[Katy Clark in the Chair]

Since the general elections in February 2011, a blanket ban has been in place against all forms of public assembly. I understand that President Museveni has been pressing Parliament to approve constitutional amendments that would curtail bail rights for people facing certain charges, including participation in protests. The proposed constitutional law would allow judges to deny bail for at least six months to people arrested for treason, terrorism, rape, economic sabotage and rioting.

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It is the case that 56% of Uganda’s prisoners—more than 17,000 people—have not been convicted of a crime and are locked up awaiting resolution of their case, sometimes for years. According to Human Rights Watch, conditions in the prisons are appalling. Limited use of bail and inadequate legal representation contribute to the delays.

In the time left to me, I want to return to the subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts—the anti-homosexuality laws. I am quite surprised: when this debate on human rights in Uganda was first called, I thought that the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights would be at the top of the agenda, because it has achieved much coverage lately. I hope that when the hon. Member for Strangford quotes, “When they came for the communists”, “When they came for the trade unionists” and “When they came for the Jews”, he also includes in that list “When they came for the homosexuals”.

When I visited Uganda in 2007, the issue had just begun to raise its head. That was because LGBT activists had started campaigning for their rights to be recognised. I was shocked on one occasion when I was walking down the road to see a billboard for a newspaper saying something like “Homos arrested in march”. I had no idea that such language was still used. What was often said to me then was, “If only they’d keep it to themselves, they wouldn’t be bringing this attention on themselves and would be able to just carry on quietly.” That language has been used since time immemorial to stop people asserting their rights against discrimination and persecution.

As was mentioned, the Ugandan tabloid newspaper Rolling Stone published in 2010 the full names, addresses and photographs of 100 prominent and allegedly gay Ugandans, accompanied by a call for their execution. The headline was “Hang Them”. One of those on the list was leading gay rights activist David Kato, who was beaten to death in January 2011. He was murdered shortly after winning a lawsuit against a magazine that had published his name and photograph, identifying him as gay and calling for him to be executed. There was a suggestion that he had been robbed by someone, but most people do not give that allegation much credence.

Then there is the anti-homosexuality Bill currently before the Ugandan Parliament. The Ugandan penal code already prohibits consensual sex between individuals of the same sex. However, the Bill goes much further. It originally called for the death penalty for consensual same-sex acts, but now calls for life imprisonment. However, it still introduces the death penalty for the offence of “aggravated homosexuality”, which is defined as an HIV-positive man having intercourse with a man who is HIV-negative. It also punishes those who do not report within 24 hours violations of the Bill’s provisions. That applies to people who do not accuse others of being involved in homosexual activity if they believe that they have been. The Bill also criminalises the “promotion” of homosexuality.

The Bill has been widely criticised by human rights organisations and Uganda’s diplomatic partners. President Obama called the Bill “odious”. Thankfully, President Museveni publicly distanced himself from the Bill when it was brought before the Parliament in 2010 and 2011.

I was in Ghana recently with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and ended up spending a day with a group of Ugandan MPs, who raised the subject with

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me. They said, “Whenever we see anyone from your country, all they want to talk about is our anti-homosexuality Bill.” It was disturbing that only one of the group was opposed to the Bill. All the others were supportive in varying degrees, and presented the old idea of predatory homosexuals preying on children as a child protection issue. They said that they did not care what people got up to in private, and that promotion was the real problem, but when I pressed them and asked why they were not just banning promotion, and why they were trying to impose life imprisonment—quite a few supported the death penalty—for consensual acts, they could not answer. That shows that there is still a long way to go.

Although the conversation was polite, it put us in a slightly difficult position. As one MP said, we took religion to them, and encouraged them to believe in certain things. We had a debate about whether it was a human rights issue, or a matter of religious belief, and whether that outweighs other people’s human rights. As they said, we told them that homosexuality was wrong when proselytising Christianity, but we are now saying that they must believe something else that we tell them. The colonialist agenda of trying to impose western values on them became quite an issue.

Pamela Nash: I have had similar conversations with Ugandan politicians. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to ensure that we are not seen as promoting a view or way of life on Ugandan people, but that the issue is human rights abuse? We need countries throughout the world to exert the sort of pressure that the UK Government are exerting. We must work with other Governments to ensure that we are not seen as an old colonial power imposing a belief on Ugandan people.

Kerry McCarthy: I agree with my hon. Friend. I was in Jordan recently, and was talking to a couple of women political activists from the Islamic Action Front, which is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. We got on to issues such as gay rights, and alcohol consumption. Parts of Jordan are tourist destinations and women wear bikinis on beaches, and so on. We could not claim that wearing a bikini on a beach is a fundamental human right, but with gay rights there may be certain values, and we should not accept that people’s cultural or religious beliefs allow them to persecute or discriminate against people because of their sexuality.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I appreciate the hon. Lady’s speech so far, and I have listened carefully. The thrust of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who introduced the debate, was the persecution of Christians in Uganda. I am interested to hear what the two Front-Bench spokesmen say about the representations about Christians. The hon. Lady has not placed much emphasis on that so far.

Kerry McCarthy: Uganda is quite a strongly Christian country. I have worked with organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Barnabas Trust and so on that have campaigned on the persecution of Christians in other countries. I had not had representations about persecution of Christians in Uganda until the hon. Gentleman spoke. I appreciate that there is a particular issue for people who have converted from Islam. They

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may have particular problems, and obviously their security should be protected because their right to practise whatever religion they choose is important, but that right cannot extend to supporting discrimination or persecution of people whose sexuality is different. It is important to flag that up in this debate.

I know that the Minister wants to spend some time responding to the debate, so I will finish. There are concerns about the HIV/AIDS prevention and control Bill, which was retabled in the Ugandan parliament in February 2012. It calls for mandatory HIV testing, and forced disclosure of HIV status in certain cases. I appreciate what a devastating impact the AIDS epidemic has had in Uganda and many other sub-Saharan African countries. When I was there, I saw the work of public education campaigns, and particularly those targeting older men who single out under-age girls because they think they will not be HIV-positive. I appreciate that the country wants to do more to tackle the AIDS problem, but forced disclosure and mandatory reporting and testing are likely to violate human rights on a number of grounds, so they are a matter for concern and vigilance. The Bill has also been criticised by gay rights activists because it excludes homosexuals from prevention programmes.

Finally, I return to UK financial assistance to Uganda. At one point, we withdrew some direct budget support to the Ugandan Government because of concerns about the 2006 elections. We enter dangerous waters when we introduce an element of conditionality into aid—the debate in the past has always been about economic conditionality, such as linking support to water privatisation programmes—but we should require certain standards from the countries to which we offer aid. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts that it would be a dereliction of our duty to the people of Uganda if we withdrew aid, but it is important that any aid we give the country is accompanied by strong messages and, where appropriate, criticism of Uganda’s human rights record. We should use aid not as a strong-arm tactic, but as leverage to get across our points to the Ugandan Government.

12.6 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Jeremy Browne): This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Ms Clark, and it is a privilege to do so. I am grateful for the opportunity to conclude this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on raising this topic. He contributes to many debates on foreign affairs, and he always does so with great passion and authority.

I congratulate everybody else who has participated in what has been a very consensual debate, even though it has been full of strong feelings. It has also been full of important insights from Members on both sides of the Chamber, many of whom drew on their own direct observations. The passion communicated in all their speeches will be heard way beyond the walls of this room, including by many people in Uganda, whether or not they are in government.

Given that I have a little longer than is sometimes the case in such debates, let me, for the benefit of hon. Members, lay out in greater detail the British Government’s

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position on the wide range of subjects that have been raised. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the atrocities carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army. I assure hon. Members that we remain active in working with international partners to disband the LRA and to bring Joseph Kony to justice. Apprehending him will not be straightforward. About 300 remaining LRA fighters operate across remote and hostile terrain in a region the UN estimates is comparable in size to the United Kingdom. However, concerted international effort will overcome those obstacles and see Joseph Kony held to account and the LRA cease to exist. That is, very strongly, our objective.

Jim Shannon: I do not want to steal the thunder of the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), but he asked what help the Government can give the 5,000 members of the African Union army in pursuing Joseph Kony. He mentioned helicopter support. Are the Government considering that? If not, could it be considered?

Mr Browne: I do not have information specifically about the use of helicopters, but I was starting to explain what we are doing to try to bring the LRA’s activities to a conclusion.

The LRA, as many Members will know, was forced out of Uganda in 2006 and does not now pose a security threat to the country. It still operates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Supporting those countries in efforts finally to rid central Africa of the scourge of the LRA remains our Government’s priority. Our efforts to do so have been set out by the Minister of State with responsibility for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), in correspondence that he has sent to all Members of the House of Commons.

In our role as UN Security Council lead on LRA issues, the UK secured the UN Security Council presidential statement of November 2011, which tasked the UN to deliver a regional strategy to combat the LRA. We have pressed the UN to make this strategy coherent, co-ordinated and results-focused and then to deliver on it swiftly.

Furthermore, we have ensured the specific inclusion of LRA issues in mandates of UN peacekeeping and political missions across the region. We have also pressed for robust language on civilian protection in these mandates and for better co-ordination and intelligence-sharing between peacekeeping operations.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UK offers vital financial support to the UN peacekeeping force, providing important protection to civilians from armed groups, including the LRA. We also support the UN’s disarmament and demobilisation efforts that are reintegrating remaining LRA combatants back into communities.

In Uganda, the Department for International Development is halfway through a £100 million programme committed to supporting development in northern Uganda as it recovers from two decades of conflict and from the terrible legacy left by the LRA. Through this programme we work with the Ugandan Government’s peace, recovery and development plan for the north, which has allowed the vast majority of Ugandans displaced by the LRA’s activities to return home. In terms of institutional endeavour,

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financial support and practical assistance, I hope Members will be reassured that the United Kingdom is taking the pre-eminent role in the world.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I had not intended to focus part of my speech on the LRA, but I do know a bit about it. The problem is that Joseph Kony is highly mobile. He never sleeps in the same place twice. He goes into a village and terrorises the villagers. What those forces require are helicopters to keep ahead of him and clever intelligence to find out where he has been and where he is going. Those two things have been lacking so far, which is why he has been able to get away with what he has.

Mr Browne: I am grateful for that additional insight from my hon. Friend. Let me bring his observations to the direct attention of the Minister for Africa and, if it is necessary, of the Ministry of Defence, so that we can consider how we can more effectively assist in the ways in which he describes. I do not wish to go down the path of operational detail in this speech because I am ill-equipped to do so, but we all share the same objective of providing practical assistance wherever we can.

Like many countries in East Africa, Uganda has a turbulent history. We are all aware of the horrors the country suffered during the era of Idi Amin and the conflict that followed. As the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, Uganda remains staggeringly poor. As people who know the country well know, after decades of political turbulence and violence there is a lot to be depressed about.

It is also true to say that over two decades Uganda has developed from a one-party state to an emerging multi-party democracy with a strengthened Parliament. It has a largely independent judiciary. There is a budding, if fragile, culture of political debate, and its media is able to criticise the Government. There has been progress on gender equality—women play an active role in politics and Uganda has a system that actively encourages the election of female MPs. There is also growing freedom of religion, and faith groups are able to express themselves freely. As a predominantly Christian country, the church is politically active and plays an important role in society.

Jim Shannon: As the Minister has clearly outlined, there is religious freedom. But hon. Members have been saying that there are many examples of Christians being persecuted and the police and the Government of the land have not backed those people up. That is our point. Although I appreciate the Minister’s contribution, I want to underline that matter, because it is important that we do not let it pass.

Mr Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for further underlining that important point. I say unequivocally that the Government—I am sure that I speak for hon. Members from all parties—deplore discrimination against Christians on the basis that the hon. Gentleman describes and always look to support the freedom of all citizens to practise whatever faith they hold true to themselves, as we do in this country. We will make further representations to reflect the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has brought vividly to our attention this afternoon.

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Although I do not wish to make an overly flattering portrait of the situation in Uganda, we feel that there has been some genuine progress in terms of civil liberties and the wider debate in Uganda. It is important that Uganda has responded positively to the United Nations’ universal periodic review of the country, which was published in October 2011 and assessed the human rights concerns in the country. We are assured that the Ugandan Government are taking steps to create a national action plan for the implementation of universal periodic review recommendations on tackling human rights concerns, which were raised in that report. We will work with Uganda to do what we can to make sure that those honourable intentions bear fruit.

However, Uganda still needs to address a number of serious human rights issues to ensure that it makes further progress. Many of those issues were raised in our debate. The UK remains concerned about developments in the country that pose a threat to freedom of expression. In April and May 2011 there was heavy-handed suppression of opposition protests. Since then the authorities in Uganda have imposed further restrictions on freedom of assembly for protestors.

The Ugandan Parliament is currently considering legislation that aims to regulate public demonstrations. There are rules and regulations in all countries, including our own, but it is important that the right balance is struck between maintaining law and order and allowing freedom of assembly. The Minister for Africa raised our concerns about this issue with President Museveni when he visited Uganda in February. We will continue to raise concerns where we feel that that balance is not being correctly struck.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: I am concerned that the perception of my hon. Friend or the Foreign Office and what is happening on the ground in Uganda seem to be at variance. Since the lure of having held the Commonwealth games and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, Museveni has been given greater free reign to carry out human rights abuses, which seem to have got significantly worse since the election. I should not like the Minister’s perception—what he said in his speech—and what is happening on the ground to be ignored. I hope that he will bear that in mind.

Mr Browne: I certainly will. I confess that I do not speak from first-hand experience on these matters. I am not the Minister for Africa—he is in Africa, which is why I am replying to this debate—but I want to ensure that the Foreign Office’s understanding of the situation is entirely in accord with the reality, as perceived by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). We will take his advice seriously and I will ensure that it is understood and scrutinised properly by the African department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Fiona Bruce: This is particularly important. As I understand it, DFID has committed £100 million to post-conflict development in northern Uganda over the current five-year period. Building legitimacy, improving the capacity of local government to deliver services, supporting government, civil society and communities to engage peacefully and reconciliation are all important

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post-conflict work but, as we have heard today, conflict is still happening. There is still abuse and oppression, and I ask the Minister to discuss with his counterpart for Africa the £100 million dedicated to post-conflict work while so much trouble is still occurring.

Mr Browne: We do not always get a clean break between conflict and the absence of conflict. The assessment of DFID and the Foreign Office is that progress is sufficient for us to make a difference with the types of programmes described by my hon. Friend. I understand her concerns, and in the time available I will address some of that issue and others, if I may continue my speech.

Laws against and repression of homosexuals were rightly mentioned at length by the hon. Members for Bristol East and for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) and others. For the avoidance of doubt, I will spell out the British Government’s clear position. The United Kingdom is strongly committed to upholding the rights and freedoms of people of all sexual orientations. The Prime Minister made the United Kingdom’s opposition to the criminalisation of homosexuality clear at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October 2011. In Kampala, the United Kingdom continues to lobby strongly against the proposals in the Bill and is working closely with civil society groups campaigning against them. The Minister for Africa expressed our concerns to the President when they met in February, and the Minister for Equalities, who arrives in Kampala this evening, will underscore the United Kingdom’s opposition to the proposals when she meets the Ugandan Government. We are doing all that we can to give formal force to the views that were rightly strongly expressed by Members during the debate.

On the nature of the assistance that we provide to Uganda, to return to the previous intervention, UK aid is aimed at reducing poverty and at helping the most vulnerable people. Often those at greatest risk of human rights abuses in developing countries need our help the most. We do not attach conditionality to our aid for that very reason. We do, however, hold full and frank discussions with recipient countries about issues of concern, including human rights, as we have done with the Ugandan Government on the importance that we attach to equality and non-discrimination. We hold those Governments that receive aid through direct budgetary support to account, to ensure that that represents the best way of getting results and value for money for the United Kingdom taxpayer. If we cannot give aid directly to Governments, because we are not sufficiently confident about how that aid is being spent, we find other routes to help people whom we assess need our assistance because of the straitened circumstances in which they live.

Jim Shannon: Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on the £100 million available in aid, is it possible to review how to enable the benefits from Uganda’s oil reserves to filter down to those at the lower levels—in poverty—in those discussions that Ministers will be having with the Ugandan Government? That is a moral issue as well, but can the Minister introduce it into discussions with the Ugandan Government?

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Mr Browne: That may be a more appropriate matter for the Minister for Africa to discuss than for the Minister for Equalities, but I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representation, I shall communicate it and we shall see if it can contribute to any such discussions.

Women in Uganda continue to face a number of very serious threats, including high levels of domestic violence and the continuing traditional practice of female genital mutilation. Again, there has been some progress. Uganda has agreed to ratify the optional protocol to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Uganda passed the Domestic Violence Act 2010 and the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2009, which are significant steps for protecting the rights of women. The task is for those good intentions to be implemented. Through the Department for International Development, the UK supports civil society initiatives to promote knowledge and implementation of the legislation, and protection centres for victims. This week, our Minister for Equalities will visit those projects and lobby the Ugandan Government to ensure they implement its legislation to protect women from violence. This is a topical issue, which is being afforded attention by the Government at ministerial level this very week.

The Ugandan human rights commission’s 2010 report noted a high number of complaints about the use of torture. The UK condemns unreservedly the use of torture. However, there have been some recent improvements. Uganda has signed up to the optional protocol to the UN convention against torture. As Uganda reported at its universal periodic review, 36 police officers have been charged in court for torture-related offences. The UK continues to support Ugandan non-governmental organisations in their efforts to bring forward a private Member’s Bill aimed at enshrining the convention in domestic legislation and ensuring that those who torture are individually liable for their acts. We understand that the Ugandan Government support the Bill, and we look forward to it passing into law and being implemented. We also support civil society efforts against the death penalty and will continue to lobby for the Ugandan Government to abolish it entirely.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Member for Strangford for raising this subject. He participates in almost every debate that I take part in as a Minister, which is to his great credit. His passion and interest in foreign policy issues, and the sincerity with which he contributes, shines through. He has given us a welcome opportunity to discuss Uganda and the wide range of concerns that exist regarding freedom of religious practice, intolerance and the persecution of gays, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the abuse of women. I hope that some of the encouraging signs demonstrate progress. The British Government will try to give maximum effect to that progress and will contribute in whatever way that is most useful. We are committed to having a strong and fruitful relationship with Uganda. I hope that that was demonstrated when I talked about the Minister for Africa’s direct interest and this week’s visit by the Minister for Equalities. Uganda is important to us. It has experienced turmoil and strife, and we want to ensure that the views expressed in the debate contribute to creating a much more prosperous, successful and peaceful Uganda.

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Association of Chief Police Officers

12.29 pm

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I am pleased to have secured this debate. Police officers do fantastic work on the streets of our constituencies, but of late there have been many instances of the police themselves being under investigation. For example, there are allegations that the police have been too cosy in their relationship with journalists, and in my part of the country, North Yorkshire, the outgoing chief constable has been found guilty of gross misconduct after an investigation that cost taxpayers £300,000. There are also investigations into Cleveland police.

Our police leaders should be beyond reproach, but the example set by the leadership, the Association of Chief Police Officers, leaves much to be desired. We all agree on the need for a co-ordinated approach to policing in this country, and that cannot be run county by county. However, the organisation that provides such leadership needs to be professional and clean, but ACPO is riddled with conflicts of interest and poor governance. I want to examine the way that ACPO operates and what it has been up to in recent years, and shine a spotlight on the organisation as the Government consider its future.

ACPO was incorporated as a private limited company in 1997, and it is that status that causes such tension and concern. The organisation is primarily funded by the taxpayer, and it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds from the Home Office and police authority budgets around the country. Millions more come via special projects that ACPO undertakes on national policing issues, and its staff are entitled to generous civil service pensions. Despite receiving large amounts of taxpayers’ money as a private company, ACPO was initially not open to the scrutiny of freedom of information legislation. Last year, ACPO was subjected to FOI legislation for the first time, although that does not appear to have opened up the organisation as the Government hoped. ACPO is being dragged, kicking and screaming, towards transparency.

Last month, via a freedom of information request, Rob Waugh of the Yorkshire Post found that hundreds of thousands of pounds were being paid in contracts to consultants who were often former senior police officers. More worryingly, he discovered that in many cases those consultants were employed without any of the procurement processes and controls that ACPO tells individual police forces to follow. Most of the payments were made through personal service companies.

According to the Yorkshire Post, more than £800,000 was paid to 10 consultants, largely over the past three years, from ACPO’s central office. The payments include over £190,000 for the services of a former chief constable of Essex at a rate of around £1,000 a day, with payments made through a consultancy company. One former detective superintendent received over £200,000 through his company, and a former assistant chief constable in Cumbria was paid £180,000. ACPO has its own guidelines that require three quotes for expenses over £1,000, and tendering for amounts of £50,000. Alarmingly however, the Yorkshire Post was unable to find any evidence that those rules were followed in any of those cases. In the

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case of Linda van den Hende, paperwork was present for a 12-month period, although she worked for four years.

ACPO is an organisation charged with ensuring best practice for the police service of our country, and it is funded largely by taxpayers’ money. There is, however, form in this area. Last year, the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that £30,000 had been paid to the deputy chief constable of North Yorkshire police, without any auditing to find out how it had been spent. Graham Maxwell leads North Yorkshire police and he has been found guilty of gross misconduct. He is also the finance lead on ACPO.

ACPO seems to feel that the Freedom of Information Act should be only partially applied, and it has published details only of those consultants employed at its head office. I took up the case in a letter to Sir Hugh Orde who chairs ACPO, and I asked for copies of contracts and details of the procurement processes for every consultant engaged by the organisation over the past three years. He responded by saying that he would set up a review that will be led by ACPO’s head of professional standards, overseen by ACPO’s council, and monitored by Transparency International UK. So Sir Hugh will not respond directly to a request by an elected Member of Parliament. He has tasked the person and board who should surely have been looking at the matters in question on an ongoing basis, and they will be checked and supervised by an organisation the bulk of whose work is advising corrupt Governments.

I urge the Minister to support my call for ACPO to release details of every consultant engaged over the past three years in each of its business areas, with details of how those payments were calculated and what procurement processes were used. I also ask for his support in referring the matters to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which has thus far been vague with me about whether it will check the tax situation pertaining to the arrangements in question. Will the Minister confirm how much the civil service pensions of ACPO staff currently cost the taxpayer?

As ACPO is a private company, it has also been able to engage in commercial activities. It is impossible to get a picture of what it gets up to commercially, because the set-up has no central source of information. For the most part, the publication of limited accounts has been permitted, as the concerns in question are small businesses. Two companies that have spun off from ACPO are ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd and Road Safety Support Ltd. Those are both not-for-profit companies, which are limited by guarantee. Both appear not to use confidential data held by police forces, but much of their business is obtained because of their close links with ACPO and their links to former senior police officers.

For example, ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd is entirely owned by ACPO and its registered office for the last company accounts was the same as ACPO’s. Its directors, as listed in the last available return from Companies House, include an assistant chief constable from Northamptonshire, the former chief constable of Lincolnshire police, the current ACPO chief executive, a former Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner, a former Sussex police officer and a former assistant chief constable of Strathclyde police. Just like the consultancies that have been dished out by

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ACPO, using public money, to former senior police chiefs, those companies seem to provide tasty directorships for senior police officers. In one case it appears that a chief constable was a director on a company while still in his role as chief of police.

ACPO Crime Prevention Initiatives Ltd is funded through partnership with companies whose products meet technical standards identified by the company. In return, the licensed company is able to utilise the Secured by Design logo and, on those products which meet the technical standard, the title “Police Preferred Specification” can be used. By offering “Police Preferred Specification” as a slogan, the line is blurred, with many people who buy products with that slogan expecting approval to come from taxpayer-funded police services, rather than from a private company that is given permission by ACPO to use the name.

Road Safety Support Ltd was formed in 2007. It provides training to speed camera operators and advice and information on camera placement. In the last set of accounts from Companies House it had three directors, one of whom is the recently retired former chief constable of South Yorkshire police. He, for some time, was also the representative for ACPO on road policing. Curiously, the same three directors are also directors of another company, NDORS Ltd, which is registered at the same address as Road Safety Support Ltd. That company runs speed awareness courses—presumably for those who have been caught by cameras, which may have been placed on advice from Road Safety Support Ltd.

In those companies, which all make use of their close links to the police, directorships and jobs are provided for former senior police officers who have left forces across the country, and the crossovers in what are, supposedly, separate limited companies, are clear to see. As police chiefs collected gold plated pensions, they were able to top up those already huge pensions with either a consultancy with ACPO or a directorship with one of its spin-off companies. I am today writing to Sir Hugh Orde to ask for a list of every individual who has been a director at an ACPO-related company over the past three years and whether they were also working in any capacity with ACPO or with a police force at the time. I want to know what projects they were working on and how much they were paid. I have also asked Sir Hugh for copies of the full accounts of every ACPO-related company and not just the redacted small company version that appears at Companies House.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the vagueness and the secrecy that he identifies only lead to suspicion? Therefore, it is vital that our police service is beyond reproach.

Julian Smith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. My experience in my constituency is of excellent policing. What I am trying to get at in this debate is that some of the things at the top appear to be not beyond reproach.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate and the Yorkshire Post on its investigative work. It is clearly important that transparency is brought to bear on all of the matters that he has raised. What implications

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does he think that all of this has for the future status of ACPO, bearing in mind the importance of combining independence, accountability and freedom from political interference?

Julian Smith: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am just about to get there. I would like the Minister’s support in getting all of the information on these ACPO companies.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I too congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. It is clear that some significant concerns about transparency have been raised here. Is my hon. Friend able to say something about ACPO perhaps giving some reassurance to the victims of crime whom it has failed through its conduct? Julian Smith: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She has done some fantastic work with victims in this area. The lack of consideration of both victims and the people whom the police chiefs serve has been the cause of many of the issues I have raised today.

I would like some additional thoughts from the Minister on these companies. For example, what will happen to them when, inevitably, ACPO changes or is wound up? These companies have traded on the taxpayer’s name. Going back to my hon. Friend’s remarks about victims, if there is some benefit from selling these companies, perhaps it could go to the victims. I would be grateful to the Minister if he could tell us how we ensure that the taxpayer fully benefits from the wind-up of these companies.

Towards the end of last year, the Home Secretary told the House in a written statement that a new police professional body was to be created to develop policing as a single profession, representing the entire service and acting only in the public interest. It also envisaged the setting up of a chief constable’s council to enable senior officers to assess and discuss critical operational issues. I understand that ACPO is resisting that development and the idea of becoming part of a broader professional body because it wants to maintain some form of chiefs’ club. As the Home Affairs Committee recently stated, all levels of the police family should be represented in the new professional organisation. Many of the problems at ACPO seem to have come from an arrogance, a lack of challenge from the lower ranks and a belief that command and control means that the chiefs are accountable to no one.

My message to ACPO is that I and a number of colleagues will relentlessly pursue what it has been doing. It will all come out in the end, so get it out now and respond quickly to our questions. What does the Minister see as the timetable for the future of the organisation and what discussions have the Government had with the president of ACPO to ensure a smooth transition to the new body? Can he confirm that the Government are pushing ahead with a new all-level professional body for the police? What measures are the Government taking to ensure that the new body is fully transparent and accountable? The role of this country’s most senior police officers is vital in protecting our country and our constituents, but I urge the Minister and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to reject point blank any idea that ACPO should be retained or revived. Of course there should be a strong professional

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body for the whole of the police service, and of course there should not be a special cosy club for police chiefs.

Many people involved in ACPO have, at best, been negligent or, at worst, corrupt in how they have managed the resources and opportunities they were granted. I have seen that locally in North Yorkshire, and we have seen it nationally. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) found similar issues with the National Police Improvement Agency. The Government’s policing reforms are right, but they should be even bolder. ACPO should be wound up as quickly as possible, and such gold-plated, dodgy clubs for any leaders of public organisations should be consigned to the past.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I welcome you to the Chair, Ms Clark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) on raising a number of significant and important questions relating to the Association of Chief Police Officers to which I will respond.

My hon. Friend has made a number of criticisms about the leadership of the police service in England and Wales, but I welcome his positive statement about the work of front-line officers. We must be clear that police officers and staff throughout the country have our support in their fantastic work in keeping us all safe day in, day out.

In the context of some of the specific issues that my hon. Friend raised, I am aware that Sir Hugh Orde, president of ACPO, has written to my hon. Friend about the issues he has raised, and I am satisfied that ACPO has taken and is taking those criticisms seriously. That was demonstrated by the decision of the ACPO cabinet earlier this month to conduct a review of spending on consultants within ACPO. As its president outlined in his letter to my hon. Friend, that review will also look at how financial controls have been applied over the last three years. The whole process will be subject to external scrutiny by Transparency International, and the results will be made public.

A review is the right course of action, and it is appropriate to allow it to proceed and its report to be published before commenting further on the details. I agree that every organisation that receives money must be open and transparent about how that money is spent. Sir Hugh Orde stated that clearly to my hon. Friend in his response to him, and I note that he has agreed to meet my hon. Friend to discuss any further issues in detail.

My hon. Friend highlighted a significant point about ACPO’s independence. It is a private company limited by guarantee. It is not owned or controlled by the Home Office, and is operationally independent. The discussion of ACPO’s future role and funding must be framed in the light of the wider work taking place on police reform. As part of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s intention, which is laid out in the White Paper, “Policing in the 21st century”, the Government have embarked on the most radical programme of reform to policing in 50 years. We are currently developing the bodies necessary to support and reinforce those reforms. That work will help to deal with many of the concerns

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raised today regarding accountability and transparency within policing in England and Wales. We are grateful that ACPO agrees that change is necessary and for the constructive way in which its presidential team are engaging with the Home Office regarding the future of ACPO.

In August 2010, the Home Secretary asked Peter Neyroud to carry out a fundamental review of the delivery of leadership and training functions in policing. In response to the review, the Government announced their intention to create a new police professional body, which presents a unique opportunity further to professionalise policing and increase public accountability. As part of that work, the National Policing Improvement Agency will be phased out by the end of this year.

The Home Secretary has acknowledged a continued need for chief constables to come together for discussion on key operational issues and also when it is in the public interest for them to do so. Indeed, we are clear that chief officers will continue to play a vital role, both within the professional body and as part of a chiefs council, which will work with the new professional body. Together, those two bodies will equip the service with the skills that it needs to deliver effective crime fighting in a changing, leaner and more accountable environment. We are currently working with ACPO and key partners to consider the precise remit of the chiefs council, its relationship with the new body and the transition of ACPO functions. The Government have agreed to continue to fund ACPO’s grant-aid during the 2012-13 financial year while those discussions take place.

Mr Andrew Smith: Is it the Government’s intention that the two bodies to which the Minister refers will take on all ACPO’s present responsibilities, or will certain areas—perhaps co-ordination on counter-terrorism or serious crime—be the responsibility of a separate body?

James Brokenshire: It is precisely those issues that are the subject of the detailed discussions between the Government and ACPO. We will come forward in due course with further details of the police professional body and its precise functions. That will be the right time for the Government to set out in detail proposals for the police professional body, but it may help the right hon. Gentleman if I say this. As the Government have made clear, the challenge for the police service is to reduce crime to make communities feel safer. At the same time, forces must deliver significant savings to meet the challenges set by the spending review. Tackling those two challenges together will require transformational change; it cannot be done by relying on the existing structures at national level in policing. They require a fresh way of thinking. In particular, they require the development of a professional model for policing. At the heart of that model is the creation of the police professional body.

The new body will safeguard the public and fight crime by ensuring professionalism in policing. It will develop skills and leadership, facilitating the drive to reduce bureaucracy, and will have greater public accountability. The professional body will speak for the whole of policing and will directly support police officers at all ranks and civilian policing professionals. It will set and improve standards of professionalism in the police

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service and will take responsibility for specialist police disciplines. Work is under way on the detailed design of the new body.

The role of the professional body must be understood within the wider policing landscape and, in particular, the transformation in accountability that the introduction of police and crime commissioners will bring. It will need to reflect that shift in how it is constituted, in what it delivers and in how it delivers that. Its most important role will be to act in the public interest.

Key to that, and reflecting the move towards greater accountability, will be the way in which the professional body is structured. It will be chaired by someone independent of the police service, and its board will have an equal balance of police service and non-police service representatives, including police and crime commissioners. It will be open and transparent. In taking its work forwards, it will need to take into account public need in setting and inculcating standards among officers and staff. It will also need to take into consideration the cost of any changes it recommends to develop professionalism. That will form a crucial part of its ability to enhance the British model of policing by consent.

Many criticisms have been made today of the accountability and transparency of decision making by senior police officers. There are, however, clear examples of where the police have responded impressively to the need for change. This is one public service whose leaders generally recognise the difficult economic times and understand the benefits that reform can bring. Greater Manchester police, for example, have saved £62 million a year from their support functions, releasing 348 police officers from those roles so that they can get back to front-line work. Surrey police have carried out a significant restructuring, which has allowed them to commit to increasing constable numbers by up to 200 over the next four years.

Some forces are going even further, moving beyond restructuring and outsourcing, to building strategic relationships with the private sector. This is not about

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privatisation; policing will remain a public service. However, by harnessing private sector innovation, skills and economies of scale, forces can transform how they work and improve the service they provide to the public.

As well as saving money, our reforms are about making policing better. We are rebuilding the link between the police and the public. In November, the first elections for police and crime commissioners will take place. Elected by local people, commissioners will have the democratic mandate to set their local police force budget, and they will respond to local people’s concerns by setting the force’s priorities.

The direction of police reform provides a clear basis for the way in which the police professional body will operate. The police service is becoming more open, more transparent and more accountable to the public, and it is right and proper that that is the case.

In “Policing in the 21st Century”, we said that we expect chief police officers to continue to play a key role in advising the Government, police and crime commissioners and the police service on strategy and best practice. We will also expect chief constables to play a leading role in driving value for money and to have the capability to drive out costs in their forces.

ACPO is operationally independent of the Home Office, so it is a matter for the company directors to determine its future. ACPO has played a valuable role since it was established in 1948, providing a means for chief constables to come together to agree a common way of working in the absence of any federal policing structures. I re-emphasise that the Government fully appreciate the contribution that chief officers continue to make at a national and local level, particularly those chiefs who are directly supporting the substantial reform agenda. We look forward to building on all that ACPO has achieved.

The Government’s agenda for police reform is strong and coherent, and will free the police to fight crime at a national and local level, deliver better value for taxpayers and give the public a stronger voice.

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Equality and Human Rights Commission

12.59 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.

Staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission are experts in their field and are deeply concerned about the attack on equalities represented by the proposed 62% budget cut and 72% staffing cut by 2015 from the original levels in 2007. They and their trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union and Unite—believe that those cuts amount to the closure of the EHRC as we know it and its transformation into little more than a think-tank.

The eminent QC, Sir Bob Hepple, states in a recent article for the Industrial Law Journal that the Commission’s

“ability to use effectively even its restricted powers will be compromised by severe cuts in its annual budget”.

The EHRC is an independent statutory body established by Parliament under the Equality Act 2006. As a regulator, the commission is responsible for enforcing equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status and encouraging compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998. Its powers include promoting understanding and encouraging good practice in relation to human rights, monitoring the law and providing legal assistance, providing information and advice, conducting inquiries and judicial reviews, providing a conciliation service, and grant making powers. In addition, European directives contain requirements for an equality body within member states.

Let me turn for a few moments to the Scottish dimension, given the very different political, legal and economic landscape. The proposed cuts would threaten high-profile work in Scotland, such as the disability harassment inquiry, the human trafficking inquiry, guidance to public bodies on their obligations under equality law and the EHRC hosting of Independent Living in Scotland.

The Scottish helpline deals with more than 5,000 calls per annum, the largest proportion of which are from Scots who have been subjected to disability discrimination. The Scottish helpline also provides a UK-wide service. The nature of the advice is highly technical. No other organisation with equivalent experience and knowledge can fill the gap and provide a similar quality of service.

The fact the commission is losing its funding function is already leaving a gap in the finances of well respected organisations such as the Govan Law Centre, the Glasgow Disability Alliance, the Equality Network and the Central Scotland Racial Equality Council—to name just a handful. What impact will the 62% budget cut have? The work force will be cut by more than half; legal enforcement capabilities will be reduced; the helpline will close by September 2012; and current provision in Scotland and Wales will end.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an organisation that is of great importance to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Does she share my concern that there has been absolutely no planning or any sign of planning about how a service will be offered to vulnerable people who are suffering discrimination in Scotland that understands the specific context of Scotland in

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terms of devolution? The Secretary of State for Scotland has failed to meet the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland, and the last time that he met the organisation was in July 2010.

Sandra Osborne: I very much share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am very disappointed to hear that the Secretary of State for Scotland has not met anyone about this important issue.

Regional offices will be shut or reduced. For example, the Bristol and Nottingham offices have already been shut for about a year, and further offices planned for closure are Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bangor, Guildford, Cambridge and Leeds, and the offices in Manchester, London, Glasgow and Cardiff are to shrink. In addition, grant functions will end—some ended in March 2012 and the rest will end March 2013.

I want to go into more detail about the cuts and pose some questions to the Minister. The EHRC helpline currently provides direct advice to callers, and staff can refer cases for consideration for legal support by the commission. Of the more than 70,000 calls received every year by the helpline, despite the fact that it has never been properly advertised, the majority group calling for advice is disabled people. The helpline will be closed and replaced by September 2012 with a referral service signposting callers to potential sources of help. The outsourced referral line will not have the conciliation powers or legal assistance powers that the commission has under the Equality Act 2006.

A recent Guardian article by David Hencke on 3 April reported that the jobs agency at the centre of a fraud inquiry, A4e, is the preferred bidder for the EHRC helpline service. The Government Equalities Office has informed staff that the preferred bidder said that it will not keep any provision in Scotland or Wales.

More than 30% of staff who currently work for the helpline are disabled, some 20% are from black and minority ethnic communities and 20% are carers. Given the impossibility of relocating for many, particularly in Scotland and Wales where provision will end, and high likelihood of workers opting for redundancy, the expertise of those highly experienced advisers will be lost.

Ann McKechin: My hon. Friend may be aware that helpline workers in Scotland were advised last year that their contract with EHRC would terminate at the end of March. However, they have now been advised that they are requested to work until the end of June, because as yet no provider has been identified and an award of contracts has not been made. Does she agree that this is an utterly chaotic way to conduct a Government agency?

Sandra Osborne: Yes; that is typical of how staff have been treated in the agency.

The chances of a smooth transition to the referral line and retention of expertise, as the Government claim, are therefore negligible. Given the one third of operators who are disabled, one fifth from BME communities and one fifth who are carers, what equality impact assessment has been made of the changes to the helpline provision? Why the delay with the announcement of the new helpline provider? The announcement was

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supposed to be made in mid-February, but it is now rumoured to have been pushed back to the middle of May.

The closure of regional offices will exacerbate the problems of advice deserts, where no other advisory services exist, and the commission will lose its vital link to the public and vital access to crucial evidence of emerging issues. Instead of remaining regionally focused, teams have been reassigned to undertake national support work. The loss of those offices and the intelligence-gathering work that they do at grass-roots level, which my hon. Friend mentioned, will have a significant impact on the understanding of equality and human rights across Great Britain.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. Does she agree that in these days of cuts, which we are now shaping up to, there is a danger that we are preventing some people from taking advantage of legal guidance and legal aid? As I suspect that she is aware, we should consider one section of the community in particular: ladies should get legal aid and advice at the time of their life when they need it most.

Sandra Osborne: I could not agree more, and I hope to mention that later.

What research has been done to ascertain the impact of the closure of regional offices on the problem of advice deserts and gathering evidence on emerging local issues?

Legal grants—projects providing specialist legal advice and representation in equality and human rights—ended on 31 March, and strategic grants providing guidance, advice and advocacy services, infrastructure development, capacity building and good relations will end in March 2013. Many disability and race groups have benefited from the EHRC grants programme, as they did before the EHRC’s creation. A grant received by a local equality body from the EHRC could, and often did, lead to additional sources of revenue from other funders, such as the lottery, charities and local authorities.

The warnings by experts such as Race on the Agenda in 2007 that the local BME infrastructure would suffer significant funding reductions have been realised, not because of the EHRC’s creation, but because of Government cuts to the EHRC grants programme. The Government have argued that the grants function, among other services, should close because they claim grants have little impact and the service function has not been well managed. Although there is an ongoing complaint about the Government’s statement in this regard, it is perhaps most telling to note that the experts and stakeholders also challenge the Government’s assertion. A survey of providers by the Discrimination Law Association indicated that, without EHRC grants, advice organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres would not be able to sustain their services and that some might have to close down completely. My question to the Minister is, from whom have the Government and/or EHRC received protestations about the withdrawal of the grants programme?

The EHRC’s mediation services have ended. Contrary to the Government’s claims that legal aid will take up the shortfall, once the legal aid reforms are implemented,

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the only legal aid available for discrimination cases will be for goods, facilities and services cases, which are in the minority and are complex and involve large sums. Employment cases will not be eligible for any legal aid support.

I want to turn now to the loss of independence and United Nations “A” status. In 2009, the commission became one of just 70 United Nations “A” status accredited national human rights institutions. The EHRC is Britain’s first accredited NHRI. The “A” status confers special rights and entitlements to work with the UN Human Rights Council. To determine this status, the UN reviewed the work and structure of the commission at the time and found it to be compliant with the Paris principles. Key Paris principles are that the NHRI must be independent of government and not be subject to financial control that might affect its independence. The commission must also have adequate funding to conduct its activities. The loss of independence, lack of financial control and lack of funding due to 62% cuts mean that this status is in jeopardy.

The commission recently published its framework agreement with the Home Office, which includes details of spending controls and an obligation on the commission to provide a business case for approval to the Home Office’s director of communications for all projects with an element of spend on advertising and marketing. If the project is spending more than £100,000, the business case, once approved by the HO director of communication, should go to the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities. Once HO Ministers have approved it, the EHRC must complete the Cabinet Office’s exemption template and submit the case for approval to the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group and the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

The agreement also states that the Home Office should receive near final versions of external EHRC communications 48 hours before issue. I do not know whether that is independence. Many MPs will be surprised that the framework agreement dictates how the commission interacts with Parliament and yet states categorically that the commission must be politically neutral and abide by the Cabinet Office’s rules on lobbying for non-departmental public bodies.

The commission is also instructed to issue guidance to staff, outlining when and how briefings for Parliament are developed, the style of briefings and how briefings should be internally cleared. Does the Minister believe that the framework agreement complies with the Paris principles, particularly relating to independence? Has he assessed the impact of the proposed budget cut to £26 million by the end of this year on the commission’s independence?

The current restructuring at the EHRC repeats many of the mistakes identified in the Public Accounts Committee report of 2010. The report highlighted the problem of staff with valuable skills leaving through an early exit scheme and went on to recommend that the Treasury and the Cabinet Office should ensure that they provide clear guidelines on the need to consider the retention of key skills when devising early exit schemes.

According to an answer to a parliamentary question, the EHRC spent £500,000 a month at one stage on consultancy fees and expenses for interim staff who are leading the work on reforming the commission. That is neither an acceptable use of public money, nor is it in

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the interests of the taxpayer. These major changes are occurring as questions about the commission’s new chair go unanswered. What assurances can the Minister give that the commission will not lose more skilled and experienced staff through more early exit schemes and that it will not replace staff already lost with costly consultants in the future? Can he say whether the Treasury and the Cabinet Office have produced the guidelines recommended by the PAC to ensure the retention of skilled staff, and has the commission followed that guidance? When will its next chair be announced?

Key stakeholders who responded to the Government consultation on the future of the EHRC, which was called “Building a fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission”, made clear the need to maintain the EHRC’s funding and remit. However, the Government have so far refused to publish the results of the consultation in detail, despite freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions and an official letter to the Home Secretary from the general secretary of the TUC. So I have another question for the Minister. I am asking lots of questions, but that is because there are lots of questions to be answered. Will he publish the responses to the Government consultation on the future of the EHRC and, given the Home Office’s report on its own website that the majority of respondents opposed the changes to the EHRC, will the Minister halt further cuts?

There are many reasons for the EHRC to be proud of its achievements in its first two years. In fact, those achievements are too numerous to mention all of them in the time that I have available today. To mention just a couple of them, the EHRC has ensured protection against discrimination in employment for 6 million carers and exposed exploitation of migrant workers in the meat-processing sector.

There are still many equality challenges facing Britain today that require the presence of an effective EHRC. The annual reports of the Tribunals Service show a substantial increase in the number of claims lodged in employment tribunals since 2008-09. In addition, there are planned cuts to legal aid worth £350 million, and there will be a £1.166 billion reduction in grants to local government. At the same time, confidence in the voluntary sector is at an all-time low, and a voluntary sector in crisis cannot fill the vacuum left by funding cuts to local government grants, legal aid and the EHRC. A Government who take equality seriously would be committed to a future-proofed EHRC.

However, I acknowledge—as do many of the EHRC’s natural allies—that it has not all been plain sailing for the EHRC. Its first three sets of accounts were qualified by the National Audit Office, and obvious tensions between staff, senior management and the commissioners have no doubt had an impact on the EHRC’s ability to achieve its goals. The Government have sought to attack and undermine the work of the EHRC, particularly because of financial management issues. However, responsibility for those issues does not lie with those who work on the helpline, the grants team and the mediation service, or in regional offices. Any such issues should be sorted out, but they should not be used as an excuse to cut essential services to those who are in need and to those who are suffering discrimination.

As I have already said, despite concerns about the EHRC’s performance, non-governmental organisations, unions and others still want to see an effective, robust

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and independent EHRC, and I agree with them as the chair of the all-party group on equalities. Those bodies want a future in which an outward-looking, integrated and well-resourced commission that is in touch with the grass-roots concerns and needs of ordinary people provides much-needed enforcement powers, advice and support to the people of Britain, as they face the dire economic challenges brought about by this Government’s policies.

1.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate, and on her commitment to equality. I apologise for the fact that the Minister for Equalities is unable to be in Westminster Hall this afternoon to respond directly to the debate.

I know of the hard work done by the hon. Member in chairing the all-party group on equalities, and how rigorous that group is in its approach to equality and fairness. Although we may have differences in relation to a number of the issues that she has raised today, the Government welcome the group’s rigour because we are unequivocal in our commitment to equal treatment and equality of opportunity. That is why we have taken a number of significant steps since we were elected to tackle the barriers to equal opportunities and social mobility. Although there will be differences between us this afternoon, I think that there is common recognition of these important issues.

However, on our own the Government will only ever make limited progress. If we are to stamp out prejudice and give everyone the chance to achieve their potential, we need concerted action by individuals, businesses and voluntary organisations across our communities. We also need a strong and effective equality body and national human rights institution to monitor our progress, make recommendations about how we can do better and ensure the law is working as intended.

Although I recognise the EHRC has struggled with a number of issues over the past few years, I pay tribute to several of its ordinary members of staff. However, the commission has struggled with its remit and to demonstrate that it is delivering value for money. As the hon. Lady highlighted, its first three sets of accounts were qualified, attracting criticism from the Public Accounts Committee. Its helpline and grants programmes were found to be poorly administered and poorly targeted. Its conciliation service was not cost-effective, costing almost £5,000 per case—almost 10 times more than those of other mediation providers.

Sandra Osborne: I share the Minister’s disappointment that the Minister for Equalities is not here. She sat with me in the Committee that considered what became the Equality Act 2010. No matter what the previous Government wanted to do, she wanted to go further—how things have changed. However, will the Minister confirm the costs I mentioned, as well as the costs the Government have paid for consultancies?

James Brokenshire: We will no doubt come on to consultancy. One challenge the commission has faced relates to its use of interim staff, which has caused it some real issues. Over 2009-10, it spent almost £9 million—almost a third of its total pay bill—on an average of just

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85 interim staff, or just 16% of its total work force for that year. There is nothing fair about that for the taxpayer.

That is why our Government-wide review of non-departmental public bodies concluded in October 2010 that the EHRC should be retained, but substantially reformed. At the same time, we announced in the spending review that we would more than halve its budget, from £55 million to £26.8 million. I know those cuts are a source of significant concern for the hon. Lady, but she will recognise, although perhaps not agree, that the Government have had to deal with real challenges as a result of the budget deficit left by the previous Government. Difficult decisions and reforms are needed to reduce that deficit.

Moreover, it is clear that even after the budget cuts, the EHRC remains well funded compared with similar bodies in other countries. As an arm’s length body, it is for the EHRC to decide how to manage the budget reductions. The location of the EHRC’s offices and the number of staff it employs at them are operational matters for the board and the management to decide after consultation with staff. If the EHRC is to deliver maximum value for taxpayers’ money, however, it must focus on its core remit—the areas where it alone can add value.

Sandra Osborne: Does the Minister think it is for the EHRC to decide completely to withdraw a service from Scotland and Wales? Surely, that is something the Government should be interested in.

James Brokenshire: The hon. Lady will be aware of the statutory functions imposed on the EHRC, as well as the duties it has in relation to devolution as a consequence, and it has underlined that it will continue to engage with local partners. Decisions on the deployment and location of staff are obviously operational matters for the EHRC, but it has specific legislative responsibilities in relation to the devolved nations, such as the requirement to have specific decision-making committees for Scotland and Wales. It remains committed to working with local stakeholders.

The hon. Lady will know that in March 2011 we set out detailed proposals to reform the EHRC to achieve the focus on its core remit by clarifying its remit; stopping non-core activities and, where appropriate, making alternative provision where those activities can be done better or more cost-effectively by alternative providers; and strengthening its governance and systems to provide greater transparency, accountability and value for money. We received almost 1,000 responses to the consultation. While I recognise that she is impatient for the Government’s response, it is right that we take the time to consider the views expressed before announcing a way forward, and we hope to respond to the consultation shortly. A number of non-legislative reforms are, however, already under way.

I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns about the closure of the EHRC’s helpline and the ending of its grants programmes, and I will respond to them directly. I can reassure her that people will be able to receive

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expert advice and support on discrimination, which is tailored to their individual circumstances, from the new equality advisory and support service that we are commissioning. She challenged me on whether there is a preferred bidder. No, there is not a preferred bidder. The procurement process for a new equality advisory and support service is continuing and no preferred bidder has been selected. The intention is that the process should be completed in May, with the new service becoming operational in September.

Central Government funding for legal advice on discrimination will continue to be available through legal aid to ensure that limited public funds are targeted on those who need it most—the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. On conciliation, the Ministry of Justice website provides information on, and links to, good quality, accessible and effective mediation for individuals in England and Wales. In addition, a means-tested service for those who cannot afford the fees is available through LawWorks. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that similar provision is also available in Scotland.

We have sought to impose tighter financial controls and to stop waste. The operational independence of the EHRC—a publicly funded body—should not be a justification for financial indiscipline. In March, a new framework document clarifying the relationship between the EHRC and the Government was agreed between the Home Office and the EHRC board. The new framework document makes it clear that the EHRC will comply with Government-wide rules on managing public money, and with public expenditure controls, where they do not interfere with the EHRC’s ability to perform its statutory functions. In addition to establishing tighter financial controls, the new framework document sets out how the EHRC and Government will work together to increase the EHRC’s transparency to Parliament and the public about how it operates.

There have been signs of progress following action by the Government. The EHRC has reduced its dependence on interim staff and now has fewer than 20 in post. It plans to have no interim staff by 1 April 2013. It is moving swiftly to deliver significant reductions to the cost of its corporate support functions through agreeing arrangements to share back-office services with other organisations. It has set out plans to rationalise its accommodation in the next 12 months, including moving out of its expensive central London offices, which will result in further savings of more than £3 million a year. In November last year, there was a significant sign of progress when its first satisfactory set of accounts were laid before Parliament.

On the telephone helpline, the hon. Lady asked whether there had been an equality impact assessment. An equality policy statement was published by the Home Office in December, and the new service will provide a better service for people from disadvantaged groups than the helpline it is replacing. We want the EHRC to become a valued and respected national institution. To do so, it must focus on the areas in which it alone can add value, and it must be able to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money. We will respond to the consultation shortly. We will also appoint a new chair shortly. I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will support our plans. [Official Report, 10 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 1MC.]

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Local Authorities (Procurement)

1.30 pm

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Clark.

The Government, I am delighted to say, are committed to a localism agenda, which I fully support and welcome. A key element of the agenda involves freeing up local government so that more decisions are made locally, ensuring that central Government funding is less prescriptive. Even now, we remain a highly centralised country and more needs to be done to give greater freedom and more power to local authorities, giving them the ability to make decisions on local matters. With greater powers comes increased responsibility, and local authorities will have to rise to the challenge that the Government are offering them, which I believe they can do. Whether or not we think that they can rise to the occasion, we must realise the important role of local government in our country. We national politicians and national Government often underestimate the influence and importance of local government.

As well as acknowledging that power needs to be decentralised, the Government have recognised that the regions and large cities of the country can and should be economic drivers. They can boost economic activity and bring prosperity and jobs to their own city or locality. That concept not only applies to the large urban centres, but can be of equal significance to the smaller cities such as Carlisle and the smaller towns such as Stevenage. Even smaller towns and regions throughout Britain can also play a role. It is therefore clear, certainly to me, that local government has an extremely important role in ensuring the economic success of our country, and not only in the success of its own local economy.

Part of that role is the recognition by councils that they are significant purchasers of goods and services. To some extent, they can influence the success or otherwise of local businesses. In the UK, government spends in the region of £220 billion each year procuring goods and services; £42 billion of that is spent by local authorities alone—almost 20% of the national procurement spend. It is therefore abundantly clear that such procurement is of significant importance to local communities as well as to local economies. When a local authority purchases goods and services from local businesses, it is spending money in its own community, which benefits the local economy and local people.

Take the example of a local business providing a service or a variety of goods to an authority. The business will employ local people to deliver the service or to provide the goods to the authority; those local people employed by the business will, in turn, spend their wages in the same local economy, feeding directly into the general economic activity of the area. Such a virtuous cycle can have enormous benefits to a particular town or city, especially the smaller ones. Again, good examples are my own city of Carlisle and somewhere such as Stevenage. By the same token, procurement of services outside an area might save the council some money in the short term, but could easily have a detrimental effect on the local economy in the long term.

Before raising a number of issues with the Minister, I accept that proper procedures have to be in place and that appropriate rules need to be applied to any procurement

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policy. I also acknowledge and accept that any procurement policy of an authority has to take into account European law and other international agreements, as well as our own domestic law and, in particular, competition policy. The size and value of the procurement is also a key issue.

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that European Union directives on public procurement are often gold-plated by local authorities and act as a barrier to the ability of local companies to provide services for those authorities?

John Stevenson: Yes, I do accept that. It probably happens at the national level as well. National Government should look at the issue and encourage local government to follow what could be their example if they watered down some of the policies coming out of Europe.

Clearly and rightly, an authority that wants to make a substantial purchase of goods or services must follow strict procedures, but there can and should be flexibility, particularly for smaller purchases of goods and services by local authorities. I accept that there must be clear procedures in place for smaller procurement contracts, that there must be openness and transparency, and that there must be no opportunity for inappropriate contracts. However, there are opportunities for local authorities through their procurement policies to help to support and to develop their local economy by procuring from local businesses and thereby benefiting the wider local community.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): On procurement, surely we will cut off our nose to spite our face in many cases. The whole idea is to drive the economy locally for local companies, but many of those companies miss out because of the very point that the hon. Gentleman has raised about European legislation.

John Stevenson: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Local economies and local businesses are the way to drive our economy. They are a key player, and we underestimate their importance. We must take into account the European dimension, and if that frustrates local businesses, we must try to do something about it.

I have taken the opportunity to look at Government advice on procurement policy, and the key point is that procurement must be value for money, normally through competition. I accept that that is generally the correct approach, and will often be the one that authorities will follow, but how we interpret the definition of “value for money” is a much wider issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) successfully navigated through Parliament the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012. It requires local authorities, when they enter into procurement contracts, to give greater consideration to economic, social and/or environmental well-being during the pre-procurement stage. That is hugely welcome, and it is extremely important that councils are made fully aware of the Act’s provisions, and the potential benefits for their areas.

I firmly believe that it is incumbent on councils to take into consideration the impact that their procurement can have on their local economy, and the success or otherwise of local businesses, especially small ones. Local government procurement can be beneficial in

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giving local businesses the ability to grow and expand. That creates jobs, skills and investment in areas throughout the country, particularly those that are badly in need of investment. However, a negative effect can be created as easily, and can go beyond having a direct impact on a local business. It can spread into the wider community, lowering employment, and preventing money from being recycled through the local economy, leading to less money being invested in businesses in that area. It is clear how local government procurement has the ability to create a much less vibrant and successful local economy very quickly.

I want to be parochial for a moment. In 2010, the university of Cumbria produced a paper entitled “The Impact of Local Authority Procurement on Local Economies, The Case of Cumbria”. It found that increasing pressures on local authorities to be efficient and effective in their use of public resources may contradict the need to support local communities, particularly during a period of economic downturn. The findings suggested that many small and medium-sized enterprises throughout Cumbria relied on local authority contracts for business stability. Those interviewed throughout the county confirmed that when a more formal approach to public procurement is taken, coupled with a more defined definition of “value for money”, SMEs become more vulnerable.

To its credit, Cumbria county council's procurement strategy aims to increase the proportion of suppliers based in the county from 60% in 2010 to 65% in 2012. Collectively, the Cumbrian authorities have an annual procurement spend in excess of £300 million, more than half of which is spent locally. That sort of money can have a profound effect on any local economy, so I want to ensure that local authorities have the appropriate power and tools to ensure that they can promote and support local business through their individual procurement policies. I therefore ask the Minister to consider three key issues.

First, does he believe that the power of general competence for local authorities, which was granted by the Government in recent legislation, gives them sufficient additional powers to introduce or pursue a procurement policy that can examine the wider effects of their current policy beyond best practice? Secondly, to what extent does the Minister feel that the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, is on the radar of local authorities; and how widely is it being used across the country? Finally, what measures does the Minister intend to pursue to help with the issue and to ensure that local authorities have policies that truly benefit their own locality?

I want Carlisle to have a vibrant, local economy, creating jobs and prosperity for local people.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, and the circumstances that he outlines as affecting his part of Cumbria are replicated in my constituency, in northern Lincolnshire. Does he agree that the important thing about encouraging and supporting local businesses is that they transmit skills to the younger generation and help with youth unemployment? Only last week I was at a business that

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had taken on apprentices, and that must surely be an important part of any local economy.

John Stevenson: I completely agree. If the contracts from the local authority are with local businesses, those businesses clearly have an incentive to invest and create jobs, apprenticeships and opportunities for future generations.

I believe that local decisions that affect local communities should be made by local people, away from central Government. If local authorities were to adopt a more flexible but robust procurement policy, local economies throughout the country would reap enormous benefits. It would also be beneficial to the national economy.

1.42 pm

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Clark. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for securing such an important debate.

The Minister is aware that more than £70 billion a year is spent by local government on the procurement of local goods and services, and even a small saving would make a huge financial difference. The Local Government Association is promoting the use of procurement hubs, which can save councils millions of pounds, and it should be congratulated on trying to develop tools to help councils come together to form those groups and deliver better value for money. It also promotes greater innovation: a subject close to my heart is that of using technology to promote jobs and growth. I commend the development of e-auctions in particular. Those are electronic reverse tenders, in which potential suppliers compete online in real time to win a contract. Case studies show a 15% to 30% saving.

My constituency of Stevenage is in the county of Hertfordshire and the 10 district councils have joined up with the county council to create Supply Hertfordshire, our own procurement hub. That has expanded to include the local NHS, the probation trust, Hertfordshire police, some housing associations and a range of other organisations.

John Stevenson: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I have been talking about local authorities, but he seems to be pursuing the line not only that local authorities have a role to play, but that other public bodies, such as the NHS and police, can be equally significant in their procurement policies and in effective local economies.

Stephen McPartland: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. In a county such as Hertfordshire, when the police, probation service and NHS are brought in, the amount of money that the Government are handing over to be delivered locally runs into billions of pounds.

Supply Hertfordshire’s ambition is to become the focal point for supplying to the public sector in Hertfordshire. That is an inspiring ambition and it has my full support. However, I am keen to ask the Minister what support the Government can give to help turn that ambition into reality and provide jobs and growth for my local economy. I am patron of an organisation called biz4Biz, which is a collection of local businesses. In Stevenage it is considered to be the voice of the small business community. It is involved in a range of projects,

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but we are all keen to understand why it is difficult for small companies, including many with multi-million pound turnovers, to get access to public sector contracts locally. I have been approached by businesses from all over the country that are concerned they are missing out on huge opportunities locally that would boost jobs and local economic growth because they cannot navigate the labyrinth of public sector procurement locally. Some companies have informed me that they have missed out on tenders a number of times, with very little feedback. As a result they can no longer afford the time and cost to their company of attempting another tender.

Other companies have been told that EU public procurement rules prevent them from even applying in the first place. I know that those EU rules are gold-plated locally at the expense of local companies, but that leads to a loss of opportunity, particularly for the younger members of our community trying to get their first job and first step on the road to a career. We can change that and we can make a difference. The Government are giving local people more powers under the Localism Act 2011, but we must go further.

Will the Minister consider asking local authorities to sign up to the principle that they, like the Government, should aspire to give 25% of their contracts to small businesses? In the case of local government, it would have to aspire to give 25% of its contracts to small businesses in the locality. Will he go further and urge local authorities to publish all successful tenders on their website, so that companies that do not succeed can benchmark their own bid against that of the successful bidder? They could then learn from their mistakes or possibly even challenge the local authority to have another look into it under the powers contained in the Localism Act.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Clark. My congratulations to my hon. Friends the Members for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) for their contributions. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle on securing the debate.

I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased, but not surprised, to hear that the Government are as keen as my hon. Friends to ensure that local government spends its money as effectively as possible. It is interesting that several different figures for that have been mentioned: my brief says that the figure is £62 billion a year. Whatever the amount is, it is certainly an awful lot of money and, clearly, there is significant scope for it to be spent better. That can help to save taxpayers’ money, reduce the overall deficit we face and, in many cases, lead to local authorities commissioning better and more appropriate front-line services.

I agree with my hon. Friends that local government has a good record. Indeed, if one were to speak to local government representatives, they would be quick to point to various studies that suggest that their value for money is, on the whole, better than central Government’s value for money. I do not want to convey the wrong impression in my contribution by suggesting anything different.

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I want to use the available time to set out what the Government are doing to help the sector build on its procurement practices and to refer hon. Members to the parliamentary answer that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), made, in which he set out a table showing the procurement expenditure in the last financial year for each local authority in England. He also set out the steps that the Government and the Department are taking. However, we are very much talking about a project led by the Local Government Association in England to develop a package of work to take forward the agenda.

Overall, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, the Government are aiming to put councils and communities back in control of their own destinies through the devolution of power and control over budgets to councils. Local authorities are therefore increasingly responsible for taking their own procurement decisions, subject to the requirements of best value legislation and the EU and UK regulatory framework.

There is no doubt that difficulties are faced by local contractors seeking to win contracts. In particular, smaller contractors may find that they are squeezed out, as has been mentioned. In fact, the EU procurement rules are not nearly as severe or draconian as is often suggested. Nevertheless, they are a constraint.

Value-for-money pressures can be balanced legitimately and legally by social value and environmental value. It is entirely right, legitimate and proper for those seeking tenders to set out such requirements in the tender process. Local authorities can therefore use the procurement rules to promote local enterprise, and the Local Government Association’s guidance “Buying into communities” is designed to help local authorities do that within the EU procurement rules. It helps councillors and officers in authorities to see how other authorities have utilised the rules to get the outcomes they want from their public spending. I therefore commend it to hon. Members, and I invite them to make sure that their local authorities are fully aware of the advice and support it offers.

Good procurement practice by authorities can help to promote opportunities for local small and medium-sized enterprises, helping them to bid for all or a part of a contract and to develop local skills. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage about the work Hertfordshire is doing, and we heard about Cumbria from my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.

Essex county council has recently done work highlighting how its golden triangle of procurement has utilised savings of £120 million per year and created about 200 apprenticeships. The Federation of Small Businesses has acknowledged that that has improved access to council contracts. It is clear that SMEs are a key ingredient in strong local economic growth, and public procurement is just one way in which an authority can help those in their area to grow. That said, it is a surprise and a disappointment that local firms still regularly mention obstacles such as pre-qualification questionnaires and duplicate tenders, as well as the difficulty of discussing forward work with local authorities and, therefore, of planning a sensible work stream and a sensible bidding strategy.

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Recently, therefore, the Cabinet Office has announced a series of actions it will take to help SMEs get a greater percentage of contracts. One pledge involves reducing or removing the necessity for pre-qualification questionnaires, particularly where they are for work below £100,000. There is no sensible reason why an SME bidder would have to fill out multiple questionnaires several times over to compete for procurements, and such things do not give the impression that councils welcome SMEs’ business and trade. Aside from pointing out that such PQQs are unnecessary below £100,000, the Cabinet Office has produced its own model, four-page PQQ, which can be used instead of the often far too elaborate examples used by tenderers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage drew attention to the electronic tendering that takes place in Hertfordshire. He also mentioned the biz4Biz scheme. That is another area where local authorities can play a helpful part in supporting local small businesses. My local authority, Stockport, organises business-to-business fairs in the town hall, where large local enterprises are put in touch with small ones, and trade links are established. That is not about spending public money; it is about the council accepting that it has a role and some responsibility for ensuring that large companies in the area—or small companies for that matter—look first to the local providers of services before they look further afield.

The Local Government Association is working with the Federation of Small Businesses and with individual authorities to highlight exactly how procurement can be simplified and access broadened. There is, therefore, a lot of good practice and quite a lot of good understanding. Sometimes, procurement officers and councillors say that they cannot do such things because of EU rules or this or that piece of legislation, but quite a lot of what is said in those circumstances is purely and simply mythology.

That brings me to the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle raised about whether the new provision in the Localism Act to give every local authority a general power of competence allows them to deliver a better performance on procurement. The answer to that is a straightforward yes. The general power of competence allows any local authority to do anything that an individual can do, which gives them a great deal of flexibility. Of course, they must obey the law and have regard to

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reasonableness. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we could not have a wild west contracting situation. It is absolutely right and proper that due process should be followed, but within that councils have a great deal of discretion about how they proceed.

My hon. Friend asked whether local authorities were sufficiently aware of the legislation of my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White). Perhaps the fact that he has had to bring the matter to this Chamber today suggests that they are not. I am sure that he and I will want to contribute to a process of increasing awareness. Moreover, let me draw his attention to the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in notifying councils about some of the opportunities that exist in their partnerships with the voluntary and community sector. Again, that underlines the point that they should be taking into account not just short-term, straightforward cost savings but the wider social and environmental impact of their decisions.

Beyond Cumbria, the north-west procurement portal is a good example of how the region is helping businesses to identify contracts more easily. At a quick look, there are numerous opportunities there, broken down by council areas and sub-regions, and the portal links to other portals around the country. Of course that is producing results in many places.

Through the efforts that have been made with the north-west portal, it has been possible for the 10 authorities in the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, including mine, Stockport, to establish that they spend jointly £2.5 billion a year, that £300 million of that spend is different authorities spending with common suppliers, and that they are redirecting what they do such that 56% of their spend is now with providers based within the 10 local authorities and 69% of what they spend is spent with companies within the north-west. I am sure that there is further to go for many local authorities, but that gives an indication of what can be achieved when local authorities put their heads together and work at it hard.

My hon. Friend’s third question was whether I would be forcing local authorities to do things—

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).