“hold a review to set the date at which the state pension age starts to rise to 66, although it will not be sooner than…2020 for women.”

Yet under plans in the Pensions Bill, the state pension age for women will start to rise to 66 in 2018.

As the hon. Member for Belfast East said, MPs of all parties can show that they understand the fierce concerns and aspirations of women by opposing the Government’s proposals to increase the state pension age at such a pace. A petition with more than 10,000 signatures has been presented to the Prime Minister, and Age UK and Saga are calling on the Government to think again. I welcome the chance to hear what the Minister for Equalities has to say about that, and I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), is also in his place. I hope that they will listen to the concerns that women are raising.

As for incomes, either by accident or by design the Government’s policies on tax and welfare changes will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth mentioned, have twice as much of an impact on women as on men. All incomes are being squeezed during these difficult economic times, but some are being squeezed more than others. That is particularly the case for women and children. Does the Minister for Women and Equalities really believe that it is fair that women are paying the highest price for budget deficit reduction? If not, will she look again at some of the Government’s policies?

My hon. Friends the Members for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and for Worsley and Eccles South spoke passionately about Sure Start and its tremendous work in all our communities. Many mothers and children rely on the services that Sure Start and our children’s centres offer, and although the hon. Member for Corby (Mrs Mensch) thinks they are failing families, the women and children I talk to in Leeds West and across the country believe that they are making a massive difference. The Government say that that money is protected, but in reality, particularly in northern cities where there are cuts of up to 27% of total spending, it is not possible to ring-fence that money. I ask the

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Government to look again at ensuring that vital services such as children’s centres and the Sure Start offer are protected.

The latest job figures show that jobseeker’s allowance among women is at its highest level since 1996. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, 474,000 women are now claiming it. Those problems are only likely to get worse. Sixty-five per cent. of public sector workers are women, as are 75% of those working in local government. If the Office for Budget Responsibility’s predictions of 310,000 job losses in the public sector in this Parliament are correct, we can expect a large proportion of those to be among women, meaning that the highest unemployment among women since 1996 will get worse, not better, in the years ahead.

Jane Ellison: Given that the deficit is in the public finances, and given what the hon. Lady said about the proportion of women who work in the public sector, how would the Labour plan, which we have yet to hear, address that problem?

Rachel Reeves: There are three issues. First, the speed at which we cut the budget deficit; secondly, the timing of the cuts; and thirdly—this is critical to today’s debate—whether the cuts are made fairly. I do not believe that it is fair that two thirds of the cuts fall on women. All Members of the House believe that that is unfair. That is the key point.

The cuts to women’s pensions, Sure Start, child benefit and local services are not inevitable; they are choices that the Government have made. As hon. Members have reminded us this afternoon, they are unfair choices—they penalise women pensioners, mothers, women students, women carers and women in the labour market. By choosing to cut too far and too fast, the Government have embarked on a slash-and-burn approach to the services, protections and benefits that provide the most support—in good and bad times—to women up and down the country.

The Minister will have a chance to respond shortly, but surely the question is this: where was she when the Chancellor decided to slash child benefit? Where was she when the Secretary of State for Education decided to cut Sure Start?

Harriett Baldwin: Will the hon. Lady confirm that the restoration of tax-free child benefit of £2,400 for the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) will be in the Labour manifesto?

Rachel Reeves: I will perhaps ask the hon. Lady—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] I will answer the question, but does the hon. Lady believe it right that a family in which one person in work earns £45,000 should lose their child benefit, while a family in which two people earn a total of £80,000 still get their child benefit? If the Government’s plans for a fixed-term Parliament go ahead, the election is four years away, and as we do not know what the circumstances of that time will be, it would be inappropriate to write our manifesto now. The hon. Lady would not write hers now.

8 Jun 2011 : Column 224

Where was the Minister when those choices were made? Given those policies, she was not campaigning and fighting for the women whom she ought to represent. If, as some have suggested, women’s equality is a blind spot for this Government, I hope that their eyes have been opened today. I hope not least that the Minister has had a chance today to hear the strength of feeling about the effect on women of the increase in the state pension age. Will she send a message of hope to the 500,000 women who face a delay of more than a year before they receive their state pension, with just five or so years to prepare? If the Government can U-turn on forests—and today they have U-turned on sentencing—surely they can listen and act to protect women approaching retirement with fear and trepidation.

Women must no longer be the shock absorbers for this Government’s cuts. I urge Ministers to move forward in a fairer way—in a way that does not turn the clock back on women’s equality, for which generations of women have fought and will continue to fight.

4.4 pm

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): We have had an interesting and lively debate, and I thank Members on both sides who made contributions, including the hon. Members for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), and my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Mrs Mensch), for Devizes (Claire Perry), for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). We also heard a maiden speech by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jon Ashworth). I thank them all for their contributions and I will address as many points as I have time for, although I do not have that much time.

It is a bit sad that we have heard some inaccurate and empty speculation about the impact that Government policies will have on women. I welcome the opportunity to respond to this debate, and draw a line under the myths that are endlessly perpetuated by Opposition Members. As the Home Secretary made clear, this Government’s commitment to women is clear and unequivocal. From the moment the coalition was formed, we stated our determination to tear down the barriers to opportunity and build a fairer society for all. It is not just that we believe equality to be the right of every individual: we believe it goes to the very heart of our ambition to build a better society and a modern, prosperous economy of the future which genuinely draws on the talents and abilities of all. In fact, we are clear that unless we capitalise on the contributions that women can make, our chances of full economic recovery will be seriously hampered.

Of course, because of the mess we inherited—Labour Members hate us repeating that fact—we have been forced to make some difficult decisions. Let me be clear, for those who have not yet managed to get to grips with the state of our public finances, that the mess I refer to—as many of my hon. Friends have mentioned—is the biggest structural deficit in Europe and the biggest peacetime deficit we have seen in our history. But fairness will always be at the heart of all these decisions.

8 Jun 2011 : Column 225

Yvette Cooper: Does the Minister think that public spending should have been cut in the middle of a recession—and if it had been, will she tell us whether she thinks that we would have had growth by the time of the election?

Lynne Featherstone: The point is that we are dealing with the structural deficit. If we do not get our house in order now we never will, and it will be future generations who suffer because of Labour’s failure to address it—[ Interruption. ] Chuntering away at me will not help the right hon. Lady.

Fairness is the reason why in April we lifted 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax—and it does not stop there, because more will be added to their number every year of this Parliament. It is why we are protecting the lowest-paid public sector workers—the majority of whom are women—from the public sector pay freeze, and they will get pay rises. It is why we are increasing child tax credits for the poorest families by more than the level promised by the last Government. And it is precisely why we are getting to grips with the deficit so that we do not fritter away more and more on debt interest, and destroy the crucial public services that so many women need and depend on.

Cuts—and the impact that Opposition Members say they have—are not all that we care about for women. We care about being ambitious and about taking them out of poverty. We care about giving them the tools to lift themselves out, not just continuing what went on before. If fairness were simply a matter of benefits, taxes and snapshot comparisons of income, it would be easy to achieve—

Barbara Keeley: Will the Minister give way?

Lynne Featherstone: No, I do not have time.

I echo the Home Secretary when I say that it is extremely patronising, and frankly absurd, to lump together 31 million women in this country as the prime victims of the deficit reduction. Women are not a homogenous group, but different individuals affected by different experiences and coming from different walks of life. So no matter how well intentioned, packaging out prescriptive solutions that fail to recognise that reality will not work. What do work are policies designed for all the roles that women play, tackling not just the symptoms of inequality but its causes. I shall try to address some of those points.

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leicester South, who made his maiden speech. I thank him for his kind words about Parmjit Singh Gill and congratulate him on being in the Chamber while he has a two-week-old baby. When shared parenting comes in, that could have been his wife, if she were able to walk. And as for Engelbert Humperdinck and “Quando, quando, quando”, I would have liked to say that I did not know what the hon. Gentleman was talking about, but sadly I did.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East mentioned impact assessments. I have to say that Labour never published equality impact studies for its Budgets, and I do not think it did one on the 10p tax or the 70p pension rise. She also mentioned the gender pay gap. Yes, we are introducing voluntary pay reporting, but that was started under Labour in the Equality Act 2010. However, we will also impose mandatory pay

8 Jun 2011 : Column 226

audits on anyone found guilty of discrimination, if it is appropriate, and we have introduced the gagging clauses in the Equality Act. She also asked about trafficking and the Olympics. Work is being undertaken by the Metropolitan Police Service, which has a specialist unit that has received extra funding to prioritise activities to disrupt and monitor trafficking in the run-up to the Olympics.

Hon. Members asked about whether we were opting in to the European directive on trafficking. Well, we are opting into the directive, but we wanted to consider the matter and get it right to ensure that we could deliver on it. However, the coalition Government are going even further with our own human trafficking strategy, which will be announced shortly, and which will aim to disrupt activity in the country of origin, and then on our borders and in this country. As we have heard from many hon. Members, we are putting that support in place. We have also extended the Sojourner project

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lynne Featherstone: I am happy to give way to the hon. Lady—[Interruption]—as a special treat.

Margot James: Briefly, I would like to remind the hon. Lady that the Government are actually investing more money in the safeguarding of trafficking victims. That is a very good result in the current financial climate.

Lynne Featherstone: I agree with the hon. Lady.

Mark Lazarowicz: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Lynne Featherstone: No. I forgot that I was not going to give way. I was seduced by the siren voices behind me.

An important point was made about the Government’s commitment to women. Extending the Sojourner project, and finding a long-term solution with the Department for Work and Pensions, mean that such women will not again be put in the position of not knowing where the support is coming from.

My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull said that we should work together. Well, I am very happy to work with her, and I am happy to work with Opposition Members too, because we need to get past these attacks about blind spots and what they say the coalition Government are and are not doing to women. We all care passionately about the position of women in this country. I find it difficult to accept Opposition Members’ criticisms, given how much we are doing. The Home Secretary laid that out quite clearly in her introductory remarks when she gave a long list of things that we are delivering for women.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Corby on what was a powerful speech, if not a tour de force, in which she pointed out Labour’s failure to reform the welfare system. She talked of our relentless focus on children’s well-being, and the fact that we are taking 1 million children out of poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes talked about health visitors and the importance of Sure Start, and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull pointed out that not a single Liberal Democrat council has closed any children’s centres—[Interruption.] Sometimes it is quality, not quantity. Much as I would like to work with Opposition Members, I am afraid that it might not happen.

8 Jun 2011 : Column 227

I wanted to respond to all the points that have been raised, but unfortunately I will not have time. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South asked about support for carers. The Government have provided £400 million to the NHS for respite care over the next four years.

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put .

The House divided:

Ayes 238, Noes 296.

Division No. 287]

[4.14 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Allen, Mr Graham

Anderson, Mr David

Ashworth, Jon

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Barron, rh Mr Kevin

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Bell, Sir Stuart

Benn, rh Hilary

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blenkinsop, Tom

Blomfield, Paul

Blunkett, rh Mr David

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Caton, Martin

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Cooper, rh Yvette

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crausby, Mr David

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cruddas, Jon

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Alex

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

Darling, rh Mr Alistair

David, Mr Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Dowd, Jim

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Eagle, Ms Angela

Edwards, Jonathan

Efford, Clive

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Esterson, Bill

Evans, Chris

Farrelly, Paul

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Flynn, Paul

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Gapes, Mike

Gilmore, Sheila

Glass, Pat

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Godsiff, Mr Roger

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harris, Mr Tom

Havard, Mr Dai

Healey, rh John

Hendrick, Mark

Hepburn, Mr Stephen

Hermon, Lady

Heyes, David

Hillier, Meg

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Hoey, Kate

Hopkins, Kelvin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Irranca-Davies, Huw

Jackson, Glenda

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Johnson, rh Alan

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Helen

Jones, Susan Elan

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Lammy, rh Mr David

Lavery, Ian

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leslie, Chris

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lloyd, Tony

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McCrea, Dr William

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, John

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKinnell, Catherine

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miliband, rh David

Miliband, rh Edward

Miller, Andrew

Mitchell, Austin

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme


Morris, Grahame M.


Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Osborne, Sandra

Owen, Albert

Paisley, Ian

Pearce, Teresa

Perkins, Toby

Phillipson, Bridget

Pound, Stephen

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reed, Mr Jamie

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Emma

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Robertson, Angus

Robertson, John

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Seabeck, Alison

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Simpson, David

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Owen

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Sutcliffe, Mr Gerry

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Trickett, Jon

Turner, Karl

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vaz, Valerie

Walley, Joan

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Whitehead, Dr Alan

Wicks, rh Malcolm

Williams, Hywel

Wilson, Phil

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wood, Mike

Woodcock, John

Woodward, rh Mr Shaun

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Gregg McClymont and

Graham Jones


Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Aldous, Peter

Amess, Mr David

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Bacon, Mr Richard

Baker, Norman

Baker, Steve

Baldry, Tony

Baldwin, Harriett

Barclay, Stephen

Barker, Gregory

Baron, Mr John

Barwell, Gavin

Bebb, Guto

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Beresford, Sir Paul

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Birtwistle, Gordon

Blackman, Bob

Blackwood, Nicola

Blunt, Mr Crispin

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bradley, Karen

Brady, Mr Graham

Brake, Tom

Bray, Angie

Bridgen, Andrew

Brine, Mr Steve

Brokenshire, James

Browne, Mr Jeremy

Bruce, Fiona

Bruce, rh Malcolm

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burley, Mr Aidan

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burstow, Paul

Burt, Lorely

Byles, Dan

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Carmichael, Neil

Carswell, Mr Douglas

Cash, Mr William

Chishti, Rehman

Clarke, rh Mr Kenneth

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Collins, Damian

Colvile, Oliver

Cox, Mr Geoffrey

Crabb, Stephen

Crockart, Mike

Crouch, Tracey

Davey, Mr Edward

Davies, David T. C.


Davies, Glyn

Davies, Philip

de Bois, Nick

Dinenage, Caroline

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Dorrell, rh Mr Stephen

Dorries, Nadine

Doyle-Price, Jackie

Drax, Richard

Duddridge, James

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Duncan Smith, rh Mr Iain

Dunne, Mr Philip

Ellis, Michael

Ellison, Jane

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Eustice, George

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Evennett, Mr David

Fallon, Michael

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, Mr Mark

Foster, rh Mr Don

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Freer, Mike

Fullbrook, Lorraine

Fuller, Richard

Gale, Mr Roger

Garnier, Mr Edward

Garnier, Mark

George, Andrew

Gibb, Mr Nick

Glen, John

Goldsmith, Zac

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grant, Mrs Helen

Grayling, rh Chris

Green, Damian

Greening, Justine

Grieve, rh Mr Dominic

Griffiths, Andrew

Gummer, Ben

Gyimah, Mr Sam

Hames, Duncan

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hancock, Mr Mike

Harrington, Richard

Harris, Rebecca

Hart, Simon

Haselhurst, rh Sir Alan

Hayes, Mr John

Heath, Mr David

Heaton-Harris, Chris

Hemming, John

Henderson, Gordon

Hendry, Charles

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Howell, John

Huhne, rh Chris

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hunter, Mark

Huppert, Dr Julian

Jackson, Mr Stewart

James, Margot

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Mr Marcus

Kawczynski, Daniel

Kelly, Chris

Kirby, Simon

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Kwarteng, Kwasi

Lancaster, Mark

Lansley, rh Mr Andrew

Latham, Pauline

Leadsom, Andrea

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leech, Mr John

Lefroy, Jeremy

Leslie, Charlotte

Lewis, Brandon

Liddell-Grainger, Mr Ian

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lopresti, Jack

Lord, Jonathan

Loughton, Tim

Luff, Peter

Lumley, Karen

Macleod, Mary

Main, Mrs Anne

May, rh Mrs Theresa

Maynard, Paul

McCartney, Jason

McCartney, Karl

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

McPartland, Stephen

McVey, Esther

Mensch, Mrs Louise

Menzies, Mark

Metcalfe, Stephen

Miller, Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Mordaunt, Penny

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, Anne Marie

Morris, David

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Munt, Tessa

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

Offord, Mr Matthew

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Ottaway, Richard

Paice, rh Mr James

Parish, Neil

Patel, Priti

Pawsey, Mark

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Percy, Andrew

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pincher, Christopher

Poulter, Dr Daniel

Prisk, Mr Mark

Pritchard, Mark

Pugh, John

Raab, Mr Dominic

Randall, rh Mr John

Redwood, rh Mr John

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reevell, Simon

Reid, Mr Alan

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robathan, rh Mr Andrew

Robertson, Hugh

Robertson, Mr Laurence

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rudd, Amber

Ruffley, Mr David

Russell, Bob

Rutley, David

Sanders, Mr Adrian

Sandys, Laura

Scott, Mr Lee

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Shepherd, Mr Richard

Simmonds, Mark

Skidmore, Chris

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Henry

Smith, Julian

Smith, Sir Robert

Soames, Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spelman, rh Mrs Caroline

Spencer, Mr Mark

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stevenson, John

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Streeter, Mr Gary

Stride, Mel

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Swire, rh Mr Hugo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Teather, Sarah

Thurso, John

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Tredinnick, David

Truss, Elizabeth

Turner, Mr Andrew

Tyrie, Mr Andrew

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Robin

Wallace, Mr Ben

Walter, Mr Robert

Ward, Mr David

Watkinson, Angela

Weatherley, Mike

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

White, Chris

Whittaker, Craig

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Mr Rob

Wollaston, Dr Sarah

Wright, Simon

Yeo, Mr Tim

Young, rh Sir George

Zahawi, Nadhim

Tellers for the Noes:

Jeremy Wright and

Norman Lamb

Question accordingly negatived.

8 Jun 2011 : Column 228

8 Jun 2011 : Column 229

8 Jun 2011 : Column 230

8 Jun 2011 : Column 231

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Gender Recognition

That the draft Gender Recognition (Approved Countries and Territories) Order 2011, which was laid before this House on 26 April, be approved.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Question agreed to .

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Water Industry

That the draft Water Industry (Schemes for Adoption of Private Sewers) Regulations 2011, which were laid before this House on 26 April, be approved. —(Angela Watkinson.)

Question agreed to.

8 Jun 2011 : Column 232

National Crime Agency

4.33 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the new National Crime Agency. Last year’s national security strategy recognised that organised crime is one of the greatest threats to our national security. The social and economic costs are estimated at between £20 billion and £40 billion per year, and its impact is seen on our streets and felt in our communities every single day. The drug dealing on street corners; the burglary and muggings by addicts; the trafficking of vulnerable young women into prostitution; the card cloning and credit card fraud that robs so many—all are fundamentally driven by organised criminals.

Our law enforcement agencies assess that there are some 38,000 individuals engaged in organised crime, involving 6,000 criminal groups; and yet, Sir Paul Stephenson, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said last year that law enforcement is impacting in a meaningful way on only 11% of those 6,000 organised crime groups. We must do better.

For too long, central Government micro-managed and interfered in local policing, but at the same time national and international crime was neglected and our borders became porous. There was no cross-government strategy to tackle organised crime, no national tasking and co-ordination, and no co-ordinated border policing. Different agencies had varying responsibilities for policy, prevention and investigation, and there was a tendency to operate in silos. The overall effect was a fragmented and patchy law enforcement response, and we are putting that right.

By introducing police and crime commissioners, we can get central Government out of the way of local policing. We are putting the Government’s focus where it should have been all along: on securing our borders, and tackling national and international serious and organised crime. So we will shortly be publishing the first ever cross-government strategy on tackling organised crime and we will establish a powerful new operational body—the National Crime Agency.

The National Crime Agency will be a crime-fighting organisation. It will tackle organised crime, defend our borders, fight fraud and cybercrime, and protect children and young people. With a senior chief constable at its head, the NCA will harness intelligence, analytical capabilities and enforcement powers. Accountable to the Home Secretary, the NCA will be an integral part of our law enforcement community, with strong links to local police forces, police and crime commissioners, the UK Border Agency and other agencies.

The NCA will comprise a number of distinct operational commands. Building on the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency—SOCA—the organised crime command will tackle organised crime groups, whether they operate locally, across the country or across our international borders. Fulfilling a key pledge in the coalition agreement, the border policing command will strengthen our borders, and help to prevent terrorism, drug smuggling, people trafficking, illegal immigration and other serious crimes. It will ensure that all law enforcement agencies operating in and around the border work to clear, mutually agreed priorities. The economic crime command will make a

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major difference to the current fragmented response to economic crime. Working to a new unified intelligence picture, the economic crime command will drive better co-ordination of cases, and better tasking of resources, across agencies such as the Financial Services Authority, the Office of Fair Trading and the Serious Fraud Office. That will mean that a greater volume and complexity of economic crime cases can be tackled. In due course, we will review the relationship between the economic crime command and the other agencies.

Building on the significant contribution that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre—CEOP—already makes within SOCA, CEOP will, as a key part of the NCA, be able to draw on wider resources and support to help protect even more children and young people. The NCA will also house the national cybercrime unit, which will have its own investigative capacity and help local police forces to develop their own response to the online threat. Each command will be led by a senior and experienced individual, and will manage its own priorities and risks, but, crucially, capabilities, expertise, assets and intelligence will be shared across the entire agency and each command will operate as part of one single organisation.

Intelligence will be at the heart of what the NCA does. Learning from our experience of counter-terrorism, the NCA will house a significant multi-agency intelligence capability. It will collect and analyse its own and others’ intelligence, building and maintaining a comprehensive picture of serious and organised criminals in the UK: who they are and who they work with; where they live; where they operate; what crimes they are involved in; and what damage they cause. The NCA will then use that intelligence to co-ordinate, prioritise and target action against organised criminals, with information flowing to and from the police and other agencies in support of tactical operations. Using this intelligence picture, the NCA will have the ability and the authority to task and co-ordinate the police and other law enforcement agencies.

For the first time, there will be one agency with the power, remit and responsibility for ensuring that the right action is taken at the right time by the right people—that agency will be the NCA. All other agencies will work to the NCA’s threat assessment and prioritisation, and it will be the NCA’s intelligence picture that will drive the response on the ground. That will be underpinned by the new strategic policing requirement.

As well as having the ability to co-ordinate and task the response to national crime threats by the police and other agencies, the NCA will also have its own specialist operational and technological capabilities, including surveillance and means to deal with fraud and threat-to-life situations. This is a two-way street; the NCA will be able to provide its techniques and resources in support of the police and other agencies, just as it will task and co-ordinate the response to national-level crime.

NCA officers will be able to draw on a wide range of powers, including those of a police constable and immigration or customs powers. That will mean that NCA officers, unlike anybody else, will be able to deploy powers and techniques that go beyond the powers of a police officer.

The agency will be an integral part of the golden thread of policing that runs from the local to the national and beyond. At home, the NCA will work in partnership with police forces, chief constables, police

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and crime commissioners and agencies such as the UK Border Agency. Overseas, it will represent the UK’s interests, working with international law enforcement partners. It will also provide the central UK contact for European and international law enforcement.

The agency will come fully into being in 2013, with some key elements becoming operational sooner. The total cost of the organisation will not exceed the aggregate costs of its predecessors. The combination of a single intelligence picture, the tasking and co-ordination function, the specialist operational support and the operational commands will result in a dramatic improvement in our response to national and international crime.

Organised crime, border crime, economic crime, cybercrime and child exploitation are real problems for real people. All areas of the country suffer their effects—from the very poorest communities to the most affluent, from the smallest villages to the biggest cities—and it is often the most vulnerable in our society who suffer the greatest harm. We owe it to them to do more to tackle the scourge of drugs, better to defend our borders, to fight fraud and to protect our children and young people. The National Crime Agency will do all those things and more and I commend the statement to the House.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): I thank the Home Secretary for providing an advance copy of her statement. We have already had another day, another debate—now it is another day, another statement. Once again, to listen to the Home Secretary one would think this was year zero, that everything failed in the past and that everything will be nirvana in the future. Yesterday, she told us that the Labour Government’s Prevent strategy had failed and her new strategy would make no mistakes. Today, she claims that there was no cross-Government organised crime strategy and no effective work on organised crime before, but that for the future we will see a dramatic improvement in the fight against national and international crime just as a result of these changes. There is no end to this Home Secretary’s hostages to fortune.

The right hon. Lady also contradicts herself. She says that there was no cross-Government strategy on organised crime, but then she says the organised crime command will build on the work of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which was set up by Labour in 2005 to take the fight to organised crime. It had a conviction rate of more than 90%. She says that the National Crime Agency will be a crime-fighting organisation with intelligence at the heart of what it does, with the combined powers of police, customs and immigration officers, but that is what SOCA is. Whereas yesterday we had control orders and son of control orders, today we have SOCA and SOCA plus. It is hardly year zero and hardly a new nirvana.

We think we should build on SOCA. Sometimes, it became focused too purely on intelligence and it makes sense to do more to reform national policing. There are considerable benefits that can flow in this area, but reforms also need to be handled effectively or they can go badly awry—and they have already gone awry. Child protection experts have resigned, counter-terrorism plans have been publicly slapped down by the Met and the Serious Fraud Office has been put in a state of suspended animation. That has all happened at a time when 12,000

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police officers are being cut across the country and the Government are pushing ahead with American-style plans for police and crime commissioners whom nobody wants. The truth is that these plans have been dogged by chaos and confusion. From her statement, there is no sign that the Home Secretary has a grip. Let us consider the individual points that she has made.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency had good results this year, but Jim Gamble, its successful head, resigned from the agency after seeing the Government’s plans to merge CEOP with the NCA. He said today:

“I don’t believe that the rebranding or the submerging of CEOP within a far greater entity will allow the critical child protection focus that we need.”

He made the point that CEOP will also suffer a 10% reduction in its budget by 2014 and said that he hoped the Government would release the submissions to the consultation on the merger, because they were overwhelmingly against it. We hope too that the Home Secretary will release them, because she has clearly not persuaded the experts on those plans.

On financial crime, the grandly titled economic crime command is a far cry from the Home Secretary's plans to merge the Serious Fraud Office and parts of the Financial Services Authority. Instead, do we have a co-ordinating committee? Or is this just another agency to work with the many already in the field? Does this risk limbo for the SFO, whose director has already said:

“This is a distraction and it is important that a clear direction is made as soon as possible so that the SFO is focused on delivering results for the public.”

The Home Secretary has clearly not persuaded the experts or the Chancellor of her plans.

On the border command, the Home Secretary says: “Fulfilling a key pledge in the coalition agreement, the border policing command will strengthen our borders, and help prevent terrorism”, but the coalition pledge was for a border police force, not just a command. In the Conservatives’ manifesto, it was more boots on the ground. They were talking about 10,000 people a few years ago. Has that been replaced simply by a board to oversee better cross-agency working?

Plans to move counter-terrorism from the Met have been ditched after the commissioner said that national security is “too important” and

“must be based on more than mere structural convenience”.

Can the Home Secretary confirm that she does not plan to destabilise matters by revisiting this issue during the important period in the run-up to the Olympics?

On the National Policing Improvement Agency the Home Secretary has said nothing at all, but she is disbanding it in 2012—a year before the NCA starts. We still do not know what is happening to the DNA database or to a whole series of other functions. The chief constable of Derbyshire has said:

“We face an issue that there are absolutely critical services provided by the NPIA that, at the moment, have a date that is going to drop off, with nowhere to go.”

What will happen to them? The Home Secretary has not explained how tasking will work, what will happen if chief constables disagree and who will make the final decision when resources become overstretched.

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On resources, the Home Secretary says that the total cost of the organisation will not exceed the aggregate costs of its predecessors, but she has not commented on set-up costs. Peter Neyroud has estimated that this top-down reorganisation will cost between £15 million and £20 million. When that is added to the cost of police and crime commissioners we have £120 million being spent on top-down reorganisations while 12,000 police officer posts are being cut, putting the fight against crime at risk across the country. There is a risk that chaos and confusion will make it harder for the police to cope given the drop in resources that they are experiencing.

For this renamed crime agency to be successful, it needs steady leadership, clarity and the resources to deliver. In the end, reorganisation is no substitute for police officers on the ground doing the job on national and local crime and going the extra mile to catch criminals and keep communities safe. That means we need an end to the confusion and a bit more realism both about the past and about the detail of the reform. We need to start closing the gap between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

Mrs May: Yes, another day, another Home Office statement and, sadly, yet another similar response from the shadow Home Secretary. Indeed, she repeated many of the phrases that she used in her response to yesterday’s Prevent statement. She really needs to go away and think very carefully about what we mean by a cross-government organised crime strategy. She said that the previous Government had such a strategy because it set up SOCA and because SOCA existed, but we are talking about bringing together all the strands of law enforcement, including law enforcement agencies and police forces, that deal with organised crime. We are developing a comprehensive, coherent cross-government approach to dealing with organised crime. That is an organised crime strategy, which is not what the previous Government had.

I accept that SOCA has been doing good work and we want to build on that as part of the organised crime command within the new National Crime Agency, but there are other areas of crime that we need greater focus on. Yes, we need to look more closely at what is happening on our borders and to enhance our ability to bring together various agencies that have responsibility for and operate on the borders. We need to do that in conjunction with organisations such as the organised crime command and CEOP to ensure that we have the advantage of using not only the intelligence capability that will be at the centre of the NCA but the synergies that will be available when those agencies work properly together.

We will also be setting up a new economic crime command. There is a need in this country to look much more closely at economic crime. There is a whole swathe of what could be called middle-level economic crime that we have not dealt with appropriately and properly in the past, and the economic crime command will enable us to put a clear focus on that. It will enable us to ensure that the various agencies dealing with economic crime are working together, are co-ordinated and are working to the same priorities. It will also enable us to ensure that resources are being put in the right place, at the right time, where they are needed. This is a new development and a very important one in enhancing

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our work on economic crime. Indeed, it will not wait until the NCA is set up. Within the next few months we will establish a co-ordinating board on economic crime which will already start that important work. This is a powerful new crime-fighting body which I believe will make a real difference to our ability to deal with organised crime.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I welcome the focus that the NCA will place on tackling organised crime, and the creation of the border command. We need the NCA to be set up seamlessly. Can the Home Secretary set out how the Government will minimise the disruption caused by the structural change and maximise the speed with which the NCA becomes fully operational and effective?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for an important question. The establishment of the NCA will require legislation. We aim for that legislation to be in place so that the NCA can be fully operational in 2013, but we believe that this is an important area and that we need to start working before then. The transition to the NCA can be eased by work such as developing the organised crime strategy, starting to develop the co-ordination capability on organised crime within the Home Office, which we are doing and, as I have just indicated, starting to develop the co-ordination capacity in relation to economic crime. These are the precursors for a more seamless transition to the NCA.

As we develop the agency, we intend to establish a position for an individual who will head the work. An individual at chief constable level will be appointed fairly soon—within the next few months—and will be able to work within the Home Office over the period before the NCA is set up. At that point there will be a transition for a permanent individual to be established as the head of the NCA.

We want to learn lessons—for example, from the setting up of SOCA, where there were some difficulties in terms of personnel and their move over to SOCA. We will be looking at the lessons to be learned from that.

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I congratulate the Home Secretary on the prettiest little speech rewriting history that the House has heard for some time. I plead guilty to having been responsible for launching the Serious Organised Crime Agency. I had hoped for a 50% remission, but I will have to settle for a third instead.

The truth of the matter is that SOCA has had enormous successes but was bedevilled by the over-emphasis on intelligence rather than on enforcement, yet this afternoon the Home Secretary once again placed intelligence at the centre. In the new economic crime directorate, the new border directorate and the relationship with Customs and Excise, who will be responsible for the emphasis on economic and, by its very nature, cybercrime—the Treasury directing the policy or the Home Office laying it down? We had problems with that, and I did not hear any explanation of how the present Home Secretary intends to get round that difficulty.

Mrs May: I am sorry about the approach that the right hon. Gentleman took in his comments. If he had listened carefully both to my statement and to the

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response I gave to his right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, he would have heard me make it clear that I think SOCA has done good work over the past few years, but I believe, and I think those involved in SOCA would agree, that we can do more. We can build on the experience that it has built up. By making SOCA the organised crime command within the National Crime Agency and being able to take advantage of the synergies across the law enforcement agencies and police forces, we will be able to do a more effective job in the future.

On the intelligence issue, yes, there will be an intelligence capability at the NCA. That is important, but the difference is that the NCA will clearly be a crime-fighting body and the commands within it will be crime-fighting commands.

In relation to cybercrime, which the right hon. Gentleman referred to, there will be a cybercrime unit at the NCA which will cross all the commands, because cybercrime is both a crime in itself and a tool for the execution of other crimes.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. On the role of the NCA with regard to human trafficking, it is estimated that more than 2,500 trafficked women were victims of sexual exploitation in 2009 alone. Can my right hon. Friend explain to the House how the border policing command will go further to clamp down on this unacceptable practice?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know that this is an area in which she takes a particular interest. We recognise that a lot has been done in relation to trafficking in recent years, but more can be done. The great advantage of the border command is that it will be able to bring together resources and task resources within both agencies and local police forces. It will work with other command organisations within the National Crime Agency, such as the serious organised crime command, in a way that has not happened until now. One of the problems we have had until now is that the Government have too often approached this with silo thinking, but criminals do not think in silos. The human trafficking gang probably also deals in drugs and might be involved in other things, such as child exploitation, so we need to look across the whole swathe when dealing with criminals.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The Home Secretary has said that the aggregate budget will not be more than the budget for the organisations comprising the new agency. Could she indicate what it will be, and if it is less will she guarantee that key functions now undertaken by the National Policing Improvement Agency, such as the Missing Persons Bureau or the DNA database, will not slip off the edge during the reorganisation?

Mrs May: It will not cost more than its predecessors. It is possible that some of the current functions of the NPIA, such as witness protection and threat to life issues, could move into the NCA, but if they do so they will move as funded functions so that the funding already available will be used for the operations of the NCA. The NPIA will cease to exist, as we have set out very clearly. We are looking at the functions that it is right to bring into the NCA, but, given that it is an operational crime-fighting body, it is not right that all the NPIA functions should come into it.

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Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): With regard to law and order and tackling crime, does the Home Secretary agree with Phil Collins, who said that Labour do not have a particularly strong position on crime of any kind? [ Interruption . ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I have made this point several times before: statements are about questioning the policy of the Government, not that of the Opposition. I call Mr Stewart Jackson.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement. I am sure that she, like me, would congratulate Cambridgeshire constabulary on the work it is doing to combat people trafficking through initiatives such as Operation Sodium. On a specific point about people trafficking, how does she see the priority for the NCA in respect of the sharing of criminal records data across the European Union, an area that, regrettably, was ignored by the previous Government?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for his question and am happy to join him in congratulating Cambridgeshire constabulary on its work and the operations it has undertaken on human trafficking. In relation to all those issues, the National Crime Agency will be looking to operate across international borders as well as across police force borders in the UK. The sharing of information within the European Union, and indeed the sharing of information in other ways, as he knows, has been and is a matter of discussion within the European Union. The NCA will be the key point of contact for both European and wider international co-operation.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The Missing Persons Bureau provides a single database of all missing adults and children, a valuable national and international resource. In addition, it continues to provide advice and support to some families of missing children, although some services have gone to CEOP. Will the Home Secretary give some more information on where the Missing Persons Bureau will sit operationally, particularly in relation to CEOP, in 2013 and between now and then?

Mrs May: The hon. Lady raises an important issue. As she says, we have already announced that the missing children aspect will be going to CEOP. We are now looking at the wider work on missing persons to see where it is appropriate for that to sit. It might be that it is appropriate for that to be within the National Crime Agency. We will ensure that decisions are taken so that there is no opportunity for this to slip between two stools, because it is an important area of work.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s admission that the agency will pull together a lot of strands that had a silo mentality within the previous Government. On illegal immigration, given that under the previous Government many illegal immigrants came into the country, disappeared and could not be found, could it be that through this new overarching structure we will now have a greater way of informing intelligence, so that anybody with local information on the ground will be able to help and feed in information to the correct place?

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Mrs May: Yes, indeed. We will be looking to create a situation with the border police command in which it will be possible to use greater intelligence in relation to the issue that my hon. Friend raises—in due course, of course. Through our borders work, we are in the process of further developing our understanding of individuals who are in the United Kingdom, but of course those who come to the UK to work do have to have a biometric residence permit.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): What discussions did the Home Secretary have with the devolved Administrations when she was setting up the agency, and what relationship will it have with devolved police services?

Mrs May: We have had a number of discussions on the matter with the devolved Administrations, and the National Crime Agency will deal with some aspects of crime which are reserved matters, but we are very conscious of working with the devolved agencies. In relation to Scotland, we expect the NCA to work with, for example, the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency and the Scottish police forces—or force, should there be a single police force in future. In working with the devolved Administrations, we will respect the primacy of law enforcement agencies in the devolved nations.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I represent a large port in a county with a long coastline. Can the Home Secretary confirm that the border police command will ensure that all agencies responsible for the nation’s coastline and ports work together to prevent illegal immigration, drug and people trafficking and tax evasion?

Mrs May: I am happy to give that confirmation to my hon. Friend. Given her constituency, I realise that the issue will be of particular interest to her. Crucially, the border police command will be able, not only by itself but working with other commands in the National Crime Agency, to provide much better co-ordination of all the forces and law enforcement agencies that need to be brought to bear in order to deal with the issues that she raises.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Online crime against children and the exploitation of children are growing in prevalence, and I know that the Home Secretary is concerned about that and wants to do something about it. CEOP is a very successful organisation, with many admirers throughout the world and, from what I can tell, very few critics. Given that it does not just detect crimes but assesses whether a crime has taken place, how will the Home Secretary assess whether her decision to merge it is the right one?

Mrs May: CEOP will continue to do the work that it has been doing, but it will be able to be even more effective because it will be part of that wider agency. The CEOP brand will continue to exist, and we have made it absolutely clear—we have talked to CEOP and to Peter Davies about this—that CEOP will continue to operate as it does at the moment, because an important part of its work is its links with the private sector. It will be able to continue to do that work within the National Crime Agency, but on top of that it will have the

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advantage of access to intelligence capability, of access to that prioritisation of work and of working with those other commands.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): I congratulate the Home Secretary on her statement. I am comfortable that the National Crime Agency will be able to deal well with serious and organised crime, but what about serious but not organised crime? What about serial killings, rapes and issues like that, which the NPIA currently deals with? It still seems unclear where its injuries database and all its other services in relation to serious but not organised crime will sit. What will happen to all that?

Mrs May: Of course, one of the difficulties in all such issues relates to the definitions that one uses for those types of crime, but serious crime that is not undertaken by organised crime groups is predominantly dealt with by individual police forces. As a result of the National Crime Agency being set up, however, I believe that it will be possible to share intelligence on serious crimes of that sort. It will encourage greater regional co-operation among police forces, so it will be possible to deal better and more effectively with serious crime that is not related to organised crime groups.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): The Home Secretary bravely claimed that the new initiative will result in a dramatic improvement in our response to national and international crime. May I therefore ask her how the performance of the NCA will be measured and how it will be reported to the House?

Mrs May: As I have made clear, the National Crime Agency will be accountable to the Home Secretary. We will look at the procedures that we can put in place to ensure that there are appropriate timed reports to the House on this matter—although, as I observed to somebody who asked me that question earlier today, I have every confidence that the Home Affairs Committee, apart from anything else, will show an interest in it. The measurement of success is one of the issues that has dogged SOCA, because SOCA’s role is not only about finding and prosecuting criminals and seizing assets but preventing crime from taking place. Indeed, the success of such agencies often lies as much in what they prevent as in the number of criminals that they catch. We will be looking very carefully at the measurements that can be used because, as I say, SOCA has suffered from the sort of measurements that have been applied to it.

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): This is an extremely positive move. Criminal gangs do not operate in the context of 43 forces, and for too long we have lacked a proper link between the forces in terms of intelligence and operations. Will the Home Secretary be looking for a similar model to that of the counter-terrorism hubs whereby local forces can collaborate and link into a national network?

Mrs May: Counter-terrorism is a good example of where there is a national organisation that deals with a matter at national level. When the National Crime Agency is in place, it will want to look at how it chooses to operate with the different commands that are under its remit.

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My hon. Friend’s question reminds me that I did not respond to one of the points that the shadow Home Secretary made about counter-terrorism. I will do that now, if I may, because it is an important issue. We have never said that counter-terrorism would come under the remit of the National Crime Agency. We have made it clear that we will not do anything to disrupt the current counter-terrorism arrangements before the Olympics, and we will not do anything to disrupt those arrangements before the National Crime Agency is up and running. There will be a point at which it will be appropriate, in the new landscape, to look to ensure that counter-terrorism is still being dealt with in the most effective way possible.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The UK’s only land border is with the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland. Given the particular and specific challenges that that border raises, what discussions has the Home Secretary had with my colleague, the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, about how to implement this in the Northern Ireland context and how to ensure that the NCA benefits from the very positive working relationships between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana?

Mrs May: We have been talking to all the devolved Administrations, including in Northern Ireland, about the establishment and operation of the NCA. We are very conscious of the particular issues in relation to Northern Ireland, particularly given the existence of the common travel area in relation to border issues. We are also conscious of the very good relationships between the PSNI and the Garda in dealing with a number of issues that affect both sides of the border. Obviously, we respect the relationships that have been established and will continue to work with and talk to the devolved Administrations about how the operation of the NCA will affect them and how we can all work together.

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): From speaking to police, head teachers and other community workers in my constituency, it is clear, without question, that the biggest cause of crime, poverty and deprivation is drugs. With the best will in the world, having more police on the streets will not tackle the root cause of that problem—it is about tackling the dealers, the traffickers and the low-lifes who most benefit from the proliferation of drugs on our streets. Can the Home Secretary expand a little more on how the NCA will effectively tackle that?

Mrs May: Yes, indeed. We need to tackle the drugs threat at all levels. In relation to those who are drug addicts, we have already issued our new drugs strategy. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to look at the organised crime groups that are plying this trade and bringing drugs into the country. We will be putting a focus on the disruption of activity upstream. SOCA has had some success on this in relation to a number of countries, including Colombia. We will want to build on that to ensure that we can cut off the supply before it reaches our streets.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Many Members and development non-governmental organisations are extremely alarmed by the Home Secretary’s apparent decision to put the Serious Fraud Office on 12 months’ notice. The uncertainty about the SFO’s future has led to key staff leaving in recent

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months, which has undermined the fight against crime and corruption. Will the Home Secretary explain what is the point of prolonging the damaging uncertainty and instability in this organisation?

Mrs May: I gently suggest to the hon. Lady that she should not believe everything she reads in the newspapers. There is no suggestion that the SFO has been put “on 12 months’ notice”. What we have said has been absolutely clear. The SFO is continuing to exist and to operate as it has done. We will set up an economic crime command in the NCA. In the interim—very soon, within the next few months—we will set up a co-ordinating board, initially chaired by SOCA, which will bring together those involved in dealing with economic crime, including the SFO and other agencies, to see how we can develop better co-ordination among the agencies to improve the way in which we deal with such crime. In due course, we will consider what is the appropriate relationship between the NCA, the SFO and other agencies that deal with economic crime.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): It is often said that an organisation is only as good as its leadership. It is therefore important that the new head that is appointed is of sufficient quality. Has my right hon. Friend appointed a new head? If so, perhaps she can share with the House who that person is and what their experience is.

Mrs May: No, I have not appointed a new head, but an advertisement for the post has been published today. As I indicated in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), we intend that the head of the NCA will be a senior chief constable who is at the top tier in terms of salary and rank. It is important that they have crime fighting experience so that they can drive the NCA as a crime fighting body.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The convicted private investigator, Jonathan Rees, who was contracted to News International, targeted the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, for covert surveillance, as well as at least one former Home Secretary. It is likely that witness testimonies have been available to the Metropolitan police for a number of years. Given the seriousness of this case, is it the sort of case that the Home Secretary would take from the Metropolitan police and give to the new National Crime Agency?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to comment on an ongoing investigation, but it is not appropriate for me to do so. As he knows, because he asked this question at Prime Minister’s questions today, an investigation is being carried out by the Metropolitan police. We have made it absolutely clear that they should follow the evidence wherever it goes.

Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): I welcome the statement. Cyber-security is a growing concern. It is fair to say that Britain has been slow to recognise this threat. Every day, there are more attacks on Government Departments. Will my right hon. Friend outline how the NCA will co-ordinate the response to this growing threat?

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Mrs May: There is a cyber-security office in the Cabinet Office that looks at cyber-security from a national security point of view. The NCA will focus on cybercrime. It will have a specific cybercrime unit that will develop our capability to deal with such issues. The mistake is often made of talking about cybercrime as if it is something completely new. Sometimes cybercrimes are new forms of crime, but sometimes it is simply that cyber-techniques and technology, rather than physical means, are used as tools to commit normal crimes such as fraud or robbery. That capability will be developed in the NCA.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, but I echo some of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members, including the shadow Home Secretary, in highlighting the success of CEOP. I ask for reassurance that CEOP’s excellent work, such as its leading global role in tackling international child abuse networks on the internet, will continue under the NCA.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend absolutely has my confirmation and reassurance on that point. We are very conscious of the excellent work of CEOP, and nothing that we are doing will upset it. CEOP will continue to work in the way that it has, but it will also be able to build on its work because of the links that it will have with other commands under the National Crime Agency. I suggest that if he has any further concerns—I hope he will not, following my reassurance—he look at the comments that the chief executive of CEOP made a couple of weeks ago on the “Today” programme. He was absolutely clear that moving to the NCA would in no way degrade or affect CEOP’s ability to carry on doing its work.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): May I thank the Home Secretary for coming to the House to make a statement yet again? It is a real improvement in parliamentary form. At this late hour, Members on both sides of the House have still been very interested in hearing what she has said.

Will the NCA effectively lose responsibility for human trafficking? The non-governmental organisations are very concerned that after the specific trafficking centre in Sheffield went into SOCA, it may now get lost. I know that the Government are keen to move forward on human trafficking, but that is a concern.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend obviously has a particular interest as chairman of the all-party group on human trafficking. I know that he is waiting, I hope with some interest and excitement, for the Government’s publication of our human trafficking strategy in a matter of weeks, when we will be able to set the matter in more context. The aim is that human trafficking will come within the National Crime Agency’s remit. Whether it is in a specific unit in the organised crime command or dealt with in another way will be a matter for the NCA when it is set up, but once we have an individual in place who is driving the creation of the NCA, I expect that to be exactly the sort of issue that they will want to examine.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the National Crime Agency will build on some of the good work of SOCA in tackling organised crime?

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Mrs May: I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. As I have said in response to a number of hon. Members this afternoon, SOCA has done good work, but we believe that more can be done. The organised crime command being within the NCA will enable greater synergies of operation both across law enforcement agencies and with police forces’ activities. I believe that we will be able to build on our work in dealing with organised crime. As I indicated in my statement, Sir Paul Stephenson has said that sadly, at the moment we are not doing enough in that area and need to do more.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Crime is often linked with terrorism. Will the National Crime Agency have primacy over other agencies when several agencies have an operational interest?

Mrs May: It will for those matters that are under its remit, but as I indicated in a response a few minutes ago, the counter-terrorism policing structure will not be changed—certainly not before the Olympics, and not before the National Crime Agency is set up. That is staying as it is. There will be links between the NCA and the Association of Chief Police Officers’ terrorism and allied matters committee in dealing with terrorism, and when there are links between organised crime and terrorism it is obviously important that those bodies work together to ensure that they deal with them effectively.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s determination to make the NCA a crime-fighting organisation, but can she say at this stage how many officers she expects will serve in it and what the balance of resources will be between the various commands?

Mrs May: By definition, we are bringing a number of existing agencies into the NCA, so it is expected that those who are in those agencies at the moment will come into it. The exact disposition of the numbers and those individuals among various commands is not yet set in stone. It will of course be considered in the transition period, once the individual who will head up the NCA in its transition is in place.


Post Box Provision (Nelson, Lancashire)

5.19 pm

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): This petition is from the residents of Nelson, Lancashire, and the surrounding area. It is signed by more than 500 residents.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Nelson, Lancashire, and others,

Declares that there is a need for a post box outside the main Post Office in Nelson.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Royal Mail to take all possible steps to ensure that a post box is provided outside the main Post Office in Nelson.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Bus Service (Little Harrowden, Northamptonshire)

5.20 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last week, I had the great pleasure to attend a protest meeting in Little Harrowden about the No. 24 bus—or lack thereof. We nearly overflowed into the car park because there were so many people there. A petition has been given to me to present to the House to get Little Harrowden reconnected with Wellingborough. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall read the petition to the honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled.

The petition states:

The Humble Petition of residents of Little Harrowden, Northamptonshire and the surrounding areas,


That the decision by Stagecoach bus company to eliminate most of the bus services between Little Harrowden and Wellingborough due to cut backs in subsidy from Northamptonshire County Council has led to considerable hardship to the old, disabled, vulnerable and young in isolating the village from Wellingborough and necessitating a difficult and dangerous walk along a busy and partly unlit road.

Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House urges the Secretary of State for Transport to liaise with Northamptonshire County Council and the Borough Council of Wellingborough to find a resolution that will lead to the Number 24 bus service being re-established between Little Harrowden and Wellingborough.

And your Petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.


NHS (Cornwall)

5.21 pm

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I am proud to present a petition of more than 6,000 residents of west Cornwall, which was gathered by my constituents who have been, and remain, justifiably concerned about the Government’s Health and Social Care Bill. They have gathered support for their petition over the past few months, before and since the Government’s “pause and listen” process. They look forward to the formal outcome of that process and hope that the Government will have been encouraged to scrap the Bill and start again. I have also been given a disk copy of a similar petition undertaken by 38 Degrees. That amounts to a total of 300,000 signatures.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of West Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and St Ives, and others,

Declares their opposition to the Health and Social Care Bill currently before Parliament as it will take away their single Cornwall National Health Service and replace it with consortia led by GPs. Further, the Bill will allow the increased involvement of profit-led companies in our health service.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons rejects the Health and Social Care Bill.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Greenock Coastguard Station

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

5.23 pm

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am very pleased to have secured this debate today on a topic of concern to many in my coastal constituency who rely on the service provided by the Clyde coastguard service at Greenock. Of course, the debate takes place in the context of the consultation on the future of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which was announced to the House in a written ministerial statement on 16 December 2010. The consultation proposes the closure of more than half the current coastguard stations and the loss of approximately 248 jobs.

A number of my constituents work at Clyde coastguard station at Greenock, and many of the points that I shall put to the Minister today, and the questions that I will ask him, come directly from them. The House will be aware that coastguards have recently been prevented from giving evidence directly to the Select Committee on Transport. Operations room staff at the Clyde coastguard station have, however, authored a response to the consultation, which was submitted on 5 May. I hope that the Minister will look at that submission and ensure that it is considered constructively. It makes many detailed points in support of retaining a coastguard station at Greenock.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I am a member of the Transport Committee and, as she rightly says, we are conducting an inquiry into the future of coastguard stations. Although we were not able to take evidence formally from the staff at Greenock, we visited the station and met the staff informally as part of our inquiry. I pay tribute to the officers. The views they expressed were noted, and will be helpful in formulating the response to our inquiry.

Katy Clark: I am grateful for that intervention. I hope that the views expressed by coastguards at Greenock and other coastguard stations are listened to by the Government, and I strongly welcome the fact that coastguards were able to speak informally to the Committee. They have made many technical points which it is helpful for Members of Parliament to listen to.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on securing this important debate on the future of Greenock. Does she know whether staff or former staff at Greenock were involved in drawing up the proposals that inform the consultation? That is a concern that has been raised with me by staff at the Crosby coastguard station, which is also under threat in this review.

Katy Clark: The constituents of mine who work at Greenock and other members of staff—I have spoken to them on several occasions over the years—were not involved in any way with the proposals, and that is one of the concerns that has been expressed up and down the country. The proposals do not seem to be based on the experiences of those who have been actively involved in providing the service.

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If the proposed closure of the Clyde and Forth coastguard stations goes ahead, it will leave the central belt of Scotland without a coastguard station. Indeed, if the proposals go ahead as originally announced in December last year, there will be no coastguard stations south of Aberdeen or north of Bridlington in Yorkshire. My constituents are concerned that it is far from clear what criteria were used to develop these proposals, so it is not clear why Clyde has been proposed as one of the stations that will close. That is also far from clear to my constituents who rely on the service provided by Clyde coastguard station. I hope that in the reply to this debate we will get more information on that point, so that we can try to rebut some of the arguments.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that one of the characteristics of this debate in so far as it affects Greenock—and the constituents of mine who sometimes work out of the Clyde station and other coastguard stations—is that strong and reasoned arguments have been made against closure, but similar arguments have not been made by those who propose closure? That is why it is important that the whole process should be rethought.

Katy Clark: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I commend the work that he has undertaken in relation to the Forth coastguard station. In this debate I will be asking a number of questions specifically about why Clyde has been proposed for closure, but hon. Members on both sides of the House have questions about many of the other coastguard stations. As I look around the Chamber, I see the familiar faces of hon. Members who have been campaigning on behalf of their constituents and the coastguard stations on which they rely. I hope that answers will be forthcoming from the Minister. This debate concerns the Greenock site, and he might be unable to reply today to some of my points. If not, I would hope to get written responses later.

Clyde coastguard station is the busiest station in Scotland and, depending on how the figures are read, it is also one of the busiest in the United Kingdom. My figures have been provided by those who work at Clyde coastguard station. They have used their knowledge to provide those figures, although one of the problems is that it has not been easy to get much of the information. According to the figures I have been given, Clyde coastguard station seems to be the top coastguard station in Britain for urgency calls; second behind Falmouth for distress calls; third for search and rescue hours; and fifth for incident numbers in the United Kingdom. Whichever way we look at it, it seems to be one of the busier stations in the United Kingdom.

The station has the largest coastline to look after, because of the number of islands and the length of the sea lochs in the area for which it has responsibility. The station has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control, and has more ferry routes—28, including four in my constituency—than any other district coastguard station. In many ways, the seas for which it is responsible are getting busier, despite a significant reduction in the number of fishing vessels owing to the seas in the part of the world in which I live having been fished out. There are more fish farm support vessels, and there will

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be an increasing number of vessels for offshore renewable projects as well as a considerable number of cruise vessels, Navy vessels, submarines, including nuclear submarines, and a significant increase in the number of small leisure craft.

We have heard a lot about local knowledge in the debate about the future of the coastguard service. I believe that Clyde, as one of the largest stations, must have developed a significant amount of local knowledge about the huge terrain for which it provides a service. I cannot see any sense in closing such a large station and losing staff with so much local knowledge, and having other stations take on the work. The economic reality is that Greenock staff are unlikely to be able to transfer from low-cost areas such as Inverclyde or north Ayrshire to high-cost areas such as Aberdeen and the south of England, which have comparatively expensive house prices. When stations such as Greenock close—if that is allowed to happen—such knowledge is lost. It will not move with them.

As I said, many aspects of this matter do not seem to have been given proper consideration. In particular, as far as we can tell, the costs involved in the different coastguard stations do not seem to have been given detailed consideration. The relevant figures, however, many of which are quoted in the response of the operational staff to which I referred the Minister, suggest that Clyde is a cheaper station, because it is situated in a low-cost area with cheaper property prices. The figures also show that there is a large number of applicants whenever posts are advertised there, because it is an area with high unemployment and few quality available jobs. Furthermore, when people get those jobs, they tend to stay, so the retention rate is far higher than in other stations. As I say, detailed work has been done on that—work to which I refer the Minister. However, I would also ask him to say whether that issue was taken into account before December, when the proposals were made.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend talked about whether staff would relocate. I have heard no indication in the comments made to me of a significant relocation package for staff. Does she have any information from staff who have approached her about whether that has been offered or mentioned, or does she know whether it is part of the consultation process?

Katy Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The terms of the civil service relocation package do not necessarily make relocation an attractive option, particularly for those living in areas where accommodation is comparatively cheap and for whom the available options are probably not attractive.

Mark Lazarowicz: Given the age profile, will not many of those working in such stations have done so for many years and often have family commitments and other connections? They cannot simply uproot and move 200, 300, 400 or 500 miles away. They will not go, and that expertise will be lost and they will be unemployed.

Katy Clark: My hon. Friend is obviously correct that, often, not just one individual working in a household will be affected. Relationships will be complicated, and frankly, many people will simply not be in a position to

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move. Indeed, I suspect that that will probably more often be the case at coastguard stations with experienced long-term staff. We also need to be aware that coastguards are already on very low incomes.

The Minister will be aware that Inverclyde and North Ayrshire are areas of high unemployment and deprivation. Have the economic impacts of the proposals been considered, in particular on Clyde and the wider community? The decision to close Clyde, but keep open the other large coastguard station in Scotland at Aberdeen, seems to be based on current leasing arrangements rather than on operational reasons—or, indeed, on the ongoing running costs of each station. The lease for the Clyde station comes to an end in 2012, with the Aberdeen lease coming to an end in 2020. It has been put to me repeatedly that this seems to have been a major consideration in the proposal to close Clyde. Will the Minister confirm whether that was a factor in coming forward with the proposals, and if it was, will he say how large a factor it was? Has any work been done on the comparative costs of the various options of keeping one coastguard station open as opposed to another?

Mark Lazarowicz: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I assure her that this is my last intervention. On the question of having one or two coastguard stations, just to make it clear, I am sure that she does not mean to suggest that we want the Aberdeen station to close instead Greenock. The whole point is that we do not want the entire coastline of Scotland and parts of the north of England to be served by just one station, which is clearly not a practical solution.

Katy Clark: I agree with my hon. Friend. I am trying to get the Minister to provide more detail on the reasoning behind the proposals. I am strongly of the view that we need a geographical spread of coastguard stations and that we need more than one in Scotland. I have not necessarily looked at the detail of every coastguard station, but I suspect that some hon. Members in the Chamber have.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): Perhaps the hon. Lady’s concern about stations on all parts of the coastline echoes her comments about the transferability of staff. Does she agree that local knowledge is critical to the successful operation of coastguard services?

Katy Clark: I agree with the hon. Lady. I am in no way trying to set one coastguard station against another; what I am trying to do is put points on behalf of the Clyde coastguard station that I do not believe will be put in any other forum. There is huge frustration about the fact that it has not been possible to make those points, and we know that very few reasons were given for the proposals.

In every debate about the issue that has taken place in the House, members of all political parties have strongly made the case for local knowledge. There is a considerable distance between the constituency of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and mine. At present that local knowledge is held in the Clyde coastguard station, and if Aberdeen were to take on the work, the acquisition of such knowledge would take a number of years. That point has been made to the Minister a number of times.

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Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend made the same point about local knowledge when speaking about the growth of shipping in the Clyde estuary. It is a crucial factor. While the technology on the larger ships will enable them to make the most of the new technology that the MCA is proposing to introduce, many smaller vessels—including fishing vessels and, in particular, pleasure craft—will not. It is particularly important to retain local knowledge in areas such as the Clyde, where there will be much more shipping than there is at present.

Katy Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. In my constituency, a number of marinas have opened in recent years. We have the largest marina in Scotland in Largs. There has been a huge increase in the use of our seas for pleasure activities and sailing of all types, but with that come many inexperienced users, with whom coastguard station staff will find it more difficult to deal.

Submissions put together by the Clyde staff, with the assistance of Inverclyde council, contain costings for a site at Greenock. The lease at Greenock will expire in 2012, and a number of other local options have been costed. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that they will be considered. The Driving Standards Agency recently decided not to close its Cardiff office after the Public and Commercial Services Union was able to make proposals for a cheaper site, and I wonder whether a similarly open-minded approach will be adopted in this instance. Will the Minister ensure that the submissions from Clyde staff and Inverclyde council are given proper and careful consideration?

As I have said, it is far from clear what criteria were used for the proposals that were announced on 16 December. I hope the Minister agrees that it is only fair for there to be a transparent process, and for proper responses to be provided to questions such as those that I have asked today. The Clyde coastguard station has provided an excellent service, and I hope that once the Government have an opportunity to consider the issues in detail, they will decide to reconsider the proposals and keep it open.

5.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to respond to the debate initiated by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark). It is one of many debates on the subject in which we have engaged in the last few months, and that is right and proper, because the Government are making a very important decision.

May I take the first opportunity that I have had to pay tribute to David Cairns, whose Inverness constituency contains the Clyde maritime co-ordination centre? He was very active in the campaign as it is now, but long before these proposals were made he had engaged considerably with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and had visited the station on many occasions, particularly when the Ministry of Defence indicated that it was likely to withdraw the lease and that, in this respect, we would be homeless in that part of the world. His attitude to his constituents was exemplary, as was the way in which he conducted himself during our debates. He will be sorely missed by the House, and whoever replaces him—I understand that the writ for the by-election was moved today—will have a very large pair of shoes to fill.

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Although I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate—and I also congratulate the hon. Members who are present for sticking around when they could have disappeared this afternoon—I should point out that the consultation process has ended, even though we extended it considerably, and all representations from all parts of the coastguard community as well as from the public and colleagues in this House will be carefully considered.

All the information will be looked at, as will all the concerns. Let us take the costings, for instance. It is difficult for a coastguard representative or member of the Public and Commercial Services Union to work out the modelling costs. That will be undertaken by the Department, and we will publish all the consultation documents on the website. There are a lot of them, and we will publish them online because we do not want to chop down too many trees. We will also reopen the consultation for a very short time to allow for the Transport Committee report to be taken into account when we draw our conclusions. Finally, the Secretary of State has announced that we will make our announcement before the summer recess.

We realise how emotive this subject is. I come from an emergency service background, so I know very well how emotive issues involving the emergency services in general are. I am enormously proud to be an ex-fireman, and it is a great honour and privilege to be the Minister responsible for Her Majesty’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency and everything to do with it. The MCA is world-renowned. If my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) was not being so nice, I am sure she would want to tell me about the fantastic international work done at Falmouth on behalf of the coastguard nationally in this country.

But we are talking about a co-ordination centre, and we are in the position we are in today because a set of station cuts and closures were made over a series of years. I do not think anybody in the Chamber or in the country would claim that the current structure has any logic at all. I have gone around the country visiting stations, and my chief executive, Sir Alan Massey, has been to every single coastguard station during this process, and we have had some robust discussions; I had such a discussion when I was up by Liverpool. Everybody knew that these sorts of changes were coming down the line, however. The previous Government had the current proposals on their desk, and they have been discussed with the PCS for almost two years; I have a record of the dates when those meetings took place, and I myself met and held discussions with PCS representatives before these announcements were made.

We knew in advance, therefore, that we needed a reconfiguration of the coastguard service, so that we have the resilience, training and communication systems that are required, as well as a pay structure that is fit for the 21st century. Anybody who has visited a coastguard station in this country will know that one of the first subjects the staff talk about is pay and career, because £13,500 a year as a basic salary in an emergency service is unacceptable. That is one of the reasons why we are looking at this reconfiguration and realignment of the way the service works. That is a fact; this topic was discussed with me because there was a dispute that I inherited when I first became the responsible Minister,

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and which had been going on for several years. It is unacceptable that such a dispute went on for such a long time.

We must also look at the geography—at where the co-ordination centres are located. We are talking specifically about the Clyde today. The Clyde station is twinned. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran might be aware that each of the coastguard stations, apart from the Western Isles and Shetland, is twinned with another station so that they have some resilience. The Clyde station is twinned with Bangor in Northern Ireland, so if the systems go down in the Clyde and the local knowledge—which I accept is there—disappears, Northern Ireland will look after that coastguard area. I have visited Bangor and put the following point to its staff: if local knowledge is so important—and I accept that it does have importance—why are there such huge geographical distances between twinned co-ordination centres? Interestingly, in other parts of the country twins are ridiculously close, such as Brixham and Falmouth. That makes it very difficult to have a national co-ordination facility, and we do not have it; there is no national resilience within the coastguard service in the UK today. We need to look at that.

The very first visit that I made—I know I am going to repeat myself, but some of these comments need repeating—was to Liverpool, on 13 January. A robust and free debate took place, and I do not think I held much back; nor did some of the coastguard representatives, who included volunteers as well as full-time staff. Interestingly, during that debate—the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) was there—one of the senior members of uniformed staff said to me, “But Minister, we’ve been talking about nine co-ordination centres for years.” I said, “Please put that in writing—be part of the consultation.” I also went to Bangor, where a very detailed report was put in.

Bill Esterson: I remember the exchange about the nine co-ordination centres extremely well. It was an informal proposal put forward by members of staff there some years ago. It is important to put it on the record that they had suggested it to the agency at an earlier date.

Mike Penning: That is exactly the point I am trying to make: this has not come out of the blue. The coastguard representatives there, in front of the hon. Gentleman, me and everybody else assembled there, said that they had previously suggested having nine centres around the country. If the hon. Gentleman remembers, I said to them, “I’m talking about eight, you’re talking about nine. We’re not that far apart, are we?”

On 9 March, I visited Bangor, in the Province, where a detailed presentation and submission was put to me suggesting having 10 centres around the country. As I have said before, three types of submission have been made in this lengthy consultation process. One suggests that we should leave things alone, and that everything is okay. Another says, “Leave us alone”, without making any real comment about anybody else. Then, there are the really detailed submissions, such as that from Falmouth, which I also visited. They say, “We know there needs to be change—standing still is not an option. We’ve said that since day one, when we started the consultation, but actually, we think the figure for the country as a

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whole should be about 10.” There have also been discussions about how many national co-ordination centres, or maritime operations centres, there should be. The suggestion arising from the consultation is two; others have suggested one. I do not think anybody is suggesting that there should be none—at least, not in the detailed submissions. There is no national co-ordination at the moment, and I think everybody accepts it is needed.

We are proud of our extended coastline, and we should perhaps look at how other countries are dealing with their co-ordination centres. I must stress that this issue is purely to do with co-ordination—the wonderful volunteers who carry out the rescues, and the RNLI and others, are not affected. In fact, we are going to enhance those services by providing them with more investment and more full-time staff. So, naturally, when I first looked at our proposal, I examined how other countries with an extended coastline structure their co-ordination centres. I looked at other English-speaking countries that might have replicated our approach, and Australia, for instance, has one centre. Spain, I believe, also has one; Norway has two; France has seven. It is not feasible for us to stand still and say that what we have today, in this ad hoc procedure, is suitable going forward.

The consultation was put out and there were discussions with the PCS. These proposals, in one shape or form, have been around for about four years. Evidence was given to the Select Committee, and a letter was published in The Guardian only the other day from the former chief executive of the MCA, saying that Ministers had fudged this issue for years and it had not been addressed. We are determined to bring the coastguard service and the MCA into the 21st century—to have a fully resilient service with a pay and career structure that is fit for the service and its dedicated staff.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) for securing this debate. I very much welcome, as I am sure coastguards all around the UK do, the fact that this was a genuine consultation exercise. You have repeatedly said that the current proposals are not a done deal and the Secretary of State underlined that only a few weeks ago. It would be of enormous help to coastguards in Falmouth and all around the UK if you could share with us what is going to happen once your response to the consultation is published—you promised this before the recess. Will alternative proposals be introduced? If so, will they be further consulted upon?

Mr Speaker: I cannot share anything and I cannot offer any response, but I have a feeling that the Minister might.

Mike Penning: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sure that we understand exactly what my hon. Friend is trying to say to the House.

It is very important that we understand exactly what the Government’s position has been from day one. Of course I am going to be accused of doing U-turns, cartwheels and so on, but I said, and the Secretary of State said, that these proposals were not set in stone and that the consultation is a proper one. We said that we wanted everybody to be fully involved in the future of

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the coastguard service. I said from day one that what comes out the other end of this consultation process will not be what we go in with, but that we cannot end up with the status quo. The service has to modernise, it has to have proper resilience and it must be fit for the 21st century.

Katy Clark: I asked a number of questions about the criteria that were used. The Minister might not be able to give a response today, but will a response be given at the end of this process outlining the basis on which decisions are being made? It is not at all clear to those working in the coastguard service why particular stations have been chosen and others have not, so will the criteria be made publicly available?

Mike Penning: Of course. I was still responding to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth and when I have finished dealing with it, I will discuss the points that the hon. Lady has raised. In that intervention, I was asked specifically what will happen later in the process. We will announce our proposals once we have taken into consideration the Select Committee’s report. That means that I will have to reopen the consultation, but I stress that that will be just to allow that report to be taken into consideration. If I did not do so, I would be insulting the Select Committee and there is no way I intend to do that. The Government will announce their conclusions before the summer recess—as we have said all the way through, they are likely to be different—and then I will reopen the consultation. That is the right and proper way to proceed if we want to work with the public, with the service and with Members of this House. It is different from the way in which a lot of consultations have historically been carried out over the years, but I do not think this will be a one-off; I think that the Government will take this approach on a regular basis. I recall a consultation on my local general hospital in which 85% of respondents said they did not want the hospital to close, yet it was closed in any case. No consideration was given to people’s concerns. Does this approach mean that everybody is going to be happy? No, of course it does not. However, proper consultation will take place again once we put forward our proposals.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for arriving so late to the debate and I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. It would be very helpful if he gave a commitment at the start of that consultation to avoid compulsory redundancies at every stage in the process from there on in.

Mike Penning: I hope that there would not be compulsory redundancies, but I cannot give that commitment and I am not going to stand at this Dispatch Box and mislead people. The PCS has known that all the way through. It is important to understand that there will be job losses if we reduce the number of co-ordination centres, although I hope that such job losses will not be compulsory. I have gone through redundancy, despite my union fighting to help me, so I understand where people are coming from. However, if I am going to increase salaries, training and career prospects, I have to find that money from somewhere and that money will come from the savings we are finding. There are quite significant costs up

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front, particularly for the resilience we want to put into the system. The Treasury has been generous and I have money, but I cannot carry that forward—I must make savings. To be fair, the union—

Dr Whiteford: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I want to clarify the point that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned in her intervention, because if I am not careful I will not finish one intervention before I take another. I know we have a few hours, but everybody will understand if we do not speak for the whole time.

It is really important that we do not get bogged down by the fact about the Select Committee because, as anyone who has been a Minister knows, a civil servant cannot go before a Select Committee and criticise Government policy. That is not the protocol; it is not what happens. The job of a civil servant, if they go before a Select Committee, is to support Government policy. That is why civil servants at the grade of those we are talking about do not go before Select Committees. I took advice from the Cabinet Office and I ensured that we were in absolutely the right position. I bent over backwards to ensure that the Select Committee could go to any station it wished and talk to any member of staff, but I could not have uniformed staff criticising Government policy. They are fully entitled to fight through their union representatives for what they think is right, but a Select Committee is not the right and proper place to do that. Anybody who has served as a Minister knows that. We can go back through Westland if we want, and see those differences.

Dr Whiteford: I agree with the Minister that it is very important that we have a coastguard service that is fit for the 21st century, but I would put it to him that all the other emergency services in Scotland are devolved and one way to protect smaller stations, such as Inverclyde, might be to amend the Scotland Bill to devolve the operation of the coastguard agency in Scotland. That would mean that the services could properly address our vast coastline, in line with people’s expectations in Scotland.

Mike Penning: I do not want to disappoint the hon. Lady, but the Scottish National party has absolutely no chance of my breaking up a national emergency service such as this one. That will not happen. If we go down the avenue of saying that we can break up the service and that it can be operated in a completely independent little station, we will move completely away from the needs of the service. The service needs national resilience. If we do not have that, we are not offering the service that our constituents—including the hon. Lady’s constituents—deserve. It cannot happen.

When I visited the Western Isles, I saw that when the power goes down—I understand that it does so on a fairly regular basis—volunteers go up to the wireless towers on the hills and operate them manually. That is the situation we are in in the 21st century. There was a lightning strike at Falmouth and they luckily managed to keep going, but there is no proper resilience to lock in the service. In our part of the world, the police love the VHF system we operate because they operate on Airwave and although we use some of it we have a very good radio system. However, what we need is networking.

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I am sure that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran is aware that at Clyde we have a hub that comes into the existing building, but we cannot stay in that building. That is one reason for the decision. We have talked about costs, and of course costs are involved—there is no illusion about the fact that costs are involved and there would be significant costs if we had another station in Clyde that was not in that building. Even if we stayed in that building, there would be considerable costs, and we cannot do so, as the Ministry of Defence has decided that it wants to be gone from that building in Clyde by 2013. We will have to move from that building. There are significant costs that we will publish and put out there, but I am in the middle of the consultation and I will not jeopardise that. Judicial review or something similar could be pushed against me if I broke into the consultation in the middle of it. I am trying to be as open as possible.

Bill Esterson: I assume that the Minister has finished with the previous interventions. Let me make a few points about learning lessons regarding future consultations and advice. First, there is grave concern among coastguard officers that at one point he advised them that they could give evidence in public to the Select Committee.

Mike Penning: No, I did not.

Bill Esterson: Well, he will get his chance in a moment to answer my points, but that has categorically been stated by a number of coastguard officers. I think there is a lesson to learn there about the advice given by Ministers.

The other point is that we should listen to front-line staff when drawing up proposals on such important issues as these emergency services and we should include their ideas. The Minister mentioned what happened at Crosby when he visited: the ideas of those

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staff were not put into the consultation document and were not part of the proposal, and that is of concern to staff there.

Mr Speaker: We are extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Minister is winding up the debate on the future of Greenock coastguard station.

Mike Penning: May I just place it on the record that I openly said at Crosby and as I went around the country that I wanted coastguards and the public to engage? I am quite careful about my words, even though I regularly speak without notes, as I am doing now, and I did not say that those staff could give evidence to the Select Committee in oral session, but I did say that they could submit written evidence. I also said that to the Chair of the Select Committee when I went before it last week in what was also an interesting session.

I have just been informed, a few moments ago, that there will be another Adjournment debate on this issue—on a slightly different subject very close to this one—for an hour and a half next Tuesday morning. It is key to this issue that we make sure that things are done correctly and I am willing to take into consideration all the submissions, but keeping the status quo is not an option. Nearly every detailed submission has accepted that and it was accepted by the previous Administration before I became the responsible Minister. I have been very impressed by the time and effort that many of the stations have taken not just to say, “Look after me, guv,” or “Protect me,” but to suggest what the service needs to look at and look like in the 21st century, and I pay tribute to everyone who has submitted evidence to the consultation. It will reopen just to allow the Select Committee report to be considered, and the Government will make an oral statement to the House before the summer recess on the future of the MCA.

Question put and agreed to.

6.7 pm

House adjourned.