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
1. What progress he has made on the Northern Futures project; and if he will make a statement. 
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.
2. What progress he has made on further devolution in England. 
5. What progress he has made on further devolution in England. 
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.
I am grateful for that answer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the constitutional reform priority should be to ensure a fair and balanced devolution settlement for every part of the UK and to introduce English votes for English laws?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Leader of the House has made it very clear that the return of a Conservative Government will correct that injustice and there will indeed be English votes for English laws.
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
3. What steps he has taken to uphold the integrity of voting in introducing 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.
Order. We are immensely grateful to the Minister.
Further action that we have taken is £500,000—
Order. We are extraordinarily obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I was going to thank him for the notable comprehensiveness of his response, which is a polite way of exhorting him to resume his seat.
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.
Order. I have done no such thing.
4. What plans he has to devolve powers to Cornwall. 
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? 
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.
Last but not least, I call Debbie Abrahams.
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. 
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.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy initiatives. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
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.
In an interview last week the Deputy Prime Minister pronounced that
“the way in which politics works is bust”
and that “Westminster is a joke”. When he said that, was he referring to himself?
I wonder what answer I should give to that. No, of course not.
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? 
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? 
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? 
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? 
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? 
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? 
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? 
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? 
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.
I call Mr Richard Graham. [Interruption.] Get in there, Mr Graham; your moment is now.
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? 
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.
It is no surprise that the previous career of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was as a Foreign Office diplomat. He is able to react to any situation, even when he is busily consulting his iPhone. We are deeply obliged to him.
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? 
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? 
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.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals for the alternative vote system were roundly defeated in a referendum. Will he tell the voters whether he is now prepared to take no for an answer?
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? 
I have enjoyed answering—or in the hon. Gentleman’s view, not answering—his questions on many occasions and perhaps look forward to doing so again in the future. I would happily settle for two terms as Prime Minister.
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. 
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.
Is the Deputy Prime Minister as disappointed as I am that the groundbreaking devolution deal announced for West Yorkshire received a less than generous response from certain West Yorkshire council leaders?
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—
1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken in the last two years to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute stalking and harassment cases more effectively. 
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.
Can my hon. and learned Friend confirm that stalking and harassment online is taken as seriously as other forms of such behaviour?
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
2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the current Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on prosecuting cases of 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
3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. 
6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on implementation of the UK’s domestic and international legal obligations on human rights. 
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.
4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to provide greater assistance to vulnerable witnesses and to support them better in giving evidence in court. 
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.
Does the Minister agree that there is a clear need for children and other vulnerable witnesses to have the ability to give their evidence away from court, to ensure that as many prosecutions as possible can progress?
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.
In the light of the Eleanor de Freitas case, will the Solicitor-General review the guidance to ensure that the provision of support and counselling services to vulnerable people is not removed abruptly?
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
5. What steps he has taken to promote pro bono work among members of the legal profession. 
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.
What assistance can my hon. and learned Friend offer constituents of mine on limited incomes to get legal advice that they need?
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.
7. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to ensure that prosecutors are able to prosecute cases of domestic abuse more effectively. 
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.
8. How many prosecutions have been initiated by the Serious Fraud Office under the Bribery Act 2010. 
The Serious Fraud Office has initiated prosecutions against three individuals under the Bribery Act 2010, with two having been convicted.
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?
It is a matter of record that the project is intended to cost in the region of £154 million. All such projects are monitored by the Major Projects Authority within the Cabinet Office.
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.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Labour party, when in government, allowed chaos to continue year after year. We have acted swiftly to ensure that farmers can get their applications in on time this year.
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.
My hon. Friend makes a good point; the Labour party did not grip the problems with the RPA, so there was over £600 million of disallowance and farmers were often paid over a year late—as he said, only 15% were paid on time.
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?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will be seeking to ensure that the claims are processed as quickly as possible and paid as speedily as we have demonstrated our ability to do in recent years.
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?
Order. I think that counts as a question. The hon. Gentleman is being too hard on himself.
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.
Typhoon aircraft, which have been mentioned, are built in Warton in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State make sure that, if required, we can send more Typhoons to keep the skies above the Falkland Islands safe?
The very direct answer to my hon. Friend is yes. There are more Typhoons available. If more are needed for the defence of the islands, we are ready to send them, and we have Mount Pleasant airfield to receive them there.
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.
The Secretary of State has given assurances that there will be no capability gap between the end of Rapier and the commencement of the new system. What measures are in place to ensure that that is the case?
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.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more far-reaching geopolitical issue of the possible involvement of Russia shows why this country must maintain its strong defence force and maintain and renew Trident to ensure that there is a strong deterrent for any world power that may be thinking of getting involved in these things?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We are committed to renewing our independent nuclear deterrent. He will recall that this House voted by a majority of 329 as recently as January in favour of renewing our independent nuclear deterrent, with only a handful of Members opposing it. We are committed to that and to maintaining strong defences.
The Secretary of State for Defence knows that I am concerned about the run-down of the UK’s defence forces. However, we are a mature parliamentary democracy, so I hope that the whiff of gunpowder and the sound of sabre-rattling that we have had this morning—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] I am sorry, but I was in Argentina recently and the people of Argentina are a very fine people. I do not believe that they are looking for conflict. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) mentioned, we should be talking to the Government of Argentina at the most senior diplomatic level, rather than rushing to make precipitous decisions.
Let me say as gently as I can to the hon. Gentleman that we have absolutely no quarrel with the people of Argentina—of course not. As he knows, we had to cope in 1982 with the decision of the junta in Argentina to invade the islands. He talks of our responsibility as a mature democracy. It is surely our responsibility to reflect the democratic wishes of the islanders. It is their right to determine their own future and to remain British. Of course, we also want to continue to talk to the Argentine Government about many other matters that lie between us, including developing a stronger commercial relationship.
Gosport is the proud home of the Falklands Veterans Foundation. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is right to reassure those proud, brave men, some of whom still bear the scars of the conflict, that we will always fight to defend their legacy, which is the sovereignty of the islands?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the sacrifice of those who died to fight for the freedom of the Falkland islanders and their right to determine their own future should never be forgotten by the British people or by this House.
May I return to the point about troop numbers? Will the Secretary of State explain why the media felt able to report this morning that there would be a greater number of troops, when in his statement he made it clear that they would remain at around their current level?
I am not responsible for speculation in the media. As the hon. Lady correctly said, I have decided that the current level of around 1,200 military and civilian personnel is about right. The announcement that I have made this afternoon is about the return of the helicopters and a programme of improvements, including the replacement of the Rapier air defence system, of around £180 million over the next 10 years. I hope that sends a signal of reassurance to the islanders.
I was surprised to receive a book from the ambassador of Argentina explaining that the Falkland islanders should not have the right to self-determination. The Secretary of State can be assured that he will have the support of Conservative Members for 2% of GDP for defence spending or for whatever it takes to ensure that those people do have the right to self-determination.
I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance. Of course, the islanders were present on the islands before Argentina was formed. Their history goes a lot further back. It might be worth his reminding the ambassador of that point when he replies to her to thank her for the book.
I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement. I reiterate that the Opposition also support the self-determination of the Falkland islanders. Whoever forms the Government after the general election, it is incumbent on them to uphold the basic democratic rights of the people who live on the islands. May I press him further on a point that was made by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State? Does he feel that there is the appropriate level of intelligence gathering to enable him appropriately to deploy the assets as best he can?
I am sorry that I am not able to discuss intelligence gathering. That is an important part of our assessment of the threat to the islands and an important part of the islands’ defence, but I am not able to discuss in detail the arrangements for gathering intelligence about the threat. On the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, it is important that the message goes out from all parts of the House to the islanders—I thank the shadow Secretary of State again for this—that we respect their right to determine their future and that, their having made that decision in the referendum, we will continue to defend the islands.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the aim of a deterrent is to have sufficient force to meet any threat? Nothing better exemplifies that point than the Falklands war itself, when the decision to save £16 million by withdrawing HMS Endurance led to a war costing billions of pounds and 255 British personnel.
As my hon. Friend may know, there was an inquiry into the causes of the war, which was led by Lord Franks. There has been much discussion since of the precise series of events that led up to the war. That is history. Our job is to ensure that the islands are properly defended. I am confident that, following this review, we have the right deployment of troops and the right maritime and air assets in place, ready to be deployed in their defence.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his steadfast assurance of the right of the Falkland islanders to self-determination. Will he confirm, in response to other questions that have been raised in this House, that that need not prevent us from continuing to try to improve our diplomatic relationships with all countries in the region?
Absolutely; it need not. I know that my hon. Friend has a connection with the Patagonian region of the Argentine. We want to have a warmer and closer relationship with the people of the Argentine and their Government. Nothing in what I have announced today should make that any more difficult. As I have made clear again and again, we have to respect the right of the islanders to determine their own future. They determined it in the referendum, and it is our duty to defend the islands.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the economy of the Falkland Islands would benefit from foreign investment, and that foreign investment will be forthcoming only if we deliver a safe and secure long-term state?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The islands welcome and are receiving foreign investment, and I hope that the future of the islands is clear beyond doubt, as well as the ability and commitment of our Government to defend them from any threat that might materialise. That is the basis, I hope, for a more stable future for the islands in which a more diversified economy can flourish, including the development of the oil and gas sector.
The assurances that the Secretary of State has given today to continue to defend the Falkland Islands will be welcomed by everyone on the islands, and they reflect the resolute determination shown by our former Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher, when she stood at the Dispatch Box 33 years ago to give that same commitment. Does he agree that the threat from Argentina is still very real, and that we must never take down our guard and must always stand up for the freedom of those loyal British subjects of the Falkland Islands?
I completely agree that we should not drop our guard, and we are not doing that—if anything, we are reinforcing our guard and the defence of our islands. We have the right to defend the islands, and to defend the right of the islanders to determine their future. This is a defensive arrangement; it is not threatening anybody else.
Mr Speaker, you and the House may be interested to know that I have a plaque on my wall, signed by my great uncle when he was Speaker, commemorating the gift of a silver ashtray from the peoples and Government of the Falklands on the rebuilding of this Chamber after it had been bombed during the war. Does that not demonstrate the deep and enduring friendship between our two peoples, and does not my right hon. Friend’s statement this morning demonstrate to the Russians, Argentines and anyone else that if our interests are threatened throughout the world, we will respond?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the terms in which he put that declaration, and I hope there is no doubt about our determination to stand up to any kind of intimidation or threat to our territory or the rights of those who want to remain British. I hope the message that will go out from across the House today is that we respect the right of the islanders in the decision they have taken to remain British.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the defence of the self-determination of British overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands. Does that prove that Her Majesty’s Government were right to develop the new airport on Saint Helena as an important air bridge to the south Atlantic?
My hon. Friend is right: it was important to take that decision and to reinforce the links between Saint Helena and the United Kingdom. The commitment of expenditure on the Mount Pleasant airfield enables us to reinforce the islands remarkably quickly should any threat materialise.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s national cyber-security programme.
Every day, the cyber threat is growing and we face ever more sophisticated attacks. According to one survey, 81% of large businesses and 60% of small businesses suffered a breach last year. Back in 2010 the coalition Government identified cyber as one of four tier 1 national security threats, and Britain has been among the fastest adopters of the digital economy. We are a world leader in digital services, which are a key part of our long-term economic plan. We cannot let our economic progress be undermined by those who would do us harm. No national Government can tackle the cyber threat alone, and international collaboration is central to our strategy, as is the closest partnership with the business community.
In 2011 we published our cyber-security strategy and have committed £860 million of funding over five years to the national cyber-security programme. That is to ensure that Britain remains one of the safest places to do business online. Cyber-security skills are scarce, and collaboration between Government, industry and academia is essential to build the skills and expertise we need.
Despite the huge budget deficit that we inherited, we have invested in our intelligence agencies and the National Crime Agency to build our capabilities to understand cyber threats and tackle cybercrime. GCHQ—often the object of poorly informed criticism—is home to a hugely impressive and patriotic collection of public servants, and I put on record my appreciation for the dedicated and highly skilled work they do to keep Britain safe.
We have worked with business to establish the cyber essentials scheme to raise awareness of five basic measures to keep companies safe. That scheme is now mandatory for certain types of Government procurement, and today 88% of FTSE 350 companies have cyber-security firmly on their risk registers. We created the national computer emergency response team—CERT-UK—to respond to major cyber incidents, and it played a significant role in protecting the Commonwealth games and the NATO summit in Wales. Following the Prime Minister’s successful visit to the US, CERT-UK will be leading joint exercising with its American counterpart later this year. The cyber-security information sharing partnership, based within CERT-UK, provides a safe space for businesses and Government to exchange information and develop responses in real time. CiSP now has 914 members and reports on 215,000 abused IP addresses daily.
Technology moves at an astonishing pace and we cannot stand still. Today I will set out further steps to keep us safe. Our new Cyber First scheme will be an elite development programme for the next generation of UK cyber-security talent. It draws heavily on Israel’s hugely successful Talpiot programme, which I saw first-hand on a visit to Israel in November. Talpiot provides the state of Israel with formidable cyber-security skills, and is also the seedbed for a fertile array of new businesses. Partly as a result, Israel now has more start-ups per capita than any other country.
Initially we will pilot Cyber First with a few tens of students. Each will receive £4,000 funding per year to study relevant undergraduate courses in science, technology, engineering and maths. They will be required to work during summer vacations or years out, either within government or in leading UK cyber-security companies. Participation in this elite programme will carry a commitment to work for the Government for at least three years before members start to see their financial support written down. This programme will be a vital pipeline of top-end cyber talent in the service of Britain’s national security.
Cyber First is the latest in a series of initiatives building cyber skills, including new apprenticeships, and introducing cyber-security to the National Citizen Service and ensuring that it is included in relevant courses leading to computing and digital qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. We sponsor cyber competitions in schools, as well as technical apprenticeships and PhDs; we are building cyber-security into computer science and computing degrees, and so far we have accredited six master’s degrees in cyber-security, created two new centres of doctoral training, three research institutes and 11 academic centres of excellence in cyber-security research. Two further universities—Kent and Surrey—have today been awarded centre of excellence status in cyber research. I can also announce the funding of three UK-Israel cyber research projects. Similar projects with Singapore will follow later this year, and I look forward to seeing the first cohort of joint UK-US Fulbright cyber-security scholars before too long.
All that builds on our much broader work to improve cyber skills, which has already seen 40,000 people enrol in the Open University cyber-security open online course. We have made good progress in developing digital and cyber skills more widely across the economy, and I warmly commend the work that my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy has done and continues to do on that.
For Government services, online safety is central. Gov.uk Verify, funded by the national cyber-security programme, is our world-leading identity assurance programme. I can announce today that we have put in place a new contractual framework for identity providers that will increase choice for citizens who wish to prove their identity online. I will announce shortly the details of the additional identity providers.
We have to worry about cyber-security because of the growth and development of the internet in the past 20 years. The internet has an amazing power to change people’s lives for the better. Cyber is a huge opportunity, as well as a threat. Britain’s cyber-security sector is worth more than £6 billion a year and employs some 40,000 people. We are on track to double cyber-security exports to £2 billion by next year. Our aim is to increase that to £4 billion by 2020, and we will promote more regional clusters to support more British cyber-businesses. We want Britain to benefit from the best digital economy in the world. Effective cyber-security is central to that success. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. It is now twice in two days that he has come to the House to make a statement. Tomorrow he will make it a hat-trick with his final Cabinet Office Questions. Clearly, he wants to see as much of us all as possible before he retires from this House.
I pay tribute to the Minister for his work in the past five years as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and in the many years he has served the public as a Member of this House. There are many things on which we disagree, for example how we should use digital government to empower people rather than cutting them off from services, but no one can doubt his dedication to public service. Nor can we doubt the dedication of those who work so hard to protect us, our nation, its citizens and businesses from cyber-attacks. I, too, would like to put on record my praise for the work done by the security services, the police and all civil servants who work in this area. They do a vital job day in, day out to protect our cyber-infrastructure and digital footprints, and I commend their work.
I am sure the Minister agrees with that sentiment. I hope, therefore, that the Government will clarify how those who protect us in cyberspace will continue to do so when the Chancellor is bent on reducing public sector spending to levels not seen since the 1930s, before there was even an NHS or a GCHQ. It is clear from the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Institute for Fiscal Studies that, after the Chancellor’s Budget last week, unprotected Departments face huge cuts to meet his spending plans and unfunded tax cuts. The Ministry of Defence, the police and social care services are under threat. Can the Minister confirm whether the budget for cyber-security will be protected, or are we to assume that because the Cabinet Office is an unprotected Department that this will not be the case?
I welcome the new Cyber First pilot. Indeed, I was privileged to launch the UK’s first MBA in cyber-security with Coventry university. The demand for cyber-security experts is growing at 12 times the rate of the overall job market, so it is vital that we train and equip more people with cyber-skills. Small firms are the victims of three quarters of all successful data breaches and are the most likely to suffer from a lack of cyber-skills. However, just as the Minister came late to the digital inclusion agenda and then chose a strategy that excludes 10% of our fellow citizens, he has come late to—indeed, neglected—cyber-security for small businesses. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, half of all small and medium-sized enterprises have not even heard of the Government’s cyber-security efforts. What is the Minister doing to change that and to make small businesses more cyber-aware?
Crime is changing. It increasingly happens online, but the Government do not have a strategy to tackle it. The cyber-security budget is overwhelmingly going to cyber-security and big businesses, leaving consumers to fend for themselves. The majority of the cyber-security budget goes into the single intelligence account, with the police left a tiny amount to tackle a growing tide of online crime with an overall £2 billion cut in funding. The Home Affairs Committee highlighted the black hole where low-level e-crime is committed with impunity. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the police have the resources they need in this area?
I welcome the announcement of a new contractual framework for Gov.uk Verify. However, it was only in October that the Government were predicting that hundreds of thousands would be verified by now. In fact, only 50% of people are successful the first time they use the service. The Minister says that details will be announced “shortly”. Given that there are only a few days left before Parliament is dissolved, will he tell us exactly when he plans to announce the details? Specifically, will it include a public sector provider of identity assurance, so that people can choose a provider they trust?
Finally, the statement makes no mention whatever of mobile. It has taken the Government five years not to eradicate not spots, and they have ignored the gaping hole in cyber-security which is mobile device security, particularly in the era of “bring your own” device. What is the Minister doing specifically on mobile?
I could not help but notice that the statement was somewhat light on actual policy announcements. A cynic might think that the Minister was rushing out a half-baked announcement to use up time. It is almost as if the Government are scrambling around for something to say to give the impression that they have made real progress in rising to what is one of the greatest challenges of the digital era and one of the greatest opportunities for UK business. The UK can lead in cyber-security as we do in online commerce, but it will take skills for the many—small businesses and citizens, as well as big businesses—not the few. It will take a Labour Government to ensure we have that.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her very warm words at the beginning of her response, which I enormously appreciate. Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow, but there is life beyond.
I am afraid it tailed off a little bit after that. The hon. Lady talked about cuts and the potential for continued funding for cyber-security in the next Parliament. She made the slightly odd suggestion that the trajectory of public spending would be at a level last seen in the 1930s. A little further research shows that the last time this level of spending was seen was in 1999-2000 under a Labour Government.
So far as funding for cyber-security is concerned, that will be dealt with in the context of the spending review that will take place after the election, but I do not know anybody who believes there is any possibility that there will not continue to be very significant funding for cyber-security. We are acknowledged across the world as being in the lead in this area. There is always a danger when one says that of being thought to be complacent. We are not remotely complacent. This is a very fast-moving set of threats and we have to move equally fast to keep up with it. We need to be on the case all the time.
The hon. Lady talked about the resources being devoted to tackling cybercrime. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) who has responsibility for tackling cybercrime is in her place on the Front Bench. She takes this matter immensely seriously. The national cyber crime unit is based in the National Crime Agency. A good proportion of the cyber-security programme is funding for the law enforcement agencies, which do fantastic work. I obviously echo her enthusiastic support for those who work to protect and preserve our national security, and I include in that those in our armed forces active in this field.
The hon. Lady talked about digital inclusion, which she knows the Government take extremely seriously. We support the huge amount of work being done by businesses, particularly Barclays and other companies, on digital activity to enable people currently excluded to be active online, and that will continue to be the case. She also asked about mobile security on mobile devices, which is obviously a serious matter. So far as the Government are concerned, CESG, part of GCHQ, provides good guidance and is reckoned to be world leading on smart devices.
So far as citizens and consumers are concerned, she will be aware of our Cyber Streetwise campaign and Get Safe Online, which are about making sure people know the risks. GCHQ estimates that 80% of successful cyber-attacks could be thwarted or mitigated by basic internet hygiene, and for that awareness is important. I am less concerned about whether SMEs are aware of what the Government are doing; I am more concerned that they are aware of what they need to do, which is to take basic steps on internet hygiene.
There is much more to do, and there will never be any scope for a Government or businesses to rest on their laurels. I found the hon. Lady’s objection that my statement was light on policy slightly startling. Quite rightly, the Government have elevated cyber-security to one of the four tier 1 national security threats, so we take it enormously seriously. At a time when we had to cut public spending, because of the appalling public deficit inherited from the last Government, this was one of the very few areas that we decided was sufficiently important to invest further money in, and we will continue to do that.
A number of Governments are known to have invested heavily in what might be termed “offensive cyber”. Given that we must do everything we can to protect our own systems, are there any messages we can send to such Governments about the consequences that would follow for them if they were unwise enough to launch a cyber-attack against this country?
I am well aware of what my right hon. Friend says, and he is right to raise the matter. Our task is to ensure that our efforts on national security are provided with all the tools necessary for us to protect ourselves and deter attacks.
One of the aims of the 2011 cyber-security strategy was to have the UK more resilient to cyber-attacks and able to protect our interests in cyberspace. How well does the Minister feel that this has been achieved, and how does the news that 81% of firms suffered from cyber-attacks and breaches in the last year, as he said in his introduction, fit with that strategy?
Awareness in the business world is much higher than it was—it was woefully low and remains so in most parts of the world—partly as a result of the Government’s efforts. As a result, many more companies are taking active steps to treat this seriously—not as something to be delegated to the IT department but as a board-level risk to be understood and managed by the board as a major risk to the business. We shall continue to drive home this message.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this important update. He talked about clusters. He will know that one of the most important cyber-security clusters in the UK is in world-class Worcestershire. One business he has visited there, Titania security, told me it was benefiting from a wide range of Government help, including the apprenticeships scheme, research and development tax credits and help with exporting from UK Trade & Investment. Will he update the House on how his Department could work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that our cyber-security industry is the most competitive in the world?
It is very competitive. I know that my hon. Friend has given enormous support to the cyber-cluster in Worcestershire. As a matter of historical accident almost, there are many such businesses in Great Malvern. When I visited in 2012, there were 40 or so cyber-companies; there are now more than 80. This is very fast growing. We help cyber-companies with exporting, and many of them are doing it. I visited Titania, in his constituency, and was hugely impressed by how many countries this relatively small company was selling its products to.
Cyber-security is a reserved matter, but will the Minister update the House on any conversations or meetings he has had with Police Scotland or the Scottish Government on this matter?
We obviously co-ordinate as much as possible with the Scottish Government—my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for cybercrime could comment separately on any discussions the Home Office has with Police Scotland. The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that these matters require close co-ordination between Governments and law-enforcement agencies not just within the UK but much more widely, because cyber and the internet know no national boundaries.
Following on from my right hon. Gentleman’s comments about GCHQ staff, what did he make of the Business Secretary’s comments that The Guardian Snowden publication was entirely correct and courageous, and will he outline his assessment of the effect that has had on the morale of our public servants at GCHQ?
I happened to be visiting GCHQ shortly after my right hon. Friend made those remarks. The people who work at GCHQ do fantastic work—it is a centre of brilliant expertise and knowledge; they do difficult work away from the public gaze, and any comments that seem to undermine what they do in the service of national security have to be strongly deprecated.
The Minister is right to pay tribute to the work of GCHQ and to prioritise cyber-security, which is very important for all of us. He will be aware that a fundamental part of that is good encryption, so will he encourage individuals and companies alike to push ahead with strong end-to-end encryption, wherever possible?
Encryption is obviously important, but it is for businesses to decide what level of encryption they want to operate. These are obviously delicate matters, but there is a lot of technology here, and I am happy to say that Britain is very good at it.
It has been an enormous privilege in this Parliament for me to serve with my right hon. Friend in his team at the Cabinet Office doing exactly this work. Will he update the House further on what he continues to do to keep our critical national infrastructure safe?
I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend both for what she says and for the incredibly important work she did, particularly in taking the message about the need to strengthen cyber-security defences out to the business community, which she did with her characteristic energy and clarity. So far as the critical national infrastructure is concerned, a huge amount of work is already under way to continue to ensure that we understand the vulnerabilities. Obviously, the critical national infrastructure is not primarily owned by the state—it is in private sector hands—so we need to understand the vulnerabilities and work with the owners of that infrastructure to ensure that the defences are as good as they can be.
I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to meet Training 2000 and me last October to discuss its plans to create an institute for cyber-security in Pendle. Following that meeting, it has followed up the leads he provided, and I am delighted to say that it is now progressing with its ambitious plans to create the institute later this year, to improve local cyber-skills and apprenticeships in the area. Given the importance of this issue to many Lancashire SMEs, what more can his Department do to support such proposals?
Let me first pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done in this area. When I recently visited Pendle, I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with him. There has been no stronger champion of our potential to work with businesses to build the companies, the skills and the kind of centres for training that he mentions. I am confident that he will be in a position to take this work forward over the coming five years.
Does the Paymaster General agree that the excellent news about a new university technical college at Berkeley Green in my constituency, providing skills and training in cyber, is perfectly timely in view of his statement and that it is likely to bring a real benefit to the Government Communications Headquarters?
My hon. Friend is exactly right to draw attention to that. We need to build these skills—and build them early. The kind of college he mentions can play an incredibly important role in that, particularly, as he says, in view of its proximity to Cheltenham and GCHQ. We need to get to children earlier so that we can encourage more of them to specialise in these subjects. Under our Cyber First scheme, which I referred to in my statement, and in pursuit of the most gifted students, we will absolutely look to find really gifted students at a much younger age.
I welcome yesterday’s launch by the Cabinet Office of the report into cyber-insurance, which hopes to make the UK the world capital of cyber-insurance in the marketplace. It will not only give the UK insurance market the leading edge in order to become the world leader, but will encourage our small and medium-sized enterprises to take up cyber-insurance through the terms and conditions of their insurance policy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this. We have, I think, got ahead of the game by commissioning the work we have done jointly with the insurance industry. Cyber-insurance is a market in its infancy. Many businesses do not know whether they are covered for damage and loss caused by cyber-attacks. The fact that Britain excels in the insurance market—London is the world’s centre of insurance—and that Britain is very good at cyber-security will enable us to become world leaders in this important area. The sophisticated pricing of cyber-risk will be a huge stimulus, particularly to smaller businesses, to ensure that they have done what they can to protect themselves. I welcome the industry’s support, particularly for smaller businesses and SMEs, of the Cyber Essentials scheme as a kitemark for taking the right steps to protect themselves.
The prize for patience goes to Mr Richard Graham.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate the Minister for the Cabinet Office on both his statement and his strong commitment to a quiet revolution on our nation’s understanding of, and support for, the cyber-industry. My right hon. Friend knows the important cluster in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, which now includes the future training centre rightly mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael). Does my right hon. Friend agree that places such as the new cyber-centre in Gloucester, led by Raytheon with innovative partners employing between 9,000 and 90,000 employees, should encourage local universities such as the university of Gloucestershire to play an important role in developing appropriate courses for future skills in this sector?
My hon. Friend is completely right to draw attention to that and to emphasise the need for us to develop these skills early. These are scarce skills at the moment, but they do not need to be. We took steps early in the course of the coalition Government to start the process of building skills, and the kind of developments to which my hon. Friend refers are a crucial part of that.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can you clarify the process that exists for a situation in which the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) refuses to apologise to the Minister for Employment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) for quoting someone who referred to her by saying, “Lynch the bastard”. If the hon. Gentleman did not agree with remarks made by others that were in effect inciting violence against a female MP, why on earth did he repeat them to another audience? I had hoped that he would apologise before this House dissolves, but no apology has been forthcoming.
I call Mr John McDonnell to respond to that point of order.
This has been raised before, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it was accepted by the House that I would in no way ever encourage violence or support violence against an hon. Member— [Interruption.]
I therefore have nothing to apologise for. If a constituent shouts something out to an MP, that is a matter for the constituent. This is about the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) trying to make herself into a victim over this issue. The real victims are people such as David Clapson who starved to death as a result of—
Order. If the hon. Gentleman is responding to a point of order, I must insist that he sticks only to that point of order. Has he finished his response to this point of order? He may do so.
I was simply putting it in the context of the suffering that has been caused by the right hon. Member for Wirral West—
Order. I have said to the hon. Gentleman that he must limit his remarks to the substance of the point of order. I am allowing him to do so and giving him plenty of opportunity to respond. We do not need the background information—just his response.
The substance of the matter is that there is nothing to apologise for, and I hope that on 7 May the electorate will remove the stain of inhumanity—
Order. It is not a matter for me to discuss the electorate on 7 May. It is disappointing that a matter such as this should have to come before the House. I thank the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for giving notice of their intention to be here today to raise this point. Let me repeat what the Deputy Speaker said when the matter was raised in November—that what hon. Members say outside this place is not a matter for the Chair.
I would, however, strongly clarify—the hon. Lady asked for clarification—that it is incumbent on all Members of this House, either within the Chamber or elsewhere, to act with courtesy to one another and, indeed, to everyone else whom they might encounter. I understand the hon. Lady’s particular concerns about reported comments suggesting violence—whether they were seriously intentioned or not. I am quite certain, and I am sure the whole House will agree, that no hon. Member would wish to be associated with such comments. I urge hon. Members concerned in this matter to consider that apology is not backing down; it is a courteous way of settling a matter. One would hope that hon. Members of this House would wish always to act with such courtesy.
Schools (Opportunity to Study for Qualifications)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to ensure that pupils in secondary education are guaranteed the opportunity to study for qualifications including triple science GCSEs and all English Baccalaureate GCSE subjects; and for connected purposes.
The past five years have witnessed a transformation in the uptake of rigorous subjects at GCSE. It cannot be denied that the introduction of the English baccalaureate as a measure of performance has seen the percentage of pupils studying for English, maths, science, a modern foreign language and either history or geography rise from 22% in 2009-10 to 36% in 2013-14—and it is expected to rise above 40% this academic year.
This is welcome news, for we know that in an increasingly competitive and outward-facing global world, qualifications matter. Even at 14, the choices that a pupil makes in choosing their GCSE options will have a critical impact on their future. Universities now take GCSE results and the subjects studied into close account, while the choice of certain GCSEs can have a limiting effect on a pupil’s ability to study certain subjects at A-level, which in turn can prevent access to the study of these subjects at university. Options at 14 are, in fact, a seismic moment in a pupil’s education, one on which their entire academic future and career may depend.
Given how important the choice of GCSEs has become, and given the weight that is placed on them, one would expect that all pupils, regardless of where they were born, would—in today’s world—be given equal opportunities to study for qualifications that would decide their own future career paths. If pupils’ options are to be meaningful, they must also be given an equal and fair choice of subjects that is open to all. It is unacceptable that the subject choices and, as a result, the aspirations of many pupils are still being capped by a lack of subject provision in the schools that they attend. For many pupils, GCSE choices are little more than a modern-day Hobson’s choice: they are forced either to study certain subjects that their schools have deemed appropriate, or to study nothing at all.
That is particularly true of the uptake of sciences at GCSE. For too long, a great educational divide existed between schools that offered only what was then called double science, and schools that gave their pupils a chance to study the three separate sciences—biology, chemistry and physics. For too long, that chance was mostly the preserve of pupils who were educated in the private or selective sectors, while those attending comprehensive schools were forced to accept second best. Over the past 10 years, rapid progress has been made in the raising of aspirations in every school. In 2004, fewer than 40% of secondary schools offered the three separate sciences, or triple science, at GCSE, whereas recently 87.5% of schools entered pupils for triple science. In 2010, the figure was 78.2%.
Important work has been undertaken through schemes such as the triple science support programme, managed by myScience, which has helped 1,385 schools to increase provision of the three sciences. Following the creation of a national network of science learning centres which prepare teachers and technicians to meet the challenge of providing the delivery of triple science, the number of pupils in state-funded schools taking triple science has increased by more than 45,500 since 2010. Across the country, there have been individual success stories of schools that have transformed their science provision. John Smeaton Academy, for instance, initially only allowed its pupils to study science through a BTEC course, but some are now studying three separate sciences.
Last month, however, the publication of the Open Public Services Network’s “Lack of Options” report underlined the challenge that we still face in aiming to ensure that all pupils, regardless of where they live or what school they attend, are given equal opportunities to study for the qualifications that may secure their future. The report found that in just 41 of 149 local authorities did every school give pupils a chance to study the three separate sciences. The variation was stark: in Sutton, 46% of pupils had chosen to enter triple science GCSE, compared with just 14% in Hull and a pitiful 11% in Knowsley, where, worryingly, only 51% of pupils took any kind of science GCSE
Although the report’s conclusions suggested that there was a strong correlation between areas of deprivation and the provision of triple science GCSE, it is important to note that a pupil’s own economic family background did not necessarily act as a barrier to attainment. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the proportion of pupils who were eligible for free school meals was similar to that in Knowsley—47%, compared with 51%—but 37% of pupils were entered for triple science, compared with 11% in Knowsley. The real difference between those two authorities, however, involved the provision of triple science GCSE in schools. In 43% of schools in Knowsley, not a single pupil was entered for triple science GCSE, whereas every school in Hammersmith and Fulham offered the three separate sciences.
Poverty of aspiration, which lowers horizons and dims lights that should be burning brightly, still reaches into areas of our education system, and into places where education is most needed to transform young lives. We cannot continue to allow generation after generation of pupils to be let down simply because of the accident of where they were born or what school they attend. In Bristol, my own local area, only 23.3% of pupils were entered for triple science GCSE. A quarter of schools did not even offer the subject at GCSE. Every single school did so in South Gloucestershire, North Somerset, and Bath and North East Somerset. That contrast is simply unacceptable.
As a local MP, like many other Members to whom I have spoken, I have dealt with casework involving this issue. A pupil whose ambition and aspirations were still burning wished to study the three separate sciences at GCSE, with a view to studying medicine at university. She was informed by the school—which called itself a specialist science school—that she would not be able to do so. After her parents visited my surgery, I investigated the case, under the impression that, in 2008, the previous Government’s science and innovation investment framework had entitled all pupils who achieved a level 6 or above at key stage 3 to study triple science at GCSE. When I contacted the science, engineering and design and technology team at the Department for Education, I was informed that that was not the case, and that the promise that had been made back in 2008 was not
“a legal entitlement. It was a commitment made by the last government but was never made statutory”.
The Department further explained that there was no legal entitlement for pupils in any maintained school, including the old specialist schools, to study triple science. It was up to the school and the governing body to decide what science qualifications should be offered.
Regardless of the improvements that have been made throughout the country—and I accept that here have been fantastic improvements—the situation remains the same. Pupils who are trapped in a school that does not offer triple science GCSE will be prevented from studying the subjects that they wish to study, the subjects that could transform their future. Rather than that critical choice being placed in the hands of pupils themselves, allowing them to choose their own destiny, it remains the case that the power to arbitrate over pupils’ lives remains with the schools themselves.
I propose that the law be changed, so that pupils can be given not only the entitlement that was once promised to them, but what I call a “right to learn”. If a school is unable to offer triple science GCSE for whatever legitimate reason—and I fully understand that the provision of laboratories and specialist science staff is critical—it should have a duty to ensure that pupils are given the chance to study for those GCSEs elsewhere. I hope that such a duty would in itself act as a positive enabling force to help to end the “subject deserts” that are afflicting parts of the country, highlighting the fact that the current situation must change. I hope that it would ensure greater collaboration between schools, driving up further the number of pupils taking triple science GCSE. I have chosen science today because it is a particularly pressing example, but an equal case can be made for other EBacc subjects.
I hope that in another decade we shall be able to look back—as I have today—to review the progress that schools have made, and to assess the further progress that they must make if we are to ensure that pupils are given the best start in life in an increasingly competitive world. However, I also hope that by then we shall have relegated to history a world in which pupils’ educational chances, and the subjects that are offered to them, depend on the part of the country in which they were born. The fact that pupils are still being denied an opportunity to study for qualifications that are available to others in state-funded schools is unacceptable, and nothing short of educational discrimination. This simple Bill would ensure that, while the fight to reduce inequality of attainment must continue apace, we can at least end the inequality of access and opportunity to study for qualifications that should be available to all.
I oppose the Bill because, despite its title, I feel that the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) has misunderstood the nature of the risk that is posed to students who need to study specific subjects. In blaming schools and teachers, he has ignored the imminent prospect of the withdrawal of certain modern foreign language A-level subjects. Students will have no opportunity to study for A-level qualifications in subjects such as Polish, Punjabi, Bengali and Hebrew, because the A-level examination board—the only board that provides for those subjects—is planning to withdraw the examinations in 2017.
The Government have failed to do anything to prevent the removal of Polish and Punjabi—the two languages which, after English, are most spoken in this country— from the A-level examination syllabus. In 1998, when such a move was last suggested, Members tabled an early-day motion, and succeeded in preventing Edexcel from ending the A-level examination in Polish. At that time, there were 100 students studying Polish A-level; now there are nearly 10 times as many, but the plan is still to abandon the course.
When Ofsted last looked at the teaching of modern foreign languages, it produced a report in January 2011 and pointed out that A-level entries in modern languages increased slightly between 2007 and 2010, from 28,377 to 29,836. Since then there has been a depressing decline. Entries for French are down 3,150 to 9,000, and entries for German are down 1,300 to 3,750. There has been a significant increase in the number of students getting qualifications in the minority modern foreign languages, which are the very languages that will soon be unavailable for examination.
So what did I do? I wrote to the AQA examination board and Ofqual and they responded. I sent a copy to the Secretary of State for Education, who has not responded. AQA said that
“government changes to the exam system and qualifications mean that only new GCSEs and A-levels accredited by the exams regulator, Ofqual, can be offered by awarding bodies”.
In other words, it is pointing to Ofqual. It also talks about the specific subjects I have raised:
“we will be faced with a number of challenges. We know it will become increasingly difficult to recruit sufficient examiners with assessment expertise to set and mark the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.”
I have spoken to a senior examiner in Polish and she assures me there is no difficulty in finding suitably qualified examiners in that subject, yet AQA is determined to abandon it. It points out that only 983 students were entered in the last year, but it has ignored the fact that the Polish community, which is the biggest driver of the number of A-level entrants, is growing hugely. So this short-sighted policy risks the children of the many thousands of Poles who have settled in Britain in the last years not being able to study the language.
Let us have a look at what Ofqual says. It says:
“What is taught in schools up to Key Stage 4 is a matter for Government. After this the offering will be demand led for the exam boards who are free (mostly) to develop qualifications at A level that they wish.”
I want the Minister on the Treasury Bench, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), to make sure they are not mostly “free” to develop the qualifications they wish. Instead he should insist that they develop the qualifications students need, because if we do not study these modern foreign languages, including the languages of the growing markets in south Asia, we will lose important outward-facing opportunities for the British economy.
Ofqual goes on to say:
“We at Ofqual do not…seek to limit the curriculum. We do expect any GCSE, AS or A level to be of comparable demand”.
It is saying that it needs the same number of entrants for each subject, but at the current rate of decline the number of entrants for Polish and French will be very similar very soon, and I imagine that the number of entrants for Polish and German will be almost the same by the time the Polish A-level is abandoned.
The Government must use their power to direct Ofqual. The Ofqual response says that
“we here at Ofqual make no judgements on what subjects ought to be taught as part of key stages of the curriculum”.
Someone needs to take responsibility for making this judgment, because it is clear that there are sufficient examiners. The Polish University Abroad, which is based in London, runs further education courses for BA graduates in teaching Polish as a second language, and it does not expect any shortage of suitably qualified examiners in the near future.
If the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) had focused his Bill on qualifications that students are prevented from being able to obtain by Government inaction, it could have enabled students to qualify in Polish, in Punjabi, in Hebrew, in Bengali—in all the languages that the examination boards are planning to abandon. If we abandon them, we cannot continue to depend on the fact that English is our greatest export as the reason why our companies can succeed so well. We need to recognise that in order to compete in an increasingly globalised world, Britain needs access to all those languages, and if we just look backwards we will not obtain the wealth our country needs or give children the chance to get an A-level in a subject they will succeed in.
The hon. Gentleman compared the approaches to learning in Hammersmith and Knowsley. I believe that one of the reasons why London education authorities are doing well in this regard is that London children bring many languages to their schools—languages they are able to be examined in and succeed in. If somebody has access to another language, they have insights that can strengthen all areas of their learning. We are about to deny an entire cohort of children that opportunity to be examined in modern foreign languages, and I wish the hon. Gentleman’s Bill would sort out that problem, rather than the one he has talked about.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.
That Chris Skidmore, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Henry Smith, Neil Carmichael, Andrew Percy, Mr Dominic Raab, Nigel Adams, Mr Henry Bellingham, Richard Fuller, Christopher Pincher and Mrs Cheryl Gillan present the Bill.
Chris Skidmore accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 194).
Business of the House (24, 25 and 26 March)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the following provisions shall have effect:
Sittings on 24, 25 and 26 March
(1) At today’s sitting and the sittings on Wednesday 25 March and Thursday 26 March–
(a) Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply;
(b) Standing Orders Nos. 83D to 83H and 83I(2), (3) and (6) (conclusion of proceedings etc) shall apply to proceedings to be taken in accordance with this Order, but with the omission of Standing Orders Nos. 83D(2)(c) and 83E(2)(c);
(c) no notice shall be required of any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown and any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the moment of interruption and shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House;
(d) no Motion to alter the order in which proceedings on a Bill are taken, to recommit a Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order shall be made except by a Minister of the Crown and the Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
Tuesday 24 March
(2) At today’s sitting–
(a) proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill
shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) three hours after their commencement;
(b) proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) three hours after their commencement;
(c) the Lords Amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill shall be considered in the following order: Nos. 34 to 62, 86, 132, 136 to 141, 1 to 33, 63 to 85, 87 to 131, 133 to 135 and 142 to 193;
(d) proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer relating to approval for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one and a half hours after their commencement;
(e) proceedings on the Motion in the name of Secretary Theresa May relating to the draft Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Risk of Being Drawn into Terrorism) (Amendment and Guidance) Regulations 2015 and the Motion in the name of Secretary Chris Grayling relating to the Civil Procedure (Amendment) Rules 2015 shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the first of those Motions;
(f) any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill may be considered forthwith without any further Question being put;
(g) subject to sub-paragraphs (a) and (b), proceedings on any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already
concluded) one hour after their commencement.
(3) The start of any emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held at today’s sitting shall be postponed until the conclusion of the proceedings at that sitting to which this Order applies.
Wednesday 25 March
(4) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee, any proceedings on Consideration, and proceedings on Third Reading on the Finance (No. 2) Bill shall be completed at the sitting on Wednesday 25 March, as follows–
(a) proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) two hours after their commencement;
(b) when the Bill has been read a second time, it shall stand committed to a Committee of the whole House and, subject to sub-paragraph (c), the House shall immediately resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House on the Bill;
(c) where relevant, when the Bill has been read a second time–
(i) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put on
any Procedure Resolution relating to the Bill and, in accordance with Standing Order No. 52(1) (financial resolutions in connection with bills), on any Money Resolution or Ways and Means Resolution relating to the Bill;
(ii) on the conclusion of proceedings on any Procedure Resolution, Money Resolution or Ways and Means Resolution relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the House shall immediately resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House on the Bill;
(d) proceedings in the Committee of the whole House shall be taken in the following order: clauses 66 and 67 and new Clauses and new Schedules relating to value added tax; clauses 1 to 5 and new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the charge to, the rates of and the limits and allowances for income tax; clause 6 and new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the charge to, and the main rate of, corporation tax; remaining proceedings in Committee;
(e) if, on conclusion of proceedings in Committee, the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put;
(f) proceedings in Committee, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on Second Reading.
(5) Paragraph (4) shall have effect notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the
intervals between stages of a Bill brought in upon Ways and Means Resolutions.
(6) At the sitting on Wednesday 25 March–
(a) any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill may be considered forthwith without any further Question being put;
(b) proceedings on any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one hour after their commencement.
(7) The start of any emergency debate under Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) to be held at the sitting on Wednesday 25 March shall be postponed until the conclusion of the proceedings at that sitting to which this Order applies.
Thursday 26 March
(8) On Thursday 26 March there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall.
(9) At the sitting on Thursday 26 March–
(a) proceedings on the Motion in the name of Sir George Young relating to the valedictory debate recommended by the Backbench Business Committee shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) at 4.30pm;
(b) any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill may be considered forthwith without any further Question being put;
(c) proceedings on any Lords Amendments or Lords Message in respect of any Bill shall be brought to a conclusion (unless already concluded) one hour after their commencement;
(d) no debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates);
(e) the Speaker shall not adjourn the House before a Message has been received from the Lords Commissioners.
(10) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(11) In this Order, a reference to proceedings on or in respect of a Bill includes a reference to proceedings on any Motion to alter the order in which those proceedings are considered and (except in paragraph (4)(c)) to proceedings on any Procedure Resolution, Money Resolution or Ways and Means Resolution in relation to those proceedings.
(12) If today’s sitting continues after 11.30 a.m. on Wednesday 25 March, this Order shall have effect as if any reference to the sitting on Wednesday 25 March or Thursday 26 March were a reference to today’s sitting.
(13) If the sitting on Wednesday 25 March continues after 9.30 a.m. on Thursday 26 March, this Order shall have effect as if any reference to the sitting on Thursday 26 March were a reference to the sitting on Wednesday 25 March.
(14) If today’s sitting or the sitting on Wednesday 25 March continues as described in paragraph (12) or (13), any business set down for consideration at the later sitting or sittings mentioned in that paragraph may be considered at the continued sitting, notwithstanding the practice of the House which forbids the bringing forward of an Order of the Day.—(Mr Hague.)
I am glad to have the opportunity to participate in this debate, and I am disappointed that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has not chosen to speak to this very important motion.
We are in a fixed-term Parliament. The Government have known for the best part of five years the date of Dissolution, yet this motion is expressed in terms that suggest there is some sort of emergency requiring the Finance Bill to be considered tomorrow in all its stages in a maximum of six hours.
It may well be that Opposition Members are indifferent to this, but having seen the Finance Bill, which was printed only today for the first time, I notice that the explanatory notes extend to some 258 pages. There are some 127 clauses covering 121 pages, and 21 schedules covering a further 220 pages. It does not seem possible to do justice to those provisions on behalf of all the people who could be affected by the Bill by considering it for only six hours and at relatively short notice. Given that we knew that we were approaching Dissolution, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will explain why the arrangements were made in such a way as to allow so little time for the Bill.
In the past, as I recall, a shorter Finance Bill has been introduced at this stage, with provision for a second Bill to be introduced after the general election to deal with matters in more detail. In that way, it has been possible to scrutinise the important changes that affect businesses and individuals up and down the country. I fear that we shall have no such opportunity this time.
I should also like to tease out what my right hon. Friend has in mind in paragraph 1(c) of the motion, which states:
“At today’s sitting and the sittings on Wednesday 25 March and Thursday 26 March…no notice shall be required of any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown and any Motion made by a Minister of the Crown may be proceeded with, though opposed, after the moment of interruption and shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House”.
Does one of the motions that he intends to bring forward under these provisions relate to the commitments he made to me and to the House in recent weeks? On 5 February, I asked him:
“When will my right hon. Friend publish the draft changes to Standing Orders that will be necessary to implement English votes on English issues?”
“That is a party matter, rather than a Government matter, since there are different policies among the coalition parties. However, it is important to show the detail, so I intend later this month to set out how the proposal that I made earlier this week can be implemented in Standing Orders.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2015; Vol. 592, c. 426.]
I was very pleased with that response. Unfortunately, nothing had happened by the end of February, so I returned to the issue on 12 March, again during business questions. I said to my right hon. Friend:
“On 5 February at column 426 of Hansard, my right hon. Friend told me that he intended ‘later’ in February to set out the draft changes to Standing Orders to implement English votes for English laws. Why was he not able to meet his own target deadline of the end of February? May I seek an assurance from him that he will meet it before his final departure from this place?”
“My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young)”—
who I am pleased to see is in his place—
“asked about this last week. It is true that February has stretched into March, and I am conscious of the commitment that was made to my hon. Friend, so I do intend to publish the proposed Standing Order changes.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2015; Vol. 594, c. 413.]
Those changes to Standing Orders could be introduced in the form of a motion, no notice of which would be required, under the provisions of paragraph 1(c) of the business of the House motion that we are now considering. I hope that I am not being unduly optimistic in asking my right hon. Friend to confirm that that is indeed his intention, and that that is why he has included in the motion a reference to motions being able to be brought forward by Ministers of the Crown without notice. I have not yet seen any record in the Official Report of a ministerial statement altering the commitments that my right hon. Friend has already made on English votes for English laws, so I hope he will take this opportunity to introduce the changes today.
This matter is topical, not least because a series of public petitions is due to be presented later today by a host of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the issue of English votes for English laws. It would be a big mistake if we were to enter the general election campaign without having this matter properly clarified, at the very least in the form of a draft Standing Order attached to a motion brought forward by the Government without notice.
The type of motion before the House is usual in the run-up to the end of a Parliament, and this motion facilitates the effective and efficient use of the time of the House in bringing this Session, and this Parliament, to a satisfactory conclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is quite right to say that this Parliament is different from its predecessors in being a fixed-term Parliament. That is why there are so few Bills left to consider, and so few Bills moving between this House and the other place, at this stage. As is set out in the motion, we will go on to consider Lords amendments to two Bills, including the Modern Slavery Bill, which is still before the other place, but they represent a small proportion of the legislative programme and there is no reason why this should not come to an orderly conclusion. The motion provides for it to do so.
The one exception to the Bills that have been able to make such progress is of course the Finance Bill, to which my hon. Friend has referred. We have known for a long time that the Budget would take place six days ago on 18 March, which it duly did, and that a Finance Bill would therefore have to be considered in fairly short order between then and the Dissolution of Parliament. This is not an uncommon development. Those of us who were here in 1992 will remember the Budget being delivered only a couple of days before the Dissolution of Parliament, and that has happened on a number of other occasions as well. That has often led to substantial Finance Acts being introduced immediately after the Budget, as is the case here. I do not see any difference in principle between those occasions and this one.
If my memory serves me correctly, a very short Finance Act followed the Budget in 1992, with the main, substantive Finance Bill being brought forward after the general election.
It is true that there was a further Finance Act, but it is also true that many provisions were included in the initial Finance Act, as far as could be agreed with the Opposition. The present Opposition have not opposed—let us put it that way—the great majority of the measures in this year’s Budget, and we have therefore been able to include a greater proportion of it in the Finance Bill. As with any Bill, however, it will be for the House to reach its judgment in the normal way on the Finance Bill when we debate it tomorrow. My hon. Friend will be able to take part in those debates. We are providing the time that is available for the Finance Bill before the Dissolution of Parliament, which must by law take place on 30 March, which is next Monday, so the time available to debate the Bill is tomorrow. If my hon. Friend wants to tell Treasury Ministers that he wishes it was a smaller Finance Bill, he will of course be able to do so during those debates.
On my hon. Friend’s final question about paragraph 1(c) of the motion, the answer is a fairly comprehensive no. As I pointed out in my first answer that he read out on a change to Standing Orders relating to English votes on English laws, this is a party matter. It would be possible to lay a Government motion under the provisions of paragraph 1(c) only if such a motion had been agreed across the whole coalition. My hon. Friend is well versed in these matters, and he will know that the policy on this issue is not agreed across the coalition and that it therefore remains a party matter. It is therefore not for me, as Leader of the House in the Government, to publish any such proposed changes to Standing Orders; I could do so only as a Conservative party spokesman. It remains my intention to do so, but not as Leader of the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Recall of MPs Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendment 18. If the House agrees to that Lords amendment, Mr Speaker will ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
How an MP becomes subject to a recall petition process
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments 2 to 17, 21, 22 and 27.
The amendments in this group relate to the circumstances that would trigger a recall petition. They were tabled by the Government in the House of Lords to ensure that the important changes made to the Bill in this House are reflected throughout the Bill, ensuring that the legislation works in practice. The Prime Minister made it clear that the Government would be open to Parliament changing and improving this Bill, and that has happened. We had a free vote on amendments brought forward on Report, and I am pleased that the provisions have been strengthened as a result.
Hon. Members may recall that on Report in this House, Members voted to add to the provisions in the Bill to trigger a recall petition following a conviction for expenses-related offences under section 10 of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, irrespective of sentence. The House also changed the second trigger so that a recall petition would be opened if an MP were suspended on the recommendation of the Standards Committee for 10 or more sitting days, rather than the 21 or more sitting days in the original Bill. As only the lead amendments were moved at that time, the Government tabled amendments in the House of Lords—amendments 1 to 6, 8, 9, 12 to 15, 17, 21 and 22—which are required to give full effect to the changes.
Amendment 7 gives effect to an amendment agreed in this House to ensure that offences committed before the Act comes into force can trigger the opening of a recall petition so long as the conviction and sentencing take place after the Act comes into force. Amendments 10 and 11 further define the allowable appeal period in the case of a conviction that would trigger the opening of a recall petition under the first or third recall condition. That ensures that an MP has the opportunity to appeal against a conviction, but that the recall petition process can also begin in a timely manner. Amendment 27 is a technical amendment, clarifying the definition of “overturned on appeal”. Amendment 16 corrects a minor oversight, by removing the requirement for the courts to inform the Speaker of a sentence that would lead to recall if the person in question had already ceased to be an MP—in such circumstances, it is clearly no longer necessary for the Speaker to be informed.
The amendments in this group are therefore largely consequential and technical, and give proper effect to changes that were made with considerable support in this House. I look forward to the debate on these amendments, which I commend to the House.
We welcome and support these Lords amendments. On Report, it was a Labour amendment that added a third recall condition of conviction for an offence under section 10 of the 2009 Act, so we particularly welcome these amendments from the other place. As the Minister said, they are minor and technical amendments, but they ensure the Bill will work by making this third recall condition fully operational.
The group also contains helpful amendments concerning the second recall condition. For example, when an MP is suspended from the House, the report of the Committee on Standards which precedes the House of Commons’ order for a suspension must relate specifically to that MP, not to general behaviour. As the Minister said, the House of Lords has also tidied up certain elements of the Bill. Amendment 7 ensures that a recall petition can be brought for offences committed before the day on which the Act comes into force, so long as the conviction and sentencing took place after that date.
Amendment 10 ensures that the third recall condition—on conviction for an offence and sentencing—would begin once all relevant appeals had been determined. That is a sensible but important provision. Other amendments make welcome technical changes to tidy up the proposed legislation. Amendments 23 to 25 would remove the power of the Speaker to appoint a person to exercise the Speaker’s functions under the Bill in his or her absence, and instead allow the elected Chairman of Ways and Means or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means to do so if the Speaker is unable to perform them. As the Minister explained, these are technical and consequential amendments, and the Opposition are happy to give them our support.
I rise to support the amendments, such as they are, from the House of Lords. They clearly strengthen the Bill in a minor way. Members may recall that we expended a fair amount of time and effort trying to strengthen the Bill in a more concrete way when it was before this House by giving access to a non-parliamentary route for recall. I am sad that we did not find a solution acceptable to both Houses to enable that to happen. Having said that, I do not agree with the argument that it would be better not to have a Bill at all. This Bill is a substantial step forward. It does not go as far as I would like, but I recognise that if we have it in place and it receives Royal Assent, as I assume it will, there is a substrate on which we can build—not me, but successor Parliaments—in order to provide a more acceptable position for the future.
As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) mentioned an amendment in the next group, I hope you will afford me the latitude of saying, Madam Deputy Speaker, that amendments 23 to 25 were ones that I tabled originally in this House. I am very pleased to see that the Government have accepted them in the Lords, so I will not need to say anything about them when we get to the next group.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me say, as I said in my opening remarks, that these amendments are sensible modifications, ensuring that the Bill works effectively. I hope the House will support them, I am grateful for the Opposition spokesman’s comments on them and I commend them to the House.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 17 agreed to.
Where and from when the recall petition may be signed
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 18.
With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments 19, 20, 23 to 26 and 28 to 32.
The amendments in this group relate to the way in which recall petitions will be run. They pick up on a number of points made in debates in both Houses and are designed to make improvements to the operation of the recall petitions for the benefit of constituents, administrators and campaigners. The amendments also ensure that the Electoral Commission plays a greater role in reporting on the operation of recall petitions in practice. I will describe the amendments briefly and will also address the more technical amendments that form part of this group.
Amendments 18 to 20 relate to constituents’ engagement with and access to the recall petition process. Lords amendment 18 increases the number of signing places that the petition officer can designate from a maximum of four to a maximum of 10. This amendment addresses concerns expressed during previous debates in this House and the House of Lords about accessibility for constituents living in rural areas who may wish to sign the petition in person. In setting the number at 10, we consulted the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and the returning officers for the Western Isles and for Argyll and Bute. They were clear that a limit of four could pose particular challenges in large rural constituencies or in constituencies with a number of islands, and felt that a raised limit would afford them helpful flexibility.
The increase in the maximum number of signing places has enabled the Government to consider whether a reduction in the signing period would be sensible, given the improved access to the signing process. Having considered the issue carefully, the Government brought forward Lords amendment 19, which reduces the signing period from eight to six weeks. That means that the constituents and the MP in question would get the result of the petition much quicker than we originally proposed. A slightly shorter period will have practical benefits for the administration of petitions and means that campaigners do not need to sustain their activities over quite so long a period.
The increase in the number of signing places and the reduction in the signing period strikes the right balance between tightening the process and enabling proper access to signing. It allows sufficient time for electors to consider the campaigns for and against signing a petition and enables those who wish to sign by post to make an application.
Lords amendment 20 improves the final sentence of the wording to appear on the petition signing sheet, making it easier for electors to understand that, if fewer than 10% of the registered electors in a constituency sign a petition, the MP will not lose his or her seat and a by-election will not be held.
Members will remember that my right hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) tabled an amendment on Report to improve the wording on this point, and, having reflected on the helpful contributions made in the debate on that amendment, the Government brought forward a comparable amendment.
Amendments 23 to 25, which relate to clause 19, make provision for the recall process to start if the Speaker is unable to perform his duties as set out in the Bill. Clause 19, when originally drafted, mirrored existing legislation in permitting the Speaker to appoint a deputy to carry out those functions.
During the debate in this House, the question of whether that is necessary was raised, as we now elect the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. The amendments update the Bill to reflect that important change in the House’s arrangements by making it clear that, where the Speaker is unable to perform his functions under the Bill, they will transfer automatically to the Chairman or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. I thank my right hon. Friend for flagging up that matter during earlier debates. On behalf of everyone here, let me say that his expertise in this area will be greatly missed in the next Parliament.
Amendment 24 clarifies that the Speaker will be unable to carry out his functions if he is himself the subject of a recall petition, in which case the function would pass to the Chairman or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.
Briefly, Lords amendment 26 was made in response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s report on the Bill. A power to amend the Act through secondary legislation was originally included to allow it to be easily updated with regard to reforms of existing electoral law, such as the move to individual electoral registration. Those reforms were outstanding at that point but have now been made. There is therefore no longer a need for the power to amend the Act itself through regulations. Amendment 26, therefore, removes this power in accordance with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee’s recommendation.
Lastly, Lords amendments 28 to 30 and 32 relate to the role of the Electoral Commission in the recall process. The amendments build on those tabled by the Opposition on Report in the House of Lords. The Government are grateful to the Opposition for their support on Third Reading. It must have been something of a novelty for the Opposition to see the Government so readily accept amendments during the progress of this Bill.
During the Bill’s progress through the House of Lords, noble Lords expressed their concern, which the Government share, that the rules for regulating the campaign must function in practice. These amendments will require the petition officer to forward all recall petition returns to the Electoral Commission. That will support a further amendment requiring the Electoral Commission to produce a report after every recall petition. That alters the original provisions in the Bill, which required the Electoral Commission to report only on its own initiative.
The Electoral Commission’s report will look at how the provisions of the Act, including the rules on spending and donations, operated in practice at each petition. It has indicated that automatically receiving the spending and donation returns will allow it to examine and report on whether the current spending limits and registration thresholds seem appropriate for recall events, and whether they prevent undue influence over the outcome of these processes.
In drafting this Bill, the Government have sought to ensure that, in the event of a recall petition taking place, the process is fair to all participants, that participation is encouraged and that wealthy campaigners cannot have an undue influence.
I have listened with great interest to what the Minister has to say. Does not Lords amendment 19, which reduces the period during which the recall petition would be available for signing from eight to six weeks, make it far more likely that an MP under the recall mechanism will survive the process?
We had to strike a balance between the number of signing places and the number of weeks that a petition was available. We felt that, following the discussions that had taken place in both Houses, the idea of providing a maximum of 10 signing places and allowing six weeks was an appropriate compromise. It is always worth reinforcing the point that postal voting is available, which makes the petition process and the recall process quite open and acceptable.
In the Minister’s opening remarks, he coupled Lords amendment 18 with Lords amendment 19. Would it not be better for Lords amendment 18 to say a “minimum” of 10 rather than a maximum of 10?
That is a subject of debate. If the returning officer in the constituency of Argyll and Bute, which has, I think, more islands than any other constituency, felt that 10 signing places was appropriate, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which more than 10 would be required anywhere else in the country. There can always be a debate on whether that is the appropriate number. I hope that returning officers will ensure that, for their particular locality, the right number is chosen. I suspect that in my patch, if ever there were to be a recall petition in Carshalton and Wallington, two or three signing places would be the maximum required, as the constituency size is only about four by five miles. However, I have to say that such a petition will not be required in my constituency.
With these amendments, the Electoral Commission will be able to review every recall petition process to help ensure that the spending and donations rules are working in line with the principles. Lords amendment 31 corrects a minor and technical cross-reference in schedule 5 to the Bill.
I look forward to a short debate on these amendments, which I commend to the House.
Let me start by apologising to the House, particularly to the right hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), that I was a little ahead of myself in addressing amendments 23 to 25, which are in the second grouping. I echo what the Deputy Leader of the House said by way of tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his record of work in this House. He has sought not only to work for his constituents but to reconnect the House with the public, which is an important challenge for all of us.
The second group of amendments significantly improves the original legislation. As the Deputy Leader of the House has said, Lords amendment 18 would increase the number of places that the petition officer could designate in their constituency for signing the recall petition, from a maximum of four to a maximum of 10. That is welcome and should ensure that accessing a petition is not an overly difficult process for constituents. Amendment 19 would reduce the length of the period during which the recall petition is available, from eight to six weeks. We support that as it is combined with an increase in the number of signing places. Taken together, those amendments allow for easy access to the petition while giving a realistic time scale for the collection of signatures.
Lords amendment 26 is welcome. It removes the power for the Act itself to be amended by regulations. Lords amendment 32 is especially welcome and important as it requires the Electoral Commission to produce and publish a report on the recall petition process after the end of the petition period in relation to each recall petition. That is important because it enables us to learn from the process as it develops. This is a new and innovative feature of our political system. It is good that the Electoral Commission is tasked with producing and publishing such a report, so that we can learn lessons from each petition and, if necessary, make changes to improve public access to the process.
I agree that the Bill has been improved through the stages of scrutiny in this place and in the House of Lords. I believe it will play a part—probably quite a modest part—in improving the accountability of Parliament and Members of Parliament, and therefore play a small role in renewing our political institutions.