Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): In recent days, it has become clear that a number of the alleged crimes that will be covered by the inquiry took place in Scotland. The Prime Minister said earlier that he has

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regular discussions with the First Minister. Has the Prime Minister received reassurances from the Scottish Government that the inquiry will have the full co-operation of the Scottish Government and all the relevant authorities?

The Prime Minister: One reason we need to consult about the terms of reference is to ensure that we consult with devolved Administrations, including the First Minister, to see what they have to say.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I congratulate the Prime Minister on grasping the nettle. Let me repeat the point made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) about the history of Select Committees not being able to compel people to attend. That must be considered as there is a process, but it is very long-winded. Can the question of whether there is any way of ensuring that people can be brought to a Select Committee when they are asked to give evidence be considered?

The Prime Minister: That is a repeated call to the one made by the hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey). I think it is an issue for the Leader of the House to address; perhaps he can say something about it tomorrow at business questions. We want people to attend Select Committees. Obviously, we want to ensure that we do not ask people to do things that are desperately inconvenient, but if people give us the endless run-around, there should perhaps be some way through that.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Just to be absolutely clear, the Prime Minister said earlier that proprietors could be called to the inquiry. Will he confirm that if those proprietors are foreign citizens, they could be compelled to attend and give evidence, unlike with Select Committees?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raises a good issue. I do not see why the answer to that should be no. If you own media in this country, then you should be able to be called under oath.

Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be a mistake if, at the end of this process, we saw the death of good investigative journalism? He has alluded to the investigation into MPs expenses, for example, and it would be wrong if we ended up with such a scandal not coming to light.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I do not want those people in the press who work hard, who are good investigative reporters, who do not break the law, who find good stories and who hold the powerful to account to watch today’s proceedings and think that we are going to strangle the free press in this country. That is not what we should be doing. It is very important that we all say that and that the inquiry bears that at the heart of what it is doing and it is in the terms of reference.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The Prime Minister said that destroying evidence would be a criminal offence, but my understanding is that that is the case only once the terms of reference for the inquiry have been set. Why did he not set up the inquiry last week, when Labour Members asked him to, and will he ensure that the terms of reference are set as soon as possible so that no further evidence is destroyed?

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The Prime Minister: The premise underlying the hon. Gentleman’s question is wrong. My understanding is that when there is a police investigation, as there is with hacking, if evidence is destroyed that breaks the law. That investigation is happening right now. As regards setting up the inquiry, the terms of reference are now in the Library for the hon. Gentleman to see. If he has suggestions and ideas he can make them known, but I sent the terms of reference to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition this morning for comments from the Labour party and we have incorporated those comments in full.

Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): May I push the Prime Minister a little more on the culture of journalism? As with the bankers crisis and the MPs’ expenses crisis, changing the culture and self-responsibility of the industry is important. What will he do to take a lead on that?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should celebrate good journalism and social responsibility in journalism and media organisations. Let me put it on the record that many media organisations do some brilliant things in our country to build up what I call the big society. We must not damn all media because of what is happening and what has happened in some organisations. As well as a good regulatory system, we need a culture that is, yes, about getting to the truth but, no, not about breaking the law.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Given the point made earlier by the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that the Metropolitan police’s small team will take many months to go through all the names and phone numbers that they have to go through, may I press the Prime Minister to make sure that they have enough police officers to do the job in good time?

The Prime Minister: As I said in my statement, this is one of the biggest police investigations currently ongoing in Britain. In defence of the Metropolitan police, next year is the Olympics and we have an enormous security challenge to get right in this country. The Metropolitan police has to meet a huge number of objectives—it is for the police authority to help to set those—so I do think it is putting adequate resources into this. As I have said, it is one of the biggest operations in Britain today.

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): May I for one congratulate the Prime Minister and other party leaders on the speed and scope of all this? I particularly want to follow up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) about why the issue of police ethics is being dealt with only in relation to the Metropolitan police. It seems to some of us that there is a kind of cultural tradition across all police forces of having a tight relationship with favoured journalists. Perhaps in the short term my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary could talk to chief constables about starting their own procedures.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point. First, the inquiry will make recommendations across all police forces from the lessons it learns about this malpractice. The point that Paul Stephenson and I were discussing last night was that there is an opportunity for the Met specifically to take a leadership role in what it does, which I am sure others will follow.

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Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): The Prime Minister has said on several occasions that we should follow the evidence trail wherever it leads. If that includes the proprietors of News International or other media groups, should we not be hardening the terms of evidence? Is it the Prime Minister’s view that Rupert Murdoch should be required to give evidence to the judge-led inquiry?

The Prime Minister: The point about the judge-led inquiry is that it must choose who it wants to speak to and it must then call them under oath and make sure that they answer questions accurately. Clearly, it is going to want to talk to editors, proprietors and those who are responsible right across the media. That is going to be the work it does.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we will never be able to stop criminals who are intent on phone-tapping but that whatever we do and whatever steps we take we have to try to minimise the possibility of that?

The Prime Minister: That is right; we will never stop all law-breaking through a regulatory system, just as we will never stop all law-breaking through a policing system. Clearly, with the media we want to have a free, independent media that do not feel the heavy hand of statutory regulation, so we need a change of law but we also need a change of culture.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister agree that the general public will find it amazing that anyone is suggesting that the press should have self-regulation? Is it not a No. 1 priority that we should have regulation that is independent?

The Prime Minister: I like the word “independent” rather than “self”, which sounds as though newspapers will be regulating themselves rather than being regulated by someone more independent, although not reliant on the Government—that would be worrying—who can take a strong view.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Will the inquiry be able to take evidence from Mr Lance Price who used to work at Downing street and who said in 2006 that when he worked there he sometimes felt as though Rupert Murdoch was the 24th member of the Cabinet?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that Lance Price will be available. I have to say that the book he wrote about the last Government was one of the most depressing things I have ever read.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): If the will of the House this evening is carried and News International simply withdraws its bid for BSkyB, what steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that the will of the House is carried and what steps will he take to persuade Rupert Murdoch to do the decent thing?

The Prime Minister: As I have tried to explain, the Government have a responsibility to act within the law. We have to deal with each merger, acquisition and process as the law dictates and that is what my right

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hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has to do. Tonight, the House of Commons is going to express a very strong opinion and I hope that opinion will be heeded.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Can he tell the House whether other national Governments have been in contact to express their concerns about the activities of News International and whether US authorities are planning to investigate the company for possible breaches under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?

The Prime Minister: I have not had any contact with any US politicians about this issue.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): In the firestorm that has hit the country, thousands of families have been thrown back to the trauma of a loved one’s death. Will the Prime Minister ensure that he has conversations with the Press Complaints Commission so that it can start talking to the editors of national newspapers about not regurgitating stories that will increase that trauma to families? Can we also ensure that when police officers approach families, if they need to tell them that their phone calls have been hacked, they provide them with help and guidance as well as information about desist notices so that those families’ trauma can be reduced rather than their grief being added to?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady makes a very good and sensitive point. It is not just for the PCC but for newspapers themselves to understand the trauma that is being caused and the need to be more sensitive.

George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the key weaknesses of the PCC is that the public interest defence in the code has, frankly, been used and abused over the years? That is why it is so important to have independent regulation going forward and why those who continue to cling to the idea of self-regulation are wrong.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend did an excellent job as my press secretary for many years before taking the sensible view that he belonged on these Benches. There is a problem, which the inquiry will have to look at: we want the press to take action in the national interests, but we have to have a system in which they are not breaking the law. That has to be resolved.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister explain further the practical difference between self-regulation and independent regulation?

The Prime Minister: I do not want to get into theological debate about this, but I think the problem with the phrase “self-regulation” is that it implies too much of a continuation of a scheme under which the press have effectively been regulating themselves. This will be a matter for the judge and his panel, but what we are looking for is something more independent—not statutory regulation with the heavy hand of the state, but independent regulation that means we are able to make sure that proper standards are followed. I gave some examples of how that works elsewhere and I think it can be done.

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Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement and the leadership he has shown on this matter. Will he clarify a point about the inquiry, given that in recent months and years certain inquiries have held evidence sessions behind closed doors? What will be done to ensure that all the evidence is taken in public so that the public can see what has been done and what is being done to correct it?

The Prime Minister: This is an independent public inquiry led by a judge, with evidence being taken under oath and being held in public. That is the whole point. Obviously, if it suddenly decided it was inquiring into deep national security issues it might have to have a different session, but it is a public inquiry.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): The Prime Minister says that he wants a cross-party approach to this issue, so when will he meet the leaders of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish parties in the House? In 2006, the Information Commissioner reported up to 3,000 breaches of privacy. Will the inquiry that the Prime Minister is announcing today look into those cases?

The Prime Minister: I hope the inquiry will look at what happened with the Information Commissioner’s report, because that was one of the wake-up calls when, frankly, the politicians did not wake up. In terms of taking into account the views of the other parties in the House, I am going to discuss that with my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary and see what is the best way forward.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): May I ask the Prime Minister, given the group feeling in the House, whether we could put the full vetting authorities of the Government to the assistance of the Leader of the Opposition so that he can find out more about his director of communications?

The Prime Minister: We all have to answer questions about the people we employ and the activities they might have undertaken. I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will be doing just that.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): At the turn of the year, when Opposition Members were urging the Culture Secretary to refer the BSkyB bid to the Competition Commission, we were given to understand that, even if it were referred, the terms of reference would be very limited. On Monday, the Culture Secretary indicated to the House that there would be fairly wide terms of reference. Are the terms of reference that have apparently already been sent this week going to be made available to the House?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary can answer this question in the debate later. The point is that the Competition Commission has been asked to look at plurality grounds and also to look at the “fit and proper” issue. We have to do these things under the law though: we cannot suddenly invent new grounds. We can only use the legal instruments and tests that are there.

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Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): May I welcome the Prime Minister’s reaffirmation that sunlight is the best disinfectant? If we are really going to sort things out on a cross-party basis, surely it is not good enough for this to involve only Government Ministers and special advisers—surely it should involve shadow Ministers and their special advisers as well.

The Prime Minister: I think that is right. The point about the relationship between politicians and the press, and where that has gone wrong, is, as I said, that we have been courting support rather than confronting problems. That has been the case for Oppositions. I freely admit that as Leader of the Opposition, you spend quite a lot of time trying to persuade newspapers and others to support you, because you want to explain your policies, your vision and what you are doing for the country. That will not stop. We are not all going to go and live in a monastery and never talk to journalists ever again, wonderful though that might seem by moments. We must have a healthy relationship where we can have those meetings and discussions, but at the same time confront the difficulties that we have. That is what the commission will do.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I am not a legal expert, but I am deeply concerned about the suggestion that there is a non-disclosure agreement between News International and Glenn Mulcaire, the man at the centre of hacking. If a non-disclosure agreement exists, it must have been put in place between News International and him in 2005 or 2006, at the time that Andy Coulson was at the News of the World. I have a deep concern about who negotiated that and the implications. Will the Prime Minister look into the matter personally, and will it be part of the inquiry?

The Prime Minister: That needs to be part of the police inquiry, never mind the inquiry that is about to start under Judge Leveson. There is a police inquiry now into what went wrong at the News of the World, how much hacking took place, who was hacked and who knew. All those questions need to be answered by the police, and it is a full-on police inquiry, not the rather thin inquiry that happened before.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): On the issue of transparency about meetings between politicians and media proprietors and executives, will my right hon. Friend go further than the Leader of the Opposition suggested and go back not just to the last election, but to the previous Government, so that my constituents can see what people on both sides of the House have been up to in the past?

The Prime Minister: We will look at the issue of transparency and how best to put it into the ministerial code, and consider what is right and fair. The inquiry will be able to look at contacts over a period to try to see what went wrong in the relationship.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the meetings of the inquiry be open to the general public? In other words, will we all know what is happening, and will the general public know as well?

The Prime Minister: Yes, this is a public inquiry held in public.

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Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the Prime Minister believe that once a healthier relationship is established between politicians and the media, it will be easier for Governments to adopt evidence-based policy in relation to, for instance, tackling drugs, community sentences, or immigration and asylum?

The Prime Minister: That is a lovely idea. As I say, the inquiry will not mean no contact between politicians and the media. There are difficult issues—the hon. Gentleman mentioned a couple of them—where we need to try to explain and take people with us when we are taking difficult decisions. We cannot do that ourselves through direct communications. We need a lively and questioning media to help us do that, but perhaps a healthy relationship will make what he wants more possible.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I have been listening carefully to the Prime Minister’s answers. Does he accept that there is a significant difference between explaining Government policy or the Opposition’s position to the media, and courting their support, and that it is that culture of courting the support of the media that needs to be tackled not by inquiry, but by the Members of the House?

The Prime Minister: I agree. There is nothing wrong with meeting editors or proprietors and trying to explain why your vision is the right one for the country. People expect you to do that. Where it can go wrong, and where it has gone wrong, is where politicians start doing things, perhaps influenced by those media companies, that they would not otherwise do. I well remember standing at the Opposition Dispatch Box opposing 42-day detention, which I do not think for a minute most of those on the—sorry—then Government Front Bench believed in. I think they were doing it because of the pressure that they felt from some parts of the press. It is profoundly wrong, and the sort of thing that we must stop in the future.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Does he agree that the Press Complaints Commission as currently constituted is clearly not fit for purpose, and that it would have been most helpful if its reform had been initiated back in 2007, when the phone hacking inquiry at that time failed?

The Prime Minister: Many people on the Press Complaints Commission have tried to make it work. I would argue that it has made improvements in recent years from when it was originally established, but when

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we look at what has happened and the trail of reports, problems and the rest of it, the conclusion we must come to is that the PCC did not do enough to pick that up. Reform is therefore needed. That is one of the starting points for the inquiry.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Does the Prime Minister regret the Opposition’s inaction over such serious and grave issues over a number of years? If they are now to succeed and maintain public support, they need to be above party politics, and political opportunism should be shunned and ignored.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. We need an all-party approach, as far as possible. Sometimes all-party approaches can become a bit of a conspiracy, so we have to make sure that that is not the case. A basic level of agreement exists about the inquiry, the terms of reference, and the need to change the regulatory system. If we can push forward in that way, there will not be too much regulatory arbitrage, so to speak, which is a danger in such a situation. I propose to keep in close touch with the leader of the Labour party about this.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree with a senior commentator in the Twittersphere who says that people in glass houses should not throw stones?

The Prime Minister: I long ago learned my lesson about not saying anything about the Twittersphere for fear of getting the wrong vowel in the wrong place.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Media regulation, like the inquiry, goes well beyond simple law-breaking. How can we be sure that it can act in a timely fashion on known wrongdoing where that is sufficient, without waiting for the conclusion of numerous criminal investigations and the prosecutions that follow them?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The part of the inquiry which is, for instance, investigating allegations of police corruption or investigating the hacking at the News of the World, must wait for the police investigations to be carried out, for prosecutions to be carried out and, as I understand it, for any appeals to be lodged. That is one for the reasons for having one inquiry with two parts, rather than two inquiries, otherwise the one doing that part would take a very long time indeed before it got going.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Prime Minister and colleagues for their succinctness, which enabled all 78 Back Benchers who wanted to contribute to do so.

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Mull of Kintyre Review

1.56 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): I wish to announce the publication today of the Mull of Kintyre review, the report of the independent review of the evidence relating to the findings of the board of inquiry into the fatal accident of an RAF Chinook helicopter at the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994. It is right that I should begin this statement by paying tribute to the 29 people who died in that accident, one of the worst in the history of the Royal Air Force. As is well known, the passengers were members of the Northern Ireland security and intelligence community who were travelling to a meeting in Inverness, and their deaths were a huge blow to the security of this country. They were also a human tragedy for each of the 29 families who were devastated by the loss of their loved ones.

I pledged while in opposition that I would set up a review, because I had worries that an injustice might have been done. The official conclusion that the accident was caused by the negligence to a gross degree of the two pilots on duty that day, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Richard Cook, had been criticised almost since the day it was reached. Doubt had been cast on the findings in different ways by the fatal accident review held in 1995, by the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee of the House in 1998 and 2000, and by the Select Committee appointed in another place in 2002.

A number of Members of the House have continued to voice their doubts over the findings of gross negligence, and I wish to acknowledge the unflagging interest in the case shown by my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), my right hon. Friends the Members for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) and for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) and others, and also by Sir John Major. I know that the Ministry of Defence considered those reports carefully, taking independent and specialist advice, but given the weight and breadth of the comments, I thought it only right to ask an independent figure to check whether justice had been done.

I announced the establishment of the review—the first independent review of the evidence relating to the accident set up by the Government themselves—to the House on 16 September last year. It was my intention that its report, whatever its findings might be, should draw a line under this matter. It has been carried out by the distinguished former Scottish judge, Lord Philip, with the advice and support of a panel of three fellow Privy Counsellors, my noble Friend Lord Forsyth, Baroness Liddell and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). I am extremely grateful to all four for their thorough and painstaking approach to the task and for the clarity with which they have presented their recommendations, which are unanimous. I held them all in high regard before, and hold them in higher regard now.

Lord Philip and his colleagues have concluded that the finding that the pilots were negligent to a gross degree should be set aside and that the Ministry of

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Defence should consider offering an apology to the families of Flight Lieutenants Tapper and Cook. I can tell the House that I have accepted these recommendations. At a specially convened meeting of the Defence Council on Monday it was decided that

“the Reviewing Officers’ conclusions that Flight Lieutenants Tapper and Cook were negligent to a gross degree are no longer sustainable and must therefore be set aside. We therefore order that those findings shall be set aside”.

I have written to the widows of the two pilots, to the father of Jonathan Tapper and to the brother of Richard Cook to express the Ministry of Defence’s apology for the distress caused by the findings of negligence. I also wish to express that apology publicly in the House today.

Lord Philip’s analysis is very clear. To put it as briefly as I can, he identifies the central point as being that, according to the regulations in force at the time, a finding of negligence should have been made against air crew who had been killed in an accident only if there was “absolutely no doubt whatsoever” about the matter. Although the two air chief marshals who acted as reviewing officers for the board of inquiry and made the findings had no doubts on the matter, Lord Philip is clear that that is not enough. The question that should have been asked is whether there was any scope for doubt in anyone’s mind. In this case, other competent persons did have doubts, which is sufficient to warrant the conclusion that the findings should not stand.

I would like briefly to make four further points. First, the report does not purport to tell us exactly why Chinook ZD576 crashed. It is central to Lord Philip’s report that the exact cause will never be established, and I am convinced that pursuing the matter further would serve only to increase the distress of the families and friends of those who died in the accident. But those who allege that there has been a long-running conspiracy to cover up technical shortcomings in the aircraft will find no support here. The Chinook has had an excellent safety record since the disaster on the Mull. It has been a mainstay of our operations in successive theatres of war and has the full confidence of those who fly it. However, the report reveals that on this occasion the pilot expressed concerns that he felt unprepared to fly the aircraft.

Secondly, I want to emphasise that the air chief marshals who made the decision, Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten, who are now retired, were and are highly respected and experienced airmen who acted at all times with full conviction on what was the right and proper course and in good faith. They did not reach their decision lightly and they asked for legal advice. Regrettably, that legal advice, although subsequently endorsed by independent Queen’s counsel, has now proved to be incorrect. I attach no personal blame to these distinguished officers and their advisers.

Thirdly, the procedures for investigating air and other military accidents were changed some years ago, with the result that it is no longer the practice for boards of inquiry, now called service inquiries, to ascribe blame to those involved, whether or not they survived the accident. This is because sometimes the business of ascribing blame can get in the way of finding out what actually happened and, more importantly, preventing any recurrence.

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Fourthly, the report makes one further recommendation: that the Ministry of Defence should reconsider its policy and procedures for the transport of personnel whose responsibilities are vital to national security. I accept that recommendation as well. It has implications for land and sea transport as well as air transport. I have directed my officials to ensure that the policy and procedures in place across all three services ensure that we do not unnecessarily risk so many individuals who are vital to national security in one vehicle. It is worth noting that Flight Lieutenant Tapper had asked for the passengers on the Chinook to be split between more than one helicopter.

This has been an unhappy affair that has caused much reflection within the RAF and anguish for the families of those who died, particularly the families of those who were wrongly found officially to have been negligent to a gross degree. I hope that this report and the action I have taken in response to it will bring to an end this sad chapter by removing the stain on the reputations of the two pilots.

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, join him in his moving tribute to the 29 people who died in this terrible incident and add our continuing condolences to their families. I also join him in offering our support to this unanimous report and the work carried out by Lord Philip, Lord Forsyth, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) and my noble Friend Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke.

It is over such tragic and controversial events that the whole House should unite to ensure that the right outcome is found in the interests of service personnel, past and present, and their families. It is in our collective interest to establish as much as we can about what happened on 2 June 1994, to learn the right lessons for the Ministry of Defence and the RAF and to come to a settled view for the families of all of those who perished on the Mull of Kintyre. The Secretary of State has my full support in his work towards these objectives.

Successive Secretaries of State, initially Conservative and then Labour, decided to follow the findings of gross negligence produced by the two senior air marshals, Air Chief Marshal Sir William Wratten and Air Vice-Marshal Sir John Day. Their view, as the Secretary of State has suggested, overturned the original opinion of the RAF board of inquiry, which had found no evidence to suggest that either pilot was negligent. For gross negligence to be proven, the Queen’s regulations for the RAF state that

“only in cases in which there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever should deceased air crew be found negligent”.

It is a remarkably clear definition, and the contents of today’s report reveal that that test has not been met at any point since 1994.

No one doubts that all those involved in the inquiry acted in good faith, but it is now clear that the two air marshals initially sought, and were given, inadequate legal assistance in their interpretation of the standard of proof. I do not enjoy saying this, but it now also appears that Secretaries of State of both Governments were kept in the dark on differences between the board and the reviewing officers and that Ministers were deprived

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of the ability to reach a properly informed view. Investigations by the Public Accounts Committee in November 2000 and by a House of Lords Select Committee in November 2001 found that the reviewing officers of the board of inquiry were not justified in attributing gross negligence to the Chinook pilots because the findings did not satisfy the burden of proof required. It is important that in 2001 the board of inquiry rules were changed to ensure that no deceased pilot could ever be found negligent in this way again.

Let me turn to the wider lessons and ask the Secretary of State five specific questions arising from his welcome statement. First, he said that

“the report reveals that…the pilot expressed concerns that he felt unprepared to fly the aircraft”.

Will he tell the House how this matter was dealt with at the time by officers involved? Secondly, what issues surrounding compensation for the families of the deceased arise from the report? Thirdly, and I put this gently, the content of today’s announcement was trailed in the media at the weekend, days before Parliament had a chance to see it. Does the Secretary of State intend to carry out any inquiry on the possible leak of some of the contents of today’s report? Fourthly, and more substantially, did Lord Philip’s review find fault with the board of inquiry’s process, and should the make-up of boards of inquiry be changed to remove the perceived conflict of interest identified by the Public Accounts Committee in its previous report? Fifthly, the Secretary of State rightly said that he had written to the relatives of the two pilots, but have the contents of the report been shared with the families of the others who perished on the Mull of Kintyre?

In conclusion, I have said before at the Dispatch Box, and will continue to do so, that when the Government do the right thing they will rightly enjoy our support. Today, in the interests of all the families involved, the right thing is being done and lessons have to be learnt. We fully support what the Secretary of State has said today.

Dr Fox: I am extremely grateful for what the shadow Secretary of State has said and the tone in which he presented it to the House.

When we look at the experience under previous Secretaries of State, we see that the inquiries that took place were perhaps not quite focusing on the correct point. In Lord Philip’s inquiry, he very quickly, with his team, went to the point of the matter on a legal basis—that is, as the shadow Secretary of State has said, they grasped that attributing gross negligence could be done only if there was no doubt. This was not about establishing something beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the test that most of us would expect normally to be applied—it was an absolutely objective test. Perhaps in previous inquiries we were looking into the details and missing the main point.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of very reasonable questions. In answer to his specific question about how the matter was handled at the time, I refer him to paragraph 7.2.2 of the report, which says:

“We were told that Flt Lt Tapper telephoned his Deputy Flight Commander on the evening before the delivery of ZD576 to Northern Ireland expressing concern that some time had passed since his conversion training. He felt unprepared to fly the aircraft. He had attempted to persuade the tasking authority to spread the load between more than one aircraft, but his request had been refused.”

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Yes, there will be questions of compensation arising. I spoke today to some of the families involved, but I did not feel that today was the appropriate time to be talking about money when there are very serious points of principle and we are opening up a very difficult emotional period for the families. However, we will undoubtedly take this forward in the usual way with those families.

As regards details appearing in the media, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that very many of those were completely wrong. I suspect that people were making educated guesses that turned out to be not so educated.

Finally, neither Lord Philip nor his team criticised the initial board of inquiry. The problem came with the reviewing officers who attributed gross negligence when the board of inquiry had not come to a specific conclusion about who or what was to blame for the crash.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): As Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the Chinook accident, and having given evidence to the Philip inquiry, may I say that I am delighted and relieved that this decision has been announced by the Secretary of State? It is a decision that is right, that is necessary, and that is long overdue. As the Royal Air Force decided some years ago that it was not going to continue to try to assess questions of negligence in its own internal inquiries because that was much more appropriately a matter for the courts of law, is it not very sad that the RAF and, indeed, the Ministry of Defence, despite changing their own procedures and despite the mounting evidence from many authoritative inquiries, have chosen to resist for 16 long years the annulment of this injustice, which arose out of these very procedures?

Dr Fox: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his thanks for the decision that has been made. It is right, I think, that the RAF took the decision that questions of negligence and blame should be set aside in order to try to get to the truth of the cause of any particular accidents. It is very regrettable that it has taken such a long time to get to the situation today. However, it is none the less a tribute to many Members in this House who have felt that an injustice was being done. It shows the House of Commons at its best when pressure from the House of Commons can cause an injustice to be overturned.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I congratulate the Secretary of State on showing the guts to get his Department’s public stance to where justice demanded it should have been for many a year? While he has naturally concentrated on the families of the two pilots, 27 other families are also involved. Will he think of ways in which the views of this House might be conveyed to them as well?

Dr Fox: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We have tried to share some of this process with those families. I understand that for many of them this will have been a difficult reopening of a sad and painful process. I hope, however, that although it has been reopened, we have, with the conclusions that we have come to today, given them proper closure by reaching a just and equitable verdict.

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Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): May I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend and Lord Philip and his team for putting right an injustice that has lasted for far too long? May I add that the air marshals who did the reviewing and who overturned the original finding, while they were quite wrong in their decision, are nevertheless wholly honourable men who were doing what they believed was right on the basis of the legal advice that they were given? Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that a massive contribution to this famous victory was made by people such as Brian Dixon and Tony Collins of Computer Weekly and David Harrison of Channel 4, the noble Lord O’Neill, and people from both sides of this House and of another place in contributing to the notion that justice should finally be done and closure should arrive?

Dr Fox: I entirely agree that the air marshals concerned did what they believed to be right. They followed their consciences. They are fine, decent and honourable men. They were, in my view, not correctly informed about the law and the rules that applied at the time. Given that there were, I imagine, a number of legal personnel who took a contrary view, it is a shame that it has taken so long for that view to be brought to light, and I am grateful to Lord Philip for achieving that. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that there are many beyond this House who have sought resolution in this case for a very long time. They played an important part in keeping the issue alive for long enough for justice to be done. It does not matter how long it takes; it matters that it is done in the end.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. This is a hugely important and sensitive matter both for the families concerned and for the country as a whole, but I must remind the House that there is heavy pressure on time. I appeal to colleagues to ask short questions, and I know that the Secretary of State will provide characteristically short replies.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I give an unqualified welcome to the inquiry conclusions and hope that this finally provides natural justice to the Cook and Tapper families. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the inquiry had available to it all relevant documents, including the Chinook airworthiness review team report? May I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, who said in opposition that he would seek to right this wrong? He has done just that, and he deserves praise and recognition for doing so.

Dr Fox: I am grateful for that. On a day when so many elements of public life are being torn down, it is perhaps useful that we have an example of where the House can come together and where, when we say one thing in opposition, it actually happens in government.

I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that all the documents that Lord Philip and his team asked to see were made available. In fact, when the report was presented to me I checked again that they had been given access to any material that they had sought and were able to speak to any individuals they had wanted to see. I understand that the report that he mentions refers to the Mark 1, not the Mark 2, and so it would have been less relevant in this case, but none the less it was released and made available to the inquiry.

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Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his unqualified apology to the House. Having been a member of the team, I also thank Lord Philip for the way in which he conducted the inquiry, for the advice that he gave, and for the fact that we had a collective but unanimous decision. The standard of proof was designed for a layman and is clear beyond any doubt whatsoever, and yet the legal advice given to the air marshals was that it meant whatever the RAF wished it to mean, which is not a standard of legal advice that anyone in this House would recognise. Will the Secretary of State conclude that we will never know what happened on the Chinook, but the families should now have comfort that the matter can be put to rest?

Dr Fox: I reiterate my great thanks to my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done. The conclusions that he has stated are correct. All I would say is that in producing this report we seem to have created a crack team, and I am sure that Governments with inquiries in future will take note of that.

Mr Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton East) (Lab): May I equally thank the Secretary of State and compliment him on correcting this wrong?

I have to say that my recollection, having sat on the Select Committee along with my friend the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), is not as kind towards the air marshals as what has been said today. The truth is that they did not have any evidence on which to come up with the decision that they did, and they laid their decision on legal advice. The families of those two pilots were right to expect that two air marshals would know better and not rely on a decision by lawyers. The two pilots have been scapegoated for all these years, and respective Defence Ministers and the officials in the Ministry of Defence have run away from this for all these years. The House is indebted to the Secretary of State for having corrected this wrong, but we cannot correct the wrong without pointing out that the two air marshals were a serious part of the problem.

Dr Fox: In fairness, the board of inquiry said that the most likely cause of the crash was pilot error, but it did not attribute blame. The air marshals used their experience and intuition to make a judgment based on the board of inquiry’s findings. Lord Philip and his team found that they were not able to do that based on the level of evidence required to attribute negligence in the way that they did.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. As I look for a single-sentence question, I feel sure that the test will be met by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis).

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I am not sure that I can meet that expectation, Mr Speaker, but I will do my best. Part of the problem arises from the clash between the demands for justice and for a solution that prevents an accident from happening again. The Secretary of State appears to have solved the justice problem for the future with a change to the rules on the attribution of blame. One of the problems was that

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there was no black box in this aircraft. Will he ensure that all RAF aircraft will in future have black boxes so that we will know the cause of any crash?

Dr Fox: Yes. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support and long-standing campaigning on this issue. I have checked that we are now fitting black boxes routinely on all Chinooks. I can confirm that to my right hon. Friend.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for his personal dedication to and interest in this matter, and to his party and his coalition partners for putting the issue in their manifestos. Does this not send out a message to anyone who is fighting injustice that if they persevere and continue to push their case, they will eventually, if they are right, see justice?

Dr Fox: I of course agree with the hon. Lady. There are a lot of downsides to being a Member of Parliament, but one upside is the ability to see justice done and a wrong righted.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): If Parliament exists for the redress of grievance, today is a most eloquent illustration of that principle. My right hon. Friend deserves great credit for taking the decision that he has announced, and for the nature of the apology he has offered to the families, with whom I have been in contact over many years in relation to this campaign. I have always been impressed by their steadfast determination and dignity. Does my right hon. Friend understand that satisfaction at the outcome today is tempered by dismay that the original decision turned on legal advice that was palpably and self-evidently wrong?

Dr Fox: What I find somewhat difficult, having looked back at the various inquiries, is that nobody seemed to focus on the quality of the legal advice given at the time to the reviewing officers. There was a lot of focus on what happened on the ground and on the condition of the aircraft. Nobody seemed to focus on this essential point, which seems to be where the injustice emanated from.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): The Chinook helicopter crash in the Mull of Kintyre in 1994 was, as the Secretary of State said in his statement, one of the worst in the history of the Royal Air Force. Of course, it was also the worst accident in the history of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with 10 of its noble officers being killed. May I take this opportunity to say to the Secretary of State, his colleagues and the House that the widows of those RUC officers will be absolutely delighted and hugely relieved that the terrible stigma of gross negligence is today lifted from those two brave and courageous young pilots?

Dr Fox: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. I entirely echo her sentiments about the RUC.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that this is a modern day version of the famous Archer-Shee case, which involved the Royal Navy and the theft of a postal order, and which became the basis of a famous play in which the service would not admit that it was wrong? Will he add to his list of people who should be thanked the right

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hon. Lord Chalfont, who more than a decade ago instituted a debate that focused on the very point that the Secretary of State has emphasised today? Finally, does he share my regret that some close family members of the pilots are no longer alive to get the vindication that they deserved more than a decade ago?

Dr Fox: This may well be a modern version of “The Winslow Boy”. It is not the size of the injustice that matters, but the fact that it is an injustice. I commend Lord Chalfont for what he did on this matter, just as I thank many colleagues in the other place who have done so much to keep this case alive.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I would like to add my thanks to the Secretary of State for overturning in such a contrite and decent way what was a personal slight on the lives of two pilots and a slight on the entire system. He mentioned in his statement that the Ministry of Defence should reconsider its transport arrangements for senior intelligence personnel. We lost 10 gallant officers that evening on the Mull of Kintyre who could have changed the face of the troubles, and indeed shortened the troubles by up to 10 years. That human intelligence source was lost. That must not happen again because of travel arrangements. The Secretary of State is reconsidering the policy. Can he assure us that it will be changed forthwith?

Dr Fox: I have made it very clear that I accept the recommendation and that change will follow. We will review all current procedures. There is no doubt that that procedure was dangerous and wrong, to the detriment of this country’s security. We saw a similar phenomenon recently with the Polish Government. It does not make sense for any country to allow that amount of its national investment to be in any one vehicle, be it on the ground or in the air.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): The military covenant was betrayed in this case, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing some redress. What will he do to ensure that the quality of legal advice, which is still relevant in Iraq and Afghanistan where there have been issues over such advice, is improved so that we do not see a repeat of this sort of thing?

Dr Fox: It is impossible to guarantee that the advice from any one human being will be perfect. We therefore need to look constantly at the quality of advice and at the sources of that advice, and to ensure that it is spread widely enough to minimise the inevitable risk of human error.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I hope that it will bring comfort to all the families concerned. Surely it should have been common sense after the accident that there should have been no repetition of vital personnel being transported in such a way. Is the Secretary of State aware of instances where that reoccurred after the accident and where personnel vital to our national security were carried as one group?

Dr Fox: I am not aware of a specific instance. I think that this tragedy brought home the risk of doing that. Whether or not it has happened in the past, it will not happen in the future.

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Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Three of the colonels on board the Chinook that day were friends of mine. One of them, Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Gregory-Smith, a commander of intelligence in Northern Ireland, was the godfather of my first son. Does the Secretary of State agree that the families have shown huge dignity and great courage in the years since 1994?

Dr Fox: I think that the families have shown calmness, dignity, great strength and great courage. I hope they feel today that all of that has been vindicated.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I sympathise with and convey my condolences to the 29 families who lost loved ones on 2 June 1994. That was some three months before the first IRA ceasefire. Will the Secretary of State undertake to write to all the families to convey the information in today’s report, which has been accepted by himself and the Government? Will he also indicate why the 1992 inquiry into the effectiveness of Chinooks was not taken into consideration?

Dr Fox: As I said, all documents were made available to the inquiry by Lord Philip and his team. They were able to take into account anything that they wanted. The documents were all made available to them, and they subsequently had a look at the document to which the hon. Lady refers. I will certainly ensure that all the families of the deceased get not only a full copy of the report but a copy of what has been said in the House today, which I am sure they will find extremely reassuring.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I welcome the Ministry of Defence’s apology today, which is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the families and the many campaigners, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who have campaigned for it. However, it is well over a decade since the erroneous advice was given to the air marshals. What can the Government now do to ensure that it never takes so long again to overturn something that has turned out to be palpably incorrect?

Dr Fox: I think we need to begin such a process by dealing with any such issue with a clean sheet of paper and a clear mind. The advantage of what Lord Philip and his team have done is that they were hugely objective. They had no preconceived view, nor did they have any knowledge in detail of the events that they were looking into. That in itself was a huge advantage in allowing them to see the details that needed to be seen that had perhaps been overlooked before.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Today’s statement represents the successful persistence of many right hon. and hon. Members. It also represents the success of common sense over legal advice—but to be longer lasting, it must represent a new chapter in how we conduct such inquiries in future. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State confirming that new standards and new ways of conducting such inquiries will be in place for the future?

Dr Fox: The hon. Lady raises a very interesting point, and it is one that I raised with Lord Philip and his team. Given that I think there is wide acceptance in the House that they came to a conclusion that had been missed too often by previous inquiries, the question is: why? I have

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asked Lord Philip whether he would mind setting out why he thought this particular inquiry had worked, and, from his perspective and that of his team, why they thought they were able to get at the kernel of truth that was missed so many times in the past. Looking at their methods, and how they went about drawing up their report, would be hugely instructive and helpful as a template for similar inquiries in the future.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I add my tributes to those given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other hon. Members? I want to return, if I may, to the legal advice that forms the basis of the report. It appears that the conclusions of the original legal advice were obviously and palpably wrong. I quite understand that my right hon. Friend cannot give assurances about the quality of future advice, but there appears to have been a culture within the Department of seeking to defend the indefensible on the basis of something that was absolutely and obviously wrong, and he can give assurances about that culture. Will he assure the House that he will investigate that culture, see whether it existed and deal with it?

Dr Fox: I hope that we have shown by our very approach to this subject that we are willing to do so. I was not willing to accept an assurance that everything had been checked and everything was fine, which was why we set up this inquiry in the first place. Too many experienced people in the House had spoken to me as we all discussed the matter and said that they felt intuitively unhappy and worried that an injustice had happened. It says a lot for Members of Parliament that when they intuitively felt that uncomfortable, we did not simply accept what had gone before but sought to take an independent and rigorous view of how it should be addressed.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State propose to review not just the methodology of transportation but the purpose of moving such a large number of personnel?

Dr Fox: It is of course perfectly reasonable to have large collections of those with the appropriate expertise when necessary, but it is also incumbent upon those who organise such events to ask whether they really need to have so many personnel with that level of knowledge in one place, especially with modern electronic communication capabilities.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I know personally that RAF Chinook pilots are highly skilled, highly professional and of the highest integrity. In Afghanistan today, Chinook pilots will be putting their lives at risk, and the Secretary of State’s statement today will be widely welcomed by them.

Dr Fox: I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend, as he is the father of one such brave Chinook pilot, who deserves praise as one of the very large number on whom so much of our national security depends.

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Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the Minister for his statement and for the report. I have had the occasion over the years to meet some of the families who lost loved ones. We certainly sympathise greatly with them, and I agree with his sentiments about them. Can the Secretary of State confirm that each of the families who have lost loved ones, who have waited for so long—17 years—for a conclusion to this saga and this tragedy will have all the conclusions and recommendations of the report made available directly to them, so that they can in some way have some closure?

Dr Fox: As I said, I intend that not only a full copy of the report, with all its recommendations, but a copy of what has been said in the House today will be available to all those families, so that they can see the redress of the injustice, what we have done to investigate the issue fully and the warm and welcome words of Members on both sides of the House.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): This was a terrible tragedy that took place in my constituency, and it was made all the worse for the relatives by their long 17-year wait for the announcement that we have heard today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on establishing the review board, and I congratulate its members and all those who have campaigned for so many years to overturn the unjust verdict. What procedures are in place so that if in future a verdict is subject to so much challenge, including by a fatal accident inquiry, it can be reviewed much more quickly?

Dr Fox: As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), we set up a mechanism that seemed to be effective, that was relatively quick and that was able to identify the weakness that previous inquiries had failed to identify. As a House, we should look to see why it was effective when others were not, and learn from that procedure.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): I welcome the outcome of the inquiry and commend the Secretary of State and the Government for the actions that they have taken in bringing long-awaited vindication to the families concerned. The Secretary of State has said that we will never know the cause of the disaster. However, he also said that two requests were made by Flight Lieutenant Tapper and refused. Is he satisfied that such requests are, and indeed were, given full consideration, and would be in future?

Dr Fox: It is impossible for me to say how much consideration was given to a particular request so many years ago, but I would hope that if a pilot expressed worry about his lack, or perceived lack, of experience in such a mission, that would be dealt with sympathetically by those in command.

May I say finally that I am sure the families themselves, whom I met before the statement today, will be very grateful to all Members for their warm words and for the way in which they have welcomed this report today?

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Point of Order

2.38 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to seek your guidance further to the serious concerns raised yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). During my Westminster Hall debate on housing market renewal scheme cancellation, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), described representations by hon. Members on behalf of constituents who are living in the most appalling conditions as “sob stories”.

However, when we consulted Hansard after the debate, the word “sob” had been removed. When I checked Hansard again this morning, I found that the phrase “sob stories” had been replaced with “different stories”. Having watched back the video, it is absolutely clear that the Minister used the phrase “sob stories”, which vulnerable people trapped in tragic circumstances will find a deeply offensive way to refer to their plight. Is there any way, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you or your good offices could look again at this issue? The record is an inaccurate representation of what was said during the debate.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): My understanding is that this was raised yesterday with Mr Speaker, who has promised to look into it and is going to come back on the matter. I am sure the Editor of Hansard will have heard what the hon. Lady has to say and will look into the matter as a matter of urgency.

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Youth Employment

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

2.39 pm

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a programme to provide training and employment opportunities for unemployed young people between the ages of 16 and 25; to establish a comprehensive careers guidance service for young people seeking to enter the job market; to enable Apprenticeship Training Agencies to assist small businesses in employing apprentices; to provide small businesses with a National Insurance contributions holiday; to make provision for grants towards the wage costs of apprentices employed by small businesses; to make provision for a mechanism through which banks and other providers of financial services are required to allocate part of their bonus payment budget to support these measures; and for connected purposes.

Obviously, I welcome the small reduction in the figures announced today, but the truth is that we do not really know how high youth unemployment is in this country. The Prince’s Trust, which does such fantastic work with young people, claims that there are enough unemployed young people to fill every football stadium in the premier league, with almost 200,000 left queuing outside. It is true that youth unemployment is now much higher than it was in the second quarter of 2010. About 1,300 young people in my Selly Oak constituency are known to be unemployed. We also know that we now have the highest youth unemployment since 1992, and that one in five young people are unemployed.

John Philpott, the chief economic adviser of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, argues that the best way to understand the full impact of unemployment on young people is to look at those not in education, employment or training. Helpfully, the Department for Education publishes those figures quarterly, and we can see from its statistics that youth unemployment is hovering around the 1 million mark. That is too high for a civilised society and a modern economy. How can we be optimistic about the future if we are prepared to subject our young people to a life of worklessness? How can parents have faith in a Government who are willing to let this happen? I witnessed it happen to a generation in the 1980s, and I do not want to see it happen again. That is why I am arguing that we need a fresh initiative to tackle the problem.

I want us to create a training and employment programme for those aged 16 to 25, because I believe that that is the only realistic way to tackle a problem of that size. That kind of unemployment can have long-term damaging effects. It is estimated that a period of unemployment at the beginning of someone’s career can have a significant scarring effect through their entire working life. Bell and Blanchflower argue that unemployment when young, especially for a lengthy period, causes permanent scars. It raises the probability of being unemployed in later years and institutionalises a wage penalty over the course of a lifetime.

Those effects are much greater for younger people than for older people. Gregg and Tominey used the national child development study to argue that youth unemployment imposes an impact on individuals’ wages of 12% to 15% by the age of 42. Inactive young people are also more likely to be involved in crime, and significantly more likely to be unemployed later in life, as well as

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having a higher propensity for physical and mental health problems, and drug and alcohol abuse. We owe it to our young people to do everything we can to prevent that scar of unemployment.

We need an employment programme that offers hope and opportunity, and we need training designed to address the structural gaps in our system. There needs to be more focus on science, technology, engineering and maths to help to reduce some of the mismatches between young people and employers. STEM skills are essential in sectors that are key to the future of UK competitiveness, such as IT, pharmaceuticals and high-value manufacturing, yet two fifths of employers report difficulties in recruiting STEM-skilled staff.

As part of a sustained programme to tackle youth unemployment, we also need to sort out the mess that has developed in careers advice and support for young people, especially the vulnerable and those whom we describe as NEETs. This is exactly the wrong time for the confusion and doubt sweeping the country as the Connexions organisation reels under the weight of local government cuts. We were told that cuts in the Department for Education area grant would have a limited impact, but we now see careers advice across the country decimated. In Birmingham the jobs of 200 Connexions staff are in doubt, and in some parts of the country provision is already being reduced to little more than online advice and a telephone help service. Barnardo’s, which specialises in work with vulnerable young people, says that it is extremely concerned that the closure of Connexions centres will leave many young people without advice and support this summer.

When the Tory party talked about an “all-age careers service” in its pre-coalition, pre-election manifesto—we should remember that that is what people thought they were voting for—I wonder how many realised that that was code for transferring specialised support to Jobcentre Plus advisers. I am sure that those advisers do a good job, but they do not have specialised skills in working with young people, and of course they can work only with the 16 and 17-year-olds who receive jobseeker’s allowance, which means they will not be helping the vulnerable, such as the NEETs, and those who too easily slip through the net.

The Federation of Small Businesses, whose knowledge and experience of small businesses we should listen to, is calling for a nationwide effort to encourage apprenticeship training agencies to act as host employers for small businesses. It points out that only 8% of small businesses have taken on an apprentice in the past year, but that 14% would be encouraged to do so if a separate organisation dealt with matters such as training, administration and employment.

The FSB is urging the National Apprenticeship Service in England to promote the benefits of apprenticeship training agencies to small and micro-businesses. It is also calling for a national insurance contributions holiday to help small businesses to give our youngsters a chance. The current national insurance holiday helps only start-ups that employ up to 10 people. It may come as a surprise to hon. Members, but start-ups employing 10 people are not common—the FSB says that most of its 205,000 members actually employ five or fewer staff.

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Government data suggest that about 3,000 businesses are benefiting from the current scheme, but the Government promised that 300,000 businesses would be set up as a result of it. That suggests that money is available to help micro-businesses that employ five or fewer staff. Ultimately, the Treasury would benefit from extending a national insurance holiday, because more people would pay tax.

Youth unemployment costs more than £23 million in benefits every week, and lost productivity costs about £10 million a day: £600 million pounds would be enough to fund 100,000 young people directly, and perhaps more, in a proper Government work and training programme. It could also be used to stimulate businesses, which could mean that 10,000 more youngsters were given a chance.

The public are ahead of us on this matter, because they know that we should fund such a programme from a levy on the money set aside for unearned bonuses for wealthy bankers, who are continuing to pay themselves money that they have not earned while the rest of the country suffers as a result. I commend the Bill to the House.

2.50 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): It is with deep regret that I oppose this Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I realise that his plan is well intentioned, but it contains several serious weaknesses, and in one instance a literally fatal flaw.

The first of my concerns are relatively minor, but they still need to be addressed. My hon. Friend proposes to re-establish the careers service scrapped by the previous Government—the Connexions service—but regrettably the proposals are not specific about the scale or location of that service. They do not explain who would be responsible, how it would be paid for or how many members of staff would be employed. They are too general on those matters. They also propose the establishment of apprenticeship training agencies to assist small business—but, to be frank, it is not small businesses that will provide apprenticeships. The bigger gains will come from large employers, which are not pulling their weight at the moment in developing apprenticeships. I regret therefore that my hon. Friend’s proposals do not focus on the large employers.

The outline proposals also say that there will be an inducement to small firms in the form of national insurance cuts and grants to small businesses. I have some anxieties about that, because in the three most recent Finance Bills both the previous Government and the present Government have significantly reduced corporation tax for small businesses and increased capital allowances. My hon. Friend also said that his proposals would be funded by bonus payments to banks and the financial services, which would subsidise the development of apprenticeships. I fully agree with part of that, although it would have been better had he supported my amendment to the Finance Bill on the Robin Hood tax—but perhaps he succumbed to pressure from the shadow Chancellor, as did other Members.

My main concern about the proposals for the Bill, however, is about the lack of reference to a key question about apprenticeships: how can they be made safe on the shop floor? That was one of the key issues addressed

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by the previous Government, so I regret that my hon. Friend made no reference to it in either his outline proposals or his speech. The previous Government promoted apprenticeships from 1997 onwards, and in the early 2000s the numbers expanded greatly. We all supported that—it was supported across the House—but one element was not put in place: the implementation of health and safety measures when apprenticeships went on to the shop floor.

In 2003 nine apprentices died as a result of a lack of health and safety measures in the companies in which they were placed. As a result, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis), who was then the skills Minister, rightly brought in the civil servants, identified the problem and allocated resources—under legislation and with duties attached—to the Learning and Skills Council, which were then inherited by the Skills Funding Agency. A team of staff were appointed to go into firms where apprentices were placed and carry out a health and safety assessment. In that way, we reduced nine fatalities a year to none. However, that problem is not addressed in my hon. Friend’s proposals.

Since securing health and safety protection for apprentices we have maintained an excellent record, but there is a tragedy waiting to happen. The very staff whom the previous Government appointed—a small unit of 25 in the Skills Funding Agency—are to be sacked in September. Regrettably, the Bill does not address that issue. I would have expected my hon. Friend to include in his proposals a further statutory duty for any proposed apprenticeship training agency to ensure that health and safety are respected and promoted.

It is a matter of regret that these members of staff, who came to meet us yesterday, are to be sacked in September. None of them will be available for the implementation of the Bill. There will be no inspections of workshops, factories or offices, or wherever else apprentices are to be placed. As a result, I predict that there would be a return of injuries and fatalities, and I believe that the House would have some responsibility for those deaths. I would therefore expect my hon. Friend to insert into his Bill a clause giving any Government seeking to develop apprenticeship schemes a further legal duty to ensure that whenever an apprentice is recruited there is a duty of care to ensure that wherever the apprentice is placed complies with health and safety legislation.

The argument that the Government have put, and which might be made in the debate on the Bill, is that the job of the Health and Safety Executive is to ensure that a health and safety regime exits in such companies. I am afraid that that is no longer the case. As a result of the cuts that the Government are implementing, the reduction in staffing for health and safety and the threat from the recent White Paper, health and safety inspections no longer take place on the same scale. That means that when apprentices recruited under this legislation entered the workplace, they would be at serious risk. I would therefore expect any legislation promoting the recruitment of apprentices—I fully agree with apprenticeships, because they ensure that people get a decent training—at least to establish a duty to ensure that those apprentices are safe.

In 2003, when nine youngsters died, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South took advice from a range of experts—we can offer the correspondence to the

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Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning—and that advice was very straightforward: we needed to take additional responsibility to protect the health and safety of apprentices going out to work. These people are not experienced workers and are therefore even more at risk than those who have been in the workplace before, so we have a special responsibility. Legislation is being promoted that we hope the Government will accept, which would vastly expand the recruitment of apprentices and opportunities for young people—particularly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned, for those not in education, employment or training, who are the people most desperately in need of work and apprenticeships of this sort. If we undertake an expansion on that scale, we have a responsibility to ensure that those youngsters are safe.

The ten-minute rule Bill unfortunately does not address that issue. I hope that this debate will enable my hon. Friend to reconsider the matter and propose a more appropriate Bill that addresses this issue. More importantly, I hope that the Government are listening. In less than 12 weeks, the health and safety team in the Skills Funding Agency will be sacked. As a result, youngsters will be put at risk. I urge the Government to think again on this matter, because as a result of that action we could revert to 2003, and I remember the nine fatalities that occurred as a result of inappropriate protection for those youngsters, as we expanded the apprenticeship scheme at that time.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that although this Bill is well intentioned, although it has good elements and although he has clearly identified a range of issues that need to be addressed, this is not the appropriate way to go about it. I do not believe that he has identified the appropriate mechanism, nor do I believe that he has addressed all the issues, in particular the health and safety of the youngsters concerned. I would urge him to take his proposals back, redraft them and engage in a dialogue with the Government. Let us examine the issue with the staff who are about to be sacked. Let us try to put in place appropriate protection for those youngsters, so that when we give them an apprenticeship not only will they receive training, but they will be protected and appropriate health and safety measures will be in place to ensure their security.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House divided:

Ayes 241, Noes 35.

Division No. 325]

[2.59 pm

AYES

Abbott, Ms Diane

Abrahams, Debbie

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Alexander, Heidi

Ali, Rushanara

Andrew, Stuart

Ashworth, Jon

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Balls, rh Ed

Banks, Gordon

Beckett, rh Margaret

Begg, Dame Anne

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Bell, Sir Stuart

Benton, Mr Joe

Berger, Luciana

Betts, Mr Clive

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blears, rh Hazel

Blomfield, Paul

Bone, Mr Peter

Bradshaw, rh Mr Ben

Brennan, Kevin

Brown, rh Mr Gordon

Brown, Lyn

Brown, rh Mr Nicholas

Brown, Mr Russell

Bruce, rh Malcolm

Bryant, Chris

Buck, Ms Karen

Burden, Richard

Burnham, rh Andy

Burt, Lorely

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, Mr Ronnie

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Clark, Katy

Clarke, rh Mr Tom

Clwyd, rh Ann

Coffey, Ann

Connarty, Michael

Cooper, Rosie

Creagh, Mary

Creasy, Stella

Cryer, John

Cunningham, Mr Jim

Cunningham, Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Danczuk, Simon

David, Mr Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, David T. C.

(Monmouth)

Davies, Geraint

De Piero, Gloria

Denham, rh Mr John

Dobbin, Jim

Docherty, Thomas

Donaldson, rh Mr Jeffrey M.

Donohoe, Mr Brian H.

Doran, Mr Frank

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Dugher, Michael

Durkan, Mark

Eagle, Ms Angela

Edwards, Jonathan

Elliott, Julie

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Evans, Chris

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flint, rh Caroline

Fovargue, Yvonne

Francis, Dr Hywel

Fuller, Richard

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Garnier, Mark

George, Andrew

Gilmore, Sheila

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goodman, Helen

Gray, Mr James

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greenwood, Lilian

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Hamilton, Mr David

Hamilton, Fabian

Hancock, Mr Mike

Hanson, rh Mr David

Havard, Mr Dai

Hemming, John

Hendrick, Mark

Hermon, Lady

Hilling, Julie

Hodge, rh Margaret

Hodgson, Mrs Sharon

Horwood, Martin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, rh Mr George

Hunt, Tristram

Huppert, Dr Julian

Irranca-Davies, Huw

James, Mrs Siân C.

Jamieson, Cathy

Johnson, Diana

Jones, Graham

Jones, Helen

Jones, Susan Elan

Joyce, Eric

Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald

Keeley, Barbara

Kendall, Liz

Khan, rh Sadiq

Knight, rh Mr Greg

Lammy, rh Mr David

Laws, rh Mr David

Lazarowicz, Mark

Leadsom, Andrea

Leech, Mr John

Leslie, Chris

Lloyd, Tony

Llwyd, rh Mr Elfyn

Long, Naomi

Love, Mr Andrew

Lucas, Caroline

Lucas, Ian

Lumley, Karen

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

MacShane, rh Mr Denis

Mactaggart, Fiona

Mahmood, Mr Khalid

Mahmood, Shabana

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCabe, Steve

McCann, Mr Michael

McCarthy, Kerry

McCartney, Karl

McClymont, Gregg

McCrea, Dr William

McDonagh, Siobhain

McDonnell, Dr Alasdair

McFadden, rh Mr Pat

McGovern, Alison

McGovern, Jim

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McKechin, Ann

McKenzie, Mr Iain

McKinnell, Catherine

Meale, Sir Alan

Mearns, Ian

Michael, rh Alun

Miller, Andrew

Moon, Mrs Madeleine

Morden, Jessica

Morrice, Graeme

(Livingston)

Morris, Grahame M.

(Easington)

Mudie, Mr George

Munn, Meg

Munt, Tessa

Murphy, rh Paul

Murray, Ian

Nandy, Lisa

Nash, Pamela

O'Donnell, Fiona

Onwurah, Chi

Owen, Albert

Paisley, Ian

Percy, Andrew

Perkins, Toby

Phillips, Stephen

Pound, Stephen

Qureshi, Yasmin

Raynsford, rh Mr Nick

Reckless, Mark

Reevell, Simon

Reeves, Rachel

Reynolds, Jonathan

Riordan, Mrs Linda

Ritchie, Ms Margaret

Robertson, Angus

Robinson, Mr Geoffrey

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Rotheram, Steve

Roy, Lindsay

Ruane, Chris

Ruddock, rh Joan

Sarwar, Anas

Shannon, Jim

Sharma, Mr Virendra

Sheerman, Mr Barry

Sheridan, Jim

Shuker, Gavin

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, rh Mr Andrew

Smith, Angela

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Smith, Sir Robert

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stringer, Graham

Stuart, Ms Gisela

Tami, Mark

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Timms, rh Stephen

Twigg, Derek

Twigg, Stephen

Umunna, Mr Chuka

Vickers, Martin

Walker, Mr Robin

Walley, Joan

Watts, Mr Dave

Weir, Mr Mike

Whiteford, Dr Eilidh

Wicks, rh Malcolm

Williams, Mr Mark

Williams, Roger

Williamson, Chris

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Phil

Wilson, Sammy

Winnick, Mr David

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Tellers for the Ayes:

Valerie Vaz and

Karl Turner

NOES

Bone, Mr Peter

Bruce, Fiona

Cairns, Alun

Carmichael, Neil

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Colvile, Oliver

Crouch, Tracey

Davies, Philip

Ellis, Michael

Evans, Graham

Evans, Jonathan

Flynn, Paul

Glen, John

Griffiths, Andrew

Halfon, Robert

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Johnson, Gareth

Latham, Pauline

Lee, Dr Phillip

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lord, Jonathan

McCartney, Karl

Mitchell, Austin

Mosley, Stephen

Mowat, David

Nuttall, Mr David

Percy, Andrew

Phillips, Stephen

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Russell, Bob

Tomlinson, Justin

Turner, Mr Andrew

Walker, Mr Charles

Wharton, James

Whittaker, Craig

Tellers for the Noes:

Kelvin Hopkins and

Jeremy Corbyn

Question accordingly agreed to.

13 July 2011 : Column 357

13 July 2011 : Column 358

Ordered,

That Steve McCabe, Mr Jim Cunningham, Valerie Vaz, Ms Gisela Stuart, Ms Margaret Ritchie, Siobhain McDonagh, Kate Hoey, Mr Frank Field, Richard Burden Kate Green, Jim Sheridan and Mr Iain Wright present the Bill.

Steve McCabe accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 November, and to be printed (Bill 219).

13 July 2011 : Column 359

Fixed-term Parliaments Bill (programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 13 September and 24 November 2010 (Fixed-term Parliaments Bill (Programme) and Fixed-term Parliaments Bill (Programme) (No. 2):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.

Subsequent stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(James Duddridge.)

Question agreed to.

13 July 2011 : Column 360

Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, HC 436, and the Government response, Cm 7951.]

Consideration of Lords amendments.

Clause 1

Polling days for parliamentary general elections

3.13 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): With this we may take Lords amendments 2 and 9.

Mr Harper: I should like to make it clear that I am proposing that the House disagrees with their lordships on amendments 1, 2 and 9, and I shall set out the reasons for that. For the benefit of Members who have not had the chance to study the amendments in detail, they provide that the provisions in this excellent Bill be subject to a sunset clause after the next general election. Each subsequent Parliament would have the choice of whether to be a fixed-term Parliament or not. The Government want to oppose the amendments because we think that they fundamentally undermine the purpose of the Bill, which was welcomed by, among others, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of this House. I see a member of the Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) sort of agreeing with me on the Opposition Benches.

In bringing forward the Bill, we are seeking to put in place a provision that we hope will become an established part of our constitutional arrangements—namely, that fixed-term Parliaments for this UK Parliament become the norm, just as they are for local government, for the devolved legislatures and for the European Parliament. Two of the most important things in the Bill—in the form that the Government would like it to take—are, first, the proposal for an ability to deny the Executive the ability to choose a date for a general election to suit their own ends and to ensure that the Prime Minister gives up that power for the first time, and, secondly, to deliver certainty on how long a Parliament will last, which will benefit not only parliamentarians but the public.

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Was the Minister disappointed, as I was, that their lordships did not seek to alter the limit for the fixed-term Parliament from five years to four years, which seems to be what the majority of the British public would like?

Mr Harper: I was not in the slightest disappointed that this House and the House of Lords—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We must stick to the amendments.

Mr Harper: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My short answer is that I was not disappointed.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con) rose—

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Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Mr Harper: I will give way in a moment.

If the Lords amendments were accepted, the electorate would have no certainty as to how long the Parliament that they will elect on 7 May 2015 would last. Such certainty, and the principle behind the Bill, have been welcomed by many electoral administrators and by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

Mr Walker: Will the Minister tell the House where that desire for public certainty in relation to a five-year Parliament comes from? Does he think that there would be huge upset in 2015 if people were suddenly to discover that the Parliament might run for only four years—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could let us know which part of the amendment he is referring to.

Mr Harper: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The polling that has been carried out suggests that the public support fixed-term Parliaments. Indeed, if we think back to the previous Parliament, there was a general sense, both in the House and among the public and commentators, that the “will he, won’t he” debate about whether the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) would call an election on becoming Prime Minister was not helpful to good Government or to good democratic accountability. It will be helpful to have greater certainty, as that will benefit us all. Let us ask ourselves this question: if the Bill became law, and fixed-term Parliaments became the norm, would any Minister realistically be able to come to the Dispatch Box and suggest with a straight face that we should change the position and give the power back to the Prime Minister to hold an election at a time of his choosing to suit his political party? Would anyone take that proposition seriously? I suggest that they would not.

Mr Cash: Has it occurred to the Minister that part of the problem with this wretched Bill is that it is trying to organise things to suit the requirements of this coalition? Decisions on the future should actually be down to the public at large, and if they want to get rid of a Parliament, they will do so in their own way. That is where the question of a confidence motion starts to kick in.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. We are not dealing with the whole Bill; we are dealing with the amendments. I am sure that the Minister will take that into account in his answer.

Mr Harper: To be fair to my hon. Friend, Mr Deputy Speaker, he was speaking to the amendments that we are discussing. He made the assertion that our proposals would suit this particular Government during this particular Parliament, but that is simply not the case. If the Prime Minister wanted to ensure that this Parliament ran for the full five years and that the general election took place on 7 May 2015, he would need to do only one thing—namely, not approach Her Majesty the Queen to seek a Dissolution before that date. We could thereby achieve a five-year Parliament for this Parliament, but we want to make a change to our constitutional

13 July 2011 : Column 362

processes—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) does not agree with it—to remove from Prime Ministers the ability to choose the date of a general election.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s question effectively suggested that a sunset provision would be a good thing. Under our democratic system, the public elect Members of Parliament for a term. At the moment, they do not have a choice about when the general election will be; the sole decision about that sits with the Prime Minister. The Bill seeks to give that power to Members of this democratically elected House. I would have thought that my hon. Friend, as a champion of parliamentary control of the Executive, would welcome that proposition.

Mr Cash: I can assure my hon. Friend that the real question is not whether the Prime Minister wants to call a general election, but what the state of the country is and whether there is a sense of urgency among the public at large. That can force a general election, irrespective of whether a Prime Minister wants to pull the plug.

Mr Harper: I am afraid that my hon. Friend is simply not right. That is not the current constitutional position. The current position is that for a period of time during which a Government have the confidence of this House, the only person who decides whether there should be a general election—assuming that we have not reached the end of the Parliament—is the Prime Minister, who seeks a Dissolution from Her Majesty the Queen. Members of Parliament, unless they vote down the Government on a vote of confidence, do not have that power. The general public certainly do not have that power.

Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The Minister’s proposition was a much disputed one. It was thought at one stage that Mr Major, when Prime Minister, was prepared to call a general election during the difficulties surrounding Maastricht. The argument put by people such as Robert Rhodes James was that it was a matter for the Cabinet as a whole to give the Prime Minister the authority to go to the Queen—a more collective approach. The coarse person, the Back Bencher on the streets—or rather the Benches here—would argue that the Cabinet at the time would have thrown themselves in front of John Major’s car if he went to Buckingham palace, as the last thing the Conservative party could bear at that juncture was a general election. It is a process; that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) is talking about. The Prime Minister is not the only person who can determine a general election. That is the ebb and flow of real politics, which is what this House is about. That is why, as I am sure the Minister will understand, there is opposition to some of the propositions in the Bill.

Mr Harper: I am not sure that I want to conjure up visions of Cabinet Ministers throwing themselves in front of prime ministerial cars, which is not a happy thought—[Interruption.] Some of the comments from Opposition Members are unworthy of them. Let me explain what I do not understand about my hon. Friend’s point. He is arguing, I think, for decisions about the timing of general elections to be a more collegiate effort, rather than just the choice of the Prime Minister—but that is exactly what the Bill does. It takes away from the Prime Minister the power to call a general election by

13 July 2011 : Column 363

asking the Queen for a Dissolution and gives that power to Members. Two thirds of them can choose to have an early election for any reason, including general concerns about the state of the country, which deals with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. Having this Bill in place would allow that to happen, which cannot be done today. The other way of bringing about an election is the Government losing a vote of confidence. That is why the Government believe that the Bill should be in place; it should not be up to each individual Parliament to decide whether the Bill should remain in force. That is why we oppose these sunset clauses.

We think that the real threat presented by the amendments is that they could create a scenario in which political parties, and specifically the Government party, could choose in each Parliament, even at its beginning, whether that Parliament should be a fixed-term one. As the Bill is currently drafted, both Houses would have to vote in favour of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill kicking into place at any time during the Parliament. I simply do not think that that is a very sensible proposition. It would mean that Governments would have a way of manipulating the timetable. We should think it through. If both Houses have to vote in favour of a motion for a fixed-term Parliament to be in place, a Government with a majority could simply refuse to pass that motion—and we would effectively have given back to the Prime Minister the ability to call an election. That would not be a positive step forward.

It is important to note that when this House and the other place were legislating for the fixed terms of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it was not thought appropriate to have sunset clauses. We did not give those legislatures the opportunity to pick and choose each time how long their terms of office should be. I do not believe that doing so makes sense now.

Mr Cash: When it comes to these Assemblies and other devolved organisations, we respect them, but the analogy the Minister is making could just as well be applied to a parish council.

Mr Harper: That is not an analogy I would make with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. When this House made decisions about setting up those bodies, we did not think it appropriate to give them the power to pick and choose their term of office. We set it out in the legislation that set the bodies up.

I am curious to know what the supporters of the Lords amendment think would happen if the next Parliament decided that it did not want a fixed term. It is not very clear from the amendments, how exactly the mechanisms would work. I shall take Members through the Lords amendments shortly and explain how I think they would work.

It has been suggested that a sunset clause would ensure that the issue of fixed-term Parliaments and the merits of this particular Bill would be subject to post-legislative scrutiny. That is not necessary, however. This legislation has already been scrutinised by four Select Committees: the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Lords Constitution Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Delegated

13 July 2011 : Column 364

Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I am sure that any one of those Select Committees or another Select Committee will subject the Bill to some form of post-legislative scrutiny, which is something that the Government would welcome. I do not think that these sunset clauses, however, would lead to that type of sensible scrutiny.

I said that I would look at the effect of the Lords amendments on the working of the Bill. Lords amendment 9 talks about a resolution having to be

“approved by each House of Parliament”.

That is fairly straightforward. The most unclear provisions relate to clause 7(4), stating that a number of parts of the Bill will have effect

“only until the first meeting of the… Parliament”,

which would then decide whether to bring those provisions in. The provisions on early elections and confidence votes would not be clear and it would not be clear how Parliament would be dissolved. The schedule, which has a number of consequential amendments, would also not be in force. The schedule, which repeals the Septennial Act and a whole load of other provisions, would effectively cease to be in force and, presumably, all the repeals and amendments would be unrepealed and unamended. We would then end up with a very complicated constitutional proposition.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Unless I misheard the Minister, he referred to clause 7(4) of the Bill. I cannot find a clause 7(4).

Mr Harper: I am looking at the copy of the Bill as amended on Report from the House of Lords, which does have a clause 7. It is the final provision clause. It is the bit that is dealt with by one of the Lords amendments that we are debating. I think that the amendment will be confusing. It will make many of our constitutional provisions unclear. I do not believe that those who tabled the amendments and voted for them in the other place have fully thought through how they would work in practice.

Another important issue is the relationship that would be created between this House and the other place if the amendments stay in the Bill. The importance of establishing the primacy of this House came out clearly in our debate on the Government’s proposals on House of Lords reform. The amendments would give the House and the other place the ability to vote on whether we have a fixed-term Parliament, without going through the normal legislative process. That could lead to an unfortunate scenario in which this House voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion that we have a fixed-term Parliament and that the provisions of the Bill, if passed, come into force, while the currently unelected House failed to vote for the motion, so we would not have a fixed-term Parliament. Important decisions about elections in this country, fixed-term Parliaments, the confidence procedures and the ability to trigger early general elections would effectively be made by the unelected House, and that would diminish the power of elected Members.

3.30 pm

Chris Bryant: The Minister’s example is completely wrong. If this House voted—on the basis of the Government’s and, therefore, the Prime Minister’s

13 July 2011 : Column 365

majority—for a fixed-term Parliament, and the other place did not vote for a fixed-term Parliament, whether there would be an early election would be in the hands of the Prime Minister. The will of this House would always have carried.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman confuses the will of the House and the will of the Prime Minister. The scenario that I set out stands. If the other place had chosen not to vote for fixed-term Parliaments, we would not have a fixed-term Parliament, despite this House having voted in favour, and that would give back to the Prime Minister the ability solely to decide whether there should be an election. We would have taken powers away from Members of this House who had voted, perhaps overwhelmingly, to ensure that the Bill was in force. We would have been thwarted by their lordships. Given the importance to Members of the primacy of this House, that effectively moves power in the opposite direction, which Members will find unwelcome.

Mr Cash: I appreciate that the Minister is a Minister of the Crown, but he would get into difficult territory if he suggested that the Prime Minister is a Prime Minister without the confidence of the House of Commons, which is more or less what he has just been saying.

Mr Harper: That is not what I said at all. My specific point is about the relative powers of the two Houses, but the point stands that if we do not have a fixed-term Parliament, we give back to the Prime Minister the power to call an early election. To repeat my example, the amendments would mean that both Houses must vote positively in favour of resurrecting the provisions of the Bill. I want the other place also to be elected—I know that my hon. Friend does not—but under the amendments the elected House, despite having voted by an overwhelming margin, could be thwarted by the unelected House, and the provisions of the Bill would not be in force. The will of the House of Commons, having said that it did not want the Prime Minister to have the power to call an early election, and that it wanted that power to be held by Members of this House, would have been thwarted by the other place. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not agree with that.

Mr Cash: I am grateful to the Minister for engaging in dialogue on this question, but the assumption, at any rate in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister, is that proposals for reform of the House of Lords will go through by the end of this Parliament. The arguments to which the Minister refers, therefore, will effectively expire when the arrangements for this fixed-year Parliament come to an end.

Mr Harper: I disagree with my hon. Friend. Even if we successfully push our proposals through in their current form, and we have the first set of such elections in 2015, most Members of the other place will still be unelected. Secondly, regardless of how many Members of the other place are elected, we are talking about primacy. Effectively, the amendments would move power away from this House to the other place. Whatever one’s views about House of Lords reform, I picked up clearly from our earlier debate that most Members of

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this place want it to be clear that this place has primacy over their lordships’ House. The amendments, perhaps inadvertently, would lead to a different situation.

Mr Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): Under the Bill, a large number of Members of the House must vote for a Dissolution. The person who decides whether there is a general election is, therefore, the Leader of the Opposition, because if the Government and the Opposition want a Dissolution, it happens. Under the amendments, the House of Lords would effectively be taking power away from the Leader of the Opposition, who would be in a position to provide the numbers for a Dissolution.

Mr Harper: I agree. The fact remains that we are taking powers away from this House and giving them to the other place. It has been clear to me from our earlier debates that that view is not widely shared in this House, and indeed, interestingly, it does not appear to be widely shared in the other place. As I observed from careful reading of the report of the debates there, many speakers were very concerned about the primacy of this House, which was good of them. They said that they did not want to damage it in any way. Plainly their support for the amendments was inadvertent; they may not have thought through the consequences fully. I therefore think it would be sensible for this House to disagree with their lordships, and to give them an opportunity to reconsider their decision and return the Bill to the form in which it left this House.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I recognise the strength of the Minister’s arguments. The effect of the amendments, surely, would be to leave us with not a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but a Fixable-term Parliaments Bill. We could get into a constitutional “fix” in trying to “fix” the term, with an elected Chamber voting one way and an—in all likelihood—still unelected Chamber voting another way. If that happened, what would be the default position?

Mr Harper: I agree. The hon. Gentleman has put it very well. Under the Bill as the Government want to see it—this House having disagreed with their lordships, and their lordships having accepted that the Bill should remain as it is—its provisions would be in force unless and until a future Parliament changed them. It would be this House that would determine whether an early election should take place if two thirds of Members, that is, a broad consensus, were in favour of it—which returns us to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone about what would happen if there were a general view that the state of the nation was such that there should be an early election—or if the Government no longer had the confidence of this House. The other place would have no role in that process at all, which I think is right.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if the amendments were in force there would be a “fix” in each Parliament: each Government would effectively be able to choose whether to have a fixed-term Parliament, because they could block the motion passed by this House. Worse, it would not be a choice that the Houses took at the start of a Parliament, because the amendments make no provision for that. At any point during the Parliament, the two Houses, if they passed the motion, could suddenly convert the Parliament to a fixed term. That would be

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likely to lead to the position described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, with people putting a fix in place to suit a particular short-term need.

Mark Durkan: Does any provision in the Lords amendments or the Bill specify or restrict who can table such a motion in either House, and when or how many times it could be tabled again if whoever tables it does not succeed on the first occasion?

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on it. The provisions are completely silent about that. They do not say who would table the motion, or whether the same question could be continually repeated.

The amendments are not very well drafted. I think that they are wrong in principle, because under the normal procedure legislation that is passed stays in force unless it is changed by a future Parliament, but even if we liked the concept of a sunset provision, such a provision ought to be much better drafted and much more effective. This House can choose only between accepting the amendments and disagreeing with them, and I think I have almost made my case that we should disagree with them.

It has been argued that we are trying to bind future Parliaments. That is not what we are trying to do at all. We are merely trying to re-establish the normal constitutional position. We are passing legislation which we hope will become the established position, but if a future Parliament, perhaps the next one, decides that the fixed-term Parliament experiment—an experiment that is common to many countries around the world—has not been successful and has not led to better government, it will be perfectly free to pass another piece of legislation that repeals these measures either in full or in part. We do not have an arrangement whereby we “sunset” every piece of legislation, and an incoming Government then find that the rules are unwritten and they can choose what those rules should be. That would not be a very sensible constitutional position.

Mr Cash: Without going into all the questions relating to judicial supremacy and the claims of ultimate authority by certain members of the judiciary, I am afraid to say that through this measure and a number of others the Government have opened the door to the possibility—indeed the likelihood, as Lord Bingham made clear—of certain members of the Supreme Court interpreting legislation in a way that suits their ultimate authority, as they claim it.

Mr Harper rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. We are straying quite a long way from the amendment. I am sure the Minister was about to point that out.

Mr Harper: I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend’s points are probably more relevant to the next group of amendments, when we will talk about adding some specific provisions to the Bill, so he might want to raise them then. If he does so, I shall be able to address them in an orderly way.

The Opposition supported the sunset provisions in the other place, and I anticipate that they will do so again today, so I want to point out why I think they

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would be wrong. Effectively, the sunset provisions drive a coach and horses through the principle of the Bill. On 24 November last year, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said:

“I want to reaffirm our commitment”

—the Labour party’s commitment—

“to fixed-term Parliaments. That means we have to lay down in statute that it is for the House, not the Prime Minister, to dissolve Parliament.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 328.]

I agree, but under these sunset provisions at the end of this Parliament we would give back to the Prime Minister the power to dissolve Parliament by seeking a Dissolution from Her Majesty the Queen. I do not think that that is in accordance with what the hon. Gentleman said then.

There are a number of other useful quotes. The Labour party manifesto of last year stated that

“we will legislate for Fixed Term Parliaments…We will let the people decide how to reform our institutions and our politics: changing the voting system and electing a second chamber to replace the House of Lords.”

I do not agree with the first, but I do agree with the second.

“But we will go further, introducing fixed-term parliaments”.

Furthermore, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said that a vote for Labour was a vote for fixed-term Parliaments.

I accept that Labour did not win the election, but it seems to me that if the hon. Member for Rhondda is going to carry out the spirit of that commitment, all the people who voted Labour at the last election will expect him to vote in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. If he does not agree to disagree with their lordships, he will not be carrying out that manifesto commitment.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I have not read the Conservative party manifesto recently, but so far as I remember it did not contain a commitment to fixed-term Parliaments. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman were to take his own advice, he would withdraw his support for the Bill.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman sets me up very nicely for my final quotation. In this Bill’s Second Reading debate—which took place a long time ago, on 13 September 2010, which goes to show that the Bill has enjoyed leisurely progress through both Houses with proper scrutiny in both Chambers—the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said:

“I have long been in favour of fixed terms. I could dig out correspondence I had with Margaret Thatcher in 1983 about fixed terms. The Labour party committed itself to fixed terms in the 1992 election. What typically happens—this is why I welcome the measure and why I wanted that commitment in our manifesto—is that parties in opposition that are in favour of fixed terms go off the boil on them when they come into government.”—[Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 645.]

Interestingly, we have done the opposite. We were not very keen on them in opposition, but we have become keener on them in government, and this was in our coalition agreement.

Mr Shepherd rose

Mr Charles Walker rose—

Mr Harper: My comments seem to have provoked interest. I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd).

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Mr Shepherd: I am startled by my hon. Friend’s line of argument. I did toil through our election manifesto, and I saw no pledge or undertaking at all to have a fixed-term Parliament, and least of all a fixed-term Parliament for five years, so what is his line of argument?

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend rightly says that we did not have a commitment to do this, but equally we had not promised not to do it. The case was made to us that there was a good case for fixed-term Parliaments, provision was made for them in the coalition agreement and we brought the measure before the House. When good arguments are made, wise Governments listen to them and introduce these very sensible measures. They do not contradict anything that we had in our manifesto. It is usual for Governments to introduce proposals that were not in their manifesto when sensible arguments are made for them. That is a perfectly sensible proposition.

3.45 pm

Mr Cash: I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will say that the sensible basis on which this amazing commitment has suddenly emerged is that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. So here we go again with the tail wagging the dog.

Mr Harper: I would not characterise the relationship like that at all. A good case was made, and on this particular issue the Prime Minister has demonstrated tremendous leadership. He is the first Prime Minister to give up the power—a power that was his personally—to seek a Dissolution from Her Majesty the Queen. That improves our arrangements, because we now know the date of the election and so for the last year of this Parliament we will not have the “will he, won’t he” proposition, where everyone is trying to second-guess when the election will be and people are arguing about when the best time is for the party or parties in government. That is an incredibly powerful step forward and it is very welcome.

Mr Charles Walker rose—

Mr Harper: I promised earlier to give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr Walker: The current system has served us pretty well for 350 years. The Minister cites other Parliaments around the world that have been established for perhaps 20 or 30 years at best. Perhaps they would be best advised to follow our example, as opposed to our following their example.

Mr Harper: As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I do not believe that the general public support the exercise that we go through in the run-up to the end of a Parliament, where we enter the “will he, won’t he” argument. We all know—this came out clearly in the debate in the other place from some who had been close to these decisions—that the decision that is taken, perfectly honourably, is about how best the Prime Minister can choose the date to maximise the chance of their party being re-elected. I simply do not think that that is a good basis on which the decision should be made, and I think that our approach is an improvement.

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Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I support the Minister’s point. Even if it is Parliaments around the world that are only 20 or 30 years old that have adopted fixed-term Parliaments, it is interesting that they did not adopt the system that we have here, despite its longevity. They probably saw the errors in our system and were not going to start from here when deciding how to run their parliamentary terms.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said, when this House decided to legislate to set up the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it did not think that it was right to have variable terms; it decided that it was sensible to have fixed terms. If this House thought that that was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us.

Let me finish by reading out the following quote from the right hon. Member for Blackburn. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central rightly says that I have already read out the quote, but I wanted to set out the conclusion that the Labour party should draw from it. The right hon. Gentleman said that

“parties in opposition that are in favour of fixed terms go off the boil on them when they come into government.” —[Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 645.]

The Labour party is in danger of doing the opposite. It is in danger of being committed to this proposition when it was in government and then going off the boil on it when in opposition. The party should reconsider. In the time before the House is asked to make a decision on this, I hope that the Labour party will decide that we should disagree with their lordships on this group of amendments.


Chris Bryant: I am afraid that the Minister did not impress me with his arguments. In particular, he referred to the fact that the Conservative manifesto did not contain anything about introducing fixed-term Parliaments and then said that when good arguments come along people should bow to them. As far as I can see, the only good argument that came along was that the Liberal Democrats would not support the Government unless there was a fixed-term Parliament element in the coalition agreement. So the only reason why we have this Bill, particularly in its current form, is because of the attempt to create the coalition and then to keep it going for five years.

The Minister then tried to tease me a little with the idea that the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), said that he wanted people who voted for Labour to be voting for fixed-term Parliaments. This amendment would allow us to vote in every Parliament for fixed-term Parliaments, so it gives more opportunities for people to vote for them, rather than fewer.

Mr Cash: Does the shadow Minister agree that the Bill has all the elements of an attempt to achieve a sort of permanent coalition arrangement? In fact, if one were to look at the current state of affairs, one might feel some sympathy for those on our side of the House who have found as a result of the mistakes that have been made by them and by others that they are now low in the polls and that the 56 seats that they won at the last general election might by all accounts be fewer than 20 if those opinion polls were to be believed.

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Chris Bryant: I think I agree with that, but I am not entirely sure. The bit I agreed with was in feeling sympathy for those on the Government side of the House.

The three amendments we are discussing come as a package. In essence, they are all there to do the same thing: to say that the present arrangements will remain, so that the coalition gets to hold itself together until 2015, but that after the next general election and at any subsequent creation of a new Parliament, unless other legislation is brought in, there would have to be a vote in both Houses for that system to remain in place. I shall come to the issue of both Houses in a moment.

Mr Harper rose

Chris Bryant: I was going to come to that matter in a few moments, but if the Minister wants me to come to it now I will of course give way.

Mr Harper: I wanted to question something the hon. Gentleman said. He says that at the start of each Parliament there would have to be such a motion, but that is not what the amendments say. They leave it completely open for that to happen at any point during the Parliament, and I think that would be deeply unsatisfactory.

Chris Bryant: The Minister is absolutely right. That was a small slip of mine and the vote could happen at any time. Any Government worth their salt would without a doubt table such a motion at the beginning of the Parliament so that there was clarity.

We should also know that Lords amendment 1 was not tabled by the Labour party. It was tabled by Lord Pannick with the support of Lady Boothroyd, Lord Butler and Lord Armstrong. Their arguments carried quite a lot of weight with the House—clearly, they carried enough weight to win the vote. Lord Pannick said when moving the amendment:

“The purpose of the amendments is to address the deep unease on all sides of the House, as expressed at Second Reading and in Committee, as to whether it is appropriate to confine the circumstances in which a general election may be called within a five-year term.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2011; Vol. 727, c. 822.]

There has been that level of discomfort and unease in this House, too, although it was more marked down the other end. Lord Pannick also referred to the “constitutional damage” that all this might create and called the whole Bill an “unhappy Bill”. I have some sympathy with him.

It is true that I have previously commented—and I stand by those comments—that the Labour party is committed to fixed-term Parliaments. However, we think the right way to introduce legislation on something as constitutionally significant as changing the way in which a general election is called is to engage in consultation with all the parties in this House before tabling a Bill and to introduce pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill. If the Minister had chosen to go down that route, he would have had a great deal of co-operation from Opposition Members and we would have ended up with a better piece of legislation. One issue that we might have been able to address in such circumstances is whether it is right to make the change through legislation or Standing Order, which might well have saved us from the danger of the question of calling a general election at any time being justiciable in the courts. Lord Pannick also made that point. He said that, as there had been no

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pre-legislative scrutiny, it was important that after a future general election there was an opportunity for each House to consider the matter again.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): One definition of “fix” is:

“To place securely; make stable or firm”.

Surely the Lords amendment does the reverse on two counts, in that it neither makes it the fixed position that there will be fixed-term Parliament nor sets in stone the time at which that decision would be taken by future Parliaments. What it creates is the opposite of “fixed”; it creates an insecure situation.

Chris Bryant: My contention and, I think, Lord Pannick’s contention is that this is a fix in a different way, because it is essentially rigging the constitution so as to make it possible for the coalition to remain in government until 2015—against the manifesto commitment.

Mark Durkan rose

Naomi Long rose—

Chris Bryant: Let me finish my point. Lord Pannick also cited the Constitution Committee in the House of Lords, which said: