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9 July 2009 : Column 1136

Mr. Hanson: Again, I think that the first duty of the Metropolitan police is to examine the issue. That is going on at the moment. There will be opportunities to look at some of the other consequences in due course and, as I have said, I will report back to the House on the matters flowing from this allegation today.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will remind the Metropolitan police and the Information Commissioner that the defence of “in the public interest” relates to something that is in the interest of the public body and not something that satisfies the curiosity of the public?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I am trying, given that we might have cases of criminal activity as a result of the investigation into these allegations, not to comment too much on these issues.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Whatever the operational decisions made by the Metropolitan police, will the Minister tell us what the Government’s policy is on informing people that they have been the subject of illegal surveillance? Is it the Government’s view that the principle should always be that those people should be notified? As a first step, will he tell us in his statement later this evening how many Members of Parliament and Ministers, according to the information held by the Met, were targeted as a result of the operation?

Mr. Hanson: Again, I will report back to the House on these matters at an appropriate time. It might not be today, but we will look back on those issues in due course and I shall respond when the opportunity arises.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend should be playing for England, so straight is his bat this morning. At 7 o’clock this morning, I saw a hunched figure with a suit-bag and a mobile phone crossing Speaker’s Yard. It was Mr. Andy Coulson. I thought that he was on the way out, having been fired. This is not now about him; it is about the judgment of the Leader of the Opposition in keeping him with a Commons pass. For the House of Commons—

Mr. Speaker: Order. A number of other Members are standing whom I would like to try to get in. I must ask the right hon. Gentleman for a question.

Mr. MacShane: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not a matter for a Metropolitan police statement this afternoon, and that the House of Commons must decide to set up its own inquiry to hear evidence under oath from all concerned—from the employees of this foreign national, who so instructed them, and from the police officers—to get to the bottom of this matter?

Mr. Hanson: If the House of Commons wishes to look at those matters, that will be a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and for the Leader of the House.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): It seemed that the Minister was saying earlier that the Metropolitan police heard about these allegations only in the newspaper today. However, the Metropolitan police decided not to
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proceed. Who in the Metropolitan police decided not to take this matter further? Was it the last commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, or the deputy commissioner, or was the decision made lower down the food chain?

Mr. Hanson: Again, the purpose of the Metropolitan police’s examination of this issue following my discussions with Mr. John Yates and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s discussions with the commissioner is to establish the facts. These allegations appeared overnight and this morning and they are now being investigated.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): It is quite clear from the revelations in the newspapers this morning that there are also questions about the role of the Press Complaints Commission, which seems to have failed completely in its duty to protect the public and properly investigate this matter. Criminal activity was clearly involved in what it was investigating, but it failed to ask questions of the appropriate people to get the right answers. Will my right hon. Friend continue to investigate that issue, too?

Mr. Hanson: I will draw those comments to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has responsibility for these issues.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): May I return to the very serious allegation about illicit accessing of the police national computer? It is one of the more serious aspects of the matter. Will the Minister use this opportunity
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to re-examine the measures in place to make sure that the integrity of the PNC is maintained?

Mr. Hanson: Self-evidently, the integrity of the PNC is a matter of high importance for the Government. We will take all steps to ensure that it remains secure. In the light of the allegations, I shall be looking at whether further steps need to be taken.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Given Mr. Coulson’s dubious reputation, none of us on this side of the House can feel comfortable while he is around to wander the corridors here. While he is under suspicion, can we not at least take his pass away from him?

Mr. Hanson: Those issues are not for the Government. They are for the House authorities.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): In response to an earlier question, the Minister said that the offence could be punishable by a fine or imprisonment. Some cases of hacking are not punishable by imprisonment. I believe that, in 2007, the Prime Minister was considering expanding the application of imprisonment for offences such as hacking into the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, but dropped the proposal after receiving a delegation from News International. Will the Minister look at the matter again to make sure that such hacking is an imprisonable offence?

Mr. Hanson: I am not aware of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. As he knows, offences without lawful authority under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 are punishable with a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. That penalty was delivered in the case of two years ago.

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Business of the House

11.51 am

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming parliamentary business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 13 July—Consideration of a carry-over motion for the Political Parties and Elections Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 14 July—Remaining stages of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [ Lords].

Wednesday 15 July—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on NHS dentistry, followed by a debate on caring for elderly. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 16 July—Topical debate: subject to be announced followed by a general debate on preparation for the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 July will include:

Monday 20 July—Second Reading of the Child Poverty Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 21 July—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by motion on the summer recess Adjournment, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 October will include:

Monday 12 October—Remaining stages of the Health Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 13 October—Remaining stages of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [ Lords].

Wednesday 14 October—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 15 October—General debate on defence policy.

Friday 16 October—Private Members’ Bills.

Alan Duncan: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. Last week, I raised the issue of the length of time that the Treasury has taken to respond to some MPs’ correspondence. We should perhaps be grateful that it replies at all. May I ask the right hon. and learned Lady for a further statement on what appears to have become common practice in the Department of Work and Pensions? Ministers there are passing MPs’ correspondence to their various agencies for a response, even when the matter concerns Government policy.

If the issue is administrative, of course it is right for the relevant body to reply, but I am aware of a number of cases in which a Member has sought clarification from a Minister on departmental policy, only to receive a totally inadequate response that did not come from the Minister, who had passed the buck to the Child Support Agency, which in turn stated that it was unable to comment on the issues raised in the letter as it could
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respond only to operational matters. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that it is highly disrespectful to this House, and perhaps also incompetent, for Ministers to delegate correspondence in this way? Will she endeavour to inform the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that, when a Member writes to a Minister, it is the Minister who should reply?

May we also have a statement from the Work and Pensions Secretary on the abject failure of the Government’s flagship welfare reform policy, Pathways to Work? This scheme was established—at a cost of £129 million this year alone—to help people get off incapacity benefit and find employment. However, statistics released by the Department yesterday show that fewer than one in 10 people who have started on the programme have actually managed to find work. How on earth do the Government plan to deal with the grim rise in unemployment that we are facing, and which has been caused by the recession, when the track record of what they have tried to do already seems such a dismal failure?

May we also have a debate on the Government’s strategy for reducing the alarming rate of teenage pregnancies? Yesterday, it was revealed that young people who took part in a £5 million Government scheme that aimed to help tackle the problem by encouraging 13 to 15-year-olds to talk to each other about sex were twice as likely to become pregnant as a similar group. That is a sad indictment of the Government’s failure to develop a coherent strategy. The fact is that Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe: more and more young girls are seeking an abortion, and the higher rate of sexual activity is leading to an alarming increase in sexually transmitted infections among teenagers. May we have a full day’s debate on this serious national issue so that we can help to develop a much more thoughtful response to the underlying problems and encourage young people to be more careful with their body and their life?

May I once again seek from the Leader of the House the guarantee that I have not yet received, even though I have asked for it many times, that the House will be comprehensively updated on how the Government intend to compensate those who lost out from the collapse of Equitable Life? We need that before we rise for the summer. Her response at Question Time yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) revealed a perhaps wilful, misunderstanding of the difference between proper compensation and ex gratia payments. They are not the same thing, and the ombudsman called for compensation.

The right hon. and learned Lady will note that 307 Members have now signed EDM 1423.

[That this House notes the Parliamentary Ombudsman has taken the unusual step of using powers under the 1967 Act to present Parliament with a further and final report on Equitable Life; also notes that the Public Administration Select Committee's second report on Equitable Life, Justice denied? concluded that the Government response to the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report was inadequate as a remedy for injustice; recognises the vital role the Ombudsman plays in public life; reaffirms the duty of Parliament to support the office of the Ombudsman; believes the Government should accept the recommendations of the Ombudsman on compensating policyholders who have suffered loss; welcomes the formation of the All-Party Group on Justice
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for Equitable Life Policyholders; and notes with regret its necessary formation and the fact that over 30,000 people have already died waiting for a just resolution to this saga.

Given the scale of the concern about the Government’s reaction to the ombudsman’s report and her subsequent damning second report, will the Leader of the House confirm that the matter has been discussed at Cabinet level? Will she give us an assurance today that the House will have an opportunity to cross-examine the Chief Secretary to the Treasury next week? She keeps declining to confirm whether the promised statement will be an oral or a written one. The House requires an oral statement, and will she now give an absolute guarantee that that is what it will be?

Ms Harman: In respect of Treasury Ministers’ responses to letters from hon. Members, this issue has been followed up. I am not yet in a position to reply to the hon. Gentleman, but I will make sure that I come to the House next Thursday with all the facts and figures about the response time. Of course, there has been a great increase in the number of letters from hon. Members to the Treasury, and that is a response to constituents’ concerns at this time of economic crisis. However, that does not mean that people should have to wait longer—far from it: they should get a prompt reply to the concerns and anxieties of their constituents. I will make sure that I have an up-to-date answer ready for the House next Thursday.

The shadow Leader of the House is absolutely right in what he said about ministerial responses and agencies. Responses on policy are a matter for Ministers, and should not be delegated for explanation by an agency. Agencies have to account for their administration of policies, but they do not have to account for the policies themselves. That remains a matter for Ministers. If the hon. Gentleman gave me some examples, that would assist me in following the matter up on behalf of Members of the House.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Pathways to Work. It is very important indeed that we help everybody who wants to get into work to find their way back to the world of work. He will know that the pathways programme deals with those who have the greatest problems. They may have had a problem of alcohol or drug abuse in their past. They may have mental illness problems or they may have been in prison. They may have a range of problems or a combination of them all. The pathways programme says that there is nobody we write off. We do not say, “That’s it. You’re written off, you can’t ever play your part in the world of work.” We should recognise that it is sometimes very difficult to help those people back into work and we will not have a 90 per cent. success rate, but that does not mean that it is not important for those programmes to go ahead and help people into work.

The hon. Gentleman is right that teenage pregnancy is a complex and difficult issue. We all agree that we want to see a fall in the number of teenage pregnancies. That has to do with good sex education, contraception and girls having aspirations to something other than early pregnancy. Their opportunities in life need to be more than that. The responsibility of boys is also involved—mentioning that is often forgotten.

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The hon. Gentleman was talking about a pilot scheme—an experiment that was tried out. The whole point of a pilot scheme is to find out whether something works. There is no dishonour in piloting something to see whether it works, and if it does not work, acknowledging that while pressing forward to try to find out what does work. If there was a magic answer to the question of teenage pregnancy, it would have been found before now.

On the question about Equitable Life, there is absolutely no need for the hon. Gentleman to patronise me over not knowing the difference between ex gratia payments and compensation. I do indeed know the difference. The Government’s position is that there is not a legal obligation to pay compensation, but there is a moral obligation to make ex gratia payments, and that is what Sir John Chadwick is working on. I have said there will be a statement before the House rises; there will be Treasury questions next week, so the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to ask the Chancellor in person during oral questions next week.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Dealing first with the urgent question we have just discussed, we heard a deplorably weak performance from the shadow Home Secretary, and it was not mentioned at all by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). As the question clearly raises potential issues of privilege, may I ask the right hon. and learned Lady to consider those issues and report to the House? Will she also ask of her Cabinet colleague, the Attorney-General, about the prosecution policy that was adopted previously? Perhaps the Solicitor-General could make a statement to the House.

A useful innovation recently was for notice to be given to the House when it was known that a statement was to be made by a Minister. Last week, two White Papers were published and oral statements were made to the House. One of the White Papers was about banking, where I accept that there may have been market-sensitive material, but the one on Monday was about international development and I cannot quite accept that it was not known last Thursday that a White Paper was to be published on Monday. Will the Leader of the House look at the matter again and give Members of the House proper notice when a statement is to be made, particularly on the publication of a White Paper? Will she also make good the promise of the Secretary of State for International Development that we will soon have a debate on international development issues?

May we have a debate on the case of Gary McKinnon, the Asperger’s syndrome sufferer who is being cynically handed over to the United States authorities, possibly to serve 60 years in an American jail? The Home Secretary, somewhat disingenuously, says he cannot instruct prosecution. That is absolutely right, but what he can do is stop the extradition and allow the circumstances in which that unfortunate gentleman could be tried in this country. Many of us felt that the one-sided extradition treaty was a disgrace to Britain. This use of that disgraceful treaty is a further disgrace and a shame, and I hope we will have the opportunity to debate it.

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