What undermines credibility is the continual assertion of allegations without the support of facts. Whenever an allegation is made to the Department, there is an investigation into the facts. I have explained to my hon. Friend before how the rules
work with regard to the A8 accession countries. If he is asking me to admit that I am not perfect, of course I would agree with that. The system that is operating now might be able to be improved, but if it were eradicated, child poverty would rise again, which would be a disaster for our constituents.
Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): In her statement, the Paymaster General referred to a fraud and overpayment situation in 2003-04 of between £1.24 billion and £1.74 billion. It would be very helpful if she could give us the cumulative total since the inception of the scheme.
Dawn Primarolo: There is not a cumulative total. We are looking at the schemes first year of operation and putting together all the figures that we now have available for that year. What confuses Conservative Members is that they are trying to mix figures from 2003-04 with those from 2004-05, and they are all saying slightly different things. That leads them to draw the wrong conclusions.
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The Paymaster General has made an astonishing statement today. A year ago, the National Audit Office said that a fraud and error rate of 3.4 per cent. was unacceptable, yet the right hon. Lady has just announced that that rate has doubled in a year. When the new tax credits came in, Ministers promised that fraud and error would halve. Who is going to take responsibility for this failing policy? Will it be the Paymaster General or her ever-gallant Chancellor?
Dawn Primarolo: The fraud figure is £70 million. That is the figure that is in the report, and the hon. Gentleman will know that because I expect that he has taken the time to read it. He is trying to blur the lines. The fact is that, when compared with the comparable figures for the first year of operation of the working families tax credit, income support or jobseekers allowance, the fraud and error rates for tax credits are better, although of course they have to be improved. He mentioned the rate of 3.4 per cent., but he knows full well that that was an interim figure that was given with huge health warnings pointing out that the exercise was only 30 per cent. complete and that it would be necessary to wait for the full figures. The full figures are now here, and the facts are before the House.
Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Did the Paymaster General by any chance watch Doctor Who on Saturday? If she did, she might understand why her statement today reminds me of a cyberman coming, appropriately, through a portal from a parallel universe and insisting that its purpose was to upgrade humanity to achieve perfection. I freely acknowledge that the tax credit system has done much good, but in the universe in which I live, I hear of another case of despair and misery caused by the malfunctions in the system virtually every day. Unlike the heartless cybermen in Doctor Who, will the right hon. Lady at least acknowledge that harm has been done and apologise to the families who have suffered so much?
Dawn Primarolo: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to travel back in the Tardis and experience the despair and destitution that existed when his party was in government and child poverty doubled. That was a disgrace, and it is about time that he joined the real world and supported the Governments objective to eradicate child poverty, and of reaching our first target of halving it as soon as we can.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to debate an important matter that requires specific and urgent consideration, namely,
the extradition treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom.
The Prime Ministers defence of this lop-sided treaty in the House last week posed more questions than it answered. The British people simply do not understand why we are stringently enforcing a treaty that has still not been ratified in Washington, why three British citizens will be extradited on Thursday when our own judicial authorities saw no reason to prosecute them here in Britain, and why there appears to be such an imbalance between the minimal information required to extradite a UK citizen to the US and the more substantive justification required to extradite US citizens to the UK.
This is an issue of overwhelming public interest, yet it has been a real struggle to get the Government to acknowledge its significance. A letter placed in the Library of the House last month reveals that the extradition treaty was not even raised during the last visit of the US Secretary of State to the UK at the end of March, despite the then Foreign Secretarys assurances on 21 March that he would write to her prior to her visit.
This comes at a time when extradition from the US to the UK has dropped from six cases in 2003, before the Extradition Act 2003 came into force, to two last year. Extradition from the UK to the US, however, has more than doubled to 13 cases. The treaty was negotiated in secret and was granted only cursory scrutiny in the House in December 2003, when the only Members who signalled their objections were my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh). I am sure that the House will wish to applaud their foresight. There is now a strong feeling on both sides of the House that we should make up for the absence of scrutiny then with a full debate in the House today, not least in view of the controversy surrounding the fate of the three former NatWest employees.
I understand from contacts with US officials that there is some disagreement over whether the terms of the treaty are reciprocal. Even if there is a debate to be had on those legal details, it is difficult to understand why the Government should enact such important legislation without also exercising the political pressure in Washington, which is only this week belatedly being brought to bear, to encourage the US Congress to enact its side of the bargain.
Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman seeks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 24 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter, which he thinks should have urgent consideration, namely the extradition treaty between the United States and the United Kingdom. I am satisfied that the matter is proper to be discussed under the Standing Order.
The leave of the House having been given, the motion stood over under Standing Order No. 24 (Adjournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration) until the commencement of public business tomorrow.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning, I learned that the Mayor of London has announced that on Thursday he will hold a joint press conference with a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government on the transfer of further powers over Londoners to him. As this transfer of powers will involve the legislative process in the House, have you had a request from any Minister from that Department to come to the House to inform us of what is proposed, as is only right and proper?
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On behalf of Back Benchers, may I have your support in relation to our next item of business, which is the discussion of the Intelligence and Security Committees annual report? As at 11 oclock today, the Governments response to the report was not available in the Vote Office. I do not regard that as dealing from the top of the pack. The notion that we have simultaneously discussed the report and the response is a fiction. It is only by accident that I know of the existence of the response. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that very few Back Benchers and just a few Opposition Privy Councillors are aware that it was available, yet history will show that, apparently, we took its contents into account this afternoon. That is unacceptable, and I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will admonish the Government on this occasion.
Mr. Speaker: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentlemans case, but, as he has stated, that matter can be debated in the business after the ten-minute Bill, and there is nothing to prevent him from raising it when the Home Secretary makes his opening remarks. I hope that is helpful.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Animals Act 1971 to make it a defence in law for the owner of an animal involved in an accident to show that he took all reasonable steps to keep the animal in a secure enclosure; and for connected purposes.
I should first of all declare that I am chairman of the all-party horse group, and, although I am not required to register the following interest, I declare that my partner is the proprietor of a riding school.
In introducing the Bill, I seek to remove an inequity that can see, and has seen, blameless people being held liable for damages, following accidents that no person could have prevented. Members will know that there are very few strict liability offences under English lawwhen an instance occurs, it is overwhelmingly so that people can mitigate the case against them by showing that they took all reasonable steps to avoid an incident taking place.
Further, in English criminal law, a guilty action amounts to an offence only if the person involved has a guilty mindin legal speak, mens reameaning that the person must have had intent to cause the incident or must have been reckless as to its likely occurrence. That, I am sure, is how the House would want the situation to be, under both the civil and criminal law. The alternativethat one can be held liable for an event about which one knew nothing, and, indeed, that one had taken all reasonable steps to preventis a chilling scenario, much more suited to the worst totalitarian states than to democracies.
On 12 April 2006, the Court of Appeal held that absolute offences, which may subject a person to conviction and punishment in circumstances where he had done nothing wrong, may well be an infringement of his human rights. Yet there are one or two provisions in English law that can lead to that very situation, and it is one of those that my Bill seeks to address today. It exists in section 2 of the Animals Act 1971.
The wording of the Act, as might be expected, is a little tortuous and unclear, but it seems to suggest that the owner of an animal is always liable for damages if that animal is involved in an accident, regardless of the steps taken to avoid such an accident happening. Although the Act is somewhat ambiguous to a layman, it was interpreted in the House of Lords to mean precisely thatthat someone can be held liable in all such cases. In the case of Mirvahedy v. Henley in March 2003, the House of Lords held the defendants liable for damages for injuries caused to a motorist, Hossein Mirvahedy, in an accident after their horse had escaped from a field.
I do not for one moment make light of the serious injuries sustained by Mr. Mirvahedy, who was a blameless individual whose misfortune it was to be involved in the accident. Nor do I say that, in all circumstances, animal owners should be relieved of all responsibility for their animalsnot at all, as there may well be cases where they are liablebut I do question how any reasonable
person could attach blame to Mr. and Mrs. Henley when they had taken all reasonable steps to avoid such an incident occurring.
If that iniquity is not removed, the knock-on effect could be considerable. For example, given the new right to roam, would farmers be responsible for any accident that resulted from one of their sheep escaping on to a road if a rambler had crossed the farmers field and left a gate open? Following the House of Lords ruling, presumably they would be held responsible, yet that would be manifestly unfair. What exactly is the farmer expected to do in those circumstances?
Let us take the case of riding schools, which are a source of much enjoyment to people of all ages, especially children. If a horse escapes from a secure field, which horses do, and causes an accident, is the owner to be liable for damages even though there are no steps that he could reasonably have been expected to take to avoid such an occurrence? If a horse bolts when startled by a loud and sudden noise close to it, is the owner of the animal equally held liable for any damage? Again, apparently, yes: the owner of the horse would, following the House of Lords ruling, be liable. We could then reach the situation where riding schools close down, which benefits nobody, unless they can afford the increasingly expensive insurance polices that would cover them against such damagepolicies that will surely become even more expensive following the ruling. We could reach a situation whereby farmers, who are struggling financially in any case, decide that it simply is not worth it any more. Where would we be then?
Surely the best way to avoid those undesirable outcomes is to amend the Animals Act in that respect, which is what I seek to do. I should therefore like to insert a new clause into the Act, which states:
It shall be a defence to any action brought under this Act for the keeper of the animal to show that he took all reasonable care in the circumstances to avoid any accident or incident occurring, or damage being caused to a Third Party or their property.
The Animals Act 1971 currently has the effect of placing strict liability on the owner of animals that cause harm whatever the circumstances. This appears to be inconsistent with current liability law in other areas which allow for a general defence of reasonable care. The Government have acknowledged that there may be a case for an amendment to the Animals Act and expects to launch a consultation shortly.[ Official Report, 25 April 2006; Vol. 445, c.971W.]
The Bill has support from Members of four political parties, and I am grateful to Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist Members for their enthusiastic support. They realise that the present situation represents an anomaly in the law. I am also grateful to the British Horse Society for its support.
I repeat that I have the utmost sympathy for anyone involved in an accident caused by an animal and I accept that animal owners have a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to avoid such accidents. However,
the fact that someone has taken all reasonable steps to avoid such incidents should be a defence in law against litigation, and it is that balance in the law that the Bill seeks to strike. I commend it to the House.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. Mark Todd, Mr. Peter Atkinson, Philip Davies, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Richard Benyon, Kate Hoey, Miss Anne McIntosh, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Mr. David Anderson and Lembit Opik.
Mr. Laurence Robertson accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Animals Act 1971 to make it a defence in law for the owner of an animal involved in an accident to show that he took all reasonable steps to keep the animal in a secure enclosure; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October; and to be printed [Bill 214].
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on intelligence and security with particular reference to the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
I regret the circumstances in which we have to debate the issue tonight: once again, of course, today we have seen the evil face of terrorism and its terrible consequences. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives or been seriously injured in the bombings in Mumbai, India. The Government and I, and I am sure all hon. Members, unreservedly condemn the brutal murder of civilians in Mumbai. There can never be any justification for terrorism. Our thoughts and our prayers are with the victims and their families, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we stand united with India, as the worlds largest democracy, through our shared values and shared determination, to defeat terrorism in all its forms.
Let me start our discussion tonight by placing on record my admiration and support for the extraordinary work and dedication of our intelligence and security agencies. For very good reasons, not least the danger of prejudicing cases that are before the courts, we cannot go into the details of their many successful operations, which, as I said yesterday, include the four terrorist attack plots that have been disrupted since last July alone.
We should always remember that the success of the terrorists will be writ large in headlines and in human tragedy, as in this evenings news bulletins. The success of our intelligence and security services is, of necessity, very often murmured quietly in closed circles. So it is right on these occasions that we publicly record our thanks for their work. It is also fitting to thank, on behalf of the Government, the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), for their valuable work over the past year. They also work in a very committed fashion away from the glare of publicity.
The importance of the Committees work and its independence should not be in any doubt to any hon. Member. My statement yesterday underlined how seriously the Government take its reports and recommendations, and we discussed, among other things, the 7 July commemorations last week. I do not want to dwell on the conclusions and recommendations in the ISCs annual report, which was published on Thursday 29 June, because our response as a Government has already been published today, and hon. Members can read it at their leisure.