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20 Mar 2008 : Column 1075

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): I welcome the number of men asking questions in this House today during women’s questions. Although there are women here, none of them is asking a question on the Order Paper.

Delivering support for victims of domestic violence is at the heart of the Government’s recently published action plan for tackling violence. Over the next three years, we are committed to ensuring that they and their families have access to the help that they need, including with accommodation, specialist counselling and legal and financial advice.

James Duddridge: Will the Minister undertake to review the assistance provided after the police attend a domestic violence incident? Although the forms and bureaucracy may be appropriate during the first visit, they are perhaps unwieldy and not particularly action-oriented if a second visit by the police is necessary.

Barbara Follett: I will look into the matter. I welcome the hon. Gentleman raising it in domestic violence month. As Minister for the East of England, I know that we have had an increase in reports of domestic violence in Essex, but I am glad to say that I would count that as a success, because it means that women are now willing to come forward, rather than suffering in silence.

Mr. Newmark: Does the Minister share my concern that according to Home Office figures, domestic violence almost trebled from 241,00 to 658,000 incidents reported in the past year alone, yet the conviction rate for domestic violence is a paltry 5 per cent.?

Barbara Follett: No. As I said in response to the previous question, we count that as positive because— [Interruption.] Well, it means that people are coming forward to report such incidents. For a long time people were too frightened to report, and we are providing support. There has been an increase in convictions in Essex, as I know from my position as Minister for the East of England.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): On the subject of violence against women, some women who suffer from domestic violence find support through rape crisis centres. In the past week I have visited the rape crisis centre in Newcastle and the rape and sexual abuse centre for Merseyside, both unable to provide as full a service as is needed locally because of uncertainties about their funding. On Tuesday the Minister for Women announced in a press release £1 million funding for rape crisis centres. That looked very similar to the announcement nearly two weeks ago by the Home Secretary of £1 million to tackle sexual and domestic violence. Can the Minister confirm that that will indeed be additional money? Can she also confirm over what period the money will be available and exactly how much will be available? Will she guarantee that every penny will go to rape crisis centres?

Barbara Follett: Once again, I welcome the right hon. Lady’s interest in the matter, which I share. Like her, I have been visiting rape crisis centres and, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and
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Equality, I am concerned to ensure their sustainability. That is why we announced the emergency fund. I can confirm that that is new money and that it is long term. We want to make sure that the centres are sustainable. I hope to improve capacity in rape crisis centres and to get them working with the new sexual assault referral centres, which I think is the way forward.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): To continue the theme of uncertain funding, in my local area there is a women’s refuge which, each year, has to go out with a begging bowl to the district council, primary care trusts and so on. What more support can be given to refuge centres, and what can be done to encourage local councils to take up their responsibility and ensure that they make a major contribution to those centres, which are desperately needed?

Barbara Follett: This is where the new sub-national review gives us an opportunity. Under the local area agreements, we can perhaps influence funding, as long as the sexual and domestic violence sector is ready and able to input into those local area agreements. However, at present only 37.8 per cent. of local authorities have a refuge—that is not good enough—and only a third provide services for victims of domestic violence. In Warwickshire, which is Conservative-controlled, funding for the refuge was cut by half, and in Conservative-controlled Ealing, the funding for Southall Black Sisters is being withdrawn.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I welcome the Government’s announcement that over the summer they will consider the issue of women who are trying to flee domestic violence but who have no recourse to public funds because of their immigration status, but will the Minister commit to putting emergency funding in place now, because abusers will not wait for Government policy and these women need urgent help right now?

Barbara Follett: Like the hon. Lady, the Government are extremely aware of the acute problems faced by this group, and that is why applications for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom made by victims of domestic violence are prioritised, and where the applicant is destitute we are now waiving fees. It is also why we will shortly be announcing details of a new scheme under which victims of domestic violence with indefinite leave to remain may be able to have their housing and living costs met, but there is more work still to be done in this area.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Drinking Water

24. Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): What the Commission’s policy is on the provision of drinking water at meetings held in the House; and if he will make a statement. [195468]

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Nick Harvey (North Devon): The Administration Committee last considered the issue of the provision of drinking water in Committee and meeting rooms in March 2007 and concluded at the time that the current practice of supplying bottled mineral water should continue, but I am pleased to report that the Department of Facilities is re-examining the issue with the intention of providing further advice.

Mr. Spellar: I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary and the Evening Standard on coming aboard my long-standing campaign to increase the use of tap water against the use of bottled water. The hon. Gentleman’s reply is welcome, but I urge a little more urgency on him. This is a major environmental issue and a substantial cost issue. Will he now take steps to give instructions to the administration that tap water should be available at all meetings and in all dining facilities as a proper alternative to bottled water, hopefully with a view to phasing out the use of bottled water?

Nick Harvey: I agree with the gist of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Tap water is widely available in the catering outlets in the estate, but I can assure him that this is being treated with some urgency and that the Department of Facilities is expected to report back soon after Easter.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I share a little concern about this because the water that we all drink comes from my constituency, so I hope that instead of some stringent adherence to the latest political correctness we will be presented with a choice in the future. Can we be reassured that there will be a choice? Tap water should be available, but not at the expense of choice.

Nick Harvey: I will not pre-empt the outcome of the Department’s investigation. We will have to wait and see, and decisions will be taken on the basis of cost and environmental considerations when we have the report.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

25. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What assessment she has made of the completeness of information given in answers to parliamentary questions.[195469]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): As I have stated in the past, the Leader of the House keeps the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review.

Mr. Jones: On the assumption that every Whitehall Department has now abandoned the traffic light system that was formerly used to filter out embarrassing questions, will the hon. Lady confirm that she will use her good offices to urge the Treasury to provide me with an unambiguous answer to
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questions that I have tabled today about the use of No. 11 Downing street by charities, including the Smith Institute, rather than the obfuscatory ones that I have received hitherto?

Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, all Ministers understand the importance of answering parliamentary questions fully, truthfully and in a timely manner. He has only just tabled those questions, so I am sure that he can expect an answer in accordance with the usual timetable.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): As regards answers to questions put by Members of Parliament, the House will be aware that it is Government policy to have more out-of-hours GP services. However, when I tabled a written question to the Secretary of State for Health on the number of GPs who operate the service, I was told that that information was not collected centrally. The Government must have the information centrally in order to have made their policy in the first place, so will the hon. Lady urge the Secretary of State for Health to provide the relevant information, or alternatively will she confirm that the policy was made on the hoof without any supporting evidence?

Helen Goodman: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is aware that questions can be answered only within certain cost limits. However, I undertake to get in touch with the Secretary of State for Health and raise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Will the Deputy Leader of the House talk to the Leader of the House to see whether we could have a much more efficient system to monitor, check, report back on and improve the quality of written answers? I suggest that either the Modernisation Committee or a sub-committee, on a cross-party basis, could do quarterly reports on what the standards should be and whether they are met.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is aware that we are waiting for a report on written questions from the Procedure Committee. It will be more appropriate for us to consider the issue that he has raised when we have received that report.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Is the hon. Lady aware that many hon. Members believe that if they table difficult questions for the Government, the Government respond to the question that they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that actually was asked? Will she confirm that in the folder with the answers for written questions is a note from the permanent secretary reminding Ministers that the answers have to be factually correct, fit the requirements of the question and be produced swiftly? That was the practice during the Major Government.

Helen Goodman: As I explained in my previous answer, the 1997 parliamentary resolution on ministerial accountability was incorporated into the ministerial code. It is absolutely specific:

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Oral Statements

26. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What the criteria are for deciding to announce Government policy by means of an oral statement; and if she will make a statement. [195470]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): In deciding whether to make an oral statement to announce Government policy, the Government will take into account the importance of the issue and the other business before the House.

Mr. Holloway: Has the Deputy Leader of the House or the Leader of the House ever had cause to speak to the Home Secretary, since she entered the Cabinet, to discuss the methods employed by the Home Office to announce policies?

Helen Goodman: We do discuss with Ministers how oral statements are made, to ensure that the House is kept properly informed of policy developments.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): If my hon. Friend is talking to Ministers about statements, she could emphasise to them that they are better made in the House than on the “Today” programme.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know whether he is aware of the fact that in the 70 sitting days of this Session, there have been 39 oral statements, and that we gave notice of 20 of those. That means that 20 were flagged up on the Order Paper. Obviously, that leads to media stories and speculation, which are clearly outside the Government’s control.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Parliamentary Recording Unit

27. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What the rules are governing the use of material provided by the parliamentary recording unit. [195471]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The rules largely date back to the regulations that govern the admission of cameras to the Chamber. The Member may use only material featuring themselves or a reply from a Minister to their question, and contributions to the debate on an issue raised by the Member. The clip should display the portcullis logo, and the Member should acknowledge copyright and ensure that the material is not downloadable. Members may use recordings of proceedings on their own parliamentary website, but not on any third party hosting website.

Jo Swinson: Parliament should be embracing new technology as a way to reconnect with the public. Is it not about time that we ditched the ridiculous ban on parliamentary clips being shown on YouTube? Sites such as YouTube are popular and accessible; if there is a copyright issue, will the House authorities review the current contracts and bring Parliament into the 21st century?

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Nick Harvey: Copyright is only part of the point that I am making. Obviously, the costs of the pictures recorded in the Chamber are also part of the contract. The other issue is to do with the manipulation of pictures taken in this Chamber. That comes back to the issue of the rules that govern the admission of cameras into the Chamber. At the moment, the rule is that the clips can be streamed to be viewed in real time, but not downloaded in such a way that they could be manipulated later.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

European Union (Scrutiny)

28. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): What plans she has for new procedures to enable the House to conduct the scrutiny function for national Parliaments set out in the treaty of Lisbon. [195472]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): As I said to the House during the debate on 26 February on the Bill to enable ratification of the EU treaty,

I also said that we would examine this alongside the review of

On 13 March, the Lords European Union Committee published a report, “The Treaty of Lisbon: an impact assessment”, setting out its views on the yellow and orange card mechanism. We will take that into account, alongside the findings of the forthcoming inquiry by the Commons European Scrutiny Committee.

Mr. Heath: I think that it is fair to say that opinions differed on the treaty of Lisbon, but the one thing that was welcomed in all parts of the House was the additional powers of scrutiny conferred by the treaty—not on the Executive but on Parliament, giving Parliament the chance to constrain some of the activities of the European Union when it did not show subsidiarity. Will the hon. Lady ensure that we have an appropriate mechanism that does not just send this to some Committee a long way away from the Floor of the House where nobody knows exactly what is going on, but gives this House and this Chamber centrality in the issue of what should be decided at European level and what should be decided by this Parliament?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman makes some reasonable points. As I said, it will be a matter for each House to decide how it plays its cards. Of course, the European Scrutiny Committee will maintain its role in making an initial scrutiny of the documents, and we anticipate that the explanatory memorandums produced by Government Departments will highlight the subsidiarity point more fully than is the case currently. Furthermore, when we come to look at this we will consider a number
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of issues, including the role of the whole House, what to do during long recesses, and the scope that there may be for inter-parliamentary co-operation through the COSAC mechanism.

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