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I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Marine Nigel Mead from 42 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan on Sunday. He was a selfless, enthusiastic and committed Marine who has made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. Our thoughts must be with his family, his friends and his colleagues.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, this afternoon I will be travelling to Dublin as part of this week’s historic state visit by Her Majesty the Queen.
May I associate myself and my constituents with the Prime Minister’s words of condolence?
Under rules introduced in 2003, illegal migrants who manage to avoid the authorities for 14 years can apply for permanent stay, have full access to the welfare system and even obtain a British passport. Given that in the past eight years nearly 10,000 such migrants have won such rights, and with an estimated half a million illegal immigrants in Britain today, will the Prime Minister seek to change those rules and restore some sanity to Britain’s border controls?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have pledged to break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement in the UK because we believe that settling in Britain should be a privilege, rather than an automatic right for those who have evaded the authorities for a certain amount of time. We are going to consult on further measures, including the future of the 14-year rule he mentioned, and make announcements later this year. We have already announced that there will be tighter rules for those wanting to settle here, and have already implemented a new income and English language requirement for skilled workers who have been here for more than five years.
May I start by joining the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Marine Nigel Mead from 42 Commando Royal Marines? He showed exceptional bravery and courage, like all our troops in Afghanistan, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.
The role of the Justice Secretary is to speak for the nation on matters of justice and crime. This morning he was on the radio suggesting that there were “serious” rapes and other categories of rapes. Would the Prime Minister like to take this opportunity to distance himself from the Justice Secretary’s comments?
First of all, let me say that rape is one of the most serious crimes there is, and it should be met with proper punishment. Anyone who has ever met a rape victim and talked with them about what that experience means to them and how it stays with them for the rest of their life could only want it to have the most serious punishment possible. The real disgrace in our country is that only 6% of rapes reported to a police station end in a conviction. That is what we have to sort out. I have not heard the Justice Secretary’s interview, but the position of the Government is very clear: there is an offence called rape and anyone who commits it should be prosecuted, convicted and punished very severely.
Let me tell the Prime Minister what the Justice Secretary said this morning. He was asked about the average sentence a rapist gets. The interviewer said, “A rapist gets five years,” and then the Justice Secretary said in reply, “That includes date rape, 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”. He went on to say that there were categories of “forcible rape” and “serious rape”. The Justice Secretary cannot speak for the women of this country when he makes comments like that.
As I said, I have not heard the interview, but the point is this: it should be a matter for the court to decide the seriousness of the offence and the sentence that ought to be passed. I served on the Sexual Offences Bill under the last Government, and we looked at all the issues about whether we should try to differentiate between different categories of rape—and I seem to remember that one of the right hon. Gentlemen now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench was leading the debate for the Government. We decided, as a House of Commons, not to make that distinction. What matters is this: do we get more cases to court, do we get more cases convicted, and do we get more cases sent down for decent sentences? That is the concern we should have.
When the Prime Minister leaves the Chamber, he should go and look at the comments of the Justice Secretary—and let me just say to him very clearly: the Justice Secretary should not be in his post at the end of today. That is the first thing the Prime Minister should do. The second thing he should do is to drop this policy, because this policy, which they are defending, is the idea that if you plead guilty to rape you get your sentence halved. That could mean that rapists spend as little as 15 months in prison. That is not an acceptable policy, and the Prime Minister should drop it.
I think that what the Leader of the Opposition might be doing is jumping to conclusions on this issue. The point is this: there is already a plea bargaining system in Britain, for one third, and we are consulting on whether to extend the system to make it even more powerful. We have not yet decided which offences it should apply to, or how it should be brought in, because there is a consultation, but the aim of plea bargaining—it is worth remembering this, because plea bargaining is used in very tough criminal justice systems, such as America’s—is to ensure that more people get prosecuted, more people get convicted, and it actually saves the victim from having to go through a court process and find out at the end that the culprit is going to submit a guilty plea at the last minute. That is what the Government are looking at, and when we have listened to the consultation we will announce our conclusions—but he needs to be patient until we do that.
We are getting used to this. As we saw on health, when there is a terrible policy the Prime Minister just hides behind the consultation. Frankly, it is just not good enough. Let me tell him what people think of this policy. The judges are saying the policy is wrong, End Violence Against Women is saying that it is the wrong policy, and his own Victims Commissioner says that the policy is “bonkers”. I know that he is in the middle of a consultation, but I would like to hear his view on this policy, which he should drop.
The terrible fact that the right hon. Gentleman refers to is that only 6% of rape cases are prosecuted and end in a conviction. That is after 13 years of the Labour party running the criminal justice system, so that is the improvement we want to see. He wants to know my view: my view is get out there, convict, prosecute and send these people down for a decent period of time. That is what we should be doing. Rape is such a serious offence, so he should wait for the outcome of the consultation, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon.
“proposal is likely to survive”—[Hansard, 17 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 150]
the consultation, and the prisons Minister was defending the policy. People are rightly angry about this policy; they think that it is the wrong policy. All I am asking is something very simple: why does not the Prime Minister give us his view?
I have given you my view, and I will give you my—[ Interruption. ] I have. I want to see more people prosecuted and convicted for rape, and we are going to take steps to make sure that happens. But I will give you my view on something else—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Yes, which is this: I think there is merit in having a plea bargaining system, which we have already—and which should be discretionary, to try to make sure that we convict more. What we had under the previous Government was a mandatory release of all prisoners, irrespective of what they had done. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman sat in the Cabinet that let 80,000 criminals out of prison. That was not a discretionary policy; it was a mandatory policy—and it was a disgraceful policy.
Does the Prime Minister not realise what people are thinking of him on crime? Before the election he made a whole series of promises, and now he is breaking them one by one. He was out of touch on anonymity for rape victims, and now he is out of touch on sentencing for rape. He is cutting the number of police officers—cutting 12,000 police officers. Why does he not go back to the drawing board on crime, and get rid of his Justice Secretary?
“I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime.”
Well, that pledge did not last very long. One of these days the Labour party is going to realise that opposition is about more than just jumping on a bandwagon and picking up an issue; it is about putting forward a serious alternative and making some serious points. [ Interruption. ]
This question is by way of contrast, Mr Speaker. In harmony with the priority being given by the Government to strengthening relations with the Commonwealth, does my right hon. Friend attach importance to the particular role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and will he do his best to find a way of marking that when the centennial conference of the CPA takes place in London in July?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is an important part of the Commonwealth. For the celebration of that anniversary I have had an extremely attractive invitation to go along and say a few words, and I will certainly see whether I can.
It is funny that Labour Members do not want to listen to Tony Blair’s speechwriter, as they listened with such rapt attention for so many years to what he said. I welcome the free schools policy, and I very much welcome what Peter Hyman is doing in trying to establish a free school. I think this is an excellent policy. Yesterday we had a new policy from Labour when the shadow Education Secretary said that just because he is opposed to the free schools policy, that does not mean he is opposed to every free school. We are back to the days of John Prescott, being told that we cannot have new good schools because everyone might want to go to them. We are back to old Labour.
Does not the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to the Irish Republic this week demonstrate not just her own personal courage in carrying out such a visit in the face of severe dissident terrorist threats, but also, whatever reservations some of us may have about one particular aspect of her visit, the extent of the improvement in relations between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a proud part, as well as a recognition of Northern Ireland’s status? Is it not also an opportunity to build on co-operation to fight the dissident terrorists who still plague us in Northern Ireland and in the Republic?
The right hon. Gentleman is right in every respect. This is a remarkable visit that demonstrates that the relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland is strong, and has probably never been stronger, with the successful devolution of policing and justice that made the visit possible. The scenes on our television screens last night of the visits that Her Majesty made to heal the wounds of the past, but also to look to a very bright future between our two countries, are remarkable and hugely welcome.
Since it is the people of this country who have paid the enormous bills for bank failures, should not they get some reward for their sacrifice by being given shares when the banks are eventually denationalised? Will the Prime Minister look at the imaginative scheme put forward by my hon. Friend Stephen Williams, which is now backed by The Sun newspaper, to do that?
I will certainly look at all the possible ways of putting the nationalised banks back into the private sector. I personally strongly support the idea of widening share ownership, so we will look carefully at the scheme that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. We also have to make sure that we secure value for money for the taxpayer as we try to fill in the great deep pit of debt that we were left by Labour.
Today hundreds of women in their 50s, supported by Age UK, have come to Parliament to protest against unfair changes to their pensions. The coalition agreement says that there will be no increase in women’s state pension age before 2020, yet under the Pensions Bill that increase will start in 2018. Why the U-turn?
Yet again, here is another reform important for making sure that our pensions system is affordable and sustainable that Labour has completely given up on. What we are doing with pensions is linking them back to earnings—something that was promised repeatedly but never done—and making sure that our pensions system is sustainable for the long term. That is what we are delivering—something never done by Labour.
I have made my views clear: if the Scottish Parliament wanted to hold a referendum, although I think that that would be a retrograde step, we would have to grant it. I would then join with everyone in this House and beyond who supports our United Kingdom to ensure that we keep it together. That is the process that we should go through, and it would involve a vote for people in Scotland, not for those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am a very generous person, so I compliment the Government on eventually deciding to sign up to the EU human trafficking directive. A recent report by the Children’s Commissioner for Scotland said that he could identify 200 children trafficked into Scotland, and ECPAT UK has stated that 1,000 children have been trafficked into the rest of the UK. Both bodies recommend that the Government appoint an independent human trafficking rapporteur and strengthen the guardianship system for children. Given that the Government have cut specialist teams in the Home Office and the police in this area, how can they assure the House that the UK is prepared for the responsibility that comes with signing up to the EU directive?
I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says, because I know that he has a deep concern about trafficking, as do many Members of our House. Frankly, the fact that children and young adults are trafficked for sex and other purposes in our world is completely disgraceful, and we have to stamp it out. We have signed up to the directive, as he said, and we were already complying with the terms of the directive. We must do everything we can to stamp out this repulsive practice.