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House of Commons

Tuesday 5 April 2011

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]




That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough constituency of Leicester South in the room of Peter Alfred Soulsby, who since his election for the said Borough constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Ms Rosie Winterton.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Bill of Rights

1. Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): What progress he has made on establishing a commission on a Bill of Rights. [50758]

2. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What progress he has made on establishing a commission on a Bill of Rights. [50759]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): The commission has been established. The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, announced the membership and terms of reference of the commission in a written statement to the House on 18 March.

Esther McVey: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his response. In the light of the European Court of Human Rights judgments that have gone against the will of the British public by giving prisoners the right to vote, allowing paedophiles to be removed from the sex offenders register and preventing deportation of those considered dangerous to the country’s national security, specifically when could the British Bill of Rights be introduced and how will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that it will reflect the will of the British public in law?

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The Deputy Prime Minister: The commission will be looking at the case for a British Bill of Rights, building on and incorporating all the protections and rights that are already in domestic legislation, translating the rights and responsibilities of the European convention on human rights and building on them, but I think that there is a lot more that the commission can do as well. The Court, by universal acknowledgment, is not working as well as it should. There is a backlog of 140,000 cases, for instance. The Government will assume the chairmanship of the Court in November, and the commission will be providing us, I hope, with useful input on how we can improve the performance of the Court in Strasbourg.

Tony Baldry: Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House an assurance that a British Bill of Rights will be written by Members of this House and not by the judges, particularly as they now appear to be making what many of us consider to be unconscionable orders that prevent constituents talking to their MPs? That must be unconscionable, so any Bill of Rights must be written by this House and not by the judges.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Clearly a British Bill of Rights, as I have said, must build on and incorporate the rights that British citizens already enjoy. British judges, parliamentarians and politicians have a long and proud tradition of drafting rights, which apply not only in this country but in others. I think back to the role of Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Lord Chancellor in the Churchill and Macmillan Governments, who played such a crucial role in drafting the European convention on human rights in the first place.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): In 2007 the current Prime Minister said that the Human Rights Act 1998 had to go. Last May the Deputy Prime Minister said that anyone who tampered with it did so at their peril. Could he tell us who is right?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is no secret that the two coalition parties in this Government do not see eye to eye on this issue. That is why we have formed a commission that is composed of—[ Interruption. ] I know that Opposition Members cannot bear the idea that in Governments there are perhaps people who have civilised discussions from differing points of view. The mere concept of different politicians in the same Government seeking agreement from different positions is alien to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, but it is what we do, and do very well, in this Government.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I welcome the huge number of Liberal Democrat MPs here today to show support for their current leader at the final Deputy Prime Minister’s questions before the local and national elections. I also welcome the president of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who is here today.

Mr Speaker, I am sure you will have been interested by the previous answer that the Deputy Prime Minister gave to the question about his commitment to the Human Rights Act, but Lord McNally in the other place and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change have said that, if the coalition Government

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considered getting rid of that Act, that would be the time for them to consider getting out of the coalition Government. It is a straightforward question: does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with them or not?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am a passionate advocate, supporter and defender of the Human Rights Act—full stop.

Ministerial Meetings

5. Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): What meetings he has scheduled in his official capacity for Friday 6 May 2011. [50762]

The Deputy Prime Minister: On 6 May, I will be in government and the right hon. Gentleman will be in opposition.

Mr Spellar: I fully understand the Deputy Prime Minister’s reluctance to outline any official duties, as he will have to cope with the Lib Dem wipe-out throughout the country, especially in Sheffield. We should sympathise with him for having to do the rounds of the studios, the meetings with panic-stricken colleagues and the visit to the relationship counsellor about the future of the coalition. Will he be going back to transcendental meditation, or will he just be back on the fags?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I cannot be bothered to answer that question.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): As a supporter of no to AV and somebody who believes in balanced debate, and given that the Deputy Prime Minister was apparently unavailable for the launch of the yes to AV campaign, may I offer him this opportunity to say why he says yes to AV, so that as many people as possible know of his support for it and what lies behind it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: What I would say to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to all my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches is that the Conservative party has had a long and proud tradition of advocating choice and competition in almost every walk of public life, but that for some reason, which I still cannot fathom, election to this place is the one bit of public life that the people who campaign against electoral reform do not want to make susceptible to greater choice in the hands of the British people. I find that ironic.

I think the present electoral system is self-evidently broken. There are hundreds of Members in this place who have jobs for life and need only to get 30% of the vote in their constituency. No wonder we had expenses scandals: if you want more duck houses, vote no; if you want more accountability, vote yes.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): We note from the Deputy Prime Minister’s previous answers today that he has gone from sanctimony to arrogance in one very short year. The arrogance of his answers is phenomenal. May I urge him to allow himself a little luxury on 6 May—a day without Conservatives, no phone calls, no meetings, not even a walk in the park with his best friend, the Prime Minister—so that he can refine his inner social liberal, so that if the AV vote has succeeded

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he sticks with a 100% elected House of Lords, and, if by any chance because of his support, as we have just seen, the campaign fails, he has absolutely nothing to do with the reform of the House of Lords—so that we can get the thing through?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is truly laughable, even by the hon. Gentleman’s extraordinary standards, that he now wants to make a show of reform of the House of Lords when his Government delivered precisely 0% of elected Members of the House of Lords. What I can confirm to him and to the House today is that we will bring forward and publish proposals for an extensive reform of the other place—of the House of Lords—by the end of next month.

Political Parties (Funding)

6. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): When he expects to bring forward proposals on the funding of political parties. [50763]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): The hon. Gentleman will know that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is currently carrying out a review of party funding, and it expects to report this spring. When it does, the Government will look with interest at its report and then bring forward our proposals with, I hope, consensus.

Nick Smith: I thank the Minister for his response. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill includes provision for the election of police commissioners. What discussions has the Minister had about the governing of election expenses and any taxpayer contributions towards such expenses for the candidates in those elections?

Mr Harper: That was a very measured question. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is getting at in terms of taxpayer contributions, but I am sure that elections to the office of police commissioner will be carried out in the same way as other elections, and that they will be very well regulated and very sensible. I am not quite sure, however, what the hon. Gentleman is driving at.

Referendum Costs

7. Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of holding a UK-wide referendum. [50764]

The Deputy Prime Minister: The cost of holding the referendum is similar to the cost of holding a general election. The Government have been very keen to be as cost-efficient as possible, and that is why the referendum is being held on the same day as other elections.

Ian Murray: Given the rising cost of living for my constituents, partly due to the “Tory VAT bombshell”, does the Deputy Prime Minister think that spending up to £250 million on his AV vanity project is a good use of public funds, and does his continued leadership of his party depend on a yes vote?

The Deputy Prime Minister: First, I point out that it was in the hon. Gentleman’s manifesto to hold a referendum on AV, and I am sure he has worked out the sums for

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himself. Secondly, this £250 million figure is complete and utter fiction. This Government have set aside £120 million for the costs of the next general election. If I understand it correctly, this fictional figure has come from the assumption that we will be using electronic counting machines, for which this Government have no plans whatsoever.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that one cannot put a cost on democracy and that establishing the principle of a referendum might allow us to have future referendums on such things as, say, the European Union?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s premise that we should always stand ready to provide the British people with an opportunity to have a say on issues that are of huge, overwhelming national concern. I would not recommend it as a monthly event, but it is certainly something that has arisen and will continue to arise from time to time.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): The Deputy Prime Minister seems very reluctant to spell out the precise cost of this referendum, so could he tell us clearly how much he thinks it is going to cost? How many representations has he received saying that this is the No. 1 priority for people in his constituency?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course, at a time of economic difficulty when there are rising living costs, many other priorities impinge on people’s lives. That is why, for instance, people will welcome the fact that from tomorrow 23 million basic rate taxpayers will get £200 cash in their pockets because of the income tax we are giving back. I accept that that is more important. As I said before, the cost of the referendum will be roughly the cost of every general election.

Topical Questions

T1. [50768] Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policies and initiatives. I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform. As part of this, I would like to confirm again that we will be publishing a draft Bill on House of Lords reform before the end of May.

Mr Cunningham: Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us why he broke his election pledge in relation to elections to the House of Lords? He said that it would be 100% elected, but now he is saying 80%.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful for Labour Members’ sudden fanatical interest in reforming the House of Lords, given that during 13 years in government they did precisely nothing about it. Of course I am a supporter of a fully elected House of Lords, but I have always said that if we want to prevent the fate of previous attempts to reform the other place, we should not make the best the enemy of the good. We need to

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proceed not only with idealism but with a degree of pragmatism, and that will be reflected, I hope, in the draft Bill that we will publish before the end of next month.

T3. [50770] Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on the news of the coalition Government’s announcement on the new social mobility and internship strategy. I hope, Mr Speaker, that through your good offices we can soon match that internship strategy in this place. May I ask, in particular, how the new internship scheme will benefit my constituents, as too often these schemes are dominated by people from London or with London connections?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If we are to open up internships in Government and elsewhere—I am delighted that a large number of businesses have already announced that they will be introducing greater meritocracy and transparency in how they administer internships in their own offices—that will depend heavily on people being able to apply for and secure those internships from wherever they live across the whole of the country.

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister knows that the replacement scheme for the abolished education maintenance allowance will mean a 60% cut, but does he recognise that his new scheme introduces uncertainty because it is discretionary? Under the new scheme, young people will not know in advance whether they will get a bursary, whether the college they choose will give it to them and how much they will get. What would he say to the thousands of young people who are going to be left in the dark?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We always said that the previous system—I am sure that the right hon. and learned Lady would be fair enough to recognise that the previous Government acknowledged this, too—would be altered and changed as the compulsory education age went up to 17 in 2013 and to 18 in 2015. What we are doing is what we always said we would do: we are not scrapping the thing altogether but replacing it with a £180 million fund that can be targeted precisely at those people for whom financial support is necessary to continue in full-time education. As she will know, we are providing more money for those who are particularly vulnerable than was available under the old EMA scheme. Yes, we are providing discretion, because directors and principals of further education colleges and sixth forms have told us that that is the best way to ensure that they, who know the individual pupils, can provide the support that is needed.

Ms Harman: But the Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the point about uncertainty for students who will not know in advance. His answer will not wash with the 600,000 young people who will lose out under the EMA abolition and who, if they manage to stay in education, will face massively increased tuition fees. Even in the constituency of his ludicrously titled advocate for access to education, London South Bank university, which has always done all it can to provide quality higher education to local people on low incomes, now says that it will have to charge £8,450. He said that the £9,000 fees would be the exception rather than the rule, but it has turned out that he is wrong. Is that not just typical of this coalition of cuts, chaos and confusion?

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The Deputy Prime Minister: What is typical is that the right hon. and learned Lady is jumping on the latest bandwagon without checking her facts. Less than half the universities that have published figures so far have said that they will seek to charge £9,000 for some courses, but there are still several weeks—in fact, two or three months—to go before the Office for Fair Access provides its consent to those plans, which can go ahead only if those universities provide much greater opportunities for disadvantaged children to gain access to those universities. She ignores the fact that if we include bursaries and fee waivers, the average level of charges imposed on individual students will be a whole lot lower.

T4. [50771] Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Given that successive Governments have centralised powers from once mighty councils and municipalities, what steps will the Deputy Prime Minister take to ensure that localism is embedded in our constitution and that future Governments cannot reverse those moves?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that one of the key things that we must deliver as a Government is the reversal of the outrageous arrogation of power to central Government under Labour over the past 13 years. That is a painstaking job that must be reflected in the way we give more freedom to teachers in the classroom, more financial autonomy to our local authorities and more devolution in how our great NHS works. Across the piece, we must reverse the tide of centralisation that was one of the most baleful characteristics of the Labour Government.

Mr Speaker: I call Stephen Pound. He is not here.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister answer the question that he has been asked twice by Opposition Members? How much will the referendum cost? I know that answering a straight question is a bit of an alien concept to him, but will he give us a straight answer? How much will it be?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As I said before, it is the same as that of a general election. One thing I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that if there is a change in the electoral system it will not—I repeat, not—cost £250 million.

T6. [50773] Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Does the Deputy Prime Minister consider the rules on reporting of political donations to be adequate when the no campaign in this referendum canvasses for support from the public without telling them where the money is coming from?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I strongly agree. If we are going to have the two sides of the argument deployed up and down the country in this all-important referendum, the least the public can expect is to find out who is bankrolling the no campaign. I hope that the people in the no campaign will come clean with the British people very soon.

T5. [50772] Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I see that the Deputy Prime Minister is now to play a role in the health legislation. I am in the midst of consulting GPs in Selly Oak on that. Does he agree

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with his colleague, the GP Evan Harris, that one of the vital amendments is the right for GPs to opt out of commissioning?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly agree that there should be nothing doctrinaire about the point at which GP consortia become the commissioning bodies in the NHS. That is why exacting requirements will be applied to consortia. If they are not ready by April 2013, they will not be given the new commissioning powers.

T10. [50777] Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Following the Budget’s impact on energy investor confidence, do the Government have plans to enable this country finally to offer the stability needed for long-term strategic investment decisions?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I know how strongly my hon. Friend feels about this issue, and he has spoken about it before. As I have explained to him, it is right that the Government have asked an industry that is making huge profits because of the rise in world oil prices to make a significant contribution to ensuring that we can bring the price down on the forecourt and at the petrol pump for millions of people who are finding it difficult to deal with increasing living costs. As he knows, there was an emergency meeting of PILOT, at which it was made clear by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and others that we want to work with the industry to ensure that we can provide the right environment to foster its investment decisions in future.

T7. [50774] Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): As well as being responsible for having probably destroyed the electoral hopes of the Liberal party, the Deputy Prime Minister is formally responsible for the West Lothian question. He will know that a private Member’s Bill is in Committee, under which every piece of legislation would be labelled according to which parts of the United Kingdom it affected. That would start a process of denying Members from Scotland the right to vote on all legislation in this House. Does he support that Bill?

The Deputy Prime Minister: This is a very difficult issue—[ Interruption. ] It is an issue that has bedevilled Governments for a long time. We do not support the Bill, but we support the establishment of a commission to look into the West Lothian question, and we will establish one in due course.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Further to the question from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), can the Deputy Prime Minister give us a little more clarity on his timetable for establishing the West Lothian commission?

The Deputy Prime Minister: There is a need to ensure that we do not overlap the important work of the commission on the West Lothian question with the equally important work that we are doing on the reform of the other place. Once we have established the progress on that draft Bill, which we will publish before the end of next month, we will be in a clearer position to determine the timetable for proceeding on the West Lothian question.

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T8. [50775] Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): Last month, my constituent Christina O’Brien was one of four Liverpool passport office workers who were dismissed because they had been given permanent contracts by mistake. Ten others were switched to temporary contracts. Will the Deputy Prime Minister pursue the appalling treatment of these hard-working employees with the Home Office? They have done nothing wrong, and they deserve to get their jobs back.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman speaks with great conviction and passion about the fate of his constituents. Of course, I would be happy to receive further information from him and look into the case.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Returning to House of Lords reform, if media reports are correct, elections will be held on a regional basis. My constituents treasure their connection with the historic county of Lincolnshire, and do not want to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Yorkshire and Humber region. Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that they will be consulted fully on where they will be placed?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is one of the reasons why we are publishing a draft Bill before the end of next month, as I have said. The draft Bill will, in turn, be subject to exhaustive scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses, to which he and all other hon. Members will be able to make representations on issues of concern to them.

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): When the Deputy Prime Minister signed the foreword to the Government’s national health service White Paper, which part of the policy did he disagree with?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I actually think that the basic ideas that we need less bureaucracy in the NHS, that GPs, who know the patients best, should have greater responsibility in it and that we need greater accountability, less centralisation and a greater role for local authorities are accepted across the piece as the right approach, except perhaps on the Labour Benches. The key thing now is to ensure that we get the details and the implementation right. As the Secretary of State for Health said very clearly yesterday, where there are legitimate concerns, for instance about the governance of a GP consortium or the role of the private sector, we will seek to address them. That will then lead to substantive changes through amendments at the end of the process, in about two months’ time.

Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): One of the most scandalous statistics in our democracy is the fact that of 5.5 million British subjects abroad, only about 15,000 are registered. What are we going to do to improve the registration rates of British subjects abroad?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to identify that as a real problem, and we are examining right now how we can improve the situation so that even if British citizens live and work abroad, they can continue to participate in the democratic life of our country.

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Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): May I, in all fairness, congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on showing since last May that the idea that his party is some kind of progressive alternative to Labour is absolute nonsense? For that alone, he deserves every possible congratulation.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Let us just look at some of the things that have been happening. Last Friday—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister is quite capable of looking after himself, but the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) has asked the question, and Members must hear the answer. The Deputy Prime Minister must be heard.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I wanted to give the hon. Gentleman some specific examples of progress: last Friday—the start of the implementation of the pupil premium, with £2.5 billion for the most disadvantaged children in our schools by the end of this Parliament; tomorrow—the delivery of a new tax threshold that will take 880,000 people on low pay out of paying any income tax, and the delivery of a triple guarantee for all pensioners, restoring the earnings link that Labour failed to restore in 13 years.

By the way, tomorrow is the beginning of the financial year when the hon. Gentleman’s party promised details of £14 billion-worth of cuts, according to its plans for the reduction of the deficit. Where are they? When will Labour come clean with the British people?

Mr Speaker: We come to questions to the Attorney-General. I call Jack Dromey. [Interruption.] Order. I appeal to Members who are leaving the Chamber, particularly those who are walking past someone who is to ask a question, to do so quickly, quietly and preferably with some dignity.


The Attorney-General was asked—

Human Trafficking

1. Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): When he expects the Crown Prosecution Service to publish its public policy statement on the prosecution of cases involving human trafficking. [50788]

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): The Crown Prosecution Service expects to publish its public policy statement on the prosecution of cases involving human trafficking later this spring.

Jack Dromey: The Attorney-General will be aware of the heartbreaking case of the young woman from Moldova who was trafficked for the purposes of prostitution, deported, gang raped and tortured, and who is now taking legal action as a consequence. Will he impress upon both the CPS and the United Kingdom Border Agency that they have to act sensitively and in a determined fashion designed to end modern-day slavery?

The Attorney-General: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the CPS fully understands those points and takes them very seriously indeed. He will be aware that the last Government, with the support of all Opposition

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parties, supported signing up to the Council of Europe convention to deal with those who are trafficked. As he will know, that provides for a period in which the person in question can recuperate, for which they are given temporary leave to remain in the United Kingdom. He will also be aware that the CPS takes very seriously the need to bring such cases to court. Prosecution is sometimes very difficult and, of course, witnesses may be reluctant to come forward, but the fact that those difficulties exist does not in any way diminish the seriousness with which the matter is approached.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): Will my right hon. and learned Friend advise the House how improvements in the performance of the CPS in magistrates courts might be achieved?

The Attorney-General: The vast majority of trafficking cases—trafficking being a serious matter—are likely to go to the Crown court. More generally, the CPS is always looking to improve its performance in all courts in which it appears. If any specific matter troubles my hon. Friend about the performance of the CPS, and if he brings it to my attention, I shall ensure that he gets a proper reply.

Child Trafficking

2. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the prosecution rate for child trafficking offences. [50789]

The Solicitor-General (Mr Edward Garnier): The Crown Prosecution Service is working with law enforcement agencies and others in the United Kingdom and in countries of origin to improve the investigation and prosecution of child trafficking cases.

Steve McCabe: Does the Solicitor-General agree that two of the obstacles to improving successful prosecutions are the tendency to focus on prosecuting young victims for crimes committed under duress and, as ECPAT UK and the Body Shop have argued, the lack of a proper system of guardianship to prevent child victims of trafficking from disappearing, especially from local authority care?

The Solicitor-General: I think I understand the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question. However, I assure him that the CPS does not prosecute people just for the hell of it. It prosecutes people against whom there is evidence and whose activities require the attention of the criminal courts. Those who are forced here and commit crimes under duress are most unlikely to be prosecuted, but I assure him that the CPS is deeply sensitive to the nature of those people’s existence and how they have come into this country. No prosecutions of people who are under duress should take place.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): What is the likely effect on rates of prosecution if the United Kingdom signs up to the European Union directive on human trafficking?

The Solicitor-General: I think that the Prime Minister announced last Wednesday week that we are now signing up to that directive, having considered the matter. I cannot tell him what the effect will be in numerical terms, but it will have some beneficial effects.

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Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): Further to the guardianship point that has just been raised, how long does the Solicitor-General believe it will take to enshrine article 14 in UK law?

The Solicitor-General: I do not know.

Crown Prosecution Service

3. Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): What steps the Crown Prosecution Service plans to take to achieve its planned expenditure reductions over the comprehensive spending review period. [50790]

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): The CPS has developed and implemented a structured cost reduction plan, which will achieve the 25% budget reduction over the comprehensive spending review period and, at the same time, maintain the capability of the CPS to deliver its core business to a high standard. The plan covers expenditure on staff, accommodation, information technology, counsels, fees and administration costs. A recruitment freeze has been implemented and will continue for the next four years. Contracts have been renegotiated and the costs of many corporate services will be halved by 2014.

Mr Cunningham: Given the cuts that the Attorney-General has just outlined, how will the CPS maintain its high standards?

The Attorney-General: All savings are challenging, but the CPS is conscious of its statutory obligations. The publication of its core quality standards underlines its commitment to delivering a quality service and its priorities remain the prosecution of offences. It is carrying out efficiency savings across the board, particularly in respect of its central units. It believes that it can carry out the savings without affecting its ability to conduct prosecutions.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Is the Attorney-General following up the suggestion of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which was made in evidence to the Justice Committee, that considerable savings could be made by better handling in the courts of early guilty pleas, as has been developed in Liverpool?

The Attorney-General: Indeed. I have participated in discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service and members of the judiciary on ensuring that the example of early guilty pleas in Liverpool can be progressively rolled out throughout the country. Other pilot schemes will operate that initiative. The Liverpool example suggests that very substantial cost savings can be achieved. I cannot emphasise too much to the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the difference in cost between an early guilty plea and a case that trails on without a plea until trial is imminent is in fact huge.

Specialist Rape Prosecutors

4. Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): How many specialist rape prosecutors the Crown Prosecution Service employed in the latest period for which figures are available. [50791]

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The Solicitor-General (Mr Edward Garnier): Specialist rape prosecutors have been appointed by chief Crown prosecutors based on local business needs. The number has not been centrally collated, but in January 2011, the Director of Public Prosecutions said that 839 prosecutors throughout England and Wales had the requisite training and experience to deal with rape cases.

Alison McGovern: It is worrying that conviction rates for rape and sexual offences other than rape are down. What will the Solicitor-General do to stop that slide from becoming a worrying trend?

The Solicitor-General: I do not mean to misinterpret the hon. Lady’s question, but in my submission, the more important question is the attrition rate between report and the arrival of the case in court. The conviction rate in sexual offences cases stands good comparison with that for most other crimes, but we need to concentrate on the falling away of evidence from victims who are unprepared to take the matter from the initial stage right the way through to the court. I can assure her that the police and the CPS are doing all they can to ensure that the attrition rate is not as high as it has historically been.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): On that point of attrition, may I commend to the Solicitor-General the use of intermediaries to help vulnerable witnesses to give their evidence in an effective way, particular in respect of allegations of rape and other serious sexual offences? I have had personal experience of such intermediaries and I commend their use to him.

The Solicitor-General: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has huge experience as a criminal lawyer. There are a number of things that we can do, and should do more of, to enable victims of rape to bring their cases to court. To be raped is the most appalling experience, but to have to relive that experience through the criminal justice system makes the matter all the worse. We must do all that we can to ensure that those women, and some men, are enabled to bring their offenders to justice.

Domestic Violence

5. Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on the effect on prosecution rates of the provision of specialist domestic violence services. [50792]

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): I have received no recent representations.

Luciana Berger: Does the Attorney-General agree that the success rate of the Crown Prosecution Service is dependent on factors outside its control, particularly in prosecuting crimes such as domestic violence? In those circumstances, what will be the cumulative impact of police, local authority and legal aid cuts on the support available to victims of domestic violence, and on the number of perpetrators prosecuted?

The Attorney-General: The hon. Lady is right that the success rate in domestic violence prosecutions has been on an upward trend—there was a significant increase from 65% in 2006-07 to 72% in 2009-10—against the background of an increasing volume of prosecutions.

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Specialist support services play a key role in contributing to those improvements. If I may make the position quite clear, the CPS is committed to working with those specialist services and believes that a priority will be given to their continuation, to ensure that it can continue to do the work it currently does.

Human Trafficking

6. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that people recognised as trafficked under the national referral mechanism procedure are not prosecuted for criminal offences related to their trafficking. [50793]

The Solicitor-General (Mr Edward Garnier): Guidance has been issued to prosecutors on the prosecution of defendants charged with criminal offences who might be trafficking victims. It advises prosecutors on the steps that should be taken when reviewing such a case. Similar guidance has also been issued to the police.

Jeremy Lefroy: What steps is the Solicitor-General taking to ensure that the victims of trafficking are better protected, so that they are more likely to give evidence?

The Solicitor-General: The national referral mechanism has improved the identification of trafficked victims and their subsequent referral into appropriate support and protection. As part of the wider strategy to combat human trafficking, the Government are introducing a new model for funding specialist support for all adult victims of trafficking in England and Wales that will provide support tailored to the individual needs of the victims. There is guaranteed funding of up to £2 million a year to support this. If the victim agrees to assist in criminal proceedings, a number of steps can be taken by prosecutors to ensure their safety and improve their ability to give evidence, including special measures in court, applying for reporting restrictions to protect their identity or applying for the victim to give evidence from their home country, if they wish to return there.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The newly appointed chief officer in the Welsh Assembly responsible for human trafficking issues in Wales said yesterday:

“Victims have no faith in the police and the public sector in their own countries because they are corrupt and traffickers will tell them it is the same here.”

We know that that is not the case, but will the Minister indicate what he can do to ensure that people who do not have faith in their own countries can have confidence that we will deal with this issue seriously in ours?

The Solicitor-General: The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point, which is that many of the victims come from jurisdictions in which the police are seen as oppressors rather than assistants. As he appreciates—having been a Home Office Minister and through his constituency experience—in this country, the situation is rather different. As I said in answer to an earlier question, both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are acutely sensitive to the difficulties that the victims of trafficking face, whether of sexual or labour exploitation, or of immigration offences.

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7. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the rate of conviction for rape offences. [50794]

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): Measures to strengthen rape prosecutions were announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions in December 2010. These include a new violence against women assurance scheme involving the monitoring of approximately 25% of all rape cases.

Diana Johnson: We are seeing a 25% cut in the CPS budget, cuts to specialist policing in cases of domestic and sexual violence, cuts to voluntary groups working with victims of sexual violence, fewer powers to use DNA evidence and fewer prison places. Despite this, is the Attorney-General confident about the prospects for more rape convictions?

The Attorney-General: If I may say to the hon. Lady, she asked an improper question, because it presupposed the answer at the time she raised it. The conviction rates for rape rose from 54% in 2006-07 to 59% in 2009-10, against a 17% increase in volume. There has also been an increase in guilty pleas. I have no doubt that, like all challenges, maintaining that into the future will require effort on the part of the CPS and the other organisations, but I have no reason to suppose that, as a result of the long list she announced, it should have an adverse impact on the priority given to rape and our ability to convict people for it.

Mr Speaker: Order. I can assure the Attorney-General that there has been no procedural impropriety of any kind.

Bribery Act

8. Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What progress the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Serious Fraud Office have made on guidance on the prosecution of cases under the Bribery Act 2010. [50795]

The Solicitor-General (Mr Edward Garnier): The two directors issued joint guidance on 30 March this year.

Mr Clarke: Does the hon. and learned Gentleman know whether the Attorney-General has had discussions with his Treasury colleagues, in the light of the budget cuts to the SFO and the implications for the implementation of the Bribery Act, given the diminished resources?

The Solicitor-General: Both the SFO and the CPS have factored in to their assessments of the financial needs of their prosecuting services the implications of the Bribery Act, and both are satisfied that their work will be able to continue irrespective of the comprehensive spending review.

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Does my hon. and learned Friend agree with the CBI that the SFO must take a common-sense approach to enforcement of the Bribery Act to ensure that it is reasonable and risk based?

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The Solicitor-General: The SFO and the CPS will apply the prosecutors code in the usual way, and if that involves the application of common sense, they will apply it. There is an awful lot of misinformed over-excitement about the implementation of the Bribery Act. However, I would refer right hon. and hon. Members to an article on page 14 of today’s Financial Times by Andrew Hill. It offers a sensible view on the matter.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): News of the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010 is welcome. However, the Serious Fraud Office faces slashed budgets and there is a plan to split its investigation and prosecution functions, against recommended practice. This uncertainty has already seen six senior staff move to the private sector in recent weeks. What action will the Law Officers take to ensure that confidence is maintained and that the UK is capable of delivering on its international obligations to tackle serious corruption and fraud?

The Solicitor-General: By getting on with our job.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Shahbaz Bhatti

1. Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): What representations the Church of England has made on the death of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan. [50778]

6. Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): What representations the Church of England has made on the death of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan. [50783]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Tony Baldry): There were widespread expressions of sadness and concern across the Church of England and throughout Parliament following the news of the assassination of Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, in Pakistan. The Archbishop of Canterbury takes a close interest in Pakistani affairs, after his visit to Pakistan in 2005, and had met with Mr Bhatti personally as recently as last September. Both the archbishop and the Bishop of Pontefract, who chairs the archbishop’s Pakistan focus group, attended a service of remembrance and thanksgiving for the life of Shahbaz Bhatti, which was held at St Margaret’s Westminster on 17 March. The Bishop of Lahore is currently on a visit to the UK and has met the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss the unfolding situation and the position of Christians in Pakistan. The archbishop has reaffirmed the Church of England’s full support for the work of the Church in Pakistan and solidarity with Christians facing persecution there and elsewhere.

Mr Buckland: It is likely that Mr Bhatti, who was a Christian himself, was murdered because he had suggested reforms to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Is not now a time for us to remember that article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which enshrines the right to freedom of religion and belief, should be truly of universal application?

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Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend, who chairs the Conservative party’s human rights commission, makes an important point. Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right, as set out in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights. As Amnesty International has noted,

“the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a fundamental component of the universal and indivisible human rights framework that applies to all people everywhere, as laid out in international law.”

Andrew Selous: I commend the Archbishop of Canterbury on speaking out so strongly following the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti. Many of us were pleased to see that, but will my hon. Friend ensure that the archbishop continues to speak out on these matters, not least in Iran, where 282 Christians in 34 different cities have been arrested since June last year, and where 300 Bibles were burned in February?

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of the persecution of Christians elsewhere in the world. Let me remind the House of two comments made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said:

“The protection of minorities of any and every kind is one acid test of moral legitimacy for a government,”

and that applies to Iran, Iraq, Egypt and other countries where Christians are facing difficulties. The Archbishop of Canterbury has also observed that

“Most Muslim thinkers are embarrassed by supposedly ‘Islamic’ laws in various contexts that conceal murderous oppression and bullying…they need to be heard more clearly”.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The welcome statements from Lambeth palace and this House are one thing, but for a real impact, does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Prime Minister, who is currently in Pakistan, will publicly condemn what happened, and should he?

Tony Baldry: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is a robust defender of human rights. I am quite sure that he will not leave the Government of Pakistan in any doubt about the abhorrence felt in every part of this country and every part of civilised society at the murder and martyrdom of people simply for their religious beliefs.

St George’s Day

2. Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Whether the Church Commissioners plan to encourage the flying of the St George Cross flag by churches on St George’s day. [50779]

9. Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): What plans the Church of England has to mark St George’s day. [50786]

Tony Baldry: The Church of England is delighted to have a once-in-a-century opportunity to celebrate the patron saint of England on two occasions this year. The Church of England, along with other Christian denominations, will be officially celebrating St George’s day on 2 May. The reason for the shift in date this year is that Easter is late, Easter Sunday falling the day immediately after St George’s day, on 23 April. To celebrate St George’s day on Holy Saturday would not

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be appropriate because Holy Saturday is the traditional time of reflection and contemplation for Christians before the celebrations of Easter Sunday. The Archbishop of York has been calling for all churches and Government buildings to fly the St George cross on their flagpoles on both 23 April and 2 May. He has written to all Departments asking them to observe both 23 April and 2 May, to ensure that we have a double celebration this year.

Mr Nuttall: I thank my hon. Friend for that informative answer. Will the Church Commissioners be supporting the private Member’s Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), which would have the effect of designating St George’s day, or the nearest working day to it, a national public holiday?

Tony Baldry: In responding to my hon. Friend, I can do no better than to quote the Archbishop of York, who has said:

“As someone who loves St George, I have long campaigned for us to have a special holiday where we can celebrate our patron saint and all that is great about our wonderful nation. There is so much to love about England. Why can’t we put aside one day a year where we can wave our English flag of St George, sing songs about our proud history and maybe even drink a pint of English real ale with our friends.”

Richard Graham: I am of course delighted that our noble cathedral continues to lead the way in celebrating St George’s day, and I hope that other cathedrals and churches will follow Gloucester cathedral’s example. In Scotland, St Andrew’s day has been marked by a public holiday since 2006. Many of us feel that St George’s day is at least as important a day in England. Indeed, Shakespeare referred to

“Our ancient word of courage”.

If the Church were to endorse the adoption of St George’s day as a public holiday, would my hon. Friend join me in asking the Backbench Business Committee for an opportunity to debate the matter on the Floor of the House?

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth recalling that St George’s day was declared a public holiday as long ago as 1222. The House will of course have an opportunity to support the private Member’s Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who represents the constituency in which Shakespeare was born and died on St George’s day. For all those reasons, it is a good idea to have a public holiday to celebrate St George.

Mr Speaker: I call Ben Bradshaw. Not here.


4. Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on the role of the Church of England in education. [50781]

Tony Baldry: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. In this, the bicentenary year of the Church of England’s National Society, the Church celebrates its long and distinguished history as a provider of primary and secondary schools, and the society’s founding mission to provide an education for the poor in every parish, right across England, 50 years before state provision

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began. The Church of England greatly values its continuing role as a provider of inclusive and ethically grounded education for children of all communities. During this bicentenary year, it is encouraging MPs to visit their local church schools to see for themselves the outstanding work of the staff in the diverse communities they serve.

Fiona Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. In the light of the history of the Church’s role in establishing education for all in this country, does he agree that it is right that those in government at all levels should applaud the role of faith in our country as an inspiration for the generous community spirit of so many in our society—and, indeed, as one of the key building blocks of the big society—through engaging constructively with the Church?

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend is right. I am aware that Ministers and officials at the Department for Education are working closely with the Bishop of Oxford, who was recently appointed by the Archbishops as the new chairman of the board of education. The education division of the Church of England has a continual and constructive relationship with colleagues in the Department for Education. Recent conversations have included discussions about academies and free schools, as well as detailed discussions about recent legislation and the impact on existing Church schools’ estate. In addition, the education division of the Church of England is planning two events in Parliament to celebrate the important work of Church schools. An exhibition will take place in the Upper Waiting Hall in July, which I hope right hon. and hon. Members will visit. There will also be a reception on the Terrace in October to celebrate the bicentenary of the National Society.

Listed Places of Worship

5. Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with Ministers on the future of the listed places of worship grant scheme. [50782]

Tony Baldry: The Church of England welcomed the Government’s announcement last October that the listed places of worship scheme would continue beyond March 2011. We also accept the Government’s need to return the scheme to its original scope of eligibility and to set cash limits for each year. Since then, the Church of England has had positive discussions with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to determine how the scheme can operate as simply as possible to ensure that all the available money is paid out and that the Department’s budget is not exceeded.

Diana Johnson: Will the hon. Gentleman continue to make sure that there will be discussions with all the key stakeholders to ensure that churches in the most deprived communities, where private donations are harder to get, do not suffer unfairly because of the changes to the scheme?

Tony Baldry: Absolutely. It is, of course, a fundamental principle of the Church Commissioners to make sure that Church resources are targeted at deprived areas.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm whether, if lottery money is to be increased, it will also be good news for places of worship?

Tony Baldry: Yes, absolutely. Indeed, we need to lever in all forms of funding for church buildings, which are a very important part of our heritage. The Church of England looks after 19,000 churches, many of which are grade I listed buildings. We need to make sure that we find money from wherever we can to maintain that heritage for future generations.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Enfranchisement (Non-residents)

7. Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): What research the Electoral Commission has commissioned and evaluated on the enfranchisement in other countries of their non-residents. [50784]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon): The Electoral Commission has not conducted research into the enfranchisement of non-residents in other countries. The commission does not take a view on the franchise, because that is a matter for Parliament.

Greg Hands: May I refer my hon. Friend to the statistic I mentioned earlier—that of 5.5 million British subjects living abroad, only 15,000 are on the electoral register? Can we learn something from the United States, which always encourages its nationals, when abroad, to register with their American embassy or consulate, while at the same time encouraging those citizens to register to vote? Could we not do the same thing?

Mr Streeter: My hon. Friend makes a very interesting and helpful suggestion. In its report on the administration of the 2010 UK general election, the commission called on the Government to bring forward proposals for a comprehensive modernisation strategy, which should include options for improving voting opportunities for overseas electors. I will make sure that Ministers considering that report, including the Deputy Prime Minister, are made aware of my hon. Friend’s excellent suggestion.

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Has my hon. Friend, as the representative of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, been notified of whether local authorities have, in view of this question and the role of Parliament to which he has referred, provided an opportunity for people to use their electoral facilities and services for the purpose of promoting the alternative vote?

Mr Streeter: My hon. Friend, as usual, makes an important point. I am not aware of any such representations, but he has raised a serious matter, which we will of course look into.

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

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Social Mobility Strategy

12.32 pm

Ms Harriet Harman (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the Government’s social mobility strategy.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): Today, the Government are launching their strategy to improve social mobility. While our most urgent task is to sort out the nation’s finances, our overriding mission is to take real steps towards a fairer society. To us, a fair society is an open society, one in which everyone is free to flourish and rise regardless of the circumstances of their birth. That is why the promotion of social mobility is the principal objective of the coalition Government’s social policy.

It is simply unacceptable that so many of our children have their life chances shaped by the circumstances of their birth. Gaps in development between children from different backgrounds can be detected even at birth. By the age of five, bright children from poorer backgrounds have been overtaken by less bright children from richer ones—and from this point on, the gaps tend to widen still further.

That is why this Government are taking a life-cycle approach to social mobility, an approach where we seek to remove the obstacles to mobility at each stage of an individual’s life—hence our new entitlements for free pre-school care for all two-year-olds from disadvantaged families and our pupil premium designed to narrow attainment gaps in the school years. Then we are creating an extra quarter of a million apprenticeships to boost mobility in the labour market, and opening up higher education so that children from all backgrounds can have the chance to go to university and end the scandal whereby the one in five children who are eligible for free school meals make up less than one in 100 entering Oxford and Cambridge.

We will continue to encourage fair access to jobs during adulthood and, in particular, we are tackling the long-standing problems caused by unpaid internships dominated by those from the most affluent backgrounds. The civil service is leading by example, and today my colleague Baroness Warsi announced an end to unfair informal internships in Whitehall. We are signing up companies and other organisations to a new business compact on social mobility, asking business to do its bit. It should be what you know, not who you know, that helps you to get a foot in the door.

We recognise, of course, that Government alone cannot single-handedly create a fairer society. It is a task for parents, communities, businesses, professions and voluntary organisations too. This is not just a Government mission; it is a national mission, and I hope that Opposition Members will support our drive to tackle the long-standing problems of social immobility in this country.

Low levels of social mobility clearly exact a high social price by cramping the opportunities of millions of children, but they damage our economy too, because talented individuals are denied the opportunity to develop their full potential. Of course it is not enough just to talk about social mobility. We need clear measures and a mechanism for accountability, and our strategy sets

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out a clear framework for holding the Government to account on our ambitious proposals. We are creating a new statutory social mobility and child poverty commission to assess progress on child poverty and social mobility, to hold Government and others to account, and to act as an advocate for change. We have developed a set of leading indicators which will be used to track progress towards a more mobile society. For the first time, as Departments develop new policies, they will need to consider the impact on social mobility. I will continue to chair a group of Ministers to maintain the momentum for change.

Today’s strategy sets out the concrete steps that the Government are taking to promote social mobility and an open and fair society. There are many policy and technical challenges in this area, and I am grateful for the support of Members in all parts of the House. Of course it is true that most people do not sit around talking about inter-generational social mobility, but at the heart of our strategy is a common instinct. It is the most natural feeling in the world for any parent to want their children to have the opportunities that they did not, and we can all agree that—as I said earlier—in a fair society what counts is how hard you work, not how much your parents earn. In a fair society, ability trumps privilege, and that is the society that the Government want to build.

Ms Harman: I am afraid that the Deputy Prime Minister gave up the right to pontificate on social mobility when he abolished the education maintenance allowance, trebled tuition fees and betrayed a generation of young people. When I heard that he was going to launch a commission on social mobility, I thought that it was April Fools’ day. In just 10 months this Tory-led Government have launched an assault on opportunities for young people, especially the poorest.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the new Office for Fair Access has no teeth? It is presiding over soaring youth unemployment, so why have the Government abolished the future jobs fund? For many young people, mobility now means a bus down to the jobcentre. Families with young children are feeling the squeeze, so why have the Government cut tax credits? The first few years are vital to a child’s prospects, so why have they cut Sure Start?

The Deputy Prime Minister boasts about the pupil premium, but will he admit that the Government are cutting school budgets? He claims that he wants to improve social mobility, so why has he dropped section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, which would have legislated for all public authorities to play their part in narrowing the gap between rich and poor? In opposition he said that the Act did not go far enough, but now he is dancing to the tune of the Tories. Next he will be foxtrotting down to the Tory party’s fundraising ball, auctioning City internships for the children of the highest bidder. Is that not the Government’s idea of social mobility? We have further to go, but they are turning the clock back.

The Deputy Prime Minister says that he is on a mission to improve social mobility. Curiously, whenever he is on a mission to achieve something, the very opposite seems to happen. His support for EMAs saw them abolished, his determination to end tuition fees saw them trebled, and his commitment to no VAT rise

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resulted in a hike to 20%. Is there not a very important lesson here? If you care about something, the very last person whom you want on your side is the Deputy Prime Minister. He may be a man on a mission, but with him at the helm, it is mission impossible.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for her calm, objective comments on the Government’s social mobility strategy. May I just point out a little bit of context for her? Under Labour, in the last 13 years public spending more than doubled in cash terms from £300 billion in 1997-98 to over £600 billion in 2010, yet social mobility did not increase at all. When are she and her colleagues going to ask themselves some fundamental questions about why, despite all that extra public spending—they had money to spend; they have deprived us of that luxury—social mobility did not increase at all? We are trying to tackle this difficult dilemma: increased public spending does not, in and of itself, increase opportunity and social mobility. That is the serious question with which I hoped she would engage.

Secondly, there is nothing just, and it will not help social mobility at all, in saddling our children and grandchildren with this generation’s debts. I cannot for the life of me understand how the—

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Calm down!

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, I am worked up by the idea that the Labour party thinks that it is honest and right by the children and grandchildren of Great Britain to say that, according to the Labour deficit reduction plan, £14 billion-worth of cuts should be unveiled tomorrow—yet it has not had the decency to tell people where those cuts would fall. The right hon. and learned Lady’s leader recently went to Hyde park and emulated Martin Luther King. I never heard Martin Luther King say, “I have a dream: we need cuts, but a little less and more slowly than the other lot want.” We have got to engage in this seriously. This is a long-term project which requires a long-term approach.

On the education maintenance allowance, let me repeat the clarification I gave earlier: we are replacing the untargeted EMA with a targeted bursary fund—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) is yelling about this proposition from a sedentary position, but a former Labour Home Secretary himself conceded that EMA was always going to change as the compulsory education age rose to 17. We have put in place an annual bursary of £180 million for 12,000 of the most vulnerable young people, which is equivalent to about £38 a week. More money will go to 12,000 students, including young people who are in care or who have left care, those living independently, those whose parents have died, those with disabilities and teenage parents. That is our commitment to targeting help at those who most need it.

On fees—[Interruption.] Well, let me give the right hon. Gentleman some figures on fees. For the first time since fees were introduced by the Labour Government, no one at university, including the thousands of part-time students, will have to pay any fees whatsoever. As a result of the Labour system, thousands and thousands

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of part-time students from low-income backgrounds have to pay an up-front fee. We are getting rid of that. Secondly, we are changing when people will need to repay for the benefits of having gone to university. If we want to be fair, we should remember yet again that it is estimated that the earning power of those who have gone to university will increase on average by about £100,000. It is therefore not unreasonable to ask people to make some contribution to that, but we are different in saying that that repayment should be made only when they are earning much more money than under the old system: £21,000 rather than £15,000. In practice, that means that while, yes, how much universities can charge will go up, in most respects—this is what Opposition Members refuse to acknowledge—the repayments for graduates will go down, so that every single graduate in the future will pay out less from their bank account every month than they do under the Labour system. That is fair, it is sustainable, and it will work.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. Understandably, there is considerable interest in this matter, so there is some pressure on time. I therefore ask for brief questions and pithy replies.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the way to increase social mobility and social justice for our young people is not to leave them on the scrapheap, as the last Government did, but to increase the number of apprenticeships by hundreds of thousands?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I strongly agree. I think it shows our commitment to providing people with access to the labour market that we are increasing by a quarter of a million the number of apprenticeships available to young people, compared with the previous Government’s plans. I repeat again that this is at a time when we are spending—I think—£400 million every single day in borrowing costs, which is enough to build a primary school every 20 minutes. Therefore, those deficit deniers on the Opposition Benches have to ask themselves again: “How do you promote social mobility on a morass of debt?” You cannot.

Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman may be aware of the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme, which is due to launch on 8 June and will provide paid parliamentary internships for people from working-class backgrounds. Does he agree that unpaid internships are exploitative and totally unacceptable in this day and age? Can he confirm that he has not employed and does not employ any unpaid interns himself?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly welcome the efforts of the right hon. Lady and all those others who have been involved in the Speaker’s excellent initiative; it is a small beginning but very significant. Of course I agree with her principle that internships should be not only advertised openly and transparently, so that there is a meritocracy in who applies for and secures internships, but properly remunerated. I can confirm that, as of today—[Interruption.] I think we would all accept that the way in which internships—in all parts of the House—have been administered and received in the past has left

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a lot to be desired. Speaking as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, I can confirm that, as of today, we are making sure that advertisements for internships are name and school blind, so that there is a completely level playing field, and that proper remuneration is provided to those who secure internships. I do not say this in a competitive way, but I hope that we can move towards having that kind of approach across the whole Westminster estate.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): I welcome the strategy’s strong emphasis on reducing family breakdown. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that strong families are an engine of social mobility for many children in our nation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Although I may not entirely agree with some of the suggestions that have been put forward as to how that might be reflected in the tax system, I strongly agree, of course, that strong families produce strong and self-confident children. I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for leading the debate, not only in Westminster, but across the country, on the link between family breakdown and repeat cycles of deprivation.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I welcome the statement that the Deputy Prime Minister made today? Although there are some noble exceptions, the life chances of most children in this country are determined by the age of five. Given that, what importance does he attach to the foundation years as the key driver of this new strategy?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and thank him for the work he has done in his independent report. It cast a fascinating light on precisely the problem and dilemma he identifies, which is that many of the patterns of injustice, social inequality and social immobility set in very early and that, as a society, we have for too long embarked on remedial actions much later in life. It is not too late by then—that is too pessimistic a view—but it is a whole lot of more difficult and certainly more expensive to remedy at that stage problems that have their source when a child is very young. I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the approach to foundation years. We need to equip all children with what he has called “school readiness”, so that by the time children walk through the school gates they are in a better position to benefit from school. We want them to enjoy it and find it enriching, rather than end up as one of the small number who are distracted, bored and very disruptive at the back of the class. I should stress that that is bad for everybody in the class, so I strongly endorse his approach.

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): This follows on from what the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) said. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that all parties in this place, most major professions, the media and most top businesses have been living in a glass house when it comes to the barriers to social mobility that informal internships have set, and that at least the coalition Government are beginning to show a lead on this particular issue?

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The Deputy Prime Minister: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s agreement with the previous question—if that is not too circular a way of putting it. I am delighted that today a number of large businesses from several fields—the media, accountancy and law—have said that they will play their part, not only by making sure they administer their own internship programmes more transparently, but by going out to schools. I was with a number of leaders from those professions in a school in Southwark this morning, talking to 15-year-olds in small groups about how they could aspire to become lawyers, accountants and politicians. That simple act of getting into schools and showing what is possible can have a galvanising effect on the aspirations of young people.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I tell the Deputy Prime Minister that many Opposition Members will view the strategy with interest? There are some things that we rather like about it, although we have some reservations. May I also tell him, however, that warm words will not work here? Specific professions have to be taken on in the hardest way, particularly lawyers. It is almost impossible for a young person from an ordinary background to get into law—to get a pupilage or anything like that—and it is almost impossible to get on to a Bar vocational course unless one has been privately educated.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, although that will not do him any good on the Opposition Benches—he needs to be careful. I strongly agree with him that words and strategies are no good unless they are translated into action. Let me say two things. First, we have to be realistic. This is a deep-seated issue with quite profound social, economic and cultural antecedents, so we are not going to change things overnight. The challenge is going to far outlive this Parliament and, I suspect, the political career of everyone in the Chamber right now.

What we are trying to do in the announcement today is establish a mechanism of scrutiny and accountability in relation not only to what this Government do but to what all future Governments of whatever political complexion do, so that it is built to last. That is why I am very grateful for the work that the former Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, did for the previous Government on internships and professions, and is doing in his current role as the interim chair of the new social mobility and child poverty commission. He is utterly independent and will produce an annual report on our progress against the indicators we have set out in the strategy, not to the Government but to everyone here in Parliament, so there will be totally independent, annual and regular scrutiny of how well or, indeed, how badly we are doing.

Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye) (Con): Parents and teachers in Hastings warmly welcome the pupil premium that will follow children with free school meals, of whom we have a high number. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just the money but the reforms proposed by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that will make the real difference in making social mobility a part of our lives?

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The Deputy Prime Minister: One fact speaks for itself and confirms exactly what my hon. Friend says: the Work programme will take 900,000 people out of poverty altogether by providing the simple incentive that work always pays. It is a dramatic rebalancing of the benefit system and incentives to work, which will have a socially progressive effect.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Notwithstanding what the Deputy Prime Minister has said, does he recognise that many of the measures introduced by the Government, in relation to child trust funds, child benefit changes, tax changes, tuition fees and the education maintenance allowance, will have a cumulative squeezing effect on many hard-working families? Is he not worried that the compound impact of those measures will damage the emancipation of aspiration and social mobility?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would test Mr Speaker’s patience if I went through each of the items that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I really believe that hon. Members should look in more detail at how the new higher education funding system will work and what it will mean for individual graduates in terms of money out of their bank account every month. They should look at how we are targeting the replacement for EMA in a way that really helps vulnerable children who would otherwise be impeded from going on into education, and at the effect of the new income tax allowance, which comes in tomorrow and will take 880,000 people, in one simple step, out of paying any income tax altogether. Hon. Members should look at the decisions in last year’s Budget that reduced child poverty by about 50,000, and at the triple-lock guarantee for pensioners that their state pension will increase by either 2.5%, inflation or earnings. I could go on.

With those measures we seek, in difficult circumstances, to ensure that the most vulnerable are not affected. I repeat again that there is not a world of difference between the £14 billion-worth of cuts that is the Labour party’s position and the £16 billion-worth of cuts next month. We have to bring down the deficit; otherwise we will saddle future generations with a dead-weight of debt around their necks, which will not allow them to move ahead at all.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the charitable status of private schools adequately supports the objective of social mobility?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The key in education is always to make sure that the vast majority of schools—state-funded schools—have the resources, freedom and ability to provide the best possible education for their children and to make sure that children from those schools have the opportunity to go to our top universities. That should remain the focus of our attention.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Several of us in opposition have been pushing the Government for some time for details about when they were publishing their child poverty strategy, but it was sneaked out under cover of a written statement today. Is it not shameful that the only way we can get any mention of child poverty in the Chamber is by the Opposition asking an urgent question on social mobility? Should we not have a proper debate on the strategy?

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The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that is unfair. We published a written statement with the document at 9.30 am and I have just referred to child poverty figures and the effect of the Budget on them. Just to be clear, we have said that the child poverty strategy and the social mobility strategy are perfectly aligned. Why? It is because in our view simply taking a statistical snapshot view of child poverty, as happened in the past with the 60% of median income cut-off, does not capture why social mobility has not improved over generations. That is why we have tried to introduce a more well-rounded and fuller picture in what we have published today.

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I very much welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s focus on leading indicators, which build and draw on the work of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field). Of course, that makes it very important that we get the right indicators and make sure there is a sufficiently broad and balanced base. In the early years, which are so crucial, we know that some of the drivers are a healthy pregnancy, early attachment and spending time with baby, talking and reading to her. How will the leading-indicators approach fully reflect those key factors?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman will see from the publication, some of the indicators seek to capture precisely some of the earliest indications of disadvantage, such as birth weight—there is a strong correlation between disadvantage and lower birth weight—but there are other things that we must do to make it more possible for mothers and fathers to provide the best possible start in life for all children. That is why we are determined, although it will take time, to introduce over time more generous and more flexible parental leave arrangements so that mothers and fathers can provide that vital care, nurturing and love that young children, wherever they are born, deserve.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): The chief executive of Tesco earns 500 times what his colleagues who stack shelves earn, but his company gets a corporation tax reduction, and now even Leeds Metropolitan university wants to charge £8,500 in tuition fees. How will that promote social mobility?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman should not jump the gun. Of the universities that have already declared how much they might want to charge, fewer than half have gravitated to the highest level. Of course, we cannot tell what that will mean for students and graduates until we know what it means per course and per individual. There are lots of waivers, fee reductions, bursaries and so on to consider. I stress again that the Office for Fair Access—this goes back to a question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) which I failed to answer earlier—is there not to micro-manage price but to insist that if any university is going to charge more than £6,000 it can do so only if it shows a significant change in the way it will be reaching out to, accommodating and accepting children from more disadvantaged backgrounds, who are still woefully under-represented at our universities.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): This is a welcome but huge cross-cutting agenda, which can be judged only on results. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking

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that when the first annual report is published it will be accompanied by a ministerial statement, so that we can all have the opportunity to take stock of what progress has been made during the first year of this policy?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I strongly endorse that suggestion and I would be very keen to take it up.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister quite rightly paid tribute to early years provision to support families. Can he tell me, on that basis, whether the Government are prepared to rethink funding for early years, particularly given the great success of the Sure Start scheme?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows, we have made more than enough money available to secure the continuation of Sure Start centres everywhere. What is happening—I say this before he shakes his head—is that there seems to be a discrepancy in the pattern of how different councils are responding. For instance, I know that in the councils controlled by Liberal Democrats, not a single Sure Start centre has been closed. The money in the early intervention grant, I am sure I am right in thinking, is more than sufficient to keep Sure Start centres going, and we want to continue fully to support them.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I do not doubt for one moment that Labour Members want to increase social mobility—they just do not know how to do it. Throwing money at it was clearly wrong. In the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, we have two people who passionately believe in improving social mobility. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is not just money that solves this problem?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree absolutely. If money were the answer, we would be in the most socially mobile society on the planet. We more than doubled, in cash terms, the amount of money spent by Government between 1997 and 2010—from over £300 billion to well over £600 billion—yet social mobility did not advance at all. More profound factors such as education, health, housing, how the tax system works and how it interacts with the benefits system need to be looked at in the round. I hope that, bit by bit, we will, collectively, on both sides of the House, make progress on this.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Cuts in public sector jobs will disproportionately affect women. Is that because the Deputy Prime Minister agrees with the Minister for Universities and Science that the biggest barrier to social mobility in the last 30 years has been the advancement of women?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The welfare reforms, including universal credit, will massively benefit women who want to take up a little bit of work, a few hours a week. [Interruption.] I find it patronising and demeaning to say to people who want to work a few hours a week that that is not a proper job. That is extraordinary.

On public sector jobs, let me repeat something that the hon. Lady is clearly not aware of. Her own party is committed to unveiling, in 24 hours, £14 billion of cuts

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to fulfil its deficit reduction programme. At the same time, her party is committed to £12 billion of extra spending. She cannot wave her finger at this Government until she tells us how she is going to reduce the deficit burden on future generations, because, without that element social mobility is impossible.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm the story in today’s Evening Standard that he secured his first internship through his father’s influence in a Finnish bank?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, I can. As a teenager, yes, I did receive an internship, as, I suspect, did many people around the Chamber. [Interruption.] Good for you if you did not. All of us should be honest and acknowledge that the way that internships have been administered in the private sector, the public sector, political parties, and—I discovered when we came into government—in Whitehall as well, under 13 years of Labour, left a lot to be desired. I was a recipient of that, as, I suspect, many others here were as well. That is what we need to change if we want to secure greater social mobility in the future.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): The commission on social mobility, established by the Deputy Prime Minister, observed that countries with the highest levels of social mobility also have the lowest levels of inequality. That is not the same as relative income poverty. I could not see a measure of inequality in the new suite of indicators. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what his Government will do to reduce inequality, and particularly the way in which it is caused by excessive incomes at the top?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady will no doubt know, as she is an expert in this field, the relationship between inequality and social mobility is a slightly fraught area of academic study. For instance, Australia has fairly similar, if not slightly higher, levels of inequality compared with us, but it has significantly higher levels of social mobility. The other problem, as she knows, is that measuring social mobility, particularly intergenerational mobility which is the focus of our attention, takes a long time. We have now set aside money to introduce a new cohort study, so that we do not continue to rely on information that is, in some cases, decades out of date.

I believe that the tax changes that we have introduced, taking a lot of people on low income out of paying tax, the closing of some of the loopholes at the top, the increasing of capital gains tax by 10%—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady frowns, but let us remember that, under the Labour Government, there was a grotesque loophole whereby cleaners were paying more tax on their wages than very wealthy financiers were on their dividends, and that is something that we have changed. We have imposed a £2.5 billion tax on the banks every single year, far surpassing the single pinprick of the bank bonus tax that she advocates. The action that we have taken in the past few months shows that we want to move in the direction that she advocates.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): The proportion of unpaid internships in the City of London will do nothing to improve social mobility in Easington. Does

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the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the principal of East Durham college, who said, in relation to the education maintenance allowance,

“I believe the Department of Education made the wrong decision, and the disadvantaged young people in the North-East will suffer as a result. Many of our learners are genuinely worried about paying for transport to college next year”?

Are not the actions of this Government at odds with their rhetoric on social mobility?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If we had got rid of EMA and not replaced it with anything, that allegation would have some force. As I explained earlier, our replacement fund of £180 billion actually increases the amount of money—the equivalent of £38 a week for the most vulnerable youngsters in the education system— and provides significant funds—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that I am lying, so let me write to him to clarify exactly how the £180—[Interruption.] I find it quite extraordinary that, without listening to the question, he should bandy about such outrageous allegations. He has studied our proposals for several weeks, and what we are doing in response to input from directors and principals of colleges. They tell us that in order to address some of those transport costs, lunch costs and the cost of classroom materials they would like as much discretion as possible so that they can provide the money to the children whom they know really need the help.

Mr Speaker: Order. I trust that no right hon. or hon. Member will be accused of lying. I must say I heard no such allegation. I would just emphasise that, on the whole, sedentary chuntering is to be deprecated.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that dealing with social mobility needs a long-term plan? I, and many of my generation, were the beneficiaries of a great deal of help with social mobility as a result of the post-world war welfare state, created when the national debt was extremely high. Changes in social mobility in the last decade are far more likely to be influenced by the policies of the previous 20 years, when the Deputy Prime Minister’s coalition partners were in power. Does he therefore agree that it is far too early to be reach a judgment on the Labour Government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course, to a certain extent, the hon. Lady is right to say, as I conceded earlier, that it is difficult to paint a detailed picture of something that is slow moving and for which we need more evidence. However, there is a lot of evidence to show that there is no correlation between a significant increase in social mobility and a significant increase in public spending. In cash terms, public spending more than doubled over the past decade, but there is precious little evidence that social mobility increased likewise.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Some 600,000 students will lose out through the abolition of the EMA, even allowing for the introduction of the Deputy

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Prime Minister’s scheme. Hundreds will be in my constituency. Does he imagine in his wildest dream—I imagine that his dreams are pretty wild—that any of those students will see that as a contribution to social mobility?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as was conceded by Secretaries of State in the previous Government, the EMA in its original design was always going to become a more targeted scheme as the compulsory education age increased to 17 and then to 18. That was made very clear when the EMA was first announced. A number of independent studies have been carried out. They vary a bit, but most of them seem to congregate around the conclusion that the proportion of those who really need support to stay in full-time education is no more than about 10%. What we have done with the £180 billion—

John Cryer indicated dissent.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but this is an example of evidence-based policy. I know that he does not like it. He probably would not acknowledge it if it hit him in the head, but it is something that we are trying to do as a Government. We have provided sufficient money to boost, not to reduce, support for the most vulnerable youngsters and a significant discretionary fund to meet transport costs, lunch costs and classroom material costs.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Today’s press release on civil service internships has no detail. How many places will there be on the fast-stream diversity scheme, and how much will interns be paid? Most importantly, how does the right hon. Gentleman expect the scheme to be delivered in three months’ time when the Cabinet Office has only today asked external organisations to bid to run it?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I do not have detailed statistical answers to some of those questions, but I shall write to the hon. Lady as soon as I can.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how Liberal Democrat-controlled Hull city council’s decision effectively to mothball 13 of the city’s children’s centres and scrap the council’s early years team will help social mobility in my constituency?

The Deputy Prime Minister: There is great diversity and variety between what different councils are doing. I know that in the city I represent not a single swimming pool, library or Sure Start centre has been closed, and there have been no more than 270 compulsory redundancies. People in Sheffield look across the Pennines to Labour-controlled Manchester and see a slash-and-burn approach, whereby 2,000 people have been summarily dismissed and one public service after the next has been closed. I think that that comparison speaks for itself.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister and colleagues for their co-operation.

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British Nationals (Eritrea)

1.11 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the steps being taken to gain consular access to, and secure the release of, the British nationals taken prisoner by the Eritrean authorities in December 2010.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for taking up this case on behalf of his constituents, and my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) for the efforts that they have made.

I reassure the House that I and Foreign Office officials across the world are working to ensure that our ambassador is given consular access to all the men. I am very concerned, as it has now been more than three months since they were detained. As I am sure Members will appreciate, we cannot interfere in the judicial process of another country or request that the men be released, but under the Vienna convention we should be allowed to check on the welfare of detained British nationals.

It might help the House if I give the background to the case. On 24 December last year, the FCO was notified of the disappearance of a UK-registered vessel off Eritrea. The British ambassador in Asmara was subsequently advised that four British nationals on board had been detained by the Eritrean navy. The Eritrean authorities have not officially informed us of the circumstances surrounding the men's detention, or of any charges being made against them. The men's employers have told us, however, that it appears to be for the non-payment of fuel.

The United Kingdom and Eritrea are part of the Vienna convention on consular relations, which states that, among other things, consular access should be provided to detained foreign nationals in a “timely manner”. This is usually interpreted as meaning 24 to 48 hours. The fact that we have not received any response from the Eritrean authorities after nearly four months is deeply troubling.

Since the detention of the men, I have summoned the Eritrean ambassador, Tesfamicael Gerahtu, three times and spoken to him on five or six other occasions specifically to request, and to make clear the importance we attach to gaining, consular access. Indeed, I summoned him this morning for an interview without coffee to emphasise the importance of consular access and of our need to receive a response to all our requests. I have also written to the Eritrean Foreign Minister, Osman Saleh, to reiterate this request and to ask to speak to him urgently. I have not received a response.

Our ambassador in Eritrea has made regular representations to the Eritrean authorities to gain consular access, including to the Foreign Ministry and the office of the President. As of yet, there has been no formal response from the Eritrean Government to these requests, but our ambassador will continue to push for a response. The Foreign Secretary has instructed British embassies in several capitals, including New York, Beijing, Nairobi

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and Khartoum, to raise this issue as a matter of priority with their local Eritrean ambassadors. They have done so and the Eritrean ambassadors have agreed to report our concerns to Asmara.

Most recently, on 25 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development requested a telephone call with President Isaias to discuss the issue. We have not yet had a formal response. In the event that President Isaias does not agree to a telephone call, or that it does not result in consular access being granted, the Foreign Secretary will write to him to reiterate our request and to make it clear that we take Eritrea's non-compliance with the Vienna convention very seriously and will look to take tough measures in response, if necessary.

We have changed our travel advice for Eritrea specifically to highlight the difficulty in securing consular access and in our being able to provide general consular services. We encourage people considering travel to Eritrea to take into account the restrictions placed by the Eritrean Government and the lack of consular access. We will continue to push this issue until access is granted. If this means taking a different and more robust approach, we are prepared to do exactly that.

Mr Liddell-Grainger: I thank my hon. Friend and the Foreign Office for all the help they have given; we all know that the situation is extremely difficult, and we know the Eritreans of old.

What information has the Minister had from the EU, and can we ask it for help? The United Nations has access to many countries where, perhaps, we are not so popular. Can the Minister arrange some form of access to Eritrea for UN people? Finally, and perhaps most difficult, could the Foreign Office send an envoy, almost to camp on the Eritreans’ doorstep, primarily to get the British nationals out? It is not acceptable, in any country, for there to be no access, certainly not since Christmas eve, or for us not to know whether our nationals are being held in humane conditions or being subjected to any form of torture or hardship.

I urge the Minister to continue what he is doing, although I suspect that more meetings without coffee might be the order of the day.

Mr Bellingham: I again congratulate my hon. Friend on pursuing the case with such tenacity and determination.

We will discuss this with our EU counterparts and, indeed, with every EU Foreign Minister. Although the EU and the UN would not normally get involved in consular cases, this issue goes beyond one consular case because it involves non-compliance with the Vienna convention and it is extremely serious. That is why we shall urge the EU to put on as much pressure as possible. I know that the EU generally is very concerned about the lack of movement that its ambassadors are allowed in Eritrea and the consular support they are able to give their citizens.

I was at the UN in New York at the start of the month and mentioned the case to the Eritrean permanent representative. Although organisations such as the UN and the African Union do not get involved in consular cases, this has gone beyond the principle of dealing with a consular case to the complete lack of adherence to the Vienna convention, which is why it is so serious.

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Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I join the Minister in congratulating the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this important urgent question and on his efforts on behalf of his constituents and those of the hon. Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). The Minister has Labour’s full support in his efforts and in all that he has outlined today.

I take this opportunity to welcome the efforts of the British consular services in addressing the difficult challenges in this case and, more broadly, in accessing and assisting British nationals encountering difficulty overseas. In the light of today’s case and of other recent events in north Africa and the middle east, will the Minister update the House on the lessons being learned by British consular services in obtaining access to and supporting British nationals facing danger overseas?

We are concerned by the lack of progress with human rights in Eritrea, as detailed in the recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Human Rights and Democracy” report. We are also concerned about the ongoing border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia—a conflict that has cost the lives of 100,000 people—and Eritrea’s alleged support for Islamist rebels in Somalia. Will the Minister take the opportunity of today’s urgent question to update the House on the Government’s efforts to promote peace, human rights and security in Eritrea and the wider region?

Mr Bellingham: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and his generous praise for the FCO’s consular service, which does an excellent job, often in difficult circumstances. They are perfectionists. They put the duty of care to UK citizens absolutely at the heart of their work. I believe that they are always looking to improve their service and to learn lessons. I can assure him that if lessons can be learnt from this case, we will certainly learn them.

On the point about human rights in Eritrea, I certainly agree that the lack of political, religious and media freedoms and the policy of sometimes indefinite military conscription are big concerns. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we have added Eritrea as a country of concern in the latest FCO human rights report because of the lack of progress being made on those concerns. With regard to Eritrea’s alleged support for terrorism in the horn of Africa, particularly in Somalia, as he knows, we helped to sponsor UN Security Council resolution 1907, which put an arms embargo on Eritrea. Indeed, there is provision in the resolution to impose a travel ban and an asset freeze. I can update him that the monitoring group dealing with that will report later this year. We certainly urge Eritrea to improve its human rights record, comply absolutely with the UN resolution and sort out this very serious consular case, because until that happens we will be unable to have a normal bilateral relationship with that country.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his statement and the work that he, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the consular service have done so far. Several months have now elapsed and Eritrea has been wholly unresponsive to our entreaties. Even failed states and narco-regimes tend to take our telephone calls, but Eritrea has not.

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The individuals concerned need the continued help and assistance of Her Majesty’s Government. We have no idea in what conditions they are being detained. Will he assure the House that every effort will continue to be made to obtain proper consular access for those individuals and, if necessary, to escalate the situation so that Eritrea understands the import of our demands?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he too has taken a close interest in the case. I certainly agree that we have been incredibly patient. We have made telephone calls and demanded that Eritrea comply with the Vienna convention. As I said in my statement, we will now look at more robust measures. I made it very clear to the Eritrean ambassador this morning that there is a range of robust measures that we could take. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary is fully apprised of this and is looking at exactly what additional tough and robust action we can take. My hon. Friend alluded to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made a moment ago about sending a special envoy, which we have certainly not ruled out. We have an ambassador in Asmara who is doing her level best to get consular access, but we will certainly consider sending a special envoy to demand consular access if it is shown that that would be beneficial and if we feel that results could flow from it.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on raising the matter and the Government on including Eritrea as a country of concern in the human rights report published last week. Is there a possible role for other African countries in resolving the issue, and would the Minister say a little more on the question of Eritrea’s relations with its neighbours?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because in his time as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee he obviously had substantial involvement with the horn of Africa. On his first point, it is a consular case, rather than an African issue as such. However, as I said a moment ago, this has gone beyond what I would describe as a routine consular case, which would be a purely bilateral matter. That is why we will involve the EU, the UN and possibly the AU. We will do that because we feel that the matter is tarnishing Eritrea’s reputation substantially. Furthermore, I agree with him that until Ethiopia and Eritrea resolve their border dispute and the demarcation of the border, there will be simmering discontent and a malaise between them that will make dealing with either country to try to solve issues such as this or the problems in Somalia much more difficult. That is why solving the border dispute is so incredibly important.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) and other hon. Members who are pursuing the interests of their constituents in this regard. I also congratulate the British Government on their persistence. Given the failure of the Asmara Government to abide by international standards, both in respect of consular access and in many other regards, are the British Government exploiting all the possible informal channels, including non-governmental organisations and

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possibly religious leaders and influences, to try to get some kind of traction with this unco-operative Government in Eritrea?

Mr Bellingham: I thank the hon. Gentleman, because he makes a good suggestion. We should leave no stone unturned. We have been very patient and gone through the usual channels, but now we will look at a menu of more robust action. For obvious reasons, it would be inappropriate for me to tell the House what that action might be. I agree that involving charities, businesses, NGOs and Churches might be a very good move. I simply add that on the two occasions on which I have met the Eritrean Foreign Minister, he has impressed upon me how incredibly keen he is to improve relations, build business links between our two countries and work together on issues such as solving human rights problems.

Michael Ellis: He is not doing a very good job.

Mr Bellingham: I quite agree. He made it very clear that that is what he wanted to do, but I made it clear to him in my letter that all that has been put in jeopardy by the total non-compliance with the Vienna convention.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Piracy off the horn of Africa is increasing, with the use of mother ships extending the pirates’ range, and we are also seeing evidence of piracy taking place off the west coast of Africa. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage the Eritrean authorities to tackle piracy? If those steps come to nothing, is he prepared to adopt a more muscular policy to deal with piracy on the high seas?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because piracy, as he rightly points out, has reached a new and worrying level. There are 40 vessels now under pirate control and in excess of 600 hostages. Of course we are looking at what happens at sea—the Royal Navy has three warships off the horn of Africa as part of the counter-piracy effort—but it is very important that a solution be found on land so that capacity can be built, such as detention facilities and prisons for when pirates are convicted. That is why the UK recently gave £6 million to support projects being delivered by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. I agree with him that it is very important that all the regional maritime states work together to try to counter the evil of piracy.

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Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I thank the Minister for his answers so far on the urgent question. I very much appreciate the work that he, the Foreign Office and the desk officers at the consular directorate have done to keep me up to date on the possible whereabouts of my detained constituent and to inform his wife of any changes. Eritrea is in gross breach of the Vienna convention, and I wonder whether a meeting without coffee is quite strong enough. I urge the Minister to escalate to the robust action that he mentioned in his statement as quickly as possible to get our constituents out of that place.

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he has been very patient, as indeed have the families of the men who have been detained. As I made clear to him when we met, we are in no way trying to interfere in the court case or in any action that might be taken, but we are demanding consular access. I agree that the time has come to embark upon more robust action. The Foreign Secretary is fully apprised of this and has approved a strategy to take more robust action if need be. We will have to wait and see whether the Eritrean ambassador acts on the demands we made this morning. If he does not, we will have to go down that route. I thank my hon. Friend and the families involved once again for their patience.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): In his interview without coffee this morning, did the Minister get any closer to determining from the Eritrean ambassador the reasons underpinning the detention of these individuals, as the given reasons appear wholly inadequate?

Mr Bellingham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We are demanding consular access under the Vienna convention, of which both Eritrea and the UK are members. All we are asking for is the opportunity to check on those men, to check their welfare and to inform the families accordingly. We are not trying to interfere with the judicial process, and we are not in any way trying to cast aspersions on their detention as such. I think that the Eritrean Government are confusing the two, but we are doing our level best to make sure that they understand their responsibilities and duties under the convention.

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Points of Order

1.30 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will know that it is the convention of this House that, when there are changes to the Government, they are notified to this House and to you personally. I just wondered whether you had had any notification of changes to the Government, and in particular whether any members of Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, have notified you that they intend to sit on the Government Benches. I ask, because in the past few weeks some anonymous leaflets have been published, urging people to vote Conservative in Cardiff North, Clwyd South, Clwyd West, Vale of Glamorgan and Gower, Plaid Cymru in various other places and Liberal Democrat elsewhere.

The website, it turns out, is not quite so anonymous, because it has clearly been produced by people working in the office of the leader of the Welsh nationalists, Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones, so I can only presume that, as he and his office are now urging people to vote Conservative in constituencies in Wales, Plaid Cymru Members intend now to sit on the Government Benches.

Mr Speaker: I have received no such indication of a change in the membership of the Government, and it is not apparent to me that what has just been said constitutes a point of order, but the hon. Gentleman has his concerns on the record. If I were a far less charitable person than I am, I might think that he was engaged in the grubbiest form of political point scoring, but, because I am so charitable, I of course do not think any such thing.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In answer to my question during Communities and Local Government questions yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said that

“no local authority in this country faces a reduction in its real expenditure of more than 7.7%”.—[Official Report, 4 April 2011; Vol. 526, c. 729.]

The reality is that 29 local authorities will see a reduction of 8.8%. Could you advise me on the procedure to bring the Minister back to the House to apologise and to set the record straight?

Mr Speaker: The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that he should contact the Table Office to seek advice on how best to pursue the matter that concerns him. He has made his point this afternoon, and it will have been heard by Members on the Treasury Bench, but it is essentially a matter of political argument and certainly not a procedural matter on which I can rule, so the best advice that I can give him is that which I have just offered.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During questions to the Attorney-General earlier today, the Attorney-General

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accused me of asking an improper question. As my questions were about rape, the levels of rape convictions and how the coalition cuts would impact on those important matters, I was concerned that the Attorney-General should accuse me of asking such a question. Can I seek an apology from him, and can you advise me of the best way of doing that?

Mr Speaker: As to whether the hon. Lady will extract an apology, I do not know, and I cannot advise her on that. I can offer her the advice that I just offered the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) in relation to his point of order, which is that she might wish to approach the Table Office for advice on how she can pursue the matter if she judges it necessary to do so.

For my part, I can say only that I did not hear anything disorderly, but I shall of course peruse Hansard tomorrow. In so far as I am being asked why the statement that was made was made, I am afraid that I obviously have no idea. I know the Attorney-General very well, because he is a constituency neighbour of mine, and he is an immensely intelligent and cerebral man, but it is expecting too much to expect the Speaker to be able to penetrate the inner recesses of the Attorney-General’s very well-furnished mind. I am in no position to do so.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Earlier today the writ was moved for a by-election and the announcement made of an appointment to the distinguished office of profit under the Crown of the manor of Northstead. I would be grateful if you could confirm whether Mr Gerry Adams, the previous occupant of the post, now sadly deposed from his stewardship and office of profit under the Crown, at any point, as is provided for under the Disqualification Act 1975, turned down or refused that office?

Mr Speaker: I cannot give an answer to the right hon. Gentleman on that point, and I fear that once again, unaccountably, the point that has been raised—although possibly a point of great interest, not least to the right hon. Gentleman—does not quite amount to a point of order. I think that tact and constraints on time suggest that I should leave it there.