Previous Section Index Home Page

Higher Education (Outside Speakers)

10. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): If he will issue advice to higher education institutions on how to ensure the compliance of their policies on outside speakers with their statutory duties. [102292]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Universities’ responsibilities in regard to outside speakers were addressed in the guidance we issued on 17 November about tackling violent extremism in the name of Islam. This built on guidance issued by Universities UK last year on dealing with hate crimes and intolerance, which I supported. I do not believe that further guidance is needed at present.

Dr. Harris: The Minister will be aware that section 43 of the Education Act 1986 provides that our education institutions must take reasonable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured. Will he therefore agree that it is vital that lawful speech is not banned from universities and that ad hoc, home-made, no-platform policies, often drawn up by student unions, which are aimed at a group of people, regardless of their speech content, are not an acceptable and lawful way to deal with the problem?

Bill Rammell: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes an interest in this issue and I am conscious of the provisions of the 1986 Act. The guidance that we issued last Friday is consistent with that Act. Most certainly the guidance is not an attack on free speech. It makes it abundantly clear that all sorts of views that people may regard as being extreme or radical are nevertheless perfectly legitimate and acceptable. What is not acceptable is the advocacy of violence and
23 Nov 2006 : Column 679
terrorism, and the guidance was targeted at that. It needs to be made clear that a blanket no-platform policy is not consistent with the 1986 Act.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): May I ask the Minister why he felt it necessary to publish guidelines relating to extremism specifically in relation to Islam?

Bill Rammell: We published those guidelines after long discussion with many people throughout the higher education sector and based on a recognition of a serious and real threat of violent extremism in the name of Islam within that sector. It is not widespread and university campuses are not hotbeds of violent extremism, but, nevertheless, that threat is the most serious one that we face and we are right to work with the universities to ensure that it is properly handled.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I agree with the Minister that we cannot get into old-style, no-platform policies. Does he agree that there is a serious problem of banned Islamic extremist organisations trying to recruit at universities? How many cases have there been of banned Islamic extremist groups trying to recruit? What progress is he making in banning Hizb ut-Tahrir from recruiting on university campuses? Does he agree that vice-chancellors are entitled to call on police support if banned groups with nothing to do with universities try to recruit on campus?

Bill Rammell: With specific reference to Hizb ut-Tahrir, my colleagues in the Home Office have made it clear that the assessment of whether to proscribe Hizb ut-Tahrir has been under review since the summer. As for specific incidents on campus at the moment, we made it clear in the guidance that any university would need to consider the individual speaker, their previous statements and the risk of an offence being committed under the terrorism Acts and other legal provisions. Last Friday’s guidance is about helping universities to get through that process. Individual university institutions have already taken such decisions on a number of occasions and I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the exact figure in correspondence.

Skills Training

13. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What skills training his Department gives to assist workers who have been made redundant to find alternative jobs. [102296]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Phil Hope): Jobcentre Plus and the Learning and Skills Council work closely together on large scale redundancies to ensure that redundant employees have the skills they need to secure sustainable and productive jobs. Help is given, tailored to the needs of the individuals, employers and the local labour market.

Hugh Bayley: Over the summer, three long-established York companies—British Sugar, Norwich Union and Nestlé Rowntree—announced between them in excess of 1,000 redundancies. That will put
23 Nov 2006 : Column 680
particular strain on the local training agencies; demand for adult training will be higher than usual. Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that sufficient funds will be made available to the Learning and Skills Council in North Yorkshire to ensure that those needs are met and that the redundant workers can find alternative jobs?

Phil Hope: All of us will be disappointed by the decisions taken by the companies mentioned by my hon. Friend, and I extend our sympathy to the affected employees. I am pleased to be able to say that the local economy in the Yorkshire and Humber region is vibrant and flourishing, and many of the people affected will, I hope, quickly find new jobs. But my hon. Friend is right that this is an important moment, when the agencies concerned—the LSC and Jobcentre Plus, as well as agencies such as the regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward—must work together to provide help and support to people who want to acquire new skills. I certainly will ensure that those agencies create an effective partnership to respond directly to the needs of the individuals who have been affected by these decisions.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Fraud Trials

19. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What the average length of a fraud trial has been over the last five years. [102275]

The Solicitor-General (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office prosecute cases of fraud. For the Serious Fraud Office the average length of a contested trial is 54 sitting days—those are days when the court actually sits. Interestingly, in the past four years since 2002, 26 fraud trials have lasted more than six months and eight trials have lasted for more than a year. The CPS, which prosecutes most fraud cases in this country, does not hold information on the length of trials, although it can give information about its success rate.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the Solicitor-General for that reply. Will he tell the House what the cost of those trials has been, owing to their length, and what proposals the Government have to look into ways of changing the situation? Where a fraud trial is taken by a judge alone, what will be the implications in respect of the right of appeal against the decision of that judge sitting alone?

The Solicitor-General: I cannot give the costs of each of the trials at this point, but I will write to the hon. Lady on that. On her question about our proposals to reduce the length of fraud trials, I should say that their length has been reducing quite significantly in recent years. The Serious Fraud Office has worked hard to ensure that cases are brought before the courts and are able to be tried within a reasonable period, and it has
23 Nov 2006 : Column 681
managed to reduce the number of sitting days, but they are still quite long, as is clear from the figure I have quoted. In respect of non-jury trials, obviously a defendant would have a right of appeal in a similar way to a defendant tried before a jury.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Will the Solicitor-General confirm that the conviction rate in cases brought by the Serious Fraud Office is one of the highest for all forms of prosecuting authority? Will he also take this opportunity to tell the House whether it is thought that there would be any reduction in the length of trials if they were to be heard by a judge alone? I understand from speaking to members of the judiciary that they unanimously think that there would not be any reduction in the length of trials as a result of that.

The Solicitor-General: The Serious Fraud Office has an increasingly good record on convictions. However, the main reason we need to move towards having about half a dozen cases a year—the most complex and serious, and the longest running, cases—decided by a judge sitting alone is that, in order to deal with the presentation of oral evidence before courts, prosecutors have in the past had to split trials and to ensure that there were only sample indictments, which meant that only some of the charges were put forward effectively and tried. The result is that the full criminality of some very serious fraud cases is never exposed in court because of the nature of the case—because it is necessary to present oral evidence as there is a jury. As we would be able to expose the full criminality before a judge, some trials may not take less time. There may be a need to go through all the evidence. In some cases there may be a saving in time, but that is not the primary issue. The issue is to expose the full criminality of serious fraud cases.

Diversity and Equality

20. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to tackle diversity and equality issues within the service. [102276]

The Solicitor-General: A recent report by Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate has commended the CPS for its significant recent progress on equality and diversity. At senior levels—chief Crown prosecutors and above—the CPS complement is made up of 29 per cent. women, 12 per cent. ethnic minorities and 6 per cent. disabled.

Mr. Flello: I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend knows how many women and members of minority groups hold senior positions in the general civil service and are appointed as senior judges. What lessons does he think the CPS can teach those other groups, especially senior judges?

The Solicitor-General: Of those in the senior civil service, 3.5 per cent. are from black and ethnic minority communities, 27 per cent. are women and 2.3 per cent. are disabled. Of 108 High Court judges,
23 Nov 2006 : Column 682
11 are female and one is from a minority community. Three out of 37 Lord Justices of Appeal are female and none is from ethnic minority communities. One out of 12 Law Lords is female and none is from ethnic minority communities. I can see that the CPS could well teach lessons to many people.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): While I welcome greater diversity and equality both in the CPS and in the civil service as a whole, will the Minister assure the House that appointments and promotions within those institutions will be based on merit and ability, not ethnicity and religion?

The Solicitor-General: I can. It is important that we promote on the basis of merit, but also that we have a CPS that reflects our society as a whole. We need to ensure that we recruit people from minority communities who have the required qualities and merit that deserve promotion and to recognise that many women have failed to be promoted in the past due to the nature of other demands on them. We must create a work atmosphere in which women and members of ethnic minority communities are able to have their just deserts in terms of promotion.

British National Party (Leaders' Acquittal)

21. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): What response the Law Officers have made to the recent acquittal of the British National Party leaders. [102277]

The Solicitor-General: The Law Officers have discussed the case with the Crown Prosecution Service, and we are considering with colleagues whether the case has any wider implications.

Mr. David: Will my hon. and learned Friend be more specific? Will he speculate on whether his proposals would have the effect of banning obnoxious comments such as those made recently by Nick Griffin and Mark Collett of the British National party?

The Solicitor-General: Griffin and Collett made their statements in early 2004. They were prosecuted for making racist statements, and they were acquitted by a jury. Griffin claimed in his defence that he was not attacking Asians, as had been alleged, but was attacking Muslims, and that was not against the law at the time. Parliament has passed new laws on incitement of religious hatred. Those laws were watered down by the Opposition during their passage through Parliament. It is difficult to know whether a jury might have convicted under the new law. It would have been better if the Government’s stronger Bill had been passed. Even if they were acquitted, the statements by Griffin and Collett, and their politics of stirring up hatred, remain despicable.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): One should be careful before introducing any new legislation. In a free society, people have a right to be abusive about other people’s faiths, including the one to which I am an unworthy subscriber.

The Solicitor-General: I very much hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not suggesting
23 Nov 2006 : Column 683
that we should encourage people to stir up religious hatred in any way. That would certainly not be a desirable thing. The aim of Parliament in passing the legislation was to reduce the amount of religious hatred that is stirred up. We know that members of the BNP have been responsible for stirring up hatred for quite a long time.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I hope very much that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service will not be reluctant to prosecute any other people who might be involved in such activities just because of those acquittals. Will my hon. and learned Friend give an assurance that they will continue to judge cases on the current policy of success of prosecution in exactly the same way as they have done before? When does he expect that the change in the law hinted at by the Chancellor and the Lord Chancellor following the acquittals will be enacted?

The Solicitor-General: I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the CPS will continue to make decisions based on the evidence before it and the public interest involved in prosecuting cases and that it will not resile from prosecuting cases that ought to be prosecuted. We hope to introduce the change in the law during the coming year.

23 Nov 2006 : Column 684

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Nobody in Parliament holds a brief for any member of the BNP or what they stand for, but, given that Parliament took a view, with hon. Members from all parties taking a view, about the legislation that has just been passed, does the Solicitor-General agree that the wise thing is to let the new legislation come into force and let it be tested? One can then form a judgment on whether any further change is needed. Instantaneous reaction by people, none of whom sat through the trial, is hardly a wise way to proceed.

The Solicitor-General: We will give very careful consideration to the legislation and to whether further legislation is needed. The CPS made its decision to prosecute based on comments made by Collett that were against Asians and by Griffin that were against Islam and Muslims. It would have been illegal to make those comments if they had been against Jews or Sikhs. We need to strike a balance between the freedom of speech on religious matters and stopping extremists stirring up hatred about individuals based on their religion. The jury made its decision based on the law in 2004. That will soon change. If the new watered-down legislation is not strong enough, we may need to plug the gap, but we will see how it works.

23 Nov 2006 : Column 685

Business of the House

11.31 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the coming weeks?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 27 November—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech.

Tuesday 28 November—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Investment Exchanges and Clearing Houses Bill.

Wednesday 29 November—Second Reading of the Fraud (Trials Without a Jury) Bill.

Thursday 30 November—A motion to approve a European document relating to the Hague convention followed by, a motion relating to the House of Commons Members’ fund, followed by a debate on rail performance on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 1 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 4 December will be:

Monday 4 December—Remaining stages of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill.

Tuesday 5 December—Opposition day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject will be announced.

Wednesday 6 December—The regular biannual debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 7 December—Estimates [1st allotted day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

Friday 8 December—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 30 November and 7 December will be:

Thursday 30 November—A debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on organised crime in Northern Ireland.

Thursday 7 December—A debate on the report from the Home Affairs Committee on terrorism detention powers and from the Joint Committee on Human Rights on counter-terrorism policy and human rights: prosecution and pre-charge detention.

It may also assist the House if I tell Members that printed calendars giving details of the sitting days and therefore the recess dates until October 2007 are now available in the Vote Office.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the coming weeks and for alerting us to the printed calendar, which will be of interest to all hon. Members.

Next Section Index Home Page