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The Crown Prosecution Service has taken a number of steps recently to ensure that that can happen. A joint police and CPS protocol on stalking was launched in September last year, and CPS legal guidance was revised to reflect that development. In addition, prosecutors have been given training on the new stalking offences.

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Can my hon. and learned Friend confirm that stalking and harassment online is taken as seriously as other forms of such behaviour?

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Yes, I can confirm that. Recent changes in the law that were introduced by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 will make it easier to prosecute those serious cases by extending the time limits on summary-only communications offences, and by allowing cases covered by section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 to be dealt with in the Crown court.

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I am pleased that this question has been asked, but I am rather concerned about the lumping together of general harassment and stalking. The Solicitor-General knows full well that stalking is a distinct offence and should be treated accordingly.

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The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. I pay tribute to him, because this is probably the last occasion on which he will be able to raise such matters here. I am sure that he will continue to campaign in whatever capacity his party allows him to, and I wish him well.

In the year to last December, 818 stalking offences had been brought to prosecution. We now need to calculate the proportion of successful prosecutions, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that more work will be done through extrapolation from those figures.

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The Crown Prosecution Service, which, after all, is a demand-led organisation, has experienced a 28% cut in its funding since 2010, which equates to £200 million a year. Does the Solicitor-General think that that is helping or hindering the prosecution of stalking and harassment cases?

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As I said a moment ago, had it not been for the Government’s changes in the law, we would not be bringing all those extra cases to court. The CPS is performing well against 11 of its 12 key performance measures, and is rising to the challenge. Conviction rates are broadly the same as they were five years ago, and I think that that should be met with encouragement rather than despair.

Child Sexual Abuse

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2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the current Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on prosecuting cases of child sexual abuse. [908284]

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In October 2013, the CPS issued guidelines setting out a new approach to child sexual abuse cases. Steps to be taken include the use of specialist prosecutors, the provision of dedicated CPS units to manage such cases, and the application of a new approach to considering evidence in such cases. In 2013-14, the number of child abuse prosecutions rose by 440 to 7,998, and the conviction rate was 76.2%, which is the highest that it has ever been.

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I welcome the Attorney-General’s reply. As he will know, prosecuting sexual offences is very difficult, and such prosecutions are particularly difficult for children. When the guidelines were introduced, it was feared that not all the measures involved would be properly introduced everywhere. What steps are being taken to review the process and keep track of what is happening, so that there can be a proper evaluation and good practice can be built on?

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The hon. Lady is right to ask that question. We do keep such matters under review, and as she will appreciate, a large part of the process involves ensuring that prosecutors are properly trained and encouraged to do what the guidelines say they should do. We will ensure that they receive that ongoing training and updating, but I think that the signs are encouraging. I think that we are doing more of the things that we need to do to ensure that child witnesses, in particular, are accommodated properly in the court system, so that they can give the best evidence that they are able to give.

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In this very difficult field, does the Attorney-General recognise that the Crown Prosecution Service must learn some lessons from its mistakes, but also that its independent ability to prosecute without fear or favour must not be called into question?

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I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. It is right that, where mistakes are made, they should be learned from, but of course, as he will appreciate, it does not follow that cases that result in an acquittal should never have been brought as prosecutions in the first place. That is not the way the system works; it is important to make that point. It is also right, as he has heard me say before, that regardless of what someone does for a living or their position in society, if a prosecution is appropriate, according to the evidence and the tests that are applied, it should be brought.

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Does the Minister believe that it would be better for the CPS to have clear guidelines? Should not statutory rape, which ends at 12 at the moment, be extended to a higher age, or should we even consider raising the age of consent to 17?

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The hon. Gentleman asks some interesting questions to which, fortunately, it is not for me to determine the answers, but I am sure that he will appreciate that it is important that wherever the boundaries are set, the CPS prosecutes under the law as it stands as effectively as it can, and we must do all we can to ensure that it does.

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It is clear from the evidence from Rotherham and the inquiries that have been conducted that what the victims of child sexual abuse said was not accepted; they were not believed by the authorities and they were not supported by the CPS. What measures can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that victims are given priority in the system, and are believed and supported all the way through?

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My hon. Friend puts his finger on one of the substantial problems here. It is important—this is part of the guidelines I described earlier—that prosecutors address their preconceptions and prejudices as to how young people who come forward with these allegations should or should not have been behaving, and how they should or should not react if they had been subject to those kinds of abuse. We also need to ensure that prosecutors challenge prejudices and preconceptions in court, so that in the presentation of prosecutions, evidence is called, where appropriate, to challenge those, and so that judges say what they need to say to juries to make sure that no one proceeds under a false preconception.

Human Rights: Domestic and International Obligations

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3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. [908285]

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6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. [908288]

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I have regular discussions with colleagues about a large number of important issues. As the House knows, by convention advice the Law Officers may have given is not disclosed outside Government. However, domestic and international human rights remain an important aspect of our law and key considerations in the Law Officers’ work.

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Since human rights is an international issue and an international obligation, and rights are universal, will the Attorney-General take this opportunity to say he has no intention of withdrawing from the European convention on human rights and thus undermining the whole cause of human rights and justice across the continent and diminishing Britain’s ability to criticise anybody else for human rights abuses?

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As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, I make a distinction between what is in the convention, which I wholly support, and the interpretation of the convention given by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, with which I have some disagreement, and I do not think we should confuse the two. Neither do I believe that it is axiomatic that the only way to have a good record on human rights is to be a member of the European convention on human rights and a signatory to it. Countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada, none of which, obviously, are signatories to this document, all have a very good record.

Similarly, it is not right to assume that countries that are members of the European convention on human rights have a spotless human rights record. That clearly is not the case either; one need only look at some of the countries that are signatories to see that. Membership of the convention is neither necessary nor sufficient for a country to have a good human rights record, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a future Conservative Government will be utterly committed to the maintenance of human rights, both domestically and abroad.

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I know the Attorney-General’s primary job is to advise the Government, but on this occasion, just for old time’s sake, could he advise me? Given the Conservative party’s plan to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998, what rights do my constituents currently have that they will not have under the next Government if the Conservatives are elected?

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What I believe—and what I suspect many of our constituents believe—is that human rights are important, but that it should be our courts that adjudicate on such questions rather than the Court in Strasbourg. It is extremely important to recognise that the Court in Strasbourg has given rulings suggesting that responsibility for some matters that the right hon. Gentleman and I would agree should be determined by Parliament in this country should be accrued to that Court in Strasbourg. That is simply wrong. He knows that, and I know that. The other thing that he knows, as a member of the Opposition home affairs team and a former Minister in the Home Office, is that it has been extremely difficult to deport those who create a real threat to the British people, because of their abuse of human rights laws. We intend to do something about that, but it appears that his party does not.

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Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it would be prudent to revert to the situation that we had before the Human Rights Act was passed, in which a court case could be referred to the European Court of Human Rights, and the ruling could then be applied to the law of the land?

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I certainly think that the judgments of the Court in Strasbourg will be looked at by our courts in the circumstances that my hon. Friend describes, and that they will no doubt take note of some of them. I do not think it right, however, that the courts in this country should be obliged to take account of the judgments of the Strasbourg Court, and that is what we would change. It is perfectly reasonable for the courts in this country to look at judgments not only from Europe but from other jurisdictions, but it should not be obligatory for them to do so, and that is what we would change.

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We need clarification on this point, because the Government’s position on human rights is chaotic. We know that the Law Officers are at loggerheads on this issue, and that the very sensible former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), was sacked in the Prime Minister’s massacre of the moderates because of his “poor” human rights stance. The Minister knows, however, that the European Court declares more than 98% of claims against the UK to be without merit, so why will he not celebrate the excellent Human Rights Act and commend Strasbourg for its common-sense decisions in most of those cases?

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The hon. Gentleman seems to be inviting me to accept that it is fine to have a power that one should not have, so long as one does not use it all the time. That is simply not the position that we should be in. He is, of course, right to suggest that this is an important subject, and it will be an important subject in 44 days’ time when the British people will make a judgment on it. It would be useful to know whether Labour is utterly content with the state of human rights law in this country and would make no changes to it whatever. If that is Labour’s view, as it seems to be, the public need to understand that, come election day.

Vulnerable Witnesses

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4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to provide greater assistance to vulnerable witnesses and to support them better in giving evidence in court. [908286]

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The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to improving the experience at court for all witnesses, and CPS staff work closely with the police and the voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are supported through the criminal justice system. Special measures such as the use of intermediaries or screens in court can also be applied to provide greater support for witnesses who give evidence.

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Does the Minister agree that there is a clear need for children and other vulnerable witnesses to have the ability to give their evidence away from court, to ensure that as many prosecutions as possible can progress?

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am encouraged by the work that has been done in the pilot courts in Leeds, Kingston and Liverpool on the use of section 28 provisions to allow the cross-examination of children and young people away from court. I very much hope that that will become the norm as soon as possible.

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In the light of the Eleanor de Freitas case, will the Solicitor-General review the guidance to ensure that the provision of support and counselling services to vulnerable people is not removed abruptly?

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That was a particularly sensitive and difficult case that, as the hon. Lady knows, was the subject of careful consideration and reconsideration. We must avoid a sudden cut-off of support and help. I know that police family liaison officers do a huge amount of work before and after cases, and I would like to ensure that that sort of work continues, particularly in sensitive cases such as the one that she has raised.

Pro Bono Work

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5. What steps he has taken to promote pro bono work among members of the legal profession. [908287]

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The Attorney-General and I are the pro bono champions for the Government, and we are helped in this work by two pro bono co-ordinating committees, which bring together the leading organisations dedicated to the delivery of pro bono legal representation, both here and abroad. We took part in a wide range of events during national pro bono week last November, and we will take part in further events this year.

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What assistance can my hon. and learned Friend offer constituents of mine on limited incomes to get legal advice that they need?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The national pro bono website, www. nationalprobonocentre.org.uk, gives information on a wide range of organisations that offer pro bono legal assistance. Of course, the local citizens advice bureau is a very good gateway through which her constituents can obtain more specialist legal services.

Domestic Abuse

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7. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute cases of domestic abuse more effectively. [908290]

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The Director of Public Prosecutions has announced new guidance on the handling of cases of domestic abuse, and it was published on 30 December. That guidance deals with the handling of all aspects of domestic abuse and offending, including the many ways in which abusers can control, coerce and psychologically abuse their victims. The CPS has contributed to the development of the new domestic abuse offence of coercive controlling behaviour, which was introduced in the Serious Crime Act 2015.

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With organisations in my constituency such as Warwickshire Domestic Violence Support Services and RoSA—Rape or Sexual Abuse Support—in Rugby doing great work supporting victims, the number of referrals across the country of domestic violence allegations is at its highest ever recorded. What action is being taken to make sure that more of these cases that are coming to light are being prosecuted?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I pay tribute to those organisations in his constituency, which do so much to protect women and families from the scourge of domestic abuse. Last year, the CPS charged in 72,905 domestic violence cases referred to it by the police, which is the highest volume and proportion ever recorded—it is a 21% rise from the previous year. It is anticipated that the CPS will be dealing with up to 20,000 more domestic violence cases than two years ago.

Bribery Act

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8. How many prosecutions have been initiated by the Serious Fraud Office under the Bribery Act 2010. [908291]

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The Serious Fraud Office has initiated prosecutions against three individuals under the Bribery Act 2010, with two having been convicted.

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I spent more than 10 years arguing for a radical change in the law on bribery, which was passed as the 2010 Act, with all-party support, just before the last election. The OECD, which has criticised us in the past for not doing enough to implement its convention, thinks it is important that from time to time cases are brought before the courts. Will the Solicitor-General assure me that the SFO has adequate resources to investigate and prosecute cases of this kind?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to him, as he is retiring from this place, for his assiduous work on this and other issues over the years. He rightly says that it is important for the reputation of this country that cases are brought, under either the new Act or the old Act. We must not forget that we have had a number of key successes in non-Bribery Act cases that predate the passage of this legislation, most notably the prosecution of Smith & Ouzman Ltd for bribes paid to Kenyan officials in relation to the electoral processes. We have had a number of successes, which we should celebrate.

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Does the Solicitor-General agree that part of the SFO’s success in recent years in these matters stems from the rigour that David Green, QC, has brought as its director, because of his experience in private practice? Is that perhaps a lesson for future appointments to other senior prosecuting bodies?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and I join him in thanking the director for the hard work he is putting in to ensure that the SFO performs well and improves its progress. On the previous question on resources, may I just say that the availability of blockbuster funding means that the SFO has the flexibility to prosecute cases as and when they arise and meet the threshold test?