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Mr. Straw: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons has pointed out, we have greatly toughened
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up the effectiveness of community sentences, particularly for prisoners who might otherwise be sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. A point frequently made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is that community sentences are often more effective. I would also point out that over the last 10 years, a major effort by the police, the probation service, the Prison Service and local authorities throughout the country has ensured that crime has come down. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that there has been a 40 per cent. drop in crime since 1995, with even bigger drops in burglary and vehicle crime.

Political Party Funding

5. Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): What recent consideration he has given to proposals to limit funding to local parties between electoral periods. [160187]

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): This is one of the issues currently being considered in the inter-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Government very much hope that a consensus can be reached between the parties to restore public confidence by tackling the spending arms race.

Paul Holmes: An opinion poll commissioned earlier this year by Unlock Democracy showed that 76 per cent. of the public support cross-party talks on party funding. Would the Secretary of State agree that it would be a grave error of judgment if one political party were to withdraw from the commitment on party funding for reasons of petty political advantage?

Mr. Straw: I would, and I hope that no party withdraws from the talks. The last time we reviewed the issue of party funding was in 2000, and I led those discussions. We were able to reach all-party agreement. The problem, however, was that Lord Neill recommended a tightening of expenditure limits in his report in 1998, and we all thought that that was agreed. However, it has not turned out to be the case, and as Sir Hayden Phillips made clear in his report in May, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sought to control the level of spending but has proved inadequate to the challenge. The changes in respect of local spending have had the consequence—entirely unanticipated by all parties—of leading to more lax controls on local spending rather than the reverse, which was what all parties at the time intended.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to plug this local loophole before politics descends into a mercenary battle to see who can raise the most money? There is an urgent need for a Bill in the Queen’s Speech to extend the current limits on national campaign expenditure to local parties and candidates.

Mr. Straw: I remain hopeful about that. I draw to the attention of the House, and of my hon. Friend, the fact that when we discussed this issue on 15 March 2007, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), on behalf of the official Opposition, said:

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as well as other controls. I hope that that is still the position of the official Opposition.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Most people will be astonished by the front of Labour Ministers, such as the Government Chief Whip, who call for controls on party donations but want to exempt unions from those controls. We have called for a comprehensive cap on all donations so that individuals, companies and trade unions are treated equally. Is it not obvious why the Government have rejected this? They do not want to give up the £17 million of funding they received from the unions last year. In exercising his responsibility for policy on party funding, will the Lord Chancellor be acting in the interests of the public or the interests of his party?

Mr. Straw: I am tempted to descend to the level that the Conservatives have now reached on this issue. However, I live in hope that the constructive, consensual approach that they were taking under the Leader of the Opposition only a few months ago will continue. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has not been party to the all-party talks. Those of us who have know well that each party has had to accept significant compromises to reach a consensus. That remains my hope and desire, but it can be achieved only if the spirit in which we entered into the talks, and which continued until July, goes on. I greatly regret that, for reasons that remain unexplained, the Conservatives cancelled the next meeting of those all-party talks, which was due on the 3 September, and that they have had the most extraordinary difficulty in finding a date to suit them since then.

Nick Herbert: The Lord Chancellor conspicuously failed to answer the question. There is no possibility of achieving consensus while union barons control affiliation fees. By not counting £8 million of donations, he drives a coach and horses through the principle of capping donations. Is it not clear from his answer that the Government have not the slightest interest in securing a level playing field for party funding? Is it not also clear that their only interest in the conduct of elections is exactly what the Electoral Commission’s report described yesterday—partisan interest above the public interest?

Mr. Straw: I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. Before he starts examining the mote in our eye, he should look at the beam in his own. He totally misunderstands the way in which individual union members have a choice—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] They have two choices. First, under Conservative legislation, they vote in ballots at least every 10 years— [Laughter.] I do not know why Conservative Members are mocking—I am taking about their legislation. Secondly, unions can make a voluntary decision about whether to pay the political levy or opt out of it.

Only one party has ever sought to act in a partisan way on party funding—the Conservative party. [Interruption.] We sought to act on a consensual basis in 2000, and we achieved that consensus with the Conservative party and with the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that we can reach it again.

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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): Is it not clear that the official Opposition are so hooked on their regular injection of funds from the gentleman in the other place that they are not interested in consensus, and that to satisfy the public that democracy is not being bought, we will have to introduce legislation in the next Session?

Mr. Straw: It was understood by the Conservative party when it entered into talks—it may have forgotten about it since then—that the fundamental problem with the regulation of party funding at election time and between elections is the need to control total spending. I hope that nobody in the House, or any British political party, supports uncontrolled spending reaching the levels that we see in some other countries, including the United States.

Let me repeat the point that I made a few moments ago. When the House implemented the Neill committee report on a consensual basis, it was agreed that party funding at elections between the two main parties would total £40 million. As Sir Hayden Phillips’ report makes clear, spending at the last election was £95 million. It is not in anybody’s interest for that “arms race” to continue. I therefore greatly hope that the Leader of the Opposition will instruct his representatives on the Hayden Phillips working party to revert to the constructive approach that the Opposition had until the summer.


6. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. [160188]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I have had no formal discussions with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution has strengthened the Union between Scotland and England. We are happy to engage in constructive dialogue with those who support the current settlement.

Malcolm Bruce: Given that the Labour party in Scotland now favours further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, will the Minister accept that that includes an allocation of taxes raised in Scotland to fund services in Scotland? Is it not also time that the Government recognised that they need to address the English dimension and move towards consultation for a full federal constitution for the United Kingdom?

Bridget Prentice: I certainly do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s last remark. I do not believe that having separate votes on England is a sensible policy. The Union is made stronger by us all being together. As for the issue in Scotland that he raised, I do not believe that there is consensus on that matter either

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): What the Minister has just said is simply wrong. How can the Government continue to ignore the effect that the devolution settlement has on the House of Commons? The West Lothian question will not go away. That great Labour parliamentarian Tam Dalyell was right to ask
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it 30 years ago, and we will continue to ask it. When will the Government take steps to strengthen the Union by ensuring that Members of Parliament who represent English constituencies have a decisive say when we make laws for England?

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Lady cites Tam Dalyell. Let me put it to her in this way:

That was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).


The Prime Minister was asked


Q1. [160144] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24th October.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Gray: The whole House will have been shocked and saddened by the tragic drowning in the Algarve of my constituents Bob and Debby Fry, and of Jean Dinsmore. Luckily, their home town of Wootton Bassett has a powerful sense of community, and I know that people there will rally round in every way and offer the children every possible support. In offering his sympathy, will the Prime Minister also be ready to offer every practical help and support to the children in Portugal now and, perhaps more importantly, when they return home, to help to address the problems that they will face then?

The Prime Minister: The whole House—indeed, the whole country—will join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of Mr. and Mrs. Fry and Mrs. Dinsmore, who died in such tragic circumstances. Our first thoughts—indeed, our heartfelt thoughts—are with the children of those who died. I can tell the House that the consular services in Portugal are giving every support already to family and friends. At the same time, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We will do everything that we can to support the children on their return to this country.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could help me with a little problem that I have been wrestling with. [ Interruption. ] If the Government were to abolish public service targets, how would we know how well they are doing?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of the targets that we have set, cancer is down 17 per cent. in this country and
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there has been a huge cut in cardiovascular disease. Targets have enabled us to move to our 18-week target, which we shall reach during the course of the next year, made it possible for there to be 1.5 million more admissions to hospitals and made it possible for us to be able to give people the most modern treatment, with the most modern equipment. I fear that if there is a black hole in different parties’ finances, that would enable them to cut spending on the health service when it needs to be increased.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): There is nothing more important for our future than raising school standards through real school reform. An important part of that reform involves being prepared to give schools real freedom and autonomy, including over their budgets. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would fly in the face of such autonomy to punish schools that budget carefully? Will he explain why his Government are pressing ahead with a plan to confiscate 5 per cent. of the surpluses from good schools that have planned carefully?

The Prime Minister: There is £1.7 billion of surpluses in our schools at the moment. Many schools have planned to use those surpluses and will be enabled to do so. We are consulting on how we can best use those surpluses for the benefit of children’s education, and the Secretary of State for Children will report back in the next week. We are determined that that money should go to the pupils, and to their parents, to improve their education.

Mr. Cameron: But why does the Prime Minister think that he knows best how to spend that money, rather than the head teachers? This is a serious issue for schools up and down the country. Let me quote some head teachers. They say that it is “unjust”, and “an ill-conceived idea”. One says that it “undermines” governors’ authority, while another says that it “destroys the trust” between schools and the Government. Why does the Prime Minister think that those head teachers are wrong and that he is right?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that they are wrong. The right hon. Gentleman should listen to what I am saying—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Sometimes it is better if he does his research. I am saying that there is £1.7 billion in surpluses, that we are consulting on how we can use them to the best effect for pupils and teachers, and that the consultation will come out in the next week. The only reason that there are surpluses in schools is because of the payments that we make directly to those schools, and the only reason that there is extra investment in education is that we made a decision to raise the amount of money spent per pupil in our schools. If the Conservatives persist with their policy of taking £6 billion out of the public services, it is our schools, our teachers and our pupils who will suffer.

Mr. Cameron: Why does not the Prime Minister just scrap this consultation and let the schools keep their surpluses? Another head teacher has written that

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When is the right hon. Gentleman going to learn that real school reform means giving real autonomy, including over budgets? When is he going to give up his mania for state control and start trusting head teachers?

The Prime Minister: Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is not listening to what I say. The only reason that the schools have that money in their surpluses is because of the special payments that we have made, and because they have added to those special payments by their efforts. That means that £1.7 billion is now able to be used for pupils, parents and teachers. We want to see that money used to best effect. It is because we gave money to the schools and allowed them to spend it that it is possible for them to have that £1.7 billion. Our consultation will finish in the next few days and a decision will be announced.

Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): Given that we are being asked to reduce our carbon footprint as part of energy saving week, has the Prime Minister had the chance to see the WWF report that came out yesterday, which ranks Newport as the joint No. 1 greenest city in the UK? Will he commend the residents of Newport and its Labour city council for their efforts to cut their carbon footprint?

The Prime Minister: I applaud Newport, and I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing to promote energy saving. I met the Energy Saving Trust yesterday to talk about the measures that we can take in the future. A huge amount of effort is being made this week to persuade people to take the necessary steps to save energy, whether it involves boiling a kettle, putting things on standby or changing the electric bulbs that they use. I believe that the combination of personal responsibility, public investment in energy saving and the new energy policy that we are adopting will be the best way to secure our climate change agreements. We are also absolutely committed to the European 20 per cent. renewables target.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): On that specific point, the Prime Minister’s predecessor made a very firm commitment to that 20 per cent. target for renewables by 2020. The Prime Minister’s own Ministers are now trying to renege on that commitment. Does not that suggest that Brown is less green than Blair?

The Prime Minister: To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I am pleased to see him back in his place this week. Given the turnover of Liberal Democrat leaders, it is great that he is still here. However, I think that I answered his question in my last reply.

We are committed to the targets agreed in the European Union. The European Union will now publish what it believes that each country is able to do, and we will engage in a consultation. However, I must tell both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives that that will lead to difficult decisions that they will have to make. First we have a feasibility study on the Severn barrage, secondly we wish to extend offshore wind turbines, and thirdly we wish to extend onshore wind turbines. I believe that the Conservative party has been totally opposed to something that is necessary to meet our renewables targets.

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