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One of the 343,000 is Mrs. Anne Dalipi, who came to see me about such a demand 12 months ago and still has not received a satisfactory explanation of why she has to repay an overpayment. She does not know which payment is covered, and the bill does not state why there is an overpayment, or why she must pay it back. Given that her experience is
typical, when will the Chief Secretary come to the House and explain that, unless the reasons that a repayment is required are detailed, the repayment will not be pressed?
Mr. Timms: The rule is pretty straightforward: an overpayment will be written off if it is due to departmental error, and if it is reasonable for the recipient to think that the award is correct. There is a process by which people can query and challenge decisions, through the adjudicator and even the ombudsman. A good process is in place, and if there is a particular issue in the case of the constituent to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I would be happy to examine that.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The number of my constituents suffering hardship as a result of having to repay overpayments shows no sign of diminishing. I have been seeking meetings with HMRC to discuss and resolve a number of particularly intractable cases since August last year. I contacted it in August, September, October and November, and in desperation wrote in December to the Paymaster General, who at least acknowledged the letter, but I have heard nothing from her since. When can I expect a reply?
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): In the past few years, the world and the challenges to which the Government and the Home Office have had to respond have changed dramatically. This morning, we have refocused the Home Office towards the realities of todays world and the priorities of todays people. Managing migration and immigration, fighting crime and countering terrorism are now of the highest concern to people in this country.
Since the end of the cold war, we have faced a torrent of new challenges: in particular, mass migration, international crime and international terrorism. It is my responsibility as Home Secretary to ensure a response to those challenges that measures up to their extent, scale and character. That is why I have pursued challenging reform programmes across almost all aspects of the Home Office.
The House will be aware of measures introduced to improve the National Offender Management Service, to acquire 8,000 more prison places, to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, to roll out neighbourhood and community policing, to develop the Respect agenda and to tackle antisocial behaviour. In addition, I have introduced measures to ensure the fair and more effective management of immigration, and the movement of the immigration and nationality directorate towards agency status. All those reforms will continue.
In addition, however, in the wake of last Augusts alleged terrorist plot, the Prime Minister asked me to conduct a review of counter-terrorism, involving the appropriate Ministers and Departments, as well as the police and security agencies. Arising out of that review, the Prime Minister has today decided to make changes to the machinery of government. The House will be aware of his written statement laid earlier today. The changes outlined there are aimed at producing a step change in our approach to managing the terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and to winning the central battle, which is the struggle for values and ideas.
Among other changeswhich I will not outline in detail, as they have already been outlined in the written ministerial statementwe will create a more coherent ministerial committee system for oversight, establish strategic capacity for the longer term, integrate better our joint effort, and establish the capacity to engage in the struggle for ideas and values. We will do that partly by establishing a new unit, the office for security and counter-terrorism, in my Department.
I should make it plain that no portfoliosno responsibilitieswill be taken from existing Departments. There will be no change in the lead Department responsibility for any of the agencies. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will of course continue to lead on all aspects of foreign affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government
similarly will retain her responsibilities in the prevent strand of the CONTEST framework and community engagement. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will lead on matters relating to the armed forces and wider defence operations.
However, the changes outlined today will add capacity to that which is already engaged in the formulation and carrying through of our security and counter-terrorism policy. It will develop a more strategic, inclusive, integrated and capable response to the current threat. Along with the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour, the Home Office will be refocused towards the challenges of todays world and will focus on the priorities of todays people.
As a result of those refocused and extended capabilities, and the extended attention of ministerial oversight of those exponentially growing challenges, the Home Office, as is appropriate, should shed some responsibilities. Those will be merged with the Department for Constitutional Affairs in a coherent way to form a balanced reformulation of the machinery of government by creating a ministry of justice. The Lord Chancellor will be giving more details of that in another place.
David Davis: Let me start by thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It should not have been necessary. The breaking up of one of the great Departments of State, with massive implications for crime, immigration, justice and terrorism, should have been brought before the House for proper debate, not disgracefully smuggled out in a written statement on the last Thursday before the Easter recess.
Let me turn to the substance of the Governments plan. On counter-terrorismthe thing on which the Home Secretary majoredsome of the measures with respect to co-ordinating anti-terrorism are sensible and overdue. However, he has failed to secure a new Cabinet post for national security and will not be given control of the overall secret intelligence budget. Therefore, he will not be able to drive the counter-terrorism effort every hour of the day in the way that it clearly needs a Cabinet Minister to do.
As for the split of the Home Office, the logic presumably is that the job is too difficult for this Home Secretary to do. It has been well run in the past by Home Secretaries of all parties when it was much bigger and faced equally sizeable responsibilities. Indeed, it still had responsibility for licensing, gambling, broadcasting, fire, civil defence, human rights, equal opportunities and charities. Breaking it up will solve none of the Home Offices problems; it may well just create a whole new raft of problems.
After all, the Home Secretary got his job as a direct result of the scandal of foreign prisoners being released on to our streets because of poor communication between the prisons department and the immigration department. How will that poor communication be improved by splitting the prisons and immigration departments into separate Departments of State?
At the moment, this country faces the threat of terrorismthe Home Secretary made that pointa criminal justice system that is in disarray, prisons that are overflowing and immigration that is out of control. Now he proposes to distract the senior staff of the Home Office by a massive reorganisation. Where are the resources going to come from to carry that out? Out of the frozen Home Office budget, at the expense of criminal justice, policing and immigration control? How much will it cost and where will it come from?
As for the new department of justicean extremely important Department according to the Home Secretarys new definitionit already has massive problems, second only to those of the Home Office. Are we to have a Cabinet-rank Minister for this Department in this House, or is the House of Commons only to have second best in terms of criminal justice policy and critical issues of criminal justice?
This proposal has been described as batty by one of the Home Secretarys predecessors and as balkanisation by the one before that, and was dismissed by this Home Secretary only last year in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. Because of the way in which it has been carried out, this ill-thought-through exercise to create a department of justice and a department of security will actually leave public security undermined and a justice system overwhelmed.
I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I was intending in any event to invite him, and will still invite himalong with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), his Liberal Democrat opposite numberto go through the details of the proposal with me. I believe that he is making a dreadfully wrong strategic judgment, for reasons to which I will return, as indeed he is on identity management. I believe that he is on the side of the past rather than on that of the future. I believe that his mistake is strategic, and I am happy to discuss it with him, because I believe that wherever possible national security should be a matter of national consensus. However, I will deal with his points about process in some detail, because they are legitimate.
It was not and has never been the normal practice of Administrations to make oral statements on the machinery of government. It certainly was not the practice of the last Conservative Government. Indeed, proposals were often announced by way of press release from Downing street. Examples of major changes that were not announced by means of oral statements include the formation of the Employment Service in 1987, the splitting of the Department of Health and Social Security into the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security in 1988, the formation of the Central Statistical Office in 1989during a recess, incidentallythe formation of the Department of Energy in 1992 [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked about process; I am answering his question.
Further examples are the formation of the Department of National Heritage in 1992 and, in 1995, the merging of the Departments of Employment and Education to become the Department for Education and Skills. And then there is the daddy of them all. In 1995, the Financial Times reported
The decision to scrap the Department of Employment came as a shock to its ministers and officials, none of whom were consulted.
The illogicalities and non sequiturs in the right hon. Gentlemans contribution leap out at me. On the one hand he speaks of a great office of state abandoning its responsibilities; on the other, he refers to all the responsibilities that have been abandoned over the years precisely to enable the Home Office to refocus on todays challenges: constitutional affairs, the fire service, royal matters, rape, faith and cohesion, communities, and the voluntary and charitable sectorand that is only since 2001. There were many before that. Indeed, originally there were only two Departments apart from the Exchequer, those responsible for foreign affairs and for home affairs. While I stand in admiration of Conservatives who wish to retain the status quo however the world has changed, it is not very useful to refuse to change ones opinions and institutions even though the world has changed.
Let me now deal with co-ordination. This is of course a matter of judgment, but there was another great non sequitur in the right hon. Gentlemans contribution. He cited foreign-national prisoners as an example of the way in which co-ordination is improved by matters being dealt with by the same Department. It was, in fact, a classic example of why that does not, of itself, ensure co-ordination.
The one thing that does ensure good co-ordination is the National Criminal Justice Board, which runs like a weld under elements of the present Home Office and elements of the present Department for Constitutional Affairs. It will remain. It is chaired jointly by the Lord Chancellor and myself, and that will continue. It involves the police, the judges, the agencies and the probation and other services, as well as Ministers. That will continue as well. The co-ordinating elements are there. Of course it is a matter of judgment, but it is not self-evident that being in the same department helps or ensures co ordination.
Will the ministry of justice always remain the responsibility of the House of Lords? I do not think so. During the transitional period up to 8 May, and perhaps for some time beyond it, my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, who presides over the Department of Constitutional Affairs, will be the best repository and the best person to develop the ministry. But it is perfectly possible, and perhaps perfectly appropriate, that after the transitional period, we could move responsibility for a ministry of justice to the House of Commons, allowing it to hold the Minister accountable.
Finally, on a homeland security Minister, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden does not seem to realise that we already have a counter-terrorism Minister, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, my hon. Friend the Member for
Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). He already exists. The sum total [ Interruption. ] I wish that hon. Members who are interested in national security would listen to their policy to counter todays threats; it is to take the same Minister who, at present, is in the chain of command from the Prime Minister through the Secretary of State to the terrorism Minister and to put him into the Cabinet. It will not add one iota of capacity to the fight against terrorism. It will do nothing to integrate or to give strategic capacity. It will build nothing in terms of numbers or character. It will do nothing at all to meet the seamless challenge with a seamless response.
All the proposal would do is to make two Cabinet Ministers responsible for the same subject to the same Cabinet and the same Prime Minister. In other words, it would create the elementary fault that anyone who knows anything about security would avoid; total confusion of command, control and communication. That is what the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is offering us. No wonder that after four weeks of not having a shadow homeland security Minister, he still has not appointed one.
Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that this irresponsible decision further delays the reforms that are critically necessary throughout the criminal justice system? Does he further accept that, particularly in relation to prisons, probation and the National Offender Management Service, where reform is desperately needed, the shift in responsibility will delay the changes that need to take place? Finally, does he accept that the coherence and co-ordination of the criminal justice system that is so important to its success will be damaged seriously by these proposals?
John Reid: I disagree with my right hon. Friend on every point. I respect his judgments. I do not think they have always been right in the past [ Interruption. ] But I have no doubt that I will make mistakes as well. There are differences in judgment on that and we just have to differ.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): If the manner in which the announcement has been made is any guide to the manner in which it will be implemented, we are headed for further organisational chaos at the heart of government. On 21 June last year, the Prime Minister told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that he saw no case whatever for the creation of a ministry of justice. A few weeks or months later, we were told through leaks to the press that, after all, that is on the agenda. Last night, we were told that the Home Secretary would make an announcement to this House. We were told a few hours later that it might be the Prime Minister, and then that there would be a written statement. We now see the Home Secretary on his feet, but only in response to an urgent question from the Opposition. This is a shoddy, shambolic and cynical way of treating this House and the British public on an issue of such grave importance.
How would the Home Secretary feel if he were a civil servant in the Home Officevilified month in, month out by his political mastersand he learned about such
an uncertain future through such contradictory leaks and counter-leaks in the press?
When the Home Secretary responded to my suggestion that there should be a public inquiry into the events surrounding the 7 July bombings, he claimed that my request was out of order, inappropriate and not possible because of the demands that it would make on official resources. How can he maintain that view when this change alone will consume far more official resourcescertainly if it is to be implemented at the breakneck speed that he proposesthan a public inquiry?
Can the Home Secretary explain what role will be left for the Cabinet Office? The Cabinet Office plays a crucial role in co-ordinating information concerning our anti-terror strategy. The British public rightly expect the Prime Minister, not an aggrandised Home Secretary, to take the lead in setting our anti-terror strategy. Can he explain why the Cabinet Office appears at least to have been marginalised in the approach that he has set out this morning?
Can the Home Secretary explain how we can have any other interpretation but a political one of the timetable for changes, which will fall neatly on 9 May, the date on which, we are all led to believe, there will be a transition of power from one Prime Minister to the next? Does not he accept that, as long as that timetable is considered to be politically determined
John Reid: I notice that the hon. Gentleman managed to avoid saying that this is something for which he has been asking for some considerable time. I heard him this morning make an extraordinary statement, saying, It is the right thing to do, but we do not like his reasons for doing it. This is the way to fight terrorism, but it is all to do with personal ambition. I will leave the psychoanalyst role to him.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a few facts. I do not think that he could have been more profoundly wrong on every single particular that he mentioned. First, on the civil servants, his constant running down of certain aspectsI do not mind acknowledging faultsand his refusal to accord any credit where improvements are made, is what depresses people. For several months, civil servants have been involved in discussing the matter, from the permanent secretary down.
Secondly, during that time, there have not been any leaks from the Home Office. There has been one newspaper article, which I wrote and briefed around. There have been 10 other leaks. None has come from the Home Office and all have criticised and misrepresented the plans. Thirdly, unfortunately, it is those misrepresentations on which he has based his analysis. Not for the first time, an hon. Gentleman has spent a lot of time decrying those who apparently chase headlines, and spent the rest of his time chasing the headlines, making the headlines or basing his story on the headlines. The Prime Minister will still oversee the strategic national security elements. He will chair the new integrated committee. The Cabinet Office will service that committee. He will still have a national security adviser. It will not be the Home Secretary who chairs that.
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