House of Commons
Tuesday 24 March 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Northern Futures Project
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Can the Minister see the regions or cities of England one day having more devolution than Scotland currently has?
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
Constitutional and Political Reform
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)
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
The Attorney-General was asked—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
Rural Payments Agency: Basic Payment Scheme
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the Government’s failure to deliver a digital-only system for processing the basic payment scheme via the Rural Payments Agency, and what assurances she can give to UK farmers that the failure will not result in significant delays to the receipt of their basic payment?
I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House. This is the first year of the new basic payment scheme. As the new common agricultural policy is so complex, we needed to invest in a new computer system to administer claims; the existing single payment scheme computer system would not have been able to cope. The new system included a core, which was there to process data and which was based on an existing system used in other countries, and a portal that enabled farmers to register their details and to map land passes.
The core of the new rural payment system is working well. To date, more than 80% of farm businesses in England have registered successfully on it, so they can submit a BPS claim. We continue to engage and encourage farm businesses to register online as soon as possible. However, there have been performance issues with the online interface that enables farmers to input the data directly, especially when it comes to mapping land passes. We have been working to address those issues since February. Our priority has always been to ensure that farmers can submit their claims by the deadline. That is why we have made adjustments to our plans. The RPA is now offering farmers and their agents the option of using existing paper-based forms to finalise their claims. Information from those forms will then be input by the RPA on to the system.
There are two new ways in which farmers can complete their claims. Farm businesses with little change to their land will be fast-tracked by the RPA. In particular, those who predominantly have permanent pasture will not need to map those details. They will receive an e-mail in April that summarises the land and entitlement information already held on record, together with simple instructions on completing their claim by e-mail. The RPA has identified approximately 39,000 farmers who fall into that category.
Secondly, farm businesses that need to map new features can use blank existing forms to prepare their claims before they are sent a pre-populated form in early April. They can submit their claim by e-mail, by post, or through an RPA drop-in centre, and we have 50 of those now established. Separately, all agents will have received maps of their clients’ land from the RPA by the end of next week. Those dealing with the most complex cases will be offered additional support. The RPA is also exploring the option of giving some agents direct access to the system so that they can make applications quickly.
This is a pragmatic response that applies to the application process in 2015. It means that we will be able to make payments to farmers when the payment window opens in December 2015. All data entered so far on the rural payment scheme system have been saved and will be used by the RPA to complete farmers’ claims this year.
In addition, a number of other EU countries have had difficulties in getting their IT systems in place this year to process this first year of a new, more complicated CAP. In parallel, the Commission has offered an option to member states, allowing them to extend to 15 June the deadline for basic payment scheme applications. That was discussed on 16 March in a Council meeting, which I attended, and it was confirmed by the Commission on 19 March.
In conclusion, the core of the new system works and we are not abandoning anything. We will continue to use it and it will enable claims to be processed efficiently this year and will be the basis for service improvements in future years. However, the action that we announced last week will ensure that farmers can submit their applications successfully this year, and it has been welcomed by stakeholders and those in the industry.
Given the imminence of the general election, I am keen that we communicate with the Opposition on this issue and keep them in touch. I have written to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) explaining the current situation in detail, and, as she knows, I have offered to meet her, with Mark Grimshaw, to discuss the matter further. Our offices are in discussion about a date for that meeting, which I intend to happen this week. I am also more than happy to keep Opposition Front-Bench Members updated on the changes in the weeks ahead.
Many farmers will be depending on the basic payment scheme to keep their business afloat and on prompt payment to maintain vital cash flow. Given the seriousness of this matter, I am astounded that the Under-Secretary of State has been sent to this House to deal with it. Where is the Secretary of State? As well as refusing to answer questions on BBC’s “Farming Today”, she now appears to be running away from her duties to this House. Let us hope that the Select Committee has better luck getting her to appear tomorrow.
The disastrous late admission from Ministers that the mapping functionality of the Government’s digital by default system for making payments to farmers does not work is a serious blow to hard-working farmers, not least because the Secretary of State said on 11 March, in evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee:
“The maps are up and running.”
We have all heard rumours for weeks, but the Government have blithely continued, heads in the sand, to insist that everything will work. As recently as 12 March, at the last DEFRA oral questions, the Under-Secretary of State was saying that his only plan was to make the system work; there was no contingency. As a consequence, many farmers who have endured incredible frustration trying to use the system to map the land, or have paid agents to do it for them, now face having to do it all again on paper, and at one of the busiest times of the farming year. How frustrating and wasteful of time and hard-earned money.
Will the Under-Secretary of State please tell the House why Ministers have repeatedly given assurances that the system works which have turned out not to be accurate? Will those farmers who have paid agents to make their claims online be compensated for now having to pay them again to submit the same information? It has previously been insisted that the scheme is too complex for paper. Now we have reverted to paper, so is there an increased risk of errors, which could result in penalties? Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that in future farmers will be able to access and use the information they have already submitted, or will they be forced to start again?
On Saturday, Mark Grimshaw, the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, referred to the fact that the EU payment window is open until the end of June. He said:
“I am absolutely confident that we will pay within the payment window.”
For farmers expecting their payments in December, that is far from reassuring. It is disastrous. Will the one-month delay in the deadline for applications cause a delay in payments? Mr Grimshaw has said:
“It will be foolhardy of me to commit to anything in December”.
What does the Minister expect farmers to do for cash flow while they wait for their cheques?
When did Ministers first hear that the digital by default system they chose to insist upon would not work? Why did they not implement contingency arrangements sooner, to save farmers the time and expense now wasted? How much money has been wasted? Finally, can the Under-Secretary of State assure the House that Ministers will now remove their heads from the sand, rise above the chaos and confusion their incompetence has caused, and come clean to the House: will the mapping functionality ever work, or will it need to be completely replaced?
I will begin by reminding the Opposition of their own record on the Rural Payments Agency. Let us not forget that in 2005, the system they introduced led to £600 million of disallowance for this country. Payments were regularly more than a year late—hardly any farmers ever received their payments on time. It took a Conservative-led Government coming to power in 2010 to sort it out.
The hon. Lady asks whether everything will have to be resubmitted on paper. As I made clear in my opening statement, for those farmers who have managed to enter their mapping details, the information has been recorded; they will not need to start again. She says that we have always maintained that the new CAP is too complex to be processed on paper alone and needs a computer. That remains the position. As I said in my opening statement, that is why we will still use the core of the system to process the data. We have, for example, coefficients on the areas farmers have of broad beans, leguminous vegetables, hedges and so on. It is complex, and that is why we are not removing a digital approach, but simply having RPA officers enter the information on behalf of the farmer. This is not a paper-only system; it is a paper-assisted system.
The hon. Lady said that Mr Grimshaw, the chief executive of the RPA, had said that he could not give guarantees about the payment window. Having worked with Mr Grimshaw for 18 months, I can say that he is cautious and he never gives guarantees. In all the time I have known him he has never said anything other than that we will make our payments within the payment window. In the past couple of years well over 95% of farmers have been paid on the first day of banking and paid early. I am confident, as I said, that once we have the information in and it has been processed, we will have a system in place that can deal with it.
The hon. Lady mentioned contingency plans. We have adapted our plans and acted to ensure that farmers can get their applications in time this year. That is the responsible thing to do. It would have been wrong to abandon the system and prematurely abandon attempts to sort out the portal, particularly the part that deals with land mapping. We have acted in time to ensure that farmers can get their applications in place, and the steps that we have taken have been welcomed by the farming industry.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), who carried out fantastic work in turning around the mess that he inherited in the Department and sorting this out. Will my hon. Friend help me with one detail? The mapping that we are talking about is often very detailed—an electric fence here, a bit of undergrowth there. Would it be possible to pay farmers on account as partial payment this year, with the amounts being adjusted in subsequent years’ payments?
Provided an application is received by the deadline, there is provision in the EU regulations for it to be amended for a period of weeks after that. My hon. Friend’s suggestion of a payment on account while an application has not been received would not fit within the EU regulations, but we have made progress in getting that deadline extended to 15 June, and I have asked the RPA to take a sympathetic view towards farmers who are struggling to get their application in and who may want to amend those details after their form has been submitted.
When the Paymaster General boasted to the public services 2030 conference just 20 days ago that under this Administration the words “Government” and “IT” no longer induce visions of failed IT projects, is it safe to assume that he did not know about this situation?
As I pointed out, we have not abandoned anything. The core of the system is working and will still be used. What we are doing is ensuring that the information provided, in many cases on paper, to the RPA will be entered by digitisers working for the RPA, but it will still go into an electronic system.
Does my hon. Friend regret the Department saying that there was no need for a contingency plan? Will he reassure the House that there cannot be a digital-only system where farmers do not have access to broadband? What are the Government doing to speed up the situation for farmers living in areas with less than 20% and sometimes less than 40% coverage by broadband to ensure that the core system will work next year, as we were assured by the RPA in the Select Committee that the system had been tried and tested across the European Union? Will he confirm that the extension has been agreed for payments to be entered by 15 June?
I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that our plans have always been adaptable. We have always had the ability to change plans and our priority is to ensure that every farmer can get their application in by the deadline. That is why we announced what we did last week. It is not necessary to announce one’s contingency plans until one is ready to use them. That does not mean that we had not thought about this and that we did not have the ability to keep those plans adaptable.
On my hon. Friend’s wider point about an internet-only or digital-only application, we have 50 digital support centres that will help farmers to do this, and we are setting up help centres in farmers markets and everywhere we can to ensure that they are able to get their application in on time. We have ensured as well that the system can work at relatively low broadband speeds, so I believe we have addressed the issues that she raised, but in the short term farmers can submit their application this year in paper-based form.
Why is it that every time this Government mess things up they send a junior Minister to the Dispatch Box—the Secretary of State is nowhere to be seen—to blame someone else? I happen to be an avid fan of the BBC’s “Farming Today”—almost as avid a fan as I am of Clare Balding’s “Ramblings”, as those who follow me on Twitter will know—and the fact is that had “Farming Today” not exposed the deep concern in the farming community about this mess, we would not have had this urgent question today.
That is simply not true. We made our decision when we realised that a software update the weekend before last had not worked as we had hoped. It had nothing to do with any media coverage; the media have told us nothing that we were not already aware of. The Secretary of State and I work as a team, so I am here today and she will be appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee tomorrow. We have been working closely together on this and both regularly meet the RPA to discuss these challenges.
I remind my hon. Friend that until the coalition Government sorted out earlier problems at the RPA, I was having to deal with hundreds of cases of farmers in my constituency who were affected and to make representations on their behalf. Has he noted the fact that we will soon be in a six-week election period during which none of us, whether or not we are standing for re-election, will have the status of a Member of Parliament, so he is likely to receive representations during that period from extremely worried farmers?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that although we will all cease to be Members of Parliament next Monday, I will remain the farming Minister and the Secretary of State will remain the Secretary of State until a new Government are formed, and I can reassure him that I will be having regular telephone conferences with the RPA and attending meetings to discuss and monitor the situation. We will keep a very close eye on this indeed.
I assume that departmental officials produced a risk assessment for Ministers when the move to this system was proposed, so can the Minister today advise the House on what he thinks are the projected costs to be incurred by DEFRA and the RPA, and indeed by farmers and landholders, as a result of this mess?
The important thing is that farmers can submit their claims on time and that the Government have rightly taken action to enable them to do so. In learning the lessons, will my hon. Friend recall that a decade ago only 15% of farmers were being paid on time by the Rural Payments Agency? Under this Government, that figure is now 98%, so he should take no lessons from the Labour party.
Obviously there are difficulties with payments across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss these matters with his counterpart in the Northern Ireland Assembly, for example, and what discussions has he had with the farming unions, which might be able to indicate the best way to ensure that payments are made on time?
On the latter point, all farming unions and representatives and agricultural consultants have welcomed the steps we have taken, because they want to ensure that they can get their applications in on time. I discussed the matter with some colleagues from the devolved Administrations at the European Council last week, and I can confirm that they are all relieved that the Commission has extended the deadline.
Can my hon. Friend reassure farmers in the remote parts of my constituency by confirming that they will get the support they need, whether on paper or through access to online services, to avoid the disaster they faced under the system introduced by the previous Government?
As my hon. Friend says, we have acted swiftly to ensure that we can send maps and paper applications to ensure that all farmers can get their applications in on time. We have a network of 50 digital support centres to help farmers with the registration process, because we still want them to register with the online system.
Amid all the arguments, is it not simply vital to recognise that the important thing is that farmers get the money that is due to them when they need it? Echoing the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), there is the consolatory thought that that will allow broadband roll-out to catch up.
As my right hon. Friend knows, this Government have spent over £700 million on rural broadband, and we are still looking at other options to reach the remaining 5% who still need it. He makes a good point. The focus for me this year is to ensure that farmers can get their applications in on time, which is why we have taken action. Unlike the Labour party, which let chaos continue for years, we acted swiftly to ensure that we could deal with the problem as soon as it was identified.
I welcome the extension of the deadline to 15 June. However, bearing in mind that too often deadlines are not met, can the Minister reassure me that our farmers will not be fined if they do not meet the deadline and that, whatever happens, the situation will be resolved before anyone talks about being fined, or of the country being fined, and will the European Union fine us if we do not meet certain deadlines?
As my hon. Friend might know, the deadline of 15 May is written in EU regulations and the Commission has agreed to extend it to 15 June. Under the regulations, farmers are given a period of 21 days during which a late application can be accepted. Until last week it was not clear whether the Commission would agree to an extension, although it had indicated that it might, so our plans were made on the basis that we would be aiming to meet the deadline of 15 May. Having that additional month gives us some more leeway, which is obviously welcome.
Does the Minister agree that the over-complicated CAP system demonstrates that this can affect all member states in a very detrimental way? Is that something that we should be renegotiating as part of our new deal with the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are already in discussions with Commissioner Hogan about the interpretation of existing regulations for next year to ensure that we can get some simplification. In the mid-term review we will be pressing for further simplification of the greening rules. For the new CAP, which will take effect post 2020, we are already looking at radical reform to make it simpler and make more common sense.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Farmers understand better than anybody that things can go wrong, but what they cannot tolerate is damage to their business. Can the Minister give me a categorical assurance that if mistakes are made on these forms, the farmers will be corrected, not punished?
I have had that conversation with the RPA. One of my jobs as farming Minister is to sign off some of the appeals that reach the final process, and I can tell my hon. Friend that I am very challenging on those and have asked the RPA to adopt the most sympathetic approach possible. All information that farmers provide on paper will ultimately be entered by digitisers working for the RPA, and they will carry out checks to ensure that the forms they are entering reflect what farmers intended to put on them.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the Minister on taking decisive action and avoiding the disaster that the previous Government oversaw in 2006-07, when only 15% of farmers were paid on time. I congratulate him on listening to the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and other groups that have made representations and on making sure that we find a system that operates and allows farmers to be paid.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister. At least farmers now have certainty and know that they can apply and that they will receive their payments, but can he give an utmost assurance that he will do everything he can to ensure that this delay in applications will not result in any delay in payments?
As the Minister knows, all that farmers in my constituency want is to get their application in on time and to get paid on time so that they can get on with running their business. Is he concerned about errors made this year and the ensuing penalties that we have heard about from other Members? Will farmers still be able to use the online system, or just agents, given that not all farmers have the use of agents?
We are giving some of the larger agents, representing just short of 20,000 farmers, access to the online system. We will not be able to give that access to all agents because of the training required and the time scale needed to enable them to use it. All farmers must still register online, and they will be able to download maps. Those who have simple claims will be able to sign a declaration to say that their land use has not changed and is still simple, such as permanent pasture. I take on board my hon. Friend’s point about errors. As I said, I have been pressing the RPA to take the most generous possible interpretation of the EU regulations. The regulations are clear that where an error is not the farmer’s fault, no penalty can be levelled against them.
Before he steps down from the House very shortly, I join colleagues in paying tribute to the work of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), not only for his work in clearing up the mess that we inherited with the RPA but his wider work on behalf of farmers.
My hon. Friend mentioned the 15 digital centres that are going to provide assistance. Will he update the House on what additional resource allocation will be put in place to help with the bureaucracy and the difficult conversations that farmers may have with helplines?
Yes. We have started to treat these digital centres as drop-in centres so that farmers can drop in on them without an appointment. During this crucial period, we are redeploying staff from DEFRA to the RPA to ensure that the helpline and the digital support centres are fully manned and have the capacity to cope with anything thrown at them.
Falkland Islands Defence Review
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Falkland Islands defence review.
Safeguarding our citizens and their way of life remains the most important responsibility of Government and of the Ministry of Defence. In March 2013, the Falkland Islands referendum reaffirmed the islanders’ overwhelming wish to remain British. Of the 92% who voted, 99.8% voted in favour of maintaining their political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. We will always defend the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their own political future.
The Ministry of Defence retains responsibility for the external defence and security of British interests in the south Atlantic, and, to that end, undertakes regular assessments to ensure that we have in place the appropriate defensive capability. In autumn 2013, my predecessor asked officials to undertake a thorough review of the forces we hold on the Falkland Islands and our contingency plans for their defence. The objective was to ensure that our enduring commitment to the defence of the islands is sustained effectively. That review has now been completed.
The review’s conclusions remain operationally sensitive in the light of potential threats, and I hope the House will understand that I cannot disclose much of the detail. However, I can tell the House that we have updated our assessment of any threat to the islands. This includes a consideration of the changes that may arise from the islanders’ plans to develop their economy, including the potential for development of an oil and gas industry. We continue to discuss these issues with the Falkland Islands Government.
I have endorsed the assessment of the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Commander of Joint Forces Command that the current military presence is broadly proportionate to the threats and risks that we face. Our forces in the south Atlantic are entirely defensive, and are at the level required to ensure the defence of the Falkland Islands against any potential threat. However, I have also agreed a number of measures designed to ensure our resilience for the short, medium and longer term. Those measures will include the return of military support helicopters, which were removed in 2006 to support operations in Afghanistan. On current plans, this will involve the deployment of two Chinooks, which will be operational by the middle of next year. This is a significant capability that will provide reactive, 24/7 tactical mobility in order to allow a swift and decisive response to any emerging incidents. The helicopters will also bring a heavy-lift capability and enhance the training opportunities available to the resident infantry company.
We also have plans in place to deliver enhanced operational communications for the headquarters at Mount Pleasant to better enable the sharing of real-time operational data. I can confirm that we will be renewing the ground-based air defence system when Rapier comes out of service at around the end of the decade. We will maintain our commitment to provide a Falkland Islands patrol vessel, currently HMS Clyde. In addition, we intend to carry out a number of projects to replace some of the ageing infrastructure—for example, the refurbishment of Mare harbour and the replacement of the existing power generation systems at Mount Pleasant airfield. A major modernisation of the fuels infrastructure is under way and now nearing completion. In total, we expect to invest up to £180 million in improving and modernising our infrastructure on the islands over the next 10 years.
In addition to the operational improvements I have mentioned, we are taking action to improve the quality of life of those who serve in the Falklands, including planned improvements to accommodation and a new primary school. Although there will be some changes in personnel numbers as the Sea King helicopters are withdrawn and the Chinook force stands up, I have decided that for the foreseeable future we will keep our numbers at around their current levels of about 1,200 personnel, military and civilian. I know the House will want to join me in taking this opportunity to pay tribute to our brave men and women, military and civilian, who leave behind their families and friends for months or years at a time in order to ensure the right of the Falkland islanders to remain British. We will always remember the bravery of the 255 British servicemen who gave their lives for that cause.
I am aware of the close interest that the Defence Committee takes in the Falkland Islands, and of the Committee’s most recent visit there earlier this year. I am grateful for its insights, some of which echo the findings of the review. I wrote earlier today to the Chairman of the Committee.
The review we have undertaken confirms our commitment to the Falkland Islands. We will continue to defend the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their future and maintain their way of life against whatever threats may arise. The review ensures that we will continue to have the right mix of people, equipment and infrastructure to deliver that commitment in the years ahead. The Government are not complacent and we will continue to remain vigilant. However, on the basis of the review and the follow-on measures that I have established, I am satisfied that the Government can be confident in their continued ability to defend the south Atlantic islands. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it.
Let me state at the outset that it is right, on occasions such as this, once again to remember and pay tribute to the courage of the men and women of the armed forces in retaking the Falklands in 1982—in particular, the 255 Britons who made the ultimate sacrifice, and the hundreds of service personnel who were injured, and their families.
We should also remember, as the Secretary of State said, that the views of the Falkland islanders are firmly on the record. Does he agree that the recent referendum was a democratic process overseen by international observers that has again made it clear that the islanders wish to remain British? Our position is clear: the only people to determine the future of the Falkland Islands are the Falkland islanders themselves.
The Government are therefore right in their vow to remain vigilant and committed to the protection of the Falkland islanders at all times. We support the current deployment of assets—Typhoon combat aircraft, Rapier surface-to-air missiles, and about 1,200 troops permanently stationed on the Falklands, supported by visiting Royal Navy warships and attack submarines—as a realistic deterrent to any potential threat to the islands. However, is it not the case that that position should be continuously reviewed and that the Government should remain constantly vigilant for any emerging threats?
For some years, Argentina has been trying to replace its antiquated and increasingly unserviceable fighter fleets with a newer and more capable air frame. Will the Secretary of State therefore say a little more about Russia’s involvement and what conversations he has had with our allies about its role in the region? Will he share his assessment of the actual threat facing the Falklands at the moment and whether it has increased in recent months?
How will the measures that the Secretary of State has announced today be funded? In the context of the spending plan set out in last year’s spending review, it became clear that the Ministry of Defence budget would come under severe pressure and the Chancellor’s Budget did nothing to dispel those concerns, so how will this ongoing commitment be met?
Will the Secretary of State say more about why it was that certain parts of the media were this morning reporting a greater number of troops, yet he has made it clear in his statement that the number will remain at about its current level?
How soon will the missile system be upgraded? Can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will not be any capability gaps between the end of the Rapier and the commencement of the new system? Can he also reassure the House that we have the appropriate number of Typhoons deployed in the Falklands? Is he satisfied that there is an appropriate level of intelligence sharing to ensure that we are able to deploy all our assets effectively? Will the Secretary of State say more about the time scale for modernising the infrastructure of the Falklands, including the harbour?
The involvement of Russia is clearly a worry, and the deterrent of enhanced military capabilities is to be welcomed, but surely we can all agree that the best way forward is diplomacy. What diplomatic activity is taking place, and what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Foreign Secretary?
Finally, is this not the clearest indication that we need an open debate about the defence and security challenges facing the UK and that the next strategic defence and security review needs to be strategically driven, equipping our armed forces for the challenges of an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, as the Defence Committee has said today?
The will of the people of the Falkland Islands—their right to self-determination, expressed in the recent referendum—must be respected, and Argentina’s transition to democracy should give us some confidence that that will be the case. However, we believe it is prudent to take the measures outlined by the Secretary of State as a proportionate response to the current threat. We believe that these measures should command the support of Members on both sides of the House.
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for his comments and for his broad welcome for the review’s conclusions. I agree with him about the importance of the referendum and its verification and the overwhelming result showing that the islanders want to remain British.
The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions, including about how often we conduct such a review. The last review was conducted in 2008 and this review was set in train in 2013, which is about right as an interval: we should look at the issue every four or five years.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the potential involvement of Russia and press speculation. I am not responsible for speculation in the newspapers about either Russia or, indeed, troop numbers. So far as the threat is concerned, I re-emphasise that the principal threat to the islands remains the unjustified claim of Argentina to ownership of them.
On the budget, I made it clear that the expenditure is a 10-year programme: there will be expenditure of £180 million over the next 10 years. On Rapier, we expect it to go out of service in about 2019 or 2020, and there will be no gap before we introduce its replacement.
The hon. Gentleman asked about diplomatic discussions with Argentina. He will have noticed the presence on the Front Bench of my colleagues from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who are always ready to talk to Argentina. However, if the discussions are to be about the future of the Falkland Islands, it is very important that representatives of the Falklands Islands Government are present in the room when they take place.
On behalf of the Defence Committee, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on the Falkland Islands. May I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who led the Committee’s trip to the Falkland Islands, and thank the Secretary of State for taking on board their recommendations?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Defence Committee and I am particularly grateful to those two members of his Committee for undertaking that particular journey. It is not especially easy to visit the Falkland Islands at any time and it obviously involves a commitment of a number of days. We have, of course, reflected on the recommendations my hon. Friend set out in his letter to me.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his comments about the right to self-determination for the Falkland islanders. It is very important that we emphasise that. On the £180 million that will be spent, when will the refurbishment of the harbour start and finish?
The hon. Gentleman plays a key role on the all-party group on the Falkland Islands and I appreciate the welcome he has given to our findings. The overall programme of modernisation and improvements, which, as I have said, will cost £180 million, will take place over 10 years, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman with the specific dates of the Mare harbour modernisation.
May I welcome the statement and endorse the Government’s emphasis on prevention rather than cure, which is surely the right approach? The Secretary of State will be aware of a great deal of speculation about a renewed aerial threat from Argentina in the light of Russian involvement, as referred to by the shadow Defence Secretary. Is he confident that we have enough air defence assets, so that if that did begin to materialise as a tangible threat we would be able to sustain a higher level of air defence over the longer term?
I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend, who has served in the Ministry of Defence. Unlike the situation in 1982, we have the airfield, modern Typhoons are deployed there, anti-aircraft systems are in place and we are able, through the airfield, to deploy other aircraft relatively quickly, if necessary.
This is the first opportunity for us all to put on record our condolences to everybody who has been caught up in the terrible plane crash in France. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would like our thoughts to be sent to the families of the many people who have died today.
I agree with the Secretary of State about the importance of the right to self-determination and I join him in paying tribute to all those who served in the Falkland Islands, including my colleague Keith Brown, the Scottish veterans Minister, who fought in the Falklands war as a Royal Marine. The UK is the only maritime power without maritime patrol aircraft, which is relevant for territorial home defence and for overseas territories such as the Falklands. Does the Secretary of State agree that MPA should be procured as quickly as possible and enter service as a priority?
I am sure the whole House will echo the sympathy the hon. Gentleman has offered to those tragically involved in this morning’s Airbus crash.
On self-determination, as I have said, 99% of the islanders voted yes in the referendum, which is a slightly higher proportion than those who voted yes in the more recent referendum in Scotland. It is probably worth bearing that in mind. On maritime patrol capability, MPA is not the only way of securing some of the necessary surveillance. The previous Government were not able to bring that capability to fruition with the development of the Nimrod aircraft. In fact, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the plane has never actually flown and it was massively over budget and years over time. We will have an opportunity to return to the issue in the SDSR, which will be carried out after the election.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, which I hope will leave the Argentine Government in absolutely no doubt whatsoever of the determination of the United Kingdom, represented by Members throughout this House, to defend the Falkland Islands from any aggression from Argentina or anywhere else. Does my right hon. Friend agree that his statement illustrates a wide range of military commitments to which the United Kingdom is party, and that those commitments need to be properly resourced, which means that we need to spend at least—possibly more than—2% of GDP on our defence budget?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, such a degree of commitment and deployment of troops and aircraft would not be necessary if we did not have this continuing intimidation from Argentina. If the Argentine Government were able to accept the democratic wishes of the islanders to remain British, none of this would be necessary.
So far as resources generally are concerned, I know my hon. Friend understands that we are able to commit our troops, planes and ships around the globe within the budget we have at the moment. I note what he says about the 2%, and I know that he will join me in being pleased that we are meeting the NATO target this year and that we will go on meeting it next year.
The Secretary of State said that the principal threat to the Falkland Islands remains from Argentina. Will he say a little more about the role that Russia seems to be playing? If the stories about the leasing of long-range bombers in exchange for beef are true, surely that must feed into a strategic review of the defence of the Falklands more prominently than it seems to be doing at the moment.
I have read the same reports as the hon. Lady. I do not think it would be right for me to speculate further on the nature of any particular arrangement between the Governments of Russia and the Argentine. Our job is to make sure that the islands are properly defended and to continue to respect the right of the islanders to determine their own future, and that is what we will do.
If an Argentine Government were foolish enough to give instructions to a military officer to invade the Falklands—they had better get the message that that would be very foolish— Mount Pleasant airfield and Mare harbour would be vital ground. May I suggest—I am not asking a question, but making a statement with which I hope the Defence Secretary will agree—that the Falkland Islands Government and the Governor are also vital ground, and should be protected as well?
I sense that my hon. Friend is inviting me to agree with him, and I do agree with him. The Governor and the Falkland Islands Government are a key part of the democracy that is the Falkland Islands, and a key part of the Falkland islanders’ ability to determine their own future, as they have just done.
I warmly welcome the strength of the Secretary of State’s commitment, including in answering many of the points made by the Select Committee. Incidentally, may we in passing pay tribute to our Clerk, Mr Ian Thomson, who was badly injured during the trip to Argentina?
Has the Secretary of State given any thought to a gap in our capability that is coming up, namely the withdrawal of the Royal Mail steamer St Helena next year? It currently supplies an essential link between the Falklands and St Helena, as well as to Ascension Island. What thought has he given to replacing that important capability?
We would certainly like more air links to the Falklands. I shall obviously continue to discuss with my hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office what other opportunities or potential there is for different services to other territories to be jointly linked up.
The Secretary of State referred in a previous answer to the international context. Will he tell us what discussions the Government have recently had with Latin American countries and the United States about these issues, given the unwillingness of the US to support Britain with diplomacy in the past?
I am sure that Governments across the region have noted the results of the recent referendum in the Falkland Islands, and that they would respect the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their future. We do have discussions with other Governments in southern and Latin America. I very recently met the Foreign Minister of Brazil, and I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that this subject did not come up.
The size of the Royal Navy has greatly diminished since 1982. Does the Secretary of State agree that countries such as Russia and Argentina tend to respond to the signals we send them? Would it not send a terrible signal to the Argentine Government if we failed to give a commitment to continue to spend at least the NATO-recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence throughout the lifetime of the next Parliament?
I hope the signal that will go out from the House today—from both sides of the House—will be the signal to the islanders themselves that this Government are determined to ensure their defence for the short, medium and long term, and will always protect their right to determine their future.
My right hon. Friend drew attention to the smaller number of ships. He will of course be aware that the ships we have today are much more powerful than some of the earlier platforms. He will know that we are constructing two new aircraft carriers and building altogether seven new hunter-killer submarines, and that the Prime Minister has recently announced the next phase of the construction of the Type 26 frigate fleet on the Clyde.
Does the Defence Secretary not think it a bit odd that he said nothing in his statement about diplomatic initiatives or relations with other countries, and that only in response to questions from Opposition Members has he even conceded that there have been discussions? Will he be more specific: what political, diplomatic and defence discussions has he had with Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina to reduce tensions and stress in the area, rather than proposing to spend £180 million?
As I have told the House, we have close and warm relations with other countries in the region. As I said, I have recently met the Foreign Minister from Brazil, and I and my colleagues continue to meet Ministers from other Governments. There is a standing invitation from the Falkland Islands Government to other Governments in the region to visit the islands for themselves and to understand the islanders’ wish to remain British.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said that our military presence is broadly proportionate to the threats and risks we face. What flexibility is there in our defence preparations for any potential hardening of attitude by Argentina, either unilaterally or with others?
We have a number of contingency plans, which we continue to refresh, to deal with any increase in the threat level. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am not able to spell them out to the House in public session, but I assure him that those contingency plans exist. We take them out every so often to ensure that they are appropriate to the existing level of threat.
As has been mentioned, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and I visited the Falklands at the end of January, and our report was sent by the Defence Committee to the Ministry of Defence. For security reasons, I cannot comment on most of our recommendations, but I draw the House’s attention to the £10 million saved by the Royal Engineers with the new accommodation for personnel that they are building at a radar head we visited. May I urge the Secretary of State to use £1 million or so of that saving to prevent false economy savings and ensure that Mare harbour is fit for purpose and compliant with international maritime regulations?
I referred specifically to the refurbishment of Mare harbour. I am able to tell my hon. Friend, and the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who also asked about this issue, that the programme to develop Mare harbour is expected to be complete by the end of 2017.
We have started to place the first contracts for the replacement of the Rapier missile to ensure that there is no gap. The hon. Lady raises an important point. There must be no gap between taking one system out of service and introducing the next. There will be no gap.