13 Dec 2011 : Column 637

13 Dec 2011 : Column 637

House of Commons

Tuesday 13 December 2011

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

business before questions

London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Further consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 20 December (Standing Order No.20).

London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No.2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Second Readings opposed and deferred until Tuesday 20 December (Standing Order No.20).

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Coroners (Retirement Age)

1. Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): What assessment he has made of whether there should be a compulsory retirement age for coroners. [86094]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 requires a senior coroner, area coroner or assistant coroner to vacate office on reaching the age of 70. The Government intend to implement this provision as soon as is practicable, although the retirement age will not apply to those in post immediately before the change comes into effect.

Ian Swales: I thank the Minister for that answer. The Teesside coroner is used as a bad example nationally by charities such as Cardiac Risk in the Young and the Royal British Legion. It is led by 81-year-old Michael Sheffield. Will the Minister meet a delegation of local MPs to discuss how the performance of the Teesside service could be improved?

Mr Djanogly: I am happy to meet to discuss the Teesside service, but not the coroner per se. The Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor are aware of the concerns that have been expressed about the Teesside

13 Dec 2011 : Column 638

coroner and have asked the Office for Judicial Complaints to investigate. I cannot comment any further while that investigation is ongoing.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): The Secretary of State’s change of heart, perhaps encouraged by the other place, about the creation of a chief coroner is most welcome, and I look forward to hearing that a chief coroner has been appointed. However, there are still major concerns about the repeal of section 40 and other sections in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that provide for the new appeal process. I understand the Secretary of State’s concerns about costs, but all that bereaved families are looking for is a commitment to bring forward a proper appeal process. The Teesside coroner is a very good example of the fact that the current system of judicial appeal is time consuming, costly and damaging. Will the Minister reconsider the decision about the appeal process?

Mr Djanogly: We take the view that it is better to focus on raising the standards of coroners’ inquiries and inquests to ensure that bereaved families are satisfied with the process without the need for new appeal rights and the resulting expensive litigation.

Vulnerable People

2. Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to ensure access to justice for vulnerable people. [86095]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Access to justice is a wide concept, encompassing general advice provision, access to courts, as well as privately and publicly funded advice and representation. In respect of legal aid, the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill are designed to ensure that resources are targeted at the most serious cases, in which public funding is justified, protecting fundamental rights to access to justice.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I thank the Minister for that answer.

“The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill will have a damaging effect on access unless substantial amendments are made in the House of Lords.”

Those are not my words, but those of the esteemed Cross Bencher, Lord Pannick. Is the Secretary of State concerned by the opposition shown by Lord Pannick and others—especially given the enormous time pressure on business in the other place—and will he therefore save considerable time and effort by announcing now to the House his intention to reverse his damaging proposals on legal aid, which risk undermining access to justice for the most vulnerable?

Mr Djanogly: We do recognise that there is a need to provide a suitable level of protection for the most vulnerable. Reforms will ensure that legal aid is targeted at those who need it most, for the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. Areas that remain in scope, such as domestic violence, asylum, property repossession and protecting children, demonstrate our commitment to that.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 639

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker—I shall be brief. Is not one of the most important aspects of access to justice the time it takes to get a decision? Are there not still too many unnecessary adjournments in our court process, and what is the Minister doing about that?

Mr Djanogly: With my honourable colleagues on the criminal side of the Department, I am looking at many areas in which to speed up court processes. Indeed, the speed of the magistrates court process has increased dramatically since we came into power.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): That is all well and good but what the Minister does not say is that people who need debt, welfare benefit or housing advice will now be out of scope, as he well knows, and that that will have a knock-on cost. This is simply short-termism. On the definition of domestic violence, he also knows that far more people will be litigating in person, which will also be a waste of money.

Mr Djanogly: I must put the right hon. Gentleman right: we are not ending debt advice or advice in some of the other areas he mentioned. In fact, we will still be spending some £50 million on social welfare advice.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Fifty-three peers of the 54 who spoke in the House of Lords on Second Reading of the Government’s flagship Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill expressed their worries about the Bill. They came from both sides of the political spectrum and many were among the country’s leading experts. Unlike their Liberal Democrat and Conservative counterparts in the House of Commons, they are not Whips’ fodder and will not be bought off by platitudes or the offer of jobs in government. What plans does the Minister have to address the concerns that they raised, or will there be no change from the Bill that left this House?

Mr Djanogly: The right hon. Gentleman mentions the fact that the Bill is currently going through the other place and will shortly head to Committee. Of course, the Government, being a listening Government, and the Ministry of Justice, being a listening Ministry, will take onboard the concerns of noble Members in the other place and act accordingly.

Victims’ Commissioner

3. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): When he expects to appoint a new Victims’ Commissioner. [86096]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I am extremely grateful to Louise Casey for the work she did as Victims’ Commissioner and the advice that I received from her while she was in office. We are considering the future of the role and intend to make an announcement in due course.

Chi Onwurah: In 2005, teenager Jenny Nicholl was murdered. Her murderer was convicted in 2008 but her body has never been found. Her mother, a constituent of mine, tells me that she received little support while suffering aggressive media intrusion and insinuations.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 640

Murder victims’ families have no formal status in court, are offered no protection from the media and, on average, incur costs of £113,000. Mrs Nicholl found the Victims’ Commissioner a strong supporter and champion. To whom should she turn now?

Mr Clarke: When Louise Casey was Victims’ Commissioner, she advised me strongly on giving more resources to the support of bereaved families, and I thought that her advice that we should target our support to victims and their families was very sensible. We are working on that and will continue to do so. I propose to publish a consultation document on a general victims package covering a wide range of areas, and I can assure the hon. Lady that in all our work we intend to give even greater emphasis to the importance of looking after victims, as well as getting justice in their cases.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The outgoing Victims’ Commissioner, Louise Casey, referred specifically to the needs of children as witnesses and victims in the criminal justice system. How will the Justice Secretary work with the new Victims’ Commissioner to ensure that proper protections are given to vulnerable children in that situation?

Mr Clarke: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do that. We have made great progress in this country in recent years, including under the previous Government, on giving proper support to witnesses who have to appear in court. Obviously, it is most important to look after the most vulnerable witnesses, including children, who can be intimidated by the experience. We are looking at what we have in place now, and we hope to strengthen the arrangements.

Drug Use (Prisons)

4. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What steps he is taking to tackle first-time drug users in prisons; and if he will make a statement. [86097]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Drug misuse in prisons has declined by 71% since the introduction of mandatory drug testing in 1996. The latest results from the surveying prisoner crime reduction study suggest that 7% to 8% of prisoners had their fist use of heroin in custody, while 81% had used drugs in the year before custody. The steps to tackle drug use include drug-free wings and drug-recovery wings; procuring a networked intelligence system; a comprehensive corruption-prevention strategy; new technology to tackle the availability of drugs and phones in prisons; and building on existing prison security measures.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for that answer, but the fact that any prisoners first try heroin while in prison is shocking. The very concept of “drug-free wings” shows just how bad the situation has become. Will he undertake a thorough review of the supply routes by which drugs are getting into prisons—via visitors, staff or the mail system—and act to cut them off, so that all our prisons can be drug-free?

Mr Blunt: The hon. Lady is right, although the position has been historically improving over the past 16 years or so, and one should remember that prisons

13 Dec 2011 : Column 641

are mini-communities, with a high volume of legitimate communication with, and access to, the outside world. Prisons cannot be hermetically sealed, and she drew attention to the many different routes through which drugs are smuggled. However, we of course examine all the routes into prison, and act to interdict and address them with the resources available to us, including new technology.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): The Minister will know that funding for drug treatment in prisons under the Labour Government rose by 15 times, to £112 million in the year they left office. Will he guarantee that that resource will be maintained throughout the spending review? Will he also tell us how many body orifice scanners are now in place, following the Labour Government’s commitment to put one in every prison?

Mr Blunt: I hope that it will be of some comfort to the right hon. Gentleman to know that that budget is now the responsibility of the Department of Health. As it is not under the same financial constraints as the Ministry of Justice—we are having to play our part in addressing the economic mess that we inherited from the last Administration—that budget will be sustained.


5. Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with representatives of employers and training organisations to develop his policy on rehabilitation. [86098]

9. Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): What recent representations he has received on promoting links between employers and prisons for the purposes of improving skills among prisoners and increasing employment opportunities on release. [86103]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Promoting links with employers and business is central to our plans to make prisoners work and improve rehabilitation. We have established a business advisory group, which meets regularly to advise Ministers and officials on how to increase both work in prisons and private sector involvement.

Nick de Bois: Will the Minister extend the good practice shown by the National Grid young offender programme? About 1,000 graduates from the scheme have been released from prison into real jobs, which has led to single-figure reoffending rates.

Nick Herbert: I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for that programme. The National Grid young offender programme is a really good model of effective engagement with the private sector. I would particularly commend Dr Mary Harris, its director, who has driven it energetically. The programme has recently been extended to two prisons in Wales and one in the west midlands, and we would like to do more with it.

Margot James: It is well known that employment is the most significant determinant of effective rehabilitation. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to incentivise Jobcentre Plus, Work programme

13 Dec 2011 : Column 642

providers, further education colleges and local employers to get involved and maximise the number of job opportunities available to ex-offenders?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Finding a job on release plays a significant part in reducing the reoffending of prisoners. That is why we have worked with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that prisoners being released who are eligible for jobseeker’s allowance will be mandated immediately on to the Work programme. We are also re-commissioning learning and skills in prisons. One of the main objectives is to ensure that learning focuses far more on employability, and our employers forum will encourage employers of all sizes.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): A constituent of mine aged 60 was offered a job recently as a handyman in a care home and his Criminal Records Bureau check was called for. It showed that he stole a bag of coal in 1983, 28 years ago, and the job offer was withdrawn. I would allege that this had no relevance at all to the job that he was offered, so will the Government look again at the use of CRB checks?

Nick Herbert: We are reviewing the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. We have to strike the right balance between protecting the public and ensuring that those whom we want to resettle in society and get the right kind of work are able to do so.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): Earlier today I visited Bronzefield women’s prison in Surrey with my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman). We observed a financial literacy course run by Principles in Finance. What plans does the Minister have to increase the amount of financial training available in prisons, given the link between debt and reoffending?

Nick Herbert: I mentioned that we have re-commissioned the provision for skills with a focus on employability. That must be the right approach. It is important to address the causes of offending to establish whether this is one of them and to ensure that we have proper programmes of rehabilitation in prison that will support people on their release to enter the world of work and responsibility.

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): Does the Minister agree that literacy is a key part of any rehabilitation strategy? Will he update us on what the Government are doing to tackle poor literacy, not only to help the future employment opportunities of those convicted, but to increase the prospects for work within prisons to be meaningful and transformative?

Nick Herbert: Again, this is an area where we seek to improve provision. There is, of course, a role here for the state, but, as I mentioned last time, there is a role for voluntary groups as well. I mentioned the excellent Toe By Toe scheme, which uses former offenders or prisoners to encourage literacy and to teach skills to others. There is a very high correlation between illiteracy and the learning difficulties of prisoners in our jails. We need to address those issues if prisoners are to have a chance of not reoffending on release.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 643

Probation Services

6. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): When he expects to announce his proposals on the reform of probation services. [86099]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): The first stage of our work to look at the future of probation services in England and Wales is nearing completion. This work requires careful consideration and has been taken forward with valuable input from trusts and other key probation stakeholders. For example, I met Probation Association chiefs last week and this morning I had meetings with the probation trade unions. We expect to announce our probation reform proposals alongside those for community sentences early in the new year, and we will then consult widely.

Kelvin Hopkins: Given that probation staff are experiencing major cuts in their budgets, will the Minister explain how he expects them to do more with less? Are not Government policies going to cause serious damage to the probation service?

Mr Blunt: No, Government policies are going to improve the probation service. If the hon. Gentleman looked at the probation budget, he would see that the position of probation has been substantially protected relative to the demands being placed on the overall budget of the Ministry of Justice.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What is the Minister doing to make sure that probation officers’ work with prisoners is not undermined by prisoners being moved from prison to prison for no very good reason or for entirely administrative reasons?

Mr Blunt: We are trying to give the notion of prison clusters much greater prominence. The right hon. Gentleman will have seen that the OLASS—Offender Learning and Skills Service—review presages a situation in which prison clusters would procure education and skills training, and that should reflect the prisoner journey. We want to have a prison estate that is not under the enormous pressure it is under now—due to the terrible situation we inherited—so that we can get prisoner journeys from local prisons through to resettlement prisons, while both getting support from offender management and delivering programmes.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Justice Ministers give every impression of treating their Department as a policy adventure playground in which constant experiments in rhetoric lead to predictable U-turns and confusion. The probation service supervises some of the most dangerous individuals in our community and uncertainty now grows in this service, too, as the Minister decides whether to privatise all probation functions or just some of them. Does he consider any probation service functions, such as court reports, to be unsuitable for privatisation?

Mr Blunt: I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to contain her impatience until we make a comprehensive statement—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for

13 Dec 2011 : Column 644

Tooting (Sadiq Khan) intervenes from a sedentary position, but a proper statement will be made to this House early in the new year.

Victim Support

7. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to support victims. [86101]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): In the current financial year, the Ministry of Justice is providing funding of approximately £50 million to voluntary sector organisations that support victims of crime. We intend to launch a consultation soon on proposals that will ensure that victims of crime are supported in the best way possible.

Jessica Morden: The anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai was on 26 November. In 2010 the innocent victims of overseas terrorism were led to believe that they would receive compensation, but they are still waiting. What is the Secretary of State doing to resolve the matter?

Mr Clarke: I will make announcements on what we propose to do for the victims of terrorism when we produce our package on victim support generally. We will certainly produce a package, and we will respect the previous Government’s proposal of an interim award for those injured in incidents such as that in Mumbai.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): Delays to cases caused by defendants not appearing in court can be very distressing for victims. What guidance is given to the court to continue with the trial in the absence of the defendant?

Mr Clarke: This is the second reference in questions to delays in court, which cause immense inconvenience and sometimes considerable distress to witnesses and others, as well as to the victims of crime. We are looking urgently at how to improve the efficiency of the system and how best to proceed if people fail to co-operate. It is always possible to proceed with a trial in the absence of the defendant, but only once the judge is satisfied that the interests of justice will not be prejudiced. There is no point in starting a trial only for it to have to be started a week or two later when it is challenged.

Commercial Rent Collections

8. Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): What steps he is taking to reform the role of bailiffs in commercial rent collections and repossessions; and if he will make a statement. [86102]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government have given a commitment to provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs. Although there are no plans to reform the role of bailiffs in repossessions, the Government are considering replacing the existing common law right for a landlord to distrain for arrears of rent with a modified out-of- court regime for recovering rent of commercial premises. We will announce details of a full public consultation in due course.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 645

Mike Freer: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he confirm that the consultation will include representatives of landlords and not just those of tenants?

Mr Djanogly: Of course. It is vital that we ensure that our proposals for transforming bailiff action do not impose unreasonable burdens on business. To that end, we are undertaking further work to explore all the regulatory and non-regulatory options available.

Magistrates Court Trials (Merseyside)

10. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): How many trials in magistrates courts in Merseyside were abandoned or deferred due to the non-appearance of either defendants or witnesses in the last year for which figures are available; and if he will make a statement. [86105]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): In the last 12 months—from July 2010 to June 2011—for which data are available, there were a total of 5,239 trials in magistrates courts in Merseyside. Of those, 615, or 12%, did not go ahead on the day due to the absence of a witness, while 151—3%—did not go ahead due to the absence of a defendant.

John Pugh: In recognising the problem, does the Minister think that it will be made worse by the closure of magistrates courts in places such as Southport, and will he monitor the situation?

Mr Djanogly: We are certainly monitoring the situation, and I do so virtually on a weekly basis. Since 2009, until closure, Southport courts sat on three days per week. The court utilisation figure prior to consultation on closure was 33%. Since the work was transferred to Bootle courts, the utilisation level of Bootle has increased from 49% to 68% for the month of October 2011.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP) rose—

Mr Speaker: Ulster is a little way away, but I am sure that it is not beyond the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman to relate his supplementary to Merseyside.

Dr McCrea: Absolutely, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister tell us whether any figures are available on the cost to industry and individuals in Merseyside, when witnesses attend court proceedings only to be told later in the day that they can go home because the proceedings cannot go ahead?

Mr Djanogly: I cannot do so off the top of my head, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. There might be good reasons for such occurrences, such as someone entering a guilty plea, as well as bad reasons. The situation is complicated.

Legal Aid

11. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the potential effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. [86106]

13 Dec 2011 : Column 646

18. Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): What assessment his Department has made of the potential effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. [86115]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government published an equality impact assessment alongside our response to consultation, which laid out the best assessment of the effects on women of planned changes to legal aid. That recognised the potential for the reforms to impact on a greater proportion of women, alongside others featuring protected characteristics.

Karl Turner: There have been reports in the media that the Deputy Prime Minister is to announce a consultation on the definition of domestic violence. Will the Minister explain how it accords with the narrow definition in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which will exclude many women from the legal support that they need and will, I believe, put a number of them at serious risk?

Mr Djanogly: As the hon. Gentleman says, there is to be a consultation on domestic violence, although I believe that it will be undertaken by the Home Office rather than the Deputy Prime Minister. We will look carefully at the results of the consultation, but the definition of abuse in the Bill is broad and comprehensive, and includes mental as well as physical abuse.

Kate Green: What steps is the Minister taking to protect women who are victims of domestic violence from the risk of aggressive and unfair questioning in the courts by abusive partners, given the likelihood of an increase in the number of litigants appearing in person as a result of the legal aid cuts?

Mr Djanogly: I believe that some 50% of respondents are currently not represented through legal aid. As a consequence, the circumstances that the hon. Lady describes are common in our courts, and our judiciary are expert and accustomed to dealing with them when they arise.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Most women, in particular, depend on legal aid cases when starting out in practice. As a non-practising advocate, may I ask my hon. Friend whether the changes will affect the number of women entering the profession, and whether it is likely that the early stages of legal aid cases will be replaced by mediation?

Mr Djanogly: We are certainly promoting mediation as an alternative to court. That is always to be recommended when it is appropriate, which I admit is not always the case. The impact on providers in terms of their sex varies according to the nature of the organisations involved and the nature of the work being undertaken, but there is no real difference between the impacts on male and female solicitor providers of either civil or criminal legal aid services.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Did the impact assessment also cover the potential effect of the legal aid changes on men?

13 Dec 2011 : Column 647

Mr Djanogly: By implication, yes.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The press were, of course, briefed on the domestic violence review before the House was. It was clearly stated at the weekend that the Deputy Prime Minister would undertake it, but perhaps he cannot be found now, which is why the Home Office will be in charge.

If the purpose of the review is to broaden the ambit of what constitutes domestic violence, why are the Department and the Secretary of State narrowing not just the definition but the evidential criteria, so that whether a woman is supported by a GP or hospital doctor or by a refuge, she will no longer be able to obtain legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: We have no intention of narrowing the definition, and we do not believe that the definition in the Bill does that. I can say, however, that our policy is to end legal aid for most private family law applications relating to, for instance, divorce, ancillary relief and child contact. The main exception is legal aid in domestic violence cases, which we are anxious to retain.

Health and Safety

12. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the level of compliance by local authorities with the requirements of his Department on health and safety in cemeteries. [86107]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): Responsibility for health and safety in local authority cemeteries lies with the relevant council. The Department published guidance on the safety of burial ground memorials in 2009 and burial authorities have been encouraged to take account of it, but there are no plans to initiate individual assessments of compliance.

John Mann: The Minister says that there are “no plans”. Luckily, the new administration in Bassetlaw council has dug up the stakes that were put in by the last Conservative administration, at huge cost to the taxpayer. Why are the Government not sorting out the abuse of a change in the regulations that was made in 2009? Local authorities across the country are still doing nothing about it, much to the disgust of those who visit cemeteries.

Mr Djanogly: The hon. Gentleman’s expertise in this area is renowned, so perhaps I can write to him on the specifics of the cemetery in his constituency. I just point out to him that the Ministry of Justice has no responsibility for health and safety in local authority cemeteries.

Disability Hate Crime

13. Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): If he will bring forward proposals to extend the power of the Attorney-General to refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal for crimes aggravated by hostility towards disabled people. [86108]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): We have no plans to extend the Attorney-General’s powers in this field at present. However, as my hon. Friend will be aware, we are considering this

13 Dec 2011 : Column 648

issue carefully in formulating our response to the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into disability-related harassment.

Mr Buckland: More work needs to be done to ensure that existing provisions allowing for longer sentences where offences are aggravated by disability hate are applied consistently. Would extending the Attorney-General’s powers of reference not help to establish greater consistency in sentencing?

Mr Clarke: I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important area, because it is a particularly nasty element of crime when violence or something of that kind is provoked by hostility to a disabled person because of their disability. Sentencing guidelines already provide that this is an aggravating feature when someone is sentenced. Of course, if the Attorney-General uses his existing powers to appeal a lenient sentence, he can include cases where disability is a feature, for example, in an assault occasioning grievous bodily harm or something of that kind. But we are looking at the point again at the moment and I will bear my hon. Friend’s comments in mind.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): Will the Justice Secretary consider introducing offences on disability hate crime and other hate crime, including incitement, along the lines of the legislation that rightly exists on racially aggravated crime?

Mr Clarke: That is an option. Of course, as I say, offences provoked by prejudice against disabled people are regarded as hate crimes and this is an aggravating feature in sentences, but we are examining the whole area. We have to make sure that we do not overcomplicate sentencing, because if we keep thinking of things that make the most serious offences even more serious, we threaten the consistency that has been described. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point and we are reviewing this field in the light of the report we have received.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): Will the Secretary of State examine the possibility of extending the concept of disability hate crime to include disability by association, thereby bringing the concept into line with the other measures in the Equality Act 2010? If he does not do that, cases such as that of Fiona Pilkington will not count as disability hate crime as she herself was not disabled.

Mr Clarke: I shall consider that point in the course of the work we are doing at the moment, but I do not want to encourage my hon. Friend too far because overcomplicating this does not necessarily help. What is important is that sentences should be allowed to reflect, in the most appropriate and consistent way, the disgust that the ordinary public feel when a crime is motivated by prejudice against a disabled person. It does make a crime even more serious than it would otherwise be.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I agree with a lot of what the Secretary of State says, but not with his claim that this move would overcomplicate things. One single principle underpins all hate crime: the principle of intent. If that principle applies in respect

13 Dec 2011 : Column 649

of one group, does it not apply in respect of other groups, for example, racial groups or the victims of homophobic crime?

Mr Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that the intent of the offender makes for a particularly unpleasant version of whatever crime it is we are talking about. I will certainly consider the hon. Gentleman’s points, just as I have said I will those made by other hon. Members, in the course of seeing whether the law needs any further improvement, but I think that sentences do already reflect the fact that it is a serious aggravating feature of crime if prejudice against disabled people is involved.

Court Proceedings (Broadcasting)

14. Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): What plans he has to permit the broadcasting of court proceedings. [86110]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I am very clear that we must not allow our courts to become theatre; filming will be of judges’ remarks only. Victims, witnesseswait a minute, wrong answer!

We are planning to legislate, as soon as parliamentary time allows, to remove the ban on cameras in courts, subject to certain safeguards, and we are working closely with the Lord Chief Justice on achieving this. Initially, we will allow judgments in the Court of Appeal to be broadcast for the first time, and will expand this to the Crown court in due course. We will not allow filming of juries, victims and witnesses under any circumstances.

If any supplementary question should resemble the point I have just replied to, I assure you, Mr Speaker, that I will use my own words in replying to it.

Christopher Pincher: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for both answers. I quite agree with him that justice, if it is to be seen to be done, must not be seen to be fun. Will he say how he intends to safeguard court officials and lawyers from unwanted attention?

Mr Clarke: I share all my hon. Friend’s reservations about going too far. The judge, when he gives a sentence or a judgment, is a public official performing a public function; his words can be quoted, he will be reported and there is no real reason why he should not be filmed. The other people involved, I think, need to be protected because, otherwise the whole nature of the proceedings will be changed, some people will be intimidated and some people’s behaviour will be affected.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I note that the Justice Secretary said that the words he used earlier were not his own, whereas these now are.

One thing that really upsets victims is when the defence lawyer, having already admitted guilt on behalf of his client and going to mitigating circumstances, suddenly launches into a major attack on the victim of the crime, thereby, I believe, abusing privilege. Will the Justice Secretary ensure that that is not available for public consumption?

13 Dec 2011 : Column 650

Mr Clarke: If taken too far, that can be stopped. Of course the lawyer is entitled to put forward mitigation for his client after the plea, but I strongly disapprove, and I am glad the hon. Gentleman would too, of any attempt for this to be used for people to make allegations against the victims, for the defendant to make a theatrical display in the witness box, for the jurors’ reactions to evidence to be filmed or anything of that kind. We are talking about the judgments and what is said as part of his official duties by the judge and, at this stage, I am not contemplating going any further.

Prison Places

15. David Wright (Telford) (Lab): What arrangements his Department has in place to manage any shortfall of prison places. [86111]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): On Friday 9 December, the prison population was 88,070 against a capacity of 89,413 places, providing headroom of 1,343 places. There are sufficient places for those being remanded and sentenced to custody. We keep the prison population under careful review to ensure that there is always sufficient capacity to accommodate all those committed to custody by the courts.

David Wright: Under Labour, we saw 27,000 more places provided in prisons and a modernisation of the prison estate. According to the Department’s own figures, it looks as though the prison population will rise to somewhere around 95,000 over the next six years. Is it not a simple fact that the Government are not building enough prisons?

Mr Blunt: I recognise the figure of 96,000 as the projected prison population that we inherited on coming into office. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, changes that this House has endorsed through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is now in another place, will have an effect on that. In the end, all these numbers are estimates because it is our job to incarcerate those sent into custody by the courts. We will continue to do that, despite the evident frustration of the Opposition that we appear to be managing it rather more satisfactorily than they did.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May I tell the Minister not to be ashamed of sending more criminals to prison? In fact, my constituents will judge him on the basis that more criminals are sent to prison, not on more criminals being released from prison.

Mr Blunt: I hope that my hon. Friend will ultimately judge us on the effect we have both on crime and reoffending figures. When people are in the justice system, the effect on them should be when they leave it they are less likely to offend than when they came in.

Restorative Justice

16. Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): What plans he has to use restorative justice to divert more children and young people away from the criminal justice system. [86113]

13 Dec 2011 : Column 651

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The proper goal should be to divert people from crime. When offending takes place, the criminal justice system should respond effectively, and we are keen to promote restorative justice to deliver better outcomes.

Caroline Lucas: I thank the Minister, but the issue is that the Government’s approaches to restorative justice for children are embedded in the youth justice system so they deal with children only once they are inside that system. Why are the Government not investing in diverting young people from the criminal justice system, for example by rolling out the very successful youth restorative disposal pilots?

Nick Herbert: We certainly want to make more use of restorative disposals, which can be valuable. They give greater victim satisfaction when the victim consents, and they can reduce reoffending. We have plans to announce more in relation to our neighbourhood justice proposals, which we will say more about at the beginning of next year. There have been many expressions of interest in that. The goal of the criminal justice system should be to deal with offending when it has taken place. I disagree with the contention that we should be diverting offenders from the criminal justice system. We should be diverting people from crime.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The police in Kettering spend a great deal of time checking compliance with overnight curfews issued to repeat juvenile offenders. This could be solved by tagging those people, but local magistrates tell the police that they are prevented from doing that by sentencing guidelines. Will the Minister go away and have a look at those guidelines?

Nick Herbert: Yes, I am happy to go away and look at them.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does the Minister think that restorative justice and guiding people away from the criminal justice system would be a more appropriate way of dealing with the minority of young people who were peripherally involved in disturbances last August, rather than the large number of long sentences that have been handed out to them, with all the obvious consequences for them?

Nick Herbert: We do not see restorative justice as an alternative to the criminal justice system; we want to see it embedded in that system. The idea of offenders making amends to victims is a good one, but we have to remember that the figures show that three quarters of those brought before the courts in relation to the riots had previous convictions and that a quarter of them had been in prison before. Perhaps people were caught up in those riots, but a great number of those involved had been in trouble with the law before and we should remember that.

Road Accident Victims

17. Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): What recent representations he has received on securing justice for victims of road accidents. [86114]

13 Dec 2011 : Column 652

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): Following calls from road safety groups, victims and their families and from right hon. and hon. Members, we have added a new offence of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, which is subject to a five-year maximum prison sentence, to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently being considered in another place. Since then, we have not received any further representations.

Simon Wright: I thank the Minister for his response and welcome the measures he is taking. Does he agree that in order effectively to deliver justice to victims of road accidents, we need sentencing powers that reasonably and consistently reflect the too often appalling consequences of driving offences?

Mr Blunt: I agree with my hon. Friend and no doubt that is why the House agreed to add that measure to the Bill.

Probation Services

19. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): When he expects to announce his proposals on the reform of probation services. [86116]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave earlier to the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins).

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I am sure the Minister is aware that Durham Tees Valley probation trust has been assessed as the top-performing trust by the probation trust rating scheme. Indeed, it was considered to be exceptional. What guarantee will he give that the reform of probation services will enable the good practice from Durham Tees Valley to be rolled out across the country and enable its front-line services to be protected?

Mr Blunt: Perhaps it is not a complete coincidence that Mr Sebert Cox, the chairman of the Probation Association, is also the chairman of the Durham Tees Valley probation trust. I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with him last week. Like the hon. Member for Luton North, the hon. Lady will have to contain herself until we come forward with our proposals early in the new year.

Topical Questions

T1. [86120] Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): I recently launched a consultation on improving judicial diversity and appointments. The proposals include the following measures: first, looking to prefer the candidate from an under-represented background where candidates are essentially indistinguishable on merit; secondly, limiting fee-paid judges to three five-year terms; and, thirdly, introducing flexible working for the senior judiciary. Our aim is to deliver a judiciary that is reflective of our society, in which public confidence is enhanced and which retains its world-class quality.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 653

Kelvin Hopkins: Given the recent mess that the Mayor of London made by using incorrect reoffending statistics, how can we be sure of the impact of payment-by-results models for probation if reoffending statistics are so unreliable?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): The hon. Gentleman is being a little harsh on the Mayor of London, who is a keen supporter, as am I, of the Heron unit in Feltham, to which he was referring, which does extremely good work. The hon. Gentleman is right to underline the importance of getting proper research and analysis to inform payment by results so that we in the Ministry of Justice and the taxpayer end up paying for outputs that deliver and not simply for inputs, which is how the position has been characterised in the past.

T2. [86122] Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Last month my right hon. and learned Friend prioritised the reform of the European Court of Human Rights during our chairmanship of the Council of Europe. Will he update the House on the steps that the Government are taking to restrain the Court’s influence over laws and customs that are properly the affair of member states?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: We have had the chairmanship of the Council of Europe since 7 November, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have been seeking to move forward our agenda of reforming the Court in due course. Indeed, I will be lobbying two more Ministers tomorrow at a meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council. We are seeking to get the Court to concentrate on the most important cases which require some international jurisdiction to get rid of the huge arrears of cases clogging it up at the moment, most of which are inadmissible, and to make sure that the national courts and national Parliaments discharge their primary duty of delivering the convention.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Perhaps the Justice Secretary will advise his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary not to walk out of those talks while he is chairing them, if he does not get what he wants in the first few weeks. The Justice Secretary will be aware that the number of prison places is now just below 90,000. It has gone up over the past 18 months as a consequence of doubling up prisoners in prison cells and as the previous Government’s investment in capital programmes comes on stream. At the last Justice questions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman refused to answer my simple question about whether he thought prisoner numbers would go up, go down or stay the same, which is crucial for planning. He said that anybody who tried to predict prisoner numbers was “an idiot”. May I ask him another simple question? Perhaps he will rest the bluster and answer the question. Is he making plans for the usable operational capacity to go up, go down or stay the same during this Parliament?

Mr Clarke: The right hon. Gentleman’s remarks might best be addressed to Ministers in the previous Government, who obviously made some errors somewhere when they found that they had to release 80,000 prisoners before they had completed their sentence because they had no room for them on the prison estate. We are maintaining capacity to meet whatever demand we face from the courts. What I said last time, from which the right hon.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 654

Gentleman took the slightest extract, was that we respond to the decisions of the courts, we respond to the level of crime, and at present we have managed—[Hon. Members: “Have the numbers gone up or down?”] They have gone up. It is possible that with the prolonged recession and the long period of youth unemployment, there will be an increase in acquisitive crime. If that is the experience that we have in this country, we are responding to that. The Prison Service is responding very well to it at the moment, though of course we have to adjust the capacity of the estate.

Sadiq Khan: One way of reducing cost to the British taxpayer and at the same time increasing prison places is by removing the thousands of foreign prisoners in British prisons. May I refer to the European Union and events last week? Last week the European Union framework directive on prisoner transfers, negotiated and signed by the Labour Government, who stayed in the room and argued for our national interest and got a good agreement, came into force. Fifty prisoner transfer agreements with other nations were also negotiated by the last Government. When will the Justice Secretary be able to negotiate successfully this Government’s first prisoner transfer agreement, and how many nations does he expect the Government to sign agreements with during this Parliament, or is it the case that in addition to failing to repatriate any powers from Europe, this Government will fail to repatriate any foreign prisoners from this country?

Mr Clarke: Again, under the last Government the number of foreign prisoners in our jails soared until the Government eventually managed to stabilise it. We are maintaining roughly the same level of deportation of foreign prisoners who complete their sentence as was maintained under the previous Government. The new European arrangements have come into force, but not many states are yet ready to implement them. We are ready to implement them and they will provide some help. We are of course seeking to negotiate agreements with other Governments, but it requires the other Governments to be willing to undertake an obligation to take prisoners repatriated from this country.

T3. [86123] Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): I am sure that we all welcome efforts to help reformed offenders back into work so that they can make a positive contribution to society, but one major barrier will always be the perception that employers hold of offenders. What changes does the Minister plan to make to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 2010 to overcome that barrier? As part of the process, will he also look at reducing the number of professions that are exempt from the disclosure limits on sentences?

Mr Clarke: We propose to make changes to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in order to make some offences spent earlier and to ensure that those who really have put their convictions behind them are not inhibited in getting fresh employment by having to disclose them. That is, I know, a Liberal Democrat enthusiasm, and my noble Friend Lord McNally will introduce amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, currently in the House of Lords, very shortly, setting out the details of what we propose.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 655

T6. [86126] Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): The Justice Secretary will be aware that last Saturday was international human rights day. What is he doing to dispel the myths and misconceptions about the functioning of our Human Rights Act 1998?

Mr Clarke: I think there have been one or two colourful occasions when I have helped to dispel some of the misconceptions about the Human Rights Act, but I of course await the advice of the commission, which the Government have set up to advise us on those matters, so that we can decide whether a better way of complying with our obligations under the convention might be a Bill of Rights rather than the Human Rights Act. But there is no doubt: this Government will seek to abide by their full obligations under the convention on human rights.

T4. [86124] Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), will join me in paying tribute to the work of the citizens advice bureau in Amber Valley. What progress has he made in his discussions with the Cabinet Office to secure future funding for such centres?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Cabinet Office is working on two fronts: first, in relation to an immediate payment to not-for-profit organisations; and, secondly, in relation to a longer-term proposal to look at transitional arrangements for those bodies. The MOJ supports both.

T8. [86128] Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): How many EU foreign nationals currently in English and Welsh prisons does the Secretary of State expect to be repatriated to their country of origin in the next 12 months?

Mr Blunt rose

Sadiq Khan: Give us a figure.

Mr Blunt: The hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend may intervene from the Front Bench, but of course it is not possible to give a precise figure. The answer is that it will be as many as we can administratively deliver, and that it has to be done in co-operation with the receiving countries.

T5. [86125] Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Given that murder is a crime different from any other, does the Secretary of State agree that the only appropriate punishment for the crime of murder is, indeed, a life sentence?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: The Government have no intention of reopening that question at the moment, and the vast majority of Members would not contemplate changing the current arrangements, as my hon. Friend has described.

Mr Speaker: Order. May I ask the Secretary of State to face the House? We all want to be the beneficiaries of his eloquence.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): What action does the Justice Secretary intend to take against offenders who receive a community sentence

13 Dec 2011 : Column 656

instead of a prison sentence and then use social media to boast that they have “got away with it”? I am thinking in particular of comments posted on Facebook yesterday by Ryan Girdlestone, who mocked the court within minutes of receiving a restraining order for his part in a vicious attack on my constituent, Bernard O’Donnell, a man in his 80th year. Is that not sheer contempt for the court, and should he not be held to account?

Mr Clarke: I think that we had both better take legal advice on whether such behaviour amounts to contempt of court, but one of the things we are addressing is how we can make community sentences more effective. They have to contain an element of genuine punishment in most cases, and also of course be rehabilitative, but such an example is very offensive to victims and to the general public. Community sentences as a whole, however, have a very good record of improving the reoffending rate and deterring some people from wanting to commit crime again.

T7. [86127] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Lord Chancellor will know that one of his responsibilities is to take care of the British Crown dependencies, so perhaps he will explain why, even today, they are not represented in the Commonwealth, have no seats at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and have no status at all. Will he take the matter forward to ensure that all our Crown dependencies are given the status and the recognition that they rightly deserve?

Mr Clarke: I shall take my hon. Friend’s comments on board and consult my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary on whether the composition of the Commonwealth might be readdressed in that way. I assure my hon. Friend that my Department and my noble Friend Lord McNally take very seriously our responsibilities towards the Crown dependencies.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Earlier this year, I put down a parliamentary question about employment tribunals. I was told that information on the length of time was not held centrally. Subsequently, I have discovered that there is such information, but that it does not show what the Government intend to do, which is to extend the period in which a person has the right to apply to an employment tribunal. Why do the Government continue to drive such a policy when they do not have that information and there is no right to it?

Mr Djanogly: I should say that that is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills policy. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s policy is that fewer people should go to tribunals in the first place. That is why we are encouraging people to go to ACAS in all circumstances before they go to the tribunal. That is what we have been consulting on.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that 40% of prisoners were excluded from school? Will he work with the Department for Education and charities such as Catch22, based in my constituency, which do so much to get young people off the conveyor belt to crime?

13 Dec 2011 : Column 657

Mr Blunt: My hon. Friend has alighted on a particular problem. We need a policy of social justice and early intervention that begins to address such problems before people in that situation turn to crime and end up in the criminal justice system.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): Last Friday, the Government equality unit announced that the Equality and Human Rights Commission funding for discrimination casework in law centres would end in March 2012 and that discussions would begin for replacement arrangements from April 2013. How do the Government plan to support victims of discrimination in the intervening 16 months and thereafter?

Mr Djanogly: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no proposals to end legal aid for discrimination cases. I think he is confusing that with the Government’s wider decision to delay the legal aid changes by six months.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Sadly, James Herbert, a 25-year-old resident of Wells, died in police custody on 10 June 2010. The Independent Police Complaints Commission investigated and made six recommendations to the police. The coroner is holding an inquest and will

13 Dec 2011 : Column 658

consider a verdict of unlawful killing. Avon and Somerset police will have full access to taxpayer-funded legal representation, but James’s family have been refused such funding on the basis that they should use a local solicitor, should not need much preparation and can use their small savings to fund the case. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the Legal Services Commission’s rejection of James’s parents’ application for help?

Mr Speaker: I am extraordinarily, almost inordinately, grateful to the hon. Lady, but before the Minister replies I am wondering whether proceedings are still active. The hon. Gentleman answering from the Treasury Bench might want to take account of that in framing any reply, with the due caution that we have come to expect of Ministers in general and lawyers in particular.

Mr Djanogly: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will not comment on the case itself, but if my hon. Friend wants a general discussion on the legal aid attaching to the case, I will be happy to have it.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but demand has exceeded supply. We now come to points of order.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 659

Points of Order

3.33 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): On 6 December, during questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, an hon. Member used language—confirmed by Hansard—that was unsavoury, blasphemous and, many feel, unparliamentary. I have spoken to you about that, Mr Speaker, and out of courtesy and good manners I have made the hon. Member aware of my intention to bring this matter to your attention. Can you, Mr Speaker, look at this matter, check Hansard and request that the hon. Gentleman withdraw the remarks and terminology used on that day?

Mr Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise his point of order. Moderation and courtesy are, as we all know, required of the language used in the Chamber. I think that that courtesy should extend to sensitivity to and respect for the religious convictions and sensibilities of other Members and of all those listening to and reading our proceedings. It would be desirable for all hon. Members to bear that in mind, even—perhaps especially—in the heat of the moment. I intend to leave the matter there, but I hope that I have been helpful to both the hon. Gentleman and the House.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have let the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) know that I would be raising in the House his participation in a dinner in France over the weekend before last at which guests toasted the Third Reich and chanted “Hitler, Hitler, Hitler.” These disgraceful events are now being investigated by the French judiciary. May I ask whether it is in order for the hon. Gentleman to retain his position as a member of the Government and for the Prime Minister to have taken no action?

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was not sure how the matter related to the authority of the Chair, but he has raised his concern about conduct outside the Chamber and placed his concern on the record. He will know that membership of the Government, at whatever level, is—perhaps I should say thankfully—not a matter for me.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for not giving you notice of my point of order, but in the past few minutes I have given a transcript to the Clerks so that they can give you suitable advice.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 660

A very welcome improvement in the transparency of Government and Parliament has been the publication on departmental websites of the officially recorded meetings that Ministers have with organisations and individuals from the business, public and third sectors. That helps to give the public a feel for who has the ear of Ministers, for good or bad. While it is not a substitute for a proper overhaul of access through lobbyists, and neither does it preclude less official access, as we have seen in recent months, it has helped to some extent with transparency for the public and also for parliamentarians in this House.

Having turned my attention to the recent meetings of such groups and individuals over the past year or so, I am surprised to see a very wide divergence in approach between Departments. Some produce a rolling, live, updated register of meetings with Ministers; some produce a list retrospectively every three or six months; and some run for up to a year before being updated. Indeed, the No. 10 Downing street website has only this week updated its list of meetings, which had not been updated since March 2011. That is surely unconnected with the written parliamentary question that I tabled on 12 December.

Could you give any guidance, Mr Speaker, for Members about the frequency and timeliness of information on meetings with Ministers, as we need to know not only who has been meeting Ministers but to know that information in a timely manner, so that it is of use to us and to our constituents?

Mr Speaker: The short answer is no. I am an enthusiast for timeliness where Government replies to parliamentary questions are concerned; that is a legitimate preoccupation of the Chair. Timeliness in this context is not a matter for the Chair at all. However, Ministers will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am sure that he will be gratified that both the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House are on the Front Bench. I hope that that is helpful to him.

Bill Presented

Passive Flue Gas Systems (Strategy)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Martin Caton, supported by Mr Don Foster, Heidi Alexander, Caroline Lucas, Lorely Burt, Kelvin Hopkins, Bob Russell and Joan Ruddock presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a strategy for the promotion of passive flue gas heat recovery systems; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January, and to be printed (Bill 261).

13 Dec 2011 : Column 661

Public Festivals, Holidays and Commemorations

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

3.38 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State annually to prepare and publish a list of the festivals and commemorations which will take place in the year 10 years after publication; to indicate which days will be designated as Bank or Public Holidays; to make provision to enable local communities to observe significant occasions; and for connected purposes.

The United Kingdom has a rich tradition of commemorations and festivals, all of which are rooted in the history of these islands, with origins that date back centuries. Indeed, the British Isles are steeped in tradition, and in every part of the kingdom special days in the calendar are celebrated with pride by people up and down the land, as they are in each and every one of Her Majesty’s realms, dependencies and territories.

British festivals, celebratory days and commemorations are often founded on the Christian heritage of these islands, such as Christmas day, Easter Sunday, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Ascension day and Epiphany. Others are royal anniversaries such as the Queen’s birthday, accession day, coronation day, the Queen’s wedding anniversary and special events such as the diamond jubilee, a truly historic occasion that we will all celebrate with great pageantry in 2012. There are also state occasions such as the state opening of Parliament and trooping the colour.

Then, of course, there are those occasions dedicated to our proud military history, such as Trafalgar day, Waterloo day, D-day, VE-day, VJ-day, Battle of Britain day, Armistice day and of course Remembrance Sunday and Armed Forces day. I believe that Anzac day and Falkland Islands liberation day should also be commemorated with pride.

Our patron saint days of St George, St Andrew, St Patrick and St David have also become increasingly important to the peoples of all four countries in the United Kingdom. One has only to visit Romford market on 23 April to see just how significant that day has become as a celebration for the people of my constituency.

There are also days that have become established over the centuries to mark festivals, historic events or traditions, such as Guy Fawkes night, Burns night in Scotland, 12 July in Ulster, May day, St Valentine’s day, mothering Sunday, fathers’ day, Shrove Tuesday—otherwise known as pancake day—Hallowe’en, harvest festival, apple day, new year or Hogmanay and, of course, twelfth night.

Other religious festivals are also of great significance to millions of British people, such as Eid, Diwali and Hanukkah. There are also days to mark our nation’s international links, such as Commonwealth day, United Nations day and even, dare I say it, Europe day. All such days commemorate something significant in the life and history of our nation and island peoples and should be recognised—not all as public holidays, of course, but as days to mark something important to remember and learn about, especially in our schools.

My Bill would give Her Majesty’s Government the statutory authority to publish an official list of British public festivals, holidays and commemorations that would

13 Dec 2011 : Column 662

contain all those days and many more. Because only a small number of them would be designated official bank or public holidays, the list could be extensive and additional dates could be added from time to time.

The most important reason for maintaining such a comprehensive list would be to ensure that schools, churches, voluntary organisations, businesses, local authorities, community groups, charities and scout groups and other youth organisations could, if they chose, celebrate or commemorate those events with their own special activities. It would be a source of education, as school assemblies and classes throughout the country would learn about the history and traditions of our island nation.

We must never forget Her Majesty’s realms, dependencies and territories. They should also be recognised, so that we can mark the national days of the wider British family —Australia day, New Zealand’s Waitangi day, Canada day, Jamaica’s independence day, Channel Islands liberation day, the Isle of Man’s Tynwald day, Gibraltar’s national day, Bermuda day and Norfolk Island’s Bounty day, to name but a few. Indeed, I am sure the whole House would wish to send its warmest greetings to the people of St Lucia, who today celebrate their very own national day. That proud Caribbean nation, which remains one of Her Majesty’s realms, will celebrate with cultural events, dancing and a colourful festival of lights, with lanterns made by children in villages throughout the island.

New days could also be included on the official list, such as a flag day to honour our national flag—the Union Jack, as it is commonly known—or perhaps a Britannia day for all British people and for those descended from the people of these islands who wish to take pride in their British heritage.

Why not set aside one day of the year to celebrate the animal kingdom—a national animal day? It could be a Sunday, when the nation could celebrate the animal kingdom with pet services at churches and events to support animal and wildlife charities. In my constituency, I attend the annual horseman’s Sunday in the historic village of Havering-atte-Bower, where local horses and their owners attend an open air service on the village green and the local MP presents a rosette to every horse.

It is also important that communities have a chance to organise their own local festivals, so why should not each county, town or village designate a particular day of the year as their day to celebrate in whatever way they see fit, bringing everyone together in celebration of their local identity? Fine examples are St Piran’s day in Cornwall and Yorkshire day.

My Bill would also require the Government to prepare and publish a list of festivals and commemorations up to 10 years in advance, to give local communities the chance to plan and prepare fully for all our historic occasions, allowing everyone the opportunity to celebrate those events that are important to them, and to ensure that all anniversaries and traditions are recognised and kept alive rather than relegated to the pages of history books.

My Bill would also address the nature of our bank and public holidays. Under our current system, those that fall on a weekend are transferred to a day following the weekend. For example, this year, Monday 3 January was made a public holiday in lieu of new year’s day,

13 Dec 2011 : Column 663

which fell on Saturday 1 January. When that happens, rather than having a meaningless day off next to a weekend, we should use it for a day of greater significance. If we followed that rule for all existing bank holidays, I believe it would be possible to make St George’s day, St Andrew’s day and St David’s day annual public holidays without creating more days off overall, thus not harming businesses or the economy.

Next year is the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. Across our nation, people will celebrate this great milestone in British history, and, God willing, in 2015 we will see Her Majesty reach the next landmark of her reign, when at 63 years and seven months on the throne, the Queen will become the longest ruling monarch in British history. Then, in 2022, I hope and pray that we will celebrate Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee, an anniversary that has never been reached by any British monarch.

We can all look forward to those celebrations, and my Bill will guarantee that all great British festivals, celebratory days and commemorations will always be recognised, celebrated, cherished and passed down to future generations.

I commend my Bill to the House.

3.48 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak on St Lucia’s day, about which we did not know previously. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) seems to suggest an incontinence of celebration—there is hardly a day of the year when we would not be obliged to celebrate something. However, absent from his speech was any suggestion of celebrating the reason for our existence in the Chamber. Why not have a democracy day? What about 4 November to celebrate the Chartists who died in my constituency, and others who died in many other places, for example, the Tolpuddle martyrs—all those who fought in the struggle to ensure that we have our free Parliament? They should be celebrated; they are far more significant than many of those the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Question put and agreed to.


That Andrew Rosindell, Henry Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadhim Zahawi, Bob Russell, Simon Hart, Priti Patel, Thomas Docherty, Paul Uppal, Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil, Heather Wheeler and Ian Paisley present the Bill.

Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012 and to be printed (Bill 262).

13 Dec 2011 : Column 664

United Kingdom Statistics Authority

[Relevant documents: The Sixteenth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, on the Appointment of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, HC 910-I, the evidence taken before the Committee on 10 May, HC 910-i, the uncorrected evidence taken before the Committee on 6 December, HC 1634-i, and the written evidence reported by the Committee and ordered to be published on 10 May .]

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): I beg to move,

That this House endorses the nomination of Andrew Dilnot CBE for appointment as Chair of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority.

The motion is in my name and that of other Ministers. All Members will know that this appointment is a very important one. Without reliable and independent statistics it is impossible for the Government to make good policy, or for Parliament, the public and the media to hold us to account. The quality of statistics in the UK is recognised to be very high, and all Members will agree that it is essential that we maintain that position.

The UK Statistics Authority is at the heart of the system for maintaining the quality and credibility of official statistics. The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 established the authority to provide independent oversight of the statistical system. Therefore, the credibility of the chair is central to the whole operation of statistics in the UK.

Before moving to the specific candidate whom the Government have proposed for the post, I should like to acknowledge two very important contributions. First, the current chair, Sir Michael Scholar, has done outstanding work in establishing the authority as a credible and effective body, and I should like the House to record our thanks to him, not just for the work he has done since 2008, but for staying in post until the Government secured his replacement. I am sure other Members would like to place on record their thanks for and appreciation of his good work.

Secondly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and the Select Committee on Public Administration under his chairmanship for their constructive engagement in the whole appointment process. In particular, I welcome the contribution that the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) was able to make as part of the panel that selected Andrew Dilnot.

Two particular qualities are essential for the chair of the UK Statistics Authority: independence and a passion for statistics. The Government believe that Andrew Dilnot is superbly qualified in both respects. First, on independence, Mr Dilnot has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to independent analysis and a willingness to stand up for his views. Members on both sides of the House—to varying degrees, I suspect—will have appreciated, and been challenged by, the sharp but fair analysis that the Institute for Fiscal Studies published under his leadership of Budgets produced by Governments of all parties.

More recently, Mr Dilnot chaired the independent commission on long-term care, which tackled, as I am sure all hon. Members agree, one of the most important

13 Dec 2011 : Column 665

and intractable policy problems that we face with great rigour. I am sure he will display the same qualities if appointed to this new role. Although that might on occasion lead to discomfort among my ministerial colleagues, I hope that Members agree that Parliament and Government are best served by a credible, senior and independent advocate of the proper use of statistics.

Secondly, on Mr Dilnot’s passion for statistics, he is an acknowledged leader in the field of statistics and, frankly, is second to none in that regard. He is the author of what his biography assures me is a best-selling book about statistics, and was the founding presenter of BBC Radio 4’s series on statistics, “More or Less”. He is currently chair of the statistics users forum of the Royal Statistical Society, and has held a range of academic and advisory positions that require a detailed understanding of statistics and their use and misuse. In short, it is hard to imagine a better qualified candidate.

To sum up, it is essential that we appoint a new chair for the UK Statistics Authority who can continue to develop it as an effective guardian of good statistics. We believe that Andrew Dilnot is an excellent candidate. I welcome the report from the Public Administration Committee on his pre-appointment hearing, and its conclusion that he should be appointed. I therefore commend the appointment to the House.

3.55 pm

Michael Dugher (Barnsley East) (Lab): Before I turn to the nomination of Andrew Dilnot as chair of the UK Statistics Authority, I would like to echo the Minister’s tribute to the outgoing chair, Sir Michael Scholar. As the Public Administration Committee said in its report, published last week, his work over the last four years in establishing the UK Statistics Authority has been first class. He has performed his important public duties robustly and with complete impartiality.

The Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 was designed to ensure that we had an independent statistics authority—one that can challenge the use of statistics where necessary. This was exemplified only recently when Sir Michael publicly rebuked the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for giving misleading figures to the Home Affairs Committee. I am sure that the whole House is also grateful to Sir Michael for agreeing to continue in the post for longer than was originally expected.

As the House is aware, the recruitment process for the post was significantly delayed when the Government’s initial preferred candidate withdrew. That followed serious, and in our view proper, scrutiny by the Public Administration Committee of whether individuals had the necessary personal independence to carry out the role. I would like to take this opportunity to praise members of the Committee from both sides of the House—in particular, the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). The Committee has understood—and repeatedly stressed—the importance of independence in this post, and I believe its actions were consistent with the principle of parliamentary pre-appointment scrutiny.

I also welcome the greater role that the Committee played in deciding the make-up of the selection panel when the recruitment process was rerun, as well as in persuading the Government to recognise explicitly in

13 Dec 2011 : Column 666

the re-advertised job description that a key responsibility of the role is to ensure the independence of the authority. I hope the Government have learned from this process and will take the changes forward for all future appointments.

In respect of Andrew Dilnot’s professional competence, I agree with the Committee’s report that his extensive experience makes him eminently suitable for the role of chair of the UK Statistics Authority. As the Minister has said, Andrew Dilnot has had a distinguished career, most recently at Oxford university and in chairing the commission on the funding of care and support. He also headed up the Institute for Fiscal Studies for more than a decade. Indeed, this experience should stand him in particularly good stead. As we saw after the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the IFS is famously an organisation that is not afraid of criticising Ministers’ use of figures. I am therefore both satisfied—and indeed rather hopeful—that Mr Dilnot will bring the same kind of robustness when challenging the present Government’s continued use of statistics.

Throughout the pre-appointment hearing, Mr Dilnot expressed differing views from the Government on a wide range of issues, which is always encouraging. Those issues include the reduction of the pre-release period. It is also worth noting that when he was questioned about the Government’s happiness index, which costs the taxpayer £2 million a year, he said that it was “really rather silly” and “a pile of nonsense”. It appears that the candidate has fine commonsense in addition to independence of mind.

The post involves the significant responsibility of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official figures that serve the public good. Mr Dilnot has already made it clear how “absolutely vital” it is to have consistency in how the Government produce their figures. Labour Members agree that to make the most of our data we must be able to compare information over significant periods of time. This is why, of late, we have been concerned about some public statements from members of the Government about possibly changing the methodology used in producing certain statistics—for example, how child poverty is measured. The fact that child poverty is increasing in a way that undoubtedly shames the Government is no reason to alter how it is measured.

The appointment of a new chair of the board of the UK Statistics Authority is an extremely important one. We need a candidate who can maintain the code of practice for official statistics and ensure that Government figures are produced and presented to the highest standards of independence and integrity. We share the view of the Government and the Public Administration Select Committee that in Mr Dilnot we have a candidate who can rise to meet that challenge.

4 pm

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I am grateful for the support of the official Opposition for this appointment, although I wondered whether the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) was going to declare an interest during his remarks. He might have forgotten—it is a failing of us all, I suppose—but if he looks at the inside cover of the report from which he quoted, he will see that he is still a member of the

13 Dec 2011 : Column 667

Public Administration Committee. He has very honourably absented himself ever since he joined Labour’s Front-Bench team, but I hope that he will involve his party in putting forward a new nominee for the Committee, because it would be of great service to the Committee and the House. I make no personal criticism of him whatsoever.

When he appeared before my Committee last week for his pre-appointment hearing, Andrew Dilnot was invited by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to reflect on a statement that he made in 2007 during the passage of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Andrew Dilnot confirmed that he still held the view that he held then: that the passage of the 2007 Act, which set up the UK Statistics Authority, was

“a turning point. It has made possible something that otherwise was not possible, which is the recovery of a sense of independence and integrity for statistics…This Act gives the control and management of statistics back to Parliament…I think that was a very, very important step.”

I shall briefly remind the House of what the 2007 Act did. It established a new authority, now known as the UK Statistics Authority, with the statutory objective

“of promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good.”

To many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that might seem rather a dry subject, but the public good in this instance is defined as

“informing the public about social and economic matters”


“assisting in the development and evaluation of public policy.”

This is serious stuff. The authority has the statutory duty

“to promote and safeguard the quality of official statistics, good practice in relation to official statistics and the comprehensiveness of official statistics”.

In this respect, “quality” means the “impartiality, accuracy and relevance” of official statistics and their coherence with other official statistics.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and for the chance to serve under his chairmanship when approving the appointment as head of the UK Statistics Authority of this excellent candidate. He mentioned the importance of informing the public about statistics. Does he agree that one of the main priorities for Mr Dilnot will be to improve the website to make it accessible to the public, to make it easy for them to use and to allow them to give some feedback on how statistics are presented?

Mr Jenkin: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, which he raised in the pre-appointment hearing and to which Andrew Dilnot responded favourably. I think he sees the potential of improving public access to statistics and the public’s ability to understand why they appear as they do, what value they offer and, therefore, how they can influence the democratic process. This goes to the heart of so much of what we do in this place, and the way in which we try to engage our public. Technology, particularly the internet, enables us to do that in an unprecedented way. There is no reason why every citizen cannot have access to the same information that we have—the information that informs the decisions that we make in this Parliament. We should therefore

13 Dec 2011 : Column 668

involve the public much more in that. Indeed, we have an obligation to ensure that what the Government and the Opposition say is objective, truthful and properly informative, rather than otherwise; we all know what Disraeli said about damned lies and statistics. We need to ensure that the quality of the numbers and the data that the Government produce genuinely informs the debate, rather than just advancing the partisan interests of those producing them.

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share the view that it is a proper function of the UK Statistics Authority to be fully separate, over and above the Office for National Statistics, or does he see some scope for reducing the number of quangos in this area?

Mr Jenkin: We are talking about a quango that survived the cull. Given that it was so recently established by an Act of Parliament, it would have been an absolute travesty if it had fallen to the cull. The reason is that for many years those who understand the rather arcane world of statistics have been campaigning for much more independent oversight of statistics. Indeed, independence is one of the key tests that the Government applied in the Public Bodies Bill and the review of arm’s length bodies. If a body’s independence is fundamental to the function it performs, that justifies its existence. Therefore, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority was never on the list.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to remind his hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) that the Office for National Statistics and the UK Statistics Authority are not two separate bodies, but are one and the same. Indeed, the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 sets out the delicate balance between the regulator and producer of statistics, which is one of the big challenges that any chair of UKSA must be able to manage.

Mr Jenkin: I am grateful for that intervention, because one of the things that we discussed in our pre-appointment hearing was the balance between oversight and production. The ONS is basically the producer of statistics, while UKSA should provide the oversight. However, the two are not directly separated in the way that one would expect, which is why the independence of UKSA’s chair is such an important feature of the arrangement. Therefore, the authority has a particular duty to ensure the accessibility of statistics.

Since its establishment in 2008 the authority has had the duty to monitor and report publicly on areas of concern in relation to good practice and the quality and comprehensiveness of all official statistics across Government and arm’s length bodies. The authority consulted on and established a code of practice for official statistics in 2009. Indeed, it seems astonishing that there was no such code of practice until UKSA established it. UKSA set independent professional standards for statistics in government, and is assessing against those standards all government statistical products that are classified as national statistics. There are some 1,300 series of statistics produced by government. One third of those statistical products are issued by the ONS, for which the authority performs the governance function.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 669

The other key function of the new authority has been to challenge Departments and Ministers on the quality and integrity of the statistics for which they are responsible. As hon. Members, including several Ministers past and present, will know—I see in his place the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Home Secretary—the authority’s first chair, Sir Michael Scholar, has been ready to challenge Government practices in the preparation and release of statistics where he and the authority have considered these practices to be corrosive of trust in official statistics. I must say that UKSA should have a sense of mission about its purpose; the Public Administration Committee certainly shares this sense of mission.

Sir Michael’s interventions, made in public and invariably copied to my Committee and to the relevant departmental Select Committee, have, I can reliably attest, been regarded with a mixture of fear and outrage in Whitehall. I think the House would be worried if the pronouncements of the authority—a non-ministerial department accountable to the House through my Committee—were not feared and respected in Departments and ministerial private offices, or, indeed, by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would attest that when we were in opposition, we suffered from the whiplash of Sir Michael’s interventions.

One such early intervention, in December 2008, was to raise in public with the permanent secretary at 10 Downing street an allegation that No. 10 Downing street special advisers had

“caused the Home Office to issue a Press Release which prematurely published provisional statistics for hospital admissions for knife or sharp instrument wounding…These statistics were not due for publication for some time, and had not therefore been through the regular process of checking and quality assurance. The statisticians who produced them, together with the National Statistician, tried unsuccessfully to prevent their premature, irregular and selective release. I hope you will agree that the publication of prematurely released and unchecked statistics is corrosive of public trust in official statistics, and incompatible with the high standards which we are all seeking to establish.”

This intervention resulted in an apology from the then Home Secretary on the next sitting day and a swift investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, which led to substantial changes to guidance to officials on how statistics should be handled, particularly on selective publication from unpublished data sets. An explicit reference was also inserted into the ministerial code, requiring Ministers to abide by the code of practice for official statistics. I regard it as part of the mission of UKSA and my Committee to empower the professional statisticians in government to stand up for the integrity of statistics when under the political pressure that inevitably arises in modern politics.

More recently, Sir Michael has raised with the Chancellor the issue of pre-release access by Ministers, advisers and officials to sensitive economic statistics such as the consumer prices index and retail prices index inflation figures. Sir Michael has asked—I tend to agree with him—what reason there can be for allowing prior access to these figures to a group of up to 50 individuals some 24 hours before publication. I would add that that can be to the advantage only of the Government. For the sake of trust in the use of official statistics, Sir Michael has requested that the number of recipients of these figures be cut to an absolute minimum and the time reduced to the shortest period necessary. I would add: why not?

13 Dec 2011 : Column 670

My Committee is very concerned by the Government’s adherence to pre-release practices. It greatly concerned our predecessor Committee under Tony Wright, and we thought that those practices would be abolished by this Administration when they took office. When the Statistics and Registration Service Bill was going through Parliament, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General gave explicit assurances when we were in opposition that we would abolish pre-release when we were elected. I have to say that we expect the Public Administration Committee to return to the issue in the new year.

Sir Michael Scholar has exemplified an independence of mind and a desire to be independent of Government, which we have thoroughly supported; it could be considered all the more galling as he also served as a most distinguished senior civil servant in Whitehall before he took up this appointment. When he gave evidence to us on the challenges facing his successor he was clear that the single most important feature of his office was its independence. We have been concerned that his successor should be similarly independent, with the judgment to know when to stand up to Ministers to make crucial points about the proper use of official statistics.

In March 2011 Sir Michael indicated his desire to step down, and a competition was initiated to find a successor. A panel—which I understand was chaired by the permanent secretary to the Treasury, and included the Cabinet Secretary—recommended a candidate who was presented to us for approval as the Government’s preferred candidate. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the fact that this debate is taking place, because he conceded, in answer to a question in the Committee, that it would be appropriate for the appointment to be confirmed by a resolution of the House, and for the appointment to be made only after having been so confirmed. If I am correct, that procedure did not apply to Sir Michael Scholar’s appointment and is not required by Act of Parliament.

That is a testament to the Government’s determination to ensure the independence of the appointment, although, perhaps ironically, my right hon. Friend will have rued the day that he made that undertaking. Earlier this year we held a pre-appointment hearing with Dame Janet Finch, an academic of great distinction and experience, to examine her professional competences and personal independence with regard to the appointment. It is a matter of record that the hearing was a somewhat difficult occasion. Subsequently Dame Janet wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, on her own initiative, to say that it had become clear during the course of the hearing that she and the Committee

“had differing views over how the job should be undertaken, and in particular how the independence of the Chair should be exercised.”

I commend her for applying for the post, for gamely putting herself up for the post, and for behaving in such a dignified way. She withdrew from the selection process entirely voluntarily. May I place on record the Committee’s appreciation for the dignified way in which she handled a difficult personal situation? Her conduct in the matter was exemplary, and the Committee continues to hold her in the highest esteem.

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I have served on the Public Administration Committee both under the hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship and for many years

13 Dec 2011 : Column 671

before that, and only recently have we taken on the responsibility for pre-appointment hearings. Does he agree that this is a fine example of how a pre-appointment hearing can work to produce an excellent candidate, whom we talked about earlier, in a sensitive and intelligent manner?

Mr Jenkin: I am grateful for that comment. I also want to place on record my appreciation for the action subsequently taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who readily agreed that the competition should be rerun and generously consulted my Committee on the arrangements for rerunning it, as it was clear that the previous arrangements had led to the situation. He decided that the nomination panel should be chosen afresh, and the new panel did not include the Cabinet Secretary or anyone else of permanent secretary rank. He agreed that a parliamentarian should serve on the panel, to assess the independence of the panel from the Executive, and we are pleased that he accepted our suggestion that the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), a member of the Public Administration Committee and academic statistician of some distinction himself, should serve on that panel, which he duly did.

Having been consulted and had our views taken into account, the Committee was confident that the fresh panel was well placed to select an independent and capable candidate. The House has before it the transcript of the pre-appointment hearing held with the Government’s preferred candidate, Andrew Dilnot, who gave a stellar performance. He is no stranger to any of us—his work with the Institute for Fiscal Studies was for many years required reading at Budget time—and I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have been briefed by him on occasion. As he pointed out to us, he was always able to conduct his analysis of Budget documents without the benefit of pre-release access. He is an accomplished communicator of statistical issues, and communicates in a way that can make him truly engaging and relevant to the wider public. He was the first presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “More or Less” programme, which, whenever I turn it on, I find myself unable to turn off, because it is so revealing about what we need to know in public life.

In the arena of fiscal statistics, Andrew Dilnot has long demonstrated an independence of mind and confidence that have attracted criticism only from those who have found his truths inconvenient. He has made it clear that, if appointed, he will want to work constructively with the Public Administration Committee, and to improve the standing and presentation of official statistics. Certainly my colleagues and I did not hesitate to conclude that he had the professional competences and personal independence necessary to fulfil the role of chair of the United Kingdom Statistics Authority. In fact, the two—he and the job—seem to have been made for each other.

I also look forward to Mr Dilnot’s introduction of a number of innovations that will benefit the public. The authority faces considerable challenges in the years ahead. For instance, it must steer a course towards a more efficient and cost-effective way of collecting population data to replace the census in 2021. Its governing legislation gives it the dual role—mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher)—of producer

13 Dec 2011 : Column 672

and regulator of official statistics, which is sometimes uncomfortable to negotiate, and which Mr Dilnot will wish to clarify. It must represent the statistical profession in Government effectively at a time when budget reductions mean the loss of statistical resources and the axing of whole statistical series. It must also act as cheerleader for official statistics when public trust in them is generally accepted to be low, and remains low despite the progress that has been made in recent years.

The Public Administration Committee is very confident that Andrew Dilnot is the right candidate to address those challenges, and to build on the considerable legacy left by Sir Michael Scholar, to whom I pay tribute. I particularly wish to mention that Sir Michael stayed on willingly for the extra months during what would otherwise have been an interregnum between his retirement and the delayed appointment of his successor. I wholeheartedly support the motion.

4.22 pm

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Let me begin by declaring an interest: I am an honorary fellow of the Royal Statistical Society. The society graciously bestowed that honour on me for my work in the 1990s in advancing the case for an independent national statistical service and proper parliamentary scrutiny of statistics.

I am delighted to observe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) is present. It was he who introduced the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which completed the journey from a statistical service that was half independent and half controlled by Government to a service in which the producers of the statistics, the Office for National Statistics and its agents, and the supervisor of that production, the United Kingdom Statistics Authority, became entirely independent of Government.

I also commend the Public Administration Committee for its work both in monitoring the work of the authority and in conducting the process of this appointment. It is interesting to recall, as I do, the nervousness that was abroad at one time about Select Committees having any role in public appointments, given that this appointment has effectively been made entirely by Parliament, and has been endorsed by a Select Committee with the approval—hopefully—of the House.

I know Sir Michael Scholar well and I think that he did an outstanding job as the first chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, in difficult circumstances. Nobody should underestimate the pressure that was put on him when he dared to criticise the Government of whom I was a member. He criticised the frankly preposterous behaviour of part of the Government—special advisers in No. 10 and in the Home Office—in allowing not just the pre-release of statistics, but the traducing of statistics that should have been properly released by the Office for National Statistics.

That was part of a culture that went back to previous Administrations, and we have seen one example of it during this Administration, whereby special advisers in No. 10, all jockeying among themselves to show that they are more adept than their colleagues in getting material into the newspapers and anxious for attention from the master, cajole the people they believe are their subordinates—the special advisers in the individual Departments. They say, “We can see this on the grid”—the

13 Dec 2011 : Column 673

wretched grid—“and we must know about this. We want early information. There is something else coming up. We have heard a rumour that those nasty people in the Opposition are about to do X or Y, or there is a terribly bad news story, Z, and if only we can get this good news out, all will be fine.” That is all without purpose, it never works, it always ends in tears and it carries on. The problem is that previously, unless a strong and confident Minister was looking after those statistics, it was all too easy for this abuse to run away with itself. I had only one occasion when those at No. 10 tried this on me and I told them to get lost, saying that if they wanted I would come to the House to make a statement about what they were trying to suborn my officials and special advisers, who are of the highest integrity, into doing. I was secure in my position but a very large number of Ministers, sadly, are not in that happy position.

I know what the chuntering was when Sir Michael Scholar criticised the practice of the Home Office and No. 10 in December 2008—I believe it was then. It is no coincidence that much of the attempt to bypass official release mechanisms has taken place in respect of Home Office statistics. That is not because the Home Office statisticians—or now the Ministry of Justice statisticians—are any less worthy or any less replete with integrity; it is because of the highly political nature of the information they convey. Sir Michael set out, in handling that abuse, to continue in a similar manner, and he put his foot down on a number of further occasions—two when the Labour Government were in power and once under this Government. I hope that, bit by bit, Ministers, officials and special advisers will get the message that in the 21st century it is no more appropriate to try to interfere with the generation, organisation, analysis and publication of official statistics than it is to interfere in the generation, analysis and publication of the accounts of a Department.

No Minister or senior official at any level would dream of saying, “We’ve got to alter the accounts. It is a bit inconvenient but this has come up and we seem to have lost some money.” Such alteration is a criminal offence for directors of companies. It is worth remembering that in the early part of the 19th century it was perfectly commonplace for Ministers to ensure that there was a bit of fiddling of the statistics. A lot of Ministers lined their own pockets, a few got charged with corruption but generally got away with it, and one or two were impeached. That was the culture of the times. We have moved away from that in respect of financial probity, but we now have to see a similar cultural shift in respect of statistical probity because otherwise the whole political debate and discourse in this country will be the loser.

We can have serious discussions when it comes to arguments about finance. We know what the deficit is and we can argue about what its components are, but no one suggests that it has somehow been made up. It is there. With other statistics—particularly social statistics, and particularly those on crime and immigration—there has been a ridiculous argument about whether crime has gone up or down. The same applies to unemployment and so on. We must move away from that, because it is a real turn-off for the public and it is very undermining for the quality of debate in this country.

Let me make two points, the first of which is on pre-release statistics. The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) was quite right to draw attention to the fact that before the election the Minister

13 Dec 2011 : Column 674

for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General made a lot of play of the fact that he was going to abandon pre-release notice, or move at best to one hour. We should have abandoned it when we were in government, but we did not do so. He said that he would and then, when he came into government, hey presto, he supped at the royal jelly—or something like that—or had a nod from somebody at No. 10 and suddenly decided that he was wrong.

Mr Jenkin: Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on what interests prevented him from persuading his colleagues to abolish it and does he therefore have some sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General as regards the opposition he might be facing?

Mr Straw: I have sympathy with the Minister, of course. He happens to be my pair, anyway, so I declare that interest too. I have every sympathy with him, but the forces of darkness get tiring after a while. People always think that the Government will do better if only they can get early information and slip this or that past, but that is all nonsense.

My officials and others used to regard it as slightly tedious that I was not terribly bothered about when the figures were coming out—although I was early on, when I was neurotic about when the crime figures were being released. My view was that one had to ask what the point was of knowing in advance. It just led to a suspicion that we had somehow fiddled the figures because we had had them early and all the rest of it. There was absolutely no point at all. Why not find out at exactly the same time as anybody else? It is impertinent to think that Ministers should have any right to find out in advance. Why should they? They are not Ministers of figures—the figures belong to the public and Parliament. It is also self-defeating, in my opinion.

My advice to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and his colleagues is: chill and defeat the forces of darkness. I am sorry I did not complete that task, notwithstanding being joined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne. Ministers will do themselves an enormous favour if they abandon pre-release notice.

Robert Halfon: I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Does he not agree, however, that there is a very small case for certain statistics—particularly market-sensitive information—to be released to the Government early, given the effect they might have?

Mr Straw: There might be, and there could have been in the days when the Treasury was responsible for setting interest rates. At a time when by all-party agreement the Treasury is no longer responsible for setting interest rates, what can the Government do about it anyway? If they have advance information that there will be a sudden huge—mega—balance of trade deficit then, with a bit of luck, it will gradually emerge through the tax data anyway. What can they do about it? If the markets react adversely, the Bank of England will come in and buy sterling, or not. I accept that there might be a narrow case for examining that, however.

My second point is about the responsibility for defining the components of series. Let us recall the great debate about the components of youth unemployment figures.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 675

There was irritation among those in the Government of whom I was a member that that series included people in full-time education, and I gather there is also irritation about that in this Government. Of course, support for the current definition has stayed on the Opposition side of the Chamber. My view is that there is a case for saying that people in full-time education should not be included in the definition of the unemployed because they are not available for work, although they might want a part-time job. There might not be a case for that but, whether or not it is to the advantage of Government, that issue ought to be examined independently and decided independently, without regard to which party might, for the time being, gain partisan advantage.

Lastly, I commend the recommendation of the Public Administration Committee that Mr Andrew Dilnot be appointed as the successor to Sir Michael Scholar. He is brilliant, he has a very fine mind and he has a great understanding of public affairs. I can think of no better successor to Sir Michael Scholar.

4.36 pm

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I, too, am extremely pleased to support the motion. I speak not only as a Member of the House but as a member of the Treasury Committee. The House will be aware that we are extremely reliant on the quality of our national statistics as we supervise, regulate and seek to hold to account, at least at arm’s length, entities and agencies that are themselves extremely reliant on our national statistics. This appointment reflects very creditably on the Government for their willingness to choose, and to allow pre-selection hearings on, the highest quality candidates who can genuinely hold them to account rather than simply choosing placemen. This appointment fits into that good tradition, and the appointment of Robert Chote was another example of that.

I pay tribute to Sir Michael Scholar and also to the Public Administration Committee’s role in vetting not one but two candidates.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Would the hon. Gentleman extend those sentiments to the Mayor of London, who, when he was criticised for abusing statistics before a Select Committee of the House, reacted to the criticism of Michael Scholar by describing him as a “Labour stooge”?

Jesse Norman: I certainly do not share that view and I am not sure that the Mayor would share that view if he had further time to reflect on it.

Sir Andrew Dilnot is a person of impeccable personal reputation and great intellect. He has been garlanded with honours from our finest academic institutions and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Anyone who has heard him present “More or Less” or heard his outstanding podcasts will know that he is an extraordinarily apt and adept presenter of information, and therefore perfectly fits an agency with the job not merely of presenting information and ensuring its integrity but of recruiting and engaging its users.

The truth is that we in Parliament and those in government cannot survive without good information and good numbers, and the Opposition, whoever they may be, cannot survive without the numbers that allow

13 Dec 2011 : Column 676

them to hold the Government to account. I hope that an early priority for the new chair will be to look at the private finance initiative, which hon. Members will know is one of my pet bugbears. I can think of no better example than that because there has been extraordinary abuse of those statistics, with things being pushed off-balance sheet, with standards that are not of the highest quality being adopted and—I am pleased that this is being addressed by the Government—with the creation of a situation in which it is possible to have an asset that is off-balance sheet not only to the country but to PFI contractors.

Sir Andrew Dilnot is also to be commended for his outstanding report on different ways of funding the provision of care for the elderly. It would be a very poor debate that did not recognise that and congratulate him on that report. His appointment fits into a pattern of improving the governance of our public agencies, and it is a principle that could properly be extended to other public agencies whose governance has been somewhat lacking of late. I think in particular of the Bank of England, whose court needs comprehensive restoration; the Treasury Board, which could do with refreshment; and the governance of HM Revenue and Customs, which needs higher quality senior officials and non-executives.

I conclude by congratulating the Government on this appointment, and Sir Andrew Dilnot on his acceptance, on his passion for statistics and on his independence of mind. I welcome the energy, the integrity and the intelligence which he will bring to the evaluation of policy, I hope, as well as to the assessment of statistics and their presentation to the public.

4.40 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): This appointment is a major development in our parliamentary procedures. This is the first time that the pre-appointment hearings made a significant difference and had an influence in changing the candidate. The pre-appointment hearings came out of an investigation in the previous Parliament by the Public Administration Committee, which went to America and recommended that certain senior appointments should be subject to the procedure. We have heard the explanation given by the Chair of how the decision arising from the interview with the first candidate resulted in a second candidate coming along and how a member of the Committee was appointed to the panel that took part in the process. These are important changes that reinforce the view that this is a useful way of proceeding. The House has behaved in a responsible manner in this process.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) referred to the forces of darkness and the queen bee jelly that takes over Governments. Some of us can rejoice in being the forces of light who were against the previous scheme and against our own Government, and are still against it and against the new Government. So often when Governments change, it is not a change of philosophy, but an exchange of scripts. Of course Governments neurotically want to hoard their secrets for as long as possible. It seems extraordinary that it was only in 2007 that the arguments were exactly reversed—when I was sitting on the Government Benches arguing with my own Government, the Tory Opposition were saying that this was the big weakness in the Bill that went through. Now they flip over without a blush.

13 Dec 2011 : Column 677

There was a time when I recall accusing Mr Alan Clark of supervising the largest and most shameless massage parlour in London, which was the Department of Employment, in his use of employment statistics. There was some truth in that. I had an exchange of letters with Margaret Thatcher in 1989, when a group of statisticians came to see me. They were distressed because the responsibility for statistics was being moved from the Cabinet Office to the Treasury, and they rightly said, “This is our life’s work. That will reduce these pristine, glorious statistics, wonderful graphs and histograms to garbage by politicians on the make.” They suggested that the Treasury was the Department with the greatest vested interest in fiddling the statistics and damaging the result of their work. Their whole professional raison d’être was diminished by that.

Mrs Thatcher sent me a letter in which she expressed her deep shock that anyone should express the unworthy idea that her Department would want to fiddle statistics in any way. We do not feel quite that way now. There has been a move forward. I mentioned the distressing episode involving the Mayor of London. It goes to show that the advance has not been complete—not all Departments have changed their mind.

The Mayor of London was rightly criticised by Sir Michael Scholar, and we have all praised him for the way in which he did that. Sir Michael has done very well. He challenged the Home Department with great courage. He challenged the previous Government and he has challenged Departments now. He did the job that he was set to do, but when he attacked the Mayor of London, the Mayor’s reaction was not to say, “All right, I got it wrong. I’ll change the statistics”.—no humility from Boris, of course. Instead, he called him a Labour stooge. It was an outrageous thing to say, given his lifetime of independence. Michael Scholar, as all today’s contributors have said, has done a splendid job of establishing that independence, and it is what we see in Dilnot.

There are still a few old lags in the House from the passage in 2007 of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill, which went through with hardly a flicker of interest; this is a crowded House compared with the number of people who attended back then. There was only one tiny piece of interest in the press, too, but it was an article that I repeated ad nauseum to the House at the time, because it stated that it was the most important Bill of the Labour Government—we had been in power for 10 years—and would have a bigger effect than anything we had done, including handing over power and independence to the Bank of England. The article was written by a certain Andrew Dilnot, and his entire career has rightly been in that area—suggesting that statistics need to be independent.

In the Public Administration Committee, we all saw Dilnot’s boyish enthusiasm for statistics. He talks about them as “Statistics”—these wonderful things, which are the key to all happiness and the path to knowledge and wisdom—

Mr Straw: And employment in your constituency!

Paul Flynn: Indeed. I will turn to that point now.