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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 June 2011

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Immigration Tribunals

1. Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the sums spent from the public purse on repeated appeals in immigration tribunals. [62243]

11. Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce the sums spent from the public purse on repeated appeals in immigration tribunals. [62255]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): As announced in our response to the consultation “Reform of Legal Aid in England and Wales”, published on 21 June, we are removing most immigration cases, including appeals, from the scope of legal aid. We are also removing legal aid for certain repeat judicial reviews in immigration and asylum cases, subject to certain exceptions. We expect those measures to save more than £20 million a year. The Government have also consulted on introducing fees for appeals to the immigration and asylum chamber of the tribunal.

Dr Coffey: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Many of my constituents are becoming increasingly exasperated at the fact that some solicitors seem to exploit changes in circumstances and decisions, such as those on article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, simply to string out cases for as long as possible. What is he doing to ensure that legal aid is spent appropriately? What conversations has he had with the Immigration Minister on the reform of the immigration decision process?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that we are removing legal aid from most immigration cases. That will mean that the taxpayer is no longer funding those cases, which we think are relatively low priority. My hon. Friend has also spoken about cross-departmental co-operation, and we have had a number of discussions with the Home Office about our legal aid proposals, which go in the same direction as its proposals—for

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example, on making changes to the rules on how relatives of migrants are allowed to come into the UK. That close working will continue.

Gordon Henderson: Does my hon. Friend agree that the coalition Government inherited an immigration appeals process that is slow, unwieldy and routinely abused by applicants and their legal advisers? Does he further agree that the system needs a root-and-branch overhaul to make it fit for function?

Mr Djanogly: A number of the consultations did address this issue, including those with the judges, so we are acting to contain an avenue for abuse which my hon. Friend identifies. The Government intend to remove legal aid for immigration and asylum judicial reviews, where there has been an appeal or judicial review to a tribunal or court on the same issue or a substantially similar issue within a period of one year, as well as for judicial reviews challenging removal directions, subject to certain exceptions.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): As we are talking about immigration appeals and judicial reviews, what message does it send out to the law-abiding member of the public when someone such as Phillip Machemedze, that appalling Zimbabwean who was responsible for torturing, killing and doing dreadful things in Zimbabwe, is told by a judge that he cannot be sent back because he might be tortured or his human rights might be affected? Surely immigration and asylum is about people who have behaved well and are running away from tyranny, and not about people who are part of that tyranny.

Mr Djanogly: Where human rights are concerned and where someone risks being terrorised in their country of origin—I am not saying that it is right or wrong that they should go back—it is right that they receive legal aid to defend their interests.

Foreign National Prisoners

2. Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on steps to remove foreign national prisoners. [62244]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Home Office and Ministry of Justice Ministers have frequently discussed the issue of foreign national prisoners, and our officials are in regular contact. The removal of foreign national prisoners and offenders awaiting deportation is a mutual priority.

Mr Spellar: The Department says that it wants to reduce the prison population. I am dealing with a case where a long prison sentence was rightly given, the tariff has been reached and the UK Border Agency is trying to deport the man, but the Minister is letting the Parole Board block this. What benefit is there to the British taxpayer or the safety of the British public in keeping him here? Can we have some joined-up government on this?

Nick Herbert: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that this is the kind of thing we want to address, and I understand that it is being addressed in the Legal Aid,

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Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. We wish to improve our performance on the removal of prisoners. I should point that out that more than 5,000 foreign national prisoners were removed last year. We intend to continue to take every possible step both to reduce the foreign national prisoner population and to remove prisoners from this country.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): One of the problems with removing convicted foreign prisoners is an interpretation put by the courts on their rights, such as their right to a family life—they are absolute, rather than conditional. What steps are the Government taking to recognise in law that people have rights which can be qualified by their own bad behaviour?

Nick Herbert: I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern and that of the House about this issue and about whether it is appropriate in such circumstances that the removal of offenders is being blocked. I hope that the commission we have announced on the Human Rights Act 1998 will pay the closest possible attention to the operation of the human rights legislation in such cases, because it is in the public interest that we remove foreign national prisoners who have forfeited their right to remain in this country.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Can the Minister say how many British nationals are held in foreign prisons, whether he expects them to be repatriated and, if so, what provision has been made in the prison estate to accommodate them?

Nick Herbert: I understand from my hon. Friend the prisons Minister that the number is about 2,000. The EU prisoner transfer agreement will come into force in December and will alleviate the position as regards the number of foreign national prisoners in our jails. The principle should be that if someone has committed a serious crime in this country, they cannot expect to remain at the end of their sentence. We seek the removal of prisoners in such circumstances.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is laudable that the total number of foreign nationals in prison has gone down since Labour left office from 11,000 to 10,000, but does the Minister agree that that is 10,000 too many? Is it not time we sent the whole lot of them home?

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend that we want to make greater progress and that is why we have set out provisions in the sentencing Bill on, for example, conditional cautions, which will be available as an alternative disposal to remove foreign national prisoners in some circumstances if they agree not to return for a period of time. The question of whether foreign national prisoners could serve their sentences abroad relies on the consent of other countries. We are attempting to negotiate more agreements, but even if we no longer need the consent of the offender, we cannot remove them without the consent of the country that receives them.


3. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will take steps to ensure that judges and magistrates are informed of incidents of reoffending of each offender they have sentenced. [62245]

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The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): We have begun work to improve access to local criminal justice statistics. For example, criminal justice and sentencing statistics are now broken down to court level and are available online. In terms of individuals, pre-sentence reports provide the court with details of a defendant’s offending history and compliance with any previous sentences.

Mr Hollobone: That is not quite what I am after. Although it is important to have judicial independence, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Department that each judge and each magistrate should be given an annual report card on the effectiveness of their sentencing decisions. If they have given out a string of sentences and the convicts have reoffended regularly, that judge or magistrate will know that something is wrong with their approach.

Mr Clarke: As I said, we have begun work, and that is certainly an interesting suggestion. A massive amount of data would be involved in providing every judge and magistrate with full information about everybody they had ever sentenced, but I agree that we should consider the feasibility of doing so. I gather that someone in Seattle advocates that and has given interesting evidence to the Select Committee on Justice.

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): There is considerable evidence that judges do not know enough about what happens once they sentence prisoners and those sentences have been disposed of. Will the Justice Secretary do what he can to increase the experience obtained by judges of those disposals and will he ask the Sentencing Council to advise, with a particular focus on what works in preventing offending and reoffending?

Mr Clarke: The Sentencing Council is already under a duty to provide information about the effectiveness of sentencing practice and I am sure that it supplements that advice and information in every possible way. As I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), we will certainly consider the feasibility of doing such a thing, as it would be valuable, but we are talking about a vast number of cases and not every judge will find it possible to find out exactly what happened in later years to everybody who appeared before him.

Violent Offences

4. Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): What steps he plans to take to protect the public from persons convicted of violent offences. [62246]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): We have made it clear that we are committed to retaining the statutory multi-agency public protection arrangements, known as MAPPA. Within MAPPA, the police, prison and probation services are required to work together to manage known violent and other dangerous offenders and so protect the public, including previous victims.

Andrew George: I hope that the Minister agrees that the primary purpose of custodial sentencing must be public protection. Does he accept that the greater use of

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mandatory sentencing runs the risk of judges not being able to use their discretion to ensure that the public are protected in the long run?

Mr Blunt: The only element of mandatory sentencing we are contemplating relates to knife crime, so that it is absolutely clear that this House sends a very clear message on that. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will think it appropriate that people spend six months in prison when they threaten people with a knife.

Chief Coroner

5. Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What representations he has received on his proposals to transfer functions from the chief coroner. [62247]

12. Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Which organisations his Department consulted on its decision not to establish the office of chief coroner. [62256]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): I have discussed our proposals with a number of interested parties, including peers, MPs and civil society groups such as Inquest and the Royal British Legion. We have, where possible, sought to take into account those discussions in developing the proposals announced on 14 June to transfer a number of the functions of the chief coroner while retaining the office on the statute book. We believe that represents the fastest and most efficient way of delivering reform of the coronial system, although we accept that some stakeholders would prefer us to proceed with full implementation of the office of the chief coroner.

Mrs Moon: I am still concerned about how, without the office of the chief coroner, we are going to ensure that there is greater consistency in the recording of verdicts, because having that consistency would mean that information was available that provided research capability and informed service development, so that we could prevent future deaths.

Mr Djanogly: I have had a number of discussions with the hon. Lady on a number of matters appertaining to coroners and chief coroners and I know that she takes a great interest in this area. The new arrangements we announced on 14 June, coupled with the draft charter for the coroner service, which we published for consultation on 19 May, will deliver proper oversight of the non-judicial aspects of the coroner system and will help to drive up standards of service across England and Wales. The national charter, with its uniform expectations of what those coming into contact with the system should expect, will be key in helping to ensure a greater level of consistency. At the same time, a new ministerial board will be able to consider national statistics gathered from across the coroner service and to consider what action could be taken to address any shortcomings.

Chris Evans: I wonder whether the Minister has spoken to Cardiac Risk in the Young, which believes that replacing the chief coroner’s office with a ministerial board will not deliver the improvements necessary for the 21st century.

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Mr Djanogly: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the absolute priority as far as we were concerned was to put the reforms in the legislation into practice but in a way that was not going to incur the cost that I am afraid we cannot afford at the current time. That is what I believe our proposals will do.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Following the Secretary of State’s most recent announcement in June, Chris Simpkins, director general of the Royal British Legion, has said:

“Ensuring there’s a functioning Chief Coroner is the least we can do to honour the ultimate sacrifice made by our Armed Forces and to ease the pain those left behind will always feel.”

Helen Shaw, co-director of Inquest, has said that instead of having a chief coroner,

“the government proposes to dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner and add yet another layer to the current, fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent.”

How many organisations that, unlike the ministerial team, actually know what they are talking about will the Secretary of State ignore? As he is in the mood to do U-turns, will he do the right thing and leave the chief coroner out of the Public Bodies Bill?

Mr Djanogly: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the RBL manifesto he will see that we are meeting most of its requests for reform without having a chief coroner. If we were simply leaving the office on the statute book and not implementing any changes, I would agree with that claim. However, regulations about training for coroners, including for service personnel cases, will be possible for the first time under our proposals. We will be implementing powers to transfer cases more easily within England and Wales—and for the first time to Scotland—when required for cases involving the deaths of service personnel abroad. Those are real and significant improvements to the system that will directly improve the experience of service personnel families who come into contact with the coroner system.

Mr Speaker: One of the difficulties with these long answers is that Ministers are reading out great screeds that have been written for them. On the whole, it is better to keep that for the long winter evenings.

Rehabilitation Revolution Green Paper

6. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What progress has been made on the proposals in his Department’s rehabilitation revolution Green Paper. [62248]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): The Government published our response to the Green Paper last week and I made a statement to the House about it. We have also introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to give effect to proposals that require primary legislation. We will debate the Second Reading of that Bill tomorrow.

Tony Baldry: We need to encourage charities and social enterprises to invest in helping offenders and ex-offenders with their rehabilitation. In addition to payment by results, could my right hon. and learned Friend consider introducing Lord Chancellor’s awards

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for those charities, non-governmental organisations and social enterprises that are among the best at helping to support rehabilitation and prevent reoffending?

Mr Clarke: We all wish to give support to the many people who, through voluntary or charitable activity, try to help society as a whole by tackling the reoffending and rehabilitation problems of ex-offenders, so I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend’s interesting suggestion. I would love to give Lord Chancellor’s awards to a large number of worthy people, but unfortunately, the financial crisis that the Government have inherited does not enable me to give an instant response to his idea.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Surely the Secretary of State has gone backwards. He has done a U-turn on early guilty pleas; he is reviewing his review on indeterminate imprisonment for public protection; and he has made massive cuts to probation services. I have had letters from probation services, and in Gloucestershire the cut is 7.9%, in West Yorkshire, it is 9.8%, and in Kent, it is a staggering 13.6% this year. How can we have a rehabilitation revolution if there are no community resources?

Mr Clarke: As the hon. Lady knows, we are debating the Bill tomorrow, which is enormous—I apologise for that—and has huge implications, but we are having to reform fundamentally a criminal justice system that does not help society as it should, because it does not cut reoffending. We are having to reform on a very wide scale a legal aid and civil justice system that encourages unnecessary litigation and is not particularly user-friendly. We have taken over a mess, and we are going in for massive reform of it. We may have changed quite a lot of proposals in light of consultation, but the underlying need for a balanced package of radical reform is certainly there, and we will tackle it.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): According to the Ministry of Justice, the number of people released from prison after serving an indeterminate sentence was 206 at the end of last year. The number who have reoffended since they were released is just 11—a reoffending rate of 5%. The Lord Chancellor says that what is most important to him in the criminal justice system is reoffending rates, so why on earth does he want to scrap the single part of the criminal justice system that is best at reducing reoffending?

Mr Clarke: About 200 people have been released, but 6,000 are in prison serving indeterminate sentences, and we are adding about 80 a month. They are released only when they can demonstrate to the Parole Board that they are a minimal risk to society—that is the present test—but in a prison cell they find it almost impossible to satisfy that test, so they are in a Catch-22 situation. We need long, determinate sentences for serious criminals; that is the way that the criminal justice system works. The experiment introduced by the previous Government has most undoubtedly failed; we will have one in 10 of the prison population serving indefinite sentences if we do not find a better alternative soon.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): May I welcome the thrust of the Green Paper, and ask the Lord Chancellor or his officials to meet User Voice, a group that consists

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of ex-offenders who are very keen to work with the Ministry of Justice, and to work with current offenders to stop them taking a path of crime?

Mr Clarke: I am sure that I can arrange for one of the team to have a meeting with that interesting organisation. A large number of ex-offenders—not too many, but some—do very valuable work in stopping other people making the mistakes that they made. The social impact bond financing the payment-by-results contract that we have with Peterborough prison is largely delivered by an organisation called St Giles Trust, which has an excellent record of using ex-offenders as mentors. Anything that we can do to encourage that, where there are suitable ex-offenders who really are able to give valuable advice, would certainly be welcomed.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): A national inquiry, “Community or Custody?”, commissioned by Make Justice Work, has highlighted the success that effective alternatives to custody can have in tackling reoffending and diverting petty criminals from a life of crime. Does the Secretary of State expect his proposals to lead to a reduction in the number of offenders serving short-term prison sentences for non-violent offences and a rise in the number of those involved in tough community sentence programmes?

Mr Clarke: We need the right sentence for the individual circumstances of each offender. I have never suggested that we get rid of all short-term sentences of imprisonment because sometimes magistrates and others have absolutely no alternative, but we are interested in strengthening community punishments and giving more confidence to magistrates and the public that those can have a genuine effect. We are proposing to strengthen the community payback scheme, which is unpaid work. Improving the extent to which tagging and curfews are available is one part of trying to make sure that, where they are likely to work, non-custodial community sentences are employed with some confidence by the courts concerned.

Civil Litigation Reform

7. Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential effect on group action litigation against multinational corporations of his proposals for reform to civil litigation. [62250]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. I believe that strong claims, including those against multinational corporations, could still be brought under conditional fee agreements, or CFAs. The Government are also proposing the use of damages-based agreements, or DBAs, in all civil litigation, which might be particularly suited to funding group action litigation.

Yvonne Fovargue: An array of human rights experts, including several non-governmental organisations, human rights lawyers and the UN special representative on business and human rights, have all criticised the Government’s reforms of civil litigation. On what basis

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can the Minister assure the House that his proposals to reform civil litigation will not impact negatively on access to justice for victims of human rights abuse?

Mr Djanogly: I have been in correspondence with many of the people whom the hon. Lady mentions, and I repeat that the Government believe that it will still be possible to bring claims against multinational companies once our reforms are implemented.

Compensation Claims

8. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What steps he is taking to change incentives for claiming compensation. [62251]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): The Government introduced the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on 21 June. The Bill contains provisions to take forward a fundamental reform of no win, no fee conditional fee agreements, as recommended by Lord Justice Jackson. These changes will encourage claimants to take an interest in the costs being incurred on their behalf, and will deter frivolous or unmeritorious claims from progressing to court.

John Howell: Does the Minister believe that implementing Lord Justice Jackson’s proposals will clamp down on bloated compensation payments, given that in the past some solicitors have profited from cherry-picking claims and are claiming high success fees from defendants, particularly public authorities?

Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend is right to raise the position of public-funded authorities such as the NHS Litigation Authority and local councils, which currently have to pay substantial additional legal costs to conditional fee agreement claimants. We believe that our proposals will ameliorate that position.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): But will the Minister acknowledge that what is in the Bill that comes before the House tomorrow implements only part of Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations; that, critically, the Minister has failed in that legislation to tackle at all the scandal of referral fees paid all the way along the chain, from the informant who passes on individuals’ details up the line to insurance companies, where it is then also paid by the insurance companies; and that this scandal will continue, notwithstanding any changes to be introduced in the structure of ownership of solicitors firms, until he and his colleagues implement in full Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendations, which are to abandon and outlaw referral fees altogether?

Mr Djanogly: It was Labour who brought in the ability to recover success fees and ATE—after the event—insurance premiums in 1999. This became the key mechanism of the rotten compensation culture, of which referral fees are a symptom. Claimant costs represented 56% of damages in 1999, but by 2010 they represented 142% of damages—and yes, we are looking at referral fees in the context of the reforms as a whole.

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Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Why does the Minister not merely look at referral fees, but give us a clear commitment that that outrage will be removed under the Bill?

Mr Djanogly: The Legal Services Board reported on that only a matter of weeks ago. We are looking at its recommendations, which go much further than a ban and, in particular, deal with transparency, which was what the Select Committee on Transport focused on. We will look carefully at all these issues.

Legal Aid (Domestic Violence)

9. Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): What consideration he has given to those responses to his Department’s consultation on legal aid that raised concerns about his Department’s definition of domestic violence. [62252]

13. Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): What his policy is on the provision of legal aid support for victims of domestic violence. [62257]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We published the Government’s response to the consultation on 21 June. Legal aid will remain available for applications for protective injunctions, as at present. However, for disputes about children or finance following the breakdown of a relationship, legal aid will be available for victims of domestic violence where there is objective evidence of the need for protection.

Caroline Nokes: Will the Minister give an assurance that, in cases where domestic violence has been a factor in family breakdown, all other associated costs incurred in bringing about a resolution will be covered by legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: For family matters, including disputes about finance or children arising from the breakdown of a relationship, legal aid will be available for victims of domestic violence where there is evidence of a need for protection. Of course, we will also provide civil legal aid for victims of domestic violence to apply for protective injunctions, such as non-molestation orders.

Alun Cairns: It is reassuring that victims of domestic violence will remain eligible for legal aid under the changes, but the evidence is not always clear, because many victims will not report domestic violence to the police. What sort of evidence is the Minister expecting to see in order for people to qualify for legal aid?

Mr Djanogly: We listened to the concerns expressed in the consultation that our criteria for evidence of domestic violence were too narrow and we have expanded them. The key issue is that the triggers must be objective.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): In the light of the ongoing debate on this matter, does the Minister share the concerns expressed by the Westminster Public Accounts Committee about the dilution of the quality of Crown representation in all these cases, or does he take the view of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which states that there is a lack of transparency in how the fees are calculated for taking on such cases?

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Mr Djanogly: We are certainly concerned about the transparency of fees and how they are calculated. We are looking at this very carefully as part of our overall reform of legal aid, particularly for the Legal Services Commission.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Women are often at risk of domestic violence when relationships break down, even when there is no previous history of it. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, attempts to end a relationship are strongly linked to partner homicide and a higher risk of physical violence and sexual assault. Now no legal aid is proposed for divorce or child custody cases, and the definition of domestic violence is still very narrow and requires a history of complaints. How will the Minister ensure the safety of women now that they have to negotiate face to face with potentially violent partners?

Mr Djanogly: I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the present system. At the moment, perpetrators rarely receive legal aid; it is the victims of domestic violence who receive it. That means that in the current system the victims face the perpetrators of the crime. The reality is that on a day-to-day basis the judiciary are having to deal with this and have set procedures that they go through to make the process as good as possible for the victims.

Compensation Agreements

10. Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): What the reason is for the time taken to implement agreements on the compensation of victims of terrorism overseas. [62253]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): We are examining this issue in tandem with the domestic criminal injuries scheme and will publish our proposals on victims in the coming weeks.

Lindsay Roy: I thank the Minister for his response. Has he made an assessment of how other countries, such as France and Australia, have been able to implement promptly the agreements on compensation for such victims outwith their natural boundaries?

Mr Blunt: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the House decided when we passed the Crime and Security Act 2010 that it was likely that the forward-looking scheme would relate to the criminal injuries compensation scheme. We are coming forward with proposals on the criminal injuries compensation scheme and are taking these things in tandem.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Will the Minister give the House an assurance that any such ex gratia payments will regard Foreign Office advice as having been followed at the time of the terrorism incident?

Mr Blunt: My hon. Friend is correct to say that that was a factor alluded to during the passage of the 2010 Act. For the precise details of the scheme she is talking about, which would apply retrospectively, I am afraid that she will have to wait until we come forward with our proposals in due course.

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Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): Can the Minister confirm that, whatever scheme he brings forward, it will operate from January 2010, as proposed by the Act that I took through the House on behalf of the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office 18 months ago?

Mr Blunt: What is in the Act is that date, as I understand it, and the forward-looking scheme will operate from there. If it is not on the face of the Act, it was the clear statement of the Government at the time, and the policy of the then Opposition was to support it, so I can confirm that it would be our intention for any forward-looking scheme to deal with victims from that time.

Remand in Custody

14. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Which organisations his Department has consulted on future procedures for remanding defendants in custody. [62258]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): More than 1,200 individuals and organisations contributed to the consultation on the Green Paper, “Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and Sentencing of Offenders”. Numerous criminal justice organisations commented on the remand proposals in the Green Paper, both in relation to restricting the availability of remand in custody and to new arrangements for defendants under 18. The latter were also discussed in a series of consultation events that the Youth Justice Board undertook following publication.

Mark Tami: What does the Minister say to the senior judges who rightly point out that it is wrong to link decisions on remand with the eventual sentence received?

Mr Blunt: What the hon. Gentleman has to understand is that in magistrates courts 10,098 people were remanded into custody, a very substantial number of whom did not receive a custodial sentence, so we have to deal with that reality.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): We believe that victims and witnesses should be at the heart of our justice system, and that they are crucial to its effective functioning. Victims groups have expressed alarm about the proposals in clause 73 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, and there is a concern that judges will be forced to prejudge cases prematurely, which could lead to the remanding on bail of people—offenders—who might interfere with witnesses, and could reoffend or fail to attend court. The Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses is against the plans as well. Does the Minister understand that the proposal could deter witnesses and victims from coming forward?

Mr Blunt: No. What the shadow Secretary of State needs to understand is that if there is any doubt about the issue, it will be up to the judge or the magistrate to make the appropriate decision on remand. The only factor that will be considered is whether imprisonment is at all likely in a particular case. If those other factors are in play, they will come into effect. We have listened during the consultation, and even if those other factors are not present, it will still be possible to remand in custody people in domestic violence cases.

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Sadiq Khan: It is not just the shadow Justice Secretary who does not understand the proposals: the Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges is “wholly opposed” to them, and the Sentencing Guidelines Council, the Magistrates’ Association, the senior presiding judge of England and Wales and the vice-president of the Queen’s bench division have all responded to the consultation and are against them. The Minister has given no evidence to the House to justify the change other than the cost savings, involving 1,400 prison places and £40 million, so will he take this opportunity to explain why he is limiting judges’ and magistrates’ discretion?

Mr Blunt: Because we need to restrict the availability of custodial sentences on remand when there is no real prospect of the defendant being sentenced to imprisonment if convicted—[ Interruption. ] Thousands of people who are remanded in custody and then convicted do not receive a custodial sentence—and in the case of those whom magistrates remand, the numbers are very significant indeed.

Parliamentary Privilege

15. Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the breach of court orders by those entitled to assert parliamentary privilege. [62259]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): We have received correspondence from a number of hon. Members on behalf of their constituents, raising issues relating to privacy and the use of anonymity injunctions and super-injunctions. In some instances this has included reference to statements made in Parliament concerning the identity of individuals who have obtained injunctions.

Stephen Phillips: I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor for that answer. He will share my concerns, and those expressed by the Lord Chief Justice, at the recent breaches of court orders by Members of this House, and indeed Members of the other place. The rule of law and the separation of powers require that we observe the self-denying ordinances to which we are subject, so may I ask whether my right hon. and learned Friend intends to have any discussions with the Speakers of both Houses on the subject, and if so, what the nature of those discussions will be?

Mr Clarke: This is obviously a point of concern. I agree that essentially it should be a matter for both Houses of Parliament, and Members of both Houses, to address themselves. As a parliamentarian as well as a member of the Government, I defend absolutely the rules of parliamentary privilege, but we have to consider whether it is a proper use of parliamentary privilege to defy court orders. I hope that the matter will be urgently addressed, as we all have to come to some conclusions on it.

Sentencing Proposals

16. Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): What recent representations he has received on his proposal to reduce sentences for certain offences for offenders who enter an early guilty plea. [62260]

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The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): The proposal to increase to 50% the maximum sentence discount for a guilty plea at the first opportunity produced numerous responses when it was canvassed in the Green Paper “Breaking the Cycle”. The majority of those who commented were not in favour, including the judiciary, whose opposition was especially influential in persuading me that we should not proceed.

Bob Stewart: Can the Secretary of State assure the House that when a defendant pleads guilty at the last minute because he has been presented with overwhelming evidence against him, judges will still have discretion not to give him the maximum statutory sentencing discount of 33%?

Mr Clarke: I am glad to say that the guidelines have always said that, and it was never my intention to propose any change. The guidance on sentence reductions for guilty pleas recommends that a last-minute plea should attract no more than a 10% discount. It also says that where the prosecution case is overwhelming, even an early plea should receive less than the maximum, and recommends 20%. That is obviously a sensible rule. There is some discount because we are still saving the victim and witnesses the ordeal of going into the witness box, but the current one third, let alone 50%, is obviously far too generous for someone caught red-handed.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): If the Justice Secretary’s aim is to spare the victim, why does he not turn things round and insist on an additional sentence for offenders who waste court time in the face of overwhelming evidence and subject victims to further hurt by their behaviour in court?

Mr Clarke: It is simply a result of the culture of the last 50 years, at least, that this has always been described as a “discount” for a guilty plea. Most of the general public do not appreciate that a discount applies. If members of the public are asked whether a discount on the sentence should be given for someone who pleads guilty early, they say no. But if they are asked, “Should someone who puts the victim through the ordeal of the witness box get a longer sentence than someone who pleads guilty?” they answer yes. Because we could not find a resolution to the risk of some of the more serious offences attracting too short a period in custody, and judicial discretion could not be devised to cover that, we have now decided to stick with the long-standing process whereby a one-third discount is available for an early guilty plea.


17. John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): What steps he plans to take to reduce rates of reoffending. [62261]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The Government set out their radical plans to reduce reoffending in response to the “Breaking the Cycle” consultation. We will pay by results to incentivise rehabilitation programmes that successfully prevent offenders from returning to a life of crime.

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John Glen: I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. As a serving JP, one of the things I find particularly frustrating when considering sentencing is the several pages of antecedents involving multiple short sentences and failed attempts at drug rehabilitation. What work is being done to improve the effectiveness of drug rehabilitation, which is so crucial in stopping reoffending?

Nick Herbert: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. The good news is that in April this year the Department of Health assumed responsibility for funding all drug treatments in prison and in the community. That joint commissioning of services by the health and criminal justice agencies will facilitate a more co-ordinated approach. We must move to programmes that ensure that we are dealing with the problem properly and getting people off drugs, not simply maintaining them, as has too often been the case in the past.

Compensation (Overseas Terrorism)

18. Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): Which organisations his Department has consulted on reforms to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and the scheme for compensating victims of overseas terrorism. [62263]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): In the coming weeks we intend to launch a public consultation on victims services, which will include the criminal injuries consultation scheme. We will not make up our minds about any changes until we have carefully considered responses from the public and other interested parties. We will make an announcement about compensation for victims of terrorism overseas at the same time as we launch our consultation.

Chris Williamson: The Justice Secretary’s party signed up to the provisions of the Crime and Security Act 2010 that granted compensation to victims of overseas terrorism. He will know that victims fought hard for those provisions, including the backdating of compensation for those severely injured in atrocities such as the Bali and Mumbai attacks. I do not understand why he has snubbed those victims, who were led to believe that the compensation scheme would come on stream last September. How much longer will victims of overseas terrorism be expected to wait while he and his Ministers dither over this important and just scheme?

Mr Blunt: I am afraid that there was a certain amount of confusion under the previous Administration, when for some reason the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had responsibility for overseas terrorism issues. These issues have now been brought together, and we will bring forward our proposals on victims of overseas terrorism in tandem with our proposals on criminal injuries compensation.

Topical Questions

T1. [62269] Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): On Thursday the Government signalled their intention to lead by example by launching a new dispute resolution commitment. From now on, Government Departments and agencies are committed to using better, quicker and more efficient ways of resolving legal disputes, and to seeking alternatives to court action wherever possible. The commitment will save time, money and stress for those involved, and will reduce the number of cases unnecessarily clogging up the courts. This is an important part of our commitment to make the justice system radically more user-friendly and to cut down on the amount of expensive, painful and confrontational litigation in our society.

Mr Raab: I thank the Justice Secretary for that reply. Getting offenders clean of drugs is one of the best ways to get them to go straight on release. What progress has the Justice Secretary made in reducing the previous Government’s excessive reliance on methadone prescriptions, and increasing abstinence-based drug rehabilitation in our prisons?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): As my hon. Friend heard from the previous answer of the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice on the centrality of rehabilitation, clinical interventions are the responsibility of the Department of Health. It is important that we work with clinical services to ensure that there is a proper path towards detoxification and abstinence, not only in prison but during the transfer between prison and the community. We are working hard with our colleagues in the Department of Health to deliver that.

Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Last week the Prime Minister announced the Justice Secretary’s new law on self-defence. However, there is no mention of it in the Green Paper, the Government response or the 119-page Bill. Is the Justice Secretary aware that the Director of Public Prosecutions is on record as saying that the current guidelines, which permit people to use reasonable force to protect their property, work well? Will he spell out how his proposal differs from the current law?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: We intend to clarify the law on self-defence by amending the Bill at the earliest possible stage. We are finalising the drafting of that. Essentially, we are clarifying the law. It will still be based on a person’s undoubted right to use reasonable force when they choose to defend themselves or their home against any threat from an offender.

T2. [62270] Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Although I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s policy to create drug-free wings in our prisons, does he agree with me, and my constituents, that the whole of our prison estate should be completely free of illegal drugs? Will he explain to my constituents how that can be achieved?

Mr Clarke: I would love to announce just such a policy. My hon. Friend probably shares my comparative amazement that drugs are so readily available in our prisons. The fact is that that is so endemic in the system that we have to start from where we are. We have a definite programme to introduce drug-free wings. As soon as we establish those successfully, a prime objective

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of the Government is to eliminate the presence of drugs and to establish proper rehabilitation of offenders that does not depend simply on maintenance and methadone.

T5. [62273] Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): To return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), the Prime Minister said that there would be provisions on self-defence included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, but the Bill as it stands is silent on the issue. Michael Wolkind QC, who represented Tony Martin, says that allowing householders to use any force that is not grossly disproportionate would amount to “state-sponsored revenge”. Can the Justice Secretary clarify how his legislation will differ from what is currently in place?

Mr Clarke: The Prime Minister was not advocating state-sponsored revenge, nor is anybody else. What we are doing is clarifying in statute the basis upon which people can use reasonable force to defend themselves in their property. [Interruption.] I am not quite sure what aspect of that Labour Members seek to oppose, but I think they will be reassured when they see the amendments that we propose to introduce.

T4. [62272] Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend going to take to ensure that the Government send out the strongest possible message on knife crime?

Mr Clarke: We are going to create a new offence of aggravated possession of a knife, which means carrying a knife and threatening with it, to make the clearest possible statement that we are not prepared to tolerate knife crime in this country.

T7. [62275] Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/ Co-op): The Youth Justice Board has support right across the political spectrum. Indeed, the House of Lords voted to retain it. I cannot understand why a Government who pride themselves on listening to the people cannot do a U-turn that, on this occasion, would be popular.

Mr Blunt: There is a clear case for bringing the responsibilities of the Youth Justice Board within the Ministry of Justice, and for making Ministers directly accountable for youth justice. We are going to reintroduce that case to the House, and I am sure that it will command the House’s support.

T6. [62274] Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): Last week I visited HMP Hewell in Worcestershire, where I met the restorative justice manager Clifford Grimason. He showed me the excellent work that has been done there with prisoners. Will the Secretary of State join me in commending HMP Hewell, and Cliff and his team, who have been working together with Conservative-controlled Redditch borough council on innovative schemes to help get prisoners ready to go out into the world of work?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: I am sure that my hon. Friend’s description of that work is correct, and I readily commend the work that is being done there and in other places. The main feature of the reforms that I am introducing is

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the concentration on cutting reoffending, which means rehabilitating offenders. I try to avoid giving the impression that nobody is doing that already, but instead of looking to particular spectacular examples, I want to see that running through the whole system. To reduce crime we have to reduce the number of criminals who are going to offend again as soon as they are out of prison, which is an objective of reform that has been missed for many years.

T9. [62277] Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): In the light of the Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment, which says that increased criminality, less social cohesion and increased costs are all likely to result from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, have the costs to other Government Departments been considered and costed? If so, what are they?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): We have worked closely with other Departments to examine the impact of our proposals, and that is ongoing.

T8. [62276] Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State’s commitment to reducing reoffending rates. Does he agree that increasing the scope of judicial discretion, as outlined in the Bill, will go a long way to help to achieve that?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: I do, and I can reinforce my hon. Friend’s point with a remarkable statistic showing how the last Government were falling down in that respect. Some 29% of all sentences for indictable offences in 2010 were given to offenders with 15 or more previous convictions or cautions—up from 17% in 2000. We need a more intelligent and sensible system of sentencing, and I agree that a proper degree of judicial discretion is an important part of the system.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that in October last year, Citizens Advice in Manchester signed a three-year contract with the Legal Services Commission for the provision of community legal services, which involves four new advice centres, one of which is in my constituency. On the strength of that, Citizens Advice entered into a series of leasing and employment obligations. Will he cut through the increasing uncertainty and confirm this afternoon that that contract will be honoured in full?

Mr Djanogly: That is, of course, a matter for the Legal Services Commission, with which the contract was agreed—but about 50% of CABs have legal aid contracts, which last for different periods. The proposals will work through over the period of the contracts.

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): Given the costs of delay when court papers do not turn up on time, what are the Government doing to expand the use of e-mail to deliver court judgments and papers?

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Government think that it is time the criminal justice system caught up with the rest of the world. Our plan is

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that information documents will be sent by secure e-mail between all agencies in the system by April next year, so that we can eliminate that wasteful paperwork and drive efficiency in the system.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Can the Minister update the House as to what discussions he has had with the Minister of Justice in the devolved Administration concerning proposed changes to the legal aid system?

Mr Djanogly: I can confirm that I have had discussions, correspondence and a meeting with the devolved Administration to discuss the implications for legal aid and to ensure that we are all moving in the same direction.

Esther McVey (Wirral West) (Con): Following the Milly Dowler trial, does the Secretary of State agree that measures need to be taken to protect the families of the victims of crime from intensive questioning in court? If a footballer can be afforded privacy from the public arena, cannot the father of a murdered child?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: It is obvious that members of the public generally were appalled by the experience through which that family were put as a result of that criminal trial going ahead and the nature of the defence. Such cases are exceedingly difficult, because any defendant has the right to put forward a defence, however distasteful or distressing that may be to the victims. That sometimes happens. The straightforward process of calling the victim a liar can be extremely offensive to someone who has suffered grievously at the hands of the accused.

The judge has a discretion to cut out all irrelevant and unnecessary lines of questioning. I have no reason to doubt that the judge considered his discretion in that case. The Crown Prosecution Service actually applied for an order to ban the reporting of the relevant pieces of the cross-examination. I respect the decision of the judge, who decided that the principle of open justice should prevail. It was therefore all reported. The newspapers made their own judgments on the extent to which they reported those incidents.

In that case, which was exceedingly distressing, there was never a question of an early guilty plea, but it is useful to remind ourselves of just what an ordeal it can be when victims and witnesses have to go to a court to face someone who is denying the crime.

Mr Speaker: Order. It is not an ordeal to listen to the Secretary of State—indeed, one might almost call it a leisure pursuit—but unfortunately, we have not the time on this occasion to do so uninterrupted.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Does the Government’s U-turn on shorter sentences, which could have led to a reduction in the prison population, mean that in future under the coalition, any Minister caught in possession of an intelligent idea is likely to be doomed to a brief unhappy ministerial career?

Mr Clarke: I made a few slightly light-hearted remarks about U-turns last time—but the Government have a process of consultation, and this is another Catch-22 situation. If we modify our proposals we are accused of making a U-turn, and if we proceed with our proposals we are accused of being deaf.

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We explored every possibility of encouraging more early guilty pleas. We still intend to make such proposals, and some of the legal aid reforms are designed to encourage early guilty pleas. Anything that can be done to get early guilty pleas saves a lot of people distress, and also saves a lot of wasted time and cost for the police, the CPS, the courts and the prisons.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What message is sent to potential offenders and police officers—one of whom is my own brother—by the guidance of Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, that even the most offensive language used against a police officer will not now result in an offence under public order provisions.

Nick Herbert: I share my hon. Friend’s concern. We should all agree that it is wholly unacceptable for people to swear at police officers. Whatever the merits of that guidance or the legal position, we should stand by our police officers in the job that they do. They should not have to expect that kind of treatment.

Mr David Crausby (Bolton North East) (Lab): Last December the Justice Secretary promised me that he would consider reviewing the maximum sentence for dangerous driving, which currently stands at two years regardless of the severity of the injury caused, short of death. It might well be against his liberal instincts to increase tariffs, but what progress has he made?

Mr Blunt: The hon. Gentleman may know that his hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) secured an Adjournment debate on that subject. We are considering it, and will look at ways of doing it without having to legislate, if possible. We are considering what sanctions are available to us, and I am in discussion with the Solicitor-General and the Attorney-General to see how we can deliver the objective that we both share.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) about people not being convicted of abusive language and behaviour towards the police, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is even more ridiculous that some of the people concerned are then compensated for wrongful arrest? Will he please review this as a matter of urgency?

Nick Herbert: Again, I share my hon. Friend’s dismay. It is precisely to avoid such a situation that the Metropolitan police issued the guidance on the existing position. I repeat that it is not acceptable for police officers to be sworn at, and nor are we happy about the suggestion that it is. We wish to consider this issue because we need a system that ensures that we stand by our police officers when they are executing their duties.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I want to ask about the drug-free wings that the Justice Secretary is introducing in prisons. Will prisoners be able to choose whether they enter a drug-free wing or a wing where drugs are rife?

Mr Kenneth Clarke: It might cost more to send a prisoner to prison than it does to put him in a room in the Ritz hotel, but there are limits to how much choice we give prisoners over the suitability of their

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accommodation. There will be a process of careful assessment. We wish to spread the provision of drug-free wings and eliminate drug dealing in prisons as rapidly as is practicable.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the Secretary of State consider, within a year of the legal aid proposals being implemented, assessing the ability of those on low incomes to access the courts, the availability of appropriately qualified lawyers prepared to undertake publicly funded work, and the sustainability of legal services provided by bodies such as Citizens Advice?

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Mr Djanogly: We have just commissioned research on those topics, and there will also be a post-impact assessment within three years.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Further to Question 7, will the changes to civil litigation make it easier or more difficult to take action against multinational companies? The consensus among non-governmental organisations is that it will be more difficult.

Mr Djanogly: People will still be able to be assessed by solicitors to decide whether they are prepared to represent them in multinational actions.

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School Closures (Thursday)

3.33 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement about the school closures on Thursday and advice to parents worried about the situation.

The Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove): The Government are currently in discussion with trade unions representing public sector workers to reach a fair deal on pension reform. Our proposals draw on the widely praised report from Lord Hutton, who was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions under the previous Government. The state of the economy that we inherited and major demographic changes mean that reform is vital. We want to ensure that all public sector workers enjoy pensions that are among the best available, but we need to balance that with fairness to other taxpayers. Talks between the Treasury and the TUC yesterday made real progress, which is why it is so regrettable that two of the classroom unions are planning industrial action this Thursday. This action is unnecessary while talks are still going on, will cause massive inconvenience to hard-working families and will hit working women particularly hard.

In order to minimise the impact of the strike on working parents, I wrote last week to all local authorities, as the employers of teachers, and to all schools, emphasising their duty to keep schools open wherever possible. In response to requests from governors, I also laid out the flexibilities at the disposal of schools to ensure that they stay open. Schools can vary staff-pupil ratios, they can depart from the national curriculum and they can draw on voluntary support from the wider community, with those who have been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau able to provide particular help. Nothing can replace the great teaching offered by gifted professionals, but I would far rather see schools staying open and offering a restricted curriculum than see hard-working families having to lose a day’s pay or paying for ad hoc and expensive last-minute child care.

When I wrote last week, I also asked local authorities and academy heads to let me know which schools they knew would be closing. We collated data from them last Friday, and these data were updated yesterday. At that stage, 118 out of 152 local authorities, and 379 out of 707 academies had replied. The initial returns suggested that 2,206 local authority schools would be partially open and that 3,206 would be closed, while the situation with a further 10,872 was not known at that stage. The figures showed that of the 707 academies, 158 would be fully open, 128 partially open and 84 closed. Nine were still uncertain and 328 had not yet responded. I asked last week that those figures be updated as of 3 pm today, and that exercise is ongoing. Once the provisional data are examined, we will provide updates tomorrow and on Thursday.

It is the responsibility of individual schools to inform parents if they are closed, but the ability of individual heads to determine if and when a teacher has decided to strike—and therefore their ability to make contingency plans—is governed by the employment law that we inherited. Individual teachers have no obligation to tell

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their school or employer of the intention to strike in advance. Of course, we always keep the law under review.

I remain committed to discussing pension reform with all the teacher unions openly, honestly and constructively. The current generation of teachers in our schools is the best ever, and I want to see them properly supported; but this strike, at this time, will not help our schools, as those unions that are not striking this Thursday know. This action is unnecessary, premature and disruptive. I hope that all parts of the House will join me in working constructively to support those hard-working families who are the victims of this action.

Andy Burnham: Let me start by making one thing clear: on Thursday, children should be in school and their parents at work. Opposition Members have said consistently that these strikes are a mistake. We support reforms to make public sector pensions sustainable, and it is wrong for action to be taken now, while talks are ongoing. However, the Government cannot evade their share of responsibility for the disruption that millions of families will suffer on Thursday. We are worried that the Secretary of State has once again not properly thought through the consequences of his statements and has left parents in the dark, because it is we who have brought him here today. For the first time, Members have some information about the likely scale of disruption. Will he give us a commitment that he will keep Members in all parts of the House regularly updated from here on in?

Secondly, what reassurance can the Secretary of State give to parents today that where schools are open, children will be properly looked after, and remain safe and secure at all times? His letter to head teachers urged them to keep schools open, but was silent about children’s safety. We want schools to stay open, but will he say more about what roles he considers it acceptable for parents to perform? What is a safe balance between trained and untrained staff? Are advanced checks advisable or necessary? He has said today that those with CRB checks may be able to do particular jobs, but will he spell out exactly what those roles are? This is not an area where he can afford to look like he is making it up as he goes along, so I would be grateful if he could answer those specific points.

Thirdly and most importantly, what steps are the Secretary of State and the Government taking over the coming hours to try to avert the strike? His letter acknowledged the

“very strong feelings in the teaching profession about teachers’ pensions”.

Does he not accept that those feelings have been inflamed by the Government’s reckless and provocative handling of the issue from start to finish? In retrospect, does he believe that it was wise or fair to pre-empt the Hutton report by slapping a 3% surcharge on pensions, costing some teachers an extra £100 a month, or for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to announce a raising of the retirement age at a crucial moment in the negotiations? Does the Secretary of State recall saying this to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference while in opposition?

“I…think that, for people who’ve been in the profession, we shouldn’t alter the terms on which they entered. I think that’s part of the sort of broad contract that you expect.”

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Is not that exactly the point? Pensions are a contract, and they should not be changed unilaterally in this high-handed way.

During the Labour Government, the number of days lost through industrial action fell to its lowest level ever. Will not parents take a dim view if this Government return us to the 1980s so that the Secretary of State and his friends can rerun the battles of their youth? Do not those parents want a Government who play fair with the professionals who teach their children, rather than one who play politics with people’s pensions?

Michael Gove: I was grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he began his response, but I think that, on reflection, he will consider the way in which he concluded it to be irresponsible at this time. The whole House wants to see people keeping level heads and maintaining an even temper at this time, and the fact that he chose to ratchet up the rhetoric in that way was not appropriate.

I am grateful to him for supporting the direction of Lord Hutton’s reforms and for his initial words about the responsibility of all local authorities and heads to keep schools open in order to ensure that we do everything possible to minimise disruption. Because teachers are employed by local authorities and individual heads, individual local authorities and heads have to depend on teachers telling them whether they will be on strike before making contingency arrangements. That is a direct consequence of the labour laws that we inherited from the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. If he believes that those laws should change, and that we should reform trade union laws, I should like to know about it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked us to update Members of the House with data, and we will do so. At the first available opportunity when the data are reliable, we will share them with hon. Members, with local authorities and with individual parents. He also asked us to do everything possible to keep children safe and secure. The safety of children is always my first concern, and that is why I want to see schools remain open, and why I have written to local authorities and outlined the flexibilities that they have. It is also why I have drawn their attention to the statutory guidance that covers health and safety and child protection.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the 3% surcharge that is being placed on pensions. As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he should be aware that every aspect of the pension reform that we are bringing forward is a direct result of the dire mess in which he and his colleagues left our economy. If people want to know why our pensions have to be reformed, they need only look at the financial mess that was made—[ Interruption. ] I am afraid that the intemperate response coming from the Opposition Benches reinforces the guilty consciences on that side of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman also quoted from a speech that I gave to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. It is important that he not mislead the House or anyone listening—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am sure that he would never do so intentionally, which is why I hope that he will stress that the proposals that we are putting forward respect the accrued rights of all those who have been in state pension schemes up until this moment—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw.”] I know that he would wish to make that clear.

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The right hon. Gentleman also said that, in the last year of the Labour Government, we had the lowest number ever of days lost to strike action. The truth is that, in the past year under this coalition Government, we have lost even fewer days to strike action. If we are to maintain that record, we need calm on both sides of the House, and not the pandering to the union gallery that we heard at the end of the right hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is irresponsible for union leaders in the teaching unions who are on six-figure salaries to lead teachers out on strike when two thirds of their members did not even vote in the ballot? Does he also agree that this action will undermine and damage the education of children and the status of the teaching profession?

Michael Gove: We all listen with respect to the Select Committee, and its Chairman is quite right. The general secretaries of those trade unions have, throughout their careers, shown a commitment to improving state education. I therefore believe that their motives are right in most circumstances. On this occasion, however, they have made a mistake and they should acknowledge it.

Mrs Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): I went to school in Darlington in the ’80s and I remember being sent home from school because not all the teachers had informed the head that they were going on strike. I was sent home and sat on the front door step before a neighbour came to fetch me. What guarantees can the right hon. Gentleman give about the fact that, although schools might be open, some teachers unexpectedly might not be present? The most important consideration here is the welfare of children. What is the right hon. Gentleman going to do to ensure that we do not see a return to strike after strike after strike under this Tory Government just like we did in the ’80s?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making her point, but as the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made clear from the Opposition Front Bench, this strike is unjustified at this time, and the responsibility rests on those general secretaries and trade union members who are going on strike. They are causing inconvenience to hard-working parents and they should not be going on strike: that is the united position of both Front-Bench teams, and I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not share it.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I have a huge amount of respect for the hard work that teachers do, but share the disappointment of many parents in my constituency that Thursday’s strikes will cause massive disruption to their children’s learning. Will the Secretary of State advise how people such as myself and other colleagues who have a CRB certificate can help schools to stay open on Thursday?

Michael Gove: One of the things I would stress is that all of us can play our part in helping to ensure that children are kept safe and have a fruitful and constructive time in school on Thursday. Any Member—and, indeed, any member of the public—who is CRB checked can volunteer to help in their local school. I am sure that the

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head and the chair of governors would welcome that level of support. I have already received a number of letters from head teachers who have asked me if they can ensure that those who are CRB checked can help. They can help in many ways, by providing cover, by supporting trained teachers and by ensuring that children spend a fruitful and constructive time in school.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): To those people who follow industrial relations it is remarkable to see a union like the ATL vote for a strike for the first time ever. I understand the Secretary of State’s desire to keep schools open, but in view of that, is it not better that he leave the Chamber now, phone those general secretaries, invite them in and spend the next 24 hours trying to secure a solution for these strikes? It is not too late.

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, as we all know, was a union negotiator before he came to the House and therefore has some expertise in these matters. As an expert union negotiator, he will know that it is unwise for anyone to call the dispute in the middle of talks. Talks are ongoing: we had talks yesterday with the TUC; I have arranged telephone calls with the individual general secretaries of trade unions for later today—and I took the precaution of doing so before coming to this House. [Interruption.] I have already talked to all the general secretaries in person and explained to them the lack of wisdom in what they are doing. The question for the hon. Gentleman and for other Labour Members is: what are they doing to keep our schools open? Are they doing everything possible to encourage the unions to lower the temperature or are they, sadly, once again engaging in the sort of opportunism that has given their party a bad name?

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I regret, as the Secretary of State clearly does, the decision by two unions to cause the strike this week, and I am pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman is engaging in a constructive way. Will he set out what will be happening over the coming weeks to further the talks, to allay the concerns of teachers, perhaps by going against the message sent to them by the people at the top of their unions?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There has been misinformation and propaganda about this dispute, and it is important that the facts are known—and that they are known by every Member. It will be the case at the end of this process that all public sector pensions will be among the best available. In particular, teachers’ pensions will remain strong because we recognise the importance of ensuring that those who work in our classrooms are well protected. Because discussions are ongoing and because they are based on Lord Hutton’s report, I think it quite wrong to prejudice those discussions by pre-empting them and stating what an end-point should be. By their very definition, discussions allow for both sides to make constructive suggestions, which is why it is such a pity that the trade unions have deliberately chosen to pre-empt that process.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State understand the degree of anger and frustration among so many teachers who have given years to their profession and feel that they have been

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forced into taking strike action, thus losing a day’s pay, in order to try to protect the pension for themselves and for a future generation of teachers? Instead of trying to work out cockamamie schemes to keep schools open, why does he not deal with the issue, retain the pension and support the teaching profession?

Michael Gove: I understand that there will be anger and frustration on Thursday: anger from parents whose child care arrangements have been disrupted, and frustration about the fact that schools remain closed. The question for all of us is: why is this reform necessary? I am afraid that the answer is: because of the dire economic situation that we inherited from the Labour Government. We are pledged to negotiate openly, honestly and constructively, but that negotiation has been pre-empted by the unions, and the hon. Gentleman’s responsibility is to ensure that schools in his constituency stay open.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): I can inform my right hon. Friend that 35% of schools in the borough of Wokingham and well over 50% in the borough of Reading will close. Will he join me in thanking teachers at schools that are staying open, such as E P Collier and Reading girls’ school in my constituency, where staff have put the needs of children and parents before the pre-emptive action of their unions?

Michael Gove: As I said in my statement, not every teaching union has chosen to go on strike this Thursday. While I am well aware of the strong feelings that exist about the future of teachers’ pensions, I know that many people who will be taking industrial action feel understandably concerned about what will happen when schools close, and I think it important for all of us to recognise that people who are working hard to keep schools open are operating in a public-spirited fashion and deserve our support.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): Are the Secretary of State and other members of the Cabinet aware that many public sector workers, including teachers, believe that a war has been declared against them over their standard of living and their pensions? They are sick and tired of a Cabinet, consisting of a fair number of multi-millionaires, which takes such a hostile attitude to people who want to work for the community—as teachers do—but whose standard of living is constantly being undermined.

Michael Gove: I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has been in the House for many years and has stood up for many unpopular and noble causes, but I think that he is quite wrong in this instance. We are not declaring war on anyone. We want to ensure that our public finances can be restored to balance after what happened under the last Government, and we also want to ensure that public sector workers have the best pensions available. It is critical for us to ensure that our reforms proceed. The right hon. Member for Leigh made it clear that we need to work constructively on the basis of Lord Hutton’s proposals. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on his rhetoric, and recognise that it is not helpful to parents or to his own community.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), said that the Government

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could not evade their share of the responsibility for what is happening. Earlier, he said that the Government must accept their share of the blame for causing disruption to millions of families. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me, and the whole House, that he will not consider taking an ounce of blame for the strikes until the Labour party apologises for the dreadful financial legacy that he and the Government inherited?

Michael Gove: My hon. and learned Friend has made a good point, but notwithstanding the dreadful financial situation that we inherited, teachers, and all public sector workers, will retain a defined-benefit pension scheme. Defined-benefit pension schemes were the norm in 1979, and indeed in 1997, but I am afraid that after what happened with the Labour Government, they became a rarity in the private sector. That is why we are so anxious to ensure that they are reformed in the public sector so that they can be secure for the future.

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): The Secretary of State asked what Labour Members were doing to help to resolve the strike. Unfortunately I am not the Secretary of State, but if I were, I would be ringing those general secretaries, bringing them together, and trying to resolve matters before Thursday. What is the Secretary of State going to do between now and Thursday to prevent the strike and the disruption to children’s education?

Michael Gove: I have met, and enjoy meeting, the general secretaries of all the trade unions, and I am glad that I enjoy cordial relations with them. As I told the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) earlier, I am talking to all the general secretaries of all the trade unions later this afternoon. I made sure that yesterday’s negotiations and discussions were concluded so that the general secretaries had a chance to reflect on them before I contacted them today. I think that that is the wise and moderate way in which to proceed, and I am sorry that there are Labour Members who believe at this stage that anything else is appropriate.

Lorraine Fullbrook (South Ribble) (Con): I received an e-mail from a teacher in Eccleston in my constituency who was concerned about the proposed strike action on Thursday. My constituent is concerned that, despite being a member of the ATL, he did not receive a ballot paper. Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituent and me that, if members of the ATL are being disfranchised in this way, the legality of the strike is in question?

Michael Gove: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I am sure that the ATL will want to investigate any irregularity in the ballot. As has been pointed out, it was not the case that a majority of those who were members of the union voted in favour, but a majority of those who did cast their ballot clearly voted in favour of the strike, so we have to respect that democratic vote, even though I strongly believe, like the right hon. Member for Leigh, that the unions are mistaken to go on strike.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that it takes two sides to create any conflict and this smug, arrogant Government have revelled in the part they have played in this dispute? In the real world, trade unionists have to fight for every penny and

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every pension, but the bankers just wait for the Government to give in and to line their pockets. That is the real contrast.

Michael Gove: I respect the passion of the hon. Gentleman, and I know that he has a distinguished record as a trade unionist. Members of trade unions have an absolute right to take industrial action in defence of their interests if people believe it is right, but trade union leaders should decide whether it is wise to strike at any given moment. I do not believe that it is wise to strike at this point.

On the specific question of bankers, I have to say that they are paying more in tax under this coalition Government than they ever did under a Labour Government.

Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): Six years ago a lot of blue-chip companies closed their final salary schemes to new employees and within the past three years they have closed them full stop. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that now is the right time to reform public sector pensions to make sure that they, too, are sustainable going forward?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have to be fair to all taxpayers. Of course it is important that we make sure public sector workers have a decent pension, but we must also make sure that others in the private sector who are paying for those pensions have their position respected. Given what happened to private sector pensions under the previous Government, Labour Members are in no position to lecture anyone about the integrity of benefits in retirement.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that it is no use his calling for calm from the Dispatch Box when the words of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the implied threats that he has made today to review the laws on strike ballots simply serve to inflame the situation? Why does he not stop posturing, get the employers and the teachers around the table and find a way of avoiding this strike conflict?

Michael Gove: My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has a duty to ensure that our finances are back in balance after the terrible situation that we inherited. The speech that he made just over a week ago outlined proposals for discussion. It was not an end position; it was an opening position. The hon. Lady should have the responsibility to recognise that.

As for keeping the law under review, it is my duty to do so. It has nothing to do with strike ballots and everything to do with making sure that heads and local authorities are informed so that parents can be protected. I would have thought that the hon. Lady was on the side of parents and would support any review that might enhance protection for them.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I declare an interest as a member of the teaching union Voice, the cardinal rule of which is that teachers will not strike in any circumstances because of the impact on young people. Today, so many children are brought up by just one caregiver and in many families both parents work. Rather than looking at thresholds, is it not time to

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consider requiring teachers, in the interests of young people and school pupils up and down the country, at least to inform their school that they plan to go on strike? Too many schools in my constituency will be closed this Thursday because head teachers do not know whether teachers will be arriving to teach or not.

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend, as ever, makes an informed and constructive point. I think that workers should retain the right to call for a strike and to take part in industrial action—absolutely. But we also have to recognise that public sector professionals have a wider responsibility. One of the questions that my hon. Friend puts is whether we should require individuals to inform their workplace that they intend to take industrial action and give appropriate notice. It is a matter for review and one that we will have to review after Thursday when we have seen the effect on schools and parents.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Teachers up and down the country will be appalled at the attitude that the Secretary of State has taken, implying that the people going on strike do not care about the children they educate. When did the Government change the law on portable Criminal Records Bureau checks in order to allow these parents into the schools? Unless they are CRB checked for these particular schools, those CRB checks are not appropriate. When did he change the law?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is already the case that there are parents who have been appropriately CRB checked and can support the work of schools. It is also the case that parents can support the work of schools without a CRB check. Of course parents have to be supervised by an appropriate member of staff, but it is perfectly possible, as we all know from the example of parents who have helped with school trips and journeys, for any parents to support them.

Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is perfectly possible to understand the anger that teachers and other public servants feel at being asked to pay the price for the economic mess we inherited from the previous Government, but also to believe that it cannot be fair to ask those in the private sector to work longer and pay more to pay for pensions that they themselves can never hope to receive?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Obviously, all of us who are parents want to ensure that teachers receive good pensions in the future and appropriate reward for the hard work that they do. However, we also have to recognise that the average level of pension enjoyed by people in the private sector is significantly lower, so we have to ensure fairness across sectors.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I can recall when, during the last Conservative Government, a Secretary of State was booed at a teachers’ conference. May I advise the Secretary of State to cut out the rhetoric and get his friends on the Government Benches to calm down? Let us instead have some negotiations that can resolve the problem before Thursday.

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Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as I know he takes a strong interest in educational matters, but, as I have said, negotiations are ongoing. The reason why both the Labour Front-Bench team and the Government believe that these strikes are wrong is because they pre-empt the conclusion of negotiations.

Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): Can my right hon. Friend give me some advice, because I am very concerned that this strike will not only affect young people’s education, but will have a negative impact on businesses, particularly small businesses? On Thursday, many small businesses may find themselves without a significant number of staff, as they may have to look after their children. What advice can he give to businesses that are going to be hit by this, especially if the strikes are ongoing or repetitive?

Michael Gove: I absolutely sympathise with the points made by my hon. Friend and I recognise that there will be an economic cost as a result of the disruption caused by this strike. We will, of course, do everything we can to ensure that schools remain open so that the economic and social impact is lessened.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): If the Secretary of State really is sincere about wanting to bring this to a resolution, will he go back to the teachers’ leaders and negotiate on the basis that the 3% Treasury tax on pensions will now be subject to review—will he get rid of that, because if he does not do so, he is not negotiating in good faith?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the point he makes. The truth is that the specific increase in contributions applies not only to teachers, but to public sector workers across the piece—it is one of the issues that affects all public sector unions. The public sector unions affected, apart from the teachers’ unions and the Public and Commercial Services Union, are not going on strike on Thursday. We can thus infer that there are other unions that, whatever their views on the requirement to increase contributions, believe it is important to conclude the conversation and dialogue about the state of public sector pensions overall before taking any decision about action.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): The fair but difficult changes to teachers’ pensions and the pre-emptive call for a strike by the trade unions will leave many teachers this week wrestling between their loyalty to their union and their concern about the impact of this on the esteem of the profession. On Friday, I welcomed Taiwanese students to St Thomas More school in my town. Teachers in Taiwan are not able to strike and, as my right hon. Friend knows, Confucian tradition reveres teachers. What advice does he have for teachers who are wrestling with the concerns about the impact of this strike on the teaching profession in our country?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of my concerns—[Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for the attention that she pays to this very important question. One of the things that this Government have been seeking to do over the past 15 months is to raise the prestige of the teaching profession. We have sought

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to work on changes that were instituted under the previous Government and under preceding Governments. I said in my initial response to the right hon. Member for Leigh that we were lucky to have the best generation of teachers ever in our schools, and that is in no small part due to the efforts made across parties to ensure that. I am delighted to take this opportunity to underline that, but I did say on Sunday, and I will say again, that the reputation of teachers risks being affected by action on Thursday. I hope that, whatever action is taken, all of us recognise that we need to operate responsibly on Thursday, because it would be a grave shame if the respect in which teachers are held is, in any way, undermined.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he claimed earlier that the shadow Secretary of State misled the House? Yes or no?

Michael Gove: I said that he would never wish to mislead the House and I hope that he will take the opportunity, in this House or elsewhere, to make it clear that our proposals respect the accrued rights of all public sector workers. My concern is that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), in his understandable anxiety to make a political point, will fail to make entirely clear to every teacher the reality of the position that the coalition Government are proposing.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Last Friday, I met all the head teachers of primary schools in Tamworth and they told me that many of their staff have no intention of following their highly paid union leaders out on strike because they want to stay in their schools and teach. Will my right hon. Friend commend the attitude of those teachers and of the teacher at Rawlett high school who sent a message to me only this morning saying that the strikes will serve the interests only of the unions and not of children?

Michael Gove: The point has been made—and has been made well by the Leader of the Opposition—that no one benefits from this precipitate action. It is entirely right that all the teachers reflect on those points. Of course we respect the decision of any individual to take industrial action, but we all agree that the position of teachers will be stronger and public support for them greater if they do not take such action this Thursday.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The Secretary of State is a staunch trade unionist and I know he has experience of going on strike, so he will understand the difficult decision that many teachers face this week.

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Will he clear something up for me? Is the pension decision to do with long-term demographic change, as discussed in the Hutton report, or is it to do with cutting the deficit, as he implied earlier? Either way, will he sit down with teachers’ leaders before Thursday and sort out the problem rather than provoking strikes through his macho posturing?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes two fair points. On the first, yes, I went out on strike and indeed I lost my job as a result of taking industrial action. One of the reasons I am therefore so opposed to industrial action this Thursday is that I recognise that strikes do not solve problems. Any one of us, on either side of the House, who has taken industrial action and lived with the consequences recognises that strikes do not solve deep-rooted problems. On the broader question of the way in which pension reform is designed to deal with the problems we have inherited, as I mentioned in my statement we are seeking to deal both with the terrible state in which our public finances were left by the previous Government and with the demographic challenges that force us to conclude that there is a case for reform.

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): In my constituency, the impact of Thursday’s strikes will be felt not by the bankers who live there but, most acutely, by lower paid people, lone parents and, especially, women who rely on fragile networks to provide child care, based on education, family and so on. Does he not share my astonishment that that point does not seem to be fully understood by those on the Opposition Benches?

Michael Gove: One of the critical points my hon. Friend makes is that the Opposition seem to be curious in their desire to make political points rather than seeking to work constructively with local authorities and others to keep schools open. As the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made clear in his response to my statement, it is wrong for strike action to be taken at this point when discussions are still going on. The victims will be working women who will lose out as a direct result of the disruption to family life.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. We must now move on. I have taken 25 Back-Bench contributions, but we have an important statement to follow and considerable pressure as regards progress on the Finance Bill. The Secretary of State has shown his willingness and desire to keep the House regularly updated and that is, I am sure, appreciated.

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Higher Education White Paper

4.9 pm

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the higher education White Paper, which sets out how our reforms will build on the changes to student support announced last year. We will put higher education back on to a sustainable financial footing. We will put students at the heart of the system and improve the academic experience, with universities and colleges being more accountable to their students than ever before. We will also take steps to improve social mobility without compromising academic excellence or institutional autonomy.

We inherited an enormous deficit, which has required difficult decisions. We could have reduced student numbers or spending per student, or we could have provided less help with living costs, but those options would have been unfair to students, to universities and to the country. Instead, we are introducing a pay-as-you-earn system that provides more support for students, that does not require reductions in student numbers and that increases the cash flowing into higher education. We estimate that there could be a cash increase in funding for higher education of around 10% by 2014-15.

Our reforms ensure that no first-time undergraduate will have to pay fees up front and that they will be asked to contribute to the cost of their education only when they are earning more than £21,000. That increase in the repayment threshold—up from £15,000 under the current system—means that graduates will benefit from smaller monthly repayments than under the current system. For example, someone earning £20,000, which is the median starting salary for graduates, repays £38 a month under the system we inherited from the previous Government; in future they would pay nothing. At the moment, a graduate earning £36,000, which is the median salary for all graduates, pays £158 a month; under our scheme that would fall to £113 a month.

Our reforms also recognise that for many people higher education does not mean a full-time, residential degree. Some students want to work or take care of their family while studying. To support them, many part-time students and distance learners will become entitled to loans to cover their full tuition costs for the first time. Also, I can announce today that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I have agreed that for undergraduate medical and dentistry students starting their course in autumn 2012, the NHS bursary will be increased in years 5 and 6 to cover the full costs of tuition. For graduate entrants starting in autumn 2012, access to student loans will be made available so that there are no additional up-front tuition costs. We will consider arrangements for subsequent years; more information is being placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

These changes to higher education funding enable us to put financial power in the hands of learners, but to make that effective we need to liberalise the system of quotas we inherited from the previous Government so that more students can go to universities that offer a good-quality, good-value student experience. The White Paper therefore proposes unconstrained recruitment of the roughly 65,000 high-achieving students, scoring the

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equivalent of AAB grades or above at A-level. Quotas for those students will be abolished and funding will go to whichever university offers them a place they accept. In addition, we will create a flexible margin of about 20,000 places to reward universities and colleges that combine good quality with value for money and with average tuition charges, after waivers, at or below £7,500 per year. That adds up to around 85,000 student places—roughly one in four places for new entrants contestable between institutions in 2012-13. We aim to expand this further year after year.

We will also extend the scope for employers and charities to offer sponsorship of extra places, provided that they do not create a cost liability for the Government, and provided, of course, that there is fair access for all applicants, regardless of ability to pay, and no sacrifice of academic standards.

The reforms put students in the driving seat, but if they are to use that power to best effect, more than a liberalising of the quotas regime will be needed. Prospective students also need to know far more about the academic experience on offer. We will therefore transform the information available to them about individual courses at individual institutions. Each institution will make available key items of information, such as contact hours and job prospects. Information will also be available to outside bodies, such as Which?, so that they can produce their own comparisons. That will lead universities to match their excellence in research with a high-quality academic experience.

We also want our universities to work with business to improve the job prospects of their graduates by providing the knowledge and skills employers value. The sandwich course, giving students practical experience of work, declined under the Labour Government; we want to reverse that. We have therefore asked Professor Sir Tim Wilson, who made the university of Hertfordshire one of our most business-friendly universities, to review how we can make England the best place in the world for university-industry collaboration. We want our universities to work with business across their teaching and research activities to promote better teaching, employer sponsorship, innovation and enterprise.

Student choice will be more real if we liberalise quotas and transform information, and if there is a greater diversity of institutions to choose from. We will therefore remove the barriers to more provision from the Open university, further education colleges and private providers. We will simplify the regime for obtaining degree-awarding powers. We will also review the artificial barriers to smaller higher education institutions taking the title “university”.

We want students from a wide range of backgrounds to benefit from the reforms. We are increasing maintenance grants and loans for nearly all students, introducing a national scholarship scheme, and strengthening the Office for Fair Access to make sure that institutions fulfil their outreach and retention obligations to people from disadvantaged groups. That will not be at the expense of institutional autonomy; the director of fair access will continue to have a duty to protect academic freedom, including institutions’ right to decide whom to admit, and on what terms.

So that universities and academics can focus on educating their students, we will strip back the burden of excessive regulation and form-filling. We will explore whether it is

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possible to reduce costs associated with corporation tax returns. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has today announced a consultation on the possibility of introducing a relief to remove some of the VAT barriers that currently deter institutions from sharing costs. We will reduce burdens that result from information collection. We will give students power to trigger quality reviews where there are grounds for concern, but will cut back the burden of automatic review for high-performing institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council for England will be the lead regulator, taking on a new role as consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system.

We are now inviting people to comment on our proposals as part of a broad consultation. Subject to the availability of parliamentary time, that will be followed by a higher education Bill next year, to make the necessary legislative changes to deliver the reforms.

The White Paper offers universities the prospect of more funding, provided that they attract students. At the same time, it saves the Exchequer money by asking graduates to pay back more as their earnings increase. Our universities already transform people’s life chances; we expect them to do even more. We will protect their autonomy and reduce their regulatory burdens. Above all, our proposals benefit students by driving universities to focus on the student experience. They will have real choice, better information, and a wider range of institutions to choose from. I commend the White Paper to the House.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. Is it not true that as higher education teaching has been cut by 80%, far more universities are charging £9,000 than the Government planned, causing huge political embarrassment for the Government and creating a funding crisis with the Treasury? Is not the real substance of the White Paper a desperate drive to cut fees, no matter what the effect on quality?

Is not the truth that this is another example of the Government’s failure to think things through, their disregard for the consequences, and the wrong choices being made for the country’s future? Is it not true that the Minister has slipped out on his Department’s website today a report on the impact on exports to this country of the proposal on tuition fees and of visa changes, suggesting that the total impact is some £8 billion of revenue lost to the UK?

It is

“difficult to recall a worse example of public policy making…wishful thinking has followed the apparent failure to do any serious modelling…the whole thing is a mess, and getting messier”—

not my words, but those of Sir Peter Scott, one of Britain’s leading experts on higher education and the former vice-chancellor of the Secretary of State’s local university. Is not the real truth that any expansion in university places is set to come on the cheap, with the Government cutting student places at the majority of universities—so much for student choice now—in order to fund the race to the bottom; an auction of places—who can charge the lowest?

The Prime Minister promised that universities charging the maximum would be the exception, yet is not the truth that two thirds of universities will charge the full £9,000? Is not that a devastating example of the neglect

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and incompetence that the Prime Minister routinely shows to the hopes and dreams of the next generation? The Secretary of State threatened to cut student places even more or university funding even further. Guaranteed places have been floated for those who want to buy their way in, and last-minute cut-price degrees. Almost 24,000 student places are already axed or are going. The Minister is in secret talks with the banks to help him out.

Forests, the national health service, prison sentences, universities today—it is “Carry on up the Khyber” in Whitehall, the Minister the latest to do the Hattie Jacques role. I am all for vigorous competition, but on for-profit higher education corporations, has he not been warned by both the Higher Education Funding Council and the Higher Education Policy Institute? Too many examples of the worst quality higher education, not for every student, but shocking drop-out rates, appalling degree completion rates, and aggressive recruitment practices that make pensions selling seem a walk in the park, are too often their norm.

The market has not protected against poor quality there. We need to be able to spot and stop students and their families being taken for a ride. Should not new providers have to prove themselves more rigorously, more regularly? How will making it easier to get university title and degree-awarding powers improve quality or the reputation and value of particular degrees, or boost the employability of those studying for such degrees? Nobody could be against the principle of an increase in places at high quality universities, but does it sit with the Secretary of State’s promises on social mobility when 50% of those getting AAB grades are from selective or independent schools? Will contextual data be truly embedded in university admissions or has he caved in to the Tory right?

How will the Secretary of State prevent, as the Institute of Physics has warned, students being deterred from studying the sciences or maths? Student charters and better information will be little compensation for trebling fees. I accept that there have to be safeguards, but will students be able to move courses with their loan intact if they realise that their course is not suitable or if their complaints are not taken seriously? Who will be the consumer champion—the representative of students and their families—at the new providers? Why should not students paying vastly increased fees know if their university has financial problems that might affect the quality of their teaching?

I welcome the end to at least one area of uncertainty today—the NHS bursary increasing for 2012-13—but what about future years? Why no certainty on that now? On research quality, why no mention that the rest of the world is increasing its science spending, yet here in the UK British researchers are having to cope with cuts of 40% or more in the funding to invest in world-class research facilities at our universities? Because of the bungled visa changes, universities face even more intense challenges to recruit the brightest and best research students and their lecturers to work with our brightest and best. No mention of cuts in funding for postgraduate courses or the impact on postgraduate recruitment of graduates leaving university with £40,000 worth of debt. Will we see as a result of his complacency a new divide opening up between those who have a postgraduate qualification and those who do not?

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On the day it was revealed that 80 graduates are chasing every graduate job, which is double the figure for last year, all we got on university and business collaboration is a review. Where is the financial plan to incentivise universities to do more to stimulate new jobs in the industries of the future? Regional development agency funding has gone, HEFCE funding has been reduced and Technology Strategy Board funding has been squeezed, so this is yet another example of opportunities for economic growth being spurned, and of Ministers fiddling while Rome burns.

It could have been so different. Why were university cuts not in line with other public service cuts? Tuition fees would have been far lower, with no black hole, and chaos and confusion would have been avoided. Universities would have concentrated on getting their research and skills into businesses to drive jobs and new growth and there would have been a rigorous drive to ensure that every student gained employable skills. The Government did not need to leave the next generation of engineers, police officers and nurses having to pay so much more for so much longer. The Minister did not need—

Mr Speaker: Order. I should explain to the shadow Minister that his response should be no longer than half the expected length of a ministerial statement of 10 minutes, so I think that he is on his last sentence.

Mr Thomas: I am extremely close to it, Mr Speaker. Is it not true that the Minister did not need to axe Aimhigher and—

Mr Speaker: Order. I was being gentle about it. This is the hon. Gentleman’s last sentence, and it needs to be a short one.

Mr Thomas: I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The Government may think that lower quality, poorer standards and a race to the bottom are a price worth paying for their incompetence, but we do not.

Mr Willetts: I have to tell the shadow Minister that I am informed that Hattie Jacques was not even in “Carry on up the Khyber”, and many of his other statements were no more reliable. There were no questions, only a set of random scares that bear little relation to what we are proposing in the White Paper. Let me make it absolutely clear that there are no number controls on overseas students. We continue to welcome to this country overseas students who have the ability to benefit from studying at our universities.

The hon. Gentleman seems typically confused. One moment he complained about fees of £9,000, and the next he complained about our measures for providing a clear incentive to charge £7,500 or less. Our proposal for 20,000 places to be awarded on that basis is intended to ensure that students face a range of fees as they choose a university, which we think is the right thing to do.

I should also make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that we are reducing the burdens on universities, supporting them and liberating them from some of the impositions placed on them by the previous Government. It was his Government who introduced quotas and fines of

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£4,500 per student for universities that infringed their quotas. We are liberating 85,000 places from such a quota regime.

I make no apology for the measures that we are taking on access. It was under Labour, despite their claims to care about social mobility and opportunity, that—to quote Sir Martin Harris’ report—the

“most advantaged 20 per cent of young people were six times more likely than the most disadvantaged 40 per cent to enter these institutions in the mid-1990s. This ratio has risen to seven times more likely by the mid-2000s”.

That refers to Russell group universities. Those figures are scandalous. Under Labour’s watch, the ratio got worse. We are committed to equality of opportunity, which is why we have set out in the White Paper proposals for strengthening the Office for Fair Access.

Not only were there no sensible questions from the hon. Gentleman, but there was no indication whatsoever about what Labour would do. Are they advocates of a graduate tax, as the leader of the Labour party is, or do they accept the need to increase fees, as Lord Mandelson did? We are none the wiser after the hon. Gentleman’s random rant.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. There is extensive interest in this statement, and I am keen to accommodate that interest, but I must appeal for brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike.

Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I have spent the past six years on the advisory board of the London School of Commerce, a private higher education provider, and I wholeheartedly support the Minister’s proposals to provide diversity and innovation in the sector, but does he share my bemusement at the Opposition’s stance, given that the biggest beneficiaries of such a policy will surely be students from less well-off backgrounds?

Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We believe that a more diverse sector with a greater range of institutions offers the greatest opportunity for students with a range of requirements to find the form of higher education that best suits them.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): This White Paper was originally scheduled for January. I understand that one reason for the six-month delay was No. 10’s concern to ensure that it did not herald a repeat of the NHS reform fiasco. What guarantees can the Minister provide that in “widening participation” and bringing in more of the private sector, we do not have a repeat of the any-willing-provider fiasco?

Mr Willetts: OFFA is considering proposals from universities to improve access to their institutions, which is what they will have to do if they wish to charge fees above £6,000. The conclusions will be announced in the next fortnight, and I very much hope and am confident that they will show how it is possible to deliver wider access while maintaining high academic standards.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I welcome the White Paper and, particularly, the additional money announced for those dental and medical

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students who will start their courses next year. May I assume that Ministers are clear that the White Paper’s two key effects will be increased access at decreased costs for students and, particularly, that students will have the power to influence their courses and the quality of their teaching? It would be helpful if the Minister were to explain how they will be able to do so, and that there will be plenty of time for students and universities to respond to the White Paper before the announcements are finalised in policy.

Mr Willetts: I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his very constructive engagement in this very important area. At the university of Loughborough, I sat in on a fascinating meeting in which students gave their feedback on their academic programme that year, raising with the academic staff issues such as the right balance between essays and lab work and the extent to which there should be continuous assessment during the year and final exams. We want to see more of that; we want universities to provide such information on their websites; and, yes, we believe that if students are concerned about the quality of academic standards and work at a university, they should have the opportunity to raise that with the Quality Assurance Agency.

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): In responding, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) referred to the assessment of the impact on university income and on the local and national economy of discouraging students from across the world from coming to Britain, and of the shambolic visa changes, which were clearly not put together by the two Departments responsible. How can the Minister come here this afternoon and say that we want to be the best in the world while discouraging the best in the world from coming to Britain?

Mr Willetts: The changes in the visa regime were very carefully worked out by the Home Office and BIS working together, and they tackle the problem of bogus colleges and students who wish to come to a university but do not have the academic qualifications that would enable them to benefit from a university course. The changes absolutely keep open, however, the opportunity for legitimate students who have achieved the necessary academic standards to come to this country, with no quota or limits on the number that should be able to do so.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said today on the Floor of the House and, especially, what he has said on institutional autonomy over admissions. Will he say a little about how that is to be guaranteed? Does he agree that it is academics who should determine admissions to university, not politicians?

Mr Willetts: In that respect, I hope that we will be able to maintain a cross-party consensus, because the previous legislation that the previous Government introduced provided a clear protection for universities, making it clear that ultimately they determined their own admissions. We will keep that legal protection.

Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I look forward to studying the White Paper in detail. It is surprising, however, that in his announcement the Minister made

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no reference at all to postgraduate study. Does he appreciate that the trebling of debt means that British students are being put off going on to taught masters courses, with only 23% of students taking such courses? If we are to compete with India and China, must he not now come to the Dispatch Box and say what he is going to do to ensure that British students can go on to postgraduate study?

Mr Willetts: I recognise the expertise of the right hon. Gentleman, who was previously a higher education Minister, and I accept the need to monitor very carefully what happens with postgraduates. We have asked Sir Adrian Smith—I think that the right hon. Gentleman originally asked him to do this—to investigate the whole issue of postgraduate education. We want him to reopen his inquiry and keep the matter under close review, and we will of course watch very carefully what happens.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): I regularly meet the three principals of the FE colleges that serve my constituency, who are keen to deliver innovative degree-level courses. Does the Minister agree that we should be looking at a model whereby institutions of further education can deliver innovative higher degrees?

Mr Willetts: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; he is right. This is one of the main ways in which we can improve access to higher education. Perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of the 20,000 places that will be more flexible will be higher education delivered in further education colleges. We are all working together as Ministers in BIS—I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning—and we are committed to ensuring that that opportunity is available to young people.

Frank Dobson (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab): Does the Minister not recognise that in marketising the whole system of higher education he is creating several markets, with a sort of Harrods at the top that gains prestige from charging the highest fees and a sort of Poundland at the other end that has to cut its costs and cut corners in order to attract the worst-off and most impoverished students?

Mr Willetts: I have to break this gently to the right hon. Gentleman: Government Members believe in choice and in empowering students. We believe that there should be a wider range of institutions and a wider range of fees, and that is what these reforms are all about.

Mr David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I welcome many aspects of my right hon. Friend’s White Paper, particularly the better information about contact hours, job prospects and quality of teaching experience. Does he agree that there is a real need for more part-time courses so that more people can get the opportunity to study and work at the same time?

Mr Willetts: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I respect his expertise as a former FE college lecturer. One of the reasons we are extending loans for fees to part-time students is to address that long-standing injustice.