15 May 2007 : Column 119

House of Lords

Tuesday, 15 May 2007.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Introduction: Lord Bew

Lord Bew—Paul Anthony Elliott Bew, Esquire, having been created Baron Bew, of Donegore in the County of Antrim, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve and the Lord Trimble.

Liverpool: European Capital of Culture

2.42 pm

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, I congratulate Liverpool on being awarded the status of European Capital of Culture 2008. Policing of the events taking place in the year is a matter for Merseyside Police, which, like every other police force, has benefited from a sustained increase in funding under this Government.

The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her congratulations. Is it not true that the majority of police funding comes from central government? Can she explain why the Government were able to give special funding for extra policing for the Commonwealth Games, which lasted for just under a month, but have not made provision for the culture programme, which will last for over a year and will probably bring about 24 million visitors to the city?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that we have made significant increases to the grant to police forces right across the country. An increase in total grants of £98 million, which is 45.5 per cent in real terms, has been made since 1997-98. There has been an increase of £85 million, which is 37.6 per cent in real terms, since 2000-01. Moneys were made available in 2002 for the Commonwealth Games because they were a specific special event that took place over a short period of time. In relation to this situation, Merseyside bid for and was, quite rightly, granted special status. That is something for which it should have made proper provision, and I am sure that it has.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that since the chief constable of Merseyside, Bernard Hogan-Howe, came to office, he has tackled crime, particularly gun crime, with vigour and imagination? Gone are the days when the comedians would joke that if you shouted “Stop thief!” in Liverpool, everybody started to run. The latest crime survey shows that the figures for violent, household and personal crime in Merseyside are lower than the national average. Does she also agree that the problem is not the reality of crime, which has fallen over the past 10 years, but the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour, which is tackled by the presence of police officers on the streets? The European Capital of Culture initiative deserves the support of the Government and the private sector and should be seen as a positive investment in the future of Merseyside.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on each of those issues. I commend the wonderful work that has been done in Merseyside by the police. We have seen real improvement and change, which has given us all a great deal of pleasure. I also agree that the fear of crime must be tackled with great vigour. I am very pleased that this Government have been able to give significant, palpable support to the police by increasing their numbers to enable them to be more visible and to do their job.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, beyond the plaudits and the commendation of the Merseyside Police Authority and the city of Liverpool for winning the status of Capital of Culture, will the Minister return to the Question put to her by the right reverend Prelate about the inconsistencies in public policy? How can it be right that over the past two years Merseyside Police’s budget has been cut by £12 million, so that the force now has to find £9 million to manage its policing, when Manchester received the figure to which the right reverend Prelate referred for the Commonwealth Games and a further £4.5 million to organise policing for the Labour Party conference that took place there? There is clearly an inconsistency in the way this is being dealt with.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there is no inconsistency. The noble Lord will know that the final force budget for Liverpool is £307.3 million. That is an increase of 3.7 per cent or £10.9 million. The police precept on council tax is £127.53 for band D property, which is an increase of 5 per cent. That money, I am sure, will be properly spent. The noble Lord knows that part of our expectation is that the police force will provide appropriate policing within its budget. Also, Liverpool asked for this honour and was lucky enough to get it.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, is it true that, as reported, Mr Tony McNulty from another place suggested that Merseyside Police should,

to find the money to put 200 extra officers on the streets next year? If so, is that a respectful way to treat the city of Liverpool in this historic and unique year?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand that my honourable friend was incredibly supportive and respectful to Merseyside. For that reason he acceded to a request to go to Liverpool to talk to local people together with other agencies to see what we could best do to support Merseyside in getting the sort of money and support that it needs to deliver. We understand that that was seen as a very helpful thing for him to do, and I commend him for doing so.

Lord Harrison: My Lords—

Lord Dholakia: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is time to hear from the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an important point. Merseyside Police Authority estimates that there will be over 20 million visitors, including just over 4.5 million from abroad. This is a prelude to the Olympics in 2012, particularly in relation to safer policing. In light of the difference between the Government and the Merseyside Police Authority, would it not be wise to invite Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary to assess, independently both of the Government and of the Merseyside Police Authority, the actual policing needs in Liverpool and how they could be met?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. I reassure him that appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that the necessary policing for the 2012 Olympics is well provided for. Those discussions are already under way. Noble Lords have mentioned the Commonwealth Games, but I remind them that the Commonwealth Games in 2002 took place over a short period of time; only £5 million was granted, although that is a significant sum, but the people were coming to a very small area over an intense period. That is not the case for the celebrations in 2008 for Liverpool. Liverpool has been planning for this for a number of years now.

Crime: Rape

2.50 pm

Lord Campbell-Savours asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, in law, victims of rape and other sexual offences are entitled to compensation under the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which became statutory in 1996, following the passage of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Act 1995. Victims of rape and other sexual crime can also pursue a perpetrator for damages in the civil courts for the tort of assault or battery. We have no plans to review or change those arrangements.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, is it possible that one reason for high rates of false allegations and low rates of conviction for rape is that a minority—I stress that—of women make false allegations in order to win compensation which, in the case of rape, is £11,000? Why do we not move to the German system, where the state does not pay and where compensation follows civil action, as against the state paying? Surely the trauma of rape requires not state-funded windfalls but counselling services that really help victims.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, a victim of rape should get both compensation and counselling and support. It is not either/or; it is both/and. As the noble Lord will know, it is very important that we make sure that where convictions are made, people can get some kind of recompense for the trauma and injury that they may have received. As for the reasons why people make false allegations, I do not agree that one of the primary objectives is to get £11,000. There may be very serious reasons why people do that, which we need to consider.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. Does this not show how wrong it is to have a tariff system of compensation in respect of women who have suffered rape when there are so many variants—so many differences—with regard to the trauma suffered by the victim? Is it not time that the Government started to increase levels of compensation, which have remained steady, if not diminished, during the past 10 years under this Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I understand it, the tariffs were set in 1996 on a scale which lists 440 injuries. The noble Lord will know that the Green Paper was issued in December 2005 to consider the compensation scheme. Having transferred it to the Ministry of Justice, we await our final deliberations, but the ambition is that we have a speedier and simpler system focused on the victim.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I did not quite understand the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He implied that people were making unfair or untrue allegations in order to get compensation. Can the Minister clarify this point? Do you get compensation only if the case is proved; or, as the noble Lord said, can you just make a claim and get compensation without any proof?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, the claim is made after the individual is convicted. However, the basis of the claim is different in a civil case, as the noble Baroness will know. The issue raised by the noble Lord about unfounded claims is important. Where those running the compensation scheme become aware that a claim has been made wrongly, they will seek wherever possible to reclaim the money.

Baroness Gale: My Lords, what action can the Government take to increase the low rate of conviction for rape? Less than 6 per cent of all those charged with rape are convicted. That means that thousands of women in this country have been raped but will never get any compensation. Also, when does she expect the Government to respond to the consultation on rape, which started in spring 2006 and ended in July 2006? Does she agree that that could form the basis of a wide-ranging debate in your Lordships' House, rather than having a series of monthly Questions on the subject?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I understand that the consultation response will be available shortly. I hope that my noble friend will pursue the idea that we have a debate in your Lordships’ House; that would be extremely valuable. We seek to support victims of rape in a number of ways, by ensuring not only that there are convictions but that people who are traumatised are given the right kind of support. We have sexual assault referral centres where medical care and counselling can be given very quickly and sympathetically. We have sexual violence advisers, and £3 million has been put into setting up an adviser system across the country to provide essential services for those who have been raped. There is a victims’ fund. To date, 100 organisations have received some form of funding. Victim Support also plays an important part. We have tried to ensure in these and many other ways that those who suffer this terrible crime come forward and that we get the convictions.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many women in, say, the past five years have availed themselves of the doubtful benefit of a civil action and have relived the trauma in order to top up the miserably low tariff of £11,000 under the scheme?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I have no idea whether any women have done that. As I said earlier, however, my view is that people are unlikely to make false allegations in order to receive £11,000.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the fact that a male defendant in a rape trial is acquitted in no sense means that the woman has been making a false allegation and lied to the court?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: No, my Lords. The convictions rates, which, as my noble friend Lady Gale has indicated, are of the order of 6 per cent, demonstrate how difficult it is to get a conviction where it may be one person’s word against another’s and there is a need to ensure that people are convicted where proof is available. That is actually what it points to.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that compensation does not depend on the conviction of an individual, because very often that individual cannot be traced? It depends simply on the victim being able to satisfy the board that they are entitled to compensation.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as the noble Lord knows very well, claims in civil cases are decided on the balance of probabilities, so there is an important distinction between such claims and those made in relation to criminal matters.

EU Committee: Scrutiny Reserve

2.57 pm

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Government take their commitment to parliamentary scrutiny extremely seriously. Over-rides occur in a small percentage of cases; for example, as a result of the speed of decision-making in Brussels. The Government are committed to minimising the number of over-rides. In all cases where over-rides prove necessary, Ministers will continue to account for their actions by writing to the chairman of the House of Lords European Union Committee.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer, but does she not agree that this almost contemptuous use of the scrutiny over-ride in the past three years has had two effects? First, it has weakened the scrutiny of European legislation. Secondly, it is in clear breach of the scrutiny reserve resolution of 1999. Surely at a time when the majority of our law is now made in Brussels, scrutiny should be strengthened, not weakened, to restore at least some control by our Parliament over EU legislation.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I think that all members of the European scrutiny committee would agree with me that the Government are certainly not contemptuous of the scrutiny of documents from the European Union. We work extremely closely with that committee to ensure that the number of over-rides is absolutely minimal. In the past year, I believe it was 7 per cent. I have a graph in front of me, with which I will gladly supply the House, which shows that the trend of over-rides is going down and down. Seven per cent in the past year is an extremely good record.

Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, as a current member of the Select Committee on the European Union, may I ask the Minister whether she agrees that a frequent cause of scrutiny over-rides is the delay in departmental replies to queries put by the chairman of the Select Committee? Does she also agree that a delay of five months in a reply from the Home Office, for which it has apologised, is simply unacceptable by any standards?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I completely agree with everything that the noble Lord has said. Of course, five months is absolutely unnecessary, but there are circumstances in which we work with the scrutiny committee to ensure that over-rides are avoided. The clerks of the scrutiny committee and the civil servants from the department work very closely.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, does the Minister recall that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently made some powerful proposals to strengthen the role of Parliament in relation to the Executive? Does she not agree that this is one area where the strengthening of the role of Parliament against the Executive where Ministers do not pay sufficient attention to making sure that good replies are given on time to committees should be one of his priorities?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will look at this extremely closely and we are sure that it is an area in which Parliament is made more accountable.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when Britain had the presidency in the second half of 2005 the scrutiny reserve was over-ridden on 22 occasions and Parliament was denied the opportunity to debate a matter before it became law? Surely, on those occasions, there could be no question of pressure from other states to get on with the business. The Government had control of the agenda. What possible reason could there be for over-riding the scrutiny reserve in those cases except to stick to an agenda set by the bureaucrats in Brussels?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords will be aware that even when a country has the presidency of the European Union certain proposals are already set in motion. It is a very complex structure. I cannot confirm that there were 22 occasions on which there were over-rides during the UK presidency, but I will seek further information for the noble Lord.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the whole system is entirely unsatisfactory? A Minister can go to Europe without any parliamentary approval, make decisions or agree to make decisions, and then come back and say to Parliament, “The decision that I have made, without your prior consent, is binding on you”. Surely, that is not right in a democratic society.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I completely disagree with the noble Lord. It is not an unsatisfactory situation. We have a rigorous system of scrutiny in this country and I am very proud, as a Member of this House, of the excellent work undertaken by the European scrutiny committee.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is the noble Baroness entirely happy that the number of occasions runs at approximately one per week? What proposal does she have to reduce that number, not just the percentage, which may vary according to the degree of flood tide that the proposals are running?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, according to my colleagues behind me, who are much better at maths than I am, 7 per cent of proposals are over-ridden at the moment, which means that one in 14 is over-ridden.

Noble Lords: Per week.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is per week, which is a fairly good record. An example of an unavoidable over-ride concerns a common position renewing restrictive measures against certain individuals in Uzbekistan, which was agreed yesterday at the General Affairs and External Relations Council. If that had not been done, the sanctions could not have been continued. In such a case, it is very important that the system of over-rides can continue, although we seek to diminish the number of occasions on which there are over-rides.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the reasons for over-rides is that the parliamentary year is somewhat shorter than the year worked by the Council of Ministers? Therefore, frequently, decisions have to be made in the absence of Parliament sitting. If noble Lords opposite think that the work of the European Scrutiny Committee is so vital, does my noble friend agree that the Government ought to find better times on which we can debate some of its deliberations?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right that it is very difficult to synchronise the Westminster and Brussels timetables. But, again, I pay tribute to the committee in this House, the excellent chairman of which has made arrangements to sift proposals during Recesses. Therefore we have a better scrutiny record in this House than in the other place. As for the timing of debates, of course, that is a matter for the usual channels.

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