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House of Commons

Tuesday 8 October 2013

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

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

Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 15 October (Standing Order No. 20).

Hertfordshire County Council (Filming on Highways) Bill [Lords]

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 15 October (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Prison Estate

1. Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): What recent progress he has made on his plans for modernisation of the prison estate. [900363]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): If I might trespass on the House’s time for a moment, I would like to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) to his new position and express gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) for her work as a Justice Minister.

We have made significant progress on our plans to modernise the prison estate and reduce operating costs. In September we announced a new 2,000-plus place prison, to be built on the former Firestone site in Wrexham. We have launched a feasibility study on possible changes at the site of the Feltham young offender institution, with a potential enlarged new adult prison and a new youth facility on adjoining sites. We will consult on that as progress develops. We have also announced the closure of 1,400 uneconomic places, which will contribute to our overall plans to reduce prison costs by more than £500 million in this spending review period. However, we remain on track to go into the next election with more adult male prison places than we inherited in 2010.

Steve Brine: I thank the Lord Chancellor for that answer, but may I make a plea to him to remember local prisons? He knows that genuine local prisons, such as Her Majesty’s prison—and now the young offender institution—in Winchester, play a central role in the secure estate, but they need investment too, especially in Winchester. The recent closure of prisons in Kingston, Reading and Dorchester is already having an impact on the secure estate in Winchester.

Chris Grayling: I pay tribute to the team that works in Winchester. They do a first-rate job for all of us, and Winchester will, of course, continue to play an important part in our work in the Prison Service. We are in the process of finalising plans to change the nature of our prison estate, with the local focus described by my hon. Friend, so that we will have a network of resettlement prisons from where most prisoners will be released into the areas in which they will then live.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): This morning Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons issued a report expressing concern about Oakwood prison in Staffordshire, which

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is the most recent prison to be built. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that the Wrexham prison to which he has referred will not have similar difficulties when the Government undertake its building?

Chris Grayling: Prison professionals all say that the early days of a new prison are difficult. Clearly there is still work to be done at Oakwood and that is a priority for us. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, however, that some of the criticisms of Oakwood refer to the fact that it is a privately run prison. I have taken no decision about the status of the prison in Wrexham, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the Labour party that took the decision to privatise Oakwood.

15. [900378] Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): The prison facility in Northallerton, in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, which also serves Thirsk, Malton and Filey, is closing. Will those who work there be offered places elsewhere in the Prison Service, and has the Secretary of State given any thought to a new, replacement institution coming to Northallerton or York?

Chris Grayling: Closure decisions are never easy for the staff and communities involved. I regret the need to take such decisions, but we have to continue the process of new for old in the prison estate. I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will ensure that voluntary redundancy or transfers will be available for the staff affected. We aim to transfer as many staff as possible to other prisons and we will, of course, make sure there is appropriate and adequate coverage in my hon. Friend’s part of the country. That is the least we can do to protect her constituents.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State not agree that, in the light of the recent inspection report of Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, the prison estate is actually getting worse, not better?

Chris Grayling: I am afraid that I do not agree. We are moving as fast as we can to modernise the prison estate, to bring in new, quality accommodation. Next year we will open four new house blocks, which will provide modern, updated accommodation. If the hon. Gentleman visits some of the older, Victorian prisons, he will see for himself that they are poor places to deliver proper rehabilitation services: there is not enough space for workshops or training facilities. I think that a modern prison estate is much better for all of us.

21. [900384] Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): Recently, a number of individuals who are being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure at Lincoln have caused excessive damage to the fixtures in their solitary cells. Those incidents highlight the need for custodial sentences to be lengthened as a deterrent and not imposed concurrently. However, I trust that the Secretary of State, like me, is pleased that organisations such as the Gelder Group in Lincoln are willing to help rehabilitate offenders back into our communities by offering construction-related training courses. Does he agree that any modernisation of our prisons must encourage the development of such schemes?

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Chris Grayling: We are keen to see as many work and training opportunities in our prisons as possible and we continue to look for more such opportunities. I pay tribute to the team in Lincoln for achieving that. Causing damage to a prison is wholly unacceptable. We have taken steps that will lead to inmates being charged for the damage that they cause from their prison pay. That has not happened in the past, but it must happen in the future.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): If I may correct the Secretary of State, it was the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) who decided that Oakwood should be run by G4S. He may be socially liberal, but he is not Labour. I echo the comments that have been made about the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) and welcome him to the Front Bench. It really is nice to see him there.

“We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood… That site has multiple blocks and first-class training facilities. To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 114.]

That is what the Secretary of State for Justice told us earlier this year. Oakwood was his blueprint for the future. In the light of today’s damning report, which states that the prison has failed at every level, does he stand by those words?

Chris Grayling: I invite the right hon. Gentleman to go to Oakwood to see the facilities, which were praised in today’s report. I am afraid that he is just not right. I have checked this information today. The contracting process, including the invitations to tender to the private sector to run Oakwood, started under the last Labour Government.

Prisoner Education

2. Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): What steps he is taking to address literacy and numeracy problems in prisons. [900364]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): Improving prisoners’ literacy and numeracy levels is a key focus of the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service. When a need is identified, prisoners are offered teaching and support as a matter of priority. As my hon. Friend knows, a number of charities provide invaluable support in that area.

Caroline Dinenage: In prisons across the country, education can take a long time to access and is often viewed as a reward for good behaviour, rather than as a vital cornerstone of rehabilitation. What plans does my hon. Friend have to help prisoners overcome those barriers and access the skills that will be vital to them on release?

Jeremy Wright: My hon. Friend is entirely right that rehabilitation is crucial and that education is a crucial part of rehabilitation. We will ensure that prisoners have every incentive to engage in rehabilitation. That means reforming the incentives and earned privileges scheme so that they have clear incentives, and it means ensuring that prisoners who want to get to the top of

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that scheme help other prisoners in a range of ways, one of which may be operating as a mentor or learning tutor—roles that, as she knows, are often supported by charities.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) back to the Front Bench. It is, dare I say it, a practical example of rehabilitation. On education in prisons, is the Minister aware of the innovative scheme in Cardiff prison, where the prisoners have opened a restaurant that is open to the public? That is a great help in providing prisoners with the kind of skills, including literacy and numeracy, that they will need when they re-enter the community.

Jeremy Wright: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice might provide an example of rehabilitation, if not of earned release. The Clink at Cardiff prison is a fine example of rehabilitation. It allows prisoners to gain the skills that we all know they need to go on and live law-abiding lifestyles. I have eaten there, as has the Secretary of State. It is a very good example of rehabilitation and we want to see more of it.

Miss Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his explanation of the importance of literacy and numeracy. Following the visit of the Secretary of State to Norwich prison in my constituency in the summer, will he provide an update on how he expects more work to be made available to prisoners to ensure that they stand the best chance of rehabilitation on release?

Jeremy Wright: My hon. Friend is right that work in prison is crucial. We are having considerable success in that area. Last year, 800,000 more hours were worked in prisons than the year before. That is progress, but there is more to do. Work is important because it gives prisoners not only the hard skills that they need to earn qualifications and to get and keep a job, but softer skills such as working in a team, getting up in the morning and understanding the necessity of working a proper working day. All of that is important and we want to see more of it in our prisons.

Legal Aid

3. Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): How his new model of legal aid tendering will help to ensure a more stable environment for law firms in the future. [900365]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): Under our proposals to reform legal aid, contracts will be let for at least four years and defendants will be free to choose their lawyer. Current firms can continue, provided they meet minimum quality standards. An updated tendering model for duty work seeks to make the market more sustainable by awarding contracts based on quality and capacity, not on price. All those proposals have been worked through and agreed with the Law Society.

Christopher Pincher: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. A number of firms in my constituency have initial concerns about the proposals, particularly firms such as Harringtons that have been

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encouraged to specialise in legal aid. Will my right hon. Friend commit to providing interim payments to such firms in long-running and complex cases, as that would be of great benefit to them?

Chris Grayling: I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend. We are looking across the legal aid and legal services world at ways to improve cash flows, where appropriate by providing interim payments to barristers and solicitors, and we have invited ideas from all parts of the profession on how best to do that. Even if we have to take tough overall financial decisions, I am keen to ensure that we ease cash flow challenges, which are a regular complaint from lawyers.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): Given the large number of local black, Asian and minority ethnic legal firms, including in Liverpool, why has no equality impact assessment been undertaken on the Government’s plans for legal aid?

Chris Grayling: We have done equality work, and the changes announced in September will mean that there should be no reason for any BAME specialist firm to have to change what it does.

18. [900381] Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the revised proposals have been agreed with the Law Society, and that small, local law firms will have continuing access to get that work?

Chris Grayling: I can give that confirmation. We have tried to ensure that through a contracting structure for duty work, we can guarantee that anybody who is arrested and taken to a police station will always have access to a lawyer. At the same time, we recognise the point about small firms in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and those in Liverpool mentioned by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). Such firms can continue to do their own client work, albeit in a tough financial environment, so that the choice that has been enjoyed in the past will continue.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State tell the House what recent discussions he has had with the Minister of Justice in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the sensitive issue of legal aid, and say what was the outcome of those discussions?

Chris Grayling: I have had a number of discussions with the Justice Minister over the months. We have not specifically discussed our legal aid reforms, but I know he has similar financial challenges to ours. He has mentioned those challenges to me, and I know he is looking at how best to deal with them.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The Secretary of State knows how welcome his announcement was a few weeks ago, and how he listened to responses. Concerns remain, however, about the shortage of members of the Bar doing legal aid work in welfare law and the like, and about the fees currently proposed for remunerating them. Is he willing to look open-endedly at that fee regime to ensure that we have good lawyers who are able to represent people on legal aid in the future?

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Chris Grayling: We will continue to try to ensure that we provide the right financial balance. Most senior members of the Bar mention the number of people training as barristers compared with the number of pupillages available, as that represents a huge challenge for the legal profession. The Government will continue to work to achieve the right balance, but under our proposals for criminal legal aid, in normal routine Crown court work the lowest daily amount we will be paying is £225 plus VAT.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree with the former chairman of the Criminal Bar Association who commented this weekend that for the Secretary of State to hold a “global law summit” to celebrate Magna Carta, while destroying access to justice through his legal aid policy, and access to human rights by his threats to repeal the Human Rights Act 1997 and withdraw from the European convention on human rights, is “hypocrisy” that “beggars belief”?

Chris Grayling: Everyone has a right to their opinion, and I think that that is complete hogwash. It is absolutely right and proper that this country should celebrate a profession that makes a huge contribution to this country and its economy. We should celebrate our long legal traditions and we will do so proudly in 2015. That does not mean that we do not have to take tough financial decisions to clear up the mess that Labour left behind.

Mr Slaughter: The right hon. Gentleman has never been a big fan of the Criminal Bar Association—that might be reciprocated—but does he agree with the president of the Supreme Court, who last week said that legal aid:

“ensures that the most underprivileged people in society, the people who need the protection of the law most…get a proper hearing”

and that

“legal aid cuts therefore do cause any person concerned with the rule of law worry”?

Chris Grayling: That is precisely why, despite taking the tough financial decisions, we are ensuring that anybody who cannot afford it, if they are arrested and charged with a crime, will always have access to a qualified lawyer, and qualified barrister if they need one, to provide them with a proper defence, according to the traditions of Magna Carta.

Women’s Prisons

4. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): What recent progress he has made on improving women’s prisons. [900366]

13. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What recent progress he has made on improving women’s prisons. [900376]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): We are committed to improving standards across women’s prisons to meet the needs of women offenders. We have recently conducted a review of the women’s custodial estate, the results of which will be announced in the near future. The review will inform future policy development and improvements in how the female custodial estate is configured.

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Annette Brooke: I was recently visited by local soroptimists, who told me about their national campaign to end the unnecessary imprisonment of women in the UK. Will the Minister give his support to this campaign and put more emphasis on community sentencing, rehabilitation and support?

Jeremy Wright: I will certainly have a look at the campaign to which my hon. Friend refers, but we believe that there are women who need to be imprisoned, having committed offences that justify imprisonment, and for whom, for reasons of punishment and public protection, imprisonment is appropriate. It is of course important to recognise that they have different requirements from male prisoners and to ensure that the female custodial estate reflects that. She is also right that rehabilitation is crucial. I hope she can be a little more patient and wait to hear what we have to say about the women’s custodial estate. I think she will be pleased to hear what we have to say about the need to put rehabilitation at the heart of everything we do.

Lorely Burt: I recently visited Downview prison, and I am surprised now to learn that it is being reroled—as the term goes—into a male prison. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the resulting savings to the women’s estate will be reinvested in prevention and community alternatives for women, as the Justice Secretary promised the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) on 2 July?

Jeremy Wright: Again, I hope my hon. Friend can be a little more patient and wait for the results of the review. When she sees those results, she will see that when it comes to resources, we think it is extremely important that we invest in rehabilitation, both for those women in the custodial estate because they need to be and for those women who could be better accommodated in the community. It is important that we recognise, however, that it is for the judiciary and magistrates to decide who needs to go to prison and who does not. It is our job to provide the capacity necessary. On Downview, we calculated that that capacity could be better used for the male estate than the female estate, but as I say, when she sees the results of the review, she will see that we have in mind many of things she has mentioned.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): The hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), previously a Justice Minister, concentrated much of her time on women in prison and women generally in the justice system. Will the Minister tell me whether, as the previous Minister aimed to ensure, the bulk of Baroness Corston’s report will be implemented within this Parliament?

Jeremy Wright: As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, 40 of the 43 recommendations in the Corston report have already been implemented. On the rest, he will know that the last Government decided that it was not the appropriate course of action, as Baroness Corston recommended, to pursue custodial units for women. Again, I am afraid, I must ask him to wait a little longer and see what we have to say on that subject, but he is absolutely right to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), now the sports Minister, and I hope that he will see the fruits of her labour in the work we are about to reveal.

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Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State confirm how many women’s centres he expects to close as a result of funding cuts?

Jeremy Wright: Again, the hon. Lady will have to be patient and will have to see what we have to say about provision for women across the board. It is right that we do this in a holistic way, as I am sure she would agree, and that we present proposals that have been properly thought through and properly costed, so that we can explain how we think it is best to provide custody and rehabilitation for all female offenders.

Private Contractors

6. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What progress he has made on investigating the reported misuse of public money by private contractors who hold contracts with his Department. [900368]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): We are in the process of auditing every contract that my Department holds with G4S and Serco. We will not be awarding the companies any new contracts unless or until those audits are completed to our satisfaction. We expect the audits to be completed later in the autumn.

Nick Smith: Why will the Minister not publish the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the activities of G4S before any future Ministry of Justice contracts are awarded?

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that these matters are currently being considered by the Serious Fraud Office. He will therefore understand that it would not be legally appropriate to publish items being considered by the SFO until it has completed its consideration.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be more than aware of the importance of private sector suppliers to the Ministry of Justice in delivering his strategic objectives of greater efficiency and better use of public money. He will also know that those suppliers are responsible for the more efficient and innovative delivery of the whole justice agenda, so will he be sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and remember the terrific role that the private sector has played in achieving enormous savings for the taxpayer, which will dwarf any of the issues that he is dealing with? Will he also ensure that no mistakes are made either by the contracting departments in the Ministry of Justice or by the suppliers?

Chris Grayling: I can give my hon. Friend an assurance on both those points. It is important to remember that, notwithstanding the issues that have arisen, a large number of the people working for private contractors on behalf of the Government are doing a very good job for us. It is ironic that, before the Labour party returned to its socialist roots in the past few weeks, it too used to believe in outsourcing to the private sector. It has clearly changed its mind now; that is all part of the trip back to the days of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

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Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The Lord Chancellor will recall that prison privatisations had to be halted because of the investigations that were taking place into two private sector contractors. Does he recognise that the very small number of private contractors available to take on these major contracts and the limited skills of the civil service to manage those contracts pose a threat to the achievement of his objective of transforming rehabilitation?

Chris Grayling: It is certainly unwelcome when we have issues with private contractors. I believe that it is important for the Government to broaden their ambit in terms of the organisations that they do business with. There is a large number of organisations out there in the voluntary and private sectors with skills to bring to the Government, and I hope that we can latch on to those skills and make good use of them. It is important for the future of Government contracting that we do not become too dependent on a very small number of suppliers.

Incentives and Privileges Scheme (Prisons)

7. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What progress he has made on the roll-out of changes to the incentives and privileges scheme in prisons. [900369]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): Changes to the incentives and earned privileges scheme to ensure that prisoners earn their privileges will take effect on 1 November this year. As my hon. Friend will know, we have already removed 18-rated DVDs and subscription television services. In addition, we are separately considering a revised system of incentives and privileges for young people in under-18 young offenders institutions.

Mr Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Does he believe that prisons are now, or will soon be, the spartan establishments that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier this year that he would like to see?

Jeremy Wright: I can tell my hon. Friend that for as long as my right hon. Friend and I are in charge of prisons, they will not be places of luxury. We have made it clear that when prisoners want to wear their own clothes, and to have access to television or to more of their own money, they will have to earn those privileges. As my right hon. Friend said earlier, we are going further than that in saying that prisoners who cause damage to their cells will not only be punished for that within the prison system but will be expected to pay for the damage.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Has the review that was promised after the Reece Ludlow revelations about prisoners having access to graphic images of their victims been concluded, and has that practice now ceased?

Jeremy Wright: I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to prisoners having access to legal papers relating to their cases. This is a difficult problem because, as he will recognise, prisoners have certain rights of access to their legal papers, but it is a cause for concern to us, and

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to him, that they might have access to materials that they can keep in their cells and show to other people. That is clearly inappropriate, and we are looking into how we can best restrict that access. He can rest assured that we are seeking to do that.

Criminal Justice System (Digitisation)

8. Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): What progress he has made on the digitisation and modernisation of the criminal justice system. [900370]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): The criminal justice system strategy and action plan that I launched in June sets out a clear path for the modernisation and digitisation of the criminal justice system. To drive this work forward, we have secured investment of £160 million, which supports three tranches of transformation: the second phase of the CJS efficiency programme, which will deliver the “digital courtroom”, a new CJS common platform programme and a programme to digitise policing.

Rehman Chishti: I thank the Minister for that answer, but will he clarify what key improvements can be expected for victims and witnesses from this modernisation?

Damian Green: There are a number of individual actions within the programme that guarantee that. My hon. Friend is right to identify these groups as key people who need to see improvements. I shall pick three examples. First, it will be easier for witnesses to give evidence by video link, which is particularly important for vulnerable witnesses. Secondly, we will extend the successful TrackMyCrime system, which has been developed in Avon and Somerset to give victims the opportunity to follow the progress of their case online. Thirdly, we will pilot section 28 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, which provides for pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses—again, particularly welcome in child sexual exploitation cases.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): Of course the best way to modernise the criminal justice system would be to not close Dudley’s magistrates court, currently threatened with closure by the Minister’s Department, which will force victims and witnesses to travel to Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton at great expense in terms of money and time. Would Ministers be prepared to meet magistrates and local people from Dudley so that they can hear directly from them why Dudley’s criminal court should stay open?

Damian Green: I am always happy to meet magistrates, which I do on a number of occasions because we are consulting on the future of the magistracy. However, the introduction of video links means that people will not need to travel the distances that the hon. Gentleman talks about. Police officers from police stations and vulnerable witnesses in particular will be able to give evidence from places of safety. That is the way to have an efficient estate in future, while also giving proper protection to vulnerable witnesses.

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Legal Aid

9. Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect on children of recent changes to legal aid. [900371]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): Impact assessments and equalities analyses were published to accompany the Royal Assent of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012; and there has been the “Transforming Legal Aid” consultation document of April 2013, and the Government response and further consultation published on 5 September 2013. These included the Government’s assessment of the impact on children.

Bill Esterson: The Government say that people who no longer receive legal aid will find other means of resolving legal issues. Will the Secretary of State tell me just how he expects most children to navigate their way around the very complex legal system in this country?

Chris Grayling: We have taken a number of steps to ensure that children do continue to receive legal aid. As an example, we have allowed children under 12 months to still be entitled to legal aid and to be exempt from our residence test. We have taken a number of similar measures, too, but the hon. Gentleman has to understand that we cannot continue to have a legal aid system that is as expensive as the one we have and that is far more expensive than its counterparts in other parts of the world. We cannot provide access to finance for everyone.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend say what reforms, in addition to the reforms to the legal aid system, are proposed for greater transparency in the family court system for the sake of the children involved?

Chris Grayling: I can indeed. I pay tribute to Justice Munby who is working on plans for transparency and how the Court of Protection works. The reforms he will be putting in place will, I think, make a big difference to the way in which the courts work, making them more transparent and more open about the work they do. I look forward to seeing the fruits of his labours.

19. [900382] Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The Children’s Society said of the Government’s legal aid proposals that

“these changes will prevent some of the most vulnerable children, young people and families from seeking and obtaining justice.”

What has the right hon. Gentleman changed to allay those fears?

Chris Grayling: We have found the right balance between protecting the interests of the justice and sustaining a legal aid system that provides justice—for example, by protecting civil legal aid in some of the most sensitive child custody cases. I say again, however, that in a world of tight finance, we cannot do everything for everyone.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that when children are charged with a crime, it is essential that they appear

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before magistrates as soon as possible? Will he ensure that the youth magistracy computer system puts a strong emphasis on speed, particularly in Worcester?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and if particular issues emerge in Worcester, I shall ask the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to take a look at them with her. We obviously do not want inappropriate and unnecessary delays in bringing young people in particular to justice.

Privatising Probation

10. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): When he expects to put out to tender contracts for privatising probation. [900373]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): On 19 September, the Ministry of Justice launched the transforming rehabilitation competition. It will be open to organisations from the private and voluntary and community sectors, as well as those who are currently working in probation trusts, to bid for contracts for the 21 community rehabilitation companies that will be responsible for supervising and rehabilitating low and medium-risk offenders each year. The competition will continue during 2014, and contracts will be awarded and mobilised by 2015.

Karl Turner: Does the Minister accept that the Offender Management Act 2007 was about probation trusts commissioning services locally, rather than about the abolition of local probation trusts and the commissioning of services from Whitehall, which is what he is now proposing?

Jeremy Wright: No. I have the Act in front of me, and section 3(2) states:

“The Secretary of State may make contractual or other arrangements with any other person for the making of the probation provision.”

The Act means what it says. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the last Government passed legislation that they did not intend to pass, no doubt he will want to take that up with the former Ministers in his own party who were responsible.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): The Secretary of State said in the House, referring to this very issue,

“Sometimes we just have to believe something is right and do it”.—[Official Report, 9 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 318.]

However, leaping in and hoping for the best is a sure-fire way of getting it wrong.

Let us look at the Secretary of State’s record. Only 2% of offenders on the Work programme have found jobs; dangerous offenders are not being properly risk-assessed before release; in a brand-new prison, obtaining drugs is easier than obtaining soap; and mismanaged contracts with G4S and Serco are under investigation for fraud. I could go on. Does all that not represent the triumph of the Secretary of State’s wishful thinking over public safety?

Jeremy Wright: I barely know where to start, but let us start here: it is a good idea to read the facts and not the newspaper headlines. What the hon. Lady has described

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is a travesty of what we are proposing to do. If she is talking about the involvement of the private sector in the monitoring of contracts, she needs to be extremely careful, because she ought to know that those contracts were negotiated by the last Labour Government. She is sitting in a very large glass house and throwing stones in every direction.

I think it important for us all to understand exactly what we are proposing to do, which is to bring new people with new ideas into the provision of rehabilitation for offenders of all kinds. It is important for us to recognise that the status quo should not be what we seek to defend. Reoffending rates are too high, and we need to bring them down. If the hon. Lady wants to defend the status quo, that is up to her, but we intend to improve the situation.

Mr Speaker: Order. We must make some progress. I want to allow Back Benchers to speak, and conceivably even a Front Bencher.

Justice System (Savings)

11. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What assessment he has made of the scope for further savings in the justice system in England and Wales. [900374]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): The Ministry of Justice has committed itself to saving a further 10% of its budget, or £695 million, in the year from April 2015. We are reforming rehabilitation and legal aid, making prison more cost-effective, and improving the effectiveness of the courts and criminal justice system. That adds to the savings of well over £2.5 billion that have been made since the 2010 spending review.

David Mowat: Many Departments use skilled professionals to deal with routine and complex matters. They include surgeons, scientists and, of course, barristers. However, the Ministry of Justice is unique in paying a sub-set of criminally aided barristers salaries that are two, three or four times higher than those received by, for example, surgeons. Can the Minister confirm that the current reforms will address that issue?

Damian Green: My hon. Friend has identified a real problem, which we are indeed addressing. A small number of cases cost a disproportionate amount of the legal aid budget: for instance, a recent criminal case cost about £8 million in legal aid. That clearly cannot continue in the current economic climate, and we are therefore reducing the cost of long-running criminal cases—known as very high cost cases—by 30%. We are also consulting on revised models of payment for advocacy fees.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): On 2 July, the Secretary of State promised me that if he closed a women’s prison, the savings would be invested in reducing offending by women. Will the new all-male team at the Department ensure that ring-fenced action is taken to prevent women’s offending?

Damian Green: I am happy to reassure the hon. Lady that the good work that was conducted by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who has moved on to pastures new, will be

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continued. As the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), said in answer to a previous question, if hon. Members can be patient for a few weeks, they will learn more about the prison estate.

Young Offenders

12. Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): What progress he has made on rehabilitating young offenders. [900375]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): Better rehabilitation of young offenders is a priority for the Government, and I will make a further announcement about our plans in the very near future.

Stephen McPartland: I am a patron of Trailblazers, a national charity that mentors young offenders. Will the Secretary of State confirm that offenders on the youth estate aged between 18 and 21 will be transferred to resettlement prisons three months before the end of their sentence, as is the current plan for adult offenders, and will he visit Trailblazers with me?

Chris Grayling: I am happy to visit my hon. Friend, his constituency and the charity concerned. I can confirm that it is our intention that almost all prisoners will be released from resettlement prisons, so that we can provide a proper through the gate service.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in praising the work of the excellent team at Parc prison on the edge of my constituency where many of my constituents work? They do tremendous work with young offenders serving a custodial sentence, re-entering normal life and entering work. Can he explain why his Department at one time sought to abolish the Youth Justice Board?

Chris Grayling: Let me pay tribute to the team at Parc, who do a first-rate job. I have been there myself. There is no and has never been any intention to abolish the functions of the Youth Justice Board. It has been a question purely of what the best corporate structure is for it.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

14. Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What steps he is taking to strengthen the prisons and probation ombudsman. [900377]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): We are reviewing the prisons and probation ombudsman’s terms of reference to make even clearer his independent status and role in investigating deaths in custody and in responding to complaints from detainees. I fully support the ombudsman’s steps to improve the quality and timeliness of investigations and to ensure that others can learn lessons from his findings.

Dr Huppert: I thank the Minister for his comments but the changes proposed to prison legal aid put a great deal of weight on the quality of the prisons and probation

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ombudsman. What certainty can the Minister give that that will increase the quality and speed of decisions and save money? Can he be sure that that will happen?

Jeremy Wright: We believe that this is a better way of resolving matters in the prison system than spending money on legal aid, but I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State has met the ombudsman to discuss precisely the issues that he has raised, and we will work with the ombudsman to ensure that his office is capable of dealing with any additional demand that may be generated.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): May I urge the Minister to extend the ombudsman’s powers to include investigation of the deaths of transferred prisoners who are moved into secure mental health units for mental health treatment? At present, such deaths are subject only to internal NHS review rather than the full scrutiny that would be required if the death occurred in a prison.

Jeremy Wright: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. If he will forgive me, I would like to reflect on it. I will come back to him.

Mr Speaker: Tom Harris—not here.


17. John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): What steps he is taking to protect families and vulnerable people from aggressive bailiffs. [900380]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): May I begin by thanking the Justice Secretary, the shadow Justice Secretary and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for their kind words of welcome? I thank them for the warmth that I have received from both sides of the House.

From next April, new protections in law will include restrictions on the circumstances in which bailiffs can enter someone’s home, when they can do so and the items they can take. Moreover, training for bailiffs will include what to do if a debtor is vulnerable.

John Glen: I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his new post. My constituent Ian Davies came to see me because his son was hassled by debt collectors for over six months—they were not updated when the amount of legal aid he needed to pay changed. What steps are being taken to ensure better communication between the Legal Services Commission and the enforcement agencies?

Mr Vara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. A considerable amount is being done at the moment. and he will forgive me if I say that I have not reached the relevant page in my briefing pack yet, but I will write to him with the answer, which I hope will satisfy him.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I thank the Minister for his answer, but how much harder will all these changes make it for rogue bailiffs to operate?

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Mr Vara: A huge number of reforms are being put in place. With regard to rogue bailiffs, we have put in place a number of remedies. For example, if there is a debt to a local authority, there is recourse to the local authority’s ombudsman. Bailiffs’ certificates can be taken away and it is a criminal offence for a bailiff to operate without a certificate. Moreover, the goods that have been confiscated can be returned. So a number of measures are in place to ensure rogue bailiffs do not operate.


20. [900383] Simon Danczuk (Rochdale) (Lab): Whether he has any further plans to reduce the number of courts in England and Wales.

Mr Speaker: Questions are something like buses; none for a while, then two at once.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): Very much so, Mr Speaker. I am happy to say that performance is the best it has ever been, against a background of increasing work load. The Office of the Public Guardian is also currently undertaking a review of its supervision function in order to ensure it can continue to safeguard vulnerable adults and deal with work load.

Simon Danczuk: I am obviously concerned about the number of magistrates courts that have been closed since this Government came to power. Rochdale magistrates court has remained empty since the Government decided to close it over two years ago. How much is it costing to keep courts empty, and why do the Government not simply donate Rochdale court to the people of Rochdale for community use?

Mr Vara: We are moving to the disposal of assets gradually, but it does take time.

Topical Questions

T1. [900388] Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Chris Grayling): I would like briefly to update the House on proposals for tougher sentencing. I am sure the House will agree that it is simply not acceptable that offenders who commit some truly horrific crimes in this country are automatically released from prison without serving the full sentence regardless of their behaviour, attitude and engagement in their own rehabilitation. The last Government enshrined this automatic early release in legislation. I intend to change that. Given the financial mess left behind by the Labour party it is not possible to end automatic early release for all offenders straight away, but it is my intention to take the first step in that direction. I will shortly be introducing legislation to ensure that criminals convicted of rape or attempted rape of a child or of terrorism offences will no longer be automatically released at the halfway point of their prison sentence. Instead they will have to earn their release by the Parole Board. This means that many serious criminals will end up spending significantly longer in prison.

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Kate Green: According the Prison Advice and Care Trust, 66% of women in prison have dependent children, but although a minority are looked after by their fathers while their mothers are prison, it is very uncertain who is caring for many of those children during their mother’s sentence. What are the Government doing to ensure sentencers properly take account of the best interests of dependent children in making sentencing decisions?

Chris Grayling: We are looking very carefully at the whole issue of the women’s estate, and I very much recognise the issue to which the hon. Lady refers. It is obviously difficult not to imprison somebody guilty of a serious crime, but at the same time I believe we need to do everything we can to move women in detention closer to home and closer to family. When we announce our plans for the women’s estate in due course, I hope she will see we have taken that factor heavily into account.

T3. [900390] Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): I am chair of the all-party group on child and youth crime, and although crime is falling, too many of our young people are being sucked into a life of crime, and too many are becoming involved in, or victims of, violence. What does the Secretary of State plan to do to stop this cycle of abuse?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Jeremy Wright): My hon. Friend is right. He will recognise there are two encouraging statistics and one depressing one in this context. The two encouraging statistics are the number of young people coming into the criminal justice system in the first place and the number of those who are incarcerated, but he is right: the one that is depressing is the rate of reoffending, which is over 70%. We need to take a look not just at rehabilitation more broadly, as he knows we are doing, but specifically at the youth custodial estate. He will hear, in very short order I hope, what we plan to do to reform that.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): This Justice Secretary and his Government have failed to stand up to G4S or Serco, which, as my hon. Friends have reminded the House, failed with the electronic tagging of prisoners and with the transfer of prisoners, and are failing in Oakwood prison, and he is refusing to rule out both companies from the process in relation to probation. Why should we believe that his plans for privatising probation will fare any better?

Chris Grayling: It is important to make two points. First, the investigation into the contracts for electronic monitoring refers to events that took place in 2009 and to contracts that were let in 2005 by the previous Government. It is also important to bear in mind that these very serious issues are currently subject to investigation by the appropriate authorities. The right hon. Gentleman will therefore understand that there are strong legal reasons—this is easy to avoid when in opposition but not when in government—why we have to be measured about what we say, and I intend to continue to do that.

Sadiq Khan: He may be six foot four, but he is weak. Experts, the Ministry of Justice’s own risk register and Opposition Members have all warned about the dangers

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to public safety from putting private companies such as G4S and Serco in charge of people who have committed serious and violent offences in the way the Government plan—and all this is to be done with no piloting. Why is the Justice Secretary playing fast and loose with public safety?

Chris Grayling: Let us be clear what our proposed probation reforms do. At the moment, and during all the years the previous Government were in power, anyone who goes to jail in this country for less than 12 months walks on to the street with £46 in their pocket, but no help and no supervision whatsoever, and the majority of them reoffend. It is time that changed, and that is what our reforms will do.

T4. [900392] Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that some offences merit a greater punishment than just a slap on the wrist? What action is he taking to reform the use of cautions?

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I completely agree with what my hon. Friend says, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has announced that simple cautions will no longer be available for those cases that must be heard in a Crown Court and for a range of other offences, such as possession of a knife, supplying class A drugs and a range of sexual offences against children. That is exactly the kind of toughening of the system that the public want to see.

T6. [900394] Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): In light of the announcement of a new prison for male prisoners in north Wales, will the Justice Secretary assure me that he will re-examine the provision for female prisoners, given the inordinate distance to travel to HMP Styal?

Jeremy Wright: I am going to sound like a stuck record at this rate, but I am afraid that I must tell the hon. Lady what I have told others earlier. She knows that we are looking at the female custodial estate, and one of the reasons why are doing so is, as she mentioned, the distances travelled by visitors, family and friends to visit people in custody. We will announce—in a relatively short time, I hope—what we intend to do, and she will see how we attempt to address the point she raises.

T8. [900396] Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): The wrong decision to close HMP Blundeston in my constituency was taken after a detailed evaluation of every establishment across the prison estate. Please can the Minister publish the evaluation report for Blundeston and confirm that it took full account of both the building improvements that have taken place in the past two years and the work done by staff in that period to make Blundeston a high-performing, well-run and cost-effective prison?

Jeremy Wright: As my hon. Friend would expect, I cannot agree that the wrong decision was taken, but I can reassure him that we carried out a full and proper assessment of what was going on not only at Blundeston, but across the estate. The reason I cannot publish that is, as he will immediately understand, that it is a comparative

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analysis and so would cause considerable consternation among prisons that did not quite make the cut. However, we will do everything we can to ensure that those currently employed at Blundeston are properly looked after, and we will work with him in any way we can to address the future use of the site. He and I have spoken about this matter many times, and I am sure that those who work at the site and have him as their representative will be very grateful for his interest.

T7. [900395] Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): Will the Minister publish the risk register for his probation privatisation plans, so that the public can see at first hand the dangers they are being exposed to as a result of this reckless rush to dismantle and fragment our probation service?

Chris Grayling: Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I think would be a danger to the public—to continue to release people on to our streets after short sentences and with a high risk of reoffending with no supervision whatsoever. It should never have happened, it is unacceptable and the sooner it stops the better.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): The most difficult questions for a judge to consider must include those cases whose chances of success may be deemed borderline. Where does that leave important questions such as those posed by my late constituent Tony Nicklinson, who had locked-in syndrome and sought the right to die? Would the Minister deny legal aid to him and others who survive him?

Chris Grayling: Every case must be judged on its own merits. We cannot provide legal aid for every possible case that can be pursued, but we will retain a system that provides legal aid in cases in which the courts and the Legal Aid Agency, which judge the entitlement to legal aid, think it is appropriate to do so.

T9. [900397] Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): The Secretary of State has the legal and constitutional responsibility to determine where the mortal remains of King Richard III are reburied. He would be unwise, in my view, to support the claims for reburial in Leicester, in my constituency of York or anywhere else without consulting widely and setting up an advisory panel of experts, as I proposed in an Adjournment debate before the summer break, and as Mr Justice Haddon-Cave proposed in his recent judgment on the matter. Is that something that the Secretary of State will now do?

Chris Grayling: I am well aware of the strong feelings about that case, but we reached an agreement with Leicester university, which funded and carried out the dig, and I think we should stick to the agreements we reached.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend update the House about when he intends to publish the victims code?

Damian Green: I am aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in that important document. I urge patience, but reassure him that his patience will be rewarded very shortly.

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Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): As a former Legal Aid Minister, I recognise the hard decisions that have to be made on legal aid. Civil legal aid and judicial review are fundamental to our system. It has been fundamental since Magna Carta; if the state decides to take away someone’s home or children, or refuses to give them appropriate education, they ought to be able to challenge that. Will the Secretary of State look again at the issue, given the small amounts of savings he has suggested that there will be?

Chris Grayling: I hate to correct the right hon. Gentleman, but he talks about people’s entitlement to judicial review since Magna Carta. That took place in 1215—we will be celebrating its 800th anniversary shortly—whereas judicial review was introduced in 1974.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What is the latest total for the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails and what steps have been taken in recent months to send them back to secure detention in their own countries?

Jeremy Wright: The last time my hon. Friend asked me that question, I did not have the number to hand. I still do not, but I can tell him that it is in the order of 10,800. He and I are in full agreement that that number is too high. As for the second part of his question, as he knows we are attempting to negotiate compulsory prisoner transfer agreements with a number of countries. We already have one with the European Union. I know how enthusiastic he is about EU measures, so he will be pleased to know that we are making real progress in sending people back under the EU PTA. We will continue to work hard to do so.

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): Local multi-agency public protection arrangements, introduced under the previous Labour Government, have been highly successful in protecting the public from high-level violent and sexual offenders. Concerns have been expressed to me that those arrangements might be centralised, making management of such offenders difficult and putting the public at risk. Will the Minister assure me that the Government do not intend to make that worrying scenario a reality?

Chris Grayling: Under our proposed reforms, multi-agency supervision arrangements will remain in the public sector and will continue to be subject to local decision making, which will take between local branches of the national probation service and local agencies such as the policy and local authorities.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I hope that the Secretary of State has read the front page of the Daily Mail today, highlighting the 202 cases that the UK has lost at the European Court of Human Rights. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights, with its pretend judges, have become a charter for murderers, rapists, terrorists and illegal immigrants and that the sooner we scrap the Human Rights Act and get out of the European convention on human rights the better?

Chris Grayling: I share my hon. Friend’s belief in the need for change. It is my intention that the Conservative party should go into the next election with a clear plan

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for change, and it will. This is now a clear dividing line between us, because the shadow Secretary of State has only today reasserted his belief that the current human rights framework is right for this country. We disagree, and I look forward to fighting that battle over the next 18 months.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): When the Minister quotes the Offender Management Act 2007, will he do me the courtesy of looking at the Hansard for that period, when the Minister in question—that is, me—said that the vast majority of probation boards would stay in public ownership?

Jeremy Wright: I quoted directly from the Act, and the right hon. Gentleman knows that I quoted correctly. I was asked a question about what the Act says. I quoted what it says. How he might have meant it to be interpreted is something else. I am afraid he and his hon. Friends must recognise that if they passed a law they did not mean to pass, that is not our problem but theirs.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The British people are sick and tired of those given long custodial sentences being released early as a matter of right. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice recently made an announcement on those given the longest custodial sentences, but can he confirm to the House that it is his intention in due course to remove the automatic right of those who serve custodial sentences to an automatic discount?

Chris Grayling: I do not like the concept of automatic early release at all. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the financial limitations that we face at the moment, which is why I made a start with the most serious and unpleasant offenders, but it is certainly my desire, when resources permit, to go further on this.

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): A few months ago, in response to a question from me, the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers suggested that he would be setting up a new system for ensuring that tribunal judges dealing with work capability assessment appeals would give good reasons. Has that new programme been instituted, and when can we expect a statement on how it is working?

Chris Grayling: This is specifically the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, but I can tell the hon. Lady that extensive work has been done. Much more detail is now being provided to the Department for Work and Pensions by the Courts and Tribunals Service, and we will continue to explore ways in which we can ensure that decision makers in Jobcentre Plus understand fully the reason for a decision in a tribunal.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): Capita submitted the lowest tender and was awarded the contract for court interpreters, but since then has faced more than 2,000 complaints, comprising 30% of its assignments. What is the Department going to do about that, and has it any plans for re-tendering that service?

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Chris Grayling: If I can correct my hon. Friend, the original contract was given to a small company, which was subsequently taken over by Capita, and it was actually Capita that did the work to improve performance, which was clearly unacceptable at the start. The contract is now performing at a pretty high level. We will continue to look for ways to improve it, but it is a whole lot better than in the early days, when quite clearly performance was not at all acceptable.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, because I fear otherwise his bubble will burst, I call Mr Andrew Bridgen.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that transparency must be at the heart of any procurement reform in his Department—

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transparency for the taxpayer, and transparency for companies competing for Government contracts?

Chris Grayling: I absolutely do, and given the problems that we clearly have with procurement, and our inheritance from the previous Government of mismanaged contracts, we are now putting in place comprehensive work to ensure that we have a contract management system that is absolutely fit for the 21st century, which is fair and transparent, and deals with suppliers properly and appropriately, but also looks after the interests of the taxpayer.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, to whom, as they know, I could happily listen indefinitely, but we must now move on to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who has a statement for us.

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Middle East Peace Process/Syria and Iran

3.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): Mr Speaker, with permission I will make a statement on the middle east peace process, Syria and Iran. On all these matters there have been important diplomatic developments over the past few weeks, and I wanted to inform the House of them at the earliest opportunity.

It is impossible to overstate the challenges and the gravity of the threats in the region if current openings and opportunities are not brought to fruition. But on each of these subjects there has been some progress, and it is important that we build on that as rapidly and decisively as possible. As he is in his place, I want to pay tribute to the work on these issues of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) over the past three and a half years, and to welcome as Minister with responsibility for the middle east my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), who is also in his place.

Whatever the pressure of other issues, we must never lose sight of the importance and centrality of the middle east peace process to the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians and to international peace and security. I pay tribute to the leadership of Secretary John Kerry, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas for the progress that has been made, including the resumption of negotiations in July. The United States has confirmed that there have been seven rounds of direct bilateral negotiations since then. Both sides have now agreed to intensify the pace of the discussions and increase American participation in them, with the goal of reaching a permanent status agreement within nine months.

During the UN General Assembly ministerial week in New York, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister met President Abbas, while I held talks with Israeli Minister of International Relations, Yuval Steinitz. We reiterated the United Kingdom’s unequivocal support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital, and a just and agreed settlement for refugees. With our European Union partners we are ready to provide major practical support to both sides in taking the bold steps that are needed. This includes our bilateral assistance to the Palestinian economy and the institutions of the future state. The UK is one of the largest donors to the Palestinians, providing £349 million for Palestinian development over four years.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development attended the ad hoc liaison committee in New York established to oversee Palestinian state-building and development. She recommitted the UK to providing predictable, long-term assistance aligned with the priorities of the Palestinian National Authority: building strong institutions, promoting private sector growth and humanitarian aid. We are also supporting the Palestinian economic initiative that the United States and the Quartet are developing. DFID will shortly be launching a new £15 million Palestinian market development programme to help Palestinian small and medium-sized enterprises enter new markets and to help mobilise investment. Economic progress can never

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be a substitute for a political settlement, but it is vital that the Palestinian people see tangible improvements in their daily lives.

The situation in Syria remains catastrophic. More than 100,000 people have been killed, and the number of Syrian refugees has grown by more than 1.8 million in just 12 months, to over 2 million. We must always be clear that we will not have succeeded in our work until this violence has been brought to a stop, but nevertheless we were able to make some diplomatic progress in New York on our objectives—to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to promote a political settlement to the conflict.

On the first of those, I attended the meeting of the United Nations Security Council on 27 September, which adopted the first resolution on Syria in 17 months. Security Council resolution 2118 requires the full implementation of the near-simultaneous decision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which sets out how Syria’s chemical weapons must be verifiably eliminated within the first half of 2014. For the first time, the Security Council resolution imposes binding and enforceable obligations on the Syrian regime to comply, with the threat of action under chapter VII of the UN charter if it does not. It also stipulates that those responsible for any use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.

I announced in New York £2 million in funding to enable the OPCW to deploy to Syria last week. It has reported early progress in identifying and destroying chemical weapons. Under its supervision Syrian personnel have commenced the destruction or disabling of missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment, and the OPCW is carrying out work to assess the accuracy and completeness of the information provided by the regime. British nationals who work for the OPCW are already deployed in Syria as part of the new destruction mission, and we stand ready to provide further support as necessary, such as personnel, technical expertise and information. The House should be in no doubt that the voluntary destruction of a deadly arsenal of weapons that until recently the Assad regime denied it possessed is an important step forward, and a vindication of the threat of military action by the United States of America.

Secondly, hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians continue to suffer atrociously from the regime’s use of conventional weapons. The UK is leading the way in alleviating desperate humanitarian suffering. In the UK’s annual address to the General Assembly, the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed an additional £100 million in UK assistance, bringing our total humanitarian contribution to date to £500 million, the largest ever British response to a single crisis.

The Prime Minister’s campaign, begun at the G20 and followed up by our embassies worldwide, has helped to secure more than $1 billion in new international pledges of humanitarian assistance since the start of September, and we look to other countries to do more to meet the level of suffering and instability caused by such an unprecedented number of people being in need.

Throughout the General Assembly, and particularly in the two meetings I had with the other permanent members of the Security Council, I pressed the case for a Security Council presidential statement urging the Syrian Government to allow unhindered access to people in need, including across borders, and calling on

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all parties to agree on humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow the delivery of aid. That statement was subsequently agreed on 2 October. With our encouragement, the UN Secretary-General has announced his intention to convene a new pledging conference in January 2014.

The House will know that the stability of Jordan and Lebanon is high among our priorities, and in that regard I attended, with the P5 Foreign Ministers, the creation of a new international support group for Lebanon during the General Assembly. The UK is now providing £69 million to help Lebanon cope with the refugee crisis. In addition, we are providing £11 million of non-lethal assistance to Lebanese armed forces, and we are helping Jordan with £87 million of UK aid for Syrian refugees and host communities.

Thirdly, on the political process, UN Security Council resolution 2118 also formally endorsed the Geneva communiqué of June last year for the first time, calling for the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers, which could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups, formed on the basis of mutual consent. The resolution calls for the convening of an international conference on Syria to implement the Geneva communiqué. As P5 Foreign Ministers, we agreed with the UN Secretary-General that we should aim to convene the conference in Geneva by mid-November this year. An intensive period of preparation will be required, led by the UN and Arab League special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi.

I met the Syrian National Coalition President, Ahmed al-Jarba, in New York. He assured me that the coalition remains committed to an inclusive and democratic Syria, that it rejects extremism and that it is committed to the Geneva communiqué. There can be no peaceful and political settlement in Syria without the participation of the moderate opposition. That is why we are providing more than £20 million in non-lethal support to the moderate opposition and will do more in the coming months.

I discussed the conflict in Syria with Iran’s new Foreign Minister, whom I met twice in New York, including with the E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers, and with whom I had further discussions by telephone yesterday. It is clear that the new President and Ministers in Iran are presenting themselves and their country in a much more positive way than in the recent past. There is no doubt that the tone of meetings with them is different.

We have agreed to resume negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme in Geneva next week, on 15 and 16 October. We are looking forward to seeing serious proposals from Iran to follow up on its stated desire to make rapid progress with negotiations. It will be very important for Iran’s relations with the international community for the marked change of presentation and statements to be accompanied by concrete actions and a viable approach to negotiations.

We must not forget for one moment that, as things stand today, Iran remains in defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions and multiple resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors and that it is installing more centrifuges in its nuclear facilities. In the absence of change in those policies, we will continue to maintain strong sanctions. A substantial change in British or western policies will require a substantive change in Iran’s nuclear programme.

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However, we must test the Iranian Government's sincerity to the full, and it is important that our channels of communication are open for that. Mr Zarif, the Foreign Minister, and I discussed how to improve the functioning of the UK-Iran bilateral relationship. Our diplomatic relations suffered a severe setback when our embassy compounds in Tehran were overrun in 2011 and the Vienna conventions flouted, and when the Iranian Majlis voted to downgrade relations with the UK.

It is understood on both sides that, given this history, progress in our bilateral relationship needs to proceed on a step-by-step and reciprocal basis. The Foreign Minister and I agreed that our officials would meet to discuss this. The first such meeting has already taken place and will be followed up by a further meeting in Geneva next week. This includes discussion of numbers of and conditions for locally engaged staff in the embassy premises of each country and visits to inspect these premises. I have made very clear to Mr Zarif that we are open to more direct contact and further improvements in our bilateral relationship.

We have therefore agreed that both our countries will now appoint a non-resident chargé d'affaires tasked with implementing the building of relations, including interim steps on the way towards eventual re-opening of both our embassies, as well as dialogue on other issues of mutual concern.

We must not underestimate the difficulties ahead. Iran has a complex power structure; there are voices in Iran who do not agree with their Government's stated desire to see progress on nuclear negotiations and a rapprochement with the west, and improvements in our bilateral relations will require confidence on both sides that those improvements can be sustained. But to be open to such improvements is consistent with our desire to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute and the fact that we have no quarrel with the people of Iran. The House will be conscious of the fact that on all these issues the coming months may be unusually significant and replete with dangers but also with opportunities. Her Majesty's Government will spare no effort to promote a peaceful resolution to each of these conflicts and crises, working closely with our allies at all times and taking full advantage of every diplomatic opening; never starry-eyed but always pursuing progress through resolute diplomacy.

3.47 pm

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it? I would like to start by welcoming the newly appointed Minister for the middle east, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson). I know that Members on both sides will wish to join me in recognising his significant achievement in helping deliver the London Olympics and I am sure that he will continue to bring the same level of commitment and, indeed, skill to his new role in the Foreign Office.

May I also take a moment to pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? He is a man whose obvious talent, commitment and decency—qualities that are recognised and appreciated by many in this House—have not gone unnoticed by Members over recent years. He is a very

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significant loss to the Government and in all my dealings with him on the middle east I admired his skill, intellect and consistently courteous approach.

This month’s United Nations General Assembly was a moment where real progress needed to be made most urgently on the issue of Syria. Of course I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s call for further action on securing free and unfettered humanitarian access in the country and I welcome the Government’s announcement of an additional £100 million in humanitarian aid for Syria. But sadly, despite this significant additional UK contribution, the UN appeal after the UN General Assembly is still only 44 per cent. funded. Can the Foreign Secretary set out what steps the Government will take now to try to help to ensure that other donors turn unfulfilled pledges into cash commitments?

Since that General Assembly meeting last month, the destruction and disabling of missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling units within Syria has thankfully now begun. In particular, I want to commend the work of the British personnel working as part of the team carrying out this difficult and dangerous work on the ground in Syria.

Given that this is the first time that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been tasked with overseeing the destruction of chemical weapons armoury during a live conflict, can the Foreign Secretary provide any further details about how the mission is likely to proceed in the coming months? In particular can he offer the House any guidance with respect to negotiating access to sites currently within rebel-held areas of Syria?

On the middle east peace process, Secretary Kerry’s efforts to restart the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians deserve both our praise and our support. Delivering the necessary compromises from all sides will surely be a task aided by the active involvement of the United States. Can the Foreign Secretary clarify what role US special envoy Martin Indyk is playing in the substantive negotiations? When I recently met President Abbas, he emphasised the nine-month timeframe for these talks. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what progress would have to be made before March 2014 in order to justify a decision to continue negotiations beyond that allotted timetable?

Let me now turn to the issue of Iran. Back in August, I described the Government’s decision not to send ministerial representation to the inauguration of the new Iranian President as a misjudgment and a missed opportunity. At the start of September, I pressed the Foreign Secretary on the possibility of establishing a Syrian contact group, with Iran as a key member. Later last month, I pressed the Government on whether the Foreign Secretary would look to reopen the British embassy in Tehran as soon as it was practical and safe to do so. The Government appeared to give little consideration to these proposals when I first suggested them.

Today the Foreign Secretary cited his meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif and the letter dispatched by the Prime Minister to President Rouhani. While I welcome these recent decisions, I regret that it took so long for these important steps eventually to be taken. In recent months the Government appear to have misjudged their response to the signals emerging from Tehran, and as a result the UK risks being left behind by the absence of a clear strategy towards Iran. Disagreements not just

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over Iran’s nuclear ambitions but over domestic and international actions by the Iranian regime are profound, and cannot and should not be overlooked. However, it is vital that Iran continues to be encouraged to play a more constructive role, and the UK Government should be doing more to help to facilitate this change. In the light of this, I welcome today’s announcement of a chargé d’affaires having been appointed, but can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that this is an interim step on the way to establishing full diplomatic relations?

Labour remains of the view that the UK Government should maintain pressure on the Iranian regime to change its approach to nuclear enrichment. However, notwithstanding the decades-long difficulties in the bilateral relationship between Iran and the United States, it has, alas, been the American Administration, and not the British Government, who have better understood the signals and made the decisive advances towards improved relations with Iran. On Iran, it is time for the Government to catch up with our American allies.

Mr Hague: On the right hon. Gentleman’s initial questions relating to Syria, I think it will be the view across the House that free and unfettered access is of huge importance. He is right to say that the UN appeal for funds is currently 44% funded. As the House heard from my statement, we have done a great deal to make sure that some of that 44% is in place, and we are making a huge contribution ourselves. Our embassies and the Department for International Development’s ministerial team are engaged in a non-stop effort to build up the contributions from other countries. There is now the commitment to a pledging conference, which we hope will take place in Kuwait in January and which is the major international event to work towards in gathering greater contributions for the future.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the OPCW and how it will proceed, all the known sites for the holding of chemical weapons in Syria are within regime-held territory. We are not aware of the opposition being in possession of chemical weapons, so of course this work is focused, revealingly, entirely on the regime-held areas. What is meant to happen now, according to the timetable that has been established, is that all sites should have been inspected by the 27th of this month; that the regime’s production and mixing and filling equipment in relation to chemical weapons should be destroyed in the next few weeks, by 1 November; and that the details of how to proceed with eliminating all the material and other equipment will be decided by 15 November, with a view to the whole programme being completed in the first half of next year. It is an immense task, but it is good that the OPCW has arrived in Syria and that at the weekend the destruction began of some of the munitions involved. Of course, we will continue to watch this closely, and that includes, as I say, standing ready to provide further expertise as necessary.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the peace process, obviously the United States has a central role in this, including the United States special envoy. Many of the meetings—the seven rounds of negotiations so far—have been taking place on a bilateral basis, but it is envisaged that there will be closer American participation in those meetings over the coming weeks.

The ambition is to resolve the issues, including the final status issues, within six to nine months. That is

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the timetable to which the parties are working. It is too early to respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about what happens after March 2014.

On Iran, I hope there are no differences across the House about the direction of policy. The right hon. Gentleman asked us to catch up with other countries, but perhaps it is time for him to catch up with what the Government have actually been doing. I assure him and the House that there is no difference of view or approach between the United States, the United Kingdom and, indeed, other western allies. We are in different positions on diplomatic relations because some European countries still have embassies in Tehran. Their embassies were not overrun as ours was in 2011. By contrast, as is well known, the United States has not been in that situation for a very long time—since 1979. Of course there are differences between different countries, but all of us are trying to encourage the opening up by Iran, which the Iranian Ministers are presenting. There is no lack of attention to that.

It has been a long time since any British Foreign Secretary—we would have to go back to the days of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as we frequently do on these subjects—had as many discussions in the space of a few days with the Foreign Minister of Iran. It is vital that our work to improve the functioning of our bilateral relations takes place on a step-by-step and reciprocal basis. Recently, even getting unhindered access for locally engaged staff to inspect and check up on our embassy premises has remained a very difficult matter, so the House will understand that building up trust and co-operation will be necessary before it will be possible to open an embassy again. We are, therefore, doing that on a step-by-step, reciprocal basis. I do not believe it would be responsible to approach it in a different way. It has been welcomed so far by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, as evidenced by today’s agreement on appointing a non-resident chargé for both countries. That opens the way to further improvements, as I said in my statement, including a view in the future to the full reopening of both embassies, but that will depend on the mutual building of confidence, good co-operation and trust, which has, of course, been missing in the past.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I commend my right hon. Friend on his clever attempt to balance both optimism and realism in reviewing the remarkable events of the past few weeks, but may I press him on the issue of chemical weapons? The use of these weapons is a crime against humanity, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations has confirmed. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the possibility of those responsible for their use in Syria—whether on the Government side or the opposition side—ever being brought to justice?

Mr Hague: Accountability is very important. I make no secret of the fact that we would have preferred—as, I think, would most of this House—a UN resolution with more specific provisions for accountability, including reference to the International Criminal Court. It was very clear throughout all our talks in New York that no such resolution could be agreed with our Russian colleagues. Of course, it was important to pass a resolution on, and implement the destruction of, the chemical weapons, but we have had to do that without reference to the

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ICC. Future accountability will, therefore, depend on what happens more broadly with regard to the future of Syria and the determination of Syrians to hold those responsible to account in the future. I hope that they and all of us in the international community will be very clear that we wish to do that.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): First, while congratulating the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson) on his appointment, may I underline the respect for and tribute made to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the brilliant way in which he conducted himself as a Minister? I hope the fact that he was held in as high regard by the Opposition as he was by those on the Government Benches did not contribute to the Prime Minister’s decision yesterday.

The Foreign Secretary is right to say that Iran has a complex power structure and that we must proceed step-by-step with reciprocity. Does he accept that another country that has a complex power structure is the United States? President Obama is almost as boxed in as President Rouhani on this issue, while the Foreign Secretary has much greater room for manoeuvre. Will he therefore bear it in mind that the British Government are in a position to take calculated risks and to seize the opportunity with respect to Iran, while the other two may not be? He may be able to take the initiative on Iran, while others may not be able to do so.

Mr Hague: I will give a broad “yes” to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I ask him not to underestimate the focus on this issue in the United States or its readiness to deal directly with the new ministerial leaders in Iran. As he knows, President Obama had a telephone conversation with President Rouhani. Secretary Kerry attended the meeting of the E3 plus 3 Ministers with Mr Zarif, which was the first meeting between a US Secretary of State and an Iranian Foreign Minister for a very long time. The United States does have a complex power structure, but its National Security Council is very focused on this issue. It is important that the E3 plus 3 countries work cohesively on the nuclear issue, rather than emphasising different approaches. We must all in our different ways and using our different national strengths and perspectives on Iran encourage the progress in the nuclear negotiations that is so urgently needed.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): Although I welcome the appointment of the chargé d’affaires, which is to the credit of the new Iranian regime as much as to that of the regime here in London, would it not be wise to judge President Rouhani on his actions, rather than on his words, and to ignore the calls to go faster than the situation merits?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are putting in place a step-by-step reciprocal approach to bilateral relations. It is important to proceed in that way for the reasons that I gave the House a few moments ago. I think that that approach will be the most comfortable one for the Iranian Ministers who are in favour of this process and the one that will be able to command the most support in Iran. For both countries, I think that this is the best way to proceed. It is important that the welcome tone and positive remarks of Iranian Ministers over recent months are matched by serious proposals in the nuclear negotiations and by concrete actions.

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Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I support the Foreign Secretary in his efforts to build on the success on chemical weapons that has been achieved through negotiations by securing an early Geneva II conference. It is crucial to get the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrian Government there, along with our international allies and the moderate opposition. He may have to refuse to accept that recalcitrant, let alone jihadist, opposition groups can exercise a veto.

May I also ask the Foreign Secretary to schedule a full day’s debate on Syria on a substantive motion, because we have not had a chance to discuss Syria policy in detail, despite his admirably regular updates? A pre-agreed motion might afford the House an opportunity to unite around Syria policy, when in August we were divided on military action.

Mr Hague: Personally, I am entirely open to such a debate. The Leader of the House is here. I do not know whether he is open to it, given all the pressures on him, but he will have heard the legitimate point that the right hon. Gentleman has made.

The progress that we have made in setting an ambition to convene the Geneva II peace conference has involved working closely with Russia. It is the product of the five permanent members of the Security Council working together during the General Assembly. That is an important and welcome step on Syria, given the history of the past two and a half years.

I discussed the participation of Iran in future talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister. I have asked the Iranians to accept the outcome of Geneva I as the basis for future discussions. After all, that is accepted by almost all other countries in the world. If that were the common baseline, it would make it easier to include the Iranians in future discussions. I look forward to their further consideration of that.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Would the Foreign Secretary like to praise Parliament for recommending diplomacy rather than war as the best means of tackling the difficult matter of chemical weapons in Syria? That policy seems to be working rather well. Does he agree that Parliament’s influence extended to the United States of America, where the President called our debate in aid as the reason for his change of approach towards consulting Congress and going for peace?

Mr Hague: It has always been my habit to praise Parliament, even when I disagree with it, and I will continue to do so. I praise our Parliament and democracy all over the world, and I even hold up such instances as examples of our vibrant democracy. I hope, however, that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind that such progress on chemical weapons—we hope it is progress, provided it is maintained—could not have been made without the credible possibility and threat of military action. We particularly have to thank the United States for that in this connection.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab): While congratulating the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), I add my voice to the tributes that have justifiably been paid to

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the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He brought the same commitment to an individual constituency case as he did to matters of great international moment, and for that I and my constituents are grateful. I am equally grateful for the advances that have been made with regard to Syria, not least the west biting the bullet and including Iran. The Foreign Secretary referred to an increase in humanitarian aid, but he failed to detail whether any of that aid will actually be delivered to innocent civilians still trapped within the borders of Syria. Surely that is one area where even closer co-operation with Iran could bring real results.

Mr Hague: On the specific question about whether the aid goes to those in Syria, British aid reaches into all 14 governorates of Syria. The international effort, which we support and help to finance, is of course hindered by the fighting, and has sometimes been hindered deliberately by the regime preventing supplies—including much-needed medical supplies—from reaching opposition-held areas. That is the importance of the presidential statement by the Security Council, backed by Russia and China, on improving humanitarian access, including cross-border supplies of aid, and meeting the request of Baroness Amos who leads for these matters at the United Nations. We will follow that up very much indeed, and I hope our ability to hold discussions with Iran will lead to improvements in the situation in Syria. That is another area where Iran will need to change its policies on the ground, which currently include supporting a regime that is murdering and oppressing its own people in huge numbers.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I welcome the good news that the Foreign Secretary has brought to the House, and strongly echo tributes to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), which are richly deserved. The Foreign Secretary said that the matters of mutual concern he is discussing with Iran include Syria, which is welcome. Does he agree, however, that talks are sometimes better without preconditions, and that it would be positive for all concerned if Iran could be drawn into the Geneva II peace process and talks on Syria?

Mr Hague: Of course it is best to have the broadest base possible internationally for the Geneva II process, but, as I said to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), it is important that that starts from a common assumption and that we are at least able to start from the same starting line. We agreed in Geneva I last year that there should be a transitional Government in Syria with full executive power, formed by mutual consent. That is the position of Russia, China, and all five permanent members of the Security Council. The regime is ready—it says it is ready—to appoint representatives for talks on that basis, and the opposition National Coalition is ready to take part in talks on that basis. It should be possible for Iran—and any other country that has doubts about this—to say that it supports talks on that basis, and that if it participates it would be on that basis. That is what we are looking to Iran to say.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I welcome the new Minister with responsibility for the middle east to his place, and like many others I pay tribute to his predecessor.

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During the debate on Syria on 29 August I asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed that anybody using chemical weapons should face the law in either the International Criminal Court or a specially constituted tribunal. The Foreign Secretary said that Russia has blocked progress on that specific issue at this stage, but will he outline to the House how he will pursue the matter in the future? Surely nobody on any side should be able to use chemical weapons in any part of the world.

Mr Hague: That is a very important issue, and it is important that it is pursued by this country and many others over the coming months and years. There is a reference to accountability in the resolution, but as I said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), we would have preferred much more detail on reference to the International Criminal Court. It is something to which we will have to return, therefore, in the context of a settlement, if one can be arrived at, in the Geneva II process, and something to which the Syrian people will want to return.

In my view, there must be, in the future, either national or international accountability and justice in respect of crimes committed. Some of those relate to chemical weapons, of course, but terrible crimes have been committed with a whole range of weapons, including in the prisons and torture chambers of the Assad regime. Furthermore, of course, there are records of atrocities committed by opponents of the regime as well. Justice should be done for all these crimes, but it will have to be addressed in a peace settlement, given that we cannot agree on it at the Security Council.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend recall that in August many people, not least the Government of Syria, refused to admit that the Syrian regime possessed chemical weapons, and does he agree that had it not been for the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom and others in making it clear that the use of chemical weapons was wholly unacceptable in international law and in putting forward a credible threat of military action, we would never have had UN resolution 2118, we would not now be seeing the inspection of chemical weapons in Syria and we would not be about to see the destruction of those chemical weapons—weapons that, amazingly, people did not think existed as recently as August?

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we are now seeing the commencement of the destruction of weapons that we were told not long ago did not exist at all. That is certainly progress and reflects a major change in policy by Russia and the Syrian regime in Damascus, and there can be little doubt that those changes would not have come about had there not been a rigorous debate about military action in many other countries.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The Foreign Secretary rightly praised the US Secretary of State for his efforts to get the Palestinians and Israelis talking to each other again, but he did not refer to the continuing crisis in Gaza or the threats there of terrorist actions into Sinai, which have knock-on consequences in Egypt.

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Will he update the House on the implications of the problems that still exist in Gaza and the fact that we will not get a viable Palestinian state without unity of both parts of the Palestinian territory?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the situation in Gaza. It is very important that greater access into Gaza be allowed by Israel and Egypt—in the current situation—so we call on both countries to do that. We are giving a lot of assistance: of the £122 million that the Department for International Development is providing over four years to help the Palestinian Authority, about 40% is spent in Gaza, I believe, so there is a lot of direct UK assistance there, but improved access from both directions is needed if the situation is to improve.

Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I join the generous and wholly proper tributes to the former Minister for the middle east, but from long association, I know that he could hardly have been replaced by a better successor than the new Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson).

With the extremely welcome progress and opportunity for further progress on weapons of mass destruction in Syria and Iran, will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will not lose focus on Egypt? Having been there three times since the beginning of July, I can assure him that the medium-term prognosis is utterly grim. It is an area to which we will have to give serious attention.

Mr Hague: I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we will not lose focus. I thought it was important to report to the House on these three areas—the middle east peace progress, Syria and Iran—but I do think we need the full day’s debate that others have been asking for to cover all the issues. The future of Egypt is a vital foreign policy issue. I held discussions in New York with the new Foreign Minister of Egypt, and of course we continue to press the Egyptian authorities to implement a successful and inclusive transition that can bring together, in a future democracy, people of a very wide range of views. We are in close touch with the Egyptian authorities and will continue to push them very hard on that.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I should like to add my thanks to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for all his work as a Minister and for his extraordinary courtesy towards the all-party parliamentary groups. I also welcome the new Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson).

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement on the change of direction in relations with Iran, which represents a huge improvement. Does he recognise that Iran remains a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that the last review conference envisaged a nuclear weapons-free zone across the whole middle east? A conference was due to be held in Finland but it did not take place. Obviously, such a conference would have to include Iran and all the other nations, including the only nuclear weapons state in the region—namely, Israel. Will he assure the House that he and the Foreign Office still have an aspiration to have such a conference and that they will seriously push for it to be held as soon as

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possible? In this new atmosphere, the chance of achieving a nuclear weapons-free zone is surely one that should not be lost.

Mr Hague: That absolutely remains an aspiration of the Government but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it has been very difficult to bring about. Britain strongly supported the idea at the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in 2010, but it has not yet proved possible, despite the hard work of the Finnish facilitator, to bring together a conference on weapons of mass destruction in the middle east. However, we will continue our efforts to do so. If we make significant progress and achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear talks with Iran, that will greatly improve the atmosphere for bringing together such a conference.

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I, too, would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the work that he has done. I would also like to congratulate the Foreign Secretary on pressing the reset button with President Rouhani, because Iran can play an important role in bringing peace to Syria. I also congratulate him on his initiative in trying to bring chemical weapons under control in Syria today. Notwithstanding that, there are serious concerns about crimes against humanity—some involving the use of chemical weapons, some not—and as the evidence becomes clear as a result of the United Nations’ work, will he ensure that such evidence is used to bring Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher to justice?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for these initiatives. As I have said, the issues of justice and accountability, and of the gathering of evidence, remain vital. We have used British funds to train human rights journalists and others to document the crimes that have been committed, so that the evidence is there in the future, and we will continue to support that kind of work. I believe that the demand in Syria for justice and accountability will be overwhelming as the evidence from this conflict emerges over the coming months and years, and we need to be ready to support that across the whole world.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): On the “Today” programme this morning, Lord Dannatt said that the diversion of interest into Iraq had allowed the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan. What implications does the Foreign Secretary draw from that for any future UK military intervention in Syria?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are not proposing a UK military intervention in Syria. We are talking about three strands of British policy. One is to implement the UN resolution on chemical weapons, in which we are participating. The second is to continue to lead the world in alleviating human suffering. The third is to bring together a peace conference in Geneva. Those are the things that we are working on, rather than a military intervention.

Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con): I should like to associate myself with the words of the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the talent, decency and integrity of the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

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The Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the violence of the Syrian regime. He has also said that the violence is not confined to the regime, and that it is also being perpetrated by members of the opposition. Will he take this opportunity to condemn the sickening scenes involving the targeted slaughter of Syria’s Christian community, and make it clear that the people who engage in those acts are not the kind of people with whom we would ever wish to do business?

Mr Hague: I totally agree. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to these crimes, which are utterly condemned by Her Majesty’s Government. I am pleased to say that such crimes are also condemned by the Syrian National Coalition, which is committed to a non-sectarian future for Syria and makes great efforts to ensure that it is broadly representative of different faiths, different communities and political persuasions in Syria. This again underlines the need to support moderate, not extremist, opposition in Syria and to bring about a political settlement in which Christians, along with all others, can live peacefully side by side in the country.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I declare a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories with Labour Friends of Israel. I would like to thank the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his integrity in handling a complex and sensitive issue.

I very much welcome the work being undertaken to destroy weapons in Syria, but has the Foreign Secretary received any reports showing the transfer of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah, which could endanger the lives of the people of Lebanon, Syria and Israel?

Mr Hague: I do not have any evidence of the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Clearly, Hezbollah has received supplies of weapons over a long period, and such weapons have been maintained in Lebanon in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. We all have every right to suspect that those weapons have often come from Iran via Syria. On the issue of chemical weapons, however, I do not have any evidence of their transfer to any other nation or grouping in the region. I hope that the destruction of these weapons can take place verifiably—before there is any risk of that happening.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I, too, want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the extraordinary patience, intelligence and careful understanding that he brought to his role.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on progress made in re-engaging with Iran and on his constructive engagement with the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. I encourage my right hon. Friend, however, to use the opportunity presented by Syria to lead a genuine global campaign against chemical weapons and to devote the resources and staff necessary to make the elimination of chemical weapons one of the key priorities of the British Government.

Mr Hague: Britain has a strong history of working to prohibit chemical weapons and of encouraging other countries to sign the chemical weapons convention. Syria’s decision, if verifiably implemented, will of course

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be a major advance; as it could easily be the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the world, its destruction would be a major advance. My hon. Friend is quite right that that should lead us only to redouble our efforts to make sure that other stocks of chemical weapons in the world are destroyed.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), particularly for the regular briefings he provided to Members of all parties; I hope his successor will continue that practice. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement on Lebanon and the extra resources going into the international support group. Has he made any assessment, however, of the impact on the Palestinian refugees, currently living in Lebanon and elsewhere, who have suffered for many years, of the influx of so many Syrian refugees?

Mr Hague: The impact on most people in Lebanon is difficult. As the hon. Lady knows, the influx of refugees into that country is proportionately huge, with more than 700,000 refugees living there—a large proportion of Lebanon’s population. The United Kingdom continues to give strong support for Palestinians in Lebanon, and a good deal of the help from the Department for International Development that goes through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency goes into supporting those Palestinians. We are very conscious of the problem; supporting these people is part of our approach to Lebanon.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): In relation to the terrible civil war in Syria, is the Government’s position strictly neutral?

Mr Hague: No. We believe that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy and credibility, not only in the eyes of many of its own people but in the eyes of the world, whereas we recognise members of the national coalition as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. It would therefore not be right to say that we are strictly neutral. However, we do want to promote a political settlement in which a transitional Government, formed from regime and opposition, can be brought about.

Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): My I add to the many tributes that have been paid to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? I am sure that he has received many letters—from me, and from many other Members—about his excellent work in relation to the middle east, and I am sure that he will be missed by Front Benchers.

I agreed with what the Foreign Secretary said about the catastrophic situation in Syria and the fact that more than 2 million refugees are fleeing from the country into the wider region, but what assessment has been made of the likelihood of the conflict’s spreading within the region as well? We know that there is already sectarian violence in Lebanon, but what is happening elsewhere, and what can we do about anything that is happening?

Mr Hague: The conflict clearly presents a danger to the stability of Lebanon, Iraq, and, in a different way, Jordan, because of the pressures on its border. That is

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why we are placing such emphasis on our work in those countries, and particularly on what we can do to reinforce the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. We give them a lot of help, not only in the form of the humanitarian aid that goes through international agencies, but directly. We have given assistance to the Lebanese armed forces on their border; we have sent equipment to help the Jordanian armed forces to cope on their border. Ensuring that, during the period in which we cannot resolve the crisis, we at least help other countries to contain it, is a very important aspect of our policy.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Let me also pay a personal tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He responded on behalf of the Government to the debate during which I made my maiden speech, and my sadness at seeing him leave the Front Bench is matched only by my great pleasure at seeing him back here in the habitation of us lesser mortals.

Some time ago, I asked my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary how long the two-state solution had. He told me then that it had 18 months, but I cannot remember how long ago that was. Can he tell me how long the two-state solution now has before it becomes unviable?

Mr Hague: It does not have long. It has many half-lives, I suppose. None of us ever wants to say that it is impossible and cannot be achieved, but I think that this is the last best chance. If we reach next year without having made the progress and achieved the breakthrough that so much hard work is going into now, that will clearly be an enormous setback, and many people will question very seriously whether a two-state solution could ever be arrived at. That has why it has been so important to get everyone together this year for the bilateral negotiations, and that is why we must do all that we can to help those negotiations to succeed.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): In west Africa, Iran gives support to militias that have clashed with Government forces. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had about Iran’s interference in that important region?

Mr Hague: As the hon. Gentleman will understand, we have not yet discussed the full range of global affairs during the meetings that we have had so far. Those meetings have concentrated on the nuclear issue, on Syria, and on bilateral relations. However, the appointment of the non-resident chargés that I have announced today will allow us to discuss with Iran a greater range of issues of mutual concern. Nothing is excluded from that, and what is happening in areas such as west Africa could well be legitimate topics for discussion.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I share the Foreign Secretary’s cautious optimism, given the not inconsiderable progress that has been achieved in the middle east since he last made a statement to the House. No little credit for that progress should be laid at the door of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

Without being starry-eyed, as the Foreign Secretary put it, may I suggest that one area in which we can pursue issues of mutual concern, particularly with the ordinary people of Iran, is the hard-drugs trade? Many

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Iranians are now heroin addicts, and many have been killed at the hands of drug barons controlling drug paths in the north of the country. When I visited the country a few years ago, we had seconded to it Metropolitan police officers with expertise in drugs, who were doing some great work that was of mutual benefit. Is that not one of the routes through which we could open up an early relationship with Iran?

Mr Hague: Yes, it is. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Combating that trade is in the interests of both countries. I hope that it will be one of the issues of mutual concern that we address at an early stage.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): May I add my appreciation for the work of the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? I think that all Members with an interest in the middle east will acknowledge his complete mastery of his brief, even when they disagreed with the policy that he was defending, on which subject, whatever the Secretary of State is saying to the Israeli Government about withdrawal from the occupied territories, they are not listening. Senior Israeli Ministers said over the summer that they will never allow a Palestinian state, so will the Government take the small step of banning the import of goods from settlements, which the Secretary of State himself is clear are illegal under international law?

Mr Hague: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the voluntary guidelines on those imports were introduced by the previous Government and we have continued them and support them. All our efforts in the coming months will be directed at trying to make a success of the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, so I am not proposing to do anything that cuts across that. The Israelis in those discussions are discussing the creation of a Palestinian state. That is what it is all about—a two-state solution, which means a sovereign, viable Palestinian state and the resolution of the final status issues, including refugees and borders. Therefore, we must keep our eyes on that main prize and return to the many other issues if the talks do not succeed.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The Israeli perspective on Iran is that it is very close to completing its enrichment processes, that it has started the renewed dialogue with the west to provide diplomatic cover for a dash to the line, and that with its ballistic technology it can complete a nuclear weapon or weapons deliverable on Israel. To what extent does the Foreign Secretary share the Israeli analysis?

Mr Hague: Israelis and others are right to be alarmed about the Iranian nuclear programme. It continues to increase its stockpile of near 20% enriched uranium. It has no credible civilian use for the significant quantities of enriched material that it has. It has continued to install more centrifuges and the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that it has not provided access to the heavy water production plant at Arak, which is also a cause for serious concern. That underlines the importance of trying to resolve these issues peacefully, and the importance of maintaining the pressure on Iran and the pressure of the comprehensive sanctions introduced by the European Union, the United

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States and other countries, which I believe has now brought Iran to the negotiating table. Whether that will succeed remains to be seen.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): The House needs to be aware just how restricted humanitarian access is in Syria. Two weeks ago in Amman, the World Food Programme told me that last month it sought to deliver food and other emergency supplies to 3 million people in Syria but was able to get it through only to 1.25 million people, fewer than half of those who needed it. What difference will the welcome October presidential statement from the Security Council make? How quickly will we see a change on the ground for the civilian victims of the tragedy in Syria?

Mr Hague: That is a good question, to which we cannot be certain of the answer. The hon. Gentleman illustrates the extent of the problem very well. It is important that the Security Council has agreed such a statement, because that means that it has been agreed by Russia, among others, and it is Russia that has produced the decisive change in the regime’s attitude on chemical weapons. Therefore, we hope that our colleagues in the Russian Government will join us in demanding from the regime the necessary access on the back of the presidential statement. I will keep the House informed of progress on that.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for doing an outstanding job and, on a personal level, for always being courteous, helpful and understanding. I thank him for that.

It has been said that Iran is prepared to support a transition in Syria without President Assad—a transition between the regime and the opposition. Does the Foreign Secretary have an analysis of that and has he discussed that with the Foreign Minister of Iran?

Mr Hague: Yes, I have discussed these issues with the Foreign Minister of Iran. As I said in answer to some earlier questions, I have put the case to the Iranians that they should be supporting the Geneva communiqué of last year that there should be a transitional Government in Syria drawn from regime and opposition by mutual consent. As I understand it, and as I have heard the Iranians talk about it, that is not currently their position, but they have not ruled out adopting that position. I will continue to encourage them to do so so that the international consensus around last year’s Geneva communiqué will be greatly strengthened.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The Secretary of State acknowledged that economic progress and a political settlement need to go hand in hand in the middle east peace process. What impact is the expansion of illegal settlements having on Palestinian economic development?