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House of Commons

Tuesday 23 June 2015

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Prisoner Rehabilitation Services

1. Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con): What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. [900485]

2. Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. [900486]

10. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. [900494]

14. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What his plans are for the future of rehabilitation services for prisoners; and if he will make a statement. [900498]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): May I begin by praising the work of my predecessor to improve the rehabilitation of offenders? Thanks to his reforming zeal, we have broadened the range of people providing and benefiting from rehabilitation, but there is still much more to do.

Lucy Allan: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply and for the great work to support the rehabilitation of offenders to give them a second chance. Will he assure me that that rehabilitation will never be appropriate in cases such as the brutal murder of Telford teenager Georgia Williams?

Michael Gove: Absolutely. May I emphasise that, with heinous crimes such as the appalling murder of Georgia Williams, judges have the freedom to impose whole-life orders? One was imposed on the killer in that terrible case.

Michael Tomlinson: Clean Sheet and Footprints are two charities in Dorset supporting ex-offenders into work and reducing the risk of reoffending. What steps

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is my right hon. Friend taking to support such charities and to ensure that offenders leave prison ready to face the world of work?

Michael Gove: I commend my hon. Friend for raising the work of those two voluntary sector organisations. Without the work of voluntary and third sector organisations, we would not be able to provide the educational and rehabilitative services that enable people who are currently in our prisons to have a second chance.

Michael Fabricant: It is not just voluntary services that have a role to play, but private businesses such as Marks & Spencer, and indeed other well known department stores. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should encourage private enterprise to help in the rehabilitation of offenders to get them back to work?

Michael Gove: I absolutely agree—that is a very good point. May I single out for praise the John Lewis Partnership, which does such a fantastic job in helping people from a variety of backgrounds to be all they can be? I stress that there are other organisations, such as Greggs the bakers and, of course, Timpson, the shoe and key repair firm. John Timpson’s leadership in providing ex-offenders with a second chance is exemplary.

Jeremy Lefroy: Given that 12% of the prison population are sex offenders, including many in the prison in Stafford, what specific rehabilitation work is being done for sex offenders?

Michael Gove: The excellent work that is done in Stafford prison is close to my hon. Friend’s heart, and he is absolutely right. We need to make use of the most sophisticated means that psychologists can devise to help people to tackle the problems that led them to offend. I had the opportunity earlier this week to talk to the psychologist in charge of that work at the National Offender Management Service, and to guarantee her all support in the weeks and months ahead in dealing with those terrible crimes.

23. [900509] Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Lord Laming is inquiring into looked-after children and the criminal justice system. As well as rehabilitation, what is the Justice Secretary doing to help youngsters who have been in care to avoid a life in crime?

Michael Gove: I welcome Herbert Laming’s work. He has been an inspirational figure in social work. He is right to draw attention to the high number of male and particularly female offenders in our jails who spent their lives in care. Working with the Education Secretary and the Minister for Children and Families, who has responsibility for children in care, I hope we can work on the reforms of the coalition Government to ensure that more children in dysfunctional homes can be adopted and fostered quickly, and that there are better educational outcomes for children who have to spend their lives in care.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that central to reducing crime rates overall is reducing the rate of reoffending? Does

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he therefore also agree that to cut rehabilitative services, and funding for them, ultimately would be counter- productive in the long term?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished barrister and historian and is absolutely right, because the historical record shows that, overall as a country, we have been very poor at reducing the rate of recidivism. We need to ensure that, both in our prisons and afterwards, we have high-quality services provided by professionals who know how to change the behaviour of individuals who deserve a second chance.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on his recent appointment. He looked very impressive in his new robes, if I may say so.

Thirty-five per cent. of prisoners have a drug addiction and 6% acquire that addiction while in prison. What specific help is being given to those with a drug addiction when they come out of prison?

Michael Gove: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his re-election as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. He did an exemplary job in the previous Parliament and I know he will do a very good job in this Parliament. May I also thank him for his kind words about my dress sense? When it comes to cutting a sartorial dash, there are few who can match him.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that drug addiction is one of the principal factors that lead individuals to commit crime. It is also the case that there is an unacceptable level of drug use, both of illegal drugs and so-called legal highs, in our prisons. We are determined to ensure that the psychological support currently available in prison, and the support rehabilitation companies can provide for individuals who are drug-addicted, is enhanced so that individuals can be weaned off a habit that brings misery to themselves and to their victims.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): Does the Secretary of State agree that an important part of rehabilitation is the nature of the custodial arrangements we make for our prisoners? He will have seen yesterday’s announcement by the Scottish Government on their plans to reform the custodial arrangements for female offenders in Scotland. Will he commit to considering a similar approach as he reforms the prison estate in England and Wales?

Michael Gove: Both our jurisdictions have a great deal to learn from one another. I am very grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for mentioning that, and for the very constructive tone she took in last week’s Westminster Hall debate on these issues. I hope to have the chance to visit prisons in Scotland soon and to talk to the Scottish Justice Minister about some of these issues.

Court Estate: Gloucestershire

3. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): What plans he has for the future of the court estate in Gloucestershire. [900487]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): The court estate in Gloucestershire, and across England and Wales, is a major asset of

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Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. Any new proposals on the future of the courts will be subject to consultation.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend, as part of the Courts and Tribunals Service reform programme, consider establishing one purpose-built building to house all court services?

Mr Vara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. I am very mindful of the state of affairs of Gloucestershire’s court estate. It is important that court buildings provide value for money and meet local demand. I will certainly ensure that his comments are taken on board.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I have discussed the issue of the courts in Gloucestershire—and in Gloucester in particular, where we have a Crown court that predates the battle of Waterloo—with the Minister and his predecessors for several years. As my neighbour and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), has said, our courts are in a dire position. Will he confirm today that the Department will look very closely at the state of the courts and take advantage of the opportunity to use the site we have reserved free of charge in Blackfriars?

Mr Vara: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his re-election. I know the issue of the court structure was a key element in the general election. It is good to see that, post-election, he continues to battle for that cause. We have met and corresponded on this issue, so he will be aware that, as we speak, officials are engaged in considering the best way forward.

Prisons: Work

4. Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con): What progress he has made on ensuring that prisoners undertake work in prisons. [900488]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): We want prisons to be places of industry and purposeful activity by replicating as far as possible a normal working week, and by teaching skills that lead to employment on release and reduced reoffending. From 2010-11 to 2013-14, the number of hours worked in prisons increased by a third from 10.6 million to 14.2 million in public sector prisons.

Matt Warman: The Minister will be aware that a number of my constituents in North Sea Camp open prison are already undertaking a great deal of paid work. What work is the Department doing to ensure that people are moved to open prisons at the right time, rather than before time?

Andrew Selous: Only prisoners assessed as at low risk of absconding and low risk of harm to the public, and who are within two years of release, may be allocated to an open prison. An open prison provides resettlement opportunities, including paid work that can support successful reintegration into the community and help to reduce the risk of reoffending. We want all prisoners to take advantage of these opportunities. We will continue to encourage all prisoners to do so.

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Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): The prison service is housing an increasing number of older prisoners. What steps are being taken to rehabilitate prisoners who are too old or too ill to work?

Andrew Selous: We cannot require older prisoners to work, but I would certainly want those opportunities to be available to older prisoners, just as they are to many older people in society who want to carry on working. All our educational opportunities are, of course, open to older prisoners. We recognise the challenge, which the hon. Lady rightly raises, of an increasingly elderly prison population.

Sir Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Between 2005 and 2009, I visited about 65 prisons in England and Wales, and it was my universal experience that the work done by prisoners was more or less useless to the outside world. In one prison, I saw people making hairnets. No doubt there is a market for hairnets—

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): There is!

Sir Edward Garnier: None of the prisoners in that prison—it was not too far from Lichfield!—was ever going to leave prison to work in a hairnet factory. Will my hon. Friend please ensure that proper wages are paid for the work we tell prisoners to do, so that they can support their families, rather than the welfare state, and can leave prison and get a job that they want to do?

Mr Speaker: I think the hairnet has been replaced, to judge by the length of the question, but we greatly enjoyed the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question.

Andrew Selous: I have great respect for my right hon. and learned Friend and for his seminal work, “Prisons with a Purpose”. Of course we want high-quality work. I could show him what is happening in Halfords academy at Olney prison, where prisoners are trained to be bicycle mechanics so that they can get a job on release; or I could tell him about the new work we are doing with the Ministry of Defence, which has been much appreciated by that Department.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): The Minister will be well aware that one of the biggest safeguards against reoffending is getting people into a job. In a number of prisons, including HMP Risley in my constituency, however, prisoners are often denied access to work experience because the prison wings are locked owing to a shortage of staff. What is the hon. Gentleman doing to tackle this problem?

Andrew Selous: We are doing a great deal about it. The first and most important thing is that we were successful in recruiting more than 1,700 extra prison officers in the year to March, and we are going to carry on recruiting the same number of prison officers. That will lead to more staff on the wings, allowing more access to work activities to achieve exactly what the hon. Lady wants.


5. Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): If he will take steps to increase the penalties available for people convicted of burglary offences. [900489]

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The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): Since 2010, crime has fallen across the country, and in my hon. Friend’s constituency by 19%. Burglary has a disproportionate effect on victims, which is why we are pleased that custodial cases for domestic burglary have increased from 22.6 months in 2010 to 26 months in 2014.

Mr Robertson: I am pleased that the Minister is taking this crime very seriously indeed. Police forces tell us that a very small number of people commit a very high percentage of burglaries. Is it not easier to take those people out of circulation for even longer so that, very simply, they will not be able to commit those crimes?

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why this Parliament has decided that the maximum prison sentence for this offence should be 14 years. It is for the judiciary to decide what sentence burglars get, but I am sure that the judiciary listens to the will of Parliament.

John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Many burglaries are driven by major addiction issues, so what is being done to increase the range and variety of solutions? Is there not a place for innovative solutions?

Mike Penning: A pilot project to get rid of cautions and defer prosecutions took place in three constituencies during the last Parliament, and it is doing really well at the moment. This is exactly the sort of thing that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. People will know how the offences they have committed affect the community. We can keep them out of prison for low-level offences, but put them in prison for high-level offences.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Mandatory sentencing with “two strikes and you’re out” has had its impact on burglary. When is the Minister going to get on and implement this mandatory “two strikes and you’re out” policy for knife crime? It was introduced in January, but now we need to ensure that we set a clear implementation date rather than have the latest “as soon as possible” response from the Department.

Mike Penning: It is right and proper to pay tribute to Nick de Bois, whose work on knife crime from the Government Benches led to legislation being put on the statute book. My hon. Friend, who knows me well, will know that I intend to implement it as soon as I possibly can.

Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP): Is the Minister aware that in the last few weeks, the Northern Ireland Assembly has discussed the prospect of mandatory minimum sentences for those who attack elderly people within our society? Does he agree that it is time Parliament sent out a loud and clear message that attacking the most vulnerable members of our society will not be tolerated? Will he meet me to discuss the prospect of introducing mandatory minimums in that regard?

Mike Penning: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue of mandatory minimums is devolved to Northern Ireland, but we will continue to look into it very carefully. I am pleased to say that last Thursday I met David Ford,

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Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister, and the Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The matter was also discussed during the Anglo-Irish summit in Dublin.

Prison Officer Recruitment

6. Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): What steps he is taking to increase the recruitment of prison officers. [900490]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): I believe that prison officers are among the unsung heroes of the public sector. Day in day out, they do amazing work in protecting the public. I am pleased to report that we more than met our target of 1,700 new prison officers by March 2015, and we intend to recruit a further 1,700 by March 2016.

Chloe Smith: I welcome that update. As the Minister knows, prison officers serving in HMP Norwich in my constituency, which he visited recently, and at nearby prisons such as Bure, work incredibly hard in difficult circumstances. Will he do everything possible to support them in relation to their work and conditions?

Andrew Selous: Of course I will. Both Norwich and Bure prisons are well resourced with prison officers and have a full complement of staff, but the National Offender Management Service will continue to monitor the resources that are available to both governors. I was very impressed with the work that was being done in Norwich prison, and also by the work being done in Café Britannia, outside the prison gates.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): How many prison officers were in post in May 2010, and how many are in post now? Have the numbers not been cut by about 40% overall?

Andrew Selous: I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the exact figures. However, our benchmarking exercise has brought about a number of developments, not least the prisoner-facing roles that prison officers did not always have before. The right hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we have closed 14 prisons. The National Audit Office has complimented us on our management of the prison estate, and we continue to recruit more prison officers.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I understand that the Minister has created a reserve force of prison officers and three reserve prisons, one of which is Wellingborough. Will he say a little more about that exercise?

Andrew Selous: As my hon. Friend may know, when soldiers leave the Regular Army, we encourage some of them to join the Army reserves, and I suppose that this concept is similar to that. The prison officer reserve has about 100 members, which gives us flexibility. I cannot update my hon. Friend any further on what I have said in the past, but this is the right thing to do.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Does the Minister share my deep concern about the fact that some of the

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prison officers who are currently being recruited have not even undergone a simple Criminal Records Bureau check?

Andrew Selous: I am very surprised to hear that. We take prison officer training extremely seriously, but I shall look into what the hon. Gentleman has just told me as a matter of urgency. We are increasing the amount of time that prison officers spend being trained, and we continually improve the training we give them.

Departmental Absence Management

7. Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): How many days of sickness absence there were in his Department in (a) 2012, (b) 2013 and (c) 2014; and if he will make a statement. [900491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice (Caroline Dinenage): The average number of days lost to sickness absence in the Ministry of Justice was 9.8 in 2012 and 2013, and 10.2 in 2014. The Department is committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of its employees and reducing sickness absence.

Mr Bellingham: Obviously, those are disappointing figures. Is the Minister aware that last year’s figures were twice as bad as those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and four times as bad as those in the Department for International Development? What will she, the Secretary of State and other Ministers do to improve morale and sort out this very disappointing situation?

Caroline Dinenage: A large proportion of Ministry of Justice roles involve front-line prison staff, whose working environment is, of course, more physically rigorous than those of staff with office-based roles. It is important to note that other Departments’ sickness numbers do not include front-line roles such as those of soldiers, police officers and, indeed, nurses. When we take into account only civil servants who are employed in Whitehall, we see that Ministry of Justice staff actually take fewer sick days than those in other Departments.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): But that suggests that it is prison officers who have been the victim of assaults by prisoners, for example, who are taking sickness absence. What is this year’s rate of assaults on prison officers, and what is the Department doing to reduce it?

Caroline Dinenage: Of course the Department takes any assault on a prison officer incredibly seriously. It is essential that prison officers feel that the full weight of the state is behind them as they fulfil their duties. When there are serious assaults on prison staff, the perpetrators will be prosecuted unless there is an extremely good reason for not doing so.

Richard Arkless (Dumfries and Galloway) (SNP): Given those figures, it might be pertinent to ask whether the Minister’s Department is a living wage employer.

Caroline Dinenage: We certainly are, as far as I understand it, and I am looking at that moving forward.

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8. Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to reduce reoffending. [900492]

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): May I take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Lady? Edmonton is a part of the world I know extremely well: it is where I grew up and did my early schooling, in Montagu Road. We have opened up the delivery of rehabilitation services through a diverse range of public, private and voluntary sector providers, who are providing excellent new facilities so that we can have fewer people reoffending.

Kate Osamor: Half of the prisons inspected by Ofsted in 2013 and 2014 were judged either to require improvement or as inadequate for learning and skills. Purposeful activity for adult male prisoners has plummeted in the past few years. Does the Minister agree that budget cuts are reducing opportunities for rehabilitation?

Mike Penning: No I do not. We inherited a really difficult situation with the economy when we came to power, but the way we have reorganised rehabilitation and training is vitally important. The key to rehabilitation is to ensure that people do not reoffend, and education and training are often the best ways of giving them an opportunity in life.

John Howell (Henley) (Con): In the last Parliament, I visited a prison in Denmark with the Justice Select Committee. One of the biggest contributors to preventing the prisoners from reoffending was their ability to cook their own food. Does the Minister agree that that ability is not a reward for good behaviour but an essential part of dealing with reoffending?

Mike Penning: I am not the prisons Minister but I have visited many prisons, not least the ones on the edge of my own constituency, and I have seen that happening in our own prisons. Giving people life skills is vital, as is giving them somewhere to live when they come out.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): Does the Minister agree that we need to retain the Human Rights Act as part of a programme established to deal with reoffending, in order to ensure that proper standards of human rights are adhered to in prisons?

Mike Penning: This country has led on human rights for centuries, and it will be no different when we introduce the legislation to ensure that this Parliament decides exactly what goes on, rather than a foreign court.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): Schemes such as that offered by National Grid get young offenders into a job and a routine and back on the right path. What assessment has the Minister made of such opportunities for the future?

Mike Penning: I reiterate what the Secretary of State said earlier. Companies such as National Grid, Timpson and Greggs are doing a wonderful job for the community as well as for the individuals involved. Getting people

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back into work is by far the best way of giving them the self-esteem that they need and ensuring that they do not commit crimes.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): Reconviction rates double for prisoners who report using drugs in the four weeks before custody. If the Minister and his many colleagues do just one thing, will they please ensure that they reduce access to drugs in prison?

Mike Penning: I was responsible for drugs while I was at the Home Office as well, and I shall be responsible for taking the relevant legislation through the House when it arrives here from the other place. This matter is taken enormously seriously, and I am sure that the prisons Minister is doing everything he possibly can to ensure that drugs do not get into our prisons.

Jenny Chapman: I am glad to hear that the Minister is taking the matter seriously—and so he should—but he might want to look at what is actually happening on the ground. Just this morning, the chief inspector of prisons published a report on Pentonville prison in which, among his many criticisms, he observed that there was no detailed drug supply strategy. How many other prisons do not have a detailed drug supply strategy?

Mike Penning: I shall write to the hon. Lady on the exact question she has asked. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has given prisons additional powers to test specifically for controlled drugs. I take this seriously, and I have stood outside prisons on patrol with the police and seen individuals pinging drugs across the fences. That is the sort of thing we need to address, making sure those people get penalised exactly like those who are taking the drugs.

Youth Justice

9. Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): What plans he has for reform of the youth justice system; and if he will make a statement. [900493]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): There has been a welcome decline over the past few years in the number of young offenders, but we know that more needs to be done to prevent young people being drawn into crime. We are committed to preventing youth offending and supporting young people to turn their back on crime.

Christina Rees: The number of young people behind bars is indeed falling, but the latest figures show that the number of white children in custody has fallen at twice the rate of that for those from ethnic minorities. What is the Justice Secretary doing to ensure that we help all young people to turn their lives around, regardless of race or background?

Michael Gove: The hon. Lady makes a very important point. As we discussed earlier in this questions session, there is often a link between circumstances of deprivation and a propensity to offend among young people. Sadly, far too many people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds grow up in homes where they do not have the stability, support and love that all of us think every young person should have. We need to do more to

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intervene long before young people fall into the hands of the justice system. Working with the Department for Education, I hope we can improve the way in which we support families, support the family courts and support the care system to look after damaged and fragile young people.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Consistently, Labour Members, along with charities such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, have argued that the idea of a secure college for young offenders is fundamentally wrong. Will the Justice Secretary indicate whether he has yet decided to drop his plans?

Michael Gove: They are under review.

Wayne David: An interesting and pithy response, but it does not take us forward, does it? We all agree that education should play a central role in rehabilitation, but spending £85 million on a new prison of this kind is not the best way to help young offenders. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has expressed misgivings about these plans, so will the Justice Secretary tell us, here and now, whether the project will be cancelled?

Michael Gove: The hon. Gentleman makes some characteristically effective points, and of course I was listening very carefully.

Court Reform

11. Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): What progress he has made on reform of the courts system. [900495]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): Thanks to the leadership shown by our judiciary—in particular, by Sir Brian Leveson—we are now in a position to reform access to justice comprehensively.

Peter Aldous: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Lowestoft magistrates court plays an important role in providing local access to justice in north-east Suffolk. Will he meet local users and me to agree on the steps that need to be taken to ensure that the court continues to play that role into the long term?

Michael Gove: I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and those who have benefited from the administration of justice in the part of Suffolk he represents, but it is important to recognise that a third of our courts and tribunals are used less than 50% of the time. We do need to reform our court estate, but we can do so and improve access to justice by taking a 21st-century approach to ensuring that justice is served.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Cuts to legal aid have meant that lots of our constituents are finding it even more difficult to access justice, and often they are the most vulnerable constituents who come to see us at our surgeries as a result. What is the new Justice Secretary going to do to make sure that those individuals get access to justice?

Michael Gove: We are going to review the operation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the Act that transformed and reformed our

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legal aid landscape. We are also, as I have today, going to ask the very richest in the justice system to do a little bit more. One thing that struck me is that there are people in senior solicitors’ firms and in our best chambers who are not doing enough, given how well they have done out of the legal system, to support the very poorest—they need to do more.

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that to have a more efficient courts service we need a more efficient listing system, and that to get that we need to take more of our existing courts and put them into fewer buildings and to have more efficiency in the use of technology?

Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is, not for the first or for the last time, absolutely right. He was a great Justice Minister and he is absolutely on the button when he makes the point that we need a more efficient administration of justice in the interests of victims, witnesses and taxpayers.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The Lord Chancellor has indeed had something to say about the reform of the court system this morning. May I say “Well done” for spotting the gaping inequality in the justice system that his predecessor has created? Did he have in mind the 89% fall in social welfare legal aid cases under the previous Government—legal aid for the very poorest—or his own further cut in criminal legal aid announced last week? The president of the Law Society said that that cut could

“undermine the criminal justice system to the point that it may no longer deliver fair outcomes.”

Michael Gove: As usual, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the generous and bipartisan tone in which he conducts these exchanges. I am also grateful to him for drawing attention to some of the reforms that we have made to reduce the amount spent on legal aid. When his colleague and friend the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was the shadow Justice Secretary, he made the point that the amount that the previous Labour Government spent on legal aid was unsustainable. We will review the reforms that we have made to ensure that we can maintain access to justice and also safeguard the interests of victims, witnesses and taxpayers.

Mental Health

12. Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): What recent discussions he has had on the treatment of people with mental health issues in the criminal justice system. [900496]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice (Caroline Dinenage): Addressing the individual mental health needs of offenders and ensuring continuity of service from the community into custody are essential to wellbeing and rehabilitation. We work closely with the Department of Health and with the Welsh Government, who have responsibility for the commissioning of health services, in order to address this important issue.

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Mrs Gillan: May I welcome the Minister to her position? Autism is a lifelong developmental disability, which often mistakenly gets classified under mental health issues, especially in the criminal justice system where too many people do not get the help they need. I am heartened that many prisoners are now seeking accreditation from the National Autistic Society for the skills and the support required for people with autism, but we need better understanding in our courts and in the Crown Prosecution Service. Will the Minister update me on the long-awaited aide-mémoire and support material for the CPS prosecutors that the Department was going to produce after the Think Autism adult strategy was published?

Caroline Dinenage: I thank my right hon. Friend for her very kind welcome. I would like to praise her for her ongoing commitment to this really important issue, particularly her work steering the Autism Act 2009 on to the statute book. We are clear that we need a system that ensures that the most vulnerable have access to the right support and help. That is why we are putting in place a programme of reforms to improve the experience of vulnerable victims and witnesses in court, as well as enhanced protection outside.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome both the Minister and the Lord Chancellor to their places. In November 2014, Argoed, a close-knit community in my constituency, was rocked by the horrific murder of Cerys Yemm. She was killed by a prisoner who had just been released and sent to stay in a bed and breakfast. Neither the council nor the landlady was told of his mental health issues. He could not get hold of the mental health medication he needed, the result of which was this unfortunate incident. His mother says that he was in and out of the criminal justice system all his life. He would go into a hostel, and then back to prison when he committed another crime. I thank the Lord Chancellor for agreeing to meet me to discuss this case. Will the Department now launch an urgent investigation into how we monitor the mental health of former prisoners?

Caroline Dinenage: It is really important that we carefully monitor how mental health is regarded from within the community into the prison system and then back out into the community again. I know that the Secretary of State and the prisons Minister have agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that they will listen carefully to everything that he has to say.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): Further to that question, does the Minister agree that when somebody has had a psychiatric assessment in prison, the information about their condition should be shared with all services, including social services and the police, when they leave prison? That would ensure that we had continuity of information about their condition so that when they came back into society we were clear about what we needed to do with them.

Caroline Dinenage: Yes, in the community, community rehabilitation companies and the National Probation Service are required to ensure that offenders comply with court-ordered treatment services. Probation services also supply offenders with access to mainstream mental health treatment by referring as appropriate.

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Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab): To protect and ensure sufficient access for people with mental health problems, the Justice Committee urged the Government in 2011—reaffirmed in a 2015 report—to carry out research into the geographical distribution of legal aid providers to avoid irreparable loss of capacity. What progress has been made on that recommendation?

Caroline Dinenage: I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact details, but NHS England has developed national specifications for health and justice services. All prisons now have clear commissioning models, and that works as people leave prison and move into the community rehabilitation service as well.

European Convention on Human Rights

13. Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): What his policy is on the European convention on human rights; and if he will make a statement. [900497]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Dominic Raab): We will legislate for a Bill of Rights to protect our fundamental rights, prevent abuse of the system and restore some common sense to our human rights laws. Our plans do not involve us leaving the convention; that is not our objective, but our No. 1 priority is to restore some balance to our human rights laws, so no option is off the table for the future.

Catherine West: When will Ministers publish a draft Bill of Rights, as mooted in the recent election campaign?

Mr Raab: We said very clearly that we shall deliver it in this Parliament. We shall have a consultation in this Session so our plans will be brought forward shortly.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this country has had a proud tradition with regard to human rights, and it will remain a central part of what we do to promote best practice around the world, but in the end, the country’s commitment to human rights will be judged on its actions, not merely the piece of paper it happens to have signed?

Mr Raab: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a strong record on human rights. We will continue to set an example around the world, but in our own domestic laws we do need to make sure that we have a common-sense balance. It is not a left or right issue; it is what the public expect as a matter of common sense.

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP): Is the Minister aware that the Church of Scotland has expressed concern about his Government’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act? Will he now support the Church of Scotland’s call for human rights to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

Mr Raab: We are well aware of the concerns that have been expressed. We will be consulting fully, including with the devolved Administrations, in due course.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his place. We often hear about rights. Does he agree that perhaps it should be renamed the European convention on human responsibilities?

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Mr Raab: My hon. Friend has been tenacious in his campaigning on this subject. He comes up with an ingenious suggestion. Actually, our concern has been less with the black-letter text of the convention and more with its application. Some of the problems have arisen from judicial legislation in the Strasbourg Court, some of them through the operation of the Human Rights Act, as the former shadow Justice Secretary acknowledged. We want to protect our fundamental rights and prevent abuse of the system.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): Sir John Major, giving the inaugural Edward Heath lecture on the subject of Magna Carta last week, said that he respected the “power and significance” of the European convention on human rights, and that where there was conflict with the UK Parliament,

“I expect consultation and compromise to settle this issue.”

Should not the Minister, and indeed the Lord Chancellor, heed the advice of someone with so much experience of running a Tory Government with a wafer-thin majority?

Mr Raab: We listen to all the informed voices in this debate. That is why we are going to have full consultation. We look forward to discussing this with the hon. Gentleman and many others across the House.

Human Rights Act

16. Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP): What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the future of the Human Rights Act 1998. [900500]

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): I am due to meet the Justice Minister in the Scottish Government next week.

Kirsty Blackman: I welcome that news. The Minister will be aware that the Scottish Parliament voted by 100 votes to 10 to endorse the Human Rights Act last year, and that parties representing 58 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats are against the repeal. Will the Minister make a commitment to not imposing the repeal on Scotland against the will of our people?

Michael Gove: I welcome the hon. Lady to her place, not just as the Member of Parliament who represents my parents, but as a Member of Parliament who was educated at the same school as me. She makes a very powerful point about the range of opinions in support of safeguarding, enhancing and indeed modernising our human rights in this country. I shall look forward to engaging with the Scottish National party and others, but I think it is important to stress that in this United Kingdom Parliament, human rights are a reserved matter, and parties that support reform of the Human Rights Act secured more than 50% of the votes at the last general election.

Mr Speaker: Mr Hollobone?

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) indicated dissent.

Mr Speaker: Very rare!

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Prison Reform

17. Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): What plans he has for reform of prisons; and if he will make a statement. [900501]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): We are very ambitious to reform prisons; to make them places of learning, training and work, and where healthy family relationships are kept strong, in order to change prisoners’ lives for the better, prevent people becoming victims and keep the public safe.

Nigel Huddleston: Long Lartin maximum security prison is in my constituency. In the context of any discussions on reform, does my hon. Friend agree that the safety and security of prison officers and prison workers is also of paramount importance?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; it is wholly unacceptable that prison officers should be assaulted during the course of their duties. We have extensive violence-reduction work going on within the National Offender Management Service, in which I am taking an extremely close interest—I meet officials every month to track progress. We are absolutely determined to get on top of it so that prisons are safe for prison officers.

Danny Kinahan (South Antrim) (UUP): Northern Ireland prisons are brimful at the moment and struggling, and the prison officers are suffering as a result of the cuts. Will we look at reform of prisons across all the devolved Governments, working together to find a way forward, or will it be a case of “devolve and forget”?

Andrew Selous: As the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State has said, the Government are keen to talk with all the devolved Administrations in the UK, because we absolutely believe that we can learn from each other. Where we can, I think that we should help each other as well.

21. [900505] Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): I am sure that the Minister recognises the importance of reforming rehabilitation in prisons. Does he share my concern about reports from chaplains across the prison estate that they are struggling to organise collective worship because of the number of hours that prisoners are spending behind bars in their cells?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; collective or corporate worship is important and all prisoners should have access to it. We will do our absolute best to ensure that that happens. With the increasing number of prison officers, that should be increasingly possible.

Topical Questions

T1. [900475] Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Michael Gove): Today I was able to confirm that the Ministry of Justice will throw its full weight behind

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the reform programme for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, led so ably by the Lord Chief Justice and supported by Sir Brian Leveson and the whole Judicial Executive Board.

Kevin Foster: I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor shares my concern about issues in our courts that could lead to a two-tier justice system. As he will be aware, in Devon insufficient bids were received for the new legal aid contract for advice at police stations. Will he agree to meet me and representatives of the profession to discuss the specific issues that have led to that situation, such as the geography of the area, and how they can be resolved?

Michael Gove: I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. It is very important that we ensure that in rural areas such as Devon everyone has access to the justice they deserve.

T2. [900476] Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): In Lancashire almost one third of domestic abuse victims at multi-agency risk assessment conferences are repeat victims. Anecdotally, many perpetrators are repeat offenders, but no statistics are available on that. What action is the Minister taking to identify repeat and serious perpetrators of domestic abuse?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice (Caroline Dinenage): That is a very important question, and something we take very seriously. It is important that we make every effort to identify the perpetrators of these heinous crimes, but we are also determined to ensure that anyone facing the threat of domestic violence has somewhere to turn, which is why we are working closely across the Government, with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to address this important issue.

T9. [900483] Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Will the Minister update the House on progress being made to improve the military covenant by protecting service personnel from judicial expansionism?

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. One minute our servicemen are heroes, and the next minute they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Charities such as Care after Combat, which was recently formed, are doing fantastic work that is being piloted in our prisons. I would like to meet my hon. Friend again to see how we can work together to ensure that our heroes do not end up in the criminal justice system.

T3. [900477] Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab): Last week the Scottish Government celebrated the 10th anniversary of legal humanist marriage. Given their popularity —there has been an upsurge in the number of such marriages in that country—and support in both Houses, can the Minister give us an idea of whether the Government would like to implement something similar in this country?

Caroline Dinenage: Yes, marriage is one of our most important institutions and we need to make sure that any changes to the law are carried out with care. That is

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why we have asked the Law Commission to undertake a preliminary scoping study to prepare the way for potential future reform. It is due to report in December and then the Government will consider the next steps very carefully.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend look carefully again at the workings of the European arrest warrant following the announcements last night from London and from Kigali, Rwanda, and the misuse of the process by a junior Spanish judge for political rather than judicial purposes?

Michael Gove: Few people know more about, or are more committed to, the welfare of the Rwandan people than my right hon. Friend, and few Members of this House are more committed to due process and human rights, so I take very seriously the points that he raises. I will look very closely at this case and report back to him.

T4. [900478] Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Could the Secretary of State explain exactly what is his policy towards the European convention on human rights and the European Court of Human Rights? On the one hand, he says that he supports the convention; on the other, he says that all decisions must be made in British courts. If all decisions are made in British courts, then the role of the European Court of Human Rights will be an utter irrelevance to Britain, and British people will therefore be denied the right of access to a treaty obligation that we signed in 1948.

Michael Gove: May I, on behalf of everyone on the Government Benches, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making it on to the ballot for the Labour leadership? Had he required any more signatures, I would have been happy to defect in order to ensure that a full spectrum of views was behind him. He makes a very important point. We want to ensure that people’s access to human rights is enhanced as a result of legislative changes that we make.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has overcome his natural shyness, with which the House is well familiar.

Mr Hollobone: You are very kind, Mr Speaker.

How many foreign national offenders do we have in our prisons, and what plans are under way to send these people back to secure detention in their own countries?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Andrew Selous): This Parliament would not have been the same had not my hon. Friend carried on with his diligent scrutiny of this important subject. I can report to him that at 31 March 2015 10,481 foreign national offenders were in custody in England and Wales, just over 6,000 of whom are sentenced prisoners. The Immigration Act 2014 has enabled us to cut the number of appeal rights from 17 to four. Over 800 removals have now taken place as a result of these changes. Last year, the Home Office managed to send back over 5,000 foreign national offenders.

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T5. [900479] Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab): Most women entering prison serve very short sentences. Last year, 58% were serving six months or less. Twenty years ago, this figure was only a third. As 82% of women who enter prison under sentence have committed a non-violent offence, why is this figure increasing?

Caroline Dinenage: The decision to impose a custodial sentence is of course one for the independent judiciary. The law requires that a custodial sentence be passed only where an offence is so serious that neither a community sentence nor a fine will do. The courts take into account all circumstances regarding the offence and the offender. It is important to remember that just because an offence is not violent, that does not mean that it does not have victims—multiple victims—and that it is not serious.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): I am delighted that the Lord Chancellor has committed himself to speeding up the process of justice—an essential task that I suspect he will find is like painting the Forth bridge with a toothbrush. Does he agree that one of the essential elements of that is that the digital technology increasingly available in courts talks to the digital technology that the police use in collecting evidence, because if not, it will not happen?

Mike Penning: The technology that my right hon. Friend alludes to is now coming on to the front line, and it is the sort of kit that we absolutely need. Body-worn cameras are the new replacement for Airwave, and that is absolutely vital. We must make sure that the information taken by that technology on the streets can be used all the way through the criminal justice system, particularly in the courts.

T6. [900480] Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Yesterday it emerged that the Secretary of State was considering making it more difficult to get hold of official documents under freedom of information rules. I recall that the previous Cabinet Minister, the now noble Lord Maude, suggested that open data should replace freedom of information. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he has any plans whatsoever to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and if so, what he has to hide?

Michael Gove: I think we do need to revisit the Freedom of Information Act. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to Ministers of whatever Government is protected so that civil servants can speak candidly and offer advice in order to ensure that Ministers do not make mistakes. There has been a worrying tendency in our courts and elsewhere to erode the protections for that safe space for policy advice, and I think it absolutely needs to be asserted. There is no contradiction between making sure that we give civil servants the protection they deserve and also ensuring that the data—for example, the amount we spend in any Government Department—are more transparent than ever.

Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire) (Con): I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) to her new position. Does she agree about the importance of maintaining family

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ties and ensuring the rehabilitation of female offenders, as exemplified by the hard work undertaken at Foston Hall ladies prison in my constituency?

Caroline Dinenage: Yes, it is important to maintain family ties, and family engagement workers are in place in all public sector female prisons, including Foston Hall. They meet all prisoners on induction to identify any support required to maintain or establish family contact. Women’s prisons are also looking at other support for improved family links, including family days, child-centred visits, homework clubs and specific relationship and parenting skills programmes.

T8. [900482] Corri Wilson (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP): Following the question asked by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on freedom of information, does the Secretary of State intend to introduce legislation on proposals to price out FOI requests and extend the ministerial veto, which my party would oppose, and will he give us a timetable for that?

Michael Gove: We want to review the operation of the original Freedom of Information Act. Some of the judgments that have been made have actually run contrary to the spirit of the original Act, and some of those behind the original Act, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Home Secretary who introduced the legislation, Jack Straw, have been very clear about the defects in the way in which the Act has operated. It is vital that we get back to the founding principles of freedom of information. Citizens should have access to data and they should know what is done in their name and about the money that is spent in their name, but it is also vital that the conversations between Ministers and civil servants are protected in the interests of good government.

Alan Mak (Havant) (Con): Do Ministers agree that a British Bill of Rights is an important step towards ensuring that the matter of votes for prisoners remains a matter for this House to decide, and that the best way of rehabilitating offenders is through a good job and education, not political gimmicks?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Dominic Raab): I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. He is absolutely right: prisoner voting is a question that should be decided by democratically elected Members of this House. Our wider aim with a Bill of Rights is not only to protect our fundamental rights, but to strengthen the role of the British Supreme Court, defend the rule of law and shield the democratic prerogatives of this House.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): The family of Richard Davies are devastated by his death on Yeadon high street. A man has been charged with manslaughter and yet has been granted bail, which is very distressing for the family. What guidance is given to judges—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman must listen. My advice is that the case is sub judice and, on the basis of a charge having been brought, it is not appropriate to raise the matter in the Chamber at this time. I recognise the assiduity of the hon. Gentleman, who may find other opportunities, but not now.

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Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State’s apparent commitment to access to justice for everybody in this country mean that he will reverse the cuts made by the previous Government to that very same access to justice?

Michael Gove: We are committed to reviewing the reforms to legal aid, but I have to stress that it was the Labour party’s former justice spokesman, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), who made it clear during the last Parliament that levels of spending on legal aid were unsustainable under the last Government and we needed to reform. After all, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) told us, there was no money left.

Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): In March I brought the families of Ross and Claire Simons, who were horrifically killed in my constituency by a dangerous driver, to meet the Prime Minister to discuss the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving, which is currently 14 years. In this particular case, the dangerous driver was given 11 years, which could be brought down to five years as a result of good behaviour. The Prime Minister made a commitment to the families to contact the then Justice Secretary to ensure that the Government looked seriously at extending the maximum sentence. Will the Secretary of State please look at this case once more?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. We have increased the maximum penalties for a number of driving offences, and we are looking carefully at the recommendations of the review announced by the previous Justice Secretary and considering how best to take them forward in a proportionate and consistent manner. We will report back to the House shortly.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Lord Chancellor has suggested that there will be a further reorganisation of the court estate. How many courts does he anticipate being included, and given the number of courts that the coalition Government closed that are still lying empty and costing the taxpayer millions of pounds, can he assure us that there will be better value for the taxpayer this time round?

Michael Gove: We suspect that a significant number of additional courts will have to close, and I will make sure that Parliament is fully informed about that process in due course. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We need to make sure that we get value for money from the disposal of those buildings, and decisions that have been made in the past suggest that the Ministry of Justice has not always done the right thing when investing in the court estate.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): All the statistics demonstrate that a significant number of people with mental health needs end up in prison. Is the Minister really content that there is sufficient treatment for those in prison? She has said that she is in dialogue with the Department of Health. Does she not have the same suspicion as me that if we had more effective treatment in the general community, fewer people with mental health problems would end up in prison?

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Caroline Dinenage: I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and we are doing just that. In England, we are working with the Department of Health and the Home Office to support NHS England to develop liaison and diversion services. Those services place NHS staff, usually a mental health nurse, at police stations and courts to assess offenders for a range of health problems, including mental health problems, and refer them to the right treatment and support services. The information can then be shared with courts, prisons and probation services to inform decisions on charging and sentencing.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The coalition Government increased the transparency of government by requiring Ministers to report on their meetings with outside organisations. Is the Justice Secretary not embarrassed that he now wants to reduce Government transparency by strengthening the ministerial veto on freedom of information requests?

Michael Gove: I enjoyed serving in the coalition Government alongside the right hon. Gentleman, and I welcome him back to the House.

It is absolutely right that people should know who Ministers meet and which lobby groups and others take up ministerial time, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it is vital that we protect civil servants by making sure that they can give full and frank advice. Sometimes, as well as respecting transparency, we have to respect confidentiality. We have a duty of care towards those in the civil service who do such a good job of supporting Ministers.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Ministers will be aware of the incident last week at Killingholme, in my constituency, when 51 illegal immigrants were apprehended following a successful operation by Border Force. They were dispersed to detention centres throughout the country. Can the Secretary of State assure me that adequate provision will be made for future incidents of this type, and that the legal process will not in any way hinder their speedy deportation?

Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that case. It is vital that we ensure that there is appropriate provision for people who have been taking advantage of our generosity. I will therefore work with the Home Secretary to ensure that we have the facilities necessary to deal with situations such as the one that my hon. Friend’s constituents have had to face.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): The Government recently announced that they were going ahead with a further 8.75% fee cut to criminal legal aid, the second in a year. The existing system, especially the online Crown Commercial Service system, is already wholly inadequate. What justification is there for further cuts, other than to further reduce access to justice for those most in need?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): May I first welcome the hon. Lady to the House?

It is important that we recognise that we have one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world, and that it needs to be sustainable. It has to be fair to the

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people who need legally aided advice, fair to the providers and fair to the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it. As far as the latest 8.75% cut is concerned, we have made sure that there will be proper access for all those who need legal advice.

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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but time is against us and we must now move on.

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Point of Order

12.34 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today is National Women in Engineering Day, and it is also Parliamentary Links Day, when we celebrate the links between Parliament, science and engineering—celebrations that you yourself, Mr Speaker, were gracious enough to launch this morning. Could you advise me how it might be in order for me to get two such important events on the record?

Mr Speaker: Any advice from me, as the hon. Lady now knows, is superfluous. She has found her own salvation: the matter is on the record; it can never be erased from it. I hope she is satisfied. It is a very good cause.

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European Union (Finance) Bill

Considered in Committee

Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair

Clause 1

EU finance decision: approval, and addition to list of Treaties

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Temporary Chair (Mr Gary Streeter): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 1, line 18, leave out subsection (3).

This amendment removes the automatic coming into force of the Act two months after it is passed, which would be incompatible with any of the new Clauses.

Clause 2 stand part.

New clause 1—Report on level of EU budget spending

“(1) This Act shall come into force on such day as the Treasury shall by order specify.

(2) The day specified in the order made under subsection (1) shall not be earlier than 14 days after the date on which the condition has been satisfied.

(3) The condition referred to in subsection (2) is that the Treasury shall have laid before both Houses of Parliament a copy of a communication sent by the Treasury to the European Commission requesting a review by the European Commission of the basis of appropriations for the European Union budget, and in particular—

(a) a comparative analysis of commitment or payment as the basis for appropriations, and

(b) a study of whether alternative arrangements might offer in the longer term improved value and enhanced budgetary control.”

The Clause requires Ministers to seek a European Commission study of whether alternative approaches to funding EU activities would offer better value for money and improved budgetary control.

New clause 2—Reform of priorities within the EU budget

“(1) This Act shall come into force on such day as the Treasury shall by order specify.

(2) The day specified in the order made under subsection (1) shall not be earlier than 14 days after the date on which the condition has been satisfied.

(3) The condition referred to in subsection (2) is that the Secretary of State shall have laid before both Houses of Parliament a copy of a communication sent by the Secretary of State to the President of the European Council requesting a fundamental review by the Council of Ministers to be completed before 31 December 2015 of budget priorities, waste and inefficiency within the European Union budget.”

The Clause requires Ministers to seek a Council of Ministers review of budget priorities, waste and inefficiency within the EU budget to be completed by the end of 2015.

New clause 3—Accountability and transparency

“(1) This Act shall come into force on such day as the Treasury shall by order specify.

(2) The day specified in the order made under subsection (1) shall not be earlier than 14 days after the date on which the condition has been satisfied.

(3) The condition referred to in subsection (2) is that the Secretary of State shall have laid before both Houses of Parliament a copy of a communication sent by the Secretary of State to the President of the European Commission inviting officials to provide

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the relevant European affairs select committee in each House of Parliament with details of the draft European budget for each financial year before the draft European budget is agreed in the Council of Ministers.”

The Clause would require Ministers to invite European Commission budget representatives to provide details of the draft European budget to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords European Union Committee each year before the EU budget is agreed.

12.36 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Streeter. Clause stand part, the amendment and the new clauses have been grouped, so if it is convenient I shall start with the two clauses, turn to the new clauses and finish with the amendment, which is consequential and related to the new clauses.

The purpose of the Bill is to enable the UK to give effect to the new own resources decision amending the arrangements for financing the annual budget of the European Union. The amendments were agreed at the February 2013 European Council, and the new ORD, reflecting those amendments, was adopted by the Council of Ministers on 26 May 2014.

Clause 1 is fairly simple: it adds the new own resources decision, adopted unanimously in May 2014, to the list of previous ORDs, recognised under the European Communities Act 1972, thus giving it effect under UK law. When passed, the Bill will become the European Union (Finance) Act 2015 and supersede the European Communities (Finance) Act 2008, which approved the previous ORD. Clause 2 cites this legislation as the European Union (Finance) Act 2015 and repeals the 2008 Act.

For the benefit of hon. Members, I shall explain in a little more detail what the new own resources decision, to which clause 1 refers, means. The new ORD will largely maintain the existing financing system framework, which consists of four pillars: levies and duties on trade with non-member countries in agricultural goods, including sugar; customs duties on trade with non-member countries; the yield from applying a call-up rate to a hypothetical harmonised VAT base for each member state; and a fourth resource based on gross national income—GNI. Those four pillars remain largely untouched in the new ORD, and that is no insignificant achievement. During the negotiations over the multi-annual financial framework and before, there was considerable pressure to change the financing system.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Will my hon. Friend confirm that GNI is assessed in the same way across the whole Community?

Mr Gauke: Yes, it is. My right hon. Friend raises an important point and I suspect that he has in mind the issues that occurred last year as a consequence of revisions to our GNI and that of other member states, which meant that an additional surcharge was applied to the United Kingdom. He will of course recall the negotiations that followed and how we ensured that payments were delayed and that the rebate applied to the surcharge. There is consistency in the application in this case and that is very important. There is suitable scrutiny and co-ordination, with Eurostat playing a role.

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Alex Salmond (Gordon) (SNP): The various agreements have been described as a considerable achievement. Under pillar two and the rural development payments, Scotland’s payments will work out at about €12 per hectare. The EU average is €76 per hectare. Would the Minister care to define “considerable achievement” in that light?

Mr Gauke: I would certainly make it very clear that there was a considerable achievement in the 2013 negotiations that were implemented in 2014. For example, there were calls for changes to the financing system and to introduce new types of member state contributions, but the UK resisted that successfully. There were calls to introduce new EU-wide taxes, including a financial transactions tax, and the UK resisted that successfully. Finally, there were calls to reform the rebate and the Government protected that. That is a considerable achievement.

On the subject of the regional distribution of common agricultural policy receipts, it is only fair to point out that payments per hectare are only part of the story. Although Scotland receives the lowest payments per hectare, Scottish farmers also receive one of the highest payments per farm in the European Union. On average, Scottish farmers receive just under £26,000 compared with England’s £17,000, Wales’s £16,000 and Northern Ireland’s £7,000. I hope that that provides some clarity for the right hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hoare (North Dorset) (Con): I note the irony that the House of Commons Library published its briefing paper on the Bill on the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo. It notes, with its characteristic understatement, that our

“rebate is not popular with other Member States or the Commission”.

May I invite my hon. Friend to make a firm commitment to the retention of our rebate? Will he continue to argue for it and ensure that it is not part of any of the renegotiations on our ongoing membership in the Community?

Mr Gauke: Absolutely. I am keen to make that commitment and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. Those of us who participated in the equivalent debates after the previous multi-annual financial framework was agreed and on the Act that performed the task that this Bill will now perform will recall that we spent some considerable time focusing on the fact that a large part of the rebate had been surrendered by the previous Government for little or nothing, merely a promise of reform of the common agricultural policy that had not been delivered.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab) rose

Mr Gauke: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I believe that he participated in that debate.

Kelvin Hopkins: Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), I have said many times in this House that the deal done in 2005 was a terrible mistake. The Government have made frequent references to it. Is it not now appropriate to consider trying to regain what was lost in that deal, particularly because our net budget contributions have been rising so strongly in recent years?

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12.45 pm

Mr Gauke: First, I acknowledge the consistency with which the hon. Gentleman has approached these issues. If I recall correctly our debates in 2008 and 2009, he expressed clearly his dissatisfaction with the performance of the Government that he supported, in terms of surrendering part of the rebate.

The other point to make is that the hon. Gentleman should not underestimate the Prime Minister’s achievement in that negotiation. When he went to debate and negotiate on these matters, few believed that he would be able to reduce the overall budget in real terms, but he succeeded in doing so. Today’s debate is focused not so much on the expenditure side, although I think we will discuss expenditure thanks to the Opposition’s helpful amendment and new clauses—I was going to say “probing amendments”, but we shall see—but what happened was also very important on the revenue side. It was a considerable success that we were able to resist new types of member states’ contributions, new EU-wide taxes and attempts to reform the rebate. That is of some note.

Oliver Dowden (Hertsmere) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gauke: I will touch on the smaller changes to the own resources decision in a moment, but first it gives me great pleasure to give way to a fellow Hertfordshire Member of Parliament.

Oliver Dowden: I congratulate the Government on their success in keeping the EU budget down. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to keep pressure on the EU to make sure that it continues to live within its means, not just for this budget settlement but for future budget settlements?

Mr Gauke: I will certainly make that assurance and indeed, I will set out in a little detail what we are doing in that field. I referred to my hon. Friend as a fellow Hertfordshire MP. However, if I remember correctly, at the time of the negotiation, he was part of the team in Downing Street who were involved in the undoubted success. It is characteristic of his modesty that he did not draw attention to that point, but I daresay that a lot of the credit for the successful negotiation lies in his hands.

Smaller changes to the own resources decision affect some member states’ contributions and the balance between the pillars of the own resources system. Those are somewhat detailed, but I hope it will be helpful to set them out for the Committee, because they are, in essence, at the heart of the Bill and clauses we are debating.

Specifically, the smaller changes include the following: the member states’ retention rate for traditional own resources—TOR—which covers member states’ collection costs for customs duties, is reduced from 25% to 20%. That change will have no impact on the ultimate cost of the EU budget to the UK on account of the UK rebate. For the period 2014 to 2020, the ORD also reintroduces the reduced rate of call for VAT-based contributions for Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Austria will revert from its reduced call rate over the 2007-2013 multi-annual financial framework to a standard call

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rate of 0.3% over the 2014-2020 MFF. The financial benefit of the changes to the UK depends on technical factors. Even so, on current estimates, those changes point to a benefit of approximately £150 million over the course of the MFF.

Alan Mak (Havant) (Con): My constituents are still reeling from Labour’s great recession. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Bill will not result in any new taxes or new contributions from the UK?

Mr Gauke: I can certainly give that assurance. Thanks to the success that the Prime Minister achieved in the negotiations in 2013, no doubt ably assisted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and others, that certainly is the case.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): Was not another of the Prime Minister’s substantial achievements in those negotiations to shift the debate about the future finances of the European Union on to Britain making a contribution to the competitiveness of the European Union, and making sure that resources were allocated to improve competitiveness for business?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He anticipates comments that I will make later relating to how we can ensure that the money is not just controlled and reduced, but better spent. There is a criticism, which I suspect is shared by Members from all parts of the House, that the money that the European Union spends in its various ways is not used as efficiently and is not as focused on improving our competitiveness as it might be. There are encouraging signs that there is a greater focus on that. I will return to that shortly.

I was running through the various technical changes in the own resources decision. I have touched on the changes to the retention rates. May I also touch on the changes in relation to GNI-based contributions?

Simon Hoare rose

Mr Gauke: Before I do so, I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Simon Hoare: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way a second time; he is being very generous. My constituents in North Dorset and people across the south-west want to have confidence that Her Majesty’s Government will in no way acquiesce to a change in our rebate as part of any negotiations. We all understand that the UK’s agreement is contingent on any changes to the rebate. I invite the Minister to make the commitment that the rebate is not part of any renegotiation, that it is absolutely off limits and that this Government will always continue to defend our rebate.

Mr Gauke: I give the assurance that the Government will always defend our rebate. Perhaps it might be helpful to the Committee if I make the point that I made on Second Reading about the scale and significance of the partial surrender of our rebate by the Labour Government. According to the European Commission, the disapplication of the UK rebate cost the UK about €9 billion over the seven-year period of the previous multi-annual financial framework. Thereafter, with the abatement disapplication fully phased in, the cost to the

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UK is about £2 billion a year. That is a significant sum, particularly given the fiscal circumstances that we continue to face.

Frankly, the question of what was achieved in return for the surrender of that partial rebate might be asked. Perhaps we will hear an answer to that later this afternoon, but I have not heard a convincing answer yet.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con): The Minister has outlined how the European Union is currently funded through contributions from member states. Some in the European Parliament argue that that system should be replaced by direct taxes levied by the European Union. Will the Minister confirm that the British Government would resist any such move?

Mr Gauke: Yes, we would resist such a move. It would be a fundamental change to the nature of our relationship with the European Union, and one that would go in entirely the wrong direction for the United Kingdom. There were calls in the negotiations for such a step to be taken. There were calls, for example, for a financial transaction tax to be introduced to finance EU spending. We resisted that. The Prime Minister was very clear in ruling it out from any deal.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about the financial transaction tax, but the City is an incredibly important contributor to the UK economy and it has a significant turnover. Will he assure us that the Government will not allow the European Union to attack the City from a different direction as it looks for alternative sources of revenue from the jewel in our economic crown?

Mr Gauke: I certainly give that assurance. There was a strong push for a financial transaction tax, which would have had a particular impact on the United Kingdom, given that we have the pre-eminent financial centre not just in the European Union, but in the world. That could have been damaging for the City of London. We resisted it and we will continue to take that approach.

To make a broader point—although I will not go too far down this route, Mr Streeter—it would be more helpful if there was an acceptance in the European Union that the City of London is a jewel in the crown, to use my hon. Friend’s phrase, not just of the United Kingdom, but of Europe as a whole. We should have the pre-eminent financial centre in the United Kingdom, and trying to damage it would be disadvantageous to all within the European Union.

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): Will the Minister welcome the confirmation from the Office for Budget Responsibility that in cash terms, the payment from the UK will be the same in the 2019-20 financial year as it is in 2014-15, which in real terms is a reduction of 7%? Will he encourage the Government to ensure that my constituents in Eddisbury do not pay a greater proportion of their taxes into an ever-increasing European budget, and to seek further reductions of a similar scale?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is noticeable that our contributions are lower than they were in the last year of the previous multi-annual financial framework, not least because of the achievement of the

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Prime Minister in February 2013. Of course, we continue to suffer the unfortunate effects of the previous negotiation, when part of our rebate was lost, amounting to £2 billion a year. None the less, we have made considerable progress thanks to the steps that were taken in 2013.

For the period from 2014 to 2020, the ORD reintroduces reductions in the GNI-based contributions of the Netherlands and Sweden, and introduces a reduction in those contributions for Denmark. The UK will contribute to those small corrections, but that will largely be offset by changes to other corrections.

Lastly, the ORD lays down the own resources ceilings at 1.23% of total member states’ GNI for payments and 1.29% for commitments, and sets out the method for calculating subsequent changes to those ceilings following the introduction of the European systems of accounts 2010 by all member states.

The Bill will give UK approval to the new ORD and is the last UK action that is necessary to deliver the 2013 deal on the budget.

Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I admire the level of detail we are going into in this debate and I know that we all find it fascinating, but my constituents often say that they would like to hear details that they can understand, such as household-level figures. I note from the briefing that we are paying the equivalent of a £10 a month subscription per person. Will my hon. Friend confirm that when we talk about the renegotiation, we will do our utmost to talk in language that everyone outside this House can understand, as well as going through the fine detail?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I confess that I have set out rather detailed points. I know hon. Members in the Chamber will be capable of understanding them, but they will not necessarily cause great excitement among the many hundreds of thousands if not millions who are currently viewing the debate. My hon. Friend puts his view of the nature of our contributions in clear language. It is important that we have a Government who are determined to ensure that we get a good deal within the European Union and that we are careful in how we spend money there.

1 pm

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I note again a matter that is of great interest to the electors of Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling. The budget will be 7% lower in real terms by 2020, which is very welcome, but will the Minister say more on the consequences to the EU budget of the UK’s position, because we are rather hoping that 7% is the beginning and not the end?

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend touches on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), who drew attention to the fact that our net contributions are forecast to be lower in 2019-20 compared with 2013-14. In fact, our net contribution in 2019-20 will be £9.3 billion compared with £10.2 billion in 2013-14, which is clearly lower in cash terms but also lower in real terms. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) raises the issue that we should make a strong case for budget discipline. He wants to ensure that we appreciate

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that we are dealing with taxpayers’ money. Whether UK taxpayers’ money or taxpayers’ money from the wider EU, that money has to be spent wisely. That is a good point, and I will return to it later when we deal with the Labour new clauses and amendment.

Alex Salmond rose

Mr Gauke: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman. I see he has made more contributions in this Parliament than anyone bar a handful of senior Ministers.

Alex Salmond: I am pleased to say that I have drawn level with the Chancellor on this morning’s assessment.

I admire the dead bat that the Minister is showing to his Back Benchers, but can he answer this point: is it the Prime Minister’s objective in the European renegotiations to lower the UK’s budget contribution, and if so by how much?

Mr Gauke: The right hon. Gentleman refers to my dead bat, but I thought I had played a flourishing cover drive. The Prime Minister has set out objectives for a renegotiation, which will then be taken to the British people, who will decide our future as members of the European Union. We believe we should do a wide range of things to ensure that Europe works better for its members. We have consistently argued the case for fiscal discipline and we are not alone in making that case. Indeed, the Bill itself demonstrates that there is strong support for a fiscal disciplinarian approach within the European Union—the fact that we were able to negotiate a reduction in the multi-annual financial framework was a considerable achievement. In those negotiations, we had the support of member states such as Germany, France, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and others.

Alan Mak: My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made a very important point about protecting the UK’s rebate, which is important to my constituents in Havant and throughout the country. Will the Minister confirm how much of the UK rebate the Labour Government gave away?

Mr Gauke: I will certainly make that point. It was estimated by the European Commission to be of the value of €9 billion over the previous MFF period. In this MFF period, it would be in the region of £2 billion a year, which would be a considerable loss. The Government will not be repeating that.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I would like to take the Minister back to the intervention of the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), because the Minister did not really answer him. In an article in The Sunday Times this week, one Conservative MP said of the Prime Minister’s intentions that he was keeping things up his sleeve, and that:

“He’ll try to negotiate a lower net contribution to the budget.”

It is definitely being said that the Prime Minister is holding that in reserve. Will the Minister comment on that?

Mr Gauke: We have consistently argued the case for money being spent more wisely and for greater European Union public spending restraint. We have already made

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progress with that argument—we made progress in 2013 and the Bill relates to the negotiation, although it is on the revenue rather than the expenditure side. We will consistently argue that case.

Mark Garnier: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—he is giving us a lot of his time. He mentions fiscal prudence and spending taxpayers’ money wisely. Two things that epitomise the wastefulness of the European Union are the Strasbourg circus—the waste of money moving the whole Parliament to Strasbourg—and the fact that the accounts have not been signed off for some two decades. The Prime Minister is working very hard to achieve fiscal prudence, but does the Minister agree that the mood around the whole EU is behind him in dealing with that? The problem is not unique to the UK. The Prime Minister has the wind in his sails and support from the rest of the EU to deal with those problems.

Mr Gauke: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I would perhaps go further: it is not just member states that recognise that things need to change and that there needs to be better value for money. Vice-President Georgieva, who has responsibility for the budget, also recognises the need to ensure that money is spent in a better way. The Prime Minister has consistently set out the fact that there are two sensible objectives: to cut the whole budget and to protect the rebate. We will continue to make that case.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the Minister for giving way once again. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), who is not in his place, made a useful point about expressing our contributions in terms that the citizens will understand—contribution per head, per month or whatever. Would it not be useful to look at the expenditure side of, for instance, the common agricultural policy, and say how much that costs in net terms per head of population, and how much it has cost over many decades in higher food prices? People would be very interested to know that.

Mr Gauke: The hon. Gentleman draws me into deeper waters and wider issues. Perhaps I should resist, Mr Streeter, before you advise me not to spend too much time on the common agricultural policy and some of its costs. It is worth pointing out that the CAP as a proportion of expenditure by the EU is falling and has fallen fairly significantly. The hon. Gentleman’s point is about making things clearer and ensuring that the British public have a better understanding of where their money is spent. There is a wider point, because that does not apply only to EU contributions. I am sure that he and all hon. Members welcome the fact that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sends out tax statements to the British public so that they can see details of where money is spent in various Government Departments and the details of the money spent on our net contribution to the EU.

The scrutiny Committees of both Houses closely scrutinised and cleared the proposal for the new ORD, which was agreed unanimously by member states in May 2014. The Bill and the Prime Minister’s 2013 deal demonstrate that, working with allies, we can achieve change in Europe, and secure a good deal for the UK and for Europe. I commend the clauses to the House. They should stand part of the Bill.

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Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gauke: I will certainly give way, before I deal with the new clauses.

Sir William Cash: I am happy to wait if the Minister wishes to deal with the new clauses. I will come back at that point.

Mr Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. New clauses 1, 2 and 3 and amendment 1, all tabled by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), would require the Treasury to undertake a series of actions prior to the Act coming into force. New clause 1 would require the Treasury to inform both Houses that it has formally requested a review by the European Commission into alternative ways of running the EU budget and a comparative analysis of commitments and payments as the basis for appropriations for the budget. New clause 2 would require the Treasury to request a fundamental review by the Council of Ministers of EU budget priorities, waste and inefficiency. New clause 3 asks for the Chancellor to issue an invitation to the Commission to provide further details of the draft budget to scrutiny Committees. Amendment 1 would delete subsection (3) of clause 2, which would mean that the Act would not come into force until 14 days after the conditions specified in each new clause were met.

We recognise the concerns underlying the amendments. Nevertheless, the hon. Lady will recall that the Bill relates exclusively to the financing of the EU budget, while the amendments relate to the separate, although equally important, issue of EU budget expenditure. On that basis alone, we reject them.

Tom Tugendhat: My hon. Friend talks clearly about financing and the details of various percentages going up or down. Does he recognise that what he is really talking about is setting the tone on the agreement we have in the European Union? The UK can play its part as a good partner in the EU, but the EU can help to play its own role in promoting what we all recognise is a growing economy in Europe, and not just a redistribution of wealth.

Mr Gauke: The deal that the Prime Minister reached in February 2013 was clearly a success, as our negotiating objectives were met. I am sure my hon. Friend and most of us would hope and expect similar success to be achieved in the months ahead.

Barbara Keeley: I invite the Minister to remind himself of a similar debate we had in January 2008, in which he and his hon. Friends on the then shadow Treasury team tabled a strikingly similar new clause that asked for a report on the review by the European Commission covering all aspects of EU spending. It was a very robust debate and he was a signatory to that new clause. He rejects my new clause, but it is very similar to the one he tabled in 2008.

Mr Gauke: I am tempted to point to the remarks made by the hon. Lady’s colleagues in setting out the reasons why that new clause should have been rejected. She might not have been persuaded, but I am tempted

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to say that six years on, after much reflection, I can see some value in them. The stronger argument I would perhaps make is that in contrast to what happened some years ago, when the previous Labour Government negotiated away part of our rebate, we have just had a successful negotiation in 2013. Let me set out the progress that is being made on that agenda. If I may, I will give a little detail on the substance, putting aside the point that the Bill focuses on the revenue, rather than the expenditure, side of things.

1.15 pm

Sir William Cash: On the reference in new clause 3 to

“the relevant European affairs select committee in each House of Parliament”

as my hon. Friend knows, the European Scrutiny Committee always goes through all the budgets, makes reports regularly and has the power to invite anybody, including officials from the European Commission. In addition, it receives explanatory memorandums from the Government—in fact, from the Minister himself. I would like to make some further remarks about this later, but I agree very much with what he says in rejecting the Opposition’s proposals.

Mr Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Let me come straight to new clause 3, as he has raised that point.

Along with many across Europe, we share the concern that lies behind new clause 3 that the EU is not sufficiently accountable to EU citizens. Hon. Members will need no reminding that the Prime Minister has already made it clear that strengthening the role of national Parliaments is a central tenet of his reform programme. Within the existing legal framework, the Government already take the role of national Parliaments in scrutinising EU proposals very seriously. That is why, when the European Parliament requested the formation of a high-level group on own resources to review the EU financing system, we insisted that national Parliaments, as well as the European institutions, were given a voice as part of the consultation. We therefore amended the joint declaration on the formation of the group explicitly to take account of input from national Parliaments.

We do all we can to ensure the transparent and effective scrutiny of each year’s annual budget negotiations. An explanatory memorandum is deposited as soon as possible after the publication of the draft EU budget each year. That is followed by debates in both Houses and regular ministerial updates at significant stages of the negotiation process.

We are committed to working with both scrutiny Committees to make this process as efficient and effective as possible for all parties. However, we believe that requiring the Government to write to invited officials to appear before the scrutiny Committees would add little to the scrutiny process and would be a very peculiar precedent, for all the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). It would add little because the Committees can, and have, invited officials to appear before them. For example, in June 2014, Nadia Calvino, the Director-General of the European Commission budget, gave evidence to the Lords EU Economic and Financial Affairs Sub-Committee.

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It really should not be the place of Government to determine who the scrutiny Committees should see. It is for the Committees of both Houses to decide for themselves who should appear before them and when. It would be a peculiar precedent for the Executive to begin to interfere with that freedom, no matter how benign the initial intention.

Barbara Keeley: I appreciate the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Stone, but the Minister cannot have it both ways. In a debate in October 2012, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), speaking for the Government, complained strongly—I referred to this in a previous debate—that Ministers had asked the Commission to model costs of €5 billion, €10 billion and €15 billion in relation to staffing. That very reasonable request was bounced back with the very insulting comment:

“We declined as it’s a lot of work and a waste of time for our staff who are busy with more urgent matters…we are better educated than national civil servants. We’re high fliers, not burger flippers”.

If the Minister is expecting us to believe him, when such a simple request on a staffing issue is not taken seriously, then we do have some points to make.

Mr Gauke: I will return to that point. My remarks, when the hon. Lady intervened, were in respect of new clause 3 and the European Scrutiny Committee. I have been very clear that it would be a curious thing to do to place this in legislation and for the Executive to take that role upon themselves. I very much echo the remarks made on that by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.

Sir William Cash: Let me add one further point before I deal with the matter in substance. The European Scrutiny Committee’s most recent report, which in this respect has been accepted by the Government, recommended that each Committee, including the Treasury Committee, establish a rapporteur to consider these questions. We could effectively work with the Treasury Committee to ensure, if necessary, that there would be an even deeper examination of the Treasury aspects.

Mr Gauke: We obviously welcome scrutiny in this area. If the European Scrutiny Committee or other Committees seek the Government’s support, for example, in bringing over Commission officials to give evidence, the Government would of course gladly support them. Let me offer that hand of co-operation if I may, but I do not see a strong case for placing this within the legislation. Indeed, I would go further and say that it would be inappropriate for us to do so. That deals with new clause 3.

We do not believe that the proposal, which would require the Government to write to various European institutions to invite them to undertake a review of one or other aspect of the EU budget, would really add to the work that the Government have undertaken and continue to undertake to improve the expenditure of the EU budget.

Edward Argar (Charnwood) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) rightly highlighted the welcome reduction in the contribution, which is good news for my constituents in Charnwood, as it is for his. That was in stark contrast to

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results achieved in negotiations by previous Governments. As the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) mentioned, while the focus may be on revenue and not expenditure, it is important that the money is well spent. Will the Minister reassure me that he will continue to push the case for reform of how the EU spends money to ensure that it is well spent, well audited and that the accounts are signed off?

Mr Gauke: I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent intervention. The answer to his question lies at the heart of our response to new clause 1. He raises an important point.

New clause 1 requires the Government to write to the Commission to review the basis of appropriations for the EU budget to see whether “alternative arrangements” would provide better value for money. Although the link between appropriations and value for money is an important one, it is not of the first order. The Government’s first priority is to control spending directly, not through the system of appropriations. Cutting low-value expenditure is the first and most important way of improving the quality of EU spending.

In delivering an historic real-terms cut to the budget, the Government took a decisive step. Within a smaller budget, we also made sure that expenditure was reoriented towards areas that provide higher value for money. Spending on the common agricultural policy will fall considerably as a proportion of the total budget, while spending on research and development and other pro-growth investment will increase. So it is possible to operate within the system of appropriations, if appropriate control is in place.

The new clause none the less raises the question of whether the system of payments and commitments is appropriate for delivering value for money. It is a question that we must ask. It is true that it is an unusual budgeting system and it is not the way in which the UK Government budget. If the EU were starting from scratch, we would not advocate using that system. Yet I do not think anything would be gained by requesting a review of the system—for one simple and compelling reason. The proposed review in new clause 1 has already been set in motion by the new Budget Commissioner, Vice-President Georgieva, through her recent “budget for results” initiative. We obviously cannot say what the review will include, but its terms of reference are widely drawn, providing ample space to review the current budget system, including the system of appropriations, and to explore possible alternative approaches that would offer better value for money and improved financial management.

The UK has publicly welcomed that initiative and has shared its expertise. The Chancellor has made it clear to other Finance Ministers during ECOFIN meetings that that is the UK’s position. The initiative will involve member states, the European Parliament and the European Court of Auditors.

Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab): I am grateful for that update, but perhaps the Minister will tell us what the Government are going to do proactively in terms of their own priorities to deliver the value for money that he talks about, beyond the generalities that we have heard all morning about better value for money, better spending and better priorities. Can we have some specifics? How will the Government exert real influence on that important review?

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Mr Gauke: The most important thing we can do is reduce the EU budget because that then focuses the mind of the European institutions to ensure that the money they are able to spend is prioritised in the right way. I come back to how the money is spent and the importance of focusing more on items that will help ensure a more dynamic European economy—more on research and development, for example—and proportionately less on the common agricultural policy. That is something that all hon. Members should support. That has been achieved.

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I think the Minister has answered my question. It was about the common agricultural policy, and he has just walked into the answer.

Mr Gauke: Walked into it? I ran with enthusiasm into the answer, and I am glad that I anticipated the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Kevin Foster: I thank the Minister for generously giving way to me a second time. Does he agree that the European Commission did not propose a single euro of savings when the negotiations started, so it would be strange to ask it to conduct the review to secure better value for money, as the new clause demands? In essence we would be asking the poacher to review how the poaching is getting on.

Mr Gauke: I take my hon. Friend’s point. We are, I hope, moving in the right direction. The new Commission has been in place for the past few months or so, and the early signs are—I shall return to the point—that it appears to be more focused on the task. I think there is a link: there was a reduction in the EU budget, which has somewhat focused the mind.

Kelvin Hopkins: Following what the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) has said, would it not be sensible and appropriate for our Government to carry out a comprehensive review of how we think the budget should operate, and make that a firm public submission, whatever is undertaken by the EU itself?

Mr Gauke: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, which he makes in a characteristically constructive way. Clearly, it is important for us to work with other like-minded member states to ensure that we get the focus we need and the prioritisation of expenditure in the areas that add the most value. There are different ways of achieving that, and we can discuss that. It is only fair to note, however, that some progress has been made, as I shall touch on in a few moments.

New clause 2 imposes a requirement on the Government to request a review by the Council of Ministers of the EU

“budget priorities, waste and inefficiency”

in advance of ratification. The new clause relates not to financing, but to expenditure, so I again point out that we will reject it. Although the Government recognise the need to cut down on wasteful spending, requiring the Government to write and ask for a review of waste and inefficiency would add little to what the Government are already doing in this area. We know that there is

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waste and inefficiency in the EU budget. We need action, not words—and action is what the Government have taken. Our most important step has been to cut the EU budget. Just as Governments across Europe are making tough decisions to consolidate public finances, the multi-annual financial framework deal negotiated by the Prime Minister has forced the EU to make tough decisions to bear down on waste and to economise. By imposing restraint on the EU budget, we can create a culture change in the Commission. The days of Commission officials measuring their success by how much of the budget they have been able to spend should be behind us.

1.30 pm

Peter Grant (Glenrothes) (SNP): I could understand the Government’s reluctance to incorporate the amendments in legislation if they did not deal strictly with the narrow interpretation of the Bill, but in view of what they ask the Government to do, I cannot see why the Government should be reluctant to take any of those actions. Why do they not simply give an undertaking to do so? Then we would not need the amendments, and we could all agree on something.

Mr Gauke: In the case of new clause 2, which relates to how we deal with the way in which the Council of Ministers works, we are making progress and taking action, which includes cutting the budget. In the case of new clause 1, I do not need to undertake to write a letter calling for the Commission to do something that it is already doing. As for new clause 3. I have already made it clear that I do not think it would be appropriate for us to impose on members of the European Scrutiny Committee something that is a matter for them.

Barbara Keeley: I am slightly surprised that the Minister is unable to take on board what was actually a very sensible suggestion. He says that overall budget restraint is sufficient, and that there is no need for a focus on “waste and inefficiency”. As I mentioned earlier, back in 2012, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells tried to introduce measures to reduce the staffing budget and asked for modelling, but that request was rejected. Commission representatives should not feel that they can bounce back to UK Ministers simple requests that really would help decision making.

Time and again, Members on both sides of the House raise issues relating to the Commission’s staffing costs. If that is the response that the Minister has been receiving—he is not admitting it today, but the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells mentioned it during another debate—we really must press the matter. It is not good enough simply to accept that everything is fine and we do not have a problem. We must push the case for enhanced scrutiny.

Mr Gauke: We care a great deal about eliminating waste and inefficiency in the EU budget. The question is how we should do that. Let me say first that, if we can reduce the MFF, that will place a much greater onus on the Commission to eliminate wasteful expenditure.

The hon. Lady made a perfectly fair point about what happened back in 2012. However, the Prime Minister’s negotiation triumph in 2013 has reduced the MFF, and we are now seeing signs—which we were not seeing

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three years ago—that the Commission is focusing much more on the issue. Vice-President Georgieva described the 2015 budget, which was agreed last December, as

“a budget of responsibility… a tight budget that reflects the tight fiscal conditions in our Member States.”

She said that it was

“a very focused budget, focused on the priorities that we have established in the new Commission.”

She added:

“It is directed towards investments in competitiveness, for instance supporting the innovative nature of our businesses. It is also a budget where tight controls on spending will allow us to achieve the best possible results.”

Vice-President Georgieva’s “budget for results” initiative, which focuses on better rather than more spending, has come about as a direct result of the imposition of restraint at the top. The United Kingdom is engaging constructively with the initiative, and is working actively with the Commission to ensure that momentum is maintained through regular meetings at political and technical levels. We are working with our allies to increase support for the initiative and to ensure that all member states are represented in discussions. We look forward to the first meeting of the inter-institutional working group in mid-July and to contributing to the “budget for results” conference in September.

Because of what we have achieved in reducing the budget, we are seeing a culture change, but we need to ensure that the momentum is maintained. If the Labour party supports that, I am delighted, but we must remember that it was Labour that surrendered part of our rebate and failed to impose the discipline that we needed.

Barbara Keeley: Again, I am surprised by the Minister’s response. Let me remind him of a point that I made on Second Reading. When Labour Members voted with rebels in the Conservative party, they strengthened the Prime Minister’s hand before he went into negotiations by insisting that the MFF be cut. The Minister really ought to acknowledge that. Surely it helps if, on every occasion, Members in all parts of the House can be strong in saying that we want enhanced scrutiny, and that is what we are trying to do through our new clauses today.

Mr Gauke: I cannot but throw back the record of the Labour Government in that regard.

James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): It is difficult to listen to what Labour Members are saying about new clause 2 without remembering what happened when they were in government in the United Kingdom. Let us not forget the huge increase in the number of people they employed, including outreach workers and people with non-jobs. Given the vast inefficiency and waste of all those years, it seems a bit rich for Labour Members to expect us to take lectures on the subject.

Mr Gauke: That is a very good point. However, you would not wish me to be detained too long, Mr Streeter, by the fact that various candidates for the leadership of the Labour party appear to be recognising that too much money was spent before the crash, and that not all of it was spent in an efficient manner.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab) rose