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House of Commons

Monday 6 September 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked-


1. Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): What progress is being made on the Government's review of alcohol licensing. [13082]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The Government are determined to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. We launched the consultation "Rebalancing the Licensing Act" on 28 July. We have held seven national and seven regional stakeholder events to consult with the police, licensing authorities and representatives from the trade on the coalition Government's proposals. The Government will be analysing the responses, and we intend to take forward the proposals in the forthcoming police reform and social responsibility Bill.

Nick Smith: The misuse of alcohol has a considerable negative impact on the health of our citizens, and it increases crime. What will the Government do to stop the inappropriate and excessive advertising of alcohol, often geared towards young people, in cinemas, on commercial TV stations and in TV storylines?

Mrs May: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. He is absolutely correct to raise the health impact of alcohol as well as its impact on crime. The most recent figures show that over the five years to 2008-09, there were 825 more alcohol-related admissions to hospital per day than during the previous five years. This is a very real issue. We are considering a number of actions in relation to the sale of alcohol, the unit cost of alcohol and the powers of licensing authorities. If the hon. Gentleman has a specific proposal, I suggest that he puts it to the Home Office as part of the consultation.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The media often focus attention on celebrities and footballers as poor role models for children, but does the Home Secretary recognise the sad fact that almost 1 million children have an alcohol-dependent parent as a role model? What more can the Government do to prevent so many families from being broken by alcohol abuse?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend also raises an important point about the impact that alcohol can have. He has taken an interest in such issues, particularly the impact on family life, for some time. The first thing for the Government is to give a clear message about alcohol through the action that we take on licensing. Sadly, a message was given by the last Government, with their 24-hour licensing laws that were due to create a café culture in the United Kingdom, but failed to do so. We have seen that leading to more problems with alcohol.

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): What plans does the Home Secretary have to ensure that licensed premises apply effective age verification procedures?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman also raises an important point about trying to ensure that alcohol is used responsibly and that those with responsibility to ensure that alcohol is being consumed or purchased only by those of an age
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to do so should act appropriately. One of the issues that we are looking at specifically in our proposals is the action that can be taken against shops or bars found to be persistently selling alcohol to children. We are considering giving greater powers to councils and police to shut such premises down permanently.

Non-departmental Public Bodies

3. Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): What steps she is taking to reduce the number of non-departmental public bodies sponsored by her Department. [13084]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The Government are committed to making substantial reforms to their public bodies and intend to bring forward a public bodies Bill later this year, giving Ministers the power to abolish or merge public bodies, or transfer their functions back into Departments. The Home Office is pursuing radical reforms as part of a Government-wide review of public bodies and I have already signalled my intentions by announcing the abolition of the National Policing Improvement Agency.

Mr Carswell: The Association of Chief Police Officers, or ACPO, is not a conventional non-departmental public body. As a private company, it receives millions of pounds in Home Office grants, has a massive say over how we are policed, is exempt from freedom of information requests and is almost totally unaccountable. Is that status compatible with the Home Secretary's admirable desire to democratise control over policing? Will she either change ACPO's status or stop giving it so many grants and so much say over public policy?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He has referred to our intention to change the accountability of police forces, set out in our consultation document "Policing in the 21st Century". We also said in that document that we are looking to change the role of ACPO and talking to ACPO about the necessary changes. Moving ACPO on to a basis of leading in setting standards and showing professional leadership in the police force is the appropriate way forward, and that is what we will be talking to the organisation about.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): While the right hon. Lady is looking at her review, will she consider what happens with the funding of sexual assault referral centres, or SARCs, in Wales? Wales SARCs are still awaiting their funding. It is important that the services they provide should be carried forward for women, children and men who have been subject to rape and other sexual offences. Will she please have a look at that issue?

Mrs May: I am certainly happy to do so. At the moment we are considering, and will soon be making an announcement on, some funding in relation to SARCs. As we look at the issues of people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, we need to consider not only the SARCs but rape crisis centres. It was a great shame that under the hon. Lady's Government, the last Labour Government, so many rape crisis centres had to shut because of funding problems. That is why as a coalition we are committed to making money available from the victim surcharge to open new rape crisis centres.

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4. Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): When she plans to bring into force existing powers to curb the activities of private sector wheel-clampers. [13085]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): I announced on 17 August the Government's intention to ban wheel-clamping and towing on private land. The ban will be included in the freedom Bill, which is due to be introduced this autumn. Sections 42 and 44 of the Crime and Security Act 2010, which provide for the regulation of the vehicle immobilisation industry by way of business licensing, will be repealed.

Diana R. Johnson: In Hull, we know that the previous Government's legislation would have stopped overcharging by wheel-clamping companies, and it was widely consulted on. Why cannot the hon. Lady introduce that provision while she waits for the legislation to go through Parliament to introduce the changes that she wishes to see?

Lynne Featherstone: Because all the previous Government's legislation, despite their very good intentions, would have been complex and expensive to introduce. When we looked again at the results of the consultation, we decided that precisely because of the abuses that take place, banning was the best option. That will be brought forward this autumn, which is not that long to wait.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): When the Minister made her announcement, had she consulted the industry? Bearing in mind that there are some genuine, law-abiding firms that provide an enforcement service where parking abuse takes place, would it not have been better to deal with the cowboy wheel-clampers rather than legitimate businesses? What compensation will legitimate businesses get?

Lynne Featherstone: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Yes, the industry was consulted, and of course there are probably a number of people in the industry who are not cowboys, but unfortunately, given the vast number that were cowboys, the industry brought the change upon itself. That is why we have had to take this action rather than bring in more and more regulations that would not be enforced. Such regulations would put burdens on the police to enforce something that was never truly enforceable, and abuses would continue.

We will not pay any compensation, but the vast majority of clamping companies are already using ticketing. When the ban comes in, the others will be able to transfer to ticketing if they are any good, and private landowners will be able to protect their property anyway.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): This very week, private wheel-clampers are in operation in my constituency, extorting vast sums of money from my constituents. May I urge the Minister to go further and abolish private wheel-clamping altogether, and hand it over only to local authorities and police forces so that it can be publicly accountable?

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Lynne Featherstone: I am pleased to be able to inform the hon. Gentleman that wheel-clamping is being abolished altogether on private land. Local authorities will still carry out wheel-clamping on public land.

Police Accountability

5. Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): What recent steps she has taken to make police forces more accountable to local residents. [13086]

8. Lorraine Fullbrook (South Ribble) (Con): What recent steps she has taken to make police forces more accountable to local people. [13089]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The introduction of elected police and crime commissioners to hold their chief constable and force to account through a strong public mandate will restore the connection between the police and the people, ensuring that the police are held to account democratically, not bureaucratically by Whitehall.

Mark Lancaster: Government attempts to make police forces more accountable to local people are welcome. Thames Valley police has decided to scrap the basic command unit. In the light of that, how does the Minister intend to ensure that central resources previously held by the basic command unit will still be allocated fairly across Thames Valley police?

Nick Herbert: Decisions on whether to continue with the basic command unit structure within forces are a matter for chief constables to decide, and not one on which the Government have taken a view. I appreciate my hon. Friend's concerns about resources and am happy to discuss them with him and to find out from the chief constable when I next see her, which will be this week, what she plans to do to allay them.

Lorraine Fullbrook: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a partnership between the police force and the local community is the best way to tackle crime?

Hon. Members: Thanks for that!

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I know that Opposition Members will also strongly agree. The police, important though they are, cannot fight alone. It is essential that they work in partnership with the public and local authorities to prevent and drive down crime.

Mr Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford South) (Lab): I thank the Home Secretary for banning the English Defence League march in Bradford. She listened to the calls of local residents and the police and was right to support the banning order. However, that was for a march, and a static demonstration happened. Can we look at the legislation again to see whether we can stop even the static demonstrations, which cost taxpayers a huge amount of money?

Nick Herbert: As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are considering peaceful protest and ensuring that rights of peaceful protest in this country are protected. However, extremist activity, or activity that can inflame
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and damage communities, is not acceptable. We will ensure that we achieve the right balance in relation to peaceful protest.

Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab): If the Conservative party believes so fervently in direct accountability, why is the unelected deputy Mayor chairing the London Metropolitan Police Authority?

Nick Herbert: It is entirely a matter for the Mayor whether he wishes to delegate those functions. That is permissible in London, but ultimately the buck stops with the Mayor and Londoners know that.

Alan Johnson: Yes, well, it is not very reassuring that the most prominent, high-profile Conservative Mayor-the Minister and I agree that the Mayor should take responsibility for the police-steps down and allows his unelected deputy to chair the Metropolitan Police Authority. That person, Kit Malthouse, says that chief constables are "mini-governors" who "control a standing army". Does the Minister agree with that? Does he think it right that the deputy Mayor of London should chair the Metropolitan Police Authority when he says that elected commissioners would be able to "wield the rod" over chief constables? Is that the purpose of the reforms?

Nick Herbert: First, I should say that the Labour Government's legislation introduced the arrangements that allow for the transfer of functions to the deputy Mayor. The right hon. Gentleman seems to have changed his mind about that. On our proposals, he knows that we want to enhance the accountability of local policing. Police will remain operationally independent.

they are not my words but those of the previous Government's Green Paper when they proposed direct accountability and then reneged on that pledge.

Police Time (Administration)

6. Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the proportion of police officers' time spent on administrative tasks. [13087]

16. Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the proportion of police officers' time spent on administrative tasks. [13098]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I have spoken to many officers about the time that they have to spend filling out forms. The Government are committed to reducing bureaucracy so that the police can get back on to the streets and deal with crime.

Nadhim Zahawi: In Warwickshire, our police force has to deal with 1.5 million phone calls over and above the emergency calls every year, and rightly so. Does my right hon. Friend know that, under the previous Government, the police spent more time on paperwork than on patrolling the streets? That is wrong.

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Nick Herbert: I appreciate the burden that non-emergency calls place on police forces. The Government are investigating how we can take forward a plan for a national non-emergency number, which I think will improve the service to the public. We are committed to reducing bureaucracy. We have already scrapped the policing pledge and the previous Government's targets. We want to ensure that police officers can be out on the streets where the public want to see them.

Karen Lumley: I understand that in my constituency of Redditch, much progress has been made on reducing the time that police spend on administrative tasks, and I appreciate that paperwork is necessary. However, the number of robberies and other theft offences has risen in Redditch since 2007. Does the Minister agree that such crime could be significantly reduced if the police were given more time on the beat and spent less time filling in forms?

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend and understand her concern about those crimes. A recent report of the inspectorate of constabulary found that the police were visible and available to the community for an average of only about 10% of the time because they are too tied up in bureaucracy. We must tackle that.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister start to collect statistics on how long the police have to wait in court to give evidence? If his Government start slashing the Crown Prosecution Service budget, closing courts and reducing civilian officers, will that waiting time not grow longer?

Nick Herbert: The fact is that we have one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world. The test of its effectiveness is not the amount of money that we spend on it, but how efficient it is. Tomorrow I shall discuss with the inspectorate of constabulary the administrative and bureaucratic obstacles that impact on the police in inefficient court processes, which we must tackle.

Immigration Cap

7. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What steps she plans to take to implement the proposed cap on net immigration. [13088]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): The limit on work-based routes is being implemented in three stages: first, consultation on the annual limit; secondly, the introduction of an interim limit, which took effect on 19 July in order to prevent a surge in numbers in advance of the final limit; and thirdly, the full annual limit which will be implemented in April 2011.

Lorely Burt: I am grateful for that answer. It is very important that we are mindful that there are a lot of unemployed British people, and that they need jobs. It is important that jobs go to British workers and EU citizens. However, will the Minister reassure me that if we reach the cap at the other end of the spectrum, where there are highly skilled jobs in specific areas, we have the ability to exercise flexibility?

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Damian Green: My hon. Friend makes two very good points. That is precisely the balance that we seek to strike. An over-reliance on migrant labour has done nothing to help millions of unemployed British citizens, who are often low-skilled, who deserve the Government's help to get back to work and to improve their skills. At the same time, I am happy to reassure her that the limit will not stop the brightest and the best coming to the UK. Immigration has enriched our culture and strengthened our economy, but it must be controlled so that people have confidence in the system. That was the failure of the previous Government, and this Government will redress it.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): On control of immigration, will the Minister put an immediate stop to the UK Border Agency's plan to ship the Ghaemi family-mother, daughter and young son-from my constituency to Iran a week tomorrow? The two women will undoubtedly be exposed to the possibility of being flogged, tortured, imprisoned or stoned. Is it not intolerable that UKBA should plan to do that, and does the Minister want that on his conscience?

Damian Green: The right hon. Gentleman is always energetic in pursuing individual cases for his constituents, and I will of course look closely at that one, as he knows I always do.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Department's work on this difficult matter? Does he agree that one of the most important steps he could take is to break the link between people coming to work here and people's ability to settle here? That would very substantially reduce numbers.

Damian Green: My hon. Friend has done distinguished and sterling work on immigration with the all-party group on balanced migration in the past few years. I hope to reassure him by saying that in the speech I will make at the Royal Commonwealth Society this evening, I will make the point that we need to look at all routes to migration-not only the work route, but the study route and other routes that lead to settlement-so that we can achieve not an immigration policy that is discussed in the usual way, when we ask whether it is tougher or more liberal, but a smarter immigration policy. That is what this country needs.

Mr Phil Woolas (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): I welcome the Minister's remarks on the relationship between temporary and permanent migration. Will he confirm that it is the Government's intention to go ahead with the previous Government's plans for a points-based system for citizenship, which would help to reach exactly the objectives that the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) set out, on behalf-if I may say-of Migrationwatch UK?

Damian Green: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, not least because he and I debated the details of the system when the Bill in question was considered, when he was standing at this Dispatch Box. Although I accept the idea that we need a better system for allowing people to proceed to settlement or full citizenship, I was not convinced that the system that the
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previous Government proposed was anything other than a bureaucratic nightmare. I can assure him that I am still looking carefully at the details so that we can have an effective system that does not place too great a burden on the voluntary sector, which, as I said at the time, I thought his system did.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): How will the numbers of uncapped immigration from the European Union affect the level of the cap for numbers from outside the EU? Given that the Government support Turkey's entry into the EU, can he tell us what estimate they have made of the number of immigrants we will get from that country?

Damian Green: I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that this Government, unlike the previous one, would introduce transitional arrangements for any new country entering the EU, so we would have much greater control over the numbers than the previous Government did when the EU expanded with the accession of the A8 countries four or five years ago. In fact, over time migration within the EU evens out, and even now the vast majority of immigration to this country comes from outside the EU. That is the area on which the Government will concentrate to ensure that we have sustainable numbers coming to this country.

Police Funding

9. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): How much central funding for police forces she plans to provide in 2011-12. [13090]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Future funding for the police service will be announced in the spending review, which reports on 20 October. I cannot speculate on the outcome of this review, but the Government's priority is to cut the deficit, and the police must play their part in achieving this.

Mary Creagh: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. He has already cut the police budget in year by £125 million, the equivalent of approximately 4,000 police jobs. If he is to make a 25% cut as the comprehensive spending review requires, it will be a cut of some £1.1 billion, the equivalent of some 40,000 police jobs. Can he confirm that that is the order of magnitude of the cuts that he is looking at? A simple yes or no will do.

Nick Herbert: The hon. Lady is just speculating. In relation to the in-year cut to which she objects, it is important to understand that it represents less than 1% of what the police will spend this year, and our view is that the police can find those efficiencies and make the savings. In relation to further cuts, there will have to be savings, but the independent inspectorate of constabulary said a few weeks ago that police forces could save more than £1 billion a year-equivalent to 12% of spending-without having an impact on the front line.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): This morning, at the invitation of the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), I visited Medway and was shown two innovative, award-winning schemes pioneered by the
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police there to combat prostitution and to ensure effective offender management. The chief constable of Kent told me that if the envisaged cuts of 20% are put in place, 1,500 jobs will be lost in Kent and £35 million will come off his budget. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the schemes that I saw today, and others all over the country, will be protected? Could he at the very least give police authorities an early idea of the budget constraints they will have to deal with, as 25 October is quite a long way away?

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman invites me to speculate ahead of the spending review outcome, and he knows that I cannot do that. We will know fairly shortly what sums of money will be available to police forces, but it will be necessary for them to make savings, and it will be up to chief constables to achieve greater efficiencies and more collaboration between forces. The inspectorate is clear that those efficiencies can be made.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Could the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what bid he has made to the Treasury for police funding for future years? How many fewer police officers does he expect to see on the streets in two years' time if the proposed settlement is achieved? Ultimately, is he battling for the police or implementing the axe for the Treasury?

Nick Herbert: What is clear is that the Opposition still have not faced up to their responsibility for bequeathing us the fiscal deficit. They left us with £44 billion of unspecified spending cuts. The shadow Home Secretary told "The Daily Politics" show on 20 July, in debate with me, that they would have cut by £1 billion, by 12%. But Labour voted against a spending cut of 0.5%. It demonstrates that it-

Mr Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the Minister. "The Daily Politics" is a fascinating programme, but I do not want to hear about the dilations of Opposition spokesmen on it, because the purpose of Question Time is to hear about the policies of the Government.

Health Professionals (Language Requirement)

10. Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on steps to ensure that the standard of English required of migrant health professionals is adequate for the purpose of safe clinical practice. [13092]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I have regular exchanges with my colleagues on matters relating to migration policy. The Government are committed to seeking to stop foreign health care professionals working in the NHS unless they have passed robust language and competence tests. Migrants coming in under the points-based system are already required to meet language tests. The specific criteria for eligibility to practise medicine in the UK are a matter for the Secretary of State for Health.

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Dr Poulter: Is the Minister aware of British Medical Association research showing that 60 to 70% of medical personnel employed by medical locum agencies are recruited from overseas and that many do not have English as a first language? We have already seen the tragic consequences of that in the east of England, with the case of Dr Daniel Ubani. Can the Minister assure me that he will work with the Department of Health to ensure that medical locum agencies take a much more robust approach to recruitment in future?

Damian Green: I am indeed aware of the problem to which my hon. Friend refers, a problem that has an immigration aspect and, obviously, an aspect for the Department of Health. Non-EU workers who work as agency workers would not normally qualify under tier 2 -the work-based route of the points-based system-as they would not be filling a substantive vacancy. Such workers may have arrived here by other routes, such as tier 1 of the points-based system, in which case their language skills would be checked, or as a spouse, in which case they would not. The problem illustrates why efforts to check the language skills of health professionals need to be focused on those who employ them, which is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is doing.

US-UK Extradition Treaty

11. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What progress has been made on her Department's review of the operation of the Extradition Act 2003 and the US-UK extradition treaty. [13093]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): The coalition agreement committed the Government to reviewing the UK's extradition arrangements worldwide, to ensure that they operate effectively and in the interests of justice. The review will examine both our extradition arrangements with the United States and our operation of the European arrest warrant. I will make an announcement to Parliament on the chairmanship and terms of reference of the review shortly.

Tony Baldry: My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is general concern that the provisions of the Extradition Act 2003 are lop-sided so far as they apply to the United States. Our relationship with the United States has always been based on mutual trust, and concerns about the workings of the Extradition Act are not helping to reinforce that mutual trust. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance and an undertaking that once her review has been completed, if it demonstrates that the provisions and workings of the Extradition Act are lop-sided she will bring forward amending legislation to this House?

Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. I reflect, as he does, on the importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States of America, but I am also aware, obviously, of comments that have been made outside the House and inside this Chamber about the extradition treaty between the UK and the USA. That is why I think it entirely right for the coalition Government to have agreed that we will not only review that treaty but
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address the issue more widely and review the operation of European arrest warrants, about which hon. Members-particularly my right hon. and hon. Friends-have also expressed some concerns in this Chamber. I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the review, but, as I said, I will be making more details of the review available to the House shortly.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): Does the Home Secretary understand that, in addition to the lop-sided nature of the legislation, there is a further issue that prejudices British citizens, namely the willingness of American courts to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction and entertain prosecutions in circumstances where doing so would simply not be permitted in this country? Will that second issue also form part of her review?

Mrs May: Let me say to my right hon. and learned Friend that, as I have indicated, I am well aware of the range of concerns that exist in relation to the extradition treaty between the UK and the USA. That is why the coalition Government have agreed that we should have this review of the extradition treaty and take it more widely, looking at all our extradition arrangements to ensure that they operate effectively and in the interests of justice.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I have a constituent who has already been extradited under the treaty. In following his case, I certainly agree with recent remarks by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who concluded that perhaps the previous Government gave away too much. Whatever the outcome of the review, I hope that, on that point at least, the Home Secretary will be able to agree with both me and her predecessor.

Mrs May: My hon. Friend is tempting me down a route that I do not think is appropriate-to agree the outcome of the review in respect of its assessment of the current extradition treaty. That is not appropriate as it would undermine the whole point of having a review-details of which will be announced shortly-which is to ensure a proper process for considering the issues-

Mr Speaker: Order. I understand the natural temptation to do otherwise, but if the Home Secretary would face the House when she replies, it would help all of us. I think that she has concluded her response.

Recorded Crime

12. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What the recorded crime rate was in (a) 1997 and (b) 2010. [13094]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): In 1997, the police in England and Wales recorded a rate of 88 crimes per 1,000 head of the population. For the year ending March 2010, the rate was 79 crimes per 1,000 head of the population.

Karl Turner: Does the Minister share the concerns of Tim Hollis, the chief constable of my area, when he warns that cuts of 25% to his budget would lead to cuts
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in officer numbers, which would mean that crime figures would be likely to increase as a result of measures taken by the coalition Government?

Nick Herbert: No, I do not agree. We believe that the police must accept their share of the savings necessary to deal with the deficit that was bequeathed to this Government by the previous Government's reckless mismanagement of the economy.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that during the last year of the previous Government, police numbers in the Humberside force-the one that serves my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner)-fell by 150? There are nevertheless still concerns about how to move forward on this issue. Can we have an assurance that when we eventually restructure police organisation, rural policing will be treated with as much importance as city centre policing has been in the past?

Nick Herbert: First, my hon. Friend is right that police numbers were falling in a number of forces under the previous Government, so their feigned outrage about it now cuts little ice. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about rural policing, as do many of us who represent rural areas, and we appreciate the need to ensure effective policing in both rural and urban areas.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The Minister will have taken advice in preparing his submissions to the Treasury on the potential impact on crime of cutting police funding. What was that advice and will he share it with the House?

Nick Herbert: We do not accept that the police cannot make savings. That seems to me to be the point of difference between the Government and the Opposition on this issue. Like other public services, the police will have to spend money more efficiently. We are committed to ensuring that resources reach the front line and to doing everything we can to reduce bureaucracy, but police forces must find new ways of working-by collaborating and so forth-to ensure that they deliver good value for the taxpayer. The hon. Gentleman should understand the importance of wise spending rather than big spending.


13. Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): What steps she is taking to reduce annual net immigration to the UK. [13095]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): Limiting economic migration is part of the Government's plan to reduce net migration. Action will be required beyond these routes and we will review other immigration routes in due course. We are also committed to introducing transitional controls as a matter of course for all new EU member states.

Chris Skidmore: During the general election, the issue of greatest concern to my Kingswood constituents was the uncontrolled rise in immigration under the previous Labour Government. My constituents have welcomed the decision to place a cap on immigration numbers.
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Will the Minister ensure that this is done as soon and as fast as possible to ensure that this Government, unlike the previous one, are seriously committed to cracking down on uncontrolled immigration?

Damian Green: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, which reflects the concerns of many millions of people of all political views all over the country. Britain can and has benefited from immigration, but not from uncontrolled immigration. The levels of net migration seen under the previous Government were unprecedented. That is why this Government are committed to bringing immigration down to sustainable levels by steady downward pressure on all routes to migration.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): The Minister spoke about "uncontrolled" immigration, but is not the whole point of the Australian-style points system to provide sensible controls on immigration while also allowing the country to attract the skills it needs? Is it not the case that the immigration policies pursued by this Government are all about the soundbite and how the measures will be reported rather than about having effective measures to ensure that we continue to attract the skills we need while maintaining the controls put in place towards the end of the previous Government's tenure?

Damian Green: If the hon. Gentleman accuses me of engaging in soundbite politics, may I be allowed to use the Dispatch Box to advertise my Royal Commonwealth Society lecture this evening, in which I will make quite a long and detailed speech on immigration policy, to which I invite him- [Interruption.] I will have a word with the doorman and get him in. The points-based system was indeed a step forward, but he fails to recognise that it was nothing like enough, as we saw in the immigration figures that came out during the summer recess. Despite the assurances of Labour Ministers during the election campaign, net migration is up, at 196,000. That is too high a level and is unsustainable for this country.

Identity Cards

14. Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): How much the identity cards programme has cost since its introduction. [13096]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): Between April 2006 and March 2010, a total of £251 million was spent on projects to establish identity cards, second biometric passports and other related programmes. Prior to that, the Home Office spent an additional £41 million developing the policy, legislation and business case for the introduction of identity cards.

Matthew Hancock: Given the state of the public finances, many people will think that is a staggering amount of money to waste. Will the Minister say what the future saving is from scrapping the ID card scheme-not only to the public purse but to individuals-on top of the enormous cost to our civil liberties that would have been incurred?

Damian Green: There will be net savings of approximately £86 million over the next four years- [Interruption.]. From a sedentary position, the shadow Home Secretary describes that as "diddly squat". [Interruption.] He
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keeps doing this: £21 million a year of public money is of no consequence to the Opposition Front Bench. On top of that, £835 million would have come out of citizens' pockets directly, as that is what people would have been forced to pay for these wretched ID cards if the previous Government's policy had been allowed to continue. Labour Members do not recognise the difference between spending public money and spending taxpayer's money that they have taken directly out of their pockets. We do recognise that distinction.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister pulls many different numbers out of his hat-the numbers seem to change often-on the savings from scrapping ID cards. As he rightly points out, more than 70 per cent. of the cost in future would have come out of the pockets of people who had chosen a voluntary card. One figure that has not come out of the Minister's hat, however, is the amount of compensation that his Department will need to pay to companies and businesses involved in developing the ID card scheme. Will he tell the House that figure now? If not, when will the House be told that figure?

Damian Green: The hon. Lady asks that question at regular intervals, and as she knows, we are in commercial negotiations with those companies. As soon as we have reached a conclusion, we will let her and the House know.

Asylum Backlog

15. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What progress her Department is making in processing the backlog of asylum applications made prior to 2010. [13097]

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): In 2006 a backlog of approximately 450,000 older paper and electronic asylum cases were identified-widely known as the legacy caseload. I informed the House during oral questions in June 2010 that the case resolution directorate had concluded 277,000 legacy cases up to the end of May 2010. The chief executive of the UK Border Agency, Lin Homer, updates the Home Affairs Committee on a regular basis regarding the progress made in resolving these cases. She is, I believe, due to report again to the Committee this autumn.

Jason McCartney: During a busy summer of casework in my constituency, I was astounded to meet asylum seekers who have been waiting since 2002 and 2003 to have their cases decided. Does the Minister agree that the whole system that we have inherited is a complete shambles? What will we do to get a grip of it?

Damian Green: It is indeed a shambles, and my hon. Friend need not take my word for it. Famously, it was this particular disaster that caused the former Home Secretary, John Reid, to describe the whole Department as "not fit for purpose"-a judgment with which it was impossible to disagree at the time. The answer to my hon. Friend is that we are getting through the backlog as fast as possible, and I am confident that we will conclude it by summer 2011.

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Female Genital Mutilation

17. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): What resources her Department has allocated to enforcement of the law of female genital mutilation. [13099]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her tireless campaigning on this extremely serious issue.

The Government are committed to developing a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation. Legislation alone cannot eliminate the practice, so our resources will be aimed at raising awareness of the law on female genital mutilation, and of the health implications, among communities and front-line practitioners.

Ann Clwyd: I thank the Minister for her answer, but it was not satisfactory. Since 2003, when my private Member's Bill tightening legislation on the issue was passed, there have been no prosecutions, although according to health professionals and the police, the practice is increasing in this country. Events such as FGM cutting parties are taking place here. This is a crime against women. When will the Government catch the criminals?

Lynne Featherstone: I agree with the right hon. Lady-although I should point out that we came to office only recently, and that 2003 was seven years ago-and I have pursued the question of why no prosecutions have taken place since the passing of the Act in 2003.

There has been a fair amount of progress. A good many investigations are taking place, and each year there is an increase in the number of investigations. There are various reasons for the fact that no cases have proceeded to the courts. I have no doubt that if a case were referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, the CPS would proceed with it; however, some victims and their families state that the female genital mutilation was carried out before the victims came to the United Kingdom, and some victims are too young to give evidence. Problems may also be caused by diplomatic immunity and community barriers. Although female genital mutilation was banned in Egypt two years ago, nine out of 10 women and children are still being subjected to it. It is on awareness that our resources must be concentrated, but I agree that we should pursue the question of why there have been no prosecutions.

Topical Questions

T1. [13107] Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): During the recess, the Home Office presented proposals to fulfil a number of key coalition commitments, including a clampdown on rogue private sector wheel-clampers and the introduction of a system of temporary bans on "legal highs".

Stuart Andrew: Further to an answer that was given earlier, may I add my thanks to my right hon. Friend for banning the recent planned English Defence League march in Bradford? Will she join me in praising the
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officers of West Yorkshire police for the professional way in which they dealt with a very difficult and potentially volatile situation? What further steps will she take to tackle extremism in this country?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which does indeed relate to one that was asked earlier. I am happy to commend the actions of West Yorkshire police, and, indeed, to commend the people of Bradford on ensuring that their community cohesion was not undermined by those who wish to create division and difference in our society. As was made clear earlier by the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the Government are committed to ensuring that peaceful protest can take place, but also committed to ensuring that proper action is taken when people wish protest to be a means of causing violence and division in our community.

T2. [13108] Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): During the recess I spent a day with police on the Grangewood estate in Chesterfield, meeting people there. Grangewood has suffered tremendously from antisocial behaviour in the past. The police were certain that, when properly employed, antisocial behaviour orders were an incredibly successful and effective way of reducing the incidence of antisocial behaviour. Why do we not continue to give the police a vital tool that will help them to reduce the incidence of such behaviour in their community?

Mrs May: We do indeed intend to ensure that the police have the tools that enable them to tackle antisocial behaviour, which, sadly, occurs too often in too many places, despite the last Labour Government's introduction of a wide range of sometimes complex initiatives. The figures show that too much antisocial behaviour takes place, and people know that too much of it takes place in their neighbourhoods. We are committed to reviewing the powers that are available to the police to ensure that they can deal with it effectively.

T3. [13109] Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): In Wimbledon, we have a thriving language school sector and there will be widespread support for today's announcement that there will be action on overstayers on student visas, but can my hon. Friend assure me that the review that he undertakes will ensure that there is no discrimination against genuine applicants?

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I know he and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House have reputable English language colleges in their constituencies. As he said, we are committed to introducing new measures to minimise abuse of the student visa system, and I am also able to tell him that we are looking at the English language sector as a particular priority. I have met representatives from the colleges in that sector and the Members representing them here. I have listened to their concerns about the current arrangements, which were introduced by the previous Government, and I will make an announcement about this shortly.

Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): If the Home Secretary and the Government are serious about reducing and eradicating violence against
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women, why is it that they have only recently decided to opt out of a new European directive to combat human trafficking?

Mrs May: We are, indeed, committed to ensuring that we take action against violence against women, and I remind the hon. Lady that the last Labour Government took 12 years to develop a strategy on that. We will produce our strategy on ending violence against women within one year of coming into office, and it will cover a wide range of subjects. In looking at European Union directives, I take a very simple approach: is signing up to a particular directive to the benefit of the United Kingdom? Happily, most of the provisions in the European directive on human trafficking are already being acted on by the United Kingdom, because we take that issue extremely seriously.

T4. [13110] Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): Last week, Brooke Kinsella visited the Corner House youth project in Stockton, which has been very successful in highlighting, through talks and special activities, the dangers associated with knives. Will the Minister consider implementing similar programmes in constituencies such as mine which, tragically, have only recently once again had a serious knife crime incident?

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The Government are grateful for the work of Brooke Kinsella in considering how we can deter young people from carrying knives, and she will be reporting to us later this year. We are interested in successful schemes such as that which my hon. Friend describes, and if he will send me further information on it, I will gladly study it.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Does localism extend as far as consulting local communities about any proposals to cut safer neighbourhood teams?

Mrs May: In relation to the police and localism, we are ensuring that there is a more direct link between local people and policing in their community through the introduction of the ability for them to elect a directly accountable police and crime commissioner whose responsibility it will be to ensure that local policing delivers what local people want. We will also ensure that, through neighbourhood meetings and crime maps, people are aware of what is going on in their community and are able to hold the police directly accountable for what is happening in it.

T5. [13111] Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Last week on ITV a programme about community payback showed offenders on community payback smoking cannabis and not being properly supervised. How can we be sure that community payback means exactly that?

Nick Herbert: I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House who saw that programme will have been angered, as I was, by the scenes depicted where offenders were, frankly, sticking two fingers up at the criminal justice system and smoking cannabis. They were not being properly supervised. That is being investigated, and we must have confidence that these community sentences are administered rigorously.

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Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): When the Home Secretary cut the police budget for this year she included cuts to vital counter-terrorism work. Will she take the opportunity to create some common ground across the Chamber by sending out a strong message to terrorists that she will protect counter-terrorism funding in the budget for next year?

Mrs May: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that this Government will ensure that we maintain our fight against terrorism. As he says, this is something on which views are shared across this Chamber; all Members of this House want to see us combat the threat of terrorism effectively. We will certainly do all that we can to do that.

T7. [13114] Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): Will the Secretary of State tell us what representations have been received from police and members of the youth offending teams regarding their concerns about youth offenders who do not comply with the licence conditions, in particular the community element, of detention and training orders?

Nick Herbert: I am not aware that we have received any representations about these orders, but the same argument as before applies: it is essential that they are administered properly, that they are completed and that the public can have confidence in sentences containing a community element. We will be publishing a sentencing review later this year, and I will also discuss these issues with the Youth Justice Board.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Has the Home Secretary read Saturday's Yorkshire Post and the appeal made by the Archbishop of York, on his knees, as it were, to the Government asking them to opt in to the EU directive on sex slave trafficking. The Home Secretary is right to say that there are many measures in law in this country that deal with that, as there are in other EU member states. However, the point is that we need to send a signal to the pimps and traffickers that we are co-operating at a European level. It took three or four years to get the Council of Europe convention adopted-that was against the opposition of the Home Office in the previous Government. Do not stand on the side of the pimps and traffickers; stand with the Archbishop of York and the victims of this terrible trade.

Mrs May: Sadly, I did not read the Yorkshire Post on Saturday-I was far too busy reading the Maidenhead Advertiser-but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am aware of the comments made by the Archbishop of York on this matter. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has, over a number of years, taken this issue extremely seriously and has spoken up on behalf of women who have been trafficked into the sex trade in this country. It is right to say that we need to take all the action that we can to combat that terrible, terrible trade. However, I repeat what I have said in answer to an earlier question: most of the elements of the EU human trafficking directive are being adopted already in the United Kingdom, because we all take this issue very seriously.

Several hon. Members rose -

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Mr Speaker: Order. Time is running out and brevity is required.

T8. [13115] Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Has the Home Secretary had an opportunity to take forward the suggestion of the anti-terrorism expert, Dr Marc Sageman, that the transcripts of trials where terrorists are convicted should be published in full, in order to educate communities of the stupidity, moral poverty and criminal hatred of the people convicted in such cases?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which concerns an issue that he raised with me on the Floor of the House on 13 July. I am grateful for the letter that he sent me to follow up on that exchange, and I have passed that correspondence on to the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for considering the publication of trial transcripts and is examining the possibility of making available more information-more transcripts-about remarks made by judges when sentencing. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), will be in touch with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on this matter shortly.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): Police community support officers have become an essential part of local communities in Nottingham and elsewhere, so what reassurance can the Minister offer on this matter to my constituents, who are worried that the cuts in policing proposed by the Government will lead to a reduction in their number?

Nick Herbert: We share the hon. Lady's support for PCSOs, which we believe are an important part of the policing family. We are determined that police forces should make efficiencies and savings, and that the front line of policing will be protected.

T9. [13116] David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look into the case of one of my constituents, who is apparently being deported for working for too many hours in a part-time job and losing her working visa in this country?

Damian Green: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will understand that I cannot comment on the case on the Floor of the House, but if he wishes to write to me, I will of course look into it and get back to him as soon as possible.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Minister will be aware of the awful case, widely reported at the weekend, of Sergeant Mark Andrews of the Wiltshire constabulary who was convicted of a serious assault on my constituent, Miss Pamela Somerville, when she was incorrectly in police custody. Will Ministers take a look at the rules, regulations and protocols covering police cells to make sure that that kind of outrageous event cannot occur again?

Nick Herbert: It is essential that offenders taken into custody are treated and supervised properly. I will happily look at the matter and ensure that we have adequate systems in place to ensure that is the case.

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Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): In light of the Deputy Prime Minister's very welcome announcement that the child and female wing of Yarl's Wood will be closed, may I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends what plans there are to look at the long-term role and future of Yarl's Wood as a whole?

Damian Green: My hon. Friend is correct. At the moment, we are looking at alternatives to detention for children. Yarl's Wood is, as he knows, used for the detention both of single women and of women with families. It is our intention to minimise the detention of children in the future as a whole and, therefore, that aspect of Yarl's Wood's use will disappear, but clearly not its use for adult women.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in offering the warmest congratulations to the Prime Minister and his wife on the safe delivery of their daughter, Florence Rose Endellion, at the Royal Cornwall hospital in my constituency? Will she join me in thanking the staff at the hospital for their kindness and care, given not only to the Camerons but
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to all those visiting Cornwall for their holidays who find themselves in need of the NHS?

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sure that somewhere in that eloquently and elegantly phrased question the hon. Lady wanted some sort of response on police matters-perhaps police attendance, police security or something of that sort.

Sarah Newton: Indeed, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady.

Mrs May: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am indeed very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Prime Minister and his wife Samantha on the safe delivery of their daughter, Florence, who as my hon. Friend said has a Cornish name as well. I am sure that the Prime Minister and his wife were very pleased to have been protected and kept safe while they were in Cornwall by the appropriate local constabulary.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. All good things come to an end.

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Phone Tapping

3.32 pm

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab) ( Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the Metropolitan police investigation into phone hacking by the News of the World newspaper.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): In December 2005, the Metropolitan police began an investigation focusing on alleged security breaches within telephone networks after concerns were raised by members of the royal household at Clarence house. That investigation resulted in the prosecution and conviction of the News of the World royal editor, Clive Goodman, in 2007 for unlawfully intercepting the phone messages of staff in the royal household. A private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, was also convicted and jailed for intercepting the phones of a number of people.

That investigation has already been reviewed by the Metropolitan police, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service, who all concluded that the investigation was proper and appropriate. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport also previously examined the scope and nature of the police investigation, and the previous Government updated the House on these matters in July 2009 and took no further action. Hon. Members will be aware that there have recently been allegations connected to that investigation in The New York Times.

Any police investigation is an operational matter in which Ministers have no role. I understand that the original investigation was complex and was informed by high-level legal advice. As a result of that investigation, as I have said, two individuals were successfully prosecuted. The police have made it clear that during the investigation there was early and regular consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, so that the lines of inquiry followed were likely to produce the best evidence. The CPS had full access to all the evidence gathered, and the final indictment appropriately represented the criminality uncovered. The Metropolitan police have indicated that if there is further evidence, they will look at it. That is the right course of action, and it is right for the Government to await the outcome.

Mr Watson: Claim No. 1: there is no new evidence; there is. Claim No. 2: people were cleared by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee; they were not. Claim No. 3: a single, rogue reporter was responsible; he was not-the inquiry heard that a second News of the World reporter, Ross Hall, transcribed illegally hacked phone messages. He has not been interviewed by the police. He sent the now notorious e-mail to News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, reporter No. 3, who has not been interviewed by the police. Last week, former News of the World reporter Sean Hoare testified that when he worked for the paper his bosses instructed him to hack into phones. He has not been interviewed by the police.

A fifth reporter, Sharon Marshall, confirmed to The New York Times that she witnessed phone hacking while working for the News of the World. As far as we
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know, she has not been interviewed by the police. Last week, News International confirmed that a sixth reporter has been suspended for alleged phone hacking. As far as we know, he has not been interviewed by the police.

John Yates said that he had interviewed many reporters. Well, who? How many people were on Mulcaire's target lists? How many were notified that their name was on the lists? How many phone numbers, PINs and suspected computer passwords were on the lists? What other personal and private information was recovered? Most importantly, who decided, according to what criteria and on whose authority, which victims were investigated and which were not, and who was notified?

Can the Home Secretary confirm that former Prime Minister Tony Blair has formally asked Scotland Yard whether his phone was hacked into? The integrity of our democracy is under scrutiny around the world; the Home Secretary must not join the conspiracy to make it a laughing stock.

Mrs May: I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, he says that there is new evidence. As far as I can see, allegations have been made in a newspaper. The Metropolitan police have made it clear that if there is fresh evidence, they will consider it. Secondly, as Home Secretary I consider it appropriate that the Government take the view that it is for the Metropolitan police to decide what is the right course of action on an operational matter. As I said in response to the urgent question, it is appropriate for this Government to wait for the outcome.

Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): As the Home Secretary indicated, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee spent a considerable time examining this matter in the previous Parliament. We reported our conclusions to the House and we stand by them. We certainly found it very difficult to believe that Clive Goodman was the only member of the News of the World newsroom who was aware that phone hacking had been carried out by Glenn Mulcaire, but we found no evidence to suggest that the then editor knew of it. If there is credible new evidence, that would obviously be a matter for the police, but perhaps the Home Secretary could give an assurance that the Select Committee will be informed of the outcome of any investigation.

Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is helpful of him to put before the House what happened in the Select Committee inquiry on the matter. As I have said, it is for the Metropolitan police to consider fresh evidence, if any comes forward, and I am sure that the Select Committee will be kept informed of any developments.

Alan Johnson (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab): Mr Justice Gross said in the case of Mulcaire and Goodman that it was not about press freedom, but about a

Last year, I was assured that the Metropolitan Police Service had not received any allegations in respect of other News of the World journalists. I was also told that the Metropolitan police had taken all proper steps to ensure that where there was evidence of phone tapping, or any suspicion of it, the individuals concerned would be informed.

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The Home Secretary will be aware of the claims by The New York Times to have spoken to over a dozen former News of the World reporters, and to at least one of its former editors, who say that phone tapping was pervasive. Furthermore the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), a very distinguished Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said:

Does the Home Secretary agree that this stone has to be lifted, and that she must subject the actions of the Metropolitan police in this case to greater scrutiny in the light of this allegation and the new revelations from The New York Times? The original investigation, we are told, uncovered 2,978 mobile phone numbers of potential victims and 91 PIN codes. Can the right hon. Lady ascertain how many of the people concerned have now been informed?

When I was Home Secretary dealing with this case, there was nobody anywhere in Government who was implicated. Now there is. The Home Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister have lectured the House many times about their perception of the surveillance state created by the previous Government. It appears that they may have their very own expert on the matter in charge of Government communications. Can she assure me that Andy Coulson will not be involved in any way in the Government's response to the latest allegations? Does she agree with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who told Parliament last year that

said the right hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne),

I agree with those sentiments expressed by the right hon. Lady's Cabinet colleague-does she?

Mrs May: I will take first the issue that the shadow Home Secretary raised about the number of people involved who may or may not have had telephone calls intercepted. Assistant Commissioner Yates made it clear in his interview on the "Today" programme this morning that there are- [Interruption.] Labour Members may tut, but Assistant Commissioner Yates was interviewed on the matter this morning and made it clear that there is often a misunderstanding between somebody's name appearing on a list and that person assuming that they have therefore had their phone intercepted. He made it clear- [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The House must exercise a degree of self-restraint. I am trying to help the House by facilitating an exchange on this important matter. The responses of the Home Secretary must be heard.

Mrs May: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I can quote from that interview, where Assistant Commissioner Yates said:

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He went on to explain that that was not the case.

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) also raised the issue in relation to Mr Coulson. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) has made clear, when the Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigated the matter, it concluded:

the then editor

That was the decision taken by the Select Committee of the House.

As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, he looked at the issue last year. He looked at what had happened and the way it had been handled, and he said that he was reassured.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): As a member of the Select Committee, I recall that we had evidence that hundreds of people who are the victims in the matter appeared on lists. They would like to know whether information was illegally gathered from them, and the Metropolitan police will not tell them. Secondly, they would like to know what information was illegally gathered and with whom that information was shared. Surely the only way of getting to the bottom of this is a proper judicial inquiry so that people are compelled to give evidence and they give that evidence on oath.

Mrs May: I say to my hon. Friend that the matter has been investigated by the Metropolitan police, who did so in very close co-operation with the Crown Prosecution Service and with leading counsel. The matter has also been looked at by the Select Committee of the House. The findings of that Select Committee are clear. The findings of the Metropolitan police at the time that they investigated the matter and then looked again at it last July are also clear. Two individuals were prosecuted as a result of that investigation. The Metropolitan police have made it clear that if fresh evidence is there, they will look at that fresh evidence.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary agree that, in circumstances in which Members of this House may not have their telephone communications intercepted by the police or the security service, it would be totally unacceptable for their communications to be intercepted unlawfully by newspapers? Does she accept, on the evidence of what has been said in the House this afternoon, that there has been a distinct lack of zeal on the part of the Metropolitan police in looking into these accusations?

Mrs May: Far from that, the Metropolitan police investigated these matters when they were first raised. The matter was considered again in July 2009, when the then Policing Minister, on behalf of the then Home Secretary, who was absent from the House that day, came to the House in response to an urgent question and, as a result of that, indicated that the Labour Government were taking no further action in relation to the matter.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Home Secretary let the cat out of the bag by showing that this is a rather thinly
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veiled attempt to try to make as much political capital as possible instead of actually trying to get to the bottom of what happened? Everything that we have heard today has been thoroughly covered in the Select Committee report; there is absolutely nothing new. We took up the concerns about the Metropolitan police's investigation at the time, when Assistant Commissioner Yates said, regarding the failure to conduct wider interviews during our Select Committee hearings:

Can my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not waste any more time and effort on trying to make political capital out of flogging an old horse?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend has referred to the Select Committee report's findings on this matter, to which I and others have also referred. As for his initial observations about the reasons behind this issue, I simply say that those who are watching will see the nature of and manner in which some of the points are being raised by Labour Members of Parliament.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The trouble is that the police have not investigated even where there is new information and new evidence. Last summer, I wrote to the Metropolitan police and asked whether, to their knowledge, from the material that they had gained from Mr Mulcaire, I was a person of interest to him. They replied that I was, and they suggested that I ring my mobile company, which then informed me that my phone had indeed been interfered with. I told the police this months ago; they have done absolutely nothing about it.

I say in all seriousness to the Home Secretary that there may well be dozens of right hon. and hon. Members whose phones have been intercepted-several people on the Government Front Bench at the moment, as well as those on the Opposition Benches. Surely the least that she could do is write to the Metropolitan police to ask them to notify every single right hon. and hon. Member who was a subject of that investigation of the fact that they were involved, and then they can choose whether to investigate further.

Mrs May: At the time of the investigation, the Metropolitan police made it clear that those people whose phones they believed had been intercepted were contacted by members of the Metropolitan police. The hon. Gentleman has had an exchange with them on this matter. I come back to the point that I made earlier: the police have said on many occasions that if fresh evidence were to come forward they would look at it. It is not for the Government to look at that evidence; it is for the Government to await the outcome of any such investigation should that arise.

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): In terms of what the Metropolitan police have and have not said, can my right hon. Friend confirm that they have now made it clear, on the record, that the press department of the Metropolitan police in no way interfered with the handling of this case?

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Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. Last year, when Home Secretary, the shadow Home Secretary looked at the issue and the then Government were absolutely clear that there was no need to take any further action in relation to the investigation by the Metropolitan police.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Home Secretary has repeatedly prayed in aid the Select Committee report in support of her decision not to take any further action. I have been a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and have experience of how Select Committees can go only so far. When judicial reviews are then conducted, however, all sorts of evidence suddenly comes out to which Select Committees simply have no access. I urge the Home Secretary not to take comfort from the Select Committee but to make further inquiries and force the Metropolitan police at least to take some serious action rather than hiding behind procedure.

Mrs May: As I indicated earlier, such operational matters about whether to investigate particular individuals are for the police. We should jealously guard the operational independence of the police. I say to the hon. Lady, and to any other right hon. or hon. Members on the Labour Benches who think that I as Home Secretary should take it upon myself to tell members of the police force who they should or should not investigate, that that is a very slippery slope down which neither I nor this Government intend to go.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the straightforward fact is that the Metropolitan police can investigate, the Crown Prosecution Service can advise that there should be a charge, and prosecuting counsel can draft an indictment only if there is supporting evidence? Does not this all turn on a simple point? If The New York Times or any individuals believe that they have new evidence, is it not simply a matter of their making that evidence available for the Metropolitan police to investigate and allowing the police to get on with their job?

Mrs May: A very valid point has been made. It has been made clear that if evidence comes forward, the Metropolitan police will look into it. I understand that on its website The New York Times is saying that it will not make new evidence available to the police.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): If this Government claim to be whiter than white, why did the top spinner at No. 10 Downing street learn his trade in the phone-tapping News of the World run by Murdoch? If this murky affair rumbles on, will the Prime Minister come and make a statement about relieving Coulson of his job?

Mrs May: I refer the hon. Gentleman to remarks that I made earlier. I simply observe that although he uses the phrase "whiter than white", it was his Government, if my memory serves me correctly, who claimed to be whiter than white.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) seems to have forgotten about the existence of Alastair Campbell.

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Has my right hon. Friend been given any indication at all about why people have suddenly come forward now to give evidence to The New York Times, given that they did not see fit to come forward at the time to give evidence to the police?

Mrs May: I have seen no explanation of why the issue has suddenly come forward in The New York Times at this particular time. However, as I have repeated, if evidence is available, the police have made it clear that they will investigate it. I have also said in response to another hon. Member that I understand that The New York Times is making it clear that it will not be bringing forward new evidence.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): Can the Home Secretary tell the House what meetings or conversations the Mayor of London has had with the Metropolitan police in relation to this matter?

Mrs May: Conversations held by the Mayor of London are a matter not for the Government but for the Mayor.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Given the seriousness of these new allegations, many in this House and across the country will be surprised that the Home Secretary has not even shown a degree of concern about potential shortcomings in the police investigation. Is she really entirely satisfied that everything is as it should have been, or is she determined not to have a view?

Mrs May: This matter was looked into. It was looked into last year by the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend, the then Home Secretary. The then Government decided that no further action should be taken.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Has the right hon. Lady any knowledge of how many of the 91 PIN codes involved were default numbers and how many were people's own selected numbers? If she does have that, the issue is much more serious than has been indicated thus far. Default PINs can be obtained from the manufacturer, but others take sophisticated technology to obtain and only a very large operation could achieve that.

Mrs May: I will make the point that I made earlier. We are faced with a situation in which a number of allegations have been made in The New York Times. The Metropolitan police have made it clear that if fresh evidence is brought forward they will investigate it. As far as the Government are concerned, I believe it is appropriate for us to await the outcome.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Has the Home Secretary asked whether her name is on the list?

Mrs May: No.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Has the Home Secretary had a chance to read the report published this May by the Information Commissioner on the unlawful and widespread trade in confidential personal information, and does she agree with the
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Information Commissioner that there should now be a custodial sentence of up to two years in respect of the offences in question?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue about sentencing, which of course is in the remit of the Secretary of State for Justice rather than the Home Department. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, a review of sentencing is taking place, and I am sure that if he wishes to make representations to that review they will be welcomed.

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): As a long-serving member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, I am proud of the fact that under the previous Chair and the current respected Chair, we have worked as a team irrespective of party political views. I am delighted that I have colleagues who are taking advantage of the political aspect of this matter, but may I ask the Home Secretary to ensure that she is not tempted to go on the defensive? This issue is much more important than party politics, and it has to be tackled for the sake of our democracy. I hope that she will do that.

Mrs May: I hope that the hon. Gentleman heard the response that I gave to the question that the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee asked about its being kept informed of any developments. However, it is important that as Home Secretary I am absolutely clear about where the division of action lies between the Government-a political party-and the operational independence of the Metropolitan police or indeed any other police force in this country.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): The Home Secretary referred earlier to the comments of Assistant Commissioner Yates on the Radio 4 programme this morning. The assistant commissioner also made it clear that the police have relationships with journalists, in this case from the News of the World. Can the Home Secretary tell me who polices that relationship and how we know whether there is any self-interest in the lack of progress on this matter? I appreciate that the Government will not want to get into that, but should the Independent Police Complaints Commission be asked to examine that relationship to ensure that nothing interferes with police matters and with justice being seen to be done?

Mrs May: The hon. Lady refers to a lack of progress on this matter, but the position is absolutely clear. The use of phone interception by a journalist at the News of the World was investigated, two individuals were prosecuted as a result of that investigation and the matter was looked at again in July 2009. The Metropolitan police looked very closely at the investigation in conjunction with the Crown Prosecution Service and counsel, and in July 2009 the previous Government examined the matter and decided that no further action should be taken. As regards a lack of progress today, the police have made it absolutely clear that if fresh evidence is available, they will look at it.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): As a telecommunications engineer, I have helped build such networks, so I am aware of their security gaps. That is why I am concerned that the Home Secretary
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does not seem to recognise the implications of the matter for everyone in the country. Such cyber-criminality could be an increasing part of all our lives, and if the police do not have the will to pursue each and every case, it is up to her to give them the tools and incentive to do so.

Mrs May: As I hoped I had made clear in response to several questions, the police have made it clear that if fresh evidence is introduced, they will look at it in relation to the case. The implicit suggestion-that somehow the police do not have the tools to examine cybercrime-is not appropriate to the matter that we are considering.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recall that the Mayor of London intervened in the case of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) when he received information from the Home Office? Surely, when the Secretary of State is told by an hon. Member that a phone company has told him that his phone line was compromised, but that the police had not notified him of that, she cannot be confident that the Metropolitan police have notified everybody who was subject to tapping. Surely she has a duty, on behalf of all those individuals, and for natural justice, to meet the Metropolitan police to ensure that everyone on that list is contacted and can go back and check with their phone companies.

Mrs May: The issue of contacting people who were on the list, and of whether their phones had been intercepted, was raised when the initial investigation took place and, I believe, in evidence that was given to the Select Committee and to the interviewer this morning by Assistant Commissioner Yates. The implication from several Opposition Members is that the Metropolitan police somehow failed in their duty on the matter, but they investigated the issue, people were prosecuted and they have made it clear that they will look into any further evidence that comes forward.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Last year, an elderly BBC journalist made a statement in a magazine that he had assisted in the death of a partner some years previously. The police investigated that statement. Now, several journalists and at least one Member of the House have made new statements, yet we are told that there is no new evidence. At what point will the Watergate scandal that is encompassing British politics be investigated?

Mrs May: I suggest that the hon. Lady listen a little more carefully to what I have said, which is absolutely clear. I have said that, if fresh evidence is brought forward-

Mrs Moon: It has been brought forward.

Mrs May: The hon. Lady says that fresh evidence has been brought forward. Allegations have been made in The New York Times, which has made it clear that it will not make any evidence available to the police.

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Points of Order

4.3 pm

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): May I ask you to make a ruling, Mr Speaker? My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has put before the House evidence that he was hacked into- [Laughter.] It is not a laughing matter. He had to take the initiative, and he has invited the Home Secretary to write to the Metropolitan police to find out whether any other hon. Members have had their phones hacked into. The Home Secretary has, extraordinarily, refused to do that. On behalf of the House, is that a matter that you will raise with the Metropolitan police?

Mr Speaker: It is not for me to raise the matter with the Metropolitan police. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman has raised what I think is intended to be a point of order. In response, I say that there has been no breach of parliamentary order today. There is no doubt that there is considerable consternation in this place about the matter, and I granted the urgent question in recognition of that. Exchanges have taken place, and they are very clearly on the record. It is, of course, open to hon. Members from any party further to pursue those matters. It is perfectly possible that that will happen. For all I know, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) may be one of those who is keen to take up the matter in other ways on other occasions.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Obviously, I do not wish to disagree with you, but hon. Members' security falls squarely on you along with the Serjeant at Arms. I would hope that the security of our mobile phones, internet and e-mails is a matter for you and the Serjeant at Arms. Indeed, that matter was rightly pursued a couple of years ago. It seems clear that there are dozens of Members of Parliament whose phones may have been intercepted, and about whom the police already know that there is a question, but those people-people in the Chamber-do not know whether they have been intercepted. May I suggest that either you, or, if you still feel that it should not be you, perhaps the Serjeant at Arms, might write to the Metropolitan police and say that it would better satisfy the House if any hon. Member who has been the subject of Mr Mulcaire's attentions were notified of that?

Mr Speaker: It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Gentleman. In prefacing his inquiry with the words that he used, he reminds me of the person who begins a criticism by saying, "With great respect," meaning nothing of the kind. I simply say to him that it is not appropriate-I feel sure that he will accept this-to discuss security on the Floor of the House. He is a very experienced parliamentarian. There are all manner of ways in which matters can be raised with me and with others, and that often necessarily must be done outside of the Chamber, so I rest at this point upon what I said in response to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey).

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Prime Minister's Question Time on 21 July this year, my right hon. Friend the Member
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for Blackburn (Mr Straw) asked the Deputy Prime Minister, in the light of the latter's recently published letter to Mr Graham Honeyman of Sheffield Forgemasters, to correct the statement that he made to the House on 22 June that the owners of the company had not wished to dilute their shareholding in the business. The Deputy Prime Minister failed to do so on that occasion, and the impression was left that although a mistake had been made, it was an honest one.

Mr Speaker: Order. I am afraid that I must at this point interrupt the hon. Gentleman, because from what he is saying, my strong sense is that he has written to me on the matter. If I surmise correctly that he has done so, I assure him that I will respond in writing, but at this point, I shall leave it there. I am grateful to him for what he has said, and I know that he will be grateful to me for what I have said.

6 Sep 2010 : Column 34

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill: Report for Second Reading (HC 422); uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Committee on Thursday 15 July (HC 358-i), Thursday 22 July (HC 396-i) and Tuesday 27 July (HC 396-ii); and written evidence reported by the Committee to the House on Thursday 22 and Tuesday 27 July and ordered to be published on those dates.]

Second Reading

Mr Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.7 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Nick Clegg): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before turning to the Bill, I am aware that since we last met, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has announced that he will be stepping back from front-line politics when the new leader of the Labour party is finally elected. I am sure that I speak on behalf of everybody when I say that I wish him, in advance, a happy semi-retirement on the Back Benches. I hope that he agrees that Second Reading of this Bill and Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill next week is a fitting finale or curtain call for him, given his lifelong interest and expertise in constitutional matters, which we hope he will continue to draw upon from the Back Benches.

In the run-up to the election in May, all the major parties pledged to reform politics. Some of the measures proposed were quite different from this one and others strikingly similar, but there was consensus that this Parliament has a duty to restore trust to the institution of Parliament. So the people who put us here must now see us taking the action needed to do that, ensuring that politics is transparent, making certain that we can all be held to account, and ultimately, demonstrating to them that we understand that they are in charge. This Bill is a major step towards achieving that, because it is about the legitimacy of this House and restoring people's faith in how they elect their MPs.

Mr Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If I could make a little headway, I will of course give way.

The coalition has agreed a full, five-year programme of various political reforms, including fixed-term Parliaments, reform of the other place, action to clean up party funding and a new power of recall, but unless we can give people confidence in the fundamentals-in how they choose their Westminster representatives-that programme will fall short. Parliamentary elections are the foundation of our democracy, and it is vital to our political system as a whole that they are considered to be legitimate and fair. That is what the Bill seeks to deliver.

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Mr Donohoe: Will the Deputy Prime Minister answer a simple question? Does he see any party political advantage in the proposal on AV?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is impossible to predict what effect a new electoral system will have- [ Interruption. ] Well, many people have tried and they have come up with conflicting views-

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister refers to the question of the most fundamental matters of our democracy. Does he not agree that one of those is that we subscribe to our manifestos?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, this Bill is the product of an agreement between the two parties in the coalition Government. It is by definition a compromise between our manifestos.

There are two major issues that we have to face. The first is the big difference between the sizes of many parliamentary constituencies, which has the effect of making some people's votes count more than others, depending on where they live. The second is the widespread concern about first past the post as the means by which MPs are elected. Therefore, the Bill will require the independent boundary commissions to redraw constituency boundaries so that they are more equally sized, and it will pave the way for a referendum next May on whether to change the voting system for the House of Commons from first past the post to the alternative vote.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned that the Bill is before us today because of the deal between his party and the Conservatives in the coalition agreement. Was it part of that deal that the two measures had to be brought before the House together, because otherwise he would not get his referendum on AV?

The Deputy Prime Minister: They are simply two issues that relate to how we are elected to this House, and therefore it is natural to bring them together in the same Bill.

These proposals have rightly provoked a great deal of debate-they are matters of major significance-but while new boundaries and the prospect of a new voting system may seem radical to Members of this House, and certainly the changes will have a direct impact on each of us, these reforms are the bare minimum that any Parliament serious about political renewal must deliver. To the people we serve it is patently obvious that individuals' votes should carry the same weight, and if that means reforming the rules for drawing boundaries, that is what we must do. When a big question mark hangs over something as important as our voting system, the only way to resolve the dilemma is to let people have their say. Therefore, these are common-sense changes that are long overdue, and they are the basics that we must now get right.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the all-party group for the promotion of first past the post, which I chair jointly with the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe), and that many Members feel passionately
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about that tried and tested system? Will he agree to meet with the all-party group to hear our side of the story?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend's group. Whether we will have a meeting of minds is another matter. He feels passionately about the current electoral system, but others feel passionately that there should be a different system. Those passions should be reserved for the debate that will occur in the run-up to the referendum, and at the end of the day it is not for us to decide, but for the people of Britain to decide what kind of electoral system they want.

There are three problems with the current electoral map. Constituencies vary too much in size, they are based on information that is out of date, and there are too many of them. In our parliamentary system, MPs both represent their constituents and are their stake in who forms the Government of the day, but at the moment the will of the voters is not weighed equally. For example, last December, Manchester Central contained 85,522 electors, while Glasgow North had just 50,588, a difference of 41%. On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Deputy Prime Minister stresses greatly the need for constituencies of the same size, as it is a question of equality of voting. It currently takes about 35,000 votes to return a Labour MP, 37,000 votes to return a Tory MP and about 115,000 votes to return a Lib Dem MP. When we redraw the boundaries, what does he think would be a fair number to go for to return a Lib Dem MP?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As I will describe shortly, the number that we anticipate being the guidance for the boundary commissions is roughly 76,000, and we allow for a 5% margin greater or less than that in the Bill.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: I will just make a little more headway.

Equally problematic is the cumbersome process by which boundaries are drawn. The review process is lengthy and time-consuming. The last review in England took more than six years. The constituencies in place for the 2010 general election were based on data that were a decade old. At the root of this is the law governing how the boundary commissions carry out their work: the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. The rules laid down in that Act are supposed to require each commission both to draw seats of equal size in its part of the United Kingdom and to have regard to considerations such as geography and community, which matter to many people. However, the scheme in that Act
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is flawed. The rules are in tension with each other, and the overall effect is that dozens of seats are far smaller or larger than others.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman could enlighten us. Is Mrs Clegg aware that under the current proposed legislation, her status as an EU citizen will mean that she is a non-person when it comes to counting the size of Sheffield, Hallam?

The Deputy Prime Minister: She is aware of that, and I will remind her today.

Finally, the legislation underpinning reviews means that the number of MPs has crept up. We do not have a 650-seat House by design; it is simply a result of the flawed rules, which have a ratchet effect on the number of MPs. As a result, this House of Commons is now the largest directly elected Chamber in the European Union.

The Bill seeks to address each of those problems. New rules will demand that every constituency is within 5% of either side of a single size. Using the electoral register from last December, we estimate that this will be around 76,000 voters, as I have said. Subject to that strict requirement, the independent boundary commissions will then be able to continue to take into account the same factors as now: local geography, local authority boundaries and local ties. To guard against future misalignment of voter numbers in constituencies, boundary reviews will take place on a five-yearly basis.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I am sure that it is right that constituencies should be broadly the same size, and it may be right that there are too many MPs, but what is the point of wading through blood to reduce the number of MPs just to create second-rate elected Members of the other place?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not sure that I entirely understand the connection, but as my hon. Friend may well know, around the turn of the year we hope to publish a draft Bill, for the first time in decades-indeed, in generations-on how we will seek to reform the other place, a reform that escaped previous Administrations for a long time.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: If I could make a little bit of headway, I will of course give way. This is an important Bill and many people want to speak.

There will be only two exceptions to the new rules named in the Bill: the dispersed island groups of Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles. In both those cases, geographical size and remoteness make any change to the boundaries completely impractical. Orkney and Shetland was explicitly exempted in law by the Scotland Act 1998, and the Western Isles have been recognised as an exception in practice since 1918. To recognise the fact that parts of the United Kingdom are sparsely populated, no constituency will be greater than 13,000 sq km in size-just larger than the largest now, Ross, Skye and Lochaber. On that, let me clear up a rumour that seems to be doing the rounds. There are no secret Government plans to exempt Ross, Skye and Lochaber; we simply used its size in suggesting a ceiling for how
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large any constituency should be. However, how boundaries are drawn, including in that constituency, is a decision for the commission alone.

Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does the right hon. Member accept that people living in the Isle of Wight are perfectly content with one Member and that it does not need to be made smaller?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am aware of the popularity of the current Member for the Isle of Wight, and he will know better than I do that the number of MPs representing that area has changed quite dramatically through the ages. I believe that the Isle of Wight once had eight MPs. I understand that this proposal is controversial there, but equality of size as a general rule-with the two exceptions I mentioned-seems to us to be a cornerstone of the Bill.

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, but even those who are on side in respect of what he is trying to achieve through equalisation of the size of parliamentary seats are somewhat concerned at the speed and perhaps the brutal simplicity of the approach. Will there be scope for judicial challenge of any of the individual decisions taken by the boundary commissions?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As the right hon. Member will know, anyone can seek judicial review in normal practice, but on the criteria given to the boundary commissions, it is worth stressing that they will retain their existing ability to refer to local links, geography, county boundaries and so on, but subject to a principle of equality. That is a simple-yes, it is simple-straightforward principle of equality that we are enshrining in the legislation.

By having more frequent boundary reviews-one every five years-constituencies will be kept more up to date, reflecting changes in where people live. In order to make that possible, we are changing the consultation process. Consultation is, of course, vital, but as leading academics concluded in a report published just last week, local inquiries have become "the playthings" of political parties and have had, in practice, little impact on the commissions' final recommendations, so we will abolish local inquiries. Instead, we will triple the time that people have to make representations to the commissions to have their say-from one month to three months. Residents will have-

Mr Speaker: Order. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me assure him and the House that I am no authority on the subject of the equality of size, but the reason I rise is that the House should know that no fewer than 74 Back Benchers are seeking to speak in the debate, so a little self-restraint is necessary. The more noise and the longer the Front Benchers take with their speeches, the greater the delay.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Aside from these improvements, the arrangements for drawing the boundaries will remain untouched. For more than 60 years, the responsibility for drawing constituency boundaries has rested with the four independent boundary commissions. That guarantee of impartiality will remain. This is not, as some critics have sought to suggest, an elaborate
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attempt to gerrymander the boundaries, because the Government will have no say in where the new constituency perimeters will fall.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab) rose-

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab) rose-

Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab) rose-

The Deputy Prime Minister: I give way to the right hon. Lady.

Mr Betts: Does he accept that in the past-

Mr Speaker: Order. It is helpful if the Deputy Prime Minister indicates clearly to whom he is giving way.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I said I was giving way to the right hon. Lady. Is the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) answering to that?

Caroline Flint: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but why has he settled on a figure that is different from the one proposed by him in the Liberal Democrat manifesto-which was to reduce the Chamber by 150, I believe-or by the Conservatives, who sought to reduce the number to 585? Has the figure of 600 been settled on because going any further in the downward direction would affect Tory and Liberal Democrat seats rather than just Labour ones, as proposed?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We settled on 600 MPs, a relatively modest cut in House numbers of just less than 8%, because it saves money-about £12 million each year-and because we think it creates a House that is sufficiently large to hold the Government to account while enabling us all to do our jobs of representing our constituencies. It also creates a sensible average number of constituents-76,000, as I mentioned earlier-that we already know is manageable because there are already 218 seats that are within 5% of that number. That is why we feel 600 is about right.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: I want to make some progress so that others can have their say later.

Some hon. Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also raised concerns about the likely impact in those nations of the cut in MP numbers. Of course I understand those anxieties, but our priority must be to ensure that a person's vote is of equal worth-wherever they live in the UK. If the current rules distort that, they surely need to change.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Many in the House believe that geographical layout is as important as numerical. As cohesion is important, what discussions has the Deputy Prime Minister had with the commission about talking to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish commissions? We should ensure that the change stands
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the test of time, and that we do not move into another cabal when we come to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree that the change should stand the test of time. That is why the Electoral Commission, with our active support, has established a group of all the boundary commissions, with officials from the Cabinet Office and the territorial offices to ensure consistent application. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have blended two things: a maximum geographical size of 13,000 sq km, to avoid constituencies of excessive geographical size; and the principle of equality in relation to the number of constituents.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: I will make a little more progress.

The commissions will continue to use the electoral register as the basis for their reviews. That has been a feature of the system for decades, under Governments of all shades. With registration in Great Britain at well over 90% and in line with comparable countries, the register remains the best basis for reviews. That is not to say that where people are not on the register, we should do nothing. That has been the attitude for far too long. Under-registration exists in coastal areas and the inner cities, among younger people, including students, and minority ethnic groups. There is no silver-bullet solution. We are investigating a number of solutions, including freeing up local authorities to use existing public sector databases to identify people who are not registered, and then actively encouraging them to register. We are also acting to tackle registration fraud, accelerating the shift to a system of individual, rather than household, registration-a process started by Labour Members.

Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my consternation that, for the first time in 50 years, under the previous Labour Government, the total UK electorate registered in this country declined when the UK population was rising-between 2001 and 2005? If Labour was serious about getting people on to the electoral register, it did a pretty poor job of doing so in government.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is a distinguishing feature of this debate, and previous debates, that Labour Members are now very animated about matters that they did absolutely nothing about in government.

I now turn to the referendum on the alternative vote. Fewer, more equally sized and more up-to-date constituencies will help to bolster the legitimacy of parliamentary elections. However, in parallel with that step, we must address the question of reform of our voting system. Some believe that we are better served by sticking with the current system, which, they say, benefits from its familiarity and strong constituency link. Others believe that it leads to too many safe seats, giving many MPs jobs for life with only minority support from their constituents. Advocates of AV note that it would retain the current constituency link, but that it would give people more say over their vote by allowing them to rank candidates in order of preference. As a general rule, therefore, MPs would come to Westminster with the support of the majority of their voters.

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Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will the Deputy Prime Minister clarify one technical point? Do the Government propose a compulsory alternative vote as in Australia where electors have to give a vote for every candidate, or a liberal one whereby they can vote for just one candidate?

The Deputy Prime Minister: In the Bill, as the right hon. Gentleman will see, we propose an optional preferential alternative vote system: the one used in New South Wales for state elections, not the one used at federal level in Australia.

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (Con): If we are to have a referendum on electoral reform, why do we propose including only one alternative to the status quo? There is much talk of the new politics in which people, not politicians, decide. Why do we not let the voters decide what change should mean?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I accept that, on paper, a multiple-choice referendum is an attractive suggestion. For the sake of simplicity, however, it is better to present people with a simple yes or no alternative, exactly as set out in the Bill.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that my officials have produced a simple fact sheet explaining the operation of the alternative vote system and first-past-the-post system. I will place a copy in the Library today.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: I shall make a little progress, if I may.

There are members of the Government who hold contrasting views on these systems. Come the referendum, there will be those of us who campaign on different sides. We emphatically agree, however, that the final decision should be made not by us, but by the British people. Despite our differences on this matter, that is the shared position of the Government, and I hope that the Opposition will be able to support it as well. We propose that the referendum should ask a straightforward question: do voters want to replace the current first-past-the-post system with the alternative vote system, yes or no? If there is a "yes" vote in the referendum, the alternative vote system will come into force together with the new parliamentary boundaries.

Gordon Birtwistle (Burnley) (LD): As my right hon. Friend knows, I am a new Member. When I arrived, I was surprised to learn that we already use the alternative vote system in the House. Mr Speaker was elected through that system, as are the Chairmen of Select Committees and the members of constituency Labour parties, and as the new leader of the Labour party will be. If they can have that system, why cannot the good people of this country have it in order to elect Members of the House?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That argument will, of course, take place during the referendum campaign, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that what is being suggested is an evolution rather than a revolution. It goes with the grain of our existing system of one
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Member per constituency. As I have said, that debate will take place during the weeks and months running up to the referendum.

Let me turn to a crucial issue which I know has elicited some controversy. The date of the poll is set for 5 May 2011. There are a number of reasons for that. First, the coalition agreement set out a commitment to hold a referendum, and it is right for us to move swiftly to meet that commitment. People have been promised the chance to decide, and they should not now be made to wait. Secondly, it makes sense to combine the referendum with the other elections that are already happening on that day.

Several hon. Members rose -

The Deputy Prime Minister: May I explain the issue first, and then give way?

About 84% of the United Kingdom's electorate will already have a reason to go to the polls for either local elections or elections to the devolved Assemblies. I believe that if we can avoid asking them to return to the ballot box more times than is necessary, we should. As Members will recall, we were elected just two months ago in a poll that was combined with local elections in many parts of the country.

Thirdly, combining the referendum with other elections will save a great deal of money. We estimate that across all polls on 5 May, the overall savings might be in the order of £30 million. Those savings will be shared between the referendum and the other polls. We will strive to keep costs down, and we are exploring whether further savings can be made.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): My right hon. Friend is right to talk about trust in politics, but one of the problems with the alternative vote is the democratic con trick that it can play on voters, who can never be quite sure what they are going to get. For example, what would my right hon. Friend say to the Labour sympathisers who were encouraged to vote Liberal by the slogan "Vote Liberal and keep out the Tories"?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My recollection is that there were plenty of leaflets around from Conservatives saying "Do not vote Liberal Democrat to keep Labour out". I think that everyone played that game in the run-up to the general election.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): Is my right hon. Friend aware that only one in three Members received more than half the votes cast? Does he agree that AV would end safe seats and ensure that Members received all those votes, that it would end the distortion of people being forced to guess who would be the last two still going, and that it would provide a more positive politics than we seem to have in the Chamber?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That may well be a case for the alternative vote, but we should focus today on providing the British people with the opportunity to hear those debates and make up their own mind.

Several hon. Members rose -

6 Sep 2010 : Column 43

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would like to make a bit more progress as many Members want to contribute to the debate.

I am pleased that the Electoral Commission has recognised that there are benefits to holding different elections on the same day. It is rightly concerned, as we are, to make sure that the poll runs smoothly, so we are working with it and electoral administrators to make sure that the combination of the polls works well, and we will table combination rules reflecting those discussions as an amendment to the Bill for debate at Committee stage.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, but he will be aware that the position of the Electoral Commission that he has just outlined is a dramatic reversal of that adopted by it in 2002. Is he also aware that one of the reasons it gave for changing its mind on the current occasion was:

It does not sound like a very strong-minded quango under these circumstances. Is it one of the quangos my right hon. Friend is thinking of chopping?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, we are not thinking of that-at least not at present. If my hon. Friend reads the documentation provided by the Electoral Commission he will see that it has been very open about the fact that it shifted its view after having examined the international comparisons, and as he will know it concluded that

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