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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The Leader of the House, having set up the Waterhouse inquiry when Secretary of State for Wales, and having been present for part of the previous urgent question, will be aware of the real concern in north Wales that the House should be kept informed over the next few months. Will he have a word with the Home Secretary to ensure that she informs the House of the terms of the new inquiry and about what is happening with the Macur review, which she set up?

Mr Hague: Those are very important issues, as I remember all too well from my time as Secretary of State for Wales. There will be intense and continuing concern in north Wales about them. We have just had an urgent question on the matter, and I think that it was well understood across the House that the terms of reference for what the Home Secretary has announced must be got right and that the right person to lead the inquiry must be found. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) made that point earlier. I know that the Home Secretary will want to keep the House updated on that and on the other matters the hon. Gentleman raises.

Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): One month ago the Pakistan army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against militants in north Waziristan, but it did so without giving any prior notification to the civilian population, in stark contrast to previous operations in Swat and south Waziristan. May we have an urgent statement from the Foreign Office to update the House on what is being done to help the now 1 million internally displaced persons, many of whom fled their homes with nothing, and on what assistance the UK Government and others can give?

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise those important matters and the terrible circumstances for many of the people affected. The Government of Pakistan face a tremendous challenge in establishing order and defeating terrorism in parts of the country, so we should show some solidarity with the Government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in doing that. The hon. Gentleman will have opportunities to raise those matters in Adjournment debates and in Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Leader of the House to his new job. May we have a debate as soon as possible on ongoing issues at the Passport Office? Staff in my office contacted the MPs hotline yesterday with an urgent case but were told that they could contact the Liverpool office only by e-mail and not by phone. I suggest that the Home Office should invest in some phones for the Liverpool office and some people to man them so that we can get these urgent cases sorted out as quickly as possible.

Mr Hague: The House has been able to discuss over recent weeks the problems that have arisen from a huge increase in demand for passports—the highest demand in 12 years. Of course, it is very important that specific cases raised by hon. Members are dealt with quickly, so I will absolutely inform the Home Office of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We have already deployed an additional 1,200 people as call handlers on the helplines, and we are providing another 300 staff and longer

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opening hours. A lot of good work is being done in dealing with this, but, as I say, I will absolutely refer to my colleagues what he has said.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I start by warmly welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new role in the House. May we please have a debate on the junior individual savings account scheme for young people in care, which was announced in the 2011 Budget and which is operated by the Share Foundation charity? The scheme provides a small capital fund for some of the most vulnerable young people, and 145 young people in the care of Bury MBC currently benefit from it. A debate would give this House the opportunity to explore ways in which it could be used and developed in future.

Mr Hague: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome. He makes a very important point: over 50,000 junior ISAs for children in care have now been opened, with an initial contribution of £200 from the Government. A young person’s transition to independence is a very critical period, and for care leavers it is even more critical. This is giving people savings and a financial education that they would not otherwise receive, and my hon. Friend can be sure that that will remain a priority for this Government.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): I think it is fair to say that the Leader of the House got off to a flying start. May I remind him that this year is the 40th anniversary of the illegal occupation of Cyprus by Turkey? Will he therefore arrange for a statement by the Foreign Secretary to inform us of exactly what the UK Government, the guarantor of power, are doing to mark this anniversary to ensure that we do not have another 40 years of illegal occupation?

Mr Hague: As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I have pointed out before, we have Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday, so there will be plenty of opportunities to raise this. Of course, the UK Government support all those working for a solution to the Cyprus question. We have done a great deal of that in recent months, particularly working with President Anastasiades. Talks in recent months have made some progress, and we will continue to encourage that. I know that Foreign Office Ministers will be able to talk about that.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I think everybody in the House is looking forward to my right hon. Friend’s time as Leader of the House, apart, perhaps, from the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who might not be looking forward to it with as much glee as the rest of us.

Last year, a person already convicted of burglary offences on 65 separate occasions committed another burglary and was still not sent to prison. Surely it is an outrage that a burglar committing a 66th burglary is not sent to prison for many years, let alone avoids prison altogether. May we have a debate on this so that we can look at measures to tackle pathetic sentencing guidelines and even more pathetic judges?

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Mr Hague: I know that my hon. Friend is as regular an attendee of business questions as any Leader of the House. He puts his question in a typically restrained way, of course, but he makes a valid point. I am sure that over the coming months there will be opportunities to raise these matters. The Government have achieved a 10% reduction in overall crime, but that does not mean we have attended to everything, and his point is well heard.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware that last Saturday between 7,000 and 8,000 Coventry City fans demonstrated in Coventry against what has been going on between the football club and the other parties concerned? The Culture, Media and Sport Committee did a report on this some time ago, so when are we going to have a debate on it? Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the fact that the club has not conformed to the rules of the football league? Why can we not have a debate, in general terms, on the football league and how we regulate it?

Mr Hague: I do not want to comment on the details. The hon. Gentleman asks why we cannot have a debate, but there are well-established mechanisms for having a debate, including through applying for Adjournment and Backbench Business debates. I encourage him to take those opportunities.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I wonder whether we could have a debate on the political career to date of my right hon. Friend. He might occasionally regret it, but he started a number of us off in our elected political careers and it would be a fitting way for some of us to say thank you.

Mr Hague: That is an innovative idea, but I think such a debate would be a little self-indulgent of me and I would be somewhat criticised for it. I am very proud to have helped launch my hon. Friend on his political career with the slogan “In Europe, but not run by Europe” in 1999. I am pleased that it has helped to carry him all this way.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): May I welcome the Leader of the House to his new position? Could we have a debate on the reinstatement of the aggregates levy credit scheme, which was halted by the European Commission in consultation with the Treasury back in autumn 2010? It benefited the construction industry in Northern Ireland. Some four years later, it has not been reinstated, despite the fact that much information has been submitted by the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive. It is important, because we are in ongoing competition with the quarry industry in the Republic of Ireland and it would bring benefit.

Mr Hague: I understand the importance of what the hon. Lady says and I thank her for her welcome. I do not have any new information to give her, although the Northern Ireland Secretary is in her place and will have heard what she has said. I will also remind the Treasury of what she has said. I cannot offer any immediate debate, but, as I have said, there are well-established channels for going about securing a debate.

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Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on war crimes, particularly those committed many years ago? That would enable us to discuss the 1971 civil war in Bangladesh and the war crimes committed then. I also hope it would encourage the Government to encourage the Bangladeshi Government in their pursuit of a fair and transparent legal process, to ensure that the criminals from 1971 are finally brought to justice.

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend is, of course, right to stress the importance in any country of a fair and transparent process. That is something that I discussed with the Government of Bangladesh in my previous role as Foreign Secretary. My hon. Friend makes a very important and valid point about that. The House has been able to discuss issues of war crimes many times over recent decades. I cannot offer my hon. Friend an immediate debate, but he understands very well how to go about getting one.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): May I, too, welcome the Leader of the House to his position? The Foreign Office’s loss will be this Chamber’s gain.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), could we have a statement on Gaza on Tuesday, after Foreign Office questions? I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman made a statement on Monday in his previous role, but the situation is not just dreadful, particularly given the increasing number of deaths of children, but is changing very rapidly, so could we have a statement on Tuesday?

Mr Hague: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will assess the case for a statement in addition to answering questions on Tuesday. I do not want to commit him to that, but it has been our habit over the past four years to have regular statements on developing crises. Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right that the situation continues to develop. There have been further tragic deaths in Gaza. I am pleased that there is a humanitarian ceasefire in force for a short time today, but of course what we really need is an agreed and sustainable ceasefire and a restoration of the ceasefire of November 2012.

Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): The Supreme Court has recently suggested that our law on assisted suicide may not be compatible with article 8 of the European convention on human rights, and it has issued an invitation to the House to consider that question. When will we respond to the invitation?

Mr Hague: The Prime Minister indicated yesterday that we will give consideration to that matter. It is an important and topical issue, on which there are very strong feelings—not on any party basis—and there is intense interest in the debate about it in the House of Lords tomorrow. I will reflect on when it would be appropriate to have such a debate, as well as on the various means of bringing it about. I cannot yet promise one in Government time.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I join Members in their unanimous welcome to the new Leader of the House, and I pay tribute to him for his outstanding

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work at the Foreign Office. May I take him back to one of his successes—Yemen—and the democratic transition that resulted in the election of President Hadi? The situation is now very critical, with 11 million people in poverty and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula making enormous gains. May we have a statement or a debate on that? I know we have Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, but we cannot deal with it in just one question.

Mr Hague: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, whose knowledge of and concern about Yemen has been remarkable, constant and much respected over many years. He is right that a great deal of progress has been made, as we saw when the Friends of Yemen met in London under our chairmanship a couple of months ago. He is also right that formidable problems remain, and it is now very important that the help the international community has pledged is delivered and used successfully by President Hadi and his colleagues. There has been widespread demand in the House for statements by the Foreign Secretary, and I will not commit my successor to a long list of them—hon. Members will have to use Foreign Office questions—but I know that he will make as many statements as he can about such topical issues.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It has just taken 18 days to repair a mobile phone mast on the island of Islay. That is completely unacceptable, and it is not an isolated incident. Part of the difficulty is that many different telecommunications companies were involved in the repair, and it is difficult to pin down which has responsibility. May we have a statement on how licence conditions might be tightened to make sure that companies have to carry out repairs speedily? After all, people have to be able to make calls in an emergency.

Mr Hague: My hon. Friend makes a point that is very important for his constituents. Eighteen days does seem unusually long and an unacceptable time for such repairs. I will ask the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to respond to him directly, and depending on how satisfied he is by that answer, he may want to press the case for further and wider action.

Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): Given the road to Damascus conversion by Lib Dems on the viciously unfair and punitive bedroom tax, please may we have an urgent debate on that policy, or at least a debate on the apparent hypocrisy of Lib Dems?

Mr Hague: I think it would strain the coalition a little too much if I launched a debate with that particular title, but it is open to the Opposition, who have an Opposition day on the Wednesday in the first week back, to have a debate on that topic if they so wish.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new appointment. May I also congratulate him on his appointment as the Prime Minister’s special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, and thank him for his personal commitment on an issue that affects millions of women, men, boys and girls around the world? Will he make a statement to update the House on how he will take forward that vital campaign in his new role?

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Mr Hague: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend both for his welcome and for referring to my role as the Prime Minister’s special representative on that issue. As he and the House will know, I feel passionately about it, and we have begun to make some progress on changing attitudes globally on sexual violence in conflict. A written statement has been published by the Foreign Office within the past few days, which sets out what we will do next to deliver practical change in various countries where this problem has been endemic. I look forward to helping to drive that forward—still working with many other countries—over the next 10 months.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the new Minister for disabled people, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), to make a statement on the Access to Work scheme, which is often described as the Government’s best kept secret? This morning, I was informed that any contact with the Access to Work electronic mailbox receives the response, “This mailbox is full and cannot receive messages.” With a response like that, it is hardly surprising that it is such a secret.

Mr Hague: The hon. Lady raises an important topic. It is important that people receive a response and that the system works well. I will tell my colleagues who handle those matters, including the Minister of State, of her concern and have it looked into.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): I join colleagues in warmly welcoming my right hon. Friend to his place. Last week, we had the announcement on the local growth deals, which saw funding allocated to colleges across the country, including £4 million to Harrogate college. May we have a debate when we get back from the recess on how important colleges are in our education system because of their combination of academic and vocational qualifications, the offer of apprenticeships and their major contribution to delivering the skills that businesses need?

Mr Hague: I cannot promise such a debate, given all the pressing matters that the House has to deal with, but my hon. Friend is quite right to raise the issue. Indeed, Harrogate college is one of the very long list of things that we are proud of in North Yorkshire. He raises the importance of local growth to our long-term economic recovery, which will be supported not least by last week’s announcement of £6 billion for local growth deals. He highlights the importance of colleges in the education system. I know that he will join me in welcoming the £1 billion that has been put into the Youth Contract for more apprenticeships, work experience places and wage incentives.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): Lawyers in Plymouth are very angry. The right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine are getting pretty desperate in their attempts to find ways to access the law, particularly those who are on low pay. The latest issue is the summer contract changes. Lawyers are becoming very worried that they will not be able to meet the timetable and that law firms will close. Will he please encourage the Justice Secretary to come to the House in September to update Members on the effect of that change?

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Mr Hague: I will, of course, alert my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary to the hon. Lady’s concerns. There will be an opportunity to raise them with him at the next session of questions to the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and I encourage her to do so.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Our sitting in September will be the last opportunity to debate the future of the United Kingdom before the Scottish referendum. Will my right hon. Friend find Government time to debate that most important of issues for the United Kingdom and the people of Scotland?

Mr Hague: That will be a very important time for the people of the whole of the United Kingdom. The decision will be made by the people of Scotland. The debate will go far beyond this House and will be conducted on the airwaves and doorsteps of Scotland. Many hon. Members will join that debate in September, and that is probably the appropriate place for it to be conducted.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): One of Britain’s most eminent scientists, a fellow of the Royal Society and the principal of Jesus college Oxford, Lord Krebs, last week published a report that said that, given the Government’s spending plans, two thirds of our flood defences will be inadequate. May we therefore have a debate on the preparation for winter floods in the UK, so that the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can find a new ingenious form of words or some new outrageous statistics to justify what the Government are doing?

Mr Hague: Those are important issues. The hon. Gentleman will know that over our period in government we have spent more on flood defences than was spent in the equivalent period before. I believe that there were many questions about this issue at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions today, because it is an important topic. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be interested in what he has to say and in the work of Lord Krebs. I cannot offer an additional debate, but the opportunities to discuss this matter with DEFRA Ministers will continue.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Will the Leader of the House find time to discuss with the Health Secretary why NHS England is refusing to spend any of the extra £42 million that the Department has made available for increasing the use of radiotherapy this year on treating cancer patients with stereotactic ablative radiotherapy, which works?

Mr Hague: As my hon. Friend knows, we introduced the cancer drugs fund which, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said in the House, is not only for drugs but also for innovative treatment. There have been changes in the way radiotherapy is carried out and new technology is used, but as the Prime Minister said—I know this applies to Health Ministers—we would be happy to discuss the matter in more detail with my hon. Friend.

Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the role of the police and crime commissioners policy

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that his Government introduced? Such a debate would allow me, and indeed the whole House, to pay our respects and condolences to Bob Jones, the police and crime commissioner for the west midlands who died unexpectedly earlier this month. It would also allow us to recognise that he was a great and committed public servant who was never too busy to meet the people he served. He was a great friend and a great comrade.

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman has used this opportunity to pay tribute to Bob Jones. I remember hearing about him, and across the House we are sad to hear of the tragic death of a very fine public servant. I join the hon. Gentleman in sending condolences and tributes to the family of Mr Jones.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I welcome the Leader of the House to his new role and thank him for the dedication, energy and enthusiasm that he put into the role of Foreign Secretary. Before he became Foreign Secretary, he played a key role on an individual level in negotiating the coalition agreement, going through it line by line, paragraph by paragraph. He will remember that in chapter 24 at the bottom of page 27 are the words:

“A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament”.

Consensus was achieved when those words were written, and I know my right hon. Friend attaches huge importance to upholding the tenets of the coalition agreement. In the last year of this Parliament, will he introduce the Hague reforms, to allow the House of Commons to timetable its own business as long as it allows the Government to get through their legislation?

Mr Speaker: That could be the Hague-Hollobone-Bone reform.

Mr Hague: That would be quite a mouthful, Mr Speaker. I remember pretty much every line of the coalition agreement—I certainly remember every minute of negotiating it, which was quite a painstaking process. My hon. Friend is right that that commitment is in the coalition agreement, and as he knows it was raised earlier today by two of our hon. Friends. I know there are strong feelings about this issue and consensus on it in part of the House, but I do not think there is consensus across the whole House. I would be happy to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend, but I do not envisage the situation changing at the moment.

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): I, too, welcome the Leader of the House to his new position. Despite the Government’s claims that they will tackle false self-employment, construction firms continue to exploit loopholes which mean that people like my constituent, Ron Boyle, are losing hundreds of pounds every month. Will the Leader of the House give the House time to debate that issue and discuss how those loopholes can be closed, so that people like Mr Boyle are not robbed of a fair wage?

Mr Hague: The fair treatment of people in all walks of life and employment is always an important issue for the House, and raising and redressing such matters is part of why we exist. I understand why the hon. Lady has raised the issue, although I do not have a lot of time

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to give away for debates. That sort of issue can be raised in an Adjournment debate and at questions or through the Backbench Business Committee, and I hope she will go about it in that way.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): May we have a debate on GP services? In Hightown in my constituency, the GP practice is staffed by locums, despite promises that a full-time doctor would be employed when a change was made to the running of the practice. Patients cannot get appointments and, as a result, many have to leave and go elsewhere. May we have a debate on GP surgeries in communities such as Hightown, so that we can discuss how to ensure that the decline that patients are experiencing is reversed?

Mr Hague: These issues are discussed often in the House. It is clear that the demand to see a GP has gone up greatly. The Royal College of General Practitioners says that there are 40 million more GP appointments a year than there were five years ago. We are trying to ensure that our resources are focused on increasing the number of clinical staff. We are increasing the number of newly qualified doctors who go on to train to become a GP to 50% by 2020. A great deal is going on to improve these services, but the hon. Gentleman has made his point about his local situation.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I congratulate my constituency neighbour on his new position. Earlier, the right hon. Gentleman said that he will have to come to this place often and reflect the Government’s position to the House. With his new powers, will he give us a statement on whether he supports or opposes the Health Secretary’s confirmation of the decision to close maternity services in Friarage hospital?

Mr Hague: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that decision has been determined by the independent reconfiguration panel and the Secretary of State has accepted its advice. That is what it is for—it is independent. This is the end of a long battle on that particular issue and all of us who were involved have had to accept that. I think that in all such cases the Secretary of State takes its advice. It is very important that there is a strong future for Friarage hospital in Northallerton. We are getting into constituency matters here, but I would encourage the clinical commissioning group and South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to set out a very strong and ambitious future for that hospital.

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I welcome the Leader of the House to his position. Given the location of his very scenic and beautiful constituency, he may be aware of the importance of transport infrastructure expenditure on the prospects for local economies. Given that Northern Rail and Network Rail do not have an investment programme in the next five-year control period for anywhere north of York, may we have a debate on the importance of transport infrastructure expenditure in generating economies, particularly in places like the north-east of England?

Mr Hague: These are, of course, very important issues. It is one of a long list of issues on which hon. Members have asked for debates today. It is evident to

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the House that it is not possible to agree to debates on all of those subjects. The hon. Gentleman gives his opinion. It is also true that the Government are investing more in the roads than at any time since the 1970s, and, with HS2, more in rail than at any time since Victorian times. Important announcements about transport infrastructure across the north of England have been made recently by the Chancellor and the Transport Secretary, so it is important to have a look at those.

Mr Speaker: I think I can speak for the whole House in saying that we are extremely grateful to the Leader of the House and to colleagues for an invigorating and therapeutic series of exchanges.

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Hallett Review

12.8 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): With permission, I would like to make a statement on the report by Lady Justice Hallett, which is being published today, on the scheme dealing with the so-called “on-the-runs”.

In February, Mr Justice Sweeney ruled that it would be an abuse of process to proceed with the prosecution of John Downey in connection with the Hyde park bombing on 20 July 1982, and the trial was stayed. The Hyde park atrocity resulted in the brutal murder of four members of the Blues and Royals. Seven horses were also killed. Just hours later, another bomb in Regent’s park took the lives of seven members of the Royal Green Jackets. These were appalling terrorist outrages, carried out by the Provisional IRA, for which there could never ever be any justification. So I hope our first thoughts in the House today are with the families and friends of those murdered that day in July 1982. The Government fully appreciate the deep sense of hurt and anger that the collapse of the Downey trial has caused both to them and to victims of terrorism more widely. I would like to repeat the apology I gave in March for what has happened. The Government are profoundly sorry for the hurt this case has caused to all victims of terrorism.

The Downey case highlighted the administrative scheme introduced by the previous Government to deal with so-called on-the-runs. These were people who had left Northern Ireland and believed that if they returned to any part of the UK, they might be arrested in connection with terrorist offences. The Government responded to the widespread public concern expressed about the OTR scheme by establishing a judge-led, independent review of it. I am very grateful to Lady Justice Hallett for taking on that task. Anybody reading the report will be left in no doubt that she has provided us with a rigorous and comprehensive account of the scheme. The Government accept the report and all its recommendations in full.

On the central issue of whether the OTR administrative scheme gave suspected terrorists immunity from prosecution, Lady Justice Hallett is very clear. She concludes:

“The administrative scheme did not amount to an amnesty for terrorists…Suspected terrorists were not handed a ‘get out of jail free’ card”.

The Government have always been clear that if sufficient evidence emerges, individual OTRs are liable for arrest and prosecution in the normal way. So I repeat today to the people holding those letters: they will not protect you from arrest or prosecution, and should the police succeed in gathering sufficient evidence, you will be subject to the due process of law. Lady Justice Hallett sets out the origins, operation and evolution of the scheme. She agrees with successive Attorneys-General that the scheme was lawful. The last letter sent by the Northern Ireland Office was issued in December 2012, and I repeat today that, as far as this Government are concerned, the scheme is over.

The report sets out a number of serious criticisms of how the scheme operated, including significant systemic failures. Lady Justice Hallett states:

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“The scheme was not designed; it evolved. As a result there was no overall policy and no overall responsibility/accountability for it”.

She says that the scheme

“lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards…When errors came to light opportunities were missed to rectify them…There was no risk assessment”.

In the case of Mr Downey, Lady Justice Hallett concluded, in line with the Sweeney judgment, that it was not the fact that Mr Downey was sent a letter that caused the trial to collapse, but the fact that the letter contained an incorrect and misleading statement, on which Mr Downey then relied. The report finds that if the scheme had been properly administered,

“John Downey would not have received a letter of assurance”.

She concludes that she can find no “logical explanation” of why Police Service of Northern Ireland officers failed to pass on the fact that Mr Downey was still wanted by the Metropolitan police or why they failed to correct the error once it became known.

Lady Justice Hallett finds that 13 OTRs received the royal prerogative of mercy between 2000 and 2002, and that in all cases this was to release people from having to serve some or all of the rest of their sentences. No pre-conviction pardons were issued. The report criticises the lack of a

“central register of documents recording the use of the RPM”.

While she finds

“no evidence of the UK Government actively seeking to obscure the scheme from the public,”

Lady Justice Hallett states that it

“was not given much publicity and that important groups”

such as victims and their families “remained unaware” of it. The report acknowledges the great hurt and distress that this has caused to many victims. Lady Justice Hallett has found two examples of somebody receiving a letter in error, in addition to the Downey case. She has also identified 36 cases dealt with between February 2007 and November 2008 that she believes should be given priority in the exercise now under way by the PSNI to check whether the change in status from wanted to not wanted can still be justified.

The key question that has arisen is what the Government intend to do next to ensure that there are no more failed prosecutions like that of Mr Downey.

The report recommends that we now

“seek legal advice, in conjunction with the police and prosecuting authorities, to determine whether”


“should notify any individuals whose status, as communicated to them, has changed or may change in the future”

and that we

“consider how to mitigate against further abuse of process arguments, for example by confirming to recipients the factual and contemporaneous nature of their letters”.

The Government will act on these and all Lady Justice Hallett’s recommendations, and I give the House this assurance: we will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice and in conjunction with the police and prosecutors, to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions. In taking that forward, I propose to work closely with the devolved Minister of Justice.

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The bulk of the report deals with decisions made by the previous Government in respect of their handling of the political process in Northern Ireland. It is not my role to speak for my Labour predecessors as Secretary of State; they are more than capable of speaking for themselves on the role they played and the decisions they took, and they have addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on these matters. But I will say this: I might not agree with every decision they made in relation to the OTR issue, but whatever differences of emphasis and approach we might have, I recognise that they were dealing with very difficult judgments in very difficult circumstances and that they were at all times acting with sincerity in seeking to move the peace process forward. I emphasise very clearly that Lady Justice Hallett has found no evidence that either politicians or officials ever interfered improperly with the due process of law or the operational independence of police or prosecutors.

The report concludes that the scheme did not impact on police investigations into historic terrorist offences. Police Service of Northern Ireland and Historical Enquiries Team files were not closed. There was no chilling effect.

It is well known that the current Government allowed the checking process to continue after we came to power in May 2010, but both I and my predecessor have been very clear: had we at any time been presented with a scheme that we thought amounted to an amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution, we would have stopped it immediately. That would have been consistent with the opposition of both coalition partners to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, introduced by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) in 2005, which was subsequently abandoned.

This Government believe in the rule of law, and that applies across the board to everyone, without fear or favour, including those in possession of letters issued under the scheme. There are many lessons to be learned from this episode, not least of which is the crucial importance of continued efforts to find an agreement on the divisive issues of flags, parading and the past.

On dealing with the painful legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, we need a process that is transparent, accountable and balanced, puts the era of side deals firmly behind us and commands the confidence of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. The Government remain fully committed to working with all parties in Northern Ireland in their efforts to deliver that important goal, and I commend this statement to the House.

12.18 pm

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement and the tone of her response. Today, as we reflect on the findings of Lady Justice Hallett’s report, it is important above all else that we remember the soldiers who lost their lives in Hyde park on that dreadful day in July 1982 and the suffering that their families continue to endure. That act was heinous and, like all terrorist atrocities, totally unjustifiable. The fact that those families are less likely to get either truth or justice will make that suffering worse. That is why the report was necessary. We have apologised for the catastrophic mistakes made specifically in the Downey case.

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This inquiry is incredibly important for victims of the troubles and also for the wider public, so that we can address both legitimate concerns and frequently repeated falsehoods as we strive to build a better and shared future for Northern Ireland. We welcome Lady Hallett’s report today and accept her findings in full. Lady Hallett had limited time in which to complete her inquiry, but despite the time constraints she met more than 40 individuals and reviewed thousands of documents to prepare today’s report. We acknowledge her findings, including those that made it clear that there should have been a more systematic approach to the operation and ongoing review of the scheme.

There are lessons to be learned by both the Northern Ireland Office and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We are of course concerned that there appear to be two other cases in which errors in letters have been identified, and Lady Hallett’s assertion that the PSNI review of cases will take years is also a source of concern. I will return to these points in my questions to the Secretary of State.

We are pleased that Lady Hallett shattered a number of myths. She makes it clear that the scheme was not unlawful, that files on terrorist offences were not closed by the PSNI and, most importantly, she states categorically on the very first page of her report that this administrative scheme was not an amnesty and nor did it ever amount to a get- out-of-jail-free card. We do not believe amnesty is the right approach to dealing with the past in Northern Ireland.

On legality, while Lady Hallett questions the structure of the scheme, she makes it clear on page 144 of the report that the administrative scheme was not unlawful. Furthermore, she goes on to say that

“the Downey ruling is confined to its own facts and is not binding on any other judge.”

On amnesty, Lady Hallett makes it clear on page 28

“that there was no question of the administrative scheme granting an alleged offender an amnesty or immunity from prosecution. It is clear from the views expressed at the time that the Attorney-General would not have agreed to the process had that been the intention or the effect. It is also clear that successive Attorneys-General maintained the same position throughout the life of the scheme.”

Finally, while Justice Hallett is right to conclude that the scheme was not secret, I acknowledge the concern of politicians and others who feel they should have been given more information about the nature and application of the scheme. This includes the First Minister and Justice Minister after the devolution of policing and justice in 2010.

I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. On page 142, Lady Hallett identifies two further cases where letters issued might have contained errors. Can she update the House on these two cases and inform us what steps have been taken on each? Can she update us on the other inquiries commissioned back in February: the police ombudsman inquiry and the PSNI inquiry? Lady Hallett mentions these in her report and she expects the PSNI review to take “years”. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that the PSNI will be provided with the necessary resources to deliver a full and thorough process that can be concluded in a much shorter time scale?

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The Secretary of State will agree that this issue of on-the-runs has opened up wider questions surrounding the use of the royal prerogative of mercy. Lady Hallett mentions on page 143 that she has

“identified no cases where the RPM was used as a pre-conviction pardon for an OTR”

on the lists that she held. Can the Secretary of State update the House on the ongoing investigation about those records that have gone missing from her Department pre-1997?

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, does the Secretary of State now accept that this report reinforces rather than undermines the urgent need for a robust, transparent and comprehensive process to deal with Northern Ireland’s past? It is now clear that the UK and Irish Governments must take a far more hands-on role in supporting Northern Ireland’s political parties to reach agreement both on the past and on parades. Until this happens, one can conclude only that stalemate will prevail, leaving a dangerous vacuum that is being filled by those who seek to undermine the peace process either through political means or, worse still, a return to violence.

As the Prime Minister has said, it would be wrong to be retrospectively selective about key elements of an historic peace process that ended 30 years of violence and terror. It was an extraordinary period, which demanded historic and difficult compromises. However, as a result of that momentous agreement, Northern Ireland has been transformed, and at grassroots level, there are numerous heart-warming examples of reconciliation and normalisation across communities. These changes should never be underestimated or taken for granted.

This remarkable progress did not happen by accident or simply through the passage of time. It would never have been possible without the courageous and visionary leadership of people like David Trimble and John Hume, without the huge risks taken by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness in renouncing violence and accepting that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland would only ever change with the consent of the people, or without Ian Paisley Senior’s willingness to reconcile long-standing, deeply held convictions with the democratic will of the people—a position that has been taken forward by Peter Robinson. It never would have happened, of course, without the contributions of many others in Northern Ireland, including right hon. and hon. Members in their places in this Chamber today, who allowed hope to triumph over fear.

I have to say that it would never have happened without the intensive engagement of the UK and Irish Governments working together. In a UK context, John Major deserves credit for starting the process, but what was decisive was Tony Blair’s decision to expend unprecedented prime ministerial capital on achieving peace in Northern Ireland. He was supported, of course, by the extraordinary Mo Mowlam and ultra-professional Jonathan Powell, not to mention successive Secretaries of State and junior Ministers such as the late Paul Goggins, whose memorial service last night was a truly fitting tribute to a very special parliamentarian.

I have to make this point because some would like to use the controversy generated by the on-the-runs as a stick with which to beat Tony Blair and to allow legitimate public concern to distort the truth about a peace process lauded around the world. This peace process, of course,

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was not a perfect one—there is no such thing—but it is a peace process of which I and my party remain incredibly proud. It has saved lives and allowed the current younger generation in Northern Ireland to grow up largely free from the fear and reality of violence. Let me be clear, Mr Speaker, that this is unlikely to have happened without Tony Blair and his Government. I end by echoing the Secretary of State’s thanks to Lady Justice Hallett for her comprehensive report.

Mrs Villiers rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I thank the shadow Secretary of State for the seriousness and comprehensiveness of his remarks. I know he will take it in the right spirit if I say that a pressing priority for him at the start of the summer recess will be to get his watch repaired.

Mrs Villiers: I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that this is an important opportunity to remember the victims of the Hyde Park bomb. I think it would be appropriate to read out their names. Those murdered were Lieutenant Anthony Daly, aged 23; Trooper Simon Tipper, aged 19 who died at the scene; Lance-Corporal Geoffrey Young, aged 19 who died the following day; and Squadron Quartermaster Corporal Raymond Bright, aged 36 who died two days after that. A total of 31 other people were injured, a number of them very seriously.

I welcome much of what the shadow Secretary of State said. I think it was appropriate for him to issue the apology that he did. I, too, apologise in clear terms to the Justice Minister and the First Minister for not briefing them on the scheme. It is a concern that the scheme operated in a way that was not as transparent as it should have been, which is one reason why the hurt was caused and why there has been such a great deal of misunderstanding about what the scheme actually involved. That is why I offered that apology, which I repeat today, for not briefing Ministers in the Executive on these matters.

I welcome the fact that the Hallett report shatters myths, as the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) said. It emphasises that the scheme was not an amnesty and points out that the Downey ruling depends on its facts and would not necessarily provide a precedent for other cases.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to comment on the two cases in which errors occurred. I reiterate that the Government will follow the advice of the recommendations and work with the police, the prosecuting authorities and the Department of Justice to do everything we can to ensure that errors are corrected and that any barriers to future prosecution are removed. In that regard, I draw attention to paragraph 10.72 in which Lady Justice Hallett comments on the gravity of the mistake and the serious consequences it had for the Hyde Park families. She goes on to say:

“Other mistakes have been made and need correcting. But this can be done in a measured and proportionate way.”

At this stage, it would probably be unwise to comment on the specifics of the cases because it would be the worst possible outcome if anything were said in Parliament to jeopardise future prosecutions in these cases.

The ombudsman and PSNI investigations are independent matters for them, but I have been in close touch with the Chief Constable and know that the

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PSNI is very much aware of the content of the Hallett report and the mistakes identified. I know, too, that it is taking very seriously the exercise of checking all the cases that went through the scheme. In Northern Ireland questions we discussed concerns about the resources available to the PSNI. I hope these matters will be given the priority they deserve.

The shadow Secretary of State asked wider questions about the RPM. I can confirm that no pre-conviction pardons were issued. The investigation of the records for 1987 to 1997 is continuing. Our conclusion is that, in all likelihood, no central list of RPMs issued during that period was compiled. I am afraid that it may be a case not of a missing document, but of the fact that a document was not compiled in the first place, and that records of the RPMs were kept in the individual cases of the prisoners concerned and were destroyed according to normal routine records management.

I agree with the shadow Secretary of State that this episode reinforces the need for progress on agreeing a process for dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. I hope that the Hallett report will provide an opportunity for all the parties to return to the table and the debates on flags, parading and the past, and that an agreed way forward on these important matters can be found.

Mr Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I welcome both the statement and Lady Justice Hallett’s report. I confirm emphatically, as did Lady Justice Hallett, that if we had felt when we took power in May 2010 that there was a whiff or a hint that an amnesty might have been involved, we would have stopped the scheme immediately. A small number of cases remained, and I was content that there was no question at all of an amnesty. I am very pleased to learn that Lady Justice Hallett has confirmed that.

I think that today is the day on which we should remember the victims. More than 3,500 people were killed. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that police and law enforcement authorities throughout the United Kingdom will continue to pursue the perpetrators of many of these terrible crimes, in order to bring some satisfaction to the relatives of the victims that they will be brought to justice?

Mrs Villiers: I commend my right hon. Friend for all the brilliant work that he did as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. What he has said is absolutely right.

I hope that Lady Justice Hallett’s report will reassure victims of terrorism that there were no get-out-of-jail-free cards. This was not an amnesty, and if we had inherited a scheme that involved such an amnesty, we would of course have rejected it, as we rejected the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill. It is, indeed, crucial that police services the length and breadth of the land are rigorous in their pursuit of terrorists, and rigorous in their pursuit of justice for all who have suffered at their hands.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that this exemplary report demonstrates to the victims who have suffered, and continue to suffer so much, that the scheme was not unlawful, was not an amnesty, and was not a get-out-of-jail-free card, that it did not offer immunity from prosecution, that no Minister involved misled anyone, and that although the scheme was sensitive, it was not secret?

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May I put it directly to the Secretary of State that she has a responsibility to take this process forward, to learn from the report, and to bring all the parties together? That cannot be left simply to the Northern Ireland parties. Both the British Government and the Irish Government need to move forward, together with the parties, and address this past which continues to haunt Northern Ireland and all the victims who have suffered.

Mrs Villiers: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s praise for the report. As I have said, I think that there are concerns about the disclosure relating to the scheme; I think that it would have been far better if I, and my predecessors, had been more transparent about the way in which it operated. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important for us to revive the all-party talks, and for the parties to get round the table again to discuss the crucial issues of flags, parading and the past. We need to learn from the report.

I can, of course, give the right hon. Gentleman a complete assurance that the United Kingdom Government remain committed to doing all that they can to support the Northern Ireland parties in their efforts on these matters, and that we are working closely with our colleagues in Dublin, who share our determination to do everything possible to facilitate and support an agreement on the past.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me early sight of the report. When we look below the headlines, we see that it is very critical of what went on. Lady Justice Hallett refers to evidence given to the Select Committee by Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, who said that “95 of these individuals”—those who had received letters—

“are linked in some way or other to 200 murder investigations.”

He later corrected that figure to 295. He added:

“But that linkage may only be intelligence.”

Given the possibility that that intelligence could turn into evidence relating to any of those people, it is rather worrying that Lady Justice Hallett says:

“It is not clear to me…what would happen if fresh evidence should come to light. It is arguable…that this does not sufficiently provide for a change in circumstances.”

Have not this scheme and the way in which it has been run created a very worrying situation in Northern Ireland in respect of bringing people to justice and bringing closure to the victims whom we rightly remember today?

Mrs Villiers: The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right. The report makes some very serious criticisms of the way in which the scheme was operated, and those will have difficult consequences that will need to be dealt with. However, I assure the House that the Government are determined that they will be dealt with. Lady Justice Hallett concluded that the errors could be corrected, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that they are corrected, acting on the basis of advice from lawyers, prosecutors and police.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to concern about the terms of the caveats that were placed in the letters. Lady Justice Hallett is very clear about the fact

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that insufficient consideration was given to them. In some cases, they were left out altogether. My colleagues and I will be looking into that carefully to establish what, if anything, needs to be done to ensure that the errors that my hon. Friend has highlighted are corrected.

Mr Shaun Woodward (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): I, too, thank the right hon. Lady for advance sight of the report, and join her in remembering not only the victims of the Hyde Park bombing, but all the people to whom the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) referred who lost their lives in the course of the troubles. I also thank Lady Justice Hallett for a very comprehensive report. As a former Secretary of State, I accept all the findings, observations and criticisms contained in it.

There are important things that we need to learn. I have three brief questions to ask the right hon. Lady, in the light of chapter 9 of the report. First, does she accept that the Northern Ireland Office still has responsibility for the scheme, and that it was not devolved? Secondly, does her statement that the scheme is now closed mean that the letters—as Lady Justice Hallett asked—have been rescinded or have not been rescinded? Thirdly, given that the right hon. Lady has made it clear today that the scheme has been closed—which I do not think Lady Justice Hallett fully appreciated—will she now tell us where that leaves the cases that were still under review?

Mrs Villiers: The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the scheme was devolved. As I have said in the House on many occasions, in August 2012 my predecessor and the then Attorney-General decided that it would not be appropriate for the Northern Ireland Office to accept any new cases, and that any fresh cases should be referred by Sinn Fein to devolved police and prosecuting authorities.

A debate has raged on the exact position of the scheme in terms of devolution. I discussed the matter with the Minister of State for Justice this morning. I think that the best way of putting it is that the Northern Ireland Office will not shirk its responsibilities in learning from these mistakes, correcting any errors, and taking any appropriate action that is needed to remove barriers to prosecution. We will do that in partnership with the Department of Justice, and respecting the devolution settlement. Exactly who does what and how it is done will be a matter for reflection in the coming days, and I will undoubtedly update the House in due course.

As for the closure of the scheme, I announced some months ago that it was closed. The Government will not be issuing any fresh “not wanted” indications. As I have made clear today, what we will do is play our part in correcting any mistakes and ensuring that everything that possibly can be done is done to remove any future barriers to prosecutions in other cases.

Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con): On a personal note, I knew Anthony Daly. One can only imagine the pain that the Downey case has caused his family, and the families of the others who were murdered in Hyde park and Regent’s park. I very much regret the judgment of Mr Justice Sweeney, and I join those such as Lord Pannick, the distinguished jurist, who believe that the interests of justice should have trumped the

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mistake made by the police. Indeed, the allegations made against Downey were so serious that to all laymen such as myself, the judgment was extraordinary. On the subject of the OTR scheme, does my right hon. Friend believe that although the scheme was not secret, it was nevertheless deliberately obscured from public view and kept out of the public domain by the previous Government?

Mrs Villiers: Lady Justice Hallett found no evidence that it was deliberately obscured but, as I have said, it would have been far better if both Governments involved in the scheme had been more transparent about the way in which it operated. If we had been, we would not have faced the misunderstanding, the hurt and the upset that have been triggered as a result of the Downey judgment. It is important that we learn lessons from that lack of transparency and ensure that any future process on the past that is agreed is transparent and accountable.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I want to thank Lady Justice Hallett for her work on producing the report, which was asked for by the First Minister of Northern Ireland. With this statement being made in Parliament, our thoughts should be with the victims of the Hyde park bombing, first and foremost, and with the families of the victims of all terrorism in Northern Ireland. This was a shameful episode in the history of the so-called peace process. The grubby deal that was done between the Blair Government and Sinn Fein, the republican movement, is one of the worst examples of political chicanery that we have come across. There was no parliamentary or public approval, and at times Parliament was deliberately misled.

Lady Justice Hallett has concluded that there was no general amnesty. Certainly as far as our party and the other parties in Northern Ireland are concerned, there is no question of any amnesty, immunity or exemption from prosecution being acceptable, whether through legislation or by the back door. However, for John Downey—and, it now appears, two others—the fact was that there was an amnesty. The question now arises as to what the Government are going to do. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said that the Government “will take whatever steps are necessary, acting on the basis of legal advice…to do everything possible to remove barriers to future prosecutions.” That is in line with her statement on 28 February that:

“We will take whatever steps that are necessary to make clear…that any letters issued cannot be relied upon to avoid questioning or prosecution”.—[Official Report, 28 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 39WS.]

Can she give us a timetable, and will she assure us that if legislation is necessary, she will introduce it? Will she tell us whether there will be opportunities to question the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on his role in this? Will she also tell us what further steps can be taken on transparency in regard to the names of those who received a royal prerogative of mercy and of those who received comfort letters?

Mrs Villiers: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s offer of sympathy to all the victims of terrorism. As the representative of a constituency that was, sadly, the site of many horrific murders during the troubles, he is well placed to understand the pain that has been caused to those victims. I acknowledge that his party has always made it extremely clear that no amnesty would ever be

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acceptable, and I entirely support that position. As I have said, Heather Hallett’s report has confirmed today that there was no “get out of jail free” card. We will act as swiftly as we can to remove barriers to prosecution but, reflecting on the report’s findings, we should be under no illusions as to the legal complexities and sensitivities involved. We certainly do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past by acting in an over-hasty manner. We will keep in close touch with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on these matters, while always respecting its operational independence.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be an opportunity to question the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on these matters. That is really a matter for him and for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. On the publication of names, I have said throughout the debate on OTRs that I did not believe that such publication would be appropriate. There are many legal and privacy concerns involved, as well as questions relating to article 2, which is why I am not proposing to publish any names relating to either RPMs or OTRs.

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): In her statement, the Secretary of State said that we needed a process that is “transparent, accountable and balanced”. I hope that she would agree that this scheme was none of those. We have an open justice system and we generally know who is being arrested, charged, prosecuted and acquitted. It is not clear to me why we should not know who felt the need to seek one of those letters. If we believe in a transparent system, we should be able to find out who has received one.

Mrs Villiers: I understand my hon. Friend’s perspective. There are probably many reasons why people put their names forward. Something that comes across clearly in the report is that a number of the individuals concerned were not known to the PSNI at all. I will reflect on what he has said, but I continue to believe that it would not be helpful to name the individuals who were processed through the scheme. In all other respects, however, we need to be as transparent as we can about the steps we will take to remedy the serious errors identified by Heather Hallett, and we need to do all we can to learn from them.

Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): This whole sad Downey saga is riddled with ambiguity, limited information and half-truths, with no thought or respect for the victims. We built a hard-won peace process on truth and honesty, and a very welcome political process flowed from it. All parallel issues and discussions need to be open and transparent. This sad saga brings us back to one salient point that must be made again and again: we have neglected to deal adequately with the past and with the many issues that arise from our difficult history between 1970 and 1998. We are all guilty in this regard. The legacy of the past—the mistakes, the crimes, the murders and the maimings—hangs over us like a massive alpine glacier, and it leaves behind thousands of victims.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, unless the problems of the past are faced up to honestly and transparently and in an accountable and balanced way, they will continue to break off bit by bit and threaten us on a regular basis, month by month, disrupting lives

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and reopening old wounds? Will she and the Government commit to helping those of us who are working to complete the Haass process, in which dealing with the past is a major issue? Will they commit to ensuring honestly and transparently, and in a balanced way, that we deal with the past and, having dealt with it honourably, we begin to face the future with confidence? Will they ensure that the past is properly and completely finished with and put behind us?

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman puts the case for an attempt to resolve the issues of the past with great clarity. I fully agree that the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is a recurrent issue that has the capacity to poison the political debate and to create a block to genuine reconciliation. I therefore strongly agree that, for the sake of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, it is essential that we find an agreed way forward and come to terms with the legacy of the past. I can give him the same assurance that he received from the Prime Minister in his meeting with him yesterday—namely, that this Government are fully committed to doing that and that we will play our part in any agreement between the Northern Ireland parties. We will continue to do everything we can to facilitate an agreement between those parties on these important matters.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Presumably Lady Justice Hallett’s report will be discussed at tomorrow’s Cabinet. This whole on-the-run episode is deeply troubling, but it is also an extraordinary and exceptional set of circumstances. Given the horrific nature of the Hyde park bombing, and the subsequent publication of the report, the question my constituents will want me to ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is this: in the light of the report, is there now no chance at all that the stay on the prosecution of John Downey can be lifted?

Mrs Villiers: I am afraid the legal advice is that it is almost impossible for circumstances to arise where that stay could be lifted, so I am afraid that decision is irreversible. My hon. Friend is right to characterise this as an extraordinary scheme—that is how it was characterised by Lady Hallett. What I would emphasise is the point made by almost all hon. Members: this was not an amnesty. In describing what it was, I could do no better than use the terms summarised by Lord Reid, who said that this was a scheme to inform

“people who were not wanted”—

for arrest by the police—

“that they were not wanted”

for arrest by the police. It was not a scheme to send letters of comfort to people who genuinely were wanted.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a travesty heaped upon an injustice if a single police officer was to be made a scapegoat for this error while Tony Blair was to be elevated to near sainthood by some people? Does she agree that the systemic failures identified in this report clearly show that the Northern Ireland Office made significant errors in the management of all this? Will she go further and recognise that the entire OTR scheme was a gross insult to victims? Pages 204 and 210 of the

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report contain two lists with redacted names on them. Given that Gerry Adams’ personal solicitor was not able to confirm or deny whether Gerry Adams is in receipt of one of these letters, does the Secretary of State consider it appropriate that if a political leader is in receipt of one of these letters, she should inform this House?

Mrs Villiers: On the last point, I only reiterate that I have no plans to publish the names of the individuals concerned, for the reasons I gave before. I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the position of the PSNI officers. The report is very clear that there were significant systemic failings in the way the NIO at the time ran the scheme. It was certainly well intentioned, and I think civil servants made strenuous efforts to act appropriately, but the reality is that at a senior level—Ministers at the time will of course take responsibility for this—as the Hallett report makes clear, the scheme was not gripped properly, the risks were not assessed properly, and there were opportunities to identify errors and correct them but those were not taken. All of that means it would be wrong to characterise the result of the Downey case as just being down to the actions of an individual PSNI officer. If the scheme had been run in an appropriate way, it is highly likely that those facts would never have arisen in the first place. That of course is a matter for which all those Ministers in office at the time will take responsibility.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): The Hallett report is, of course, comprehensive, but there is something wrong with it: everything was held in secret. Once again, the victims really do not know what people said; they do not know what Gerry Kelly said or what Gerry Adams said, and they are left in the dark. The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is carrying out its own inquiry and we took interesting evidence, given in public, about the push for and the pressure on the police to get these letters out—that came from somewhere. Lady Justice Hallett says that the scheme

“lacked proper lines of responsibility, accountability and safeguards”.

Surely the real responsibility for all this—whatever he did in terms of getting the peace process—must lie at the very heart of government, with the letters that were coming from the then Prime Minister to Gerry Adams saying, “We are going to sort this.”

Mrs Villiers: As I say, the ultimate responsibility for the scheme has to lie at a political level; civil servants, at all times, were working to a remit approved by Secretaries of State. That is very clear from the report, and it is important that responsibility is taken. On the public taking of evidence, the hon. Lady is a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which has had a number of hearings on these matters. They have been helpful in throwing further light on the matters set out in the Hallett report, and indeed it is clear from the report that Lady Justice Hallett has relied on a number of the NIAC evidence sessions.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The judge has said in her report that the letters were not an amnesty or a “get out of jail free” card, but she fails to call this what it was. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) hit on it: it was a dirty, grubby deal

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to place republicans, with total disregard for victims. No matter how we paint this up, that is exactly what it was. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a travesty of justice that, according to evidence that NIAC has received, 95 of those letters went out to individuals responsible for more than 295 murders? The victims are left weeping because, in all honesty, they probably will not get any justice.

Mrs Villiers: I am of course aware of Drew Harris’s evidence to NIAC, but what he said was that there was an intelligence connection between these individuals and a number of terrorist crimes. That of course is not the same as saying that there was evidence sufficient to arrest and it is certainly not the same as saying that there was evidence sufficient to mount a prosecution. So it is important for victims to understand that in these cases where the scheme was operating correctly it was only sending letters to people about whom there was insufficient evidence to justify an arrest. I suppose the other reassurance I can try to give the hon. Gentleman—he and his party are very clear on their views about this scheme—is that the report is very clear that this did not stop police investigations, files were not closed as a result of the OTR scheme and the boundaries were not crossed in relation to political interference; neither politicians nor officials interfered inappropriately with the administration of justice.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am very keen to ensure that all hon. Members get to participate in this statement. I appreciate that the Secretary of State is giving very full answers. May I gently suggest slightly clipped and crisp questions, and crisp answers, as we do have quite a lot of business that we need to move on to?

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State recognise that although Lady Justice Hallett makes it clear at the start of her report that it is not a whitewash, it does leave a couple of black boxes in respect of Operation Rapid, not least the fact that there is little explanation as to why during that period so many cases on the list went from being “wanted” to being “not wanted”? Lady Justice Hallett gave an assurance that there was no chilling effect, but why then the frozen response on the part of the PSNI whenever it clearly realised that mistakes were made in respect to the Downey letter and why the frozen response whenever the Historical Enquiries Team indicated that it had identified possible evidence in relation to Mr Downey and offences in Northern Ireland?

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there is further work to be done—there is no doubt about that. One important aspect of that work is the police investigation of all of these cases to check whether the “not wanted” judgment was the correct one. The reason Lady Justice Hallett has selected 36 cases as a priority for that investigation is that she believes the police might have been applying the wrong threshold to decide whether an individual was wanted or not wanted. Clearly, therefore, it will be very important to look carefully at those cases, and I am sure the PSNI will do so.

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Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): The dirty deal done between the previous Government and Sinn Fein was underhand, and an insult to victims and to all democrats in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State therefore accept that a deep hurt is felt by victims and that the only way to ensure it does not continue is by ensuring that these letters are withdrawn?

Mrs Villiers: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will take whatever steps are necessary to remove barriers to prosecution, based on the advice I am given by police and prosecutors. We will do everything possible to ensure that we do not see a repeat of the collapse of the Downey trial in another instance.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): The report makes it quite clear on the cover-up of this scheme that the authors and indeed the former Prime Minister and Secretary of State—appallingly—made representations about murderers not being prosecuted. The least we could have expected from the shadow Secretary of State today was an apology, instead of which we got a brazen defence. The Minister has at least apologised for the way in which the scheme was administered, for the ambiguity, and for the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were not informed. Will she now go further and assure us not only that will cases be left open but that she will be request from the police that everyone who has been issued with a letter will have their case reinvestigated, that new intelligence will be sought and that new investigative channels will be looked at so at least the victims can be sure that those who have received these letters will not be able to live in comfort for the rest of their lives?

Mrs Villiers: Let me take this opportunity to repeat the apology that I gave for the lack of transparency and the failure to discuss this scheme. I repeat my concerns about the way in which this scheme as a whole was run, including under my predecessors. I think that has been the cause of much of the distress to victims. The hon. Gentleman asks about the exact steps that will be taken to ensure that errors are corrected and problematic cases dealt with. I counsel against statements of that sort at this stage. We need to be careful to ensure that there is nothing that could be said in haste, which might end up hindering rather than helping a future prosecution. As soon as I am able, I will give further information on how we intend to implement the recommendations. Today, we need to be careful about commenting on specific cases and how they will be dealt with.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. We must never forget the victims and the survivors who have suffered. This whole sorry debacle has left a sour taste in the mouths of many people throughout Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there must be a redoubling of efforts to get back to the talks table to discuss those outstanding issues of the past—parading and flags—and will she confirm that she will come back to this House to explain how she intends to implement those recommendations from Hallett?

Mrs Villiers: I am certainly happy to come back to the House to discuss the implementation of the Hallett recommendations. The hon. Lady will know that I fully

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support the all-party talks and agree on the importance of their resumption. She will also know that the Prime Minister shares that view, because she will have heard that in her conversation with him yesterday.

Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Three of the people proposed for this scheme were proposed by the Garda Siochana. Will the Secretary of State explain how the Irish police service was aware of this scheme, yet Ministers in the Northern Ireland Government were not? Secondly, I understand that up to 15 names were proposed by the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Will she explain the role of the prison service in relation to this scheme, what officials were involved and how they will be held to account?

Mrs Villiers: As regards the names that came from the Irish Government, the Irish Government were involved at various points in the peace process on a number of matters, including this one. As I have said, I regret that Executive Ministers were not briefed at the time. On the prison service, it is not entirely clear how that came about, but it seems that the prison service had a number of individuals on its files who had escaped from prison, and the reason they ended up on the OTR scheme was to establish whether they needed to be sought for a return to prison. It was to clarify the position for the prison service.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Last but not least, Jim Shannon.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and her comments that she would have stopped it immediately if she had known. I am conscious of the victims; those are the people I think about. Kenneth Smith, an Ulster Defence Regiment sergeant, was killed on 10 December 1971. His killers escaped across the border. The IRA killer of Lexie Cummings walked out of court and straight across the border and has not returned. Four UDR men were killed at Ballydugan. Eight people were arrested, but none was charged. Some of those are now across the border. The murderers in the La Mon massacre at Castlereagh have also skipped across the border and have risen to prominence in business and political life in the Republic of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State tell us when she will have discussions with the Prime Minister in the Republic of Ireland to ensure that the investigations that will take place in Northern Ireland will mean that those down south who think they have escaped will be apprehended and made accountable?

Mrs Villiers: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, contrary to the position in the past, decisions on extradition are now taken by independent police and prosecuting authorities. On that basis, it would be inappropriate of me to raise specific cases with the Government of the Republic of Ireland.

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“A New Magna Carta?”

Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform

Select Committee statement

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): We now come to the first of two Select Committee statements, which will be moved by Mr Fabian Hamilton. He will make the first statement on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which will last for no more than 10 minutes, during which there will be no interventions. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on its subject. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in the questioning.

1.6 pm

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): Before I begin the statement, I should like to give the apologies of the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who is unable to be with us this afternoon. I pay tribute to his extraordinary work on this massive report, “A New Magna Carta?”, and thank the staff of the Committee, the Clerks and the other staff for all the efforts they have put into this four-year work.

Last Thursday, right next to the Magna Carta in the British Library, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee launched its new report on whether the UK’s constitution should be codified. The report marks the end of an innovative four-year inquiry that has involved the Committee working closely with King's college, University of London.

The United Kingdom is one of the very few democratic countries in the world without a codified constitution. As the Cabinet Manual notes:

“There is no single document that describes, establishes or regulates the structures of the state and the way in which these relate to the people. Instead, the constitutional order has evolved over time and continues to do so.”

Among other democracies, only Israel and New Zealand do not have codified or written constitutions.

We are living through a period of considerable political change. Significant developments in recent decades have included devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the removal of 90% of hereditary peers from the House of Lords; freedom of information legislation; the establishment of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments; and the entrenchment of human rights in our domestic legal system. At the same time, some existing constitutional arrangements have been written down in publicly available documents such as the ministerial code and the civil service code. But these changes have been piecemeal, so, at the beginning of the 2010 Parliament, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee decided that the time was right to begin a comprehensive evaluation of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements.

The Committee launched its inquiry in September 2010. From the beginning, we knew that this would be an ambitious and unusual Select Committee inquiry,

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which would be conducted over several years. It has involved working collaboratively with an academic partner, King’s college London, which has produced for us, among other things, an outline of the arguments for and against codification, a paper setting out the process that could be adopted in the preparation, design and implementation of a codified constitution, and three examples of what a codified constitution could look like: a non-legal code, a consolidation act, and a fully fledged written constitution. The Select Committee has published all that research, as well as a fully fledged written constitution, alongside our report.

When it comes to arguments in favour of a codified constitution, the King’s college London research points to the fact that the United Kingdom has a “sprawling mass” of common law, Acts of Parliament and European treaty obligations, and a number of important but uncertain and unwritten conventions that govern administration, but the full picture is unclear and uncertain to electors in our democracy. The research also points to concerns about an “elective dictatorship” and argues that it has

“become too easy for governments to implement political and constitutional reforms to suit their own political convenience”.

A written constitution would entrench requirements for popular and parliamentary consent, because the present unwritten constitution is

“an anachronism riddled with references to our ancient past, unsuited to the social and political democracy of the 21st century and future aspirations of its people. It fails to give primacy to the sovereignty of the people and discourages popular participation in the political process.”

Conversely, the case made against a written constitution in the King’s college research is that it is unnecessary, undesirable and even un-British. The UK’s unwritten constitution is evolutionary and flexible in nature, enabling practical problems to be resolved as they arise and individual reforms made. The research points to concerns that a written constitution would create more litigation in the courts and politicise the judiciary, requiring them to pass judgment on the constitutionality of Government legislation, when the final word on legal matters should rightly lie with elected politicians in Parliament and not unelected judges. There is the simple argument that there are so many practical problems in preparing and enacting a written constitution that there is little point in even considering it. There is no real popular support or demand and, especially given the massive amount of time and destabilising effect such a reform would entail, it is a low priority even for those who support the idea.

The Select Committee deliberately did not take a position for or against a codified constitution, believing that it is for the people of this country to make such a decision. The intention was instead to generate a forward-looking debate alongside the 800th anniversary celebrations of Magna Carta by placing in the public domain the results of our unique, four-year research project. Like Professor Robert Blackburn, who led the research, the Committee believes that a consideration of detailed alternative models, showing how a constitution might be designed and drafted, will inform and advance the debate on the desirability or otherwise of codifying the constitution in one place. There has been a number of attempts to produce an illustrative codified constitution for the United Kingdom or an outline of what such a constitution could contain. What we have published,

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however, represents the most comprehensive attempt so far to provide different detailed models of a codified constitution for comparison and consideration.

The publication of the report marks the beginning of a national consultation, running until 1 January 2015, to gather opinions on the future of the United Kingdom’s constitution. The Select Committee has asked anyone who is interested to submit their views on three questions. Does the UK need a codified constitution? If so, which of the options in the report offers the best way forward? What should be included in such a codified constitution? I encourage hon. Members to spread the word about our consultation to their constituents and to respond and share their own views. Details of how to submit responses can be found on the Committee’s website. The Committee intends to report on the views it receives before the next general election.

At a time of public disillusionment with the political establishment, in particular among young people, it is a good moment to return to fundamentals. There are few things more fundamental than how the state operates and exercises power and how it interacts with the people. Our constitution should belong to the people of the United Kingdom and not to political insiders or Members of Parliament. It is about our democracy, and so, as the nation celebrates the 800th anniversary of the first Magna Carta, we need to look forward as well as back. What should the Government of this country look like over the next 800 years?

Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): In my constituency is the village of Walkern, which was the administrative centre of William de Lanvalei, one of the 25 barons elected at Runnymede in 1215 to ensure that King John adhered to the law of the land set out in Magna Carta. The Walkern history society is doing a fantastic job this year, together with Janet Woodall and funded by the Big Lottery Fund, in celebrating that fact.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the great concerns about a codified constitution or, indeed, a consolidation is that it would affect this place’s arrangements and the arrangements with the courts? It might lead to a constitutional court being seen as a rival or as taking power away from this place. Does he agree that that would be undesirable? The self-restraint that we have in this place and in the courts is very welcome.

Fabian Hamilton: I am fascinated to learn about the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituency and the importance that it has in the original Magna Carta. I agree that if a codified or written constitution is not properly drafted, such mistakes could be made and the judiciary, as the King’s college London research suggests, could become extremely politicised. We know from other countries with written constitutions that it is often the constitutional court that makes decisions that should rightly be made by Parliament and by elected Members. All that is capable of being overcome, however, by careful, considered drafting and by asking the people of this country what they want to see in that constitution, if indeed that is what they want.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Select Committee’s report. Working on a cross-party basis, the Committee has done a truly

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excellent job in producing a weighty document on a serious constitutional and political challenge.

How does my hon. Friend think we can best take the debate forward? He spoke of a national consultation between now and the end of the year. How does the Select Committee propose that we engage with civil society organisations such as Unlock Democracy and Bite the Ballot? How might we best engage with young people in this important debate?

Fabian Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am sure that, in common with many Members of this House, he regularly visits schools. Many primary schools from my constituency have visited the House of Commons and many young people have been present in the Palace of Westminster these last few weeks. When I talk to school councils, whether in primary or secondary schools, I find a huge interest in how government works, how we run the country and how the House of Commons and Parliament work. It is sometimes hard to unravel and for many to understand, but a debate among schoolchildren, who have that growing interest, would actually serve to inform us as well, because they are the next generation of public representatives of the judiciary and of the electorate and we want their input.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Bite the Ballot and Unlock Democracy, both of which have given evidence on numerous occasions to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, as have many other civil society organisations. We value that important evidence, but we need to spread the message as far and as wide as we possibly can. It is not the main topic of the day, but it is crucial to how Governments and Parliament are run in future and the engagement of the next generation.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for setting out the conclusions of the Select Committee’s report. What evidence was taken from other countries that also have Magna Carta as arguably their most important constitutional document? I am particularly thinking of places that have codified constitutions in the Anglosphere, such as Australia, Canada and the United States.

Fabian Hamilton: Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman can see the size of the document, and I commend it to him. I cannot say that I have read it from cover to cover, but I have had a great part as a member of the Committee in creating it. We took evidence from other countries. Of course, we looked at New Zealand, which has an uncodified constitution, and at Australia. Interestingly, we looked at France and at Iceland, which has an older Parliament even than our own. There were many lessons to learn from all those other countries, whether they had codified constitutions, written constitutions or unwritten ones, as New Zealand does. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report or even scans it, he will find many of those examples both in the body of the report and in its appendices. There is a lot to learn from other nations.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Although it is right to celebrate the Magna Carta, it is worth noting that the laws of Hywel Dda, which were written 200

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years before Magna Carta, gave rights not just to the aristocracy and barons but to all women. There is much that is progressive in the cyfraith Hywel.

Page 348 of the report, on war and armed conflict, suggests that to go to war we should need a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament and a positive legal opinion that approves it. This is a matter that has changed in the convention of the House since 2003, particularly as regards the decision taken by the House on 29 August last year. Does my hon. Friend believe that this will be a major item of discussion and reform?

Fabian Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and question. Yes, of course, this is a new departure even during my brief 17 years here in the House of Commons. It is essential that this House and its elected members have the say in whether this country goes to war and I think that the public were baffled previously as they did not realise that Parliament did not have to give its approval for an act of war between Great Britain and other nations in the world. We need to codify this and to set it in stone, as it were, so that never again can a Prime Minister say on behalf of the monarch that we declare war. Elected Members of Parliament and only elected Members of Parliament should have that right.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his statement and praise him and the Committee for the quality of their work. They are bound to win first prize for the largest Select Committee report in this Parliament. Does he agree that a good starting point in reforming the constitution would be to empower this House to decide when it meets and what it discusses? If an event of importance to our nation takes place during one of the parliamentary recesses, it is not the House that decides to recall itself but the Government of the day, which might well be minded not do so. Does he agree that a good starting point would be to introduce a recall mechanism for the House so that it can call itself into session if something important happens either in this country or around the world?

Fabian Hamilton: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his pertinent question. I heard the questions that he put to the Leader of the House earlier today on that very subject and it is absolutely clear to me that the elected Members of this House should have control over their timetabling and over whether they can sit. I am baffled about why that has not happened already, although I know that we had some responses on that from the Leader of the House earlier. I would hope that if there were any codified constitution or written constitution for this country it would set the elected Chamber of our Parliament at its heart. Otherwise, our electors simply cannot understand it when they contact us and ask us to recall Parliament for a debate on whether to attack Syria, Iraq or whoever it might be, only for us to say that it is up to the Government of the day and that we have no power to make that decision. That has to change.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I thank my hon. Friend for making this statement about the report. I joined the Select Committee in the midst of this inquiry. Does he recognise, as regards the question that has just been raised, that a codified constitution might provide a

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more cogent assertion of this House’s authority vis-à-vis the Executive and that it might also answer a constant frustration that we hear from some in this House, as there seems to be an overlap between those who are Eurosceptic and those who are sceptical about a written constitution? Some other countries with codified or written constitutions, such as Germany, have been able to use that constitution to show that their national laws have primacy over European laws and the interpretation of European laws.

Fabian Hamilton: I thank my hon. Friend for that relevant and pertinent contribution. That is exactly why I as a member of the Committee and many other members of the Committee support a written or codified constitution. It would state and assert the primacy of our national Parliament over the sovereignty of the European Union and it would define that relationship far more clearly than the statutes and treaties scattered all over the place, which are not brought together, meaning that we do not really know—and the public do not really know—the relationship between elected Members, the European Parliament and the European Union. Who has sovereignty? Who has primacy? Of course we cede some sovereignty when we sign a treaty, but the fact is that Germany has it right and we need perhaps to emulate its example so that we can show that this House and its elected Members, elected by our constituents, the electorate of this country, have sovereignty over our laws and over some of the laws imposed on us with which we are not happy.

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16-plus Care Options

Select Committee sStatement

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): We now come to the second of the Select Committee statements. We will use the same format. The Chair of the Select Committee on Education will make a statement on the report for no more than 10 minutes, during which there will be no interventions taken, then Members will be able to ask questions on the subject of the statement. Again, that will last for approximately 10 minutes in total. I therefore call the Chair of the Education Committee.

1.26 pm

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber today with so many members of the Select Committee and other colleagues as we launch our report, “Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options”. Our report on 16-plus care options is about a group of young people that is often overlooked and a policy area that is unfashionable and forgotten. We first raised our concerns in our “Children first” report, published in October 2012. During our inquiry into residential children’s homes, the report for which was published in March, we became increasingly concerned about the quality of care and level of support provided for older adolescents as they moved towards greater independence and adulthood, often because of a misguided belief that they are more resilient than younger children.

This inquiry confirmed just how serious the shortcomings of 16-plus care options are. Our inquiry was launched on 22 January and set out the following terms of reference: the kinds of accommodation provided for young people aged 16 and 17 who are looked after by local authorities; the suitability, safety and regulatory nature of alternative accommodation; whether staying put should apply to those in residential children’s homes; and whether the provision of alternative accommodation should be extended to the age of 21.

We wanted to make sure that our inquiry was informed by young people affected by the issues we were considering, so we held an informal seminar at the outset of the inquiry to hear the views of young people and care leavers. We visited Ipswich to see examples of “other arrangements”, as they are described in the jargon, and met local authority officers from the region and service providers as well as the Suffolk children in care council. We had nearly 40 submissions of written evidence from a wide range of witnesses and we heard all evidence from two panels of witnesses before questioning the Minister, who I am delighted to see in his place on the Front Bench.

Our report makes three fundamental recommendations. First, the Department for Education must consult on a framework of individual regulatory oversight for all accommodation that falls within “other arrangements” to ensure suitability while allowing for diversity of provision. These “other arrangements” are those in which 22% of looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds live, and we found that too often they are neither safe nor suitable. Efforts are made to ensure the safety and suitability of provision for children and young people in other settings—childminders, foster carers, children’s homes, schools and sixth-form colleges are each and every one of them regulated and inspected, yet “other arrangements” for some of the most vulnerable young people in this country are not.

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Current quality assurance relies on Ofsted tracking a sample of cases. This would not be an acceptable approach for any of the settings that I have just listed, and it should not be acceptable for the accommodation in which some of society’s most vulnerable young people are housed. Individual regulation and inspection is the only way, we believe, to ensure suitability.

The second key proposal is that the DFE must consult urgently local authorities to establish a reasonable time frame for the absolute ban on the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for looked-after young people. The Department says that bed and breakfasts are not suitable for this group, yet they continue to be used, sometimes for a long period. We heard shocking accounts of looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation which was not only unsuitable, but made the young people feel frightened and threatened.

We recognise the negative implications of a hastily introduced outright ban. That is why we urge the DFE to consult local authorities and establish a realistic time frame in which alternative emergency arrangements can be found, settled and established. This will require local authorities to be creative and to work together, but it is vital that the urgency of the situation is not lost. We know from the performance of some councils that it can be done and is being done, so let it be done everywhere and for all.

In the meantime, the message is plain: bed and breakfasts are not suitable and should be used only in extreme, emergency situations, and even then never for more than a few days before the ban comes into force. In addition, local authority children’s services should report to the Department the numbers of looked-after young people placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation so that we have a clear picture of how much this unsuitable accommodation is being used to house these vulnerable young people.

Our third key recommendation is that looked-after young people living in residential children’s homes should have the right to stay there until they are 21, just as those living in foster care now can, thanks to changes brought in by this Government. We recommend that the DFE extend Staying Put to residential children’s homes. We were not convinced by the Minister’s arguments against an extension of this policy. It may not be in the best interest of some young people, or their preference, to stay in their residential children’s home, but many who are settled and thriving would greatly benefit from the stability of staying put in the home which is their home.

The DFE argues that the quality of children’s homes must improve before it will allow young people to stay beyond their 18th birthday. That argument does not bear much scrutiny. The most recent figures from Ofsted inspections at the beginning of this year show that for overall effectiveness 68% of children’s homes inspected were judged good or outstanding, and just 6% were found to be inadequate. Furthermore, forcing young people to move at the age of 18 from a home that may be judged good or better by Ofsted to unregulated and sometimes unsuitable settings makes no sense.

In addition to these fundamental recommendations, we found that there are several other aspects of 16-plus care options in desperate need of attention, which can

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be split into three broad areas. First, our report focuses on the planning and preparation for a young person’s move to independence. In particular, young people need to know more and have the chance to say more, while also being given the support and encouragement to maintain the relationships that matter most to them.

Secondly, our report sets out the necessary steps to ensure minimal disruption and maximum stability during a young person’s transition to adulthood and independence. This includes offering a safety net if life takes a turn for the worst; providing support to the age of 25, without exception; and providing the much needed peace of mind as a young person prepares for important exams, by ensuring the stability of their placement at that time. Thirdly, we stress the importance of providing options, be it staying in “other arrangements” until the age of 21, or simultaneously meeting the wish for independence and the need for continuing support through Staying Close, which is where accommodation is provided close to, for instance, a residential children’s home where a young person has developed solid relationships with trusted adults.

We were deeply impressed by the young people we met, who spoke to us openly and honestly about their personal experiences. Their contributions added value to our inquiry and confirmed our view that these young people deserve better. This report is a step towards ensuring that they get it.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I commend the Education Committee on an excellent report. There is a host of questions that I would like to ask, but I know that Madam Deputy Speaker would not want me to do that, so I shall confine myself to one and seek out the Chairman and other members of the Committee on another occasion to explore many of the issues raised in the report, including the use of personal advisers and extending Staying Put.

I was particularly shocked by the bed-and-breakfast revelations. Was the Committee able to form a picture of the likely numbers of young people in care who are required to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation beyond a period of 28 days? The Committee was right to say that an immediate ban would be problematic and that there should be a period of reflection, but does the Chairman think it advisable for the Government to consider an immediate restriction that ensures that no young person in care can be required to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than 28 days?

Mr Stuart: I thank the shadow Minister for his question. We did not specify in the report precisely what that limit should be, but we are entirely in sympathy with that thinking. We would be more ambitious. We think 28 days is outrageously long. A stay of a week would be too long; probably five days would be acceptable. The case that was put to us is that at 11 o’clock on a Friday night—the famous 11 o’clock on a Friday night case—a place must be found for a child. Okay, but by the following Wednesday, the whole power of the local authority, which is in the position of parent, cannot find something different for the child? We found that hard to believe. We did not specify the duration because we wanted to give maximum flexibility, but a lot less than 28 days would be the collective view of my Committee.

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Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con): I am particularly proud of this piece of work. I think it is one of the best that we have done as a cross-party Committee, of which I am a member. Does my hon. Friend agree that for far too many years the long-term prognosis for far too many of our young people in care has been bleak, and that the recommendations based on the evidence in the report go a long way to rectify some of those injustices?

Mr Stuart: I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his hard work and commitment in this area and others on the Committee. I know he would join me, as would Members across the House, in recognising the personal commitment of the Minister to make a difference in this area, and that significant improvements have been made under this Government. None the less, outcomes for young people in care in this country for far too long have been bleak, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) puts it. When we look at how many people who have been in care end up in prison, in prostitution, or struggling with drug and alcohol dependency, that does not say a lot about the parenting that we have put in place for those young people, and we know that other countries manage to do a lot better, both educationally and in broader terms, to prepare people for adult life.

What better test of a civilisation than how it looks after young people whose families may have disintegrated and failed to provide them with support? What better way to judge that civilisation than by its ability to meet the needs of those young people and make sure that those most vulnerable people get a fair crack at life and are supported all the way into adulthood, rather than too often abandoned at a young and vulnerable age?

Pat Glass (North West Durham) (Lab): I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). I am particularly proud of this report, which I think is one of the most important that the Committee has produced over the past four years. It contains many recommendations, and I am looking for positive responses from the Government on all of them, but I will mention the two that I think are most urgent. First, we recommend that Ofsted should inspect provision for children leaving care at 16. As the Chair of the Committee said, we would not allow schools, further education colleges or children’s homes not to be subject to inspection by Ofsted, so why should we allow provision for our most vulnerable children leaving care not to be? Secondly, we recommend that Staying Put should also be available to children in children’s homes, who are often taken into care late and are often the most vulnerable. They are the most likely to end up unemployed, homeless, in prison, subject to substance abuse and so on. I am particularly concerned that we get a positive response to those two recommendations and hope that the Chair of the Committee will support that.

Mr Stuart: I very much agree with the hon. Lady. I am pleased to see the newly promoted Financial Secretary to the Treasury on the Front Bench. Even if we were to view that group of people in the driest economic terms, we would see that investing to save by ensuring that they get the stability and support they need when they are at their most vulnerable, which is when they are young,

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would pay off in the long term. That would reduce the number of people in prison or calling on other services because their lives have not worked out right. I know that Treasury Ministers are always told to invest to save, but here we have a moral need to do the right thing by those young people but also, when we consider how catastrophic the outcomes are for so many of them, an overwhelming economic case. Even in these tough times, we should find the resources and focus them on that group, because we will make proper improvement on every front, as the hon. Lady rightly points out.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I praise my hon. Friend for his statement and commend his Committee for an excellent report. Were the Secretary of State for Education or the Minister to say to him later, “Look, Graham, we have a lot on our plate at the moment and lots of things we are trying to push through, so which one recommendation could we pursue for you?”, what would his answer be?

Mr Stuart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, despite his attempt to narrow me to one recommendation. I would hate to tempt the Minister into saying that we can have only one recommendation, because the report contains a coherent set of proposals that hang together, and I know that they fit with the direction of travel on which the Government have already set out. None the less, one should always answer the question, so I would ask the Minister to look at the “other arrangements” and ensure that they are regulated. It is not just those who have left care who are in the “other arrangements”, and the number of 16 and 17-year-olds leaving care has been massively reduced under this Government, on which they should be congratulated. Often young people are still in care when they are in the “other arrangements”, so we are still in loco parentis. The fact is that that accommodation is not inspected or regulated, and we do not think that sampling is enough. That is the one thing that, above all else, must change.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): The Chair might have anticipated my question by referring to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The Chair will recollect the series of visits we undertook and the discussions we had with young people, as he mentioned earlier. They felt abandoned in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. One young woman told us about people braying at her door late at night, and another told us that she had been left for weeks on end in unsuitable accommodation. He and I agree, as does the Committee, that bed-and-breakfast accommodation should be banned as soon as practically possible for young people, but does he also agree that local and national Government need to have, and need to provide the necessary resources to have, proper emergency provisions, perhaps by sharing between authorities, and end the practice that so often puts young people at risk?

Mr Stuart: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and the passion he brings to these issues and, quite rightly, to challenging the Government and asking for more on behalf of those young people. He is absolutely right. I know that the personal testimony we heard seared his conscience, as it did mine. We heard those young people consistently and articulately describe the awful situations they found themselves in, such as

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bed-and-breakfast accommodation with troubled adults around them, in one case knocking on the door of a young woman who was barely 16 years old, inviting her to come to their room. She was traumatised and frightened and, supposedly, in the care of the state.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): I add my voice to those of Members who have already said how important it is that the report has been published and that we support this group of incredibly vulnerable young people with all the financial benefits that would come from it. As the report states, the young people in residential children’s homes are often the most vulnerable. That is why its recommendations on extending care to the age of 21 in residential settings are so important. I, too, was struck by the evidence we heard from young people during the inquiry, particularly on the importance of relationships, whether with carers, other professionals, friends or mentors, and the difference that can make to young people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that support needs to be about extending care to the whole group of people leaving care, the quality and availability of the settings, and the psychological benefits of long-term relationships, both professional and personal?

Mr Stuart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking such a close and passionate interest in the subject and for his work on the Committee. He is absolutely right. As we have seen in all the work we have done on child protection and vulnerable children, it has come down again and again to the quality of relationships. That is why it is so important that relationships should be maintained and why we have made our specific recommendations on staying put and on contact with

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siblings. We heard testimony from young people who did not want to be forced to see their parents but who wanted to see their brothers or sisters, whom they loved and had great relationships with. That needs to be improved.

Extending Staying Put to residential care homes is an expensive option, because the cost of providing a care home place is high. It means that having stabilised someone, they are then given the option—let us remember that they can leave at 18 if they want to; they will not be forced to stay—to remain in a place that is happy to have them, where they want to stay, where they can have stable relationships and from which they can go to college and start to build a life. It is probably the most expensive of the suggestions in our report, so I am delighted to have such a senior and influential Treasury Minister on the Front Bench to hear the arguments, because that truly would be a good investment in the future of the country and the future of young people who have been let down not only by their families, but, too often, by the state.

Bill Presented

National Insurance Contributions Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Danny Alexander, Mr David Gauke, Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to national insurance contributions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 21 July, and to be printed (Bill 80) with explanatory notes (Bill 80-EN).

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Backbench Business

Universal Postal Service

1.47 pm

Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House believes that the Universal Service Obligation as set out in the Postal Services Act 2011 is under threat from unfair competition from organisations which are rapidly expanding end-to-end delivery services in low-cost, high-density urban areas while leaving high-cost, low-density rural areas to be covered by Royal Mail, the universal service provider; and calls on the Government to instruct Ofcom to bring forward proposals to protect the Universal Service Obligation and the commercial viability of Royal Mail against this threat.

I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this important, timely, and indeed urgent, debate, given the threat to the universal service obligation. I refer to my entries in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and advise the House that I have worked with Royal Mail, the Communication Workers Union and Unite the union on the issue in the run-up to the debate.

The London assembly yesterday passed a similar motion expressing concern at the expansion of end-to-end postal services by TNT Post and the ability of such organisations to cherry-pick services that provide the most lucrative work. The assembly was particularly interested in that, as TNT started off providing end-to-end services in London. The motion it passed went further than the one we are considering today, as it called on Royal Mail to be brought back into public ownership.

Royal Mail is the UK’s universal service provider. It is required under the Postal Services Act 2011 to deliver to 29 million UK addresses six days a week, and five days a week for other packets, all being delivered at an affordable, geographically uniform price.

Ofcom became the official regulator of postal services on 1 October 2011. Its primary duty is to secure the provision of the universal service obligation for postal services. It also has a duty, under the Communications Act 2003, to further the interests of citizens and consumers, where appropriate, to promote competition, but its duty to secure the universal service obligation always takes precedence.

There are two types of competition in postal services. The first is downstream access, which allows providers other than Royal Mail to collect and sort mail and then give it to Royal Mail to deliver over the so-called final mile. Obviously, it is not always only a mile, and sometimes it can be less than a mile, but that final part of the process is the part that Royal Mail has a legal obligation to carry out. The other type is the end-to-end service, which is the direct delivery of mail to the customer without any need for Royal Mail to get involved in the process. That is what I will focus on today.

TNT Post is currently Royal Mail’s main competitor in the end-to-end market. In 2012, it launched a direct delivery trial providing a full end-to-end service in west London. Since then, it has rapidly expanded into other parts of London and into Manchester and Liverpool. It plans, by the end of 2017, to cover over 42% of households in the UK, although only about 8.5% of the UK’s geographical area.

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Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the many complaints about TNT’s service in London because of its use of agency staff, with letters being dumped and put through the wrong letterboxes? It does not just create unfair competition; it provides a poor service.

Katy Clark: Indeed, we are aware of the concerns about the inferior terms and conditions of TNT’s staff compared with those of Royal Mail, and about the service that customers are receiving. Of course, organisations other than Royal Mail are not required to meet the standards of service that it has a legal obligation to provide.

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for missing the first part of my hon. Friend’s remarks. Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), when the then Conservative-run council in Harrow decided to use TNT for the delivery of council tax letters, there was a whole series of reports of bad distribution processes—so much so that in the end Royal Mail had to be used to get the letters out in their entirety.

Katy Clark: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that example, which illustrates the problems we are having and are likely to have to a greater degree as time goes on if the expansion takes place in the way that is intended.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. It is important for people to realise that one of the problems is that while the customer is the person posting the letter, it is the recipient who does not get their bank statement, bill or cheque, and they have no say in that. That is why conditions are an important part of what Ofcom needs to look at.

Katy Clark: Given the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I suspect that he shares many of my concerns. I hope that we will explore all these issues in the debate.

I do not think the House necessarily fully appreciated that the expansion of TNT would take place quite so rapidly, and that is why this debate is so urgent. This expansion is a direct threat to the universal service because Royal Mail needs the universal service in order to be able to use revenues that it generates in areas where it is easier to deliver mail. In the areas I mentioned—London, Manchester and Liverpool—it is easier to deliver mail and therefore easier to generate profits. It is necessary for Royal Mail to use that work to generate profits to help to cover the rest of the national network.

I represent a large rural constituency in Scotland with islands and many small communities. In many parts of it, the costs of providing a mail delivery service will be quite considerable, no matter how we organise postal services.

Mr David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Surely that is the whole point. Royal Mail needs the cross-subsidy to be able to deliver to the sparsely populated areas that my hon. Friend and I represent. That is key, and the ombudsman has to take it into account in relation to fair competition.

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Katy Clark: The hon. Gentleman, or rather my hon. Friend—

Mr Hamilton: Comrade.

Katy Clark: Indeed—he is both a friend and a comrade. I am delighted that he is here today. He represents a very similar constituency to mine.

Members in all parts of the House represent constituencies where we know it will never be profitable to deliver mail. That is why the universal service is so important. It is also important that we ensure that stamp prices are kept at a level that is affordable in all parts of the country.

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have seen this unfair competition before when the Conservatives were last in power and they privatised British Telecom? The other companies wanted the cities but not the rural areas, and now we see that again with Royal Mail.

Katy Clark: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Perhaps we can enter into that debate on another occasion.

The Government are allowing TNT to cherry-pick the services in more profitable city areas, where its presence has already led to reductions of 14% to 15% in the use of Royal Mail.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I apologise for missing the first two minutes of my hon. Friend’s speech in this very important debate. Does she accept that, although Labour Members voted to maintain the public ownership of Royal Mail, it is now notionally a private company? The USO is about providing a service, irrespective of the company that does it, across the country. There has to be an understanding from the Government, which was missing in Committee when Labour Members argued vociferously that this type of situation would occur, that we need to use a levy on TNT and other private sector companies or look at the structure of how mail is distributed across this country, on a regional basis or otherwise, to make sure that provision is universal.

Katy Clark: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many predicted that we would face this problem. Indeed, we are here to give a warning that it is already beginning to happen and that action is necessary now—we do not have time to wait. He is absolutely correct that that action is required whether Royal Mail is in the public sector or the private sector—given that most of it is not held by the Government or the work force.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I very much support my hon. Friend’s argument. I wonder whether, early in the morning a couple of weeks ago, she heard the interview on Radio 4’s “Today” programme with a business analyst who predicted the end of the universal door-to-door service because, he said, it will be impossible for Royal Mail, faced with this unfair competition, to sustain it. The universal service exists in statute, but does she agree that it is not specified what that means? It could mean collection from a central collection point, not delivery door to door.

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Katy Clark: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, he has a very long track record and great expertise on these issues. If we do not take action now, then when the House considers this matter in a number of years’ time, there will be serious proposals for a reduction in the kind of service that people receive. We hope that the Government will take action now to make sure that we are not faced with that problem.

At the moment, Royal Mail still delivers 99% of mail in the UK. Our concern is that that situation could change very quickly given the current expansion plans of TNT, in particular, and perhaps other providers as well. Royal Mail itself estimates that TNT’s expansion strategy could result in a reduction of more than £200 million in Royal Mail revenue by 2017-18. The reality is that much of the most profitable section of the market, namely the business mail, is already handled by companies other than Royal Mail. Indeed, that has been the case for a considerable period. There has also been a significant reduction in the volume of letters over the past decade, which also continues to put pressure on the universal service obligation.

Royal Mail is subject to vigorous and rigorous performance standards. Its competitors are not subject to the same standards. There is also no requirement on competitors to report on service standards, as Ofcom says that service standards are driven by market forces. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has pointed out, there are many concerns about the poor quality of service that customers receive from TNT in areas where it operates. There are also many concerns about the terms and conditions of the work force, which are considerably worse than those of the Royal Mail work force.

I believe that the motion is moderate. It calls on Ofcom to carry out a full review and to make proposals for regulation to create a level playing field in the postal services market. In particular, I ask Ofcom to consider whether a compensation fund could be established to support the provision of the universal service, which could be used to collect contributions from those that benefit from providing en-to-end service without the requirements of meeting the universal service. I also ask Ofcom to consider whether the general service conditions that currently apply specifically to Royal Mail alone should be extended to apply also to other operators.

We should also consider removing the requirement on Royal Mail to allow other operators to access its network. Hon. Members who visit the postal depots in their constituencies at Christmas will know that the work force have been raising concerns about that issue for many years. There is no doubt that that requirement to deliver mail for others has been a burden on Royal Mail.

Mr McKenzie: It is not only about the commitment to deliver that mail for others; often, Royal Mail also has to sort that mail before delivering it for them.

Katy Clark: My hon. Friend and his family have a great deal of experience in these matters, as do I. He is absolutely correct. I think that the situation is slightly less frustrating for the work force now, because the work used to be even more of a drain on Royal Mail and it made a considerable loss as a result. The financial arrangements have improved slightly, but this is very much an area that Ofcom needs to look at.