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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 February 2011

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Bribery Act 2010

1. Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): What recent progress he has made on the preparation of guidance on the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. [40452]

3. Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Which bodies he has consulted in the preparation of guidance on the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. [40454]

6. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): When he plans to implement the Bribery Act 2010; and if he will make a statement. [40457]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I am at present working on the guidance to commercial organisations to make it practical and useful for legitimate business and trade. It will be published once I am confident that it addresses the legitimate concerns of all those who took part in the consultation process and who have made representations to me. The publication of the guidance will be followed by a three-month notice period before full implementation of the Act.

Mr Binley: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the offences in the Act should not prevent businesses from using legitimate and proportionate promotional expenditure or corporate hospitality? I welcome the fact that he is going to prepare guidance, but will he do so on the basis that there is some fear and lack of knowledge out there, which needs to be dealt with?

Mr Clarke: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I have had meetings with organisations such as the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, whose members are particularly frightened about the prospects. Ordinary hospitality to meet and network with customers and to improve relationships is an ordinary part of business and should never be a criminal offence. I hope to put out very clear guidance for businesses of all sizes to make that clear and to save
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them from the fears that are sometimes aroused by the compliance industry-the consultants and lawyers who will, of course, try to persuade companies that millions of pounds must be spent on new systems that, in my opinion, no honest firm will require to comply with the Act.

Joseph Johnson: Many of our competitors overseas will not be so keen to rule out bribery as a means of competing. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that British businesses are not put at a competitive disadvantage?

Mr Clarke: Along with the United States and others, we are one of the leading countries in pressing for a drive against corruption in the world, because corruption is bad for all business, including British business when it tries to export to other countries. Because of the debate that is taking place about the Act, I have had to reassure my American colleagues that we are not falling behind and that we will implement the Act. It is very important that we put ourselves where we should be-in the forefront of stamping out corruption not only in the developing world but in international trade generally.

Paul Goggins: May I encourage the Secretary of State to get on and implement the Act as soon as possible? Will he provide an assurance this afternoon that when the guidance is published, there will be no loophole for joint ventures or subsidiaries that would enable British companies to turn a blind eye to corruption?

Mr Clarke: I give that assurance, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am trying to get on with it. I believe it is possible to satisfy those who think we should give a lead in helping to stamp out corruption in international trade and other aspects of international relationships, and at the same time satisfy honest businesses that do not want unnecessary costs and burdens put upon them. They want the situation explained clearly to them so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) said, ordinary hospitality cannot possibly be affected by the Act.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Although I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that the Act will eventually be implemented, his comments today sound like rather a watering-down of the proposals. Yet the Foreign Secretary said at the Dispatch Box just two weeks ago:

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that that is how the Act will be applied?

Mr Clarke: First, there is no watering-down of the Act. All parties supported it when it went through the House, and we are going to implement it properly. It requires me to provide statutory guidance to businesses on what steps they should take to ensure that they are trying to prevent bribery, and that is what I am working on. I believe that it is possible to produce guidance and enforce the Act in a way that produces the rigour and fairness that the hon. Gentleman demands. There is no backing down from the principles of the Act at all.

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Legal Aid

2. Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effects of his proposals for legal aid reform on the provision of face-to-face legal advice; and if he will make a statement. [40453]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published initial impact assessments, including equality impact assessments, with our reform proposals, including the proposal to establish the community legal advice helpline as the single gateway to civil legal aid services. Face-to-face advice will continue to be available where it is appropriate.

Mr Cunningham: I am very interested in that reply. What does the Under-Secretary mean by "appropriate"? That seems to me to be a little get-out clause. I assume that he does MPs' surgeries. If so, he knows that people need face-to-face contact with their representatives-in this case, solicitors-to help them out. The measures will hurt some of the poorest families.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that we are not considering some future project-the advice line exists. It was used by 600,000 people last year and it is getting something like a 90% satisfaction rating. Poorer people can be called back so that they do not pay for the call. Those who live in remote areas often greatly appreciate the telephone call, and those who are disabled also much appreciate having access by telephone. I take the exact opposite position from the hon. Gentleman and say that the advice line will help vulnerable people.

Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the Under-Secretary accept that restricting advice on housing matters could result in more homelessness and additional costs to homelessness budgets in local authorities?

Mr Djanogly: No, I do not, because we are not proposing to remove legal aid when imminent homelessness is a possibility. Legal aid will be retained in that situation.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Is the Under-Secretary aware that there is deep resentment in my constituency about the attack on the South Manchester law centre, which is hugely valued, and about the attacks on advice bureaux? Will he understand that the activities of the malign Legal Services Commission will remove access to legal services for people on limited means?

Mr Djanogly: Just to be absolutely sure, neither my ministerial colleagues nor I, as far as I know, have attacked the South Manchester law centre in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. If he would like to give me details of exactly what he is talking about, I would be happy to take it up.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Many senior barristers earn hundreds of thousands-if not millions-of pounds from the public purse in the form of legal aid. What plans has the Under-Secretary to introduce a form of cap to stop the funds running to such sums?

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Mr Djanogly: We have no proposals to put a cap in place. The amount of work that is carried out will be just that. We are looking at the rates that are paid in certain circumstances, and people's eligibility to receive advice in the first place.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Citizens Advice, the main provider of face-to-face advice, faces cuts of up to 45% and law centres face cuts of 70%. Legal service funding is an essential part of the income of all law centres and most CABs, but, according to the Government's own figures, it is being cut by 90%. I welcome the Business Secretary's U-turn on reinstating debt advice for one year only. Will the Under-Secretary take the opportunity, in considering the many responses to his consultation, to perform his own U-turn and drop his plans to end social welfare legal aid? If not, does he accept that the whole country will become an advice desert, and that he will be known as the man who ended universal access to justice?

Mr Djanogly: Anyone who suggests that there is universal access to justice in the context of access to legal aid has missed, for a start, the restrictions that the previous Labour Government put on access. We need take no lessons from the hon. Gentleman's party, which, on the day the election was called, cut criminal legal aid by 13%. We take no lessons from him.

4. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely effects of the planned reduction in the legal aid budget on citizens advice bureaux and law centres. [40455]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published equality impact assessments with our reform proposals. They considered impacts on the not-for-profit sector collectively, but not on individual types of not-for-profit organisation. We are working closely with colleagues across Government to formulate a coherent approach to that issue so that we can encourage and co-ordinate support for the valuable not-for-profit sector.

Anas Sarwar: The reforms mean that people are now expected to represent themselves in an increasing number of proceedings. However, the Government's figures show that the success rate for people who receive proper legal advice and help before appearing in court is double that for those without representation, even though their cases have equal merit. Given that the Under-Secretary has already mentioned potential cuts for CABs and law centres, how does that fit with the principle of equal access to justice for all?

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate that the not-for-profit sector, while being valuable, often offers legal advice in circumstances in which general help is needed. There are many different funding streams, and we are talking about the legal aid funding stream, whereby CABs, for instance, receive only 15% of their funds from the Ministry of Justice. That makes it a cross-departmental issue, which we are taking up on a cross-departmental basis-something that the Labour party failed to do throughout its period in government.

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Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am encouraged by the Minister's emphasis on cross-departmental co-operation. Will he assure me that he and his colleagues will do everything they can to maintain the continuation of services such as the Wiltshire law centre and the citizens advice bureau in my constituency, which often find that legal and social issues cannot be distinguished?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend says that some centres find that legal and social issues cannot be distinguished, but that depends on how they are funded. For instance, only 50% of CABs receive any Ministry of Justice funding whatever. That very much depends on whether a centre offers general or legal help. However, I repeat that we realise that advice provision needs to be looked at on a cross-departmental basis. We appreciate that there is an issue for not-for-profits, and we are determined to address it.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that the other funding streams he talks about are often from local government to advice bureaux, law centres and CABs? All over the country, they are being decimated. Many valuable voluntary advice services that give not legal advice, but wraparound, general advice, face enormous cuts. Thus, people lose out on benefits and opportunities, and often end up homeless as a result of a lack of appropriate advice at the necessary time.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, and has clarified a point that I made earlier: there is a difference between general advice and legal advice. We appreciate that not-for-profits have an issue when we consider funding streams all added together. Those who attended the legal aid debate two weeks ago would have heard me make a plea to local government to support the general advice provided by their CABs. I repeat that plea today.

Prisoners (Rehabilitation)

5. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that prisoners gain the skills and experience required to find work after leaving prison. [40456]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): With the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Ministry of Justice is undertaking a review of offender learning, which includes how best to provide learning that will improve prisoners' employability. The Green Paper, "Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders", sets out our intention to make prisons places where many more prisoners work and gain employment experience.

Jeremy Lefroy: I welcome the Government's emphasis on rehabilitation. Up and down the country, including in Staffordshire, many organisations work very hard and very effectively-and cheaply-on that. Will the Minister agree to meet me and colleagues from Staffordshire to discuss how we can continue to support such organisations?

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Mr Blunt: I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues from Staffordshire. Prisons and probation trusts already work with a large number of community organisations, but the Green Paper makes it clear that we want an ever-wider range of community organisations and individuals to become involved in helping ex-offenders to lead law-abiding lives. The system change that we are making, which I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friends, will enable the big society to help us to deliver a revolution in rehabilitation.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Does the Minister not understand that all his good intentions and fine words will be swamped by the massive spending cuts that his Department is taking? Closing three prisons and cutting the building programme will worsen overcrowding, and cutting 23%-some 10,000-of the front-line prison and probation staff will reduce the number of opportunities for prisoners to train and work. When will he come forward with a credible strategy?

Mr Blunt: We are about to come forward with a credible offender learning strategy. The budget will remain very much the same as that which we inherited, because we realise that that strategy is a priority. Unfortunately, a significant amount of the money spent under the previous Administration went to waste. If the hon. Lady reads the reports from independent monitoring boards, she will see repeated complaints about the quality of offender learning in prisons under the previous Administration. We will put that right.

Legal Aid

7. Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): What plans he has for the size of his Department's budget for civil legal aid. [40458]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published impact assessments alongside our reform proposals setting out their potential financial implications. We estimated that the savings to civil legal aid would be around £255 million by 2014-15. Total civil legal aid expenditure was around £900 million in 2008-09.

Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): We all appreciate the need to make savings, but citizens advice bureaux, including the Charnwood CAB in my constituency, play an important role-hon. Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to their CABs. Mention has been made of the difference between legal and general help. May I suggest that the Minister consider, with the Department for Work and Pensions, simplifying the length of the forms that people need to fill in? The CAB currently helps benefits claimants who sometimes have to fill in forms of up to 52 pages in length.

Mr Djanogly: Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that we are in discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions on exactly that matter, and more generally on improving early intervention, so that preferably people will not need to go to a tribunal at all.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): We heard evidence this morning that conditional fee agreements were driving up costs in clinical negligence cases. Will the Minister look again at Lord Justice Jackson's view that legal aid in such cases should not be cut?

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Mr Djanogly: We are indeed doing that. The consultation on Lord Justice Jackson's recommendations closed yesterday, and we have had a large number of responses. We will look carefully at those over the coming weeks and come back with our response to the consultation. I agree that this is an important matter in terms of legal aid and conditional fees arrangements in so far as half of clinical negligence cases are funded by the former and half by the latter.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): On budget savings, has the Minister had a chance to consider how much might be saved in the legal aid budget by not allowing cases of unaccompanied children and young people whose asylum claims have failed to be dealt with under legal aid, and indeed those who have fled domestic slavery? Will he look again at whether the savings derived are appropriate, given the impact that it will have on these categories of people?

Mr Djanogly: In all of those circumstances-the hon. Gentleman mentioned a lot quickly-I think that we will be retaining access to legal aid.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Recently, Ministers drew attention to the staggering sum of £38 per head of population in England and Wales being spent on legal aid funding. That figure is £3 in France and £5 in Germany. Will he give us the comparisons with the rest of the regions of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland and Scotland?

Mr Djanogly: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that England and Wales spend more on legal aid than anywhere else in the world except Northern Ireland. In Spain, the figure is about £2.50, in France £3, in Germany £5 and in other common law countries it is more like £9 to £11. Some people say that our system is different, but actually other common law countries spend about a third of what we spend on legal aid. After our proposals, we will still be spending more on legal aid than any other country in the world.

Early Release Scheme

8. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): How many prisoners with convictions for violent offences were released under the early release scheme between 2007 and 2010. [40459]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Between 29 June 2007 and 9 April 2010, 81,578 prisoners were released under the end of custody licence scheme. Of those, 16,335 were violent offenders. The scheme finished last year with the last release on 9 April.

Mark Menzies: Does the Minister agree that the consequences of the previous Government failing to get a grip on reoffending were that our prisons reached bursting point until the then Justice Secretary had to release prisoners early, thus putting the public at risk?

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. By failing to plan properly for the necessary prison accommodation, the previous Government were forced to resort to the end of custody licence scheme. More
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than 1,600 of those 80,000 prisoners released committed further offences while on the scheme, including very serious offences. One of those offences was murder.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): How confident are the Government that fast-tracking the release of prisoners with sentences of imprisonment for public protection-IPP prisoners-will not put the public at increased risk of serious crime?

Nick Herbert: We will take no risks in this respect. All prisoners who have to be released under the IPP scheme will be properly risk assessed. I repeat that the problem with the previous Government's approach was that these prisoners were released automatically simply because the previous Government had run out of space. However, that scheme was cynically brought to an end just before the last election.

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Of the 16,300 or so prisoners whom the Minister mentioned, how many were failed asylum applicants who were not deported?

Nick Herbert: I am afraid that I do not have those figures available for my hon. Friend. However, there is a separate issue about the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails, and it remains the Government's policy to seek to remove them on release as soon as possible.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Can the Minister confirm that on four occasions-in 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1996-the previous Conservative Government released prisoners earlier and with far fewer safeguards? Let me also ask him about the early release of prisoners convicted of violent offences. He mentioned that those serving an IPP sentence will be released early. Exactly how many of the 6,000 prisoners currently serving an IPP sentence will be released early, and what criteria will be used?

Nick Herbert: I am happy to confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that none will be released early and all will continue to be risk-assessed.

Sadiq Khan: Let me ask the Minister to answer this question accurately then. Can he confirm that, as a direct consequence of the cuts that his Department has accepted from the Treasury, there are now fewer programmes for those on an IPP sentence, which means a longer delay before they go on a programme? Can he also confirm that the consequence of the cuts in front-line probation and prison officers will be less rehabilitation while in prison, and that another consequence of the cuts that he has accepted will be cuts to the Parole Board, which will mean a double whammy of more prisoners being released prematurely and less rehabilitation in prison?

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman has to get his attack right. One moment he seemed to be saying that we were about to release too many IPP prisoners; now he seems to be saying that we will release too few. Which is it? The fact is that there has been a growth in the number of IPP prisoners. Everybody accepts that IPP sentences have become de facto life sentences and that we have to address that, but there will continue to be a proper risk-assessment of any prisoner released from an indeterminate public protection sentence.

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Foreign Prisoners (Translation Services)

9. Mr Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of provision of language translation support for foreign national prisoners. [40460]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Translation and interpretation services are provided locally through central contracts. It is for the local prison authorities to determine the extent to which translation services are needed on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Brine: Foreign national prisoners constitute about 15% of the total inmate population at HMP Winchester. A constituent of mine who is a member of the local monitoring board has raised concerns with me about the language translation support made available to foreign inmates there, particularly where deportation documents are issued. Does the Minister agree that putting in place efficient translation measures would help to improve the speed and efficiency with which inmates who have served their sentences and are awaiting deportation from our country are moved through the system?

Mr Blunt: I certainly would agree. We want to make it clear that we want absolutely no administrative hurdles put in the way of deporting foreign national prisoners back to where they belong.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Just for the purposes of planning for language services, will the Minister indicate what changes he expects in either the percentage or number of foreign national prisoners in this country over the next 12 months, so that we can judge his success in deportation?

Mr Blunt: All I know is that, having inherited the utterly dreadful position that we face-a position for which the right hon. Gentleman bears some responsibility, having held responsibilities in this area in the past-we are determined to make as much progress as possible. He understands, having presided over a doubling in the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails, just how difficult it is to get them sent home once they are here, but we will be making as much progress as we possibly can.

Rehabilitation Policy

10. Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): With which third sector organisations he plans to work to deliver his rehabilitation revolution policy. [40461]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The voluntary sector has a critical role to play in delivering the Government's rehabilitation revolution. We will open up the market to enable a greater number of independent providers, including from the voluntary and social enterprise sectors, to contribute towards reducing crime and reoffending. We have consulted widely with the sector to develop the proposals in our Green Paper.

Fiona Bruce: Excellent work is being done by local voluntary organisations, such as the Message Trust in Manchester, to help ex-prisoners stay away from
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reoffending. What can the Minister do to ensure that smaller charities are not excluded by large corporations bidding for payment-by-results schemes?

Nick Herbert: I want to reassure my hon. Friend that we certainly do not wish the smaller charities to be excluded from the rehabilitation revolution. The organisations that she mentions are not in the pilot scheme that we are running in Peterborough, where the social impact bond involves two key voluntary organisations, and we want that to continue in the other pilots that we are pursuing.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): We obviously welcome the rehabilitation revolution, but is the Minister aware that there is concern among prison governors about the increased amount of time that inmates will be required to spend in their cells, thereby being unable to partake in any rehabilitation, because of the cuts to the prison budget? What assurances can he give prison governors that they will not have to increase the amount of time for which prisoners are just banged up?

Nick Herbert: I am afraid that prisoners were also spending too much time in their cells and not pursuing purposeful activity under the previous Government, when there were increases in spending, year on year. So this problem is not simply linked to spending. We are determined that prisons should be places of work and purposeful activity, so that we can focus on reducing reoffending.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Assuming that payment-by-results schemes get beyond the pilot stage, what commissioning organisations do Ministers envisage deciding between private, public and third sector bidders, and how will the scheme function to provide contracts on a scale that charities and third sector organisations can undertake?

Nick Herbert: As we set out in the Green Paper, we are consulting on how the five pilot schemes should proceed in various sectors, in order to see how we can make payment by results work. The existing pilot, involving the Peterborough social impact bond, is also still running. Our intentions are to unlock the expertise of the independent and third sectors in order to reduce reoffending, and to examine how the public sector can participate in the schemes.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): In the corner of Staffordshire and Cheshire, we have a state-of-the-art community chaplaincy scheme, which has got reoffending down to 12 %, compared with the national average of 70%. In the meeting that the Ministers have promised to have with Staffordshire Members, will they undertake when considering rehabilitation to take account of the best practice shown by that scheme in Stoke-on-Trent?

Nick Herbert: Those are precisely the kind of schemes whose expertise we want to unlock, and we want to engage more of them where we can. The rehabilitation revolution will provide an opportunity to do that. The key is to upscale such projects and make them more widely available, which is why payment by results offers such an important opportunity.

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Human Rights Act 1998

11. Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): What work his Department is undertaking on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998. [40462]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): The Government are committed to establishing a commission in 2011 to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights. We will make a statement to Parliament on the precise terms of reference and the appointment of the commission in due course.

Pamela Nash: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he wishes to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights, while the Deputy Prime Minister seems determined to defend the Act. Will the Secretary of State make it clear today, once and for all, on which side of the fence his Department sits?

Mr Clarke: What my two right hon. colleagues agreed on in the coalition agreement was to establish a commission to investigate the case for a Bill of Rights. I am now discussing that with the Deputy Prime Minister and, as I have said, we will announce in due course the terms of reference for the commission that is to resolve the issue.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Yet again, the coalition Government are doing the right thing by looking at a Bill of Rights. The Secretary of State never wastes any time, so will he tell me when the commission is going to report and when we are going to get some action?

Mr Clarke: We have firmly and urgently committed ourselves to establishing the commission in the year 2011.

Disability Living Allowance (Tribunals)

12. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What advice his Department provides to members of tribunals hearing appeals against decisions on the award of disability living allowance. [40463]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Ministry of Justice does not provide any advice to members of tribunals, because the judiciary is entirely independent of the Government.

Bob Russell: Well, I suggest that it is about time the Department did something. It has only to look at the case of Mr Robert Oxley, which I raised at Prime Minister's question time last month. The Minister would do well to look at the records of the tribunal in Colchester, and particularly at the cases heard by Mrs Hampshire.

Mr Djanogly: I must emphasise to my hon. Friend that it is not for Ministers to adjudicate on judges' behaviour, because they are independent of the Government. I can tell him, however, that tribunal members undertake annual refresher training, which enables them to carry out their duties effectively. Any appellant who is unhappy with the decision of a tribunal can appeal to the upper tribunal. If an appellant is unhappy with the conduct of the panel, or a member of the panel, they can make a complaint to the regional judge.

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Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): The tribunal system is under a lot of pressure, with an average wait of between 11 and 12 weeks. This is not only because of disability living allowance claims, but because more people will be coming into the tribunal service as the Government proceed with their migration of those on incapacity benefit on to employment and support allowance. The system is already experiencing stresses and strains. What are the Government going to do to ensure that people get the correct determination in as timeous a way as possible?

Mr Djanogly: We have been in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that we have a better, more seamless system between the two Departments. We have also been dealing with the increase in tribunal hearings, which the hon. Lady rightly brings up, and have increased the number of judges and the number of medical staff. I am pleased to say that it is now within our sights to end the backlog.

Community Sentences

13. Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): What plans he has for community sentences. [40464]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): We want non-custodial sentences to reflect more clearly and closely the principles of sentencing. Community payback will be a more definitively punitive disposal-more immediate and more intensive. Restoration to victims will also have a higher priority, with compensation orders to victims becoming the first consideration for sentencers. Public protection will be delivered through curfews and reporting requirements and more flexibility for offender managers to deliver rehabilitation through interventions tailored to the individual circumstances of each offender.

Mel Stride: Community sentences are often seen by the public as a bit of a soft option. Can my hon. Friend provide some specific examples of how he will ensure that they are tough enough?

Mr Blunt: The Green Paper sets out our intention to make community payback more intensive, more immediate and better enforced. We also intend to provide tougher punishment and better public protection by increasing the duration of electronically monitored curfews. The maximum hours might be increased from 12 to 16 each day and the maximum length of a curfew from six months to a year.

Prisoners' Work

14. Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): What plans he has to increase the amount of work carried out by prisoners. [40465]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): We have set out our intention to make prisons places of work and industry in the Green Paper published on 7 December 2010, and our response to the consultation will be published in May this year. Achieving a significant increase in useful work, which is also economically positive for the Prison Service, victims and rehabilitation, is a high priority for this Government.

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Chris Skidmore: Does the Minister agree that we need to get more prisoners working so that when they are released, they are more likely to get back into employment? How many hours does he suggest prisoners should spend working each week?

Mr Blunt: We would like get to a position where prisoners work an ordinary working week of 40 hours. No one should underestimate the difficulty of making that a reality across the entire prison estate, as prisons have different purposes and a different physical geography in each case. I am absolutely determined, however, to use all our endeavours to maximise the amount of productive work done in prisons. That is why I have said that this is a first-order priority, certainly for this Prisons Minister.

Legal Aid

15. Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely outcomes of the planned reductions in the legal aid budget. [40466]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Our approach to the legal aid reforms has been to focus resources on those who most need help in the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. I believe that the outcome will be a system that is more responsive to public needs, allowing people to resolve their issues out of court, using simpler, more informal remedies where appropriate, and encouraging more efficient resolution of contested cases where necessary.

Shabana Mahmood: My constituency is one of the most deprived in the country and is also 60% non-white. Given that the Government's cuts to legal aid will disproportionately affect those on low incomes, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and women, can the Minister explain how his plans for legal aid are in any way fair?

Mr Djanogly: I should point out that people on high incomes do not get legal aid. We need to change behaviour; there needs to be a less contentious approach to the law and early intervention, which means looking at new ideas such as mediation.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): With regard to the outcomes of the reforms, particularly in family law cases, will the Minister clarify and confirm that in such cases, divorcing couples' equity and assets will be taken into account when determining legal aid so that those who can pay do pay?

Mr Djanogly: In public family law, legal aid will remain. In private family law, legal aid will be removed, because we believe fundamentally that the taxpayer should not have to pay for a regular divorce, a contact application or splitting up family assets. People should go to mediation to sort out their problems among themselves-not at the cost of the taxpayer.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I have an example of a case in Sheffield where a 62-year-old grandmother used legal aid to go through the processes
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she needed to go through to care for her two grandchildren, who were otherwise at risk of going into care. Will the Minister assure me that grandparents in such a situation will be able to do that in future? Otherwise, the cost to the state of caring for small children will be considerably more than that of the legal aid.

Mr Djanogly: What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we do not propose to remove public family law legal aid, and that includes cases in which the state wants to take away someone's children.

Young Offenders Institutions

16. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What plans he has for future funding for training for employees to work in young offenders institutions. [40467]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): The juvenile awareness staff programme, known as JASP, is the only training programme that is specifically designed for staff working in young offenders institutions holding those aged under 18. In partnership with the Youth Justice Board, the National Offender Management Service provides JASP training for staff working in public sector young offenders institutions. Funding from the YJB for JASP training is agreed for 2011-12.

Karl Turner: I am sure that the Minister shares my concern about the tragic case of Adam Rickwood, who committed suicide shortly after being restrained by youth detention officers when in custody in 2004. Can he assure the House that the savage cuts to his Department will not result in any diminution of safe restraint techniques in such institutions?

Mr Blunt: Let me take this opportunity to convey, again, our commiserations to the family of Adam Rickwood, who died in such sad circumstances. The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is, of course, yes.

Sentencing Guidelines

17. Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): What plans he has for the future of sentencing guidelines. [40468]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Responsibility for the issuing of sentencing guidelines rests not with the Government but with the independent Sentencing Guidelines Council. It is for the council to decide on what matters such guidelines should be prepared for the courts.

Mr Nuttall: I thank the Minister for his answer, but I think that many people outside the House will look to it for leadership on the issue of sentencing. Will he give a clear steer to the council that we must never see a repeat of what we saw last month, when a judge was unable to do what he wanted and send a house burglar to prison because of the sentencing guidelines?

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Mr Blunt: Let me caution my hon. Friend slightly against wholly relying on the account of that case that we read in the press. What we ought to know is that the judge was able to give that individual a very significant community sentence. Indeed, he concluded that a prison sentence would probably have been a rather lighter punishment, given all the conditions involved in the community sentence. However, the House will have an opportunity to make its views heard in due course when a sentencing Bill is introduced.

Employment and Support Allowance

19. Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): If he will bring forward proposals to reduce the time taken by tribunals to determine the outcome of appeals against work capability assessments for employment and support allowance. [40471]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Tribunals Service has already acted to increase its capacity to dispose of more appeals. It expects to return to normal levels of work in hand for employment support and allowance appeals by the summer of 2011.

Duncan Hames: In Chippenham, 50% of such appeals are consistently upheld. Those cases need never have arisen if the Government's assessor, Atos Healthcare, had had a sufficient incentive to get the decisions right in the first place. The cost to the Department and the taxpayer was about £10 million last year. Will the Minister discuss with the Department for Work and Pensions mechanisms by which the liability could be transferred from the taxpayer to the Government's contractor?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions has worked to improve the quality of the original decision making and its reconsideration process so that only appropriate appeals filter through to the Tribunals Service. I am in regular contact with the Department to discuss the matter.

Bribery Act

20. John Howell (Henley) (Con): Which organisations he consulted in preparing guidance on the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. [40472]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave in reply to Question 1.

John Howell: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his comments on statutory guidance. During the Committee stage of the Bribery Bill, there seemed to be little appreciation among Labour Members that there were such things as legitimate promotional activities for companies. Will he ensure that the guidance is both clear and practical?

Mr Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who is now Under-Secretary of State for Justice, led for the Opposition at that time, and I believe that it was Conservative Members-including my hon. Friend the
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Member for Henley (John Howell)-who raised the problems that could be posed for legitimate businesses. It is because of those problems that we need the guidance, and the guidance must make it absolutely clear that ordinary, legitimate promotion-hospitality and similar activities in which people engage in order to project the quality of their company and its products or services, and to establish personal relationships with clients and customers-is all part of international trade. The Bill can be used to tackle corruption without damaging British business at a time of, we hope, revival in our international trade.

Prison Estate

21. Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): What plans he has for the future of the prison estate. [40473]The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Our current plans are to build the prisons to which we are contractually committed, and we recently announced the closure of three prisons. The Ministry of Justice recently published a Green Paper outlining proposals for reforms to sentencing and rehabilitation. We are considering our long-term strategy for prisons in the light of these policy developments.

Eric Ollerenshaw: I thank the Minister for his answer. Is it possible to give an update on the planned closure of Lancaster Castle prison, particularly in regard to the redeployment of staff and future use of the castle?

Mr Blunt: The Ministry of Justice is in discussions with the Duchy of Lancaster, which owns the castle, regarding its future use after its closure as a prison. All staff at Lancaster Castle will be either redeployed to other establishments, retained at the prison to provide ongoing maintenance or offered the opportunity to leave the service on voluntary exit terms.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Can the Minister tell the House what proposals his Government have for the future market testing of existing prisons in the UK?

Mr Blunt: We inherited a competition strategy from the last Administration, which is continuing. The strategy is being applied to prisons that are currently in the public sector, particularly Birmingham.

HM Courts Service

23. Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): What recent progress his Department has made in recouping outstanding financial penalties that remain uncollected by HM Courts Service. [40475]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have published impact assessments and equality impact assessments alongside the legal aid consultation, and these set out in detail what we think the effects of the proposals might be. We must face up to tough choices, and our proposals focus resources on those who need help most for the most serious cases in which legal advice and representation are justified.

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Kris Hopkins: I think that was the wrong answer to my question.

I hope the Secretary of State has made progress in collecting the money that criminals have been fined, and may I ask that once we have collected some of the money and we have made a contribution to reducing the deficit, we increase our prison capacity?

Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister delivered his answer with admirable force and self-confidence, but I think it suffered from being the wrong answer, as he was, perhaps, not expecting to be responding to this question. If he can provide us with the right answer to the question now, we will be very grateful.

Mr Djanogly: I think the appropriate answer in the circumstances, Mr Speaker, is that we will look into this issue and get back to the House.

Topical Questions

T1. [40478] Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): May I begin by making a topical statement, Mr Speaker?

Hon. Members will know that I am determined to deliver much overdue reform to the way in which the criminal justice system operates. Every year, 1.8 million criminal hearings and trials take place. The police, judiciary and others far too often find that the bureaucratic, inefficient system works against their best efforts, rather than for them. It is immensely frustrating that, for example, the key people in the system-the police, prosecutors and probation staff-are often unable to e-mail each other the crucial information they need to bring a prosecution; it all has to be done in hard copy. The average straightforward case heard in the magistrates courts takes 19 weeks from the offence being committed to the case concluding, and only four out of every 10 trials in the magistrates courts go ahead on the planned day. We cannot afford to maintain this sort of system that wastes the time of the police, victims and witnesses.

I am therefore working on radical plans to modernise and reform the criminal justice system and reduce these bureaucratic failings with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the judiciary, the criminal justice agencies and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, who will take the lead role in co-ordinating our efforts. I look forward to receiving any representations on the subject and will report back to the House in the summer.

Mr Speaker: Order. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State did not also lay out the plans in the course of his answer.

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his very full answer. Many young offenders are drawn into a cycle of crime that sees them spend many years of their life in detention. What steps does he think will help young people to get a second chance?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): The first thing is to have increased early intervention to avoid their needing a second chance in the first place. Then we need to ensure that young offenders are offered more of an opportunity to pay back their victims and communities, and to incentivise local partners to reduce youth offending and reoffending by using new payment-by-results models.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): In this Saturday's excellent Mary Riddell interview in The Daily Telegraph, the Lord Chancellor said:

I remind the House that in times of both growth and recession between 1997 and 2010 the level of crime consistently went down. I know that he is neither sloppy nor complacent, so can he tell the House what crimes he thinks will go up, why he thinks they will go up and what he is going to do about it?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: During the period of the Labour Government, to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, acquisitive crimes against property fell particularly sharply. That was because of the growth of the economy and the boom, among other matters; these things are not too simple. The biggest fall in crime achieved when Labour was in office was on vehicle crimes, because the vehicle manufacturers greatly improved the security of the vehicles and made this more difficult. In this contentious and not simple area of what causes crime and what does not, I have always been inclined to believe that in times of recession the level of crime against property is likely to rise and in times of growth it tends to fall. That is why I have to be prepared to accommodate however many people are sent to us by the courts. What we are doing about it is making what I hope is a more effective system of preventing crime and of diverting people out of crime but punishing severely those who commit it.

T2. [40479] Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): According to Ministry of Justice figures, only 44% of people convicted of burglary offences actually get immediate custodial sentences. Does the Secretary of State think that that figure is about right or does he intend to take legislative steps to increase it?

Mr Clarke: As the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), said in reply to a question a moment ago, sentencing is a matter for the Sentencing Guidelines Council and for the judges, who hear all the facts of the case; they can hear a victim's statement and they can hear mitigation for the accused. We keep an eye on percentages, of course, but the sentence in each case has to be the appropriate sentence for the facts of and the offender in the case. Although burglary is a serious offence that normally attracts imprisonment, it covers a wide range of circumstances, from someone breaking in with a hood over his head in the middle of the night to someone walking through an open door grabbing a knick-knack and running out through the door again. So we have to leave it to the judges.

T6. [40483] Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State considered carefully the representations that he will have received concerning
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clause 151 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill on universal jurisdiction? He will be aware that restricting access to the British courts in respect of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world will send a very bad message to the rest of the world and will make this country a more pleasant place for war criminals and those who have committed crimes against humanity to try to come to.

Mr Clarke: I must make it absolutely clear that the Government are not reducing, in any way, the importance we attach to the proper enforcement of the law against those guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity. We are making a slight change to the circumstances in which a citizen can obtain an arrest. The prior approval of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be needed, in order to make sure that there is a reasonable prospect of prosecution in the case; that is not where we are at the moment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that nobody on either side of the House wishes to see this country downgrade the importance we attach to enforcing crimes against humanity and war crimes.

T3. [40480] Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): It is reported that about 70% of prison inmates are believed to have two or more mental health conditions and that about one in 10 prison inmates has a serious mental health problem. What steps are the Government taking better to identify and help prisoners with mental illness?

Mr Blunt: As we made clear in the Green Paper, we will, with the Department of Health, have invested £50 million by 2014 in establishing a liaison and diversion service, both in the police stations and in courts, to ensure that people who should more appropriately be treated in the health service do not go to prison. Of course prisons and secure mental hospitals will remain the appropriate place for offenders who have committed serious offences and pose a risk to the public. Prison health services will continue to provide care and treatment for the majority of prisoners with mental illness, with the additional support of specialist mental health inreach teams.

T7. [40484] Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): On the planned national diversion service, will the Minister tell the House who will provide the mental health assessments in police stations and courts that will be necessary for that service to work? Have the necessary provisions to provide that service been included in the budget?

Mr Blunt: Those assessments are a matter of health rather than justice, so the Department of Health is leading on establishing the liaison for diversion services.

T4. [40481] Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): How does the Lord High Chancellor envisage promoting the big society in his Department, particularly in terms of shop theft and having some kind of community payback in relation to those who have stolen from society in that way?

Mr Blunt: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend who has done particularly good work in this area in getting policy changes under the previous Administration. We
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want to make restorative justice and compensation orders the first point of departure for such offences so that offenders are able to make good to their victims.

T8. [40485] Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Will the Minister reconsider his original thinking on the definition of domestic violence and the evidential requirement when deciding whether to make legal aid available in family law cases?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I have to tell the hon. Lady that we have just consulted on this-the consultation ended yesterday-and that we will consider carefully what people have said. We put a definition of domestic violence in the Green Paper and we will look carefully at how people have commented on that.

T5. [40482] Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): In an effort to save legal aid, and following the vote in the House last Thursday, why not now exclude expressly from any legal aid application prisoners who seek to claim compensation from the Government for not having the right to vote?

Mr Blunt: As I understand it, the likely level of compensation would mean that prisoners making such claims would not be eligible for legal aid in any event. However, that will not prevent the situation with no win, no fee arrangements, as a substantial case list is being created by solicitors touting for custom.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): The whole House will be aware of the worst scenes of poverty in America. Will the Minister with responsibility for legal aid reconsider his reply? Currently, both local authorities and his Department are cutting the money available for advice. Where will the people of Haringey, the constituency in which the baby P and Victoria Climbié cases occurred, get that advice?

Mr Djanogly: Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that citizens advice bureaux and not-for-profit organisations have been able to do legal aid work for only 11 years. Before that, they just gave general advice. He must appreciate that when the previous Government allowed those organisations to do legal aid work, they did not look at the matter holistically. They did not look at the various funding streams coming together or at the waste in the system. Now that the money has gone, we are having to look at those things.

T9. [40486] Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I was delighted to hear over the weekend that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has managed to find an additional £27 million to pay for CAB debt advisers. Could any additional funding be found by the Ministry of Justice for groups such as the Brighton housing trust in my constituency, which plays an important role in providing housing advice of the kind that, if it is not dealt with at an early stage, ends up costing-

Mr Speaker: Order. We are very grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Djanogly: Yes, we are looking at various early interventions in relation to housing, welfare benefits, special educational needs and, importantly, private family law.

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Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Minister recognises that there is a need for advice on debt, benefits, housing and many other things. The problem faced by the constituents of Members on both sides of the House is that although the cuts to legal aid are happening now, his proposed solution seems a long way off. What is going to fill the gap?

Mr Djanogly: We accept that there are issues in terms of funding because a lot of advice is given as general advice and is mainly funded by local councils. We are in discussions across government about how we can approach the matter holistically to make sure that such provision stays in place.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that increasing the number of people in our prisons should not be an end of Government policy in itself, but rather that the prison population should reflect the number of indictable crimes committed?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, although determining how many prisoners we should have can become a completely false argument, as that is determined in any event by the courts reacting to the level of crime and proposing appropriate sentences. We are determined to use prisons so that not only do they punish the offender, but, where possible, we can increase the number of offenders who are persuaded to give up crime when released and cease to offend thereafter, which will reduce the number of victims. I think that the approach taken by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), is the common-sense approach and in the public interest.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The Lord Chancellor should not allow himself to be pushed around by The Sun newspaper. Does he agree that the cause of public justice would be best served if News International spent less time traducing the characters of Ministers and more time revealing to the Metropolitan police the contents of the e-mails held in the data warehouse in central London?

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Mr Clarke: I shall try to avoid following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in answering that question. Kelvin MacKenzie could confirm to the hon. Gentleman that I have not been pushed about by The Sun for as long as either he or I can remember.

I was amused to read the article by the leader of the Labour party in The Sun this morning, remembering his resounding promise not to try to out-right the Conservative party on the subject. I was reminded of an article by Tony Blair published just before the 1997 election and entitled "Why I Love the Pound". When I read the Leader of the Opposition's article this morning, I was relieved to see that he listed many things on which he agrees with me and did not indicate a specific area where he committed himself to doing anything different from what the present Government are doing.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Crawley court house in my constituency deals with a large number of cases, including those emanating from Gatwick airport. Will the Minister agree to meet local magistrates, my local authority and me to see whether the court house could be part of a major town centre redevelopment that is shortly to get under way?

Mr Djanogly: Yes, I am indeed happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State think again about the compounding impact of the legal aid cut and Lord Justice Jackson's proposals on victims of criminal negligence? It would be wrong for injured parties to have to fend for themselves, and if they pay for the compensation and the costs of cases, the wrongdoer will be getting away, which would be unfair.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman makes it clear that Lord Justice Jackson's proposals and our legal aid proposals are being run in conjunction. We were very concerned that they should so that practitioners would be able to compare the two-that is especially relevant in cases of clinical negligence-so we will be doing exactly that.

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Armed Forces (Redundancies)

3.32 pm

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on redundancies in the Ministry of Defence.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): As a result of the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review, it has, sadly, been necessary to plan for redundancies in both the civil service and the armed forces. At all times this should be done with sensitivity to individuals concerned, and with an understanding of the impact that it will have on them and their families. There are two recent cases in which this has not happened. Let me deal with them both.

First, there are the 38 Army personnel who have received an e-mail, as reported in today's press. This is a completely unacceptable way to treat anyone, not least our armed forces. The correct procedure was not followed. I regret this, and want to reiterate the unreserved apology already made by the Army and on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. Arrangements have already been put in place to ensure that it does not happen again, and the Army are already investigating the particular circumstances.

Secondly, there is the redundancy of trainee RAF pilots. It was always going to be the case that with fewer airframes we would need fewer pilots. The fact that people found out through the publication of inaccurate details in a national newspaper will, I am sure, be deprecated on both sides of the House, and can only cause the individuals concerned undue distress. I understand the concerns of those facing redundancy, and I understand the temptation of the Opposition to exploit issues for political advantage, but I hope that with issues as sensitive as individual redundancies, we can refrain from making a sad situation worse for the individuals and their families.

Mr Murphy: Yesterday I came to the House to support strongly the Government's actions on Afghanistan, but today we are here for an entirely different reason: the revelation that dozens of soldiers with decades of service have been sacked by e-mail. It is a shame that Ministers had to be summoned to the Commons, when they should have immediately asked to come here voluntarily.

We all know that we cannot stop every redundancy in the armed forces, but this is no way to treat soldiers who have served in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Secretary of State says that we should not play politics with such issues. Sacking anyone by e-mail is always wrong; sacking members of our armed forces in that way is utterly unforgiveable. But, unfortunately, as the Secretary of State says, a pattern is developing. One hundred RAF trainee pilots were sacked by media leak, some only hours away from getting their wings.

What is worse about this sordid affair is that the Government's response has been to blame everyone else. In the morning it was the Army's fault; by lunchtime it was a civil servant's fault. But it was not the Army that decided to cut the deficit this far and this fast; it was not a civil servant who decided to go into a rushed defence review. It is the Government's fault. They are
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locked into a logic of rapid deficit reduction, which means that mistakes are being made, some of them serious.

The country wants straight answers to direct questions. When will the Secretary of State announce who will be affected by the further reduction of 17,000 in the armed forces? On the sacking by e-mail, despite the Secretary of State's previous promises, why did the Ministry of Defence agree that a soldier currently serving in Afghanistan should be sacked, and will the Secretary of State take personal responsibility for making sure that that never happens again? On RAF sackings, how many of the RAF trainees were within hours of fully qualifying as pilots? Have all those affected now been officially informed?

In all these matters there is a fine line between callousness and complacency. This was a callous event; the Government's response this morning was complacent. They must act, act now, and make sure that it is never repeated.

Dr Fox: The right hon. Gentleman should stick to agreeing with the Government; he is much more impressive on such occasions. What is sad today is not just the opportunism but the utter lack of humility, because we would not have had to reduce the armed forces or the civil service to such a degree if we had not inherited from the Labour Government a black hole in the MOD budget of £38 billion and a national deficit of £158 billion- [ Interruption. ] So before Opposition Front Benchers go about pointing fingers, they should look- [ Interruption ] -and the right hon. Gentleman should look, to the Government of whom he was a part, who left us economically wrecked. We will set out- [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber, and I am disturbed to note that a lot of it is being made by Members on both Front Benches. It does not impress me; it does not impress others. It should stop, and the Secretary of State will be heard with respect.

Dr Fox: I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

The Opposition need to ask themselves why we have to make those reductions. It is because of the incompetence and the economic inheritance that they left behind. We will set out the programme of reductions in staff-the 17,000 mentioned-over the next five years. There was a great deal of inaccurate information in the newspaper story about the RAF trainee pilots. They are being briefed individually and collectively on the specific proposals that affect them. It is appropriate that that happens in private, not on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): The events of the past 48 hours are sad, sorry events at which we should all express some regret, not least in the case of the individual who is serving his country in a hot war on the other side of the world. Does the Secretary of State accept that such events have a resonance beyond the units, and indeed, beyond the services, in which they occur? Does that not place an enormous obligation and responsibility on him and his fellow Ministers-to some extent discharged by the fact that he has come to the House personally to respond to the urgent question-to ensure that everything possible is done so that something of this kind never happens again?

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Dr Fox: Indeed. As I have said, we will take every measure to ensure that this does not happen, but we can never guarantee that individuals will not make mistakes; that is part of human nature. On the case that my right hon. and learned Friend mentions, the individual concerned was on assignment from Permanent Joint Headquarters working on an IT project in Afghanistan. He was on a temporary assignment, and not part of our regular forces sent into combat in Afghanistan.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. There is a lot of interest in this question, and I am keen to accommodate it, but short questions and short answers are imperative if I am to have any reasonable chance of doing so.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): What implication will the decision on the sacked RAF pilots in training have for the hundreds of jobs at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, outside York? Could some of those who are surplus to requirements as fast jet pilots be put on to helicopters instead, given the shortage of helicopter capacity that we heard about so often from the Secretary of State when he was in opposition?

Dr Fox: At all times we will endeavour to find alternative positions where available. I should say that with reductions of some 5,000 being made across the whole of the RAF, that will be relatively difficult to accommodate, but we shall try to do it wherever we can.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The whole House will be grateful to the Secretary of State for being so straightforward in coming here to apologise for what is, without any question, a most disgraceful episode in our country's history. Will he do two things? First, will he lay out precisely how he intends to make sure that this does not happen again? Secondly, the public will be asking for something for which they should be asking-a few hides to be flayed.

Dr Fox: A proper administrative inquiry by the Army is under way, and it will report in the usual way. It would be inappropriate to, in effect, try members of the armed forces on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Over 1,000 service personnel in the most defence-dependent community in the UK face redundancy or re-posting when RAF Kinloss closes later this year. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the correct procedures are followed with each and every one of these servicemen and women?

Dr Fox: As I have already said, we will at all times do what is required to help those who are leaving the armed forces in every way we can. That will, of course, include following the procedures that are very clearly set out.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): An unintended consequence of the introduction of NMS-the new management strategy-into the armed forces 20-odd years ago was that too often officers may be encouraged to see themselves as managers rather than leaders. Will the Secretary of State satisfy himself that within the chain of command that he has inherited, the military covenant is being properly served, particularly in relation to the 38 electronically sacked warrant officers?

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Dr Fox: As I have said, the Army is already undertaking an investigation of its own, and I expect that to conclude fully in a matter of days. The inquiry will draw the appropriate lessons on whether the chain of command was appropriately followed in this case. It would be appropriate for the inquiry to come to conclusions, and not for us, without the full information, to do so.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State's tone in responding to the shadow Secretary of State was surprisingly strident. Just so that the House is clear, he is not actually blaming the previous, Labour Government for this abominable failure in procedure, is he?

Dr Fox: I would hate the hon. Gentleman to get the wrong impression. What I am blaming the Labour Government for is the financial mismanagement that left a black hole of £38 billion in the MOD budget, and a massive deficit to get rid of. Without those, we would not have to make redundancies of this scale in the first place.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): On the future loss of so many pilots of fixed-wing aircraft, I am sure that my right hon. Friend would never admit to acting under duress, even if his toenails were being torn out by the Treasury. However, can he at least reassure us that some degree of flexibility in the availability of future fixed-wing aircraft pilots will be preserved, just in case we need them in the next 10 years?

Dr Fox: All redundancies will be carried out under the compulsory redundancy process so that we have the correct shape of armed forces-and I can tell my hon. Friend that these days, even the Treasury conforms to the norms of human rights.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State clarify for the House why no Minister appears to have had an oversight role in this process? In my 10 years in the private sector dealing with redundancy, it was normal practice for a senior manager to take on that responsibility.

Dr Fox: Indeed, senior managers have taken responsibility. I have already had a report from the line managers responsible. When I have had the full information I will be able to determine where the responsibility lies, and what action may need to be taken by the Army.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that the sacking by e-mail of a number of senior non-commissioned officers is deeply regrettable-but it is no matter for Ministers. This is a straight lack of leadership inside the Army. I am amazed that we have seen nobody in uniform in the media apologising for this gross piece of conduct.

Dr Fox: I realise that my hon. Friend will have been busy with his duties in the House, but the Assistant Chief of the General Staff has been in the media explaining the Army's position on this matter. It is entirely appropriate that any measures that need to be taken in response are taken by the Army, not by Ministers-as I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his years of experience, will understand.

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Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Secretary of State will know that not only members of the armed forces but civilian staff, too, are affected by redundancies. I have written to him about the uncertainty over the future of civilian staff at Massereene barracks in Antrim. I hope that he will look into that matter.

Dr Fox: Indeed I will, and I shall be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman if there are particular cases and circumstances that he wants me to look into. In general, the redundancies that will occur in the military as a result of the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review will be compulsory. For civilian staff, we want to consider natural wastage and voluntary redundancies where possible.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): With soldiers from the Colchester garrison in 16 Air Assault Brigade currently deployed in Afghanistan, I remind the Secretary of State what he said to me on 8 November in response to a direct question:

Does that pledge still stand?

Dr Fox: Yes.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State comment on ministerial responsibility? Everybody else seems to be blamed, but nobody on the Government Front Bench. Will he agree to come back to the House and make a statement about this matter, and the dismissal of the RAF trainees, when all the facts have been established?

Dr Fox: The redundancy process in the RAF will proceed as it should. The individuals concerned will be informed, and we will see whether alternatives are available for them. Those who need to leave will do so under the rules for compulsory redundancy, which are set out clearly for the armed forces.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): What is the current rate of natural wastage for civilian and uniformed personnel? In future, will it be possible to achieve the reductions mainly through natural wastage rather than compulsory redundancy?

Dr Fox: The cases are different for civilian and military personnel. In the military there is a compulsory redundancy programme, so that we maintain the shape of the armed forces. We must maintain not just those on the front line, but the enablers whom they require. Things are different in the civil service-and while we will be losing 17,000 personnel across the armed forces, we will be losing 25,000 from the civil service in the Ministry of Defence.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): RAF Valley, in my constituency, is a centre of excellence for fast jet training. Civilian staff and trainee pilots were unsettled, to say the least, to read reports over the weekend about redundancies. As the Secretary of State said, it is not for him to make redundancy announcements in the House. However, as Secretary of State, surely he should indicate what the impact of his announcement of job cuts will
15 Feb 2011 : Column 820
be on the RAF, so that bases such as RAF Valley have the stability and clarity that they need for the future.

Dr Fox: We set out in the SDSR what we believed the shape and size of the RAF would be, and the need for fast jets in the future. When it comes to redundancies, it is hugely to be regretted that not only did the information appear first in a national newspaper, rather than coming down the chain of command to those involved-which is the correct process-but much of the information was inaccurate. That was a double blow for the personnel. As I said, those personnel will be informed personally of the decisions that affect them, so that their personal circumstances can be taken into account. I have no intention of announcing redundancies through the House of Commons.

Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend be able to exercise some degree of flexibility in the case of pilots who were close to achieving their qualifications?

Dr Fox: That is primarily a matter for the RAF, but I have already asked for Ministers to be fully informed about the progress through any course that is being taken. It would make common sense to ensure that those closest to the end of their course could be allowed to continue, if possible. Not all those in the press stories, or the numbers in the press stories, will have to be made redundant. I hope that there will be some flexibility, and that common sense will be shown.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): Is this a betrayal of the military covenant?

Dr Fox: No, it is a betrayal of the people of this country, where economic incompetence has forced us to reduce the size and budget of our armed forces to a level that we would not have chosen.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the recently announced redundancies will not affect our ability to continue with our mission in Afghanistan?

Dr Fox: The whole of the SDSR was predicated on success in Afghanistan. Nothing that has happened in respect of any announcements made by the Army, the Navy or the Air Force will impact on our operations in Afghanistan. They remain the priority for the Ministry of Defence and the Government.

Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): Even the previous Government, who were notoriously slack on controlling spending, made the MOD one of three Government Departments that were put into special measures. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all MOD redundancies need to be understood in the context of a Government and a Department where spending was rampant and out of control?

Dr Fox: It is no secret that when this Government came to office, not only did we inherit generic economic incompetence, but inside the Ministry of Defence there was a specifically difficult case. I shall set out in the near future measures for achieving better control over the MOD budget, not least in real time.

15 Feb 2011 : Column 821

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that we will make sure that this episode will not be repeated in the case of the 3 Commando Brigade, based in my constituency, which is set to go out to Afghanistan in a few weeks?

Dr Fox: As I said in answer to an earlier question, none of those preparing for or on deployment will receive redundancy notices. I shall certainly ensure that all the lessons are learned from this episode to make sure that no one else in the armed forces is put in that position either.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Should we not design a new armed forces "parliamentary deficit denier" tie? We would not have to make redundancies if it were not for the fact that when the present Government came into office, Labour had left the Ministry of Defence with the largest unfunded overdraft of any Government Department.

Dr Fox: Not only is my hon. Friend correct, but the debt interest repayment that the country will have next year is bigger than the MOD budget, the Foreign Office budget and the overseas aid budget combined. What was shocking today was the fact that there were no regrets and no remorse, just naked self-interest from the Opposition.

Mr Ben Wallace (Wyre and Preston North) (Con): When I was serving in the armed forces under the previous Government, colleagues of mine were given their redundancy notices while serving on the front line in Bosnia. That was not by mistake or leaked e-mail; it was an entirely deliberate process carried out by the Labour Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the phoney anger from those on the Labour Benches is designed to cover the fact that they left the MOD in a state of overspend, underfunding and complete chaos?

Dr Fox: I think that in the months ahead we will see a number of ingenious smokescreens created by the Opposition to make the House discuss anything other than the appalling economic mess that they left behind-not least as it impacts on our armed forces.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the significant, and indeed forced, expenditure on urgent operational requirements by the last Government-money that had to be taken from the reserve, which even the Labour-dominated Defence Committee commented upon last year-has contributed at least in part to the challenges that he now faces?

Dr Fox: I did not expect to have to defend the record of the previous Government at any point, but when our armed forces require equipment it is the duty of the Government of the day to ensure that they get it. The UOR mechanism has been a very effective way of achieving that, and the current Government intend to carry on that practice.

15 Feb 2011 : Column 822

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I am proud to have RAF Linton-on-Ouse in my constituency. When graduates there have received their wings they proceed to RAF Valley and other RAF stations. There will be huge uncertainty surrounding the continuation of the programmes of both those who have graduated and undergraduates who are currently at RAF Linton. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give us today about their future?

Dr Fox: As I have said, it is greatly to be regretted that we are losing personnel from the armed forces, including 5,000 from the RAF. All of us would wish that that was not the case, but we must deal with the economic reality as we find it. It is important that when announcements are made about redundancies, they are made appropriately through the chain of command, not through national newspapers or political announcements in the House. It is appropriate that we give sensitive treatment to those who are to lose their jobs. I believe that is how the whole House thinks it should be done.

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): Nobody should lose their job via an e-mail-but particularly not members of the armed forces, who put their lives on the line for this country. If whoever was responsible for sending that e-mail has not done the honourable thing by standing down and resigning, should they not be sacked?

Dr Fox: As I said earlier, the Army is already looking into the particular circumstances of the situation. There has been an appalling mistake, and I know that the individual concerned will be absolutely mortified that it occurred. We need to find ways to ensure that it does not happen again, but we have to be careful about hanging individuals out to dry, particularly very experienced individuals, because of demands from the media or anywhere else.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The inaccurate reports of the firing of RAF pilots who have nearly completed their course will cause a great deal of anxiety to members of the RAF. The Secretary of State has rightly not gone into the details, because he wants officers to be informed first, but I ask him seriously to consider coming back to the House in due course so that we can question him further on this matter.

Dr Fox: I am sure the House will have a number of occasions, at Defence questions and in future debates, to question me on the implementation of the SDSR and the CSR, and on the reasons why we had to make the reductions that we did, and how we are implementing them. When we have given information to the individuals concerned, then and only then will be the appropriate time to make announcements to the House.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the Secretary of State and to right hon. and hon. Members for their succinctness, which has meant that everybody who wanted to contribute had the chance to do so.

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Auto Windscreens

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24 )

3.58 pm

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I rise to propose that the House should discuss a specific and important matter that I believe should have urgent consideration-the decision of Auto Windscreens to go into administration yesterday, with the possible loss of 1,100 jobs.

Auto Windscreens employs about 400 people in my constituency, in head office, call centre and manufacturing functions. The loss of those jobs would be catastrophic to an area that is already set to be the worst hit in Derbyshire by the cuts in public sector jobs. Staff were sent home yesterday, and as of today there is no money to pay them for the 14 days' work that they have done this month, nor for their ongoing employment. However, in an effort to sell the business as a going concern, the administrator, Deloitte, has not yet made staff redundant, so they are effectively in limbo. The company is unable to trade, which will make it more difficult for it to be sold. Time is very much of the essence.

I would like to debate what action the Government can take to support Deloitte to get Auto Windscreens trading again. With every passing day that it is not trading, the task of finding a buyer becomes more difficult and the challenge of turning the business round grows. I would like to debate what action the Government can take to support finding buyers; to help them access the funding required to get the business back on a stable footing; and to support either the moribund regional development agency, which would previously have been expected to co-ordinate the response, or the fledgling
15 Feb 2011 : Column 824
Sheffield city region local enterprise partnership, to undertake that co-ordination.

I would also like to debate whether, in the absence of Auto Windscreens, Autoglass, the UK market leader, would have an effective monopoly, and the impact on pricing and, by extension, insurance premiums. I would further like to debate what action the Government can take, in the event of the company failing to be salvaged, to assist the 1,100 employees to find work, and to find out whether discussions have taken place with the trade union to explore the possibility of some sort of employee or management buy-out.

Auto Windscreens is an important employer in my constituency, an important contributor to the UK economy, an important part of the UK automotive industry, an important supplier to the motor insurance industry, and an important component of any private sector-led recovery.

At times like this, it is vital that the employees affected, and people throughout Britain, can see politicians working together swiftly to save those jobs in the national interest. I hope that we can debate in the Chamber what can be done, or that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) will agree to meet me, the administrators and any other people who can help get Auto Windscreens trading again and save those 1,100 jobs, which we can all ill afford to lose.

Mr Speaker: I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24, and I cannot therefore submit the application to the House.

15 Feb 2011 : Column 825

Master's Degrees (Minimum Standards)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

4.2 pm

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move,

It is assumed in our society that hard work, ability and merit are the determining characteristics necessary to obtain academic qualifications, yet there is a glaring anomaly in our system of higher education, which undermines the value of postgraduate credentials: the byzantine practice whereby Oxford and Cambridge universities award a complimentary master of arts degree to anyone who has graduated with a bachelor's degree from their institutions. I say "complimentary", but I understand that Oxford colleges often charge a £10 administration fee. In those cases, people's BA(Hons) are automatically upgraded to MA(Oxon).

While most postgraduate students who hope to obtain an MA must undergo at least a year's study, have their abilities tested by examination and pay significant tuition fees, often around £4,500, graduates who attend Oxford and Cambridge can automatically convert their bachelor's degree into an MA, regardless of academic merit.

That is not only unfair to the 200,000 students who get their MA the hard way, but fundamentally undermines the integrity of the MA marque. Worse, apparently 62% of employers when surveyed reported that they thought that the MA(Oxon) or MA(Cantab) were genuinely earned postgraduate qualifications.

Eleven years ago, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said:

There is no logical or justifiable defence of that historical anachronism, which grew out of ancient circumstances that have long been irrelevant to modern academic practice. To preserve the MA's academic integrity, it is time to discontinue Oxbridge colleges' ability to award unearned qualifications that can so easily cause confusion. That is why my short Bill would prohibit granting master's degrees unless certain minimum academic standards are attained.

Let me be absolutely clear at the outset that I do not blame Oxbridge graduates for taking the opportunity presented to them on a plate-it would be nice if we all received a similar offer. The problem is that that outdated and unfair practice reinforces the suspicions of many of the privileges and advantages bestowed on a small number of very fortunate people, often at the expense of everyone else. For example, in my role before entering Parliament, when sifting job applications and hiring for research positions, I would often see CVs citing that master's degree brand. Presumably, would-be employers are frequently superficially impressed by what appears to be a mark of high academic distinction.

It is not just me who objects to the practice; The Daily Telegraph reported last year that Cambridge academics are beginning to feel distinctly queasy about
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the situation. Dr Neil Dodgson, a computer academic at Cambridge, said:

Surprisingly, the issue has rarely been aired in Parliament or more widely, and yet the practice is a wrong that the stewards of those great universities could and should put right themselves. I genuinely hope that the new vice-chancellor of Cambridge university will take a more enlightened approach than his predecessor, who famously said that

I recently surveyed some of my constituents and received some interesting replies. One woman replied:

Another wrote:

Another said:

and yet another told me:

Some will say, "Everybody knows that it's not really a master's degree," but clearly, the survey information and what I have learned from asking around show that most people are oblivious to the small print on the Cambridge website or the statement in the QAA literature. Others will say, "Oxbridge graduates work harder and have higher abilities, and the MA reflects that." Notwithstanding the fact that that argument is usually made by those who attended Oxford or Cambridge, such an attitude is obviously insulting to the other 100 universities in the UK, which have fine academic records.

Many will say, "This is just the politics of envy, and you are just jealous." Perhaps people who want access to such unearned privileges are envious, but others who object to the practice just want a fair system based on real rather than fake merit. Others will say, "Well, this whole thing is not to be taken seriously. There are far higher priorities for reform." It is true that there are far bigger questions, including what is happening to tuition fees, but the Bill is one small step to rectify a simple problem, which it will achieve-crucially-at absolutely no cost. Anyway, if it is such a petty issue, surely nobody will object to ending the practice.

We need the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to recognise that it is time that masters' degrees represented postgraduate study. We need Oxford and Cambridge to consider the situation themselves, and I shall write to them to urge them to do so. Finally, we need legislation to uphold the integrity of what should be the finest British traditions of fair play and achievement-on-merit in our higher education institutions.

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4.9 pm

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I must confess that the spirited call of the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) is a reprise of a perennial squabble that I have had with my brother over the past two decades or so. Like the hon. Gentleman, my brother took a master's degree that involved two years of postgraduate study, while I qualified-if that is the right word-for my MA as a result of gaining a degree from Oxford university. My college, St Edmund Hall, has a history dating back to 1278. At that juncture, the requirement was to surpass 21 terms after matriculation before qualifying for a master's degree, having taken a bachelor's degree prior to that. That topping-up arrangement applied happily-dare I say it-for more than six centuries, before Leeds university was even founded let alone started handing out degrees of its own to deserving, and perhaps some slightly less deserving, candidates. Perhaps it is the other universities that should change their role to take account of the history of Oxford and Cambridge, which have established a well-set path of 21 terms post-matriculation by which someone qualifies for a master's degree.

There is a more serious point about what the hon. Gentleman has said. Our elite universities are now global brands. They should not sit back and take ever more Government interference. Only last week, a proposal was made by the Deputy Prime Minister of the coalition Government to give ever more powers to the access regulator. If he has his way, in future universities will be banned from charging higher levels of tuition fees unless they adhere to fixed Government quotas on admissions. In my view, this is all wrong. The hon. Member for Nottingham East and his proposal are, I am afraid, part of that same muddled thinking. Our excellent and elitist universities do not need any more interference in their governance. Otherwise, I fear that we run the risk of some of our best institutions deciding before too long to go private. I am thinking not just of Oxford and Cambridge, but of the London of School of Economics and Imperial college-to name but two-in my constituency. We should be proud of the finest of our traditions in the higher education sphere. It is one of the relatively few areas in which we have a global leadership, and my fear is that ever more Government interference-of the sort articulated by the Bill-will lead to a diminution of that excellence and elitism. If that is the case, we will all suffer.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD) rose-

15 Feb 2011 : Column 828

Mr Speaker: Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would expect me to know, or at least to check to ensure that I know, the procedure. I love nothing more than to hear him talk, but I am afraid that I am allowed to call only two Members to speak in a situation of this kind.

Question put and agreed to.


That Chris Leslie, Nic Dakin, Kerry McCarthy, Helen Jones, Cathy Jamieson, Bob Russell, Mr Mike Hancock, Philip Davies, John Cryer and Mr Dennis Skinner present the Bill.

Chris Leslie accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 18 March , and to be printed (Bill 148).

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Your responsibility extends, of course, to giving advice to those who might not be quite as familiar as yourself with the procedures of the House. I should perhaps declare an interest as the chancellor of the university of St Andrews and as the holder of a master of arts degree from Glasgow university. How could I find an opportunity to put it on the record that the first degree in the ancient Scottish universities is an MA?

Mr Speaker: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman well knows, he has just done precisely that, and with a skill that might be of interest to new Members who might benefit from it. I appreciate the good grace with which he accepted the selection of speakers on this occasion. I apologise to him for having momentarily forgotten about that high office that he holds, but I am not likely to do so again.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the light of the fascinating short debate we have just had, are you in a position to inform the House whether the practice of making right hon. and hon. Members who happen to be lawyers honorary Queen's counsels is still in existence?

Mr Speaker: I am not sure that I can inform the House on any aspect of that matter. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know-I cannot imagine that he is referring to any particular Member-it is not within my bailiwick. I think that we had better leave it there.

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Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Money) (No. 2)

Queen's recommendation signified.

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I beg to move,

The resolution relates to Lords amendments 31 to 34 to paragraph 20 of schedule 1, which were inserted in the Bill in Lords Committee. The resolution gives the chief counting officer, who is the chair of the Electoral Commission, a power to incur expenses for the effective conduct of the referendum in certain, limited circumstances and to make payments in respect of those expenses out of the moneys to be provided from the Consolidated Fund. The original money resolution, which was agreed to on Second Reading in this House, covered only the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of charges payable to regional counting officers and counting officers in connection with the conduct of the referendum.

This additional resolution is needed because it has become apparent to the Government and the Electoral Commission that further savings in the cost of the referendum can be made by allowing the chief counting officer to pay costs directly from the Consolidated Fund. For example, Royal Mail has indicated that it may be able to provide a cheaper service for any sweeps of mail centres-a service to ensure that any postal votes still in mail centres towards the end of polling day are identified, extracted and provided to returning and counting officers before the close of poll that evening-if it can contract for this on a national basis with one individual, rather than having to negotiate and contract with the more than 350 officers conducting the poll locally. The resolution is therefore pragmatic.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Those of us who are worried about the amount of money to be spent on the proposal might be persuaded a little more if the Minister could give us an idea of by how much the cost will come down as a result of this resolution, and say what other measures he can take to try to secure better value.

Mr Harper: I can reassure the House that, because of the way the Bill and the amendments are drafted, the chief counting officer can directly recover expenditure only where it has been incurred in a way that provides a clear financial benefit to the public purse. The test is that the chief counting officer may recover expenditure that she has incurred for the purpose of running the referendum only where that expenditure would have been incurred by local or regional counting officers in any event, but where it was more economical for it to be incurred by the chief counting officer. The resolution is therefore aimed at saving money.

Mr Redwood: How much?

Mr Harper: The whole point is that it is not possible to predict every eventuality. The resolution says that if by spending money herself centrally, the chief counting
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officer can get services at a lower cost than all the individual regional counting officers, she will be able to do so, thereby delivering a saving, although it is not possible to quantify this in advance. I have given a specific example of where we know there is an ability to deliver a saving, but I cannot give my right hon. Friend the certainty on the numbers that he seeks. However, having given him the detail that I am able to, I commend this resolution to the House.

4.18 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): As the Minister set out, this is a minor money resolution, and we do not have a major problem with it. However, perhaps I can use this opportunity to raise an issue in relation to the combination of polls-the reason we need this resolution-as it affects Scotland. As I am sure the Minister will know, electoral registration officers in Scotland have said that they will not now be able to perform the whole count for the Scottish parliamentary elections overnight. All they will do is the verification-both of the referendum, as the Bill requires, and the parliamentary elections-and then they will stop, leaving the count to take place on the Friday.

I understood from what the Minister said in previous debates that nothing would get in the way of ensuring that the count happened as soon as possible in Scotland and Wales, and in local government. Before the last general election, all parties combined to try to ensure that the overnight count happened. Disappointingly, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has refused to suggest any amendments to the Bill. I therefore wonder whether the Minister could assist us by saying something that might help to ensure that the election results are known in Scotland overnight.

Mr Harper: It might be helpful if I remind the House that, when the chief electoral officer set out her guidance about the count timing, she also set out a number of principles. One of her principles-which is also one of the Government's principles that was shared across the House-is to ensure that the results of the elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as the results of the council elections, are counted and made known first. She was reassured by counting officers in Scotland and elsewhere, and on that basis, she made a determination about the time of the referendum count. I am sure that if she is given different information by those counting officers, she will want to ensure that her principle is upheld-namely, that we should still know the results of those elections before the count takes place for the referendum.

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the Minister, but, unfortunately he has not yet replied to my letter of some weeks ago, so I am unable to know the full purport of what he is saying. The point is that we believe not only in the principle that the elections to elected office should be counted first, but that the counts for the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly and for the local elections should happen overnight.

Mr Harper: The rules for the referendum are set out in the scope of the Bill, but it would not be within its scope to change the law pertaining to the counting only
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of the votes in the elections. The important thing that we have set out about the combination is that nothing that happens with the referendum count will change the timing of the election results. I think that there was a shared view on both sides of the House that we want to see those results counted as soon as possible, so that people will know who is running the devolved nations.

Chris Bryant: I am sorry, but the Minister's reply is very disappointing. Either he does not understand the law that he himself has drafted and the statutory instruments that have gone through in relation to the combination of polls in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, or he is being-how can I put it-somewhat obtuse. The necessity for most people is that they want to know the election results on the night. However, because of the way in which the Government are combining the polls, and because of the Bill and the statutory instruments that went through at the same time, the people of Scotland will not know their election results on the night. The Minister will have unpicked one of the elements that has been absolutely standard in British history for more than 100 years-namely, that the results are announced immediately. This does not have much to do with the money resolution, Mr Speaker, but I have made my point none the less. I think that it is a great shame that the Minister has behaved in this way.

4.22 pm

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I want to put on record that representatives of the Electoral Commission came before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee again last week to discuss the amendments that are before the House today. One of the questions that the Committee looked at was that of the cost of the referendum. It will cost £100 million to run the referendum, at a time when, I hardly need remind the House, we are looking at cuts-let me say "reductions"-to every other aspect of public expenditure. It would appear that, in addition to that expenditure, the voter education campaign that the Electoral Commission is quite rightly required to undertake will cost something like £7 million. Local authorities will also have to bear additional costs, which we will not know for another six months or so, in running the referendum. That is not a reason not to have the referendum, but it is important that the House and our electorate understand just how much it is costing the taxpayer.

4.24 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I should like to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), having perhaps given the Minister slightly more time to reflect on the genuinely valid points that my hon. Friend raised. I know that colleagues from other parties were also nodding in agreement when he was raising them.

The returning officers in Scotland are up to the same trick that they were trying to pull before the 2010 general election, when the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) gave a clear instruction to the returning officers that they could not delay the start of the count for that general election in Scotland until the following day.

15 Feb 2011 : Column 832

Let me place the Minister under notice that I shall seek two guarantees from him and the Deputy Leader of the House. The first is that he speaks urgently to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland-I suspect he will have a number of opportunities to speak to them in the Division Lobbies in the next four hours-to get them to set the record straight on the Scotland Office position on the counting. Will the Minister also guarantee-I will take him at his word, as he is an honourable Gentleman-that either he or the Secretary of State will write to the returning officers in Scotland to remind them that they receive a payment for carrying out these duties?

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Does not the hon. Gentleman share my absolute and utter surprise that neither the Secretary of State for Scotland nor the Under-Secretary have yet written to returning officers to get this issue clarified and resolved?

Thomas Docherty: I fear that in some ways I am not surprised, because we have learned over the last nine months that the Secretary of State for Scotland is like Macavity the cat. When it comes to any issue-whether it be the coastguard, defence or anything else-he is posted absent. The hon. Gentleman's point is valid because the Secretary of State should be writing to returning officers to remind them that they receive an additional payment for carrying out their duties in unsociable hours, so there is no reason for the count not to happen. If the returning officers insist on delaying until the following morning, will the Minister guarantee that those payments will be withdrawn from them and their staff? Why should we pay them for a service that they are not carrying out? Will he also confirm that he will write to returning officers to remind them that, during our Wednesday evening debate on the Standing Order at the end of last year and during the course of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, he gave an explicit guarantee on behalf of Her Majesty's Government that the count would take place as soon as practically possible-namely, straight after the polls close in Scotland?

4.26 pm

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We are debating a money resolution, the whole purpose of which is for the House to exert some control over the expenditures of public money and to be accountable for them. I find it curious that the Minister was unable to tell us how much money was involved in the wider issue of paying for the referendum, and unable to help the House by telling us by how much he might be able to reduce that rather large bill as a result of this mini motion.

Many of us are reluctant about the entire measure; we do not think that it is either urgent or important, but we believe that controlling public expenditure is vital. When we see discretionary items such as this one, we are even more enthusiastic about exerting very strong control over the expenditure if it proves to be the will of Parliament as a whole that the proposal goes forward. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will have some figures to present to us and will be able to give us a little encouragement about why we should support this particular money resolution. He hinted that it could mean a bit less, but some of us would like it to be a lot less. I hope the Minister will think again.

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Mr Harper rose-

Mr Speaker: I do not believe the right hon. Gentleman is giving way. I think he has completed his speech. Is that so? I am correct.

4.27 pm

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). My Broxbourne constituents are horrified at the cost of this referendum, which some commentators have said could be as high as £250 million. I dare to say that this money would be far better spent on employing doctors, nurses, teachers and soldiers.

4.28 pm

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I recognise, as do we all, I am sure, that this referendum measure is before us because of the coalition agreement. If the Conservatives had won the election outright and gained a majority, they would certainly not be putting it forward. I also accept that public expenditure should not be the dominant reason why the House should not pursue a particular course. I must say, however, that there is very little evidence of any desire in the country at large to have a referendum on what sort of system should be used for electing Members of Parliament. How many letters have we received? How many e-mails? Do people come to our surgeries and tell us that this is one of the most important, crucial issues of the day? The answer is no. [Hon. Members: "No!"] The noes are coming from the Conservative Benches, but I ask my hon. Friends: am I wrong? Is it not a known fact that there is so little interest in the matter?

I must also say, however-and I know that at some stage this evening we shall debate the Lords amendment concerning the nature of the threshold-that, like others who have spoken, I see little justification for spending what will be a very large amount of money on a referendum on the system for electing Members of Parliament at a time when we are constantly told that we must be careful with our public money, when allowances and benefits are being taken away from people, and when, in my view and, I believe, that of most Members, there is little public wish for such a referendum.

Question put and agreed to.

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