House of Commons
Tuesday 26 April 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. 
10. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. 
14. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision for people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. 
Mental health is taken extremely seriously across the criminal justice system. Mental health services are commissioned by NHS England and by local health boards in Wales, and they are based on locally assessed need. We are working with health partners to improve services in custody and in the community.
Liaison and diversion services are really important in ensuring that people with mental health issues get the help they need. The expansion of the programme is welcome, but about half the country is still not covered, and there has been a long wait for the business case on getting to 100%. Will the Minister explain what the delay is, and will she confirm when all areas expect to have a liaison and diversion service in place?
We have developed liaison and diversion services in partnership with other Departments to divert some offenders away from the criminal justice system and into the support they need. Through that system, clinicians assess those with mental health needs and refer them to the treatment they need—ideally, that happens at the earliest contact with the criminal justice system. The liaison and diversion system is working well, and it is very much a joint government programme. I would like to see it rolled out as early as is convenient, and we will certainly keep the hon. Gentleman updated.
The mental health charity Mind has said that people with mental health problems are sometimes unable to advocate for themselves, so cuts to legal aid will undoubtedly have impacted on their ability to access justice. Should the Government not rethink their refusal to conduct a full post-implementation review of the damaging effects their harsh legal aid cuts are having on some of the most vulnerable?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we are spending £1.6 billion, so this is one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. However, he is absolutely right that vulnerable people should be supported at every point in the criminal justice system. That is why the judiciary are trained to be able to assist those people, and the changes to the court system will support that.
An increased number of survivors of domestic abuse are forced to represent themselves in the family courts as litigants in person. The 2015 Women’s Aid survey found that 25% of women had been directly questioned by the perpetrator in court. Being cross-examined by the perpetrator, who may have beaten and raped them, is undoubtedly causing mental distress. What is the Minister doing to improve access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, as the current system is clearly not working?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses—especially those who have been subjected to domestic abuse—as well as to helping them give the best possible evidence and to seeing offenders brought to justice. That is why we have put in place measures that give witnesses the ability to give evidence using things such as a screen in the courtroom or a live videolink from a separate room or a location away from the court building. The hon. Lady will also know that, following the Court of Appeal judgment, we are taking immediate action to change our arrangements, and we are more than doubling the original time limit for evidence in domestic violence cases, from two to five years, and introducing a provision on the assessment of evidence of financial abuse.
Will the Minister outline how the Government’s prison reform plans will give prison governors greater autonomy, allowing them to tailor services such as mental health provision for the benefit of all prisoners?
We are moving towards full co-commissioning of mental health services between governors and NHS England, meaning that prison leaders can have much more say in defining the services their prisoners need and how the available budget is used. That will begin in reform prisons; if successful, it will apply nationwide from 2017. It will be backed by a high-quality, modern prison estate with rehabilitation and treatment at its core.
The criminal justice system is complicated enough whether someone has mental health issues or not. Will the Minister ensure that victims of crime who have mental health issues are given the particular help they need to submit victim impact statements to the court in the proper way?
Yes; this is absolutely fundamental. Supporting people through their individual circumstances is fundamental to everything we are looking at in the Justice Department at the moment. Judges are trained to be able to support vulnerable witnesses and victims at every stage.
There is a key relationship between mental health and addiction, so can the Minister assure me that when these matters are dealt with in court there is effective referral to effective treatment? When I accompanied the Justice Secretary to Highbury Corner magistrates court, it was evident that some local authorities had provision for drug treatment, particularly for youth offenders, but other authorities did not. Can we ensure that there is proper, uniform provision when people get referred from court?
This is a really crucial point. We are already working across Government to bring together mental health and drug and alcohol treatment at every stage, alongside police, courts and prisons and probation. That includes making sure that appropriate treatments are made available if they are part of sentences with mandated health interventions.
Charities like Langley House Trust offer specialist mental health support to prisoners when they have left prison and have been rehabilitated in the community. It has recently acquired a property on Milton Street in Fleetwood. Will the Minister support my call for it to meet the town council this evening to reassure the local community about its fears and to show that charities like Langley House Trust and communities can work together to ensure that prisoners can be rehabilitated?
I would very much like to look at the circumstances that the hon. Lady has mentioned. Our Transforming Rehabilitation changes have put in place the sort of support that sometimes prisoners who had had very short sentences might never have had before. The community rehabilitation company might be able to give some support on that as well.
The jury have just given their verdicts at the inquest into the death of 96 fans at the Hillsborough disaster. Today is a hugely important day for all those who seek to protect and promote justice. In particular, our thoughts are with those families who have fought for almost 30 years to establish the truth of what happened on that day.
The number of suicides in prison between 2013 and 2015 was 53% higher than over the previous two years and amounted to one person tragically taking their life every four days. Only 40% of those who died last year had been identified as at risk under the assessment, care in custody and teamwork process. Will the Minister explain why so many vulnerable prisoners are not being identified in the first place, and even when they are, why so many are not getting the help that they need?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the Hillsborough report. I understand that the Home Secretary will make a statement on that tomorrow.
The hon. Lady is right to say that every self-inflicted death in prison is an absolute tragedy. We are committing to reduce the number of self-inflicted deaths in prison. There have been no more this year than there were last year, but every single one is absolutely a tragedy. We will overhaul how mental health is treated in prisons, giving governors a much greater say over what services their prisoners need and how the available budget is used. However, it was Labour’s inexplicable refusal to introduce waiting times for mental health care at the same time as introducing them for physical healthcare that set back the cause of mental health for so many years, and in some cases saw people being sentenced to prison in order to access the support that they could not get in the community.
Order. I am very disappointed that the Secretary of State is not sitting at the very heart of his ministerial team. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not lurking uncharacteristically in the shadows—we would not want that.
Prisoners: Meaningful Work
2. What progress his Department has made on ensuring that offenders are engaged in meaningful work in prison. 
6. What progress his Department has made on ensuring that offenders are engaged in meaningful work in prison. 
We want prisons to be places of hard work and high ambition. That is why we will give governors more autonomy and hold them to account by publishing employment outcomes for prisoners so that we can compare results between prisons.
We know how beneficial employment is for the rehabilitation of young adult offenders, in particular. Will my hon. Friend advise the House on specific plans that he has to increase employment in this cohort?
I know how seriously my hon. Friend takes this issue, and she is right to do so. I point her, particularly for young offenders, to construction, where I think that there are huge opportunities. For example, the National Grid young offender scheme has a 10-year reoffending rate of less than 7%. I was with Balfour Beatty, which employs young ex-offenders, in a prison in North Yorkshire last Thursday. We now have two Land Securities construction academies, comprising dry lining, scaffolding and tunnelling. I am assured that the last two activities have been risk assessed. [Laughter.]
What a worthy representative the hon. Gentleman is of his Government.
Is the Minister aware of an outstanding pathfinder project at North Wales Women’s Centre in Rhyl, in my constituency, which offers holistic support to women offenders in line with recommendations in the Corston report? Will he join me in urging the Government to pursue improved provision and rehabilitation for women offenders to help to avoid the cost and family disruption of incarceration for relatively minor offences?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to the good work of the North Wales Women’s Centre, and I commend it for what it does. The Government are committed to supporting vulnerable women to turn their lives around, and we plan to expand that important work.
May I remind the Minister and the recumbent Secretary of State that one of the real problems that we face—it is World Autism Week—is that when prisoners go into prison, they are not assessed properly for autism, literacy skills and many other things? Could we have a system in which autism is important? Many people who go into prison are on the autism scale.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue, and I am extremely proud that the United Kingdom has the world’s first autism-accredited prison in Feltham, which I visited recently with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I want more prisons to go down that route, and he is absolutely right to raise the issue.
The Minister has two laudable objectives: work in prison and reducing reoffending by getting prisoners employment outside prison. How does he intend to achieve those objectives when staffing is under such severe pressure because of the reduction in the number of officers, and when does he intend to produce the guidance to governors on reoffending in their prisons?
We continue to recruit prison officers at full throttle. Last year, we recruited 2,250. I am optimistic about the employment agenda as more and more employers realise that our prisons can be part of the answer to the nation’s skills shortage. We will provide governors with all the guidance that they need as we roll out the reform prison agenda.
23. Will the Minister support employers coming into prisons to offer training, so that offenders can be better placed to find a job when they leave prison and are more likely to stay out of prison? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and more and more employers are coming to do exactly that. I have been to several employment roadshows around the country. I have mentioned Balfour Beatty, and last Thursday the Mitie Foundation was in Durham prison, where six prisoners were offered jobs during the day.
I recently met Shona, a Glasgow lady who started up her own enterprise producing reusable sandwich wrappers. The manufacturing is predominantly done by inmates at Kilmarnock prison, who learn a skill that, we hope, helps their rehabilitation and future job prospects. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to encourage similar local schemes in England and Wales?
I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has mentioned that, because just as employment is important, so are self-employment and enterprise. We have schemes to encourage them, and various Government loans can be drawn down. The Mitie Foundation business challenge day in Durham was also about encouraging business to go down the self-employment route.
I do hope that the Minister can assure the House that the prisoners he mentioned a few moments ago were given their tunnelling skills after they left prison, not as a means of departure. Has he looked at some form of apprenticeship programme within prisons to give vocational skills to those who need them?
I am very keen to develop the avenue down which my hon. Friend is taking me. We could certainly look at a traineeship, which is often the first step towards an apprenticeship, within prisons. I will shortly meet the apprenticeships Minister—the Minister for Skills—to try to take forward this matter.
Will the Minister hold discussions with Justice Ministers in the devolved legislatures so that best practice—particularly as practised in the prison in my constituency, where prisoners near the end of their sentence are relocated outside prison for work—is followed and prisoners can do the productive work that leads to lower reoffending rates?
I will certainly seek to learn from that best practice. If the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to write to me with details of the good work going on in the prison in his constituency, I will certainly look at that.
Another day and another critical report is published by the chief inspector of prisons. This time, it is about Lewes prison. The Minister’s words about meaningful work in prison ring very hollow when inspectors found prisoners at Lewes routinely kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. This follows their report on Wormwood Scrubs, which is described as continuing
“to fall short of expected standards”.
At the time of their inspection, there was “little cause for optimism.” Suicides, self-harm, violence, psychoactive substances and alcohol finds in prisons, and reoffending rates are at an all-time high. The Justice Secretary has been in his job for a year now, and we have had a lot of talk about reform. Is it not time for him to stop talking and to start doing something?
The Government recognise that we have a long way to go to improve our prisons, which is why the Secretary of State has laid out a full reform programme. I went to Wormwood Scrubs last week, and I can tell the hon. Lady that there were a number of jobs fairs in the prison that have led to jobs. We have a good new governor there, and I am hopeful that we will see improvements. I have looked at the Lewes report. There are of course things that we will take further, but there are also some positives, not least the very good relationship in Lewes between the prison and the community rehabilitation company.
3. What plans he has to reform education in prisons. 
11. What plans he has to reform education in prisons. 
17. What plans he has to reform education in prisons. 
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for your tender solicitude earlier, but as you can see, I have an amazingly talented team of Ministers. They are the Arteta, the Oxlade-Chamberlain and the Özil of this Parliament, and for that reason I am very happy to be on the subs bench for most of the time. I am also very happy that you have allowed me to group these questions.
Dame Sally Coates has been leading a review of education in prisons. Her interim report made clear her view that governors should be able to choose their education provider and hold them to account for the service they give.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative the recommendations of the Coates review are acted on in a way that focuses on both paths into employment and the wider non-utilitarian personal and moral benefits that education can bring?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Colleagues may know that as well as being a distinguished Member of Parliament, he has also written for Inside Time, the prisoners newspaper, about the need to improve prison education. His own experience both in music and in education equips him superbly to make the point that education should be about not simply the utilitarian gathering of skills, but opening minds to art, culture and the possibility of new horizons.
As we have heard, we know that better education slows the revolving door between crime and incarceration. Will my right hon. Friend therefore update the House on the announcement made by the Prime Minister about a Teach First-style scheme in prisons?
Absolutely. One of my former colleagues, David Laws, is leading work, along with a formidable social entrepreneur called Natasha Porter, who herself previously worked with Teach First, to establish a new charity. More details will be announced about both the Government funding and how we propose to recruit a generation of talented graduates to work in our prisons.
I understand that the average reading age of prisoners is just 11. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that, when they leave prison, people can read, write and be off drugs?
My hon. Friend strikes at the heart of three of the principal problems that prisoners face. It is very often the case that prisoners have had a very poor educational experience. That is one of the reasons—it does not of course absolve them of moral responsibility—why they can often be drawn into criminal activity. As Dame Sally has made clear, we need to screen every prisoner effectively when they arrive in custody so that we can ascertain the level of skills that they have, and we need to judge prisons on the value that they add. As for removing the taint of drugs or substance abuse, that is a huge problem and one to which we will be returning.
But in Ofsted’s annual report, Sir Michael Wilshaw highlighted the fact that provision for learning, skills and work in the prison estate was among some of the worst available in the higher education sector. What more is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that that vital part of prisoners’ rehabilitation is brought up to scratch, as it should be?
Michael Wilshaw has been a brilliant chief inspector, and he is absolutely right about the situation in our prisons. There are some outstanding examples of educational provision in prison, but, sadly, too few. One problem has been that a small group of providers has been responsible for providing education in prison, but large and inflexible contracts have meant that those providers have not necessarily been as responsive to the needs of individual prisoners as they should have been. That is changing, thanks to the Coates report. One thing that will not change, however, is the amount that we spend on education, which has been safeguarded and ring-fenced.
Are there any formal links between the Prison Service and further education colleges to develop the apprenticeship schemes that we heard about earlier?
I am very anxious to expand apprenticeships in prison, and have been working with my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, who is responsible for apprenticeships, and of course the prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), to do just that. One challenge is that, although, as I say, there are excellent examples of good practice, current further education providers in prisons have not been as responsive as they should have been in every case.
22. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that educational progress in prisons will form one of the metrics of the new league tables for prisons? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that if we give people greater autonomy—governors, in particular—they need to be held to account. It is absolutely vital that, in the new prison accountability measures and league tables, they are held to account for educational performance and the value they add.
The Secretary of State’s personal commitment to this issue is very clear from his excellent interview in Inside Time, which a lot of us read. Does he accept that, as well as provider quality, one of the biggest obstacles is the fact that in the current prison estate prisoners are locked up for great lengths of time, as the physical facilities needed are not there? That makes it difficult to achieve anything on this. Will he assure us that this issue will be integral to the prison renewal programme and the new estate and new properties coming forward?
The Chair of the Justice Committee is absolutely right, as is the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), to point out that it is simply not good enough that prisoners are in their cells for up to 22 or 23 hours at a time. Time out of cell is a key indicator of how effectively a prison is run—it is not the only one, but it is really important. My hon. Friend is also absolutely right to point out that when we think about new prison design we should concentrate on the time out of cell. I was privileged to visit a prison just outside Berlin where prisoners spend far longer out of their cells, either at work or in education, than in most institutions in this country. We can learn a great deal from the Germans.
Personal Injury Law
4. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of planned changes to personal injury law and whiplash claims on access to justice. 
The Government remain concerned about the number and cost of whiplash claims, and in particular the risk that unmeritorious claims push up the cost of insurance for customers. New proposals have been announced. We will consult on them in due course, and they will be accompanied by an impact assessment.
There still appears to be no independent verification of the fraud culture and pandemic of claims cited in the autumn statement as the reason to raise the small claims limit for personal injury. In fact, not one motor insurer even mentioned fraud as a material risk when reporting their annual returns to the stock market. What independent evidence does the Minister have of a fraud culture? Would it not be more effective to legislate to stop the ambulance-chasing claims management companies making unsolicited calls, rather than denying justice to those who have been injured through no fault of their own?
We should address both angles. The Chancellor has already announced proposals to remove the right to claim damages for pain and suffering for very minor claims and to increase the small claims limit to £5,000. That is important, as it will help us cut the cost of resolving cases. As I said, we will consult on the reforms, but, critically, they will save the insurance industry £1 billion annually. The industry is committed to passing those savings on to customers, which will reduce premiums by £50.
20. Does the Minister share my concern that car insurance premiums are £93 a year higher than they need to be thanks to fraudulent claims, and that claims here are orders of magnitude higher than in Europe? Does he agree that the new limit will go a huge way towards combating this costly and invidious practice? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As we move forward to the consultation and take into account all the evidence, the key thing is to make sure that there is proper access to justice but also that we cut the cost of insurance premiums for consumers. That is what we intend to do.
24. If these reforms are so positive, why is the president of the Law Society gravely concerned that they may undermine the rights of ordinary citizens to obtain compensation for negligence? 
The Law Society quite properly protects the professional interest of its members. We must consider all evidence that we receive and look at this in the round, rather than just take into account what the lawyers think.
Even if the number of fraudulent claims is as high as the 7% that some believe it is, given that courts already have the power to strike out fraudulent claims, why should the innocent majority of genuine claimants be penalised because of the potentially criminal behaviour of a few?
Our reforms are precisely aimed at weeding out spurious, frivolous or trivial claims, and ensuring that we preserve access to justice for important and meritorious claims. At the same time we must ensure that people who pay their insurance premiums year in, year out, are not penalised by those who are taking the system for a ride.
Dangerous Driving: Sentencing
Question 6, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Lady was quite close, but we are on Question 5. She is ahead of herself, and not for the first time I am sure.
5. What progress he has made on reviewing sentencing for causing death by dangerous driving. 
The Government are committed to ensuring that we have robust and consistent punishment for those who cause people to be killed or seriously injured on our roads, and we intend to consult on further proposals this year.
I was unnecessarily keen, as always, Mr Speaker. I asked that question on behalf of one of my constituents, 21-year-old Alex Jeffery, who was killed by a dangerous driver. The sentence given was only four years and three months, and we all know that it will probably end up being less than that. Will there be a time when sentences for causing death by dangerous driving are the same as those for murder? A car can be a weapon in the wrong hands.
I am very aware of the tragic case of my hon. Friend’s constituent, and our deepest sympathies go to his family. Since 2010 the custody rate for causing death by dangerous driving has risen from 52% to 61%, and the average prison sentence has risen by around six months to just under four years. We will look again at that area, and my hon. Friend is right to say that there should be commensurable consistency with sentencing for homicide offences.
The review of sentencing in this area was announced in May 2014, so simply to say that there will be “consultation” this year is not good enough. Will the Minister give the House a clear date, and will he consider ending the charge of causing death by careless driving, which denies families justice?
As I have said, we will consult this year and consider the full range of driving offences. It is important to ensure that there is proper accountability, as well as consistency between bespoke sentences for offences in this area and wider sentencing, particularly for homicide offences.
One key driver of deaths on the road, and indeed all dangerous driving offences, is alcohol. Given the enormous success of the pilot in Croydon, with 93% compliance, and the compelling evidence from the United States, will the Minister consider alcohol abstinence monitoring orders—otherwise known as compulsory sobriety—as a mandatory punishment for those who are convicted of driving offences when alcohol is involved?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point that is grounded in practice from overseas, and we would certainly be willing to consider that during our consultation.
Courts and Tribunals: Technology
7. What progress has been made on the modernisation programme to upgrade technology in the courts and tribunal estate. 
I assure the hon. Lady that significant progress has been made to upgrade technology in the courts and tribunal estate. The vast majority of our criminal courts are now equipped to work digitally, and we are reducing reliance on paper bundles. New digital services such as in-court presentation, shared drives and wi-fi are enabling professional users, the judiciary and court staff to work digitally.
As the Minister knows, the magistrates court and the family and county court in Halifax are due to close. An answer to a recent written question revealed that overall investment plans for the courts and tribunal estate have not changed or been updated following the announcement that 86 courts were to close across the country. What plans are there to update the digitalisation programme to include measures that ensure that justice is accessible in areas that are soon to be without a court?
I know the hon. Lady takes this issue very seriously, and I want to assure her that it is at the top of the agenda in my regular meetings with the senior management of the Courts and Tribunals Service. A lot is happening, however, not all of which gets into the public domain. For example, we are reducing reliance on paper bundles in the criminal courts, and the digital case system in Southwark Crown court now holds over 94,000 pages of information that would otherwise have been printed in triplicate. Also, the new national automated rota system for magistrates, which is now live for 2,500 magistrates, has eliminated a complex and error-prone manual process.
I welcome the upgrading of technology in the traditional court setting—for example, for civil claims, the Rolls Building now takes claims on line—but will the Secretary of State also be implementing the more radical proposals of the Civil Justice Council to include an online dispute resolution service for low-value claims?
We are keen to have the most up-to-date and modern courts system in the world—one fit for the 21st century—and we are ruling nothing out.
The National Audit Office warned against focusing all our attention on technology, and not users, so what is being done to encourage buy-in from the legal profession and to help with training?
First, we need to recognise the world we live in, which is technologically advanced, and we are working closely with users, lawyers and everyone else involved in the legal process. I am happy to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that, at the moment, the buy-in from the judiciary, the lawyers and the public is very optimistic.
G4S: Secure Training Centres
8. What recent discussions he has had with G4S on its proposal to sell its contracts for the operation of secure training centres. 
The MOJ has been in regular contact with G4S. We are closely monitoring the progress of the potential sale to ensure that it does not jeopardise the delivery of care at its secure training centres.
I am sure the Minister agrees that the breach of care at Medway secure training centre demonstrates the risks involved when a state duty of care is entrusted to a private organisation. How will he ensure that any transferee of the contracts observes the duty of care more robustly, and what assessment has he made of transferring such contracts back to the public sector?
The MOJ retains its rights over determining any transfer of the contracts from G4S, and the Secretary of State appointed an independent improvement board at Medway, whose recommendations we will consider and which will no doubt be of value for the future. Finally, the Charlie Taylor review is looking at youth justice and how to put education at its heart by creating a safe and nurturing environment in which people can make real educational progress.
Next week, we will see a new contract holder for the Rainsbrook secure training centre. The contract has been awarded to an American company called MTC Novo. Given G4S’s appalling record at Rainsbrook and Medway, how can the Minister justify the contract being awarded to a company that has one of its American prisons under judicial oversight, owing to “cruel and unusual punishments” being administered by its staff?
I think there is some dispute over MTC’s American history, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on that point. We are agnostic on provision; we want the best possible provision. As he will know, G4S runs extremely high-quality prisons in Wales, such as Parc prison at Bridgend. I also remind him that the contract with G4S ran under three successive Labour Governments.
Access to Justice
9. What steps the Government plan to take to improve access to justice. 
The Government are determined to deliver a swifter and more certain justice system that is more accessible to the public. We are investing £700 million in our courts and tribunals, and our reforms will digitise the justice system to speed up processes and provide services online; remove unnecessary hearings, paper forms and duplication; cut costs for litigants; and make justice more accessible. Moreover, they will remove hearings from the courtroom that do not need to be there; ensure we make full use of judges, courtrooms and legal teams only where necessary; and support people in resolving their disputes by means of more informal and less costly remedies.
The UK Government are proposing fee increases of up to £800 for a full hearing in asylum and immigration tribunals. This means that applicants seeking to challenge decisions on their right to enter or remain in the UK will struggle to afford this, despite the Home Office’s often getting the decision wrong. Does the Minister agree with me that access to justice should never depend on an individual’s ability to pay?
It is important that we have a court and tribunal system that either pays for itself or goes towards paying for itself. In many cases, there is a remission system to which people can apply, as appropriate under the circumstances.
Citizens advice bureaux, including those in Havant, play an important role in helping people to access justice and to understand the legal system. Will the Minister join me in congratulating them on their work and in encouraging more people to use them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Citizens Advice service provides invaluable advice to the population. I wholeheartedly congratulate citizens advice bureaux, and I suspect I speak for the whole House in commending them for all the wonderful work they do.
15. The Supreme Court has found that the Justice Secretary acted without moral authority and in a legal vacuum. Will he now ensure that there will be access to justice for those who do not meet the residence test? 
The Government are disappointed with the findings of the Supreme Court on the residence test, particularly when the last Government listened to Parliament and the public, and we made exceptions to that test. I am minded to say that there are millions of people across the country who take the view that it is right that there should be some sort of connection with Britain for people who seek to have their legal aid funds paid for by the British public.
19. Claudia Lawrence from York was last seen on 18 March 2009; she is still missing, as are around 2,500 people in the UK. In the midst of their grief, families have to battle to deal with financial and property affairs, and they need access to justice. There is a simple solution: guardianship on behalf of the missing person. The Government promised this over a year ago. Will the Secretary of State commit to putting it in this year’s Queen’s Speech? 
That is a very good example of what I call “shoe-horning”. The hon. Lady shoe-horned in a later question into this one, and was just about in order. She is very ingenious.
The hon. Lady raises a very good point. There is a huge amount of sympathy across the political divide for the individual about whom she spoke. She will appreciate, however, that it would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt what will appear in the Queen’s Speech.
In order to avoid discriminating against people with disabilities, will the Minister confirm that personal independence payments will not be used in calculations that determine whether or not someone is entitled to help with employment tribunal cases?
Much consideration is given when assessing the criteria to be taken into account. The Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions and others are involved, and it would be inappropriate for me to make a decision right now from the Dispatch Box in the way the hon. Lady asks me to do.
I listened very carefully to the Minister’s previous answer, but I still find it very difficult to understand that while this Conservative Government voted not to take in 3,000 refugee children, the Ministry of Justice is proposing to raise written first-tier immigration and asylum tribunal fees by a massive 512%. How on earth are vulnerable people going to be able to challenge what are quite often errors by the Home Office? Will the Minister please tell me where the justice is in this?
I simply say to the hon. Lady that there are a series of exemptions for vulnerable people. We need to recognise that the court system has to be paid for, and it is perfectly reasonable for the British taxpayer to expect those who use our court system to make a contribution towards its running.
12. What progress he has made on reducing the cost to the public purse of legal aid. 
Before the process of legal aid reform began in 2010, our legal aid system cost the taxpayer over £2 billion each year. During the period 2014-15, the legal aid spend was £1.64 billion.
Ours is still the only country in the world that pays foreign nationals to sue our own soldiers, and last week the Supreme Court told us that the Government did not have the power to curtail legal aid for that purpose. The only solution, apparently, is primary legislation. Will the Minister tell us how he intends to make progress on this matter?
I refer my hon. Friend to some of the comments that I made earlier. However, he has made a good point about the residence test. He will appreciate that, while I have enormous sympathy with his view—as do many other people, including, in particular, millions in the country outside—we for our part await the written judgment of the Court, and will reflect on it.
Every solicitor who practises in England and Wales, as I did, has a client account. In some jurisdictions in north America, the interest earned on moneys held in client accounts is devoted to legal aid. Would the Government consider introducing such an arrangement in England and Wales?
We already have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world. As for what solicitors’ firms do with the interest on client accounts, the regulation of the legal profession is independent of the Government.
When it comes to legal aid, I wonder what help will be given to the family of Lance Corporal Young. They have been refused legal aid and therefore cannot take civil action against John Downey, the republican bomber who is believed to have been behind the Hyde Park bomb, and who was let off as a result of the “on the run” letters.
All decisions on whether or not legal aid is paid are made independently of Ministers. They are made by the Legal Aid Agency, on the basis of individual cases and individual facts. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I cannot comment in the House on a specific case.
British Bill of Rights
13. When he plans to publish a consultation on a British Bill of Rights. 
We look forward to presenting proposals for a Bill of Rights in due course, and we will consult on them fully.
The Minister will recall saying to me, on 30 June,
“the United Kingdom has a strong tradition of respect for human rights that long predates the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government are proud of that tradition and will be true to it in delivering our reforms. As I explained…our plans do not involve us leaving the convention. That is not our objective.”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 429WH.]
Is that still Government policy?
The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right when he said last month that the Human Rights Act was not the last word on human rights. I look forward to debating the proposals with him.
The Government’s position on the European convention on human rights remains clear. We cannot rule out withdrawal forever, but our forthcoming proposals do not include it, not least because we have been clearly advised that if we withdrew from the convention while remaining a member of the European Union, that would be an open invitation to the Luxembourg Court to fill the gap, which could have far worse consequences, and also because the convention is written into the Good Friday agreement.
We are confident that we can replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights and reform our relationship with the Strasbourg Court, and that is precisely what we intend to deliver.
A condition of entry for new applicants to join the European Union is that they must be signatories to the European convention on human rights. Would putting into practice the Home Secretary’s welcome announcement yesterday of what I presume is now the Government’s policy to withdraw from the convention require us to leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend is tempting me—coaxing me, I might say—down a route that I am not going to take. I have set out the Government’s position very clearly, and our current plans, at least, do not involve withdrawing from the convention.
The Minister says that he and the Government want to stay in the convention, but we know that he wants to leave the European Union. The Home Secretary told us yesterday that she wants to leave the convention, but she wants to remain in the European Union. Should we understand that the Government are as divided on the question of ECHR membership as they are on the question of EU membership?
SNP Members have been asking for a long time when the Government will publish their consultation paper on repeal of the Human Rights Act. Does the Minister understand that the Home Secretary’s statement yesterday has caused particular concern in Scotland, because in Scotland the convention is embedded in the devolution settlement, as it is in the other devolved Administrations? Does he appreciate that the convention could never be withdrawn from without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, and that there is no question of that consent ever being given?
I hope that I have reassured the hon. and learned Lady by reiterating the Government’s position.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to associate myself with the remarks made earlier by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). Today we had the decision by the jury sitting in the inquest into the tragic death of 96 people at Hillsborough. It has been a terrible tragedy, and it has taken a long time for those families to arrive at justice. Today is a significant day and I simply want to place on record my thanks to the coroner and his team and to the jury for their work.
Victims of domestic violence need a modern family court system that provides special, well considered safety measures for people who are directly facing the perpetrators of those horrific crimes. Can the Minister assure me that the Department is doing everything possible to ensure that we have a modern family court system that protects vulnerable individuals at those times?
Yes, the Government are absolutely committed to supporting all vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, especially those who have been subjected to domestic abuse, to help them to give the best possible evidence so that offenders can be brought to justice. That is why we have put measures in place including, as I said earlier, the ability to give evidence while screened from the accused in the courtroom, by live video link from a separate room within the court building or from a location away from the court building altogether. Our changes to the courts will only help this.
In a year of saying little and doing less on his flagship manifesto policy of repealing the Human Rights Act, the one thing that the Lord Chancellor has made clear is his position on the European convention on human rights. To quote his official spokesman in February,
not “our current plans”—
“do not involve leaving the convention”.
We now know that the Home Secretary said yesterday that we should leave the ECHR regardless of the result of the EU referendum. So who is right on this? What is today’s policy, and who is in charge of justice policy? It does not seem to be the Lord Chancellor.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind inquiry as to my welfare. The policy is as was spelled out earlier by my admirable colleague the Minister with responsibility for human rights, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab).
Let me make sure that I have got this right. We have the leaders of the Tory Brexit campaign saying that we will stay in the ECHR, while the Home Secretary is explaining her support for remain by saying that we should leave the convention altogether. Is that not a shambles? Was not the former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), right to say that the Lord Chancellor’s “single-issue obsession” with Brexit means that he is
“no longer seeing the wood for the trees”
and that he is relying on arguments that are “unfounded and untenable”?
I am, as so often, at one with my right hon. and learned Friend. Both of us believe that we should remain within the European convention on human rights. Both of us also recognise that a far greater threat to our liberty and sovereignty is the European Court of Justice, which he has described as an institution that is “predatory” and often inimical to Britain’s interests. That is a view I share.
T3. In view of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association’s campaign concerning certain cases relating to taxi and private hire drivers refusing carriage to guide dog owners, will the Minister tell the House what the Government’s position is on this important issue? 
I am happy to set out the Government’s position on this important issue. It is an offence under section 168 of the Equality Act 2010 to refuse to take an assistance dog in a taxi or private hire vehicle. The penalty is a maximum of £1,000. As far as sentencing is concerned, my hon. Friend will appreciate that that is a matter for the judiciary, which of course acts independently.
T2. Last week, the Justice Committee was at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where the judges praised the UK for incorporating the Court’s principles into our law to provide effective redress. However, the Lord Chancellor wants to tear up the Human Rights Act and it now looks as though the Home Secretary wants to leave the convention altogether. I know that an attempt was made to get an answer to this question earlier, but can we actually have some clarity on this? To the outside world, it looks as though the Conservatives have a blind spot in relation to anything containing the words “European” and “human rights”. 
The European convention can be implemented in UK law, but we have to trust the Supreme Court to apply it. It is odd that the Labour party, which set up the British Supreme Court, is so keen to subordinate it to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
T4. Will the Minister confirm that when the Government bring forward their plans for a British Bill of Rights, they will restore power to the British Supreme Court and British common sense to the human rights debate? 
My hon. Friend makes that point powerfully. It is precisely one of the issues that we want to address.
T6. The Joint Committee on Human Rights was also in Strasbourg last week and heard testimony from representatives of countries that do not enjoy the tradition of stable democracy and human rights that we have in this country. Their message was clear: Britain provides leadership and inspiration in a troubled world. What kind of message do Ministers think they are now sending by providing such confusion and ambivalence over Britain’s commitment to the European convention on human rights? 
The Government led the world on human rights before the Human Rights Act and will do so afterwards.
T5. Too many prisoners enter and leave prison without qualifications. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that prisoners get recognised qualifications in prison, so that they can have a second chance and a second career when they leave jail? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that there should be progression. Many prisoners secure level 1 or 2 qualifications, but we want to ensure that they can go on to pursue either apprenticeships or, in some cases, even degrees.
T7. A report by Citizens Advice states that“nine out of 10 people who have gone through the family courts, under new rules that heavily restrict access to legal aid, suffer strain in their mental and physical health, working lives and finances”,which is surely unacceptable. What will the Minister do to put that right? 
As was said earlier, much is being done for people who need legal aid, particularly in the family courts. Our judges are aware of the difficulties of the people before them and are trained to help and assist them. The Government have also provided much money and support for litigants in person. People talk about more legal aid, but it is important to remember that it is taxpayers’ money and to recognise that we spend £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is one of the largest such budgets in the world.
T8. What steps are the Government taking to identify and remove preachers who are radicalising prison inmates? 
My hon. Friend draws attention to an important issue. Shortly after being appointed, I asked Ian Acheson, a former prison governor with experience of working with the Home Office, to consider radicalisation and extremism in our prisons. He recently submitted a report to me, and we will be acting on it and publishing it shortly.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) highlighted the division between Government Members on membership of the European convention on human rights and the European Union. Does the Minister agree that that sends a message to my constituents that a single, stand-alone Bill of Rights would not be fit in a 21st-century system of legal governance? Does he also agree that we need something more, which is to remain part of the European Union and the ECHR?
I have set out the position on the ECHR clearly. When it comes to a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act, we will consult widely, including the devolved Administrations.
T9. Last year, 15 teenagers were tragically stabbed on the streets of London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we elect a Mayor of London on 5 May with an action plan to drive knives off the streets and to ensure tougher sentences? 
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Under a Conservative Mayor of London, tough action has been taken against crime. That is why it is vital that the Conservative candidate secures election on 5 May instead of the radical, divisive figure whom Labour has chosen as its candidate.
Is the Secretary of State in a position to inform the House when he expects the review of education in prisons conducted by Dame Sally Coates to be published?
It will be after 5 May, when I hope our Conservative candidate is returned as Mayor of London and also when I hope that Ruth Davidson takes over as leader of the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament. It will be a triple reason to celebrate.
A constituent of mine and her sisters were sexually abused by their father over many years. He is now in prison. The sisters were eligible for compensation, but my constituent was not as her abuse stopped before 1979, yet she continues to suffer the trauma of the abuse. Will the Minister please look again at this unfair rule?
My hon. Friend kindly informed me of this case, and I would like to meet his constituents, if possible. This is difficult because even when the 1964 scheme was amended in 1979 this was not done retrospectively. I can understand what the family are going through, but it is a difficult situation when a line is drawn and a date is put in any compensation scheme. It has not been retrospective in the past, and probably will not be in the future.
What use is made of ex-prisoners who have undergone mental health treatment in our prisons to feed back into our mental health service and perhaps support current prisoners who are undergoing this treatment?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. Ex-prisoners are very useful in rehabilitation, drug abuse and other services, and we will absolutely explore what further role they can play in mental health services as we progress work in that area.
Several hon. Members rose—
The hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) is to be congratulated on her marathon on Sunday. She is looking in remarkably good nick.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Perhaps my colleagues would like to join me next year, as I try to smash my time of seven hours and 17 minutes.
Last month, I visited a prison in Nottingham that serves as a primary prison for many offenders in Derby. Today, an ongoing inquest into the death of a Derby man who died in his cell revealed that traces of legal highs were found in his body. What assurances can the Minister give me that the Department is doing all it can to tackle the levels of legal highs in our prison system?
Obviously, my hon. Friend raises a tragic case, and I can tell her that it will shortly be a criminal offence to possess lethal highs, as I prefer to call them, in prison. In addition, we are starting a testing regime. Together, those two measures will help us get on top of this evil trade in our prisons.
Understanding the impact of crimes on victims should be central to education in prisons. What steps are Ministers taking to help develop that agenda, particularly among prisoners who have committed the most serious crimes?
I believe the whole House would think that restorative justice, and victims’ involvement in it, is crucial. That will be part of the victims’ law proposals that we will come forward with in this Parliament.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to early publication of the report on counter-radicalisation policy within prisons? He will understand the significance of this issue, and the Justice Committee is carrying out an inquiry into prisoner safety as part of that. Will he and his ministerial team come to update us on progress on that report?
I would be delighted to do that. The Chairman of the Select Committee’s question gives me an opportunity to confirm that we will be publishing the report in a suitably edited form, because it contains some material that cannot be shared in the public domain as it relates to sensitive security issues. I would, however, be delighted to accept an invitation from the Select Committee to talk to it, both about the problems that have been identified and the steps we need to take. I know how much the Committee wants to ensure that appropriate steps are taken, and I look forward to appearing before it as soon as is possible.
A National Probation Service report on the murder of my constituent’s sister has just been published. Davinia Loynton was brutally murdered by an offender who had been released on licence, following a conviction for previous violent crime. The report shows that there were a number of failings by the NPS. Will the Minister review the serious further offence report into this tragic death and ensure that Dale Loynton is satisfied that the NPS is doing what needs to be done to ensure that the public are properly protected?
I am sure the whole House would want to pass on their deepest sympathies to the family of Davinia Loynton following this horrific incident. Although the serious further offence review makes it clear that Kevin Hyden bears the full responsibility for Miss Loynton’s death, it also found that the NPS could have done more. As such, we will make sure that the NPS does all it can to learn the lessons from this tragedy so that future operational practice can be improved.
Having represented many innocent drivers who have been caught up in fraudulent low-velocity impact claims, I have seen how rackets are operating to exploit the low thresholds, and the technical and legal loopholes. I therefore welcome the rise in the small claims threshold. Will the Minister confirm whether there are any plans to explore reform of the standard of proof, evidential requirements and causation to make it even more difficult for such unmeritorious claims to succeed?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We will have a proper consultation on that in due course, and she raises the kind of issue I imagine we can incorporate and consider at length.
European Convention on Human Rights: UK Membership
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Office if she will make a statement on the UK’s membership of the European convention on human rights.
I am answering this urgent question today on behalf of the Home Secretary, but my right hon. Friend will be making a statement to this House on the Hillsborough inquest findings tomorrow. Mr Speaker, I hope that it is in order for me to make a brief comment on that subject before I turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
As the House knows, the inquest jury has now returned its verdict. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in thanking the jurors for the considerable public service that they have performed. As a result, this morning I have written to Members advising that care be exercised when making public statements, to ensure that nothing is said that suggests that any individual or organisation has been found to be criminally liable. Ultimately, a jury in a criminal trial may need to decide that issue, and it is important that nothing is said that may prejudice the right to a fair trial, or make it more difficult to pursue appropriate prosecutions.
On the subject of this urgent question, the United Kingdom is a founder member of the European convention on human rights, and lawyers from the United Kingdom were instrumental in the drafting of the European convention. We are signatories to the convention and we have been clear throughout that we have no objections to the text of the convention; it is indeed a fine document and the Government are firmly of the view that the rights that it enshrines are rights that British citizens and others should continue to hold as part of a reformed human rights framework.
However, this Government were elected with a mandate to reform and modernise the UK human rights framework: the 2015 Conservative party manifesto said that a Conservative Government would scrap the Human Rights Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights. As with all elements of our manifesto, we intend to meet that commitment in the course of this Parliament. Members will be aware that we have set out our intention to consult on the future of the UK’s human rights framework both in this country and abroad, and that consultation will be published in due course. We will fully consult on our proposals before introducing legislation; in doing so, we will welcome constructive contributions from all parts of the House.
The intention of reform is to protect human rights, to prevent the abuse of human rights law and to restore some common sense to the system. The Prime Minister has been clear throughout that we
“rule out absolutely nothing in getting that done”.
Our preference, though, is to seek to achieve reforms while remaining members of the European convention. Our reforms will focus on the expansionist approach to human rights by the Strasbourg court and under the Human Rights Act, but although we want to remain part of the ECHR, we will not stay in at any cost. We have been clear that if we cannot achieve a satisfactory settlement within the ECHR, we may have no option but to consider withdrawal.
However, the question before the people of the United Kingdom in June—again, thanks to this Government—is not about our future membership of the European convention on human rights, but about our future membership of the European Union. It is important that, in taking that significant decision, people do not conflate those separate questions.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear: the United Kingdom has a proud tradition of respect for human rights that long pre-dates the Human Rights Act—and, indeed, the European convention on human rights. Any reforms that we make will maintain that protection. Those are not just words. This Government and the coalition Government who preceded them have a strong record on human rights, both here and abroad.
We brought forward the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to protect some of the most vulnerable and exploited people in our society and to punish those responsible for that exploitation. We have fought to promote and protect human rights internationally. We are one of the leading members of the UN Human Rights Council, leading negotiations to set up international investigations into human rights abuses in Syria and elsewhere. We have transformed the fight against sexual violence in conflict, persuading more than150 states to agree for the first time that sexual violence should be recognised as a grave breach of the Geneva convention. We have been leading the world on the business and human rights agenda: we are one of the first states to argue for the UN’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”, and the first state in the world to implement them through a national action plan.
That is a track record of which we can justifiably be proud, and it is that track record on which we will build when we set out proposals for the reform of the human rights framework in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the Attorney General for that answer. I should make it clear that I hold him in the very highest regard; I enjoyed working with him as a Minister in the previous Government. But he is not the Home Secretary, and he should not be responding to the urgent question today. The Home Secretary was the one who could make the speech yesterday and she can, apparently, come and make a statement tomorrow. She should be here today. Yesterday she went rogue; today she has gone missing.
There is total confusion at the heart of Government policy. What the Attorney General has just said at the Dispatch Box contradicts clearly what has been said previously. Yesterday the Home Secretary said:
“The ECHR can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals – and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights. So regardless of the EU referendum, my view is this: if we want to reform human rights laws in this country, it isn’t the EU we should leave but the ECHR and the jurisdiction of its court.”
That contradicts what the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who has responsibility for human rights, previously told the House at Justice questions and in a succession of Westminster Hall debates. On 30 June, he said:
“Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective”—[Official Report, 30 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 426WH.]
Clearly, there has been a major shift in Government policy and this House should have been the first to hear about it. The Home Secretary tells us that she wants to remain in the European Union but leave the convention; the Under-Secretary of State for Justice wants to leave the European Union but remain in the convention; and the Lord Chancellor wants to leave the European Union, stay in the convention, but ignore the jurisprudence of the Court. Thank goodness we do not have the instability of a coalition Government any more.
It has been apparent for some time that everything in Government thinking is seen through the prism of the European Union referendum. Now it seems that the Home Secretary has taken that to the next level. She has an eye on the next election—the Conservative leadership election.
To be a member of the European Union requires us to be a party to the European convention. How is the Home Secretary’s speech yesterday consistent with that policy? The devolved settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have the European convention hard-wired into them. They are required to abide by the convention. How can that be done if the United Kingdom as a country is no longer a party to the convention? Does the Attorney General, a decent man who genuinely respects human rights, honestly want to see his country and mine stand alone with Belarus against the convention?
May I start by returning the right hon. Gentleman’s compliments? I very much enjoyed serving in government with him and I have the highest regard for him as an individual. He is a little unfair about coalition government; in my experience, it was not unstable much of the time. We should recognise—he and I, and all other Members of the House—that what we did in coalition was to produce pieces of legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act that recognised the real actions we could take in pursuit of defending human rights, and this Government will continue that course.
It is not right to say, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, that there is confusion on this policy. I have set it out and he was here in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Justice did the same. There is no confusion here. What has been said throughout—by the Prime Minister and all other Ministers—is that we rule nothing out in seeking to achieve the policy objective that we have set and for which we have a clear mandate from the recent general election.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about membership of the European Union. It is not, I am afraid, in any way clear that membership of the European Union requires membership of the European convention on human rights; as with most of these things—he and I are both lawyers—he will understand that there are considerable legal complexities, so that is certainly not a clear statement that I or he can make.
Let me simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman: what the Home Secretary was doing yesterday—in a speech with which, I suspect, he broadly agreed, and which I certainly found made a very persuasive case for remaining in the European Union—was setting out some of the difficulties with the human rights landscape as it stands. We think there are considerable difficulties: there is an absence of common sense and there have been cases that have demonstrated that human rights law is headed in the wrong direction. Restoring that common sense is the objective of the entire Government.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that our fight against terrorism and excessive immigration has been persistently undermined by not only the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg but the European Court of Justice adjudicating on the charter of fundamental rights, and that the only answer is to leave the European Union?
I certainly agree that there have been cases in both Luxembourg and Strasbourg with which we have found difficulty and which we have sought to contest. It is certainly right, as my hon. Friend suggests, that not everything about our membership of the European Union is wonderful, and the Home Secretary made that point very clearly yesterday. However, it is a question of deciding whether, on balance, it is right or wrong to be in the European Union—whether, on balance, it is better or worse for the United Kingdom to be there—and he and I have come to different conclusions on that.
On my hon. Friend’s specific point about the charter of fundamental rights, he will know that the charter covers areas where European law is applicable; it does not cover other areas, so it is not quite the same as our membership of the European convention on human rights.
One thing we can say about this Government is that we are not short of a choice of policy on the European convention on human rights. The Prime Minister reminded us yesterday that he wants to see reform of the ECHR—not, we note, withdrawal. The former Attorney General, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who is on the sensible wing of the Tory party, called the ECHR a
“central pillar of foreign policy.”
When the Ministry of Justice clarified its position in February—that took some time—its line was:
“Our plans do not involve leaving the convention”—
and the Justice Secretary has repeated that today. However, the Home Secretary was absolutely clear yesterday that we should leave the ECHR, whatever the outcome of the EU referendum. What status do the Home Secretary’s remarks have? Are they Government policy? Do they bind the MOJ and the Government, or is it just the Home Office that is coming out of the convention?
It is always a pleasure to see the Attorney General, and I mean no disrespect when I say that this is rather like “Hamlet” without the prince—or the princess. Why could the Home Secretary, or even the Lord Chancellor, not have clarified Government policy, as they have caused the confusion? [Interruption.] It would be comic if it were not tragic.
The Home Secretary has set out a series of legal nonsenses. She claims there is no connection between the EU and the ECHR, but it is a requirement of EU membership that countries joining the EU sign up to the ECHR. She elides the fact that European Court of Human Rights judgments are advisory and that the UK Parliament remains sovereign. She wrongly dismisses the importance of Britain’s membership of the convention as an example to Putin and his ilk, downplaying this country’s record on human rights and its influence in Europe. She also ignores the success of the Human Rights Act in incorporating the ECHR into UK law, giving a remedy to vulnerable people suffering discrimination.
I thought the legal, moral and practical arguments had persuaded the Government to abandon attempts to leave the ECHR. We are not going to deal with the legal and technical arguments today, but will the Attorney General say when the consultation will be published so that we can get down to that? Will he at least clarify today what the Government’s policy is? If what the Home Secretary said is not Government policy, what is the status of her remarks? Are they just a stump speech for the Tory party leadership?
It is, of course, an immense pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman too. I pass over what I am sure my hon. Friends, at least, will regard as the supreme irony of being lectured by a member of the Labour party about unity and common purpose.
What the hon. Gentleman will find is that I am saying, the Home Secretary is saying and the Lord Chancellor is saying that the status quo on human rights law is not acceptable so we are bringing forward proposals for reform. We will do that when they are ready. The contrast is marked between what Conservative Members say, which is that there is a deficit of common sense in much of human rights law, and what Labour Members say, which is that the status quo is fine, all is well and we should leave it all alone. The hon. Gentleman will find that many of his constituents, like many of mine, do not think the status quo is acceptable and do wish to see reform. That is what we had a mandate for in the general election, and that is what this Government will deliver.
Does not this unholy muddle demonstrate the trouble we get into when we contract out our policy to the tabloid leader writers? Is it not the truth that the simplicities that suit them override this immensely complex issue and that our nation should send out a message about our commitment to human rights through an unswerving commitment to the convention? The Court has been made to work better over the course of the past four years, not least by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in Brighton in 2012. The Court is learning its lessons; let us work with it and not undermine it, and human rights, in the process.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that these are not simple matters and that there is huge complexity here, and it would be quite wrong to attempt to reduce this debate to simplistic statements. However, it is also right that our commitment to human rights is not limited to our signature on pieces of paper but is explained and demonstrated in the actions that we take.
I have set out some of the actions that this Government have taken as well as those that the previous Government took, in conjunction with the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and others. I have mentioned some of the things that we have achieved, and there have been others. We were the Government, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who reduced the maximum period that someone can spend in detention without charge to 28 days. We were the Government, too, who abolished ID cards. These are pro-human-rights measures. We demonstrate our commitment to the protection of human rights by what we do.
I am very grateful to the Attorney General for what he has said so far, but his response, and the absence of the Home Secretary, simply will not do. There is confusion here. Less than an hour ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), assured me that the Government have no plans to withdraw from the ECHR, but yesterday in her speech the Home Secretary said that withdrawing from the ECHR was a must. Why is she not here to answer this urgent question? Does she not realise that what she said yesterday has caused grave concern across these islands, particularly in Scotland?
I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that the unity and purpose missing from the Conservative and Labour parties is present in the Scottish National party in relation to the ECHR and human rights, and also present in the majority of the elected Members of the Scottish Parliament, who made it very clear that under no circumstances would they ever consent to a repeal of the Human Rights Act.
As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, the ECHR is hard-wired into the Scotland Act. Everything that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament do is governed by the ECHR. I assure the British Government that given the composition of the current Scottish Parliament and the likely composition of the next one, there is no question of the Scottish Parliament ever giving its consent to Britain’s withdrawing from the ECHR. Does the Home Secretary not realise that if Britain were to attempt to withdraw from the EHCR, it would cause a constitutional crisis within these islands?
On EU law, it is correct that all EU member states and candidate states are required to be signatories to the convention. If the Attorney General is in any doubt about that, he could consult a number of legal academics, including Professor Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, the professor of European and human rights law at Oxford University, who has written extensively on this issue. I was going to suggest that the Attorney General needed to give the Home Secretary a tutorial on European Union law, but if he does not accept that signatories to the EU must also be signatories to the convention, perhaps he himself needs such a tutorial. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a question. When will this much-promised consultation come forward? Prevarication will not do any longer. When will the Government bring it forward, and will it include withdrawal from the ECHR as well as the HRA?
There is a risk in this discussion that we make a little too much of what happened yesterday. Let us be clear. I have said a number of times, and the hon. and learned Lady has heard different members of the Government make it clear a number of times, what our policy is in relation to human rights reform. I say again that the Prime Minister has been clear and we have all been clear—we rule nothing out. It follows from that that we do not rule out withdrawal from the convention should we not be able to achieve the changes that we all believe are necessary.
I accept that the hon. and learned Lady’s party and the official Opposition do not take the view that the status quo is unacceptable; we disagree about that. What I find odd about her position and, indeed, that of the official Opposition is that, as far as I can tell, they are saying to us: “Whatever you do on human rights reform we will oppose it. There is nothing you can do that we will ever support. There is no reform you can bring forward that we would ever regard as valid, but would you please get on and bring forward your reforms, which we will oppose anyway whatever you say?” That is not a sensible position for her and her colleagues to take.
The hon. and learned Lady is right, of course, that whatever proposals we make, there will be significant devolution consequences. As she has heard me say, and ministerial colleagues say, when we bring forward proposals we will ensure that full consultation happens with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we work through those issues.
Those of us who represent this House in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe are acutely aware of the fact that the convention on human rights has been extended way beyond the original remit that was drawn up, in part by the United Kingdom, in the immediate aftermath of the second world war. My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to seek to pursue changes. Will he do so as swiftly as possible to get the thing back under control?
The difficulty, as I have said, is not with the convention but with its interpretation, which has been extended well beyond what the original drafters intended. Perhaps the most evident example of that is in so-called extra-territorial jurisdiction. It was not intended that those conducting themselves and making decisions on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan should be subject to European human rights law; we have international humanitarian law that does a good job in that field, and it was not intended that that should happen. My hon. Friend is therefore entirely right.
The more the Attorney General and the Justice Secretary say that they have not ruled out the UK leaving the European convention on human rights, the more it sounds to me like exactly the direction of travel they intend to take, and I find that chilling. The Attorney General cited the proud tradition of this country in establishing this international system of guaranteeing human rights here and abroad, yet it is that very proud tradition that he appears to be about to kick into the gutter. Does he recognise that we cannot both be a signatory to the European convention and reject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights? It is not just about having these substantive rights and paying lip service to them; it is about accepting the jurisdiction of the international court to enforce those rights. Does he recognise that every Government in this country needs to have that restraint? All Governments are tempted to abuse their power, and this international system is an important guarantee. Does he recognise, as Conservative Members have said, how important it is for those who are struggling for human rights in other countries to be part of a system that we play a part in guaranteeing? I hope that enough Members in this House and the other place will share that view, so that, if the Government drift towards a position of trying to leave the European convention, this Parliament will stop them.
I will start at the end of what the right hon. and learned Lady has said. She is quite right to say that the example that we set to other countries is something that should occupy our minds. Again, I make the point that the example we set comes from our actions—from what we do—and I do not think that there is any prospect of this Government or any other likely British Government moving away from a clear wish to protect human rights in this country and abroad. I have set out some of the ways in which the Government have done that.
I think that the right hon. and learned Lady attaches too much significance to the convention and the Human Rights Act. I understand why those who were in office in the Labour Government that introduced that Act feel very attached to it. She must also recognise that that Act and what it attempted to do—no doubt from the best of motives—have been tarnished by a number of cases that followed, which have led many of our constituents to believe that “human rights” is a term to be deprecated, not a term to be supported and celebrated. I am sure that she and I agree that we need to get back to a place where all our citizens are keen to support human rights and their protection.
My final point is this. In terms of restraint and what we are prevented from doing, as the right hon. and learned Lady would put it, by our membership of the convention on human rights, I am surprised that a former Law Officer overlooks the role of our own courts, which are robust in the way in which they hold Government to account and restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of Ministers—quite rightly so. I do not believe that we need to rely solely on the exercises of foreign jurisdictions to restrict our Government appropriately.
The Attorney General has been properly measured and thoughtful in his comments. There is a lot of fuss about what is really obiter dicta at the moment. Does he accept that the commitment of the Government and our domestic courts to human rights is demonstrated by the fact that only 0.4% of live cases before the ECHR involve the United Kingdom as a state party? Does he also accept that, as is recognised by many Strasbourg jurists, it would be perfectly possible to take word for word the protections in the convention and incorporate them into a British Bill of Rights, while staying entirely compliant with the convention, as most of us would wish to be?
There are, as my hon. Friend wisely suggests, many ways in which reform might be achieved. I will not, of course, pre-empt the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor will introduce. My hon. Friend is right that there are many cases that the United Kingdom fights and wins, and it is worth recognising that. He will recognise, however, that one of our difficulties is the fact that, even when we fight and win, we spend a good deal of time and effort doing so. If cases are brought because people are encouraged to do so by an expansionist view of human rights law in Europe and elsewhere, we have to spend a good deal of time and effort dealing with those cases when perhaps that is not appropriate.
The convention on human rights was drawn up by British lawyers and has been hugely powerful in spreading standards of human rights and our common humanity not only across Europe, but much more widely. The Home Secretary did not say yesterday, “We should try to reform the Court and then have a think about it.” She said that we must pull out of the convention. Is that the Government’s policy—yes or no?
I think I have been very clear about what the Government’s policy is. The Home Secretary yesterday explained why the status quo is unacceptable. There is a difference between the convention that was drawn up in the 1950s and the interpretation given to it by judges in Strasbourg since that time. It is with the latter that we have an issue, not with the former.
One of the great advantages of the Attorney General’s coming to speak on behalf of the Home Secretary is that he is not enmeshed in the near-Trappist reticence that normally applies to a Law Officer. Given the freedom that the Home Secretary has kindly given him, will he invite her, next time he has a candid conversation with her, to explain something to the Turkish journalists, media organisations, police and judges, all of whom have been the subject of some pretty revolting treatment by the Turkish Government, and who look to the convention and to the Court for protection that they cannot get in their domestic courts and jurisdiction? Will he ask the Home Secretary to look those people in the face and say that our leaving the convention would not affect their rights or undermine their proper reliance on the standards of civilised behaviour, with which I thought we agreed?
There is very little doubt that I have fundamentally abrogated my Trappist vows this morning. My right hon. and learned Friend makes the crucial point that there are real human rights abuses in the world today, and this country should stand four-square against those abuses. We should do so regardless of what international convention we may be part of and regardless of what Act we have passed. We should make that position clear, as I have no doubt responsible Governments in this country will do, now and in the future. It is important that the Foreign Office and, indeed, all parts of Government do their part to enhance human rights here and abroad.
Post-1945 Europe should be proud to have such a convention, which has existed for so many years. If the argument is that from time to time, the judgments are faulty, what about judgments in this country, such as those in the cases of the Birmingham six and the Guildford four? Surely, they were hardly an argument for changing our judicial system. The reason the Attorney General is putting this forward, whether or not it represents his own personal and political views, is that there is an extreme element in the Conservative party that deeply resented having the convention in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no court system is perfect. All systems are capable of making mistakes, and we should be grateful for the fact that our judicial system permits those mistakes to be corrected, as they were in the cases that he mentioned. I do not think that that is comparable to the exercise that has been conducted by Strasbourg jurisprudence on the European convention on human rights, which has moved that document fundamentally away from its founders’ intentions. That is a different thing. The Labour party is content to allow it to proceed, but we are not content to let it go.
A rule of thumb in life, I have found, is that when you throw a grenade, you usually retreat for cover. I wish that the Home Secretary were here to answer this urgent question, because I feel as though this has come up under the pressure of concerns about criminals, borders and so on. Conflating the two issues is fundamentally wrong. I would like to know whether the Home Secretary discussed her views before she made them known, because bringing them up now has made it look as though our Government are in disarray over the matter, and that is not acceptable. The Home Secretary should make it very clear whether she supports being in the ECHR. I respect my right hon. Friend’s views on the matter, but we cannot get away from the fact that she made a very clear statement yesterday, which was not helpful in the debate that many of us are having about control of our borders and criminals coming and going.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. If she reads the speech that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made yesterday, however, she will see that there was no conflation of the European convention on human rights and our membership of the European Union; indeed, my right hon. Friend made it very clear that they are two different things, to be approached in different ways. I do not think that there is a conflation, and we must all be cautious about making sure that we understand clearly what our colleagues are saying before we comment on it.
Following on from the comments that the Attorney General has just made, does he accept that there is a distinct parallel? Six months ago, many Members in this Chamber accepted the sincerity of the Government’s statement that they ruled nothing out but would seek substantial and meaningful reform of the European Union. If the point made yesterday was that the European convention on human rights is binding on this country and that that is a problem, why should Members accept today the veracity of statements about reforming or leaving? Does not the speech made yesterday prove the fundamental principle that, when someone tries to please everyone, in the end, they please no one?
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have not succeeded in pleasing everyone. I grant him that, but there is no doubt, so far as the European Union question is concerned, that the Government’s position is very clear. It is that we have secured substantial and meaningful reform, and on that basis the Government can recommend to the British public that we should remain within the European Union. We are all entitled to our own views about whether that judgment is right or wrong, but that is the Government’s judgment. We have not yet made the same judgment about the European convention on human rights, because we have not yet brought forward our proposals or, indeed, negotiated a different settlement. That issue is yet to be determined, which is why it is in a different category from the European Union question.
I support my right hon. and learned Friend in making the case for sensible reform of our domestic human rights architecture. Is it not the case that whether such human rights are upheld in a supranational court or by our own courts and Parliament, there is no doubt that there will always be respect for fundamental human rights in this country, many of which have been guarded and promoted by Parliament itself? By contrast, is it not the case that the most egregious human rights abuses are found abroad, as evidenced, for instance, by the brutal murder of the editor of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine in Bangladesh yesterday? Should the UK not use the full force of its influence to stand against such abuses?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. He makes the case very well for what we will do, which is to bring forward sensible reforms to our human rights framework but maintain our robust protection of human rights both in this country and around the world.
Will the Attorney General confirm that, if the Home Secretary’s wish came true, the UK would no longer have a British judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and we would therefore not be party to making judgments to uphold international law across the whole of Europe?
Again, I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that there is more to promoting human rights here and abroad than our membership of that court or even of the convention. We do a great deal more to help to promote human rights, and we should continue to do so.
May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for showing himself also to be gallant in defending the Home Secretary’s position? There seem to be a couple of errors in her speech. One was that she said it was the European Court of Human Rights that stopped us deporting foreign people, when it was in fact the ECJ that stopped Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law being removed, contrary to the Home Secretary’s view.
On the issue of whether we have to be in the European convention on human rights while in the EU, I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to article 6.3 of the treaty on European Union:
“Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention …shall constitute general principles of the Union’s law.”
Furthermore, the Commission, when asked specifically what would happen if a member state left the convention, said it would consider using article 7, which allows for the suspension of a member’s voting rights. It seems to me that, for once, European treaties are written in clear language that is understandable even to non-lawyers.
On my hon. Friend’s last point, if only that were true. I do not think there is the simplicity that he suggests there is on that point. He is of course right that ECHR principles contribute to European Union via the charter, but that is not the same as putting together the European convention on human rights and European law and saying that they are indistinguishable and indivisible from each other. That is not the position.
In relation to deportation, the difficulty we often face, as my hon. Friend will know, is the interpretation of article 8 of the convention, which deals with the right to a family life. That is a good example of the way in which rights drawn up perfectly sensibly in the convention can be extended beyond where they were meant to go, or of how the balancing exercise at the heart of all human rights law is not conducted in what he and I would consider to be a sensible way.
In his reply to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the Attorney General conceded that there would be substantial proposals in respect of devolution, but that there would also be “full consultation”. Does he accept that it is not a matter of full consultation, but of fundamental change to the way that the Welsh Assembly and the other Assemblies actually operate, so how will they operate?
As I have said, we will have to wait for the proposals to be brought forward before it is sensible to discuss them in detail, but the hon. Gentleman has my undertaking, as he has had that of other Ministers, that when the proposals are brought forward, there will be a full conversation about how the devolution aspects of such proposals will be managed.
I have given evidence at four trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The ICTY judges told me that the UK had a superb record on upholding human rights. I must say that was very pleasant for my men and me to hear, having had to go through four trials. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that such a verdict could be applied to all other members of the European convention on human rights?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that being a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the convention is no guarantee that a country’s human rights record will be spotless. It follows logically, of course, that not being such a signatory does not mean a country cannot have a hugely impressive record on the protection of human rights. Many countries around the world that are not signatories to that document have demonstrated exactly that.
Since the urgent question was asked, the Attorney General has made several references to the UK Government’s commitment to human rights being demonstrated by actions rather than by words. How can that commitment be squared with the UK Government voting yesterday against the human rights of child refugees requiring shelter in this country?
Mr Speaker, I am sure you will not want me to rehash the arguments made in the Chamber yesterday. I think that the hon. Lady should at least accept that this Government’s record in providing huge amounts of aid to those in need—not just in Syria, but around the world—demonstrates that we do care and that we do act in defence of the most vulnerable. Human rights is only one aspect; there are other very real needs that we help to support. The fact that this Government, against considerable opposition across many areas of opinion, have maintained our commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid shows that as clearly as anything does.
Surely the test is how our human rights work. The fact that this Government passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is leading the way in Europe—I must say that it was largely due to the intervention of the Prime Minister—shows that we have an excellent human rights record.
I am grateful to the Attorney General for being at the Dispatch Box because there is one thing I would like to know in legal terms. From what has been said, this is a confusing issue. Can a country remain in the European Union and still come out of the convention? What is his legal opinion on that?
As I have suggested, the legal position is not clear. Neither my hon. Friend nor I have the time to go into all the ins and outs of that particular question now, but I suggest it would also be wrong to say that it is clear in the opposite direction. It is not at all clear that if the UK left the European convention on human rights, it would not be able to remain a member of the European Union. It is certainly not clear, and it would be wrong to suggest that it was.
As my hon. Friend has mentioned the Modern Slavery Act, may I take this opportunity to pay tribute to his own part in the process? I think the whole House recognises that my hon. Friend played a leading role in making the arguments on a subject that was not well known and not especially prominent. He brought it to prominence and secured a remarkable piece of legislation.
May I make it absolutely clear from the very beginning that I hold the Home Secretary in the highest regard? However, I was horrified—absolutely horrified—by her suggestion yesterday that the United Kingdom would leave the European convention on human rights. I am horrified by that suggestion. After 30-plus years of appalling violence in Northern Ireland, the Belfast agreement signed on Good Friday was hard won after hard negotiations, and the European convention on human rights was an integral part of that agreement. It was voted on in two referendums, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, by thousands and thousands of people. I want the Attorney General not to assure me that there will be consultation, but to tell me what consideration the Home Secretary gave to the implications for the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, and particularly the implications for the Belfast agreement, before she made her statement yesterday.
The Home Secretary is clearly aware of those complexities, as is my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. It is difficult for me to discuss the details of proposals that have not yet been brought forward. The best thing I can do is to assure the hon. Lady—I know she does not want me to do so—that there will be an opportunity to discuss the issues in more detail. That is the best I can say at this point.
The Government are in something of a pickle. As well as needing multiple Parliaments, this great European project also needs two human rights frameworks. The result is a state of confusion, as set out by the European Scrutiny Committee’s 43rd report of the 2013-14 Session, “The application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the UK: a state of confusion”. How will the Government ensure that any Bill of Rights will be able to survive the European Court of Justice?
Again, my hon. Friend tempts me to talk about proposals that are not yet before us, and I cannot do that. He is right, of course, to reinforce the point that these matters are exceptionally complex. Anyone who suggests that they are simple is wrong. We will, of course, have the opportunity to discuss the issue in some detail when the proposals are brought forward, in contrast with the position when the Human Rights Act was introduced, when there was precious little opportunity for consultation.
There is clearly some confusion and discomfort among those on the Government Benches about human rights, but there should be no confusion about the issue in the minds of voters on 23 June. The European convention on human rights is a creature of the Council of Europe and something that I absolutely support. The European Union charter of fundamental rights is quite a different matter: it was created by the EU and has been shown to be not quite so fundamental when it comes to worker and trade union rights, because it has found in favour of employers on a number of occasions when it should have found in favour of trade unions and workers. Does the Attorney General accept that it is very important to make it clear that leaving the EU on 23 June would not mean leaving the ECHR, and that if we challenge anything it must be the EU charter of fundamental rights, particularly where trade unions are concerned? Does he also agree—he probably does not—that the way to guarantee trade union and worker rights in this country is to elect a Labour Government under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)?
I was nearly all the way there with the hon. Gentleman, but I could not quite go with him on the last part of his question. As he says, there is a distinction between the convention on human rights and membership of the European Union and all that flows from that. I hope I made that clear in my earlier remarks, but I am happy to restate it. He is wrong to say that there is confusion among the Government on human rights. I have made our position very clear: we are in favour of human rights here and abroad, and we will fight hard to defend them regardless of our future proposals for reform. The hon. Gentleman will know that protocol 30 of the treaty negotiated by the last Labour Government makes it clear that the charter of fundamental rights creates no new rights in this country.
I am grateful for the Attorney General’s statement on the Government’s support for human rights. Will he confirm that we will remain signatories of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights, regardless of the ECHR? Given that that document was drafted in the 1950s and contains derogations for national security and other matters, does he agree that it is right to update the Human Rights Act to reflect changes in subsidiarity, which, after all, is an EU principle?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the UN declaration is a separate document; it is not affected by any decisions we might make about the European convention. She is also right to mention how things may develop. Those who support the status quo cannot have it both ways: if they think that it is perfectly reasonable for the Court in Strasbourg to extend the scope of the convention in the way that it has, they should also recognise that we should keep up with the times in other ways, too.
The UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR would present the most unwelcome of incentives to those who disagree with the international order surrounding human rights. What message does the Attorney General think that sends to the world’s despots and tyrants about respect for human rights?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he is wrong to suggest that despots and tyrants around the world do not fully understand the British Government’s view of the protection of human rights. That is something on which I do not think we could have been any clearer: not only have we spoken about it, but we have acted domestically and internationally to support and protect human rights.
In the European Court of Human Rights there are pseudo-judges, many of them political appointees rather than proper judges, over-reaching their remit under the convention with ridiculous decisions such as votes for prisoners. Why should this House vote for something we do not believe in, which our constituents do not believe in, and which makes the Prime Minister physically sick, just because some ludicrous judges in Strasbourg went way beyond their remit to comply? If we are not prepared to accept such rulings, which I am not, is not the only sensible course of action for a country that believes in the rule of law to leave?
As ever, I wish my hon. Friend would simply say what he really thinks. He is right to say that the status quo, which he has described, is unacceptable to quite a lot of the people we all represent in this country. The case for reform is unanswerable, and that is what this Government are going to do.
The Foreign Office has downgraded the global abolition of the death penalty in its human rights fund from being its top priority to being the bottom bullet point in a passing reference. Does the Attorney General agree that, taken together with the possible withdrawal from the convention on human rights, that will be seen as a green light to Saudi Arabia, China and other countries that administer the death penalty, and to Russia and Turkey, which abuse such rights? It is a way of dividing and ruling the European Union’s human rights record.
No, I do not think that that follows. The British Government, including Foreign Office Ministers whenever they travel abroad and speak to interlocutors from other countries, have made it clear that they oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances. We will continue to make that very clear.
I support our membership of the convention, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if we are to stay in the ECHR, and if we are to rehabilitate the reputation of human rights in the UK, it is important that the European Court curtails its reach and does not intrude into matters such as prisoner voting, which are properly matters for this House?
Originally proposed by Winston Churchill and drafted mainly by British lawyers, the European convention on human rights is an important part of our post-war history—it is, in essence, a British Bill of Rights. How are the public to trust the Government to ensure that the hard-won advances on equality, privacy and justice, and our wartime legacy, will not be at risk from their cruel agenda?
I will make two points in response to the hon. Lady. First, it is important to distinguish the Human Rights Act, and even the convention, from the promotion and protection of human rights. They are two different things and this Government’s record is very clear. Secondly, we have a very clear mandate for reform of the human rights framework. We set out what we intended to do in our manifesto at the general election. As it happens, parties that support reform of human rights law received more than 50% of the vote in that election, so the British people’s mandate for action is extremely clear.
I am sure that the Attorney General shares my surprise at some of the comments we are hearing about the idea of Britain having a system similar to that in many other countries, namely domestic rights legislation overseen by a Supreme Court. That is what Germany does with its own basic law. Given what we have heard about how well the ECHR protects human rights, and given that Russia is signatory to it, will the Attorney General outline how it has been protecting those of people living in eastern Ukraine?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I said earlier, it is no guarantee that a country will have a spotless human rights record if it is a signatory to the convention. We must be clear that we support the protection of human rights wherever in the world they may be abused, and the British Government will continue to take that position.
Had it not been for the Strasbourg Court, gay men and women in this country would not be serving in our armed forces, but because of the 1999 judgment there has been a rainbow revolution in our armed forces. Is that not just one of the many reasons why we should stick with the ECHR?
The hon. Gentleman draws attention to an undoubted positive change, and there have been others. But he is wrong to minimise the role of our own courts and, indeed, of democratically elected Governments of all political colours in making such changes. It is wrong to suggest that the only way in which we can achieve outcomes such as the one he described is to pursue the status quo on human rights law. That is not the right approach.
The Prime Minister said that he felt “physically sick” at the ECHR’s proposals to give prisoners voting rights. My constituents in Kettering are increasingly fed up with Europeans lecturing us on human rights when were it not for this country, our Dominions and our empire, who stood alone in 1940, there would be no human rights at all on the continent of Europe, let alone a convention. Many of us on the Conservative Back Benches do not recognise the conflict that many members of the Cabinet are struggling with between membership of the European Union and membership of the convention—we would be very happy to leave both.
I understand my hon. Friend’s position very clearly. He is right, of course, that that record of protection of, and respect for, human rights, and indeed of fighting on behalf of those whose human rights may be being infringed, is a proud and long-standing one. That will not change.
Article 3 of protocol 1 of the ECHR states:
“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
Given that the majority of legislators in this country are unelected—that is, the Members of the House of Lords—is the Attorney General satisfied that the UK Government actually comply with that protocol, or is that another reason why they want to withdraw?
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to give some legal advice in the Chamber, which I must not do. I am grateful to him, however, as what he has just read out is the part of the convention relied upon by the Strasbourg Court to suggest that prisoners should have the vote. I did not detect any reference to prisoners’ having the vote anywhere in the text that he just read. I maintain the view that that is for this Parliament to decide.
The Attorney General is quite correct that this country has a long and proud record of human rights. He is also correct in pointing out that our actions count more than mere signatures. Does he therefore agree that it follows that the international community looks to this country for our reform agenda, on issues such as abolishing slavery?
My hon. Friend make a very good point. Both what we have done in the past and what we are doing now send the kind of signal to other countries that Members have said today that they would wish us to send. We have a proud record of acting, not just in the past but now, to encourage others to do better.
I believe that the statement by the Secretary of State yesterday undermined the remain campaign. It revealed a further camp of thought—the “not so sure we should remain” camp. The Attorney General has stated to us today that this is a complex legal matter of clarity in the legislation about leaving the EU and remaining in the ECHR. How will he marry two very different points of view, and which is right?
As I say, it is a complex matter. On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I do not agree that the Home Secretary undermined the case for remaining within the European Union yesterday. On reading her speech, one sees that she made an extremely powerful case for remaining within the European Union and set out the argument with a great deal of clarity.
After all is said and done, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there are real issues with Strasbourg acting, in effect, as a final court of appeal, and that a UK Bill of Rights will seek to address that?
That is exactly the sort of issue that the Bill of Rights will seek to address, and I know that my hon. Friend will scrutinise it carefully when it comes forward.
As I am sure the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) will remember, in 1997 the then British Government placed before this House, with the eventual agreement of both sides, a proposal to place before the sovereign people of Scotland a proposition, in a referendum, to reconstitute the Scottish Parliament. At the core of the reconstitution of that Parliament is the European convention. Now that the Government—a Government rejected by Scotland fundamentally at the last general election—are seeking to undermine that very settlement, how does the Attorney General square that with the democratic will of the sovereign people of Scotland as expressed in the referendum in 1997?
The sovereign will of the Scottish people was expressed in the independence referendum in 2014. When they expressed their view, they concluded that they wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Much as I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like it, that was the outcome and as result the United Kingdom Government will consider this matter for the future.
House of Lords Reform (Exclusion of Hereditary Peers)
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 amend the House of Lords Act 1999 to remove the section 2 exception under which 90 persons have the right to sit, speak and vote in the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage; and for connected purposes.
Last week a Member was elected to an ancient and world-revered national Parliament in a by-election following the death of a sitting Member. Once elected, they would be able to make laws, hold the Government to account, have influence and make a real difference to the lives of households up and down this country. Nominations for the vacant post closed on Monday 11 April 2016 at 5 pm. Those nominated, of which there were seven, all had to convince the electorate of their merits to secure a simple majority, at which point one would be elected.
All that should sound familiar to hon. Members. Any democracy has the same pathway for gaining a seat in Parliament—win the argument and get elected. This election, however, was different. It was not modern or open, and it was certainly not democratic. This election was for a place as one of the last remaining 92 hereditary peers to sit in the unelected Chamber.
Members should be aware of the details of last week’s process, as it deserves full scrutiny. To be nominated for that seat in Parliament, a nominee had to be on the register of hereditary peers and be of the party of the previous Member. The electorate that held the power of electing the noble peer to the House of Lords was, in this case, three people—the three Lib Dem hereditary peers remaining in that House were the whole electorate. I remind the House that this is the 21st century.
This House will recall the great fights about the 1832 Reform Act. That Act abolished the constituency of Old Sarum, which used to be able to send two Members of Parliament to this House. Old Sarum had 11 voters, making it positively huge—almost the Isle of Wight, dare I say it—in comparison with the electorate for the election that the noble Lords held last week.
As I said, last week’s electorate consisted of three Liberal Democrat hereditary peers, the noble Lord Addington, and the noble Earls of Glasgow and of Oxford and Asquith. Baron Addington’s peerage dates back to 1887, when his ancestor, a businessman and Conservative Member of Parliament, was granted the title. The 10th Earl of Glasgow can trace his title back to 1703, when it was created for his ancestor David Boyle, who was one of the commissioners who negotiated the Treaty of Union. The third Earl of Oxford and Asquith is a newer entry to the House of Lords. He is the grandson of the former Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, and his title was created in 1925.
Each hopeful in the election had the opportunity to write 75 words on why they should be trusted with a seat in the mother of Parliaments. The manifesto of the eventual winner, Viscount Thurso, was excellent for the environment. It was a blank piece of paper. For the gang of three who voted for him, there were no words saying what he would do or why.
I am pleased to tell the House that, in contrast to the national trend of declining voter turnout, there was a 100% turnout—all three—and no spoilt ballots. Miraculously, all three votes went to Viscount Thurso in the first round. The count took 24 hours, by the way, which is not quite Houghton and Sunderland South. It still resulted in a new Member of Parliament.
Viscount Thurso was the Member of Parliament elected in the Lords last week. He was a Member of the Lords until 1999. He subsequently removed himself from the membership of that House, and got elected as the Member of Parliament for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. He was Member for that constituency until last May, when he lost his seat, because someone else was elected to this House of Commons. That is the right of democratic elections in the House of Commons. He has now happily got a return route to the Lords through the sad death of Lord Avebury. I like John Thurso. I worked with him in this House and I bear him no ill will, but even he must be embarrassed by his blue blood transfusion in last week’s election. My Bill seeks to ensure that that election will be the last of that type in the 21st century.
Hereditary peers existed for hundreds of years, and through patronage, favours and who they knew, laws were made by an elite rather than by those who were accountable or elected. The House of Lords Act 1999 reduced the number of hereditary peers from more than 1,300 to 92, and that Act was introduced by the Labour Government to try to make the House of Lords more democratic and representative. The first stage of that was the removal of 92 hereditary peers as a “temporary” measure, but we are now 17 years on, and that temporary measure needs to be terminated. The lawmakers were retired, and although they were allowed to keep their title, their right to vote, speak and govern was lost for ever. However, 92 hereditary peers remain, and the question for our modern democracy concerns what legitimacy they have for the future.
Lord Fairfax of Cameron is a Conservative peer who sits in the Lords. His ancestor, Thomas Fairfax, was given a seat in the Lords because he was the first Englishman to travel to Scotland and swear allegiance to the new King James I. I happen to think that the ability to make laws should not be based on the skill of someone’s ancestor in catching a coach to Edinburgh in the 17th century.
Another ridiculous example is the current Conservative peer Earl Attlee. It beggars belief to think that the first Earl Attlee—a Labour Prime Minister who implemented some of the most dramatic reforms in Britain’s history—would have sat in the House of Lords and voted the same way as his grandson will today. The real Clement Attlee would not have voted to curtail trade union legislation or remove support for the most vulnerable in our society, yet through the hereditary principle his grandson today takes the Conservative Whip, thanks to a peerage granted to a Labour peer. To make matters worse, we have Ministers of the Crown who are hereditary peers. Viscount Younger of Leckie was an Under-Secretary of State for business and is now a Whip in the House of Lords. Lord de Mauley was Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That is simply not acceptable in the 21st century. My Bill seeks finally to remove those whose place in Parliament is by birth rather than by merit.
Why is that important? We need change in the House of Lords, but in this House we cannot agree on what that change should be. Surely, however, the abolition of the hereditary principle would be a move towards a more equitable Parliament, and a Chamber where people are not excluded because of their place of birth, or given a place in Parliament because of their parentage.
We all have our views on Lords reform, and we all take different positions. I have always voted for its total abolition, but others want a hybrid system, an appointed second Chamber, or a fully elected Senate. The key point is to make some change. If the method used in last week’s election was used to elect a trade union general secretary, this Conservative Government would have cracked down on it years ago. If that were the method of electing a housing association board, this Government would have sold off the housing and abolished the board. If it were the method of electing a mayor or local council leader, the Government would have abolished that council or reformed its election system years ago. However, it is not—this is a forgotten election.
Let me give the Government another reason to act. The House of Commons will face dramatic change, and its Members will be reduced from 650 to 600. It is now time for the Lords to take their share. This Bill could mean a saving to the taxpayer. The expected annual saving from the boundary review could be £12.2 million in allowances and costs. It is important to keep fair political boundaries, but we must also have a proper elected Government because we are “all in this together”.
I have had a number of sponsors, but I particularly wish to thank those who I could not list, including my hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for North Durham (Mr Jones), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Westminster North (Ms Buck), for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), for Caerphilly (Wayne David), for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), for Bury South (Mr Lewis), for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff).
Let us end this farce and ensure that we have an elected House of Commons, and not a House of Lords that is based on the hereditary principle.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr David Hanson, Helen Jones, Debbie Abrahams, Diana Johnson, Jenny Chapman, Helen Hayes, Fiona Mactaggart, Dan Jarvis, Albert Owen, Ian C. Lucas, Mr David Anderson and Matthew Pennycook present the Bill.
Mr David Hanson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 May, and to be printed (Bill 166).
Policing and Crime Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
I beg to move,
That the Order of 7 March 2016 (Policing and Crime Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading shall be taken in two days in accordance with the following provisions of this Order.
(3) Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.
Time for conclusion of proceedings
New clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 1, other than new clauses and new Schedules relating to the inspection of fire and rescue services.
Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this order.
New clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 3; new clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to firearms, knives and flares; new clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 7; new clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 8.
The moment of interruption.
New clauses and new Schedules relating to the inspection of fire and rescue services; new clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 2; new clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 4.
Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on Consideration on the second day.
New clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 5; new clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to Part 9; remaining new Clauses; remaining new Schedules; remaining proceedings on Consideration.
One hour before the moment of interruption.
(5) Proceedings in legislative grand committee and proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on the second day.
I have no intention of delaying the House for more than a few minutes. In Committee we had very sensible debates and we agreed on most parts of the Bill; where we disagreed, we did so in a fair way. I thought it important to ensure that we had plenty of time on Report to consider some of the measures that we did not have time to consider in Committee, so I have suggested two days on Report—hopefully the House will agree on that—before we come to Third Reading.
I will be brief. We will soon come to the substantive issues, but the Opposition agree with the proposed procedure. We have agreed what measures should be considered today, and on the second day—that will now be on a carry-over Bill, following the Queen’s Speech—we will return to the further issues as outlined. The amendments are clear today, and we want to focus particularly on the proposals on fire and volunteers.
Question put and agreed to.
Policing and Crime Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
[1st Allocated Day]
New Clause 20
Statutory duty on flooding
‘The Fire and Rescue Services in England shall make provision to lead and co-ordinate the emergency service response to—
(a) rescuing people trapped, or likely to become trapped, by water; and
(b) protecting them from serious harm, in the event of serious flooding in its area.”—(Lyn Brown.)
This new clause would make the Fire and Rescue Service in England statutorily responsible for leading the emergency services response to flooding
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 21, in clause 2, page 3, line 14, at end insert—
‘(8) For the purposes of this Bill, when considering whether a collaboration agreement would improve the effectiveness and efficiency of one or more emergency services that shall include the effectiveness and efficiency with which the emergency service is able to meet its duties under the mental health care concordant.”
This amendment would explicitly enable a collaboration agreement to cover duties placed on emergency services by the mental health care concordant.
Amendment 3, page 6, line 3, leave out clause 6.
This amendment, along with amendment 4, would prevent Police and Crime Commissioners from taking over the functions of Fire and Rescue Authorities.
Amendment 5, page 11, line 1, leave out clause 8.
This amendment would prevent combined authority mayors from combing their fire and rescue service and police force under a single employer.
Amendment 4, page 144, line 2, leave out schedule 1.
This amendment, along with amendment 3, would prevent Police and Crime Commissioners from taking over the functions of Fire and Rescue Authorities.
Amendment 2, in schedule 1, page 145, line 16, at end insert—
“4AA Power to change title of police and crime commissioner
(1) This section applies if the Secretary of State makes an order under section 4A.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument change the title of a police and crime commissioner appointed as a fire and rescue authority.”
This would enable the Secretary of State to change the name of police and crime commissioners to reflect their new additional responsibility for the fire service. The Secretary of State would have the power to make such a direction in secondary legislation at some point in the future.
Amendment 20, page 145, line 16, at end insert—
‘(7) No order can be made under this section until the Secretary of State has conducted a review assessing the funding required by the fire and rescue service to secure the minimum level of cover needed to secure public safety and maintain fire resilience.
(8) The review carried out under section (7) must assess the impact of the level of cover on—
(a) fire related fatalities;
(b) non-fatal fire related casualties;
(c) the number of dwelling fires and other fires;
(d) the number of incidents responded to, and
(e) the strength and speed of response to incidents.”
This amendment would require the Home Secretary to conduct a review on the level of funding the FRS requires in order to secure public safety before she may make allows police and crime commissioner to be a fire and rescue authority.
Amendment 6, page 157, line 33, at end insert—
‘(4) An order under section 4A, whether modified or not by the Secretary of State, may only be made with either: consent of all of the relevant local authorities and relevant fire and rescue authority, or a majority vote by local people through referendum.”
This amendment would ensure that a PCC can only take over a Fire and Rescue Service with the approval of local people or their local representatives.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
We oppose the Government’s proposals to allow police and crime commissioners to take over fire and rescue services, and amendments 3, 4 and 5 would delete the provisions in the Bill that would enable them to do so. We have also tabled amendments to mitigate the risks if the Government’s proposals are enacted.
Amendment 6 would ensure that a PCC could take over a fire and rescue service only with local support expressed either by elected councillors, with the unanimous agreement of all the local authorities affected, or directly through a referendum. Amendment 20 would require the Home Secretary to review the level of funding the fire service needed to secure public safety. New clause 20 would give fire services in England a statutory responsibility to deal with flooding. The Minister said in Committee that he was minded to consider that particular provision. He has not jumped to his feet to say he wants to take it as a Government new clause, but I live in hope.
When the Minister responds, I hope he will set out what benefits he believes PCCs will bring to the fire and rescue service. What skills and expertise do they have that our fire and rescue authorities do not? How will they help the fire service to cope with the new challenges it faces when dealing with major incidents such as flooding and terrorist attacks? What indication is there that the governance of the fire service is broken or substandard and needs replacing? The Government have not even begun to answer these questions or to make a case for the reforms.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the reason that the governance of the fire service needs to be changed is that very few of our constituents would know the name of every person on the local authority fire panel? Given her involvement with the Bill, could she herself name every person on her local authority fire panel?
My fire service is provided through the Greater London Authority, and I know that should I want to talk to anybody about London’s fire service, I could talk to those elected GLA Members—and I do know their names—or to the Mayor. When people in my local authority want to have an impact on a local service, they tend to approach their local councillors, which I think is not a bad route, but the reforms would change that. People would not be able to go to their town hall to talk about services that have an impact on them. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) heckles me gently in a low voice and says, “They would be elected.” I know that Newham might be unusual but its councillors are elected too, and certainly the councillors at the GLA are elected.
But they are not elected to a specific responsibility, as PCCs are. People who vote for PCCs know they can hold them to account specifically for policing, and that will now be extended to the fire service.
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that the turnout last time for PCC elections was dismal. I hope it will be significantly better this time, but when I was on the doorsteps last year, in parts of the country other than my own little patch in London I did not find that people knew who their PCC was. I say gently to him that our constituents do not know that when they go to the polls next week they will be electing a PCC who might be taking over their fire service. The Bill will not have been enacted by then.
I think that the timing and, as I will explain, the way we have done this has been wrong. The consultation preceding the Bill did not seek the views of experts and specialists on the substance of the proposals. It set out how a PCC could assume control of a fire and rescue service and then asked consultees what they thought of the process. It did not ask them what they thought of the proposals themselves, and it did not ask whether the proposals would increase public safety or lead to better governance.
It is not in the impact assessment—that very thin impact assessment, which I am sure that the Members who sat on the Bill Committee will have read—but the Knight review of the future of the fire service recommended that PCC takeovers be attempted only if a rigorous pilot could identify tangible and “clearly set out benefits”. The Government chose to ignore this key recommendation and are instead proceeding before any evidence has been gathered about the likely benefits, costs and threats to the plan. It is utterly reckless. The impact assessment is threadbare. The only rationale offered for this intervention is the Government’s belief that there needs to be greater collaboration between emergency services. No one thinks otherwise, but the Government have not provided any justification of why it is more likely to occur under PCCs or any analysis of the current barriers to collaboration. It is policy without evidence or clear rationale.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend is saying. She knows—and surely the Government know—how much co-operation already goes on. It does not have to be prescribed in this top-down way; it works organically and it works really well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is really good collaboration now between all parts of our public services—between fire and police, fire and ambulance, and fire, ambulance and police—and I understand the Government’s wanting to move that agenda further and encourage more collaboration, but this bit of the Bill does not do it. As I will explain, I believe it will in fact deter some boundary and border merges, which would be a massive problem.
The Government’s cavalier approach to this public service upheaval is completely indefensible, given the significant risks that the proposals represent to the fire and rescue service. PCCs are still a nascent institution. The Home Affairs Select Committee has said:
“It is too early to say whether the introduction of police and crime commissioners has been a success.”
We do not know whether they have succeeded in their core duties, so why are the Government proposing to expand their portfolios by giving them control of the fire service too? I think the Government want to bolster the powers and budgets of PCCs to help them through their difficult inception and that the proposals are a step towards PCCs becoming mini mayors. A vital public service, such as fire, should not be pawned off to save struggling Whitehall inventions or to overturn a public vote against the creation of a mayor. Unlike mayors in combined authorities, the PCCs will be completely free from the democratic scrutiny provided by local government, and the creation of the extended office will not have been approved by local people.
The most serious risk, however, is that fire, with its much smaller budgets and less media attention than policing, will become an unloved, secondary concern of its new management—a Cinderella service. I have raised this point repeatedly with the Minister in Committee and in other debates, but he has not indicated what he might do to mitigate the risk. I am not the only one who thinks this: Peter Murphy, the director of public policy research at Nottingham Business School, has argued that if the fire service were to slip into the status of a Cinderella service, it would only repeat what happened the last time fire had to share an agenda with policing. I will quote him in full, because it gets to the heart of the matter:
“If the proposals ore implemented, there is a very strong chance that the fire and rescue services would go back to the ‘benign neglect’ that characterised the service from 1974 to 2001 when the Home Office was last responsible for fire services. Police, civil disobedience, immigration and criminal justice dominated the Home Office agenda, as well as its time and resources. If the fire service becomes the lesser partner in a merged service, the long-term implications will include smaller fire crews with fewer appliances and older equipment arriving at incidents. Prevention and protection work, already significantly falling”—
he is so right about that—
“will result in fewer school visits and fire alarm checks for the elderly”.
What a chilling vision for the future of our fire service!
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Does she agree that this proposal, combined with the 17% cut that we have already seen in the service across the country, could lead to a risky situation, particularly for many vulnerable households?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and I shall return to the point a little later in my speech.
I listened carefully to the quotations, and I would be chilled if any part of what was said were factually true. If there were an attempt to combine the emergency services, fire and police, we would have moved to one funding stream. I categorically ruled that out, so this sort of scaremongering—not from the shadow Minister but from others—is flawed. There is a separate funding stream in the precept for the police. The only bit that is going to be amalgamated, should the PCCs be like the Metro Mayors in this respect, would relate to the back office and the administrative side.
But should a PCC take over the fire service, we would have a person in charge whose main attention was on policing and all that policing involved. The media focus much more on policing than they do on the fire service. The fire service will be secondary. Although the Minister rightly says—I do not doubt him—that the two funding streams will be different, I do not know how long that will last, and in truth, neither does he, because things move on. We had police and crime commissioners under the last Government; this Government are now proposing police, crime and fire commissioners. What will happen in a couple of years’ time? I do not know. There might be accounting efficiencies in order to save costs, and the budgets might well be merged. I do not think that these proposals make any sense.
A further risk is that these proposals will make mergers of fire services more difficult, which would be a real setback, as inter-fire mergers increase resilience and achieve significant savings. The 2007 merger of the Devon and Somerset fire services was supposed to deliver £3 million of savings in the first five years. It actually bettered that target by £600,000.
The Minister will know that Martyn Underhill, the Independent PCC for Dorset—I am trying to keep this politically neutral—has said that he has no interest in running the fire service. Why? It is because Dorset and Wiltshire fire service has undergone a merger that proposes to bring significant savings and increase the resilience in that area. He does not want to interfere with the process, and he is really wary about his office having responsibility for Wiltshire. I admire this decision, made by Commissioner Underhill, but how many potential mergers of fire services will not even be considered as a result of PCC takeovers and the need for coterminosity? I remind the Minister that until a few months ago, this Government trumpeted mergers as a key to the future of the fire service; yet they are now, sadly, going to slip off the agenda.
I know that the Minister has little sympathy with the particular argument I am about to make, but I am a brave soul. A large proportion of the work carried out by the fire service is preventive. There is a danger that these proposals will make this preventive work a little more difficult. It is a humanitarian service. We need to be honest: the police service is not a humanitarian service. The two services are seen differently by some communities, and these proposals could make the fire service’s preventive work more difficult.
There are some people who would not welcome a policeman into their home without a warrant. Police officers turning up at the door can be a scary experience. Firefighters go into people’s homes and work spaces, and check that smoke alarms and electrical appliances are safe. They fit sprinklers and even look for worrying signs that might concern other services, such as the NHS and council care services. This preventive work is not an add-on to the fire service’s work; it is at the core of what it does—keeping people safe, so that they do not have to be rescued further down the line.
I do not quite understand—perhaps I do, but I do not think it is fair—why the shadow Minister is conflating operational work that the police do with operational work that the fire service does. Of course, a lot of work is done together, particularly at road traffic collisions, but there is nothing in the Bill that would conflate the two in the way that the shadow Minister suggests.
First, they will not be equal partners, because we are talking about a big service and a small service. Secondly, in the minds of some of our communities, the police and the fire service will become one and the same. They will have one boss, and there will be an anxiety that someone coming through the door to fix a smoke alarm might have a different agenda.
The hon. Lady’s constituency is in London, where there is a Mayor, and the mayoral system will take over fire. Is there the same concern in London and in Manchester? Actually, the Labour candidate in Manchester wants the powers as a Metro Mayor.
In London, the service is run by a Mayor and elected councillors. It is not run by an individual whose other job is to be the police commissioner. I think there is a difference, and I believe that our communities will think there is a difference. We cannot prescribe how people think and what they worry about, but this concern has been raised with me.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that her comments could be interpreted by the police as quite insulting? They do a lot of preventive and humanitarian work. As she knows, the hon. Lady’s submission comes right out of the Fire Brigades Union’s consultation document, which I also thought was quite insulting to the great work that our police officers do in the very areas that she highlighted.
The police I meet on my doorsteps and streets are dead pragmatic souls. They understand the sensitivities that some communities have: they treat some of my refugee communities with extraordinary sensitivity to overcome the natural barrier that is there. What I am saying to the hon. Gentleman is that there is a natural barrier. That is no slur on our police force; our police force are an enforcement agency, and not really a humanitarian service. The police are there to implement the law. Let us move on.
The Minister is not passing over a service that does not have some difficulties. The fire and rescue service has been subject to a cumulative cash cut of £236 million or 12.5% since 2010—and, of course, there is more to come. [Interruption.] Is the Government Whip trying to engage me? Does he want to intervene? It seems not. I just thought I would give him a chance.
I believe that what one of my colleagues was trying to say from a sedentary position is that we should not wash over the debacle and the huge costs of the regional fire control centres that the previous Labour Administration forced on the fire service. [Interruption.]
Is that right? When I was a Whip, I was taught that I should be seen and not heard. I am sure that the hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) did not want to intervene on me at all. The issue of regional fire control centres has been well thrashed out in this Chamber. There were a myriad reasons why they did not work, and I accept that they did not.
Let us return to what the Government have been doing. Here we are in 2016, and it feels as though they have been here forever. The fire and rescue service has been subject to a cumulative cash cut of £236 million, or 12.5%, since 2010, and, of course, there is more to come. We know from the local government funding settlement that fire and rescue services are expected to cut spending by a further £135 million by the end of the Parliament. A stretched service will be squeezed even further.
As a result of these cuts, 7,600 firefighters have already been lost, and the Government have repeatedly ignored warnings that the cuts may be putting services at risk. Their proposals will not protect a single firefighter’s job, or put a single firefighter back in service. I have been told by fire chiefs that their services will “not be viable” under the Government’s proposed spending plans, and I am sure that they have told the Minister exactly the same thing.
The National Audit Office has calculated that there was a 30% reduction in the amount of time spent on home fire checks and audits over the last Parliament. That is a huge reduction. The NAO has said that the Government have “no idea” of the impact of that on public safety. It has also said that, as the Government refuse to model the risk of cuts, they may only know that a service has been cut too long after the fact—that is, after public safety and the lives of the public have been put at risk.
I was not surprised, although I was dismayed, by the latest English fire statistics, which cover the period between April and September 2015. They show that there were 139 fire-related fatalities during that time, 31 more than occurred during the same period in 2014. There were 1,685 non-fatal fire casualties that resulted in hospital treatment, a 10% increase on 2014. Fire and rescue services attended about 93,200 fires, 7% more than in 2014.
The Government have cut the fire service, cut firefighters, and overseen a massive reduction in the amount of preventive work undertaken. I know that we are talking about a spike over just a couple of quarters, but there are statistical signs that the service may be feeling the awful effects of the cuts that have been made. So what do the Government do? Do they stop the cuts while they undertake a proper risk assessment? Do they begin to develop minimum standards for the number of stations and firefighters, and for preventive work? No. The Government want to pass on the responsibility to police and crime commissioners, who have had to deal with similar cuts in police budgets, and who have lost 12,000 front-line police officers. They are not even assessing the level of funding that PCCs would need to maintain resilience and keep the public safe.
This is a good line. By passing the buck without the bucks, the Government could be asking PCCs, who will be new to the fire service and its complexity, to undertake further potentially dangerous cuts. The PCCs will not know what the risks are, because the Government refuse to model them. That is why we tabled amendment 20, which would require the Home Secretary to carry out an assessment of the level of funding that fire services need to keep the public safe.
Our fire and rescue authorities are trusted experts on the fire service. The councillors who serve on them often have years of experience, and have gained a genuinely deep knowledge and judgment from overseeing the strategic direction of fire services in their areas. Given the trust and respect that local fire authorities have, allowing PCCs to take over a fire and rescue service without their support poses the clear risk that employees, and the public, will perceive newly empowered PCCs as an unwelcome central imposition. Our amendment 6 would ensure that a PCC who does take over a fire and rescue service can do so only with the approval of the locally elected representatives on the relevant councils, or, alternatively, of local people through a referendum.
The Government are presenting their “reforms” as part of a “localist” agenda, but what sort of localism allows the Secretary of State to impose her will against local objections? I guess it is the same sort of localism that is driving the forced academisation of schools. It is a localism that portrays an utter distrust of, and contempt for, local government and elected councillors. If the Government do not trust local authorities—and it seems clear that they do not—perhaps they will be pleased that our amendment allows the decision to go directly to the people via a referendum. I presume that they do trust the electorate.
The hon. Lady has raised the interesting issue of a local referendum. I wonder whether she can tell the House—so that we can consider her amendment properly—what the cost of such a referendum would be for each fire and rescue authority, and also who would pay. She has expressed concern about the removal of budgets from fire and rescue authorities. Perhaps if they were the ones who paid, more firefighters would be removed from the front line.
The referendum would take place on the same day as any local council election. We would not want an election to be prohibited by costs. As for where the costs should lie, I think that they should lie with the Government, because, after all, it is they who have proposed these changes. If the hon. Gentleman wants someone else to pay, perhaps it should be the Government’s arm, the PCCs. As he has rightly pointed out, their budgets are larger than those of any fire authority.
First, will the hon. Lady tell us what her amendment would do, and who would pay for it? Secondly, will she tell us what estimate she has made of the cost?
One of the joys of being in opposition is that we have to do our own work ourselves; we do not have a phalanx of willing employees to do it for us. Once the House had passed the amendment, I would need to rely on the Government and their civil servants to help us to work out the cost. If the cost became prohibitive, I could suggest that the Government drop this silly idea altogether, and save loads of money.
I have sat patiently while, on a number of occasions, the hon. Lady has referred to elected councillors being elected to fire authorities. Can she clarify, for the edification of the House and the public, that no elected councillors are elected to the fire authority in London—which covers her constituency—or, indeed, to the vast majority of fire authorities in the country?
I wonder what kind of interaction Conservative Members have with their local councillors, but I can only imagine that it ain’t good, because every time I raise this issue, anxiety is expressed about the genuine nature of locally elected members.
I can only say that I have a much better relationship not only with Newham councillors, but with GLA councillors. They are elected. They face the electorate. They are elected to a body which then places them on another body that is responsible for fire, just as they are given responsibilities for social services, education, leisure services, and so forth. It is the same process. I support democracy and I support my democratically elected councillors, who are doing a jolly good job in very difficult times to keep services going. Conservative Members should not denigrate their local councillors quite so much.
I assume that this is entirely my mistake; I probably did not make my question clear enough, and I take full responsibility for that. I will have another crack at this. Can the hon. Lady name any local councillor or London Assembly member who has been elected by the people of Newham to sit on the fire authority?
In London, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the people of Newham elect a GLA councillor and the GLA councillors then determine which parts of the work they will undertake for the GLA. I do not see that that is a problem. The same thing happens in Newham. When we elect 60 Labour councillors—and zero councillors from any other party—we then give them jobs looking after social services, education, recreation and so on. I can tell the hon. Gentleman the name of the councillor who has the fire remit in my council. He is Councillor Bryan Collier and he is a wonderful bloke. He has been doing the job for decades and he has lots of knowledge.
Speaking as someone who was a councillor until this time last month, I bow to no one in my appreciation of the importance of local government. However, the shadow Minister demonstrates a strange understanding of democracy given that she seems to prefer the patronage of local council group leaders to the direct mandate involved in being elected on to a body by voters.
I am bemused by the contempt that Conservative Members are showing for local councils. I hope for the hon. Gentleman’s own sake that he does not have a Tory-led local authority waiting for him when he goes back home on Thursday. Frankly, if I were a member of his council, I would be sitting on his doorstep waiting to have a word, because that is really not on. [Interruption.] Oh, really? That is such a shock! The chuntering from the Government Back Benches is outrageous. I don’t even know where I got to in my speech.
If the Government do not trust local authorities—and it seems clear that they do not—perhaps they will be pleased to accept our amendment, which would allow the decision on whether to place PCCs in control of fire services to go directly to the electorate. The Government’s reforms are fundamentally about the transfer of power from the collective democratic representation of local councils to a single individual, and the creation of mini mayors across England. The Minister knows this to be true, and he knows there is no democratic mandate for it—none at all. If he accepted our amendments, he could right that wrong and ensure that each local community could decide for itself what was in the best interests of its fire and rescue service. That would be a real localism agenda.
New clause 20 would give fire services in England a statutory responsibility to deal with flooding, as is already the case for their Scottish and Northern Irish counterparts. In December, much of the north of England was devastated by flooding. Many homes were flooded, bridges connecting communities were washed away, major roads were blocked and, in Lancaster, a sub-station was flooded leaving tens of thousands of homes without power. In December alone, firefighters responded to more than 1,400 flood incidents across the north-west, and on Boxing day, 1,000 people were rescued in Greater Manchester. The work of our firefighters was brilliant during those difficult days. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would agree on that, if on nothing else.
However, fire services have expressed concern that they were not properly equipped to deal with that situation and that they lacked basic kit such as boats and dry suits. Frankly, that is not good enough. I believe that this stems from the fact that it is unclear who holds the primary responsibility for responding to floods.
When flooding is not formally the responsibility of any service, it will not be given the priority it deserves in budgeting and planning. If we are going to continue to ask fire services to deal with major incidents such as flooding, we should say so in this place so that proper provision can be made and they can prepare comprehensively for incidents. Stories of volunteers and the Army mucking in might be heart-warming, but that is simply no substitute for a properly organised and funded rescue service.
Before I finish, I would like to touch on the issue of privatisation. The Minister gave us categorical assurances that there would be no changes or movement in that regard, and that is why we have tabled no amendments on privatisation. I am going to hold the Minister to his word, but I am sure that those in the other place will want to do a bit of digging to ensure that I am right and he is right, and that there can be no privatisation of our fire services under this legislation.
I would like to speak to amendment 2, which is in my name and those of several right hon. and hon. Members across the House. Part 1 of the Bill sets out the measures to encourage greater collaboration between emergency services, a topic that I have spoken about several times in the House. Clauses 6 and 7 will give police and crime commissioners the opportunity to extend their responsibilities to include fire and rescue services. I have been calling for that extension for some time now, and I secured a Westminster Hall debate on the topic last year. As I said on Second Reading, I welcome the inclusion of those clauses in the Bill.
The introduction of police and crime commissioners in 2012 created greater transparency and democratic accountability in policing, with PCCs replacing unelected and unaccountable police authorities. Extending the responsibilities of PCCs to include fire and rescue authorities will mirror those benefits. As we have been hearing, fire and rescue authorities are made up of elected councillors, but they are not directly accountable to the public for those specific roles, as they are appointed to those positions. As I have said before, that is very different from, and should not be confused with, democratic accountability.
The introduction of directly elected PCCs means that the public can scrutinise their performance, precept and priorities, and exercise their approval—or, indeed, disapproval—at the ballot box. The public will get their chance to decide on the performance of the first tranche of PCCs in a couple of weeks’ time, on 5 May. It is absolutely right that the guardianship of the fire and rescue services should also be directly accountable to the public, and given the synergies between the two services, it is logical that PCCs should take on that responsibility, too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from overlooking the attributes of our firefighters, it would be an advantage to local communities if highly trusted, experienced firefighters were given the opportunity to extend their preventive remit to areas such as crime prevention advice as well as fire prevention advice?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. This is about collaboration, and prevention extends across our emergency services.
Amendment 2 is designed to provide the public with greater clarification on the role of the police and crime commissioner. If a PCC does take on the responsibility for fire and rescue services, it is important that the public are clear that the individual is responsible for both the police service and the fire and rescue service. I have called for the title change in the House before, and it will help to address some concerns raised on Second Reading, in Committee and earlier that the change represents a police takeover.
The services will remain operationally distinct under the legislation and the precepts will be distinct, too. To be clear, there is no suggestion that police officers will be fighting fires or that firefighters will be arresting criminals. The legislation simply reforms the governance of the two services and ensures that one democratically accountable individual has responsibility for them both. Although the Bill is designed to be flexible and does not mandate PCCs to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services, which will happen only when a case is made locally, there is a need to ensure that the new title is nationally recognised. That is why amendment 2 would give the Secretary of State the power to make the title change in secondary legislation at some future point.
The danger of leaving the decision in the hands of the PCCs who have taken on extended responsibilities is that we could find a patchwork of different titles being used across the country, which would create real confusion for the public at future elections. To continue to increase the profile of these nationwide roles and the elections, we need to ensure clarity in the title. The amendment does not state what the title should be, leaving that decision in the hands of the Secretary of State. Many different titles could be used—I have mentioned several in previous debates—but I am sure that the Secretary of State would want to consult to ensure that the title is appropriate, clear and not misleading in any way. That would also give various organisations and individuals the opportunity to make their representations.
The amendment is meant to be probing and might not be made to the Bill at this stage, but when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, it would be helpful if he could provide clarity about the discussions he has had with the Department regarding the title change and about his views and intentions as the Bill continues to progress through the House.
I rise to support new clause 20 in particular. I declare an interest as chair of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. Giving fire and rescue services a statutory responsibility for leading the emergency services in response to flooding is something on which we have had meeting after meeting over the years with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers, who have all said that they supported it, and with Ministers from different Departments. It goes so far, but then it stops. There is clearly a Treasury argument here somewhere, but I feel strongly about the matter. There has been an increase in floods over recent years, and we have seen how our fire and rescue services have responded. What is happening seems wrong when we rely on them.
Let us look at the data from last year. Thirty-four fire and rescue services provided assistance in the worst-affected areas. Data collected by the FBU, which does a good job in getting it, from individual fire and rescue services found that firefighters responded to at least 1,400 flood incidents across north-west England and 450 incidents in Yorkshire. As we saw on our television screens, with politicians lining up to thank them and say how brave they had been and how wonderful they were, firefighters rescued people from a wide range of hazardous situations, evacuating people in advance of coming floods and making various other emergency interventions. It seems strange that we give our firefighters great praise for doing something that we and local people automatically expect them to do, yet we do not make their leading of the emergency services a statutory responsibility. I can only assume that the Government do not want to spend what might be some extra resources on ensuring that firemen and firewomen and all the rescue services are properly equipped.
We have seen terrible examples of when firemen and women have not had the right safety or protective equipment and have had to do things without the correct clothing, with things running out in some areas. They still did those things, but that is wrong and I genuinely do not understand the situation. I am sure that the Minister supported the proposal at one time. Many Ministers have supported it, but when they get into a position in which they actually have to make the decision or are allowed to get involved in it, they seem to change their mind. I hope the Minister will respond to that and that we will get the opportunity to support the change in a vote today.
I now turn briefly to the other issues. I share the position of the shadow Front-Bench team on police and crime commissioners. There is no public appetite for change. Wherever I have been around the country, no one has been clamouring for reform of how we govern our fire services or for any responsibility to be transferred to PCCs. I have not heard any evidence today—we may hear it from the Minister, but I doubt it—that there is a problem with the current governance arrangements. No one has convinced me that the change would deliver an emergency service that is more economic, efficient and effective or would help to improve public safety. We all want co-ordination, and I welcome that co-operation and co-ordination have gone further in some parts of the country than in others. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) said from the Front Bench, we want to see more of that, but we do not need to bring it in this top-down, totally anti-democratic way.
I am not at all ashamed to say that I believe that firefighters and police officers perform different roles. That does not mean that we do not value equally the roles of both, but they perform different roles and have different remits. A police officer is seen as a legal person and someone who is there to uphold the law. A fireman or firewoman, or anyone involved in the rescue services, is seen very differently. Having a single employer will begin to confuse that in the public mind. The preventive work that firefighters do and the way that they are trusted, implicitly and completely, by the public could well be jeopardised if the changes go through.
The Bill and this change would do nothing at all to invest in fire and rescue services’ resources. I have already mentioned the work that goes into responding to large-scale flooding incidents and providing emergency medical response. The Government should focus on putting extra resources into initiatives that will actually lead to the changes and to co-ordination.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that this is frankly more about saving money than improving the service. She probably noticed that the burden has been shifted on to local authorities, with the 2% increase. Eventually, the entire burden for fire and police will be shifted on to local authorities. Then we will have a situation of profligate spending—we have been here before—and local authorities will get capped.
Absolutely; there is no doubt this is a cost-cutting exercise. I accept that these days everybody has to have constraints on the public purse, as far as is possible, but there are ways of doing that and this bureaucratic way seems to have been brought in by people who have had the idea for a long time and now have seen an opportunity to push it forward. The Government should not be pursuing these almost ideological ways of trying to save money. They should be looking at ways of improving our emergency services and ensuring that they co-ordinate well together. It would be wrong to transfer this responsibility to a PCC. We have a valuable, popular fire service that has the confidence of the public, and we should be very wary of making those changes, which I think will have a really detrimental effect on not only how the public see the service, but on its effectiveness out there in the country. I hope we will be able to make some changes to this proposal and that when Members get the opportunity they will vote to put a stop to something that is very wrong indeed.
Several hon. Members rose—
I call James Cleverly.
I am obliged to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I apologise if I leapt to my feet rather more quickly than colleagues had anticipated. I am keen to speak in this debate, having served on the Bill Committee and, for a number of years, as chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. I feel that I speak with a fair degree of authority on the implications of different governance models, because the LFEPA had to go through the process of making substantial changes to the London fire brigade and I saw at first hand the widespread misunderstanding of the governance arrangements, both of the London fire brigade, through the London fire authority and to the Mayor, and more widely and nationally.
I like clarity; it is a cornerstone of democracy that people can follow the golden thread from the decisions they make at the ballot box, through to the people who make the decisions about the provision of their public services and, ultimately, on to the delivery of those services. This is important, because when things go right in the delivery of those services, people should know who to reward at the ballot box. Perhaps more importantly, if things do not go well, voters should know who they can punish at the ballot box. That is a cornerstone of the democratic model, to which I am sure we all subscribe.
Previously, when we had police authorities, there was a break in that golden thread, because people did not know who ran their police force. They were probably aware of where the police headquarters were, although I am being generous when I say that. I suspect that in many parts of the country people might have had a vague idea that the police headquarters would be in the big town—the county town. People in my constituency are aware that the police headquarters were in Chelmsford, but I would be surprised if many were able to name their chief constable and absolutely amazed if any were able to name the local councillors who sat on the police authority.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that my mailbox is full of matters such as housing. However, the mail on policing and fire is more about anxiety at the level of cuts since 2010. I would like a reassurance that all this meddling on governance is not going to lead to further service reductions in terms of our crucial bobbies on the beat, firefighters who turn up on time and all the rest of the expectations that the community rightly has of our emergency services.
I intend to deal a little later in my speech with some of the financial benefits that come with greater collaboration and co-working in the back office. If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I will return to that point.
I wish to bring my hon. Friend back to his point about how people may know the name of their chief constable but would not know who was on their former police authority. Does he agree that one real benefit of a PCC is that people will know not only the name of their chief constable, but also of their PCC? In addition, they will be involved in setting the priorities for policing in their own area. In the forthcoming PCC elections in Lancashire, one of our top priorities, which we are out there campaigning on—with success, we hope—is tackling rural crime, which is hugely important to the towns and villages around Rossendale and Darwen. The PCC election has given us the opportunity to say, “Tackle cybercrime and speeding, but also prioritise rural crime” and, thus, get people really involved with their own policing.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, which goes to the heart of the fundamental change in the relationship between people in the local community and the police force that represents it. It gives those people an opportunity periodically—once every four years, or indeed sooner—to hold PCCs to account. We have seen an example of where the priorities and the actions of a PCC have fallen below the level of legitimate expectation. That person was then forced to stand down and a PCC by-election took place, which really focused the minds of the people in South Yorkshire about what the role of their PCC should be. That requirement for PCCs to hold themselves to account before the electors goes to the heart of the success of the PCC model, and it is important to expand that success to the fire and rescue service.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) spoke about cuts, but Cheshire’s PCC has been very successful at putting more officers on to the frontline. He is collaborating with his local fire and rescue service, and there will be co-location in the police headquarters in Winsford. That is an example of where co-operation is delivering more for less very effectively, and in a way that is protecting people in Cheshire, particularly in my constituency.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which reinforces one of my beliefs. We hear a lot of talk in this Chamber about what people want, but all the evidence I have received, including from the extensive research carried out during the changes we made to the London fire brigade in my former role as the chair of the LFEPA, shows that what people really want is certainty. That goes to a point Opposition Members have made about people having quality public provision when they need it, where they need it. We should subordinate structures to the delivery of that agenda. I also believe that the changes proposed by the Government go a long way towards protecting those structures.
Does my hon. Friend share my incredulity at the Labour party’s talk about cuts, given that, if I am not mistaken, it was the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who went on the record calling for 10% cuts in the police budget? Perhaps my hon. Friend will reflect on that for a moment—
It is on the record.
My view is that we judge people by what they say. I know that there will be indignation from Labour Members, but as we have seen when the Labour party was in government the quality of the delivery of public services is not always totally interwoven with the budgets allocated to them. Indeed, there are massive opportunities to get more for less, and surely that should be the acme of performance.
May I say to the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who has just taken his place in this Chamber, that, frankly, this has been a better debate than that? His unreasonable slur on the Opposition is about our stance on the police services rather than on the fire services. It would be really good if he read the Whips’ report more carefully before he intervenes next time.
May I say to the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), to whom I have been listening, that his points are interesting and have some validity, but London is rather different from areas outside London? Over decades, London has got used to having a single seat of government—even though there was an interregnum when the Greater London Council was disbanded. The reality is that when our constituents do not know where to go to complain about a service or to bring up an issue, they end up at the door of our town halls. It does not matter whether we are talking about Newham or Newcastle, that is where they go.