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House of Commons Hansard

Commons Chamber

03 July 2017
Volume 626

    House of Commons

    Monday 3 July 2017

    The House met at half-past Two o’clock


    [Mr Speaker in the Chair]

  • Colleagues, we are pleased to be joined today by Speaker Carme Forcadell, the Speaker of the Parliament of Catalonia, who is visiting London, and whom we are delighted to see. Welcome to you.

  • Oral Answers to Questions

    Home Department

    The Secretary of State was asked—

    Child Sexual Abuse Inquiry

  • 1. Whether she has held discussions with the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse since the withdrawal of the charity Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse from that inquiry. [900114]

  • May I take the opportunity, first, to welcome the new shadow Front-Bench team—the hon. Members for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), for Derby North (Chris Williamson), for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan)? They are welcome indeed.

    I agree that it is regrettable that Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse has withdrawn from the inquiry. The inquiry is making good progress, in line with the plan it published last year. This is evidenced through public hearings and other events with victims and survivors. I retain my confidence in this independent inquiry to deliver its important work, to get the truth and to learn lessons for the future.

  • I thank the Home Secretary for that, but this is now really serious: this is the fourth victims’ group that has left, and today we have had the Sutton review, which reads like a total whitewash and suggests that no lessons have been learned by the inquiry or by the Government that set it up. What message does she think that sends to everybody in this country who is currently relying on a public inquiry to deliver justice for them?

  • I ask the hon. Lady to reconsider her view. The inquiry has said that the group can always come back if it wants to, and I ask her to think again about the people who are already being helped by the inquiry. There are 60 to 80 people whose experiences and attacks have been referred to the police, which may lead to prosecutions, and there are up to 1,000 people whose lives have been changed and who are getting the answers that they want. Those are real differences, which I ask the hon. Lady not to underestimate.

  • Last year, the inquiry attracted some unhelpful headlines on the back of its internal workings and certain personalities, since when, I am glad to say, it has been getting on with its important work. But we were promised an interim report and greater transparency, particularly after the Home Affairs Committee sittings, so when might we expect those?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I remember well giving evidence about this very matter when he was the acting Chair of that Committee. Like him, I have confidence in the new inquiry chair, Alexis Jay; she is getting on with the job, and as I said to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), we are seeing real action and real results from the progress that is being made. I have been told that we will get an interim report during 2018.

  • Does the Home Secretary have any concerns about the fact that the police have announced that they are going to curtail annual checks on people who are on the sex offender register, when it is growing year on year?

  • I refer the hon. Lady to the fact that different police chiefs are taking different positions on this, depending on their experience in their particular communities. If she has a particular concern about the situation in her community, I encourage her to come and talk to myself or the Police Minister in due course.

  • Does the independent inquiry have a role to play in considering the outcome of the £1 million, two-year Operation Conifer—the inquiry into the allegations against the late Sir Edward Heath? If it does not, who does?

  • That is a matter for local policing. It is up to local operations to decide how they will proceed with that matter; it is not for the inquiry. The inquiry is making its inquiries, having the truth sessions and then referring, where appropriate, to the police.

  • Special Constables

  • 2. What financial support is in place for special constables. [900115]

  • Since 1831, special constables have made a genuinely valuable contribution to local policing. That is why we should keep under regular review what the Government do to support that work.

  • Will my hon. Friend congratulate the 358 special constables in Essex, and congratulate Essex police on their push to encourage even more people to become special constables? Will he consider making it easier for councils to offer council tax rebates to special constables so that we can give something back to those who serve in our communities?

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for that. He has been a tireless champion for volunteering, and for special constables in particular. He represents a county that, through the leadership of police and crime commissioner Roger Hirst, is showing real leadership in trying to encourage more special constables. At the moment, we provide access to insurance for legal expenses. There is provision for out-of-allowance expenses, and there is provision in law for discretionary benefits such as discounts on council tax, but I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss how we can go further.

  • In welcoming back the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), I am informed that during his enforced and involuntary absence he has become a doctor of philosophy, upon which the House wishes to congratulate him, I am sure.

  • I had to do something with my wasted years.

    I welcome the Police Minister to his place. We all congratulate the specials on the work they do, which is of course first-rate, but it seems to me from my experience—I am going out with the specials on Friday, so I am sure they will tell me in no uncertain terms whether I am right—that being in the specials is no longer an entrance point to the full-time constabulary. Is there a reason for that? If it is because of problems of release or of financial support, and will the Minister look into that and do something about it?

  • I add my voice to the congratulations to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I used to serve on the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; it seems like 1,000 years ago. I would be concerned if what he says were true. It is not what I hear and not what the data tell me about the number of specials who go on to become regular police officers, but I will keep it under regular review.

  • As a former special constable—I am sure that will not be the last time that is mentioned from this Dispatch Box—I saw at first hand the dedication and bravery of our frontline officers, but I also witnessed a collapse in morale as the Government ignored warnings over jobs, pay and resources, and this has only gotten worse. Only last month at the Police Federation conference, the Home Secretary dismissed the concerns of an officer who told her how pay cuts had left him struggling to put food on his table. Does the Minister agree with the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary on whether our bravest and best should continue to experience a real-terms pay cut until 2020?

  • I thank and congratulate the hon. Lady on the contribution that she has made as a special constable. In relation to police pay, let me be very clear: we want to make sure that frontline public service workers, including the police, are paid fairly for their work, not least because of the contribution that they have made over the years to reducing the deficit that we inherited from Labour, and, in that context, the work they have done to safeguard hundreds of thousands of jobs. How we do that in a sustainable and affordable way is under active discussion.

  • Extremism

  • 3. What steps she is taking to tackle extremism in the UK. [900117]

  • We will establish a commission for countering extremism to reinforce current efforts to tackle extremist ideology in all its forms wherever it occurs. Already, through the 2015 counter-extremism strategy, we have taken steps to protect children from the threat of extremism, taken action on hate crime, and provided protective support for places of worship. We are also supporting civil society groups to tackle extremism in their communities.

  • I thank the Minister for that answer. Ten years ago last week we saw the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, and since then we have sadly seen instances of extremism and terrorism in Walsall, Exeter, Manchester, Yorkshire, and of course here in London. What is being done with the devolved Administrations, as well the combined authorities and regions, to ensure that extremism, and therefore terrorism, has no place in the United Kingdom?

  • I very much welcome my hon. Friend to his place. I am sure he is going to make a significant contribution here at Home Office questions, as well as serving his constituents. He is quite right to point out that there is simply no place in our society for extremism or terrorism. In launching the counter-extremism strategy in 2015, the Government agreed with the devolved Administrations that they were not going to be part of the strategy at the time, but we continue to work with them. As we carry on working with them on setting up the commission for countering extremism, we will consult them widely. It is very important that we work together and learn together to keep the whole of the United Kingdom safe.

  • Last year, Twitter suspended 125,000 accounts that were linked to global terrorism, but millions of videos of such material remain on the internet. In Germany, companies can be fined up to £43 million for failing to take down illegal videos. When do the Government intend to introduce legislation of that kind?

  • The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the vile hatred that is being spread on the internet. I am pleased to report that the action we are taking is regularly enabling thousands of images to be taken down. We leave no stone unturned, and the Home Secretary is working closely with all the bodies responsible for the internet to make sure that we take more action to remove every vile piece of hatred from it.

  • Will the Minister set out what the Government are doing to tackle anti-Semitism on campus, where the activities of hard-line groups often create an intolerant and intimidatory atmosphere for Jewish students?

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of anti-Semitism. There is no room at all in our society for hatred of anyone based on their faith, race or ideology. The Government have put a safeguarding responsibility on universities and schools to make sure that they protect young people from being exposed to vile hatred and radicalisation.

  • May I press the Minister on the answer she gave to the former Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)? Social media giants remain the command and control platform of choice for extremists. I wrote to the Home Secretary on 29 March to ask whether she was considering similar laws to those in Germany and in Ireland, where a new watchdog is being created to police social media giants, or indeed proposals similar to those in the US Senate, such as the Feinstein Bill, which would require social media giants to report terrorism content. Governments around the world are taking action; when will this Government follow suit?

  • I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are taking action by leading the international efforts to make sure that internet platforms take their responsibilities seriously. The Home Secretary has made it absolutely clear that nothing is off the table. We are considering all options to make sure that the vile ideology and hatred that is pumped around the internet is stopped as soon as possible.

  • 18. Maajid Nawaz is a former constituent of mine whom I once visited in prison in Cairo, where he was being held because of alleged terrorist activities. Is my hon. Friend aware that he has completely turned his life around and is the founder of Quilliam, an organisation dedicated to tackling extremism in the UK? [900133]

  • That is really good news. Of course, the Government want to work with the Quilliam Foundation and any other organisation that seeks to stand up to extremism and terrorism and fight against evil ideology, to keep us all safe in our country.

  • I thank the Home Secretary for her welcome.

    A working and workable definition of what extremism means is central to any effective strategy for tackling extremism. Can the Minister assure me that the new commission set up to tackle extremism will construct a definition that is not only statutorily robust but will be able to withstand the scrutiny of the courts?

  • I not only welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place but very much welcome his views. The whole purpose of setting up the counter-extremism commission is to see what more we can do and what further steps we can take. I think we all understand what our shared British values are, and our strategy is making good progress. Of course, one of the commission’s actions will be to look at the definition that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

  • Police and Fire Services: Collaboration

  • 4. What steps her Department is taking to encourage greater collaboration between the police and fire services. [900118]

  • 8. What steps her Department is taking to encourage greater collaboration between the police and fire services. [900123]

  • The Policing and Crime Act 2017 introduced a raft of new measures to drive greater collaboration between emergency services, including a new duty to collaborate and enable police and crime commissioners to take on governance of fire and rescue services where a case is made. The Government continue to expect the pace and ambition of emergency services’ collaboration to increase.

  • Staffordshire’s police and crime commissioner, Matthew Ellis, has identified savings of at least £3.6 million a year from the integration of police and fire services, and he has committed them to bolstering frontline services in each of those two areas, as well as to investment in preventive measures, especially relating to fire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such integration should progress where there is a strong local business case for it?

  • My hon. Friend is right. Where there is a strong business case and collaboration can improve outcomes and save money, which can then be used for the frontline, it should be encouraged. I welcome the good work that she has been doing with Matthew Ellis to deliver just that.

  • Roger Hirst, the Essex police and crime commissioner, has moved himself and his staff into fire HQ, saving £1.5 million, and has identified a further £23 million of potential savings in governance. What more can be done to encourage such excellent work in Essex and across the country?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for giving me another great example of the sort of collaboration that we are trying to encourage to improve outcomes and save money that can be used on the frontline. I congratulate him on his good work with his PCC, Roger Hirst, and wish them well in that new endeavour.

  • Both police officers and firefighters have told me that they are increasingly called to assist residents experiencing a mental health crisis, so I was very concerned when the collaboration in Nottinghamshire, which saw a mental health nurse based in the police control room, was axed in May because of a lack of funding, even though the scheme was described as successful and valuable. What discussions has the Home Secretary had with chief constables and chief fire officers about how best to support their staff who are dealing with members of the public experiencing mental health problems of that sort?

  • I share the hon. Lady’s view about how important it is to ensure that people with mental health crises or difficulties are treated differently. If she wants to write to me about the particular example she has set out, I will certainly look at it, but I am proud of the work that the Government have done to reduce the number—I think by nearly 80%—of young people with a mental health crisis ending up in police cells. The more we can do to address that, the better.

  • The Merseyside police and fire services already collaborate closely and are looking at ways of collaborating further. Does the Home Secretary accept that the scale of her Department’s financial cuts to the police service and the fire and rescue service in Merseyside makes that job much more difficult?

  • It is a good thing that we have protected police funding from 2015 to 2020. I admire enormously the work that the police and fire services do, and we will continue to look at how better we can support them. One of the ways that we have heard about today—I know that Merseyside has led on this too—is through collaboration, which will allow stronger working, better outcomes and money saved for the frontline.

  • Police Recruitment

  • 5. What steps she is taking to ensure the recruitment to the police force of people with the skills required to tackle modern crime. [900119]

  • 11. What steps she is taking to ensure the recruitment to the police force of people with the skills required to tackle modern crime. [900126]

  • The Government’s programme of reforms is aimed at ensuring that the police workforce is flexible, capable and professional, agile enough to adapt to changes in crime and society. We established the College of Policing as the professional body for policing, and its new policing education qualification framework is designed to ensure that policing is fit for the future. In addition, innovative recruitment schemes are widening the talent pool, bringing in people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

  • Tim Passmore, the police and crime commissioner for Suffolk, is recruiting more officers. To help Suffolk police with that task, will the Minister consider expanding the direct entry scheme and introducing more flexibility in salaries and promotion within ranks, so that officers are better able to progress their careers and are not continually moving into new roles when promoted?

  • We are already encouraging more police chiefs to take advantage of the direct entry scheme. There are a range of innovative examples around the country, including the chief constable in Durham, who is going direct to Sheffield University. As my hon. Friend says, it is also important to recognise police who are already serving, and that is why we fully support the advanced practitioner programme, which is being piloted in eight forces and encourages police to continue to specialise for a longer career, and rewards that effort.

  • Will the Minister join me in commending Hampshire constabulary on its great specialist entry detective programme, which is helping people find jobs that they want to do in the police service, bringing new people in and keeping the people of North East Hampshire, their property and their families safe?

  • I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his force. It is really important that in the 21st century we recognise that policing has changed and that people who can contribute to delivering safe streets and investigations come from all over—from education opportunities in universities and from within forces and other public sector bodies. That is why direct entry is one key and enhancing careers is another.

  • Given the falling numbers of uniformed police officers in Lancashire—down 700 since 2010—what reassurance can the Minister give to my Muslim constituents, who are fearful for their own safety and that of their families in the light of recent attacks on mosques and the horrendous recent acid attacks?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Lady who, like me, is a Lancashire MP. I speak regularly with the chief constable of Lancashire and his officers. They have put in place lots of measures to ensure that hate crimes do not impact on the community. It is important to note that since 2010 crime has fallen in Lancashire. It is not simply that crime has remained high and police numbers have been cut. The police are doing an amazing job facing today’s challenges with the resources they receive. We have to remember that we have to live within our means.

  • Given the fact that 21,000 police officers have been lost in the past seven years, whether it is modern crime or traditional crime, and given the pressures that police chiefs recognise, how many police officers does the Minister intend the Government to recruit this year?

  • As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number of police required in each force is down to the chief constable of each force. He should recognise, because in 2009-10 he was doing a similar job to me, that, owing to the changing nature of policing, we have seen an increase in funding for the National Crime Agency and specialist policing to tackle those areas. That goes alongside normal day-to-day policing. Back in 2015, in recognition of the importance of the beat constable, we on the Government Benches protected police spending. We were able to deliver that because we had a firm economy.

  • Community Police Officers

  • 6. What plans she has to increase the number of police officers in the community. [900120]

  • The hon. Gentleman will know, I am sure, that direct resource funding for the South Wales police force, which covers his constituency, will be up 3% in 2017-18. He will also know that decisions on the size, composition and deployment of the police workforce are operational matters for individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners.

  • Ministers should be given credit for making sure that they leave no cliché left unsaid in their attempt to defend their actions in relation to the police force. Can the Minister remember a time when a Conservative Government have been so unpopular with police officers—apart from when the current Prime Minister was Home Secretary?

  • I know from my time shadowing the hon. Gentleman that he defers to no one in his admiration of a good cliché. What I would say to him is what I hope any Policing Minister for any Government of any colour would say, which is that public safety is the No.1 priority for any Government. As he heard from the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), we have protected police spending in real terms since 2015 and increased spending in areas of specialisation. Now, in the light of the terrible events that have shocked us all, it is quite right that we go through a process of reviewing, with police and crime commissioners and colleagues from all parts of the House, what resources are needed to be absolutely sure that the police have the resources to keep us safe.

  • The Minister will be aware that motorbike and moped crime in London is on the increase. We need community officers who can deal with this problem directly, as it is an increasing issue. What are the Government doing about it? Can we please make our communities safer in this respect?

  • As a fellow London MP, I totally agree. In fact, I heard it directly the other day from a sergeant with whom I was walking the beat in London Bridge. As my hon. Friend knows, it is a requirement of local police chiefs to set the operational priorities. It is our responsibility to make sure they have the resources they need to meet all the risks they see.

  • 19. The Minister will agree with me that community policing is the bedrock on which all policing operates, but following the bomb in Greater Manchester the whole of the police service has been working 12-hour days and there is no capacity to draw people in for overtime. Does the Minister not understand that policing is stretched beyond any capacity to deliver? [900134]

  • I hope the hon. Gentleman knows that we are extremely sensitive to that point. As I said in my remarks, we are very aware that the pressure put on the police as a result of recent terrible events, not least the one in Manchester, has required a surge of police effort and fantastic collaboration between forces, but we now have to sit down rationally with police and crime commissioners and police chiefs, to really understand and test assertions about pressure on police forces and to make sure that they have the resources they need to keep us safe.

  • Our west midlands police have done a fantastic job in cutting crime and doing more with less. Will the Minister ensure that the police funding formula is reformed to deliver a fair deal for the west midlands?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. I hope I can reassure him that a lot of work is being done to ensure not only that the police have the resources they need, but that they are allocated fairly across all forces. No final decision has been taken on the fair funding formula, but I am happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and colleagues from all parts of the House who have concerns about the resource allocation for their forces.

  • During the Queen’s Speech debate on security last week, the Home Secretary said she was more worried about outcomes than police numbers, so will the Minister tell the House how the Home Office measures and values the outcomes of community police officers?

  • Ultimately, what matters most is the trend in crime, which the right hon. Gentleman knows from experience is what unsettles our constituents most. Public safety is the No. 1 priority, so the ultimate outcome is the crime statistics, and I am sure that he will join me in welcoming the long-term decline that we have seen since 2010.

  • Fire Prevention and Safety

  • 7. If she will discuss with Cabinet colleagues reviewing fire prevention and safety regulations, banning the use of flammable material in cladding and ensuring that fire inspections are not outsourced to private firms. [900121]

  • The Secretary of State, who I believe is making a statement on Grenfell Tower this afternoon, has established an expert advisory panel to provide independent advice on any immediate measures that may need to be put in place to make buildings safe for residents following the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

  • Survivors and relatives of the victims of the Grenfell disaster are concerned at the proposed scope of the public inquiry, as the Minister knows, but does he agree that Departments, including his own, should act now to address many of the concerns raised? They include the safety of building materials, the resilience of the fire service across the country, the enforcement of regulations and a lack of trained professionals to carry out fire inspections as thoroughly and often as are needed.

  • The Grenfell tragedy, which should never have happened, and subsequent events, in terms of what we are learning about the fire safety of buildings, mean that there is a system failure, which has been allowed to build up over too many years. It is imperative that we do not just wait for a public inquiry, but that we get on with the work of reviewing not just regulation, but the whole system of enforcement and management of risk, and that we lead on that and are informed by an inquiry.

  • I, like all Members, have been inundated with emails from constituents demanding immediate changes to fire regulations. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we look at what changes are needed to the fire regulations, but also at what changes are needed in the implementation of existing regulations, so that tragedies such as Grenfell do not happen again?

  • I do agree with my hon. Friend, and his question allows me to build on what I was saying before. There has been a system failure, built up over many years, and we need to address it as a matter of urgency and with rigorous analysis underpinned by evidence. As part of that we will of course look at whether the regulations are effective, but my instinct is that the biggest failure has been in the system of enforcement, inspection and risk management.

  • Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack, who is conducting some of the inquiries, has said that the insulation has proved

    “more flammable than the cladding”.

    Has the Home Office had representations from the police or the fire service on this? Does the Minister sit on the Government’s taskforce and, if not, has whichever Home Office Minister does raised the testing of the insulation with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? If not, will they do so urgently and call for testing of insulation to be done?

  • I can assure the right hon. Lady that both the Home Secretary and I have sat on the regular Cobra meetings that have addressed this, and I sit regularly on the sub-group as well. The right hon. Lady is right; of course, testing the cladding was the priority, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not just about the cladding. There is a significant issue with insulation and fitting, and there are considerable questions to be answered about safeguarding and risk inside buildings. That is what we have to understand better, informed by the police investigation and the public inquiry about what exactly what has happened, but we also have to get on with the business of stress testing our current systems.

  • Banning flammable cladding is clearly a no-brainer. It should never have been used in those buildings, and nor, indeed, should any other flammable materials. As we start to beef up the rules and regulations, will my hon. Friend ensure not only that best guidance is spread around all local authorities in the United Kingdom and action is followed, but that we work with other Governments in other countries that contain tower blocks, so that the tragedy that has befallen the people of the United Kingdom will never befall another country?

  • I entirely agree with that sentiment, which was expressed very powerfully. The materials, particularly the panels, were not compliant, and should not have been used on those buildings. We must now re-examine systematically, using all the best evidence available, the landscape of policy and regulation—both the regulation itself, and what is meant to happen in respect of building inspection.

  • The concerns about fire prevention and safety are vital issues, but does the Minister agree that we should not lose sight of the immediate plight of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, their families and their community? Does he understand that one of the factors preventing people from coming forward, either to obtain the help that they need or to provide the information that we need, is concern about their immigration status? I know he has said that their papers will not be checked, but will he consider announcing an immigration amnesty for the survivors of Grenfell Tower? Otherwise there will be people who have died whom we will never know about, and too many people who need help will not receive it.

  • The right hon. Lady is right. That is an issue, as I know from conversations that I have had and will continue to have with survivors. One of our big problems is not being able to identify fully who was in the building on that night, and concerns about immigration status are part of that. We have communicated some advice which was meant to reassure, and we are reviewing with people closer to the community whether that advice is sufficient.

  • Avon Fire and Rescue Service

  • 9. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of funding for Avon fire and rescue service. [900124]

  • I hope the hon. Lady will welcome, as I do, the fact that fire incidents in Avon have fallen by a quarter since 2010. Avon fire and rescue service will receive stable funding for 2019-20, and the Government consider that to be a fair settlement.

  • The service has lost £5 million of funding in recent years, and 200 front-line firefighting jobs have gone. Meanwhile, the police and crime commissioner is saying that the police are being pushed to their limit and have been asked to cut a further £20 million, which simply cannot be done. Must we wait until an incident in Bristol—an incident like the Grenfell Tower fire, or a terrorist attack—brings home to the Government just how much pressure those services are under?

  • I understand the point that the hon. Lady has made, but resources must be allocated in the light of risk, and, as I have said, risk has fallen in Avon since 2010. Obviously we cannot be complacent about that, and I have clearly signalled that there will be a profound re-examination of fire safety and risk, but I return to the point that I made about police resources. I am very committed to engaging with police authorities and police and crime commissioners, so that I can really understand their concerns about resources and ensure that any decisions are based on evidence rather than assertion.

  • Immigration Rules: Agriculture

  • 10. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the effect of immigration rules on the seasonal agricultural workforce. [900125]

  • I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about this issue only last week. I know that he is engaging with the National Farmers Union, and I shall meet NFU representatives and my right hon. Friend shortly to discuss it further.

  • Every summer farmers in my constituency require thousands of workers to pick their delicious fruit, but only 705 people in the constituency are unemployed and claiming jobseeker’s allowance, so it is very difficult for the farmers to recruit enough workers locally. Will my right hon. Friend consider a permit scheme for seasonal agricultural workers?

  • My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the excellent fruit that those workers pick in Kent. In terms of quality, it is almost up there with the blackcurrants in Great Yarmouth. While we are still full members of the European Union farmers can benefit from the free movement of labour, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to discuss with the sector what will be done after we leave the EU.

  • As the Minister knows, agriculture is devolved and stringent immigration rules could have a particular impact on the Welsh food production sector. Does he agree that, if there is to be, regrettably, a Brexit outside the single market, there would need to be a geographical visa system to protect key sectors of the Welsh economy?

  • We are determined to ensure that we have an immigration system that continues to encourage the brightest and the best, and to ensure that all our sectors are able to flourish and thrive. However, I am not going to predict the outcome, or what we will be doing once we leave the European Union, after those negotiations.

  • EU Citizens in the UK

  • 12. What steps she is taking to reassure non-UK EU citizens resident in the UK about their legal status after the UK leaves the EU. [900127]

  • On 26 June, we published and laid in Parliament, and the Prime Minister outlined, a paper that outlines our offer for EU citizens. We want to ensure that they have certainty about the future. We have a fair and serious offer that we are confident will lead to a good agreement with our colleagues and partners across the EU.

  • As someone who is married to an EU national, I can assure the Minister that right now EU nationals do not feel any certainty from this Government. Does he agree with the organisations British in Europe and the3million that the Prime Minister’s offer will severely reduce the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU? Can he also explain why the Prime Minister made no reference to the far superior, detailed and comprehensive offer set out by the EU on 12 June?

  • I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me and colleagues in making it very clear that anyone from the EU who is working and living here at the moment can have confidence about the future. The offer we have made about settled status gives them that certainty. I hope that he will encourage not just his other half but all others on the matter. We ask him to bear it in mind that the offer we have made will mean that anyone from the EU who is settled here will have the same rights as any UK citizen. That is a fair and serious proposal.

  • Does the Minister agree that the Prime Minister has made a very sensible offer and that this matter could be settled tomorrow if it were not for the EU’s intransigence?

  • My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a very good point. The Prime Minister has made a fair, full and serious offer that gives European citizens, once they have settled status, the same rights as a UK citizen. I am hopeful that we and our partners across the EU will be able to reach an early agreement on that.

  • The Minister talked about giving confidence to EU citizens. Given that just under 30% of applications currently being made for EU permanent residence cards are being turned down, what assurance can he give the House that the new application process set out in the White Paper will not lead to the same outcome? Will those EU citizens who are refused under that new process be required then to leave the UK?

  • What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that we outlined just last week in laying the paper that we want to ensure that, when we announce the system next year, it will be a simple, clear system, probably making use of digital technology, so that the 3 million Europeans who are living and working here, contributing fantastically well to our culture and economy, are able to go through that process as swiftly as possible.

  • As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) has highlighted, it is bizarre that the Prime Minister expects the EU to reciprocate an offer that falls short of the offer that the EU made on 12 June. Can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister expects the EU to water down its offer? If so, how does he think that will reassure British nationals living abroad, never mind EU nationals living in the UK?

  • I will say two things to the hon. and learned Lady. First, just last week, I met one of the Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union and representatives of British citizens living abroad to go through with them the position we have taken. Secondly, the Prime Minister is right to ensure that the people who are living in the UK who gain settled status have the same rights as a UK citizen. I do not think any UK citizen would expect any more or less from the British Government.

  • The point is that the EU offer would give EU nationals living in the UK and British nationals living abroad more rights than the Prime Minister’s offer. One thing the Minister could do to reassure EU nationals living in the UK is to state that access to the national health service will be considered sufficient by the Home Office to fulfil the requirements for comprehensive sickness insurance. That was the cross-party recommendation of the Exiting the European Union Committee in the previous Parliament. What or who is stopping the Home Office from implementing that recommendation now?

  • It is the EU that is stopping that, and if the hon. and learned Lady has a proper read through of our proposals, she will see that that is an issue we are looking forward to dealing with as we leave the European Union. It is right that we as the UK Government are saying that people have the same rights as UK citizens.

  • The Prime Minister’s recent remarks on the status of EU nationals were too little, too late. The Government have failed to reassure long-standing EU nationals living here and have failed to prevent the brain drain of much needed staff in high-value industries and academia, and of students. Will the Minister clarify the position of EU students studying in the UK who will be part-way through their courses when we leave the EU?

  • I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position.

    This offer applies to all EU residents. If they are in this country and want to take settled status, they will be able to do that. That is an offer that will be open to everybody across the European Union, so in that sense it makes no change to the position of students.

  • Family Rights

  • 14. What steps she is taking to protect the family rights of UK citizens married to non-EU citizens. [900129]

  • The requirements we have in place promote not just family values but integration, while also striking the right balance to ensure that we take into account the burden on the taxpayer as well, so we have a fair balance between family, integration and the taxpayers’ position.

  • My constituent Paul McMillan, a medical student from Port Glasgow, is unable to be with his American partner because of the minimum income requirement on spousal visas, which stands at £18,600 and is due to rise. He has decided that because of the UK Government’s increasingly hostile attitude towards immigrants, on completing his studies he will emigrate from Scotland to be with his partner. Scotland will lose not only his future medical expertise but the expertise of his partner, a qualified social worker. Considering Paul’s situation, will the Home Secretary abandon plans to increase the minimum income requirement?

  • If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about any specific case, I will be happy to have a look at it. As a general point, however, it is right that we look at making sure that everybody across the UK has the same position to deal with, so that the system is fair and that it is also fair to taxpayers, so that someone bringing a member of their family to this country can afford for them to be here. I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that the figure of £18,600 is several thousand pounds below the median wage in Scotland.

  • Under the freedom of movement rules, EU citizens are currently not obliged to meet that minimum income threshold if they wish to bring in family members. However, UK citizens do have to meet a minimum income threshold, which the Supreme Court has said causes hardship and ignores the rights of children. Is it not therefore fair to say that this new regime proposed by the Government means that EU citizens will lose their current rights to family life and that it represents a levelling down?

  • I think the right hon. Lady has slightly misunderstood the situation. If somebody from the European Union and their family are here, they will have that ability to have settled status. If they have not been here for five years but they stay for five years, they will be able to attain that right. I also point out to her that family life cannot be established here at the taxpayers’ expense. That is perfectly right; family migrants must be able to integrate. That is what our family immigration rules achieve, and it is an approach that the Supreme Court has endorsed.

  • Topical Questions

  • T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [900105]

  • There is substantial interest in the House about this Government’s policy about removing counter-terrorism online, and I want to update the House briefly.

    Last week in Ottawa, we secured support from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US for the Government campaign to take terrorist material offline. Together, we announced that companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter would form a new global industry forum to tackle terrorist use of the internet. We made it clear that hateful content used to recruit and radicalise should not be allowed on their platforms and must be removed faster and more proactively. The commitment from fellow “Five Eyes” members to a shared approach and their backing of a new industry group is a vital step forward. I plan to travel to the west coast of America to continue discussions with major technology companies and to see what progress they are making on the forum, and I will share these findings. The key to successful action here is to make sure that we have a truly global initiative engaging other countries and the international headquarters of these businesses.

  • The Scottish Affairs Select Committee, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Directors have all said that Scotland requires a different immigration policy for its unique demographic needs. Will the Home Secretary consider the report by Professor Christina Boswell of the University of Edinburgh that evaluates the options for a differentiated approach to immigration policy in Scotland?

  • I do not think that we should have a different immigration policy for different parts of the United Kingdom, but I do think that we should have a fair, open and inclusive immigration system that will attract the brightest and the best, the right students and the people who are legitimately coming here to join their families. We will ensure that when we consult stakeholders and businesses over the summer, we have Scotland and other parts of the country in mind.

  • T3. In the light of the recent cyber-attack on Parliament and the National Crime Agency’s announcement that, because of under-reporting, the scale of cyber-crime is significantly underestimated, will the Secretary of State outline the specific steps that the Government are taking to tackle this threat? [900107]

  • Through the national cyber-security programme, we are investing £1.9 billion in cyber-security. We are investing in the National Crime Agency, the National Cyber Crime Unit and the National Cyber Security Centre, as well as the regional organised crime units at local level to ensure that there is a regional response. We have also given an extra £10 million to improve Action Fraud’s response to constituents. At the same time, the Government are trying to consolidate and ensure that there is a consistent message in Cyber Aware so that all colleagues and members of the public understand what they need to do to keep themselves safe online.

  • Following the wholly avoidable tragedy at Grenfell Tower, will the Home Secretary tell us why the review of the building regulations, which was promised by Gavin Barwell in the wake of the deadly Lakanal House fire, has failed to materialise? Mr Barwell was the Housing Minister at the time; did he suppress the review?

  • I do not think there is any evidence that our former colleague suppressed any review. There was plenty of work ongoing into the simplification of regulations. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said before, that the Grenfell tragedy should never have happened, and what we have found out since about the fire safety of the building means that we have to do a root and branch review not only of the regulations but of inspection and risk management.

  • T4. When I was a district councillor in West Oxfordshire, I helped to settle six Syrian refugee families in the area. I have seen those families regularly, and one of the most heartening things is how they have integrated in our society in terms of school places and employment. Will the Minister please tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that such integration takes place swiftly and efficiently? [900108]

  • I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency area has generously welcomed a number of families. So far, we have accepted 7,000 under this scheme. Today, additionally, I can confirm that we are taking advice from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on widening the eligibility for the scheme for vulnerable refugees so that we can include people of any nationality who are affected by the Syrian crisis. This will be good for families and good for ensuring that we truly help the most vulnerable in the region.

  • Merseyside police have had to cut £87 million and more than 1,000 officers and staff since 2010 and, notwithstanding the Home Secretary’s bizarre claim earlier that police budgets had been protected, they are now being expected to cut a further £18 million over the next three years, leading to 540 staff and officers being placed under threat while tackling a gun crime wave that has involved 100 shootings in the past 18 months. Will the Home Secretary agree to meet me and a delegation of Merseyside MPs to discuss why her Department has just turned down a bid for extra resources to deal with this, which she and her Ministers themselves invited?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question. We did meet; I met her and the other Merseyside MPs, and I have met the chief constable, Andy Cooke. I can absolutely confirm that the National Crime Agency and the regional organised and serious crime units are giving a great deal of support to help to tackle the appalling increase in gun crime in Merseyside. We will continue do everything we can to support the police there.

  • When I spent some time on the night shift with the local police, they told me that when they arrest a person they spend most of the remainder of the shift filling in forms relating to that arrest. The police obviously have to be accountable when depriving somebody of their liberty, but that system can surely be speeded up.

  • As my hon. Friend knows, we have done a lot to cut police targets and bureaucracy so that they can focus on what really matters. Post-arrest administration has not been raised to date in my meetings with the police, but I will ensure that I raise it in any future meetings.

  • T5. Under section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016, 480 unaccompanied refugee children were expected to come to the United Kingdom. We learned in the House of Lords last week that only 200 have arrived. What are the Government doing to ensure that the other 280 vulnerable children at risk of exploitation are able to come to the safety of our shores promptly? [900109]

  • It is a very good question. I am aware of those numbers. We have made it clear to the countries that currently provide a home to those children—largely Italy and Greece, but some are in France—that we are ready and stand able to take those additional children. We will continue to engage with those countries to try to do that. Part of the issue is that some of those children have already settled in the country where they are, but we remain engaged with those countries to see what else we can do to help those children. Where we can, we would like to bring over those who have not settled and whose interests are truly best served by coming here.

  • Kent continues to be one of the main points of entry to the UK for illegal workers. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what steps the Government are taking to make it easier for businesses in Kent and elsewhere to identify whether someone is working here illegally?

  • We implemented the Immigration Act 2016 to make illegal working a criminal offence so that the profits can be seized as the proceeds of crime. The Act also introduces new, stronger sanctions against employers of illegal workers. There is a balance to be struck in ensuring that people are checking whether someone has a passport, if they are from the EU, or has leave or the right to work here, if they are not from the EU. If businesses have done those checks, they are in a position to defend themselves against any action, which is appropriate.

  • T6. Ann Jones, the Welsh Assembly Member for Vale of Clwyd, successfully steered through Welsh Government legislation to make it compulsory to have sprinklers in new-builds and to retrofit them in refurbished residential buildings. Will the Home Secretary follow the Welsh Government’s example and work with her Cabinet colleagues towards making that a UK-wide policy? [900111]

  • I refer the hon. Lady to what I said before. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is making a statement this afternoon, and the Prime Minister has made several statements about the way forward in reviewing regulations, guidance and the whole inspection and risk-monitoring regime, which will include guidance on sprinklers. As the hon. Lady will know, sprinklers have different applications in different locations; there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

  • Yesterday evening, Gatwick airport had to close its runway on several occasions, leading to the cancellation of quite a few flights, owing to the irresponsible use of a drone. Will the Minister say whether the Government will consider reviewing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles around airports?

  • My hon. Friend makes an important point about the dangers that drones can pose to aircraft, but drones are also used illegally to supply drugs to prisons and they are used by terrorists and criminals further afield. That is why this Government set up a group chaired by me and the Ministry of Defence about a year ago to look at measures that we can put in place not only to deal with the technological challenge that drones present, but to ensure that we counter drones in a way that fits with the idea of an open society in which law-abiding citizens can continue to use drones for their pleasure or for their work.

  • T7. The prohibitive cost of testing for novel psychoactive substances is causing considerable expense to police forces in enforcing the current law. The present law on novel psychoactive substances simply is not working, so will the Home Office team please initiate an immediate review of it? [900113]

  • I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 has proved to be an incredibly useful tool for police officers to identify really harmful substances and keep people safe.

  • Following the very tragic and fatal stabbing the weekend before last in my constituency, will the Home Secretary update the House on the plans being undertaken to tackle knife crime?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for raising the very, very tragic case of James Brindley, who was so brutally knifed and killed in her constituency. The local police force’s investigations are well under way, and a huge amount of work is being done to tackle knife crime. The local police force, West Midlands police, often takes part in Operation Sceptre, with the next operation happening in July. Every Member has an important role to play in going out there to tell young people in their communities about the real dangers they are presenting to themselves by carrying knives.

  • Having lost more than 800 police officers and almost a quarter of its funding, Northumbria police have just announced that they are closing every single Newcastle police station front desk outside working hours. Given all the reassurances we have heard today, why is Northumbria police still being obliged to make operational decisions based on cost cutting, and not on preventing and detecting crime?

  • I say to all colleagues on both sides of the House that we have protected police spending—[Interruption.] Hon. Members can have their own views; they cannot have their own facts. These are the cases. As long as individual councils use the maximum precept of 2%, they can raise the money. Additional support is available from the police transformation fund, and we will always make sure that we use it to keep communities safe and to provide the best policing available.

  • In Northamptonshire our excellent police and crime commissioner, Stephen Mold, is dramatically investing in police buildings by, for example, opening the new command centre in north Northamptonshire. Does my hon. Friend agree that, actually, it is the investment in buildings that are fit for purpose for operational policing and the modernisation that are so important for driving outcomes?

  • Through my hon. Friend, may I congratulate Stephen Mold on the impressive leadership and innovation that he is showing? I look forward to visiting him.

  • West Yorkshire police are still reeling from cuts dating back to 2010, when they lost 20% of their force. Will we look again at budgets so that they can restore the number of police officers on our streets and give them a fighting chance of dealing with demand?

  • I take this opportunity to clarify once more the situation with regard to police funding. From 2010 to 2015 there were indeed cuts, but what was so remarkable is that the good work of local policing and the good work of local communities meant that crime came down by a third. Between 2015 and 2020 we will continue to protect police money to ensure that crime continues to come down and that policing and communities get the necessary support.

  • What progress has been made to improve the co-operation between Action Fraud and individual police forces to ensure that, as in the case of a couple of my constituents, people are not passed from pillar to post when they seek information from one of those organisations?

  • My hon. Friend is right, and he has raised the issue before. That is why we have given some extra funding to Action Fraud to improve the process of managing the triage. At the same time, through the national cyber strategy, we are starting to see money going into the investments we require. Working with senior police leadership, whom I met last week, we are also trying to make sure that the response from forces to cyber-crime is consistent because, as he knows, it is very inconsistent at the moment. For too long, some forces have thought that cyber does not belong to them while other forces have done a very good job. We want to make sure that there is a consistent response right across the board.

  • My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out that 30% of applications for permanent residence are turned down, to a large extent because of the complexities of the process. Would it not be sensible to simplify the process now, instead of waiting until next year for the new system?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is correct that the system we are currently using is not the one that was designed for leaving the European Union and for allowing EU members here to apply for settled status. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that we will be providing a new system, which will be available by the end of next year; we are allowing people to make sure that they get additional information as it comes along and that their name is registered so that they get sent that information, but we need the time to build that system. We are confident it will be ready by the end of next year and provide a streamlined, effective online system for those applications to go through.

  • In last month’s birthday honours list, Alex Murray, who until very recently was Solihull’s police commander, received an OBE for his work. Will the Minister join me not only in congratulating Alex, and indeed all police in Solihull, who do such a tremendous job, but in recognising the need for a fair funding settlement for West Midlands police?

  • I am delighted to congratulate Alex Murray on his well-earned OBE—and all the other police officers and constables whose work was so rightly recognised. Perhaps we could also, from this House, recognise the good work that has been done by all police and emergency services, particularly over the past three and a half months, given the tremendous strains there have been on the work they have been having to do.

  • The provision of accommodation for asylum seekers is the responsibility of the Home Office and its contractors. What recent discussions have they had to ensure that such accommodation complies with fire prevention and safety regulations?

  • The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I visited some of those centres just last week, when I raised that very issue. I am writing to all suppliers across the country to raise that point, to make sure that they are fully aware of their duty of care and work to make sure that fire safety is of paramount importance for them.

  • Order. I am sorry but we must move on; demand has exceeded supply, as is very often the case in this place.

  • Energy Price Cap

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the Government’s intention for an energy price cap.

  • Following a two-year inquiry, the Competition and Markets Authority found that energy customers on standard variable tariffs were paying on average £1.4 billion a year more than would be the case in a competitive market. That is completely unacceptable, so my party’s manifesto committed to introduce a safeguard tariff to extend the price protection currently in place for some vulnerable customers—those on pre-payment meters—to more customers on the poorest-value tariffs. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has the powers necessary to impose such a price cap without delay, and I wrote to its chief executive on 21 June to ask it to use its powers to do so. Today, the regulator has replied and announced that it will work with consumer groups to take measures, including extending the current safeguard tariff for those on pre-payment meters to a wider group of consumers, and move urgently to implement these changes.

    I welcome this initial proposal—it is a step in the right direction—but I will wait to see the actual proposals turned into action to cut bills, as the test of whether the regulator’s changes go far enough is whether they move sufficiently to eradicate the detriment to consumers that the CMA identified. I remain prepared to legislate if they do not, and I hope that such legislation would command wide support across the House.

  • I thank the Minister for his response. Does he recall that during the election his party placed the promise of an overall cap on energy prices at the centre of its manifesto? Indeed, does he recall the Prime Minister stating:

    “I am making this promise: if I am re-elected on 8 June, I will take action to end this injustice by introducing a cap on unfair energy price rises. It will protect around 17 million families on standard variable tariffs from being exploited with sudden and unjustified increases in bills”?

    Does the Secretary of State accept that Ofgem’s response to his letter of 21 June on energy prices falls far short of implementing that promise and that, although there are welcome suggestions on safeguarding tariffs and capping warrant charges for the installation of pre-pay meters, those measures would affect only 2.5 million customers, leaving more than 14 million SVT customers completely unprotected from price rises over the next period? Will he confirm that his letter did not ask Ofgem to consider introducing a general price cap? Will he tell the House why it did not, even though the chief executive officer of Ofgem confirmed earlier this year that it would have the discretionary power to implement an energy price cap?

    Does the Secretary of State intend to pass legislation to require Ofgem to introduce a price cap, or is he now content to let his firm election promise of a cap fall by the wayside? If so, what does he have to say to the 17 million people on standard variable tariffs who thought that relief from rip-off price rises was on its way but will now feel completely betrayed by this policy U-turn?

  • I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I hope he will see that I answered many of his points in my initial response to the urgent question. He will share my view—indeed, I think it is his view, too—that we should act as soon as possible to provide relief to consumers. That will require Ofgem to use its powers. It has powers that it can use immediately, and I have encouraged it to do so.

    The hon. Gentleman mentioned my letter. I am sure that, as he was hoping to come into government, he studied the prospective use of the powers, so he will know that legislation requires me to ask Ofgem for advice. I did so under exactly those terms and Ofgem has responded by saying that it will work with consumer groups to identify how far the protection should go. I have been clear that I want the detriment of £1.4 billion a year to be eradicated. It is a test of Ofgem’s responsiveness that it should use its powers to that end. The constituents of Government and Opposition Members will look to the regulator to make use of its powers to prevent the continuation of such an unacceptable situation, which involves more than £1 billion a year.

  • To build on my right hon. Friend’s most recent answer, some 17 million families are being ripped off by expensive standard variable tariff deals. Ofgem’s proposals will deal with at most 3 million of them, leaving 14 million still being preyed on by the big six energy firms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Ofgem’s proposals will be viewed as a great betrayal of those 14 million households? If we are going to create an economy that works for everyone, will he distance himself from this big six stitch-up and pledge to help the millions of households that Ofgem seems set to ignore?

  • My hon. Friend has done great work with many Members from various parties to establish that there is an appetite and need to tackle the problem exposed by the CMA, which has been going on for too long. In response to my letter, Ofgem has said today that it will work with consumer groups and come forward with a range of responses. I will look at them closely, as I know my hon. Friend will, and I am sure that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee will, too. I have said clearly that the test of the adequacy of the responses is that they address the clear detriment that the authorities have identified.

  • The UK Government really lack strategy right across the energy sector. The £20 billion Hinkley Point C project will add to future household bills, mention of energy was sadly lacking in the Green Paper that was published before the election, and now there is this lack of a joined-up approach to an energy cap. Will the Secretary of State confirm the Government’s plans to protect the 14 million people who will not be covered by the current proposals? Of the £1.4 billion that the CMA has said is going to the big companies instead of staying in consumers’ pockets, how much will be returned to consumers under the measures that are being introduced? He said that he might consider legislation, but what is his timescale for reviewing what is happening and deciding whether there is a need to act? Will he ask Ofgem to determine what the true level of a cap should be?

  • The hon. Gentleman talks about energy strategy, and it is right that the Government have taken a decision—this was ducked by previous Governments for decades—to renew our nuclear power stations that are coming to the end of their lives. He will know that the SNP Government in Scotland agreed to extend the lives of nuclear power stations there, and he will also know about the impact of our success on renewable energy, specifically offshore wind, in Scotland. I have had fruitful discussions with colleagues throughout Scotland, especially in the remote islands, about the future possibilities for that.

    On Ofgem’s response to my letter, I have set out clearly that it has said it will work with and consult consumer groups, and come up with a range of options. The £1.4 billion detriment has to be eradicated, and that is the test of whether the proposals are acceptable. I am sure that the House wants to scrutinise them as much as I do.

  • My right hon. Friend inherited a system that relies increasingly on dear energy, which drives up household bills. Is there anything that he can do to bring a greater amount of cheaper energy into the mix so that bills reduce in five or 10 years’ time?

  • My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We need to ensure that we meet our important climate change commitments at a competitive cost—for consumers and for businesses—and that we obtain the industrial benefits from having a supply chain in this country. That is exactly why we devote a chapter of the industrial strategy Green Paper to future plans to make the most of the clean energy transition in all respects.

  • Having seen the recent report, surely it is safe to say that wind and solar will be the future for low-cost energy, but there was a Duke Ellington song called “How long has this been going on?” The fact is that this has been going on too long—this exploitation of people who cannot avoid paying above the price. Is it not about time that we moved away from botched privatisation and inadequate regulation to an answer that puts money back in people’s pockets, rather than taking it out?

  • In response to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I welcome, as he does, the huge progress that has been made not just in the deployment of renewables, but in the cost reductions that we have seen. That process has created jobs across the UK, especially in coastal towns. I had the pleasure of opening the Siemens wind blade factory in Hull, which created 1,000 good jobs. However, he is right that the detriment has been going on too long, which was why the Government asked the CMA to investigate the industry root and branch. It has identified £1.4 billion of detriment, and I have made it absolutely clear that that detriment needs to be returned to the pockets of consumers.

  • May I tell the Secretary of State that the latest data show that 2,687 households in my constituency are estimated to be in fuel poverty? That is 6.6% of all households. What more can be done to identify these vulnerable groups and ensure that they have the best advice and information about switching tariffs? The suggestion that people search online is not the way forwards. Perhaps it would be more helpful to have a better dialogue between the consumer and the energy provider.

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. One feature of the energy market is that the poorer someone is, the larger the proportion of their income that they spend on energy. That is why it is imperative that vulnerable consumers should not be required go on the internet every few months to check that their tariff has not defaulted to a much higher one. That was the reason for my letter to Ofgem, and it is why I want its response to be vigorous. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that an aspect of the wider set of policies is to make it easier for consumers to know the price of energy and how much they consume, and smart meters are being introduced to help more people to do that.

  • Has the Secretary of State seen the analysis and evidence of former independent energy regulators who say that the consumer detriment pointed to by the CMA in this market was based on seriously flawed methodology? If he has not, will he look at that and report back to the House?

  • I have seen that. This two-year inquiry conducted by the CMA identified £1.4 billion of detriment, which is a huge amount of money. When our constituents see the difference—it can be up to £100 a year—that they pay for a dual fuel bill by being on a dual fuel tariff, they know that that is significant amount.

    The CMA said that suppliers have “unilateral market power” over their inactive customer base and could exploit their position by pricing their SVTs above a level that could be justified. That cannot go on.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that it will take more than easier switching to encourage a fairer energy market in this country?

  • A response is required from the regulator; this is a regulated industry. The development of modern markets means that it is possible for suppliers, especially dominant ones, to identify the customers who are the least likely to switch. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said, they are often among the most vulnerable. It is unacceptable to use that information to sting them, and regulation has to catch up with that.

  • I think it is time that we heard again from the good doctor—Dr David Drew.

  • It is my lucky day today, but I am sure it will not continue. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

    As much as we welcome the attempt to deal with fuel poverty, the Secretary of State must realise that there is an adverse effect on renewables at the margins, which will now not come forward because of this fairly blunt pricing structure. Will he look into that and ensure that there is still a drive forward for renewables?

  • We are seeing a big increase in the deployment of renewables as the price comes down, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said. The effect of the overcharging—the abuse—is not a return to consumers, and this is not about the increased deployment of renewables. In the analysis of the CMA, the practice results in profits that are higher than they would be in a competitive market and relative inefficiency on the part of the suppliers. Consumers should not be paying for either of those.

  • Many energy consumers, particularly those on low incomes, do not pay their energy bills by direct debit, but they get huge increased charges from many of the energy companies when they do pay, even when they do so on time. Will my right hon. Friend look into this and make sure that people who do not pay their energy bills by direct debit get a fair energy bill?

  • My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As I said, the poorest 10% of households spend 10% of their household expenditure on energy, whereas the richest 10% spend 3% of theirs on it. We need to look particularly at the conditions of more vulnerable consumers to ensure that they are not disadvantaged. My right hon. Friend mentioned one of the ways in which they are.

  • Are we not tinkering at the edges and doing a little bit of window dressing? I think that we all agree that the energy market appears to be dysfunctional. We saw that best at the beginning of this year when there was an increase in tariffs across the board that bore no relation to wholesale prices, but had everything to do with the exchange rate, particularly that with the euro, as most of our domestic companies are actually based in France or Germany. The big six are essentially operating as a cartel, not in the interests of the consumer.

  • I am not sure that I would give them the excuse of exchange rate movements. The Competition and Markets Authority has said that suppliers have unilateral market power over this part of their customer base. This is a regulated market. Ofgem has the powers to introduce and extend the price gap, and my view is that it should use those powers now.

  • Going back to switching, does the Secretary of State think that more needs to be done to make it much easier to switch, particularly for our more vulnerable constituents?

  • I agree with my hon. Friend. While there should certainly not be barriers in the way, it also should not be necessary for people to spend every evening on the internet checking whether their bill has gone up by an outrageous margin. If people are loyal to a brand, it is not unreasonable for them to expect to be treated reasonably, especially as that brand may be a trusted brand. The regulator should enforce that.

  • We produce far more electricity in Wales than we use, yet we pay the highest electricity prices in the British state. More than a third of our households are in fuel poverty. Does that not suggest that Westminster control over Welsh energy policy is not working?

  • No, it is one of the reasons why this investigation was commissioned and why what I have asked Ofgem to consider and enact will be particularly important to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Wales.

  • Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Ofgem’s proposal to consult on more measures to help microbusinesses?

  • I do welcome that. We have talked about household consumers, and for many very small businesses, their energy bill is also an important component of their costs. In my request for advice, which it was technically necessary to make to Ofgem, I asked for that advice to apply to microbusinesses as well.

  • The usual vested interests—the big six—were on the airwaves this morning advising consumers to switch their energy supplier, but if consumers really want to see a change to this rip-off of energy prices, do they not have to switch Governments?

  • No, it was this Government who referred the whole industry to the Competition and Markets Authority. When the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) was Energy Secretary, I urged this measure on him, and he rejected it flat, so it is this Government who have exposed the level of the detriment, and it is this Government who are acting to put a cap in place to prevent this abuse—that did not happen under Labour.

  • As welcome as a price cap will undoubtedly be, does the Secretary of State agree that the real key to bringing down prices for consumers is the liberalisation of the energy market through the digitisation of the energy system, storage in front of and behind the meter, and a demand-side response?

  • My hon. Friend, who is well informed about such issues, is absolutely right. The opportunity that smart meters bring is that people can have much more knowledge and control of their energy use, and use that to get the best deals available. That is why the roll-out of smart meters is such an important part of our reforms to the energy market.

  • But does the outcome of the CMA inquiry not tell the Secretary of State, as a reasonable man, that this is the end of the road for the system? Privatisation did not work, the regulatory system has not worked, and we have had to have a CMA inquiry. What is needed is a fundamental reappraisal and change of this whole energy edifice?

  • I am surprised to hear implicit support from the hon. Gentleman for the programme of nationalisation of this sector that the Labour party stood on. The billions of pounds that that would cost would not be the most important use of funds. This has been a regulated industry since privatisation many years ago, and the regulation needs to function better than it has.

  • I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend’s answers. Am I right to understand that he would not be satisfied with a final solution from Ofgem that continued to cross-subsidise some customers out of a kind of loyalty premium paid by those who, even if not vulnerable, did not switch?

  • This is a wake-up call for the industry. A model in which consumers who are known not to switch can be milked to pay a subsidy for other consumers in an unfair way—the CMA identified “unilateral market power”, which enables firms to exploit their position—has to come to an end.

  • While I welcome proposals to make it easier to switch away from poor deals, does my right hon. Friend agree that Ofgem needs to go much further than it suggested in its letter to him this morning to protect consumers from exploitation?

  • There is a clear expectation that I want the detriment that the CMA has identified to be tackled once and for all. Ofgem has said that it will consult consumer groups, and I hope and expect that those consumer groups will share my hon. Friend’s analysis.

  • Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Ofgem’s acknowledgment regarding the ability to put a cap in place? Should we not urge it to use the power fully?

  • My hon. Friend is right, and the proposal to consult consumer groups and to go beyond the CMA’s remedies—at least what the majority report of the CMA recommended—is welcome. As I said, that is a step in the right direction, but I would want to see this put out in detail and implemented before I would be satisfied with it.

  • Speaking as someone who represents an industrial town, has my right hon. Friend, as part of the wider debate on these issues, had the opportunity to assess what impact nationalising the energy companies would have on household and commercial energy bills?

  • I have indeed. The impact of finding the billions of pounds necessary to take these industries into public ownership would not only be a disaster for our public finances, but the destruction of investor confidence in a whole range of industries that we need investment in.

  • I call Julian Smith. I mean Julian Knight.

  • I did not think that I could have been behind someone else, Mr Speaker.

  • You are not a senior Government Whip, Sir, but at least you are a Knight.

  • I was a BBC News consumer affairs reporter for five years, and during that time I saw the havoc that can be wrought by pre-payment metering. Does my right hon. Friend agree that practices such as rip-off emergency credit, which makes a payday loan look reasonable, need to be brought to heel, and that we should welcome Ofgem’s proposal to extend the current safeguard tariff for consumers on pre-payment meters?

  • It can only be a matter of time before my hon. Friend enjoys the position to which you referred, Mr Speaker.

    My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It has been the practice of this Government to intervene when there are abuses, especially of vulnerable people in the way in which he describes. That has happened with pre-payment meters, but the approach needs to go much further.

  • We are most grateful to the Secretary of State and to colleagues.

  • Northern Ireland: Political Situation

  • With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.

    As the House will recall, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness, the then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland in January, an election took place to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 2 March. Despite intensive discussions in the three weeks following the election, the Northern Ireland parties were unable to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive. In order to facilitate further discussions between the parties, Parliament passed legislation immediately prior to Dissolution extending the period in which an Executive could be formed until 29 June. Last Thursday—29 June—I made a statement in Belfast setting out that while differences remain between the parties, progress had been made and that it was still possible for a resolution to be achieved. I urged the parties to continue focusing their efforts on this, with the full support of the UK Government and, as appropriate, the Irish Government. In that regard, I want to recognise the contribution of the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his predecessor, Charlie Flanagan.

    In the past few days since the passing of the deadline, some progress has continued to be made, including on the most challenging issues, such as language, culture and identity, but gaps remain between the parties on a defined number of issues. The Government remain committed to working with the parties and the Irish Government to find a way to close these gaps quickly in order to reach an agreement that will pave the way for the restoration of devolved government. The Prime Minister has been actively involved, following on from her meeting with each of the parties, including speaking to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill on Friday night. I continue to believe that a deal remains achievable, and if agreement is reached, I will bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed, possibly as early as this week.

    But time is short. It has been six months since a full Executive were in place to represent the people of Northern Ireland. In that time, it has been civil servants, not politicians, who have made decisions on spending. Without political direction, it has not been possible for strategic decisions to be made about priorities in areas such as education and health. This has created pressures that need to be addressed, and it has led to understandable concern and uncertainty among businesses and those relying on public services alike, as well as the community and voluntary sector. This hiatus cannot simply continue for much longer.

    There is no doubt that the best outcome is for a new Executive to make those strategic decisions in the interests of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. It should be for a new Executive to make swift decisions on their budget and make use of the considerable spending power available to them. While engagement between the parties continues and there is prospect of an agreement, it is right that those discussions remain our focus. At the same time, we will not forget our ultimate responsibility as a Government to uphold political stability and good governance in Northern Ireland.

    I made a written statement in April that sought to provide clarity for those civil servants charged with allocating cash in Northern Ireland, to assist them in the discharge of their responsibilities. Some £42 million in resources flowing from the spring Budget and budget transfers from the last financial year remain unallocated, and they are intended to provide an incoming Executive with the room to decide how they should best be spent.

    If we do not see resolution in the coming days, however, it will become urgent that we reflect further on whether clarity is required for Northern Ireland permanent secretaries about the allocation of those resources. In that situation we would also need to reflect carefully on how we might allocate funding made available to address immediate health and education pressures, as set out in last Monday’s statement on UK Government financial support for Northern Ireland, recognising Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances. If no agreement is reached, legislation in Westminster may then be required to give authority for the expenditure of Northern Ireland Departments through an appropriations Bill.

    From my conversations with the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, I know that we have not quite reached that critical point yet. But that point is coming and the lack of a formal budget cannot be sustained indefinitely. Similarly, decisions on capital expenditure and infrastructure and public service reform in key sectors such as the health service cannot be deferred for much longer.

    One area on which there is much consensus, however, is the need for greater transparency on political donations. In line with the commitment set out in the Conservative party’s Northern Ireland manifesto at the general election, I can confirm that I intend to propose legislation that will provide for the publication of all donations and loans received by Northern Ireland parties on or after 1 July 2017.

    All of that reinforces further the importance of the parties coming together and reaching an agreement. It sets out, too, some of the hard choices we face if uncertainty persists. I am also conscious that, with the deadline now passed, I am under a duty to set a date for a new election. I will continue to keep that duty under review, but it seems unlikely that that would of itself resolve the current political impasse or address the ultimate need for political decision making, however we proceed.

    As the Government for the whole United Kingdom, we will always govern in the interests of all those in the United Kingdom. Therefore, if resolution were to prove intractable and an Executive could not be restored, we would of course be ready to do what is needed to provide that political decision making in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

    I am clear, however, that the return of inclusive, devolved government by a power-sharing Executive is what would be profoundly in the best interests of Northern Ireland, and that will remain our overriding focus in the crucial days ahead.

    The UK Government will continue to govern in the interests of everyone in Northern Ireland by providing political stability and keeping an open and sustained dialogue with the parties and with the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.

    I stand ready to do what is necessary to facilitate the quick formation of an Executive once an agreement is reached, and that is where our focus should lie. I commend this statement to the House.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for his welcome efforts to keep me regularly updated on progress in the talks. I know that the Secretary of State, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and all of the parties have been working hard to try to narrow the gap on the outstanding issues, in particular on languages, culture and identity. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has not come here today to say that the shutters are coming down on the talks and I admire his sustained—if slightly surprising—optimism that a deal might be done this week.

    People in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will have heard his contention that there remains the prospect of a deal. If that is achieved, he will enjoy the Opposition’s full support in putting in place whatever legislation is necessary to enable the Executive to reform and the Assembly to meet. But there will be legitimate frustration among many Northern Ireland citizens that fully six months after the Executive broke down, and little more than a week before the marching season reaches its apogee on 12 July, we remain at this impasse. There will also be some scepticism about the likelihood of his surmounting it in a few short days.

    Hard questions must now be asked about what more the Government can do to assist the parties in moving forward. It is encouraging that the Prime Minister picked up the phone on Friday night to the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein. But I invite the Secretary of State, in the new spirit of free speech that seems to be abroad in the Conservative party, to agree with me that the Prime Minister could do a bit more. He could tell her to get on a plane to Belfast herself. I am sure that Arlene Foster would not mind lending the Prime Minister her plane for the weekend.

    History tells us, on both sides of the House, that the direct involvement of the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach can sometimes help to bridge the divide in Northern Ireland and move things forward. It is a surprise to me that the Prime Minister continues to seem reluctant to take personal responsibility to break the deadlock. In fact, I think many in Northern Ireland would feel that the current Prime Minister has a particular duty to take some personal responsibility and get more involved because it was her decision to call an election in April that lengthened the hiatus and has taken us so close to 12 July, and her reliance on the DUP—a legitimate reliance, given the arithmetic of the House—that is being cited by other interlocutors in the talks as part of the reason for the impasse.

    I agree with the Secretary of State that the hiatus simply cannot continue for much longer, but I would like to hear more from him about what he will do to resolve it. If it is not with greater hands on involvement by the Prime Minster and the Taoiseach, as I and others have suggested, does he think there is a role for a new independent—and perhaps international—chair for the talks, with fresh eyes and a new mandate? That too has been an important means of shifting things in the past.

    I noted the coded warning that the Secretary of State gave, rightly, that if a way forward cannot be found, he will have to bring forward further budgetary transfers to give extra clarity and certainty to the Northern Ireland civil service. That may well be necessary and, if so, he would again enjoy our support, but I am not sure that it would provide much of a spur to the parties, because they are used to this limbo land after the last six months. I know he agrees with me that it is profoundly unsatisfactory for strategic decisions to be put off and for Northern Ireland to be in the hands of unelected civil servants, no matter how competent and well intentioned they are. An appropriations Bill may prove to be a bigger spur, but some—as the Secretary of State knows—will see that effectively as a return to direct rule. I am sure that that will be a position that he will wish to avoid and I would urge him to take all possible steps to avoid it.

    I welcome the decision that the Secretary of State has taken today to legislate for publication of all political loans and donations received by parties in Northern Ireland after 1 July. That is an important step in normalising the politics of Northern Ireland, although it may strike some as ironic in light of the recent deal with the DUP. Does he intend that the thresholds that will apply to that legislation will be the same as apply to donations and loans in the rest of the UK? Will the same requirement apply that all donors are registered voters in the UK?

    Finally, I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that Northern Ireland needs its Assembly and Executive up and running as soon as possible. There is no greater illustration of that than the fact that we are now entering the Brexit negotiations in earnest. Northern Ireland effectively has no voice at that negotiating table; certainly not one that reflects all the traditions, culture and heritage of Northern Ireland. There is an absolute imperative to get the Executive back on their feet and to restore Northern Ireland’s voice. I am sure he will join me in urging all Members to urge all parties to make sure that that happens as soon as possible.

  • I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in underlining that core message. I appreciate and welcome the support he has given to the Government in trying to reach a point where agreement is concluded and we are able to move swiftly in this House. I appreciate the opportunity we have had to discuss these issues over the last few days and I will certainly maintain that dialogue with him.

    The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. He highlights the frustration of many people in Northern Ireland that no deal has been concluded thus far. A theme that I know binds us together is how we can achieve that conclusion, with an inclusive power-sharing Executive of locally elected politicians getting on and making decisions in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

    The hon. Gentleman asked about the engagement of the Prime Minister. She has been involved throughout the process. She met all the leaders of the political parties in London and has maintained contact throughout this time. As I indicated, in recent days she has, as she has previously, spoken to the leaders of the two main parties. He will recognise that particular interventions may not necessarily have the desired outcome. From his previous involvement in Northern Ireland he will know of occasions that did not lead to the outcome he wished for at the time, in places such as Leeds Castle, for example. Different solutions and scenarios present themselves in different cases. A defined number of issues remain outstanding and we need to give them our focus and attention, rather than extending out and changing the whole dynamic. We will continue to keep matters under careful review. Resolution is possible if the willingness is there. It is with that urgency that we must approach the days ahead.

    There is opportunity here. I spoke about the additional funding that could be available to an incoming Executive to enable them to act and to take strategic decisions. It is profoundly in Northern Ireland’s interest for locally elected politicians to do that.

    I will write to the hon. Gentleman and set out further details on transparency issues relating to political donations—I think that is probably the best way to do it—and I will put a letter in the House of Commons Library. I will also introduce legislation spelling that out so that everyone will be able to see the next steps very clearly.

  • Order. Consistent with what I said to the House last week, I am keen to uphold the tradition that Members wishing to take part in exchanges on a statement should be those, and only those, who were here at its start. I do not wish to embarrass individuals. A couple of Members who came in late are, very graciously, not standing, but that is not uniform. Those who came in late and are standing should not be doing so. It is quite wrong to wander in halfway through a statement and then expect to be called. Some people might even think it a tad arrogant, but there we go.

  • Regardless of the difficulties or disagreements among the parties in Northern Ireland, should not those issues should be sorted out within the Assembly and the Executive, and not in this place? Or is it the case that one party, or maybe more, is actually looking for a rewriting of the rules?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his continued focus on Northern Ireland, following his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in the last Parliament. I think all parties are focused on seeking an outcome and ensuring a functioning Executive, rather than fundamental changes to the rules. That is where we should focus our attention, because as he suggested, that is where I think he realises that decision making should happen—within Northern Ireland, within the Assembly and within the Executive, acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

  • It is disappointing to say the least that a deal has not been made and that the proper governance of Northern Ireland cannot restart. Does the Secretary of State accept that his party’s deal with the DUP makes reaching a deal more difficult? Does he consider the link between his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and the Constitutional Research Council, which made the questionable Brexit donation to the DUP, to be an additional and unwelcome complication? Why did it take three years from the consultation on increasing the transparency of political donations in Northern Ireland to get to a position where the Government are now announcing that they will be introducing legislation? The murk that surrounds this whole affair at times makes it increasingly difficult to trust that there is true impartiality on the part of the Government. What can the Secretary of State do to clear up the questions around the Constitutional Research Council and its donations, and restore confidence in the Government’s impartiality?

    Lastly, the devolved Administrations are supposed to be involved in the Brexit negotiations. Can the Secretary of State tell us who has been providing the input from Stormont and whether it is less or more than the input from the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government? Very lastly—[Interruption]—what representations were made to him by the Secretary of State for Scotland about the deal done between the Government and the DUP?

  • Order. There was a certain amount of harrumphing from a sedentary position at the continuation of the hon. Lady’s line of interrogation, but I can confirm, in defence of her, that she was fully 36 seconds within her time.

  • It’s the way she says it.

  • Order. That is a matter of stylistic objection—or even, on the part of the right hon. Gentleman, aesthetic objection—but it cannot be said to be a matter of order.

  • It may not surprise the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) to know that I do not agree with the analysis that she set out in her questions. We stand four-square by our undertakings under the Belfast agreement and its successors, and the agreement relating to decision making here at Westminster does not contravene those important elements—something that is specifically spelled out in that agreement.

    The hon. Lady highlights the issue of political donations and transparency. We conducted a consultation with all the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek their views first, and that was the reason for the decision we have taken today, reflecting those views and that input and the commitment in my party’s manifesto.

    The hon. Lady highlights the issue of Brexit and contact with the Northern Ireland Executive. Obviously there are not elected politicians there, so we have sought to engage with the Northern Ireland civil service within the Executive, but that takes us only so far. That is why I profoundly believe that we need to see an Executive in place, to be an additional voice for Northern Ireland, strongly making those points, and to ensure that, alongside them, we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland through EU exit.

  • Order. What an extraordinary state of affairs: I was planning to call the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), but he now seems a little disengaged from our proceedings. He toddled up to the Chair and I thought he was interested. He can speak—go on Mr Paterson, let’s hear it.

  • I came to apologise for missing the first two minutes, but you have called me, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful.

    Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that unless we have a fully up-and-running Executive, we cannot implement the devolution of corporation tax, which will benefit every single citizen in Northern Ireland?

  • And there I was thinking that the right hon. Gentleman had come up to the Chair and just muttered some prosaic pleasantry, which I readily greeted. It is very honest of him to say that he was late, but I had not known that he was, and therefore as far as I am concerned he was not.

  • Regrettably, the answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is that without an Executive in place, the devolution of corporation tax cannot happen. That underlines one of many reasons why an Executive is needed to get on and ensure that that vision of prosperity and further investment can take place, and an Executive would absolutely aid that.

  • We welcome the statement, and let me say, for the record, that the Democratic Unionist party was ready last Thursday to form a Government and to appoint our Ministers. There is no question of any reticence in our party about forming an Executive, and we have been encouraged by the Government to do so.

    Will the Government proceed to publish the legacy proposals in the event that an Executive is not formed? We welcome what the Secretary of State has said about donations, but will that be extended to include donations to political parties operating in Northern Ireland that are routed via the Republic of Ireland?

  • As the right hon. Gentleman may know, our consultation about political transparency concerned the narrow elements that were contained within that, but I know that other issues and other points had been raised, including the matter to which he has referred, and they will remain under consideration. As for the legacy issue, I think there is a growing consensus that we need to get the consultation out there, and show everyone the work that has been done on the implementation of the Stormont House bodies so that we begin to see that coming into effect. I earnestly hope that we will be able to move forward, and that it will take place following the establishment of an Executive.

  • Is not the simple truth that, whereas the Democratic Unionist party has managed to obtain £1 billion from the Treasury to spend on the people of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin—Gerry Adams and those at Connolly House who are refusing to re-form the Executive—will be in no position to ensure that their constituents receive an equal share of that money, because there will be no Sinn Féin Minister in the Executive, and the money will be spent either by Ministers in this place or by civil servants in Northern Ireland?

  • I think the simple point is that an Executive consisting of a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and other Ministers will be able to make decisions on budgets and all other issues throughout the community. The funds that have been outlined—to be spent on, for example, health, education, mental health, infrastructure and broadband—will be, profoundly, for everyone in Northern Ireland. All communities will benefit from those funds. I think that that underlines the need for the Executive, and the need to ensure that locally elected politicians are the ones who make the decisions.

  • We are pleased that the Secretary of State has told us that it will still be possible for the two sides in Northern Ireland to reach a deal within the next few days. He will know as well as I do that trust is imperative in the current talks. Will he explain a little more fully why he is so reluctant to try to seal that deal by asking the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to go to Belfast and attempt to bring the parties together so that the final measures that are necessary to secure a deal can be taken?

  • I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I stress that the Prime Minister has been actively involved throughout the process, and has been having meetings with all the party leaders. She had a further conversation with the Taoiseach last week about how matters were progressing, and received updates from me and from Simon Coveney, the Irish Foreign Minister, that were received by the Taoiseach as well. There is that continued active engagement, but if further interventions are required we will, of course, keep matters under review in order to establish what will bring about an effective resolution and produce the Executive whom the hon. Gentleman and I want to see in place.

  • Of course I understand the points my right hon. Friend has made about the fact that the present situation cannot go on forever. However, one of the virtues that are required, and one of the many virtues that are involved in his arduous post, is patience. I hope he will be able to assure the House that he will be exhibiting that virtue even beyond the level of the proverbial saint, in order to put a power-sharing agreement and a new Executive in place.

  • I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and for his indication that some patience is needed. Let me underline to him, however, that a great deal of patience has been exhibited up to now, and that there is a great deal of frustration among the public in Northern Ireland. They want services to work for them in the way that is necessary; they want to see the transformation that needs to take place in certain key services. That is why an Executive is so desperately needed at the earliest opportunity, so that we can see politics performing in the best interests of Northern Ireland. That change needs to happen.

  • You know, Mr Speaker, that I do not often hanker after the days of Tony Blair, but if we had reached this state of affairs under his premiership, we would have seen not just involvement by the Prime Minister, but active leadership, and he would probably have made the statement to the House. With all due respect to the Secretary of State, it is a matter of regret that the Prime Minister is not here today.

    The Secretary of State is right when he says that we need greater transparency on political donations, but he must be aware that the House has already expressed its view on that matter. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 set the relevant date as being 1 January 2014. Why is he now seeking to change that?

  • The simple point on that is that it is about compliance with the regulations and seeing that those making donations are able to make those determinations based on the law that is in existence, rather than looking at retrospection. Obviously, there will be further opportunity for the House to debate that issue. However, I think that that is the clearest way of doing it.

  • While the political situation remains in limbo in Northern Ireland, elderly and frail British former soldiers are even now being brought before the courts on serious charges, while multiple terrorist murderers walk free, having served either derisory sentences or no sentences at all. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the Government remain focused on rectifying that inequality of treatment?

  • I know that this is an issue that my right hon. Friend and others have raised consistently in the House. I commend them for the focus they have provided. The Government remain committed to implementing the Stormont House institutions and that reform which is about fair, balanced and proportionate efforts in respect of the investigations of the past. That is what the agreement sets out clearly in applying the rule of law but, as I have said on a number of occasions in the House, I and others across Government will never tire of recognising the tireless contribution that so many in our security and armed forces made to ensure that we have peace today. Without their contribution, that simply would not have been possible.

  • It is not easy to establish devolved government. We achieved that in 2006-07 because the Prime Minister of the day spent 80 hours in St Andrews hands-on, dealing with all parties with the Taoiseach of Ireland. That is just advice to the Secretary of State; it is not a disservice to him and his colleagues to have the Prime Minister engaged heavily.

    Given the £1 billion that has been committed by the Government, could the Secretary of State assure the House that in the absence of devolved government no expenditure decisions will be taken by civil servants on priorities for the expenditure of that money?

  • There are clear needs in Northern Ireland, which is why I made the point that I did on the potential need for further clarification for the Northern Ireland civil service in respect of budgetary issues. I also underline that last week’s statement recognised the particular needs and circumstances of Northern Ireland and that there are some urgent and pressing priorities. That I why I think an Executive needs to be put into place, but clearly in acting in Northern Ireland’s best interests, we will keep that very closely under review if it is not possible to form an Executive in the coming days.

  • I would like to ask my right hon. Friend about the situation on the border, especially regarding the Brexit negotiations. As a Member of this House who was born in Northern Ireland, I know how important it is not to go back to the hard border that I remember from my childhood. Given that both the British and EU negotiators have said that they do not wish to see a hard border, how soon can we ensure that the situation is resolved to make sure that the people of Northern Ireland know that their future is more certain?

  • As my hon. Friend will know from her experience, the issue of Northern Ireland is a priority item in the Brexit negotiations. Discussions have commenced. We continue to work on that to provide assurance on the border and other issues. As a Government, we believe that a solution can be found and that there is good will on all sides in relation to finding that solution, reaching that agreement through the common travel area and looking at the issue of the movement of goods across the border to ensure that it remains invisible and seamless. It is a clear and firm priority of the Government to achieve that.

  • My party is also disappointed that the Executive have not been re-established after being brought down by Sinn Féin earlier this year, but will the Secretary of State confirm that only one party in Northern Ireland is insisting on any preconditions on the setting up of the Executive, and if those preconditions are unreasonable––including the prosecution of soldiers and policemen, the establishment of an Irish language Act which would cost tens of millions of pounds, the commitment by that party to overthrow its manifesto commitments, and a refusal to sit with Arlene Foster, who won the last election—they will amount to blackmail, and the establishment of any Executive on that basis would be fragile and could not possibly exist? Will he also confirm this to us today: has he given into Sinn Féin’s demand that there be no transparency on the funds it receives through the Irish Republic from foreign countries to its own party coffers?

  • I know that there are strong views on a number of issues. The hon. Gentleman’s party and Sinn Féin continue in discussions to find a resolution to these issues and differences, and they have even been continuing today, shortly before this sitting started. The focus needs to be on that. We must have an Executive performing in the best interests of Northern Ireland; I know the hon. Gentleman’s party has strongly indicated that it wants to see that. We will continue to support all the parties involved in this process to find that resolution, and to look beyond the differences between parties. We recognise also that the political process in Northern Ireland is very special, and that so many people have worked so hard to get us to this point. I think that the hon. Gentleman and others all want to see that progressing into the future, and to see that positive bright future for Northern Ireland across all communities.

  • The additional funds committed to Northern Ireland in recent weeks continue to be wrongly labelled as money for a single party in the Province. Will the Secretary of State reconfirm that this is in fact money for the whole Province, to be spent by all parties, and that it represents a billion more reasons for political leadership to be restored at Stormont?

  • My hon. Friend makes a clear and important point: the funding package announced last week was firmly for the benefit of all communities, so that we see investment in infrastructure, which has not kept pace with other parts of the UK, and to deal with issues such as employment rates, which are behind those of other nations of the United Kingdom, and also to deal with reform in certain key public services. That is to the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland. We want to see the Executive able to make decisions and feeling the real benefit of that; that provides that real potential and real opportunity which we want to see seized.

  • This crisis has meandered across six months, two elections and, as of today, two and a half missed deadlines, but I still do not get any sense of urgency from the Secretary of State. There is a time for passive observation and there is a time for intensive intervention; why will the Prime Minister not go to Belfast with the Taoiseach and find a resolution to this that we all want to see?

  • I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do want to see that resolution. Interventions have been made by the UK and Irish Governments and others seeking supportive voices to assist in the community and elsewhere to get the parties focused on seeing that bigger picture, looking beyond difference, and being able to get an Executive formed. We will use all interventions appropriately to get that outcome. That is why I make the point about the work the Prime Minister has done, the work that I have done, the work the Irish Government have done and the work the Taoiseach and Irish Foreign Minister have done, but I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that time is progressing and we do not want to see the sort of interventions I have highlighted in this statement. Time is moving on, and if we do not see resolution quickly, there will be a need to take various steps around the budget and other areas. We are still working hard to support the parties, but ultimately it is for the parties to reach that agreement, to see those divides crossed so an Executive are formed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of the urgency, attention, time and effort that continues to be made in that regard.

  • As the only Member on this side of the Chamber who voted for transparency of donations three years ago, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to bring that forward. In relation to resolving the impasse, can he confirm that the £1 billion announced last week will be sufficient, and that there will be no need for more money from Westminster to get this deal over the line?

  • The funds that were announced last week should provide a sense of opportunity and potential for issues that are clearly of relevance to Northern Ireland, such as the lack of transport infrastructure compared with other parts of the United Kingdom and the digital and broadband issue, which has lagged behind other parts of the United Kingdom. The funds should give a sense of incentive and opportunity for an Executive to deliver and get on with so many of the things they want to see.

  • Is the Minister aware that this impasse in Northern Ireland has been complicated by the fact that the result of the general election has meant the Government getting involved in a protection money racketing system of about £1 billion? As a suggestion, may I say that the only way to get rid of that is for the Prime Minister to call another general election? We know that she is frightened to death of doing it, because she knows that the Labour party would win. We would form a Government and get rid of this almighty mess. There would be no protection racket money, and we would have a decent Labour Government that would get rid of austerity. Get on with it!

  • It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman has still not recognised the result of the last election. The House will be interested in his comments, but I do not think that they will make a difference to solving the real problems that we are wrestling with in Northern Ireland.

  • If the impasse is not broken, and if direct rule is imposed, can the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations perform its role without the participation of one of the constituent parts of the British state?

  • As I have already indicated in my statement, we are firmly not looking at interventions that even get close to the point that the hon. Gentleman alludes to. It would profoundly not be in Northern Ireland’s best interests to head down that way, which is why I have made my points about the Executive. The best way to address his point is to have an Executive in place with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister who are able to represent Northern Ireland and argue firmly in Northern Ireland’s best interests on Brexit and many other issues.

  • This is an unusual Parliament, in that, because of the loss of Social Democratic and Labour party seats and the unwelcome continuing refusal of Sinn Féin Members to take their seats in this Chamber, there is no representation here of Irish nationalist opinion from the island of Ireland for the first time in many decades. Given what the Secretary of State has said in his statement about the possibility of having to introduce legislation in the near future, how will he ensure that that strain of opinion from Northern Ireland is fully taken into account in any consideration of that legislation?

  • I am certainly conscious, in my role as Secretary of State, of listening to voices from all parts of the community. Obviously the voices of the nationalist community are no longer represented in this House, and I will therefore continue to engage intensively with all parties in Northern Ireland. I will continue to listen and to hear the specific points that they make, and I will ensure that that is reflected into my own considerations and those of the Government more broadly as we look at the legislative programme ahead.

  • The Secretary of State will know my utter commitment to devolution, but at some point there has to be a realisation that the parrot could possibly be dead, that it is deceased of life, that it is no more. If that is the case with devolution, will the Secretary of State put a timeframe on the life expectancy that is ultimately left in this dead bird? Will appropriations be moved before the summer recess?

  • The head of the Northern Ireland civil service has indicated that we have not yet reached the point at which an appropriation Bill needs to be passed. We are still a little way away from that. None the less, urgent issues need to be addressed about the financial position in Northern Ireland, which is why I made points in my statement about the potential need for further assurance to be granted. I firmly think that there is still life there, and the engagement that we continue to see underlines that. Having locally elected politicians serving the community in Northern Ireland is profoundly what is in Northern Ireland’s best interests. I know that the hon. Gentleman strongly believes in that, and the Government will certainly not be giving up on it. We are working tirelessly to ensure that we see reconciliation and the outcome that he and I know is what Northern Ireland needs. With the efforts that continue to be made, I earnestly hope that we will see that progress and see the implementation of a power-sharing Executive in a very short time.

  • Grenfell Tower

  • With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the Government’s response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy and our safety inspections of cladding in other buildings.

    Almost three weeks have passed since the catastrophe that hit Grenfell Tower. Progress has been made to help the survivors and people in the surrounding buildings who were affected. Landlords across the country have been taking measures to make their buildings safe. Sir Martin Moore-Bick has been appointed to lead a full public inquiry, and an independent expert panel is now advising my Department on any immediate action on fire safety that is required.

    The disaster at Grenfell Tower should never have happened. The police investigation and public inquiry will find out why it did. Right now, the Government’s immediate priority is to provide every assistance to those who were affected and to take every precaution to avoid another tragedy in buildings with similar cladding. The Grenfell Tower victims unit is operating from my Department and providing a single point of access into Government. Staff from across Government continue to offer support at the Westway assistance centre and at a separate family bereavement centre. Almost £2.5 million has been distributed from the £5 million Grenfell Tower residents’ discretionary fund. Each affected household is receiving £5,500 to provide immediate assistance, and payments have been made to 112 households so far.

    There has been much speculation about who was in Grenfell Tower on the night of the fire, and it is vital that we find out. As I announced yesterday, the Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear that there will be no prosecution of tenants at Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk who may have been illegally sub-letting their property, so all tenants can be confident about coming forward with information for the authorities. There may have been people living in flats that were illegally sub-let who had no idea about the true status of their tenancy. Their families want to know if they perished in the fire. These are their sons, their daughters, their brothers, and their sisters. They need closure, and that is the least that they deserve. However, that cannot happen unless we have the information we need, so we are urging anyone with that information to come forward and to do so as quickly as they can.

    The immediate response to the Grenfell disaster is being co-ordinated by the Grenfell response team, led by John Barradell. He is being supported by colleagues drawn from London Councils, the wider local government sector, the voluntary sector, police, health, and fire services, as well as central Government. Their expertise and hard work is making a huge difference, but it is only a temporary measure. It is also vital that we put in place long-term support for the longer-term recovery. It was right that the leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea took the decision to move on. I look forward to working with the new leader of the council, and I will look at every option to ensure that everyone affected by this tragedy has the long-term support they need.

    The Prime Minister promised that every family who lost their home because of the fire will be offered a good-quality temporary home within three weeks, and the deadline is this Wednesday. I have been monitoring the progress of rehousing, and we will honour that commitment. Every home offered will be appropriate and of good quality. What we will not do is compel anyone to accept an offer of temporary accommodation that they do not want. Some families indicated that they wanted to remain as close as possible to their former home but, when they received their offer, took a look at the property and decided that it would be easier to deal with their bereavement if they moved further away. Some families have decided that, for the same reasons, they would prefer to remain in hotels for the time being. Other households have indicated that they would prefer to wait until permanent accommodation becomes available. Every household will receive an offer of temporary accommodation by this Wednesday, but every household will also be given the space to make this transition at their own pace and in a way that helps them recover from this tragedy.

    The people affected by the disaster at Grenfell Tower need our assistance and are receiving it, but they also want answers. Sir Martin Moore-Bick has been appointed to lead a full public inquiry. He has visited Kensington and has met victims and survivors, as well as members of the local community who have done so much to help. After consulting the community, Sir Martin will then advise on the terms of the inquiry, and we will ensure there is legal support for victims so that they can play their full part.

    We must allow that inquiry and the criminal investigation to run their course. Each must have the space to follow the evidence wherever it takes them. We must all be careful not to prejudge or prejudice either of them, but what we can do right now is take sensible precautions to avoid another tragedy. The Building Research Establishment is continuing to test the combustibility of cladding from councils and housing associations, as well as from private landlords. So far, all the samples of cladding tested have failed—that is 181 out of 181. It is obviously disturbing that there is such a large number of buildings with combustible cladding, and the priority now is to make those buildings safe. Where appropriate mitigating measures cannot be implemented quickly, landlords must provide alternative accommodation while the remedial work is carried out, and that is exactly what happened with the four tower blocks in Camden. Our primary concern has been buildings over 18 metres or six storeys in which people stay at night. Hospitals and schools are also being assessed.

    We ourselves have asked questions about the testing regime after discovering the 100% failure rate so far. Last week I asked for the test process itself to be independently reviewed. That was done by the Research Institutes of Sweden, which confirmed that they believe the process to be sound. A full explanatory briefing note on the testing process has been made available on As the note explains, every failed test means that the panels are “unlikely to be compliant” with the limited combustibility requirement of the building regulations guidance. That has been confirmed by legal advice and by the advice of the independent expert panel, which was established last week. For use of the panels to be safe, landlords need to be confident that the whole wall system has been tested and shown to be safe. We are not aware of any such system having passed the necessary tests, but I have asked the expert advisory panel to look into it further.

    Almost three weeks have passed since the catastrophe that hit Grenfell Tower, and I know I speak for every Member of this House when I say that we are still all in shock. It is not just the terrible scale of the suffering; it is that it happened in 21st-century Britain in London’s richest borough. I will continue to direct the full resources of my Department to assist the Grenfell response team, and I will be working closely with the new leader of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council to make sure there are plans in place for a longer-term recovery. I will return to the House regularly to update hon. Members on progress.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for the prior copy of his statement. He struck an appropriate tone today. These are complex challenges for government, both national and local, but Ministers have been off the pace at every stage since this terrible fire. They have been too slow to grasp the scale of the problems people are facing and too slow to act. For the Grenfell Tower survivors, for the victims’ families and for the local community in North Kensington, underlying everything is the question of trust: that those in positions of power mean what they say, do what they promise and do not drag their feet before acting to deal with problems. That powerful message must be understood by Ministers, Kensington and Chelsea Council and the chair of the public inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

    The Grenfell Tower residents understood what the Prime Minister meant when she said:

    “I have fixed a deadline of three weeks for everybody affected to be found a home nearby.”

    It is three weeks on Wednesday since the fire. How many people are still in hotels? The Secretary of State gave the latest version of the promise today: “a good-quality temporary home within three weeks”. Does that include hotel rooms? How temporary is “temporary”? By what date will all residents affected by the fire be in permanent new homes? While we are trying to get the numbers clear: how many survivors are there from Grenfell Tower? How many have not received the Government’s immediate assistance payments of £5,500?

    Let me turn to the wider fears of those living in 4,000 other tower blocks around the country. The Government say that 600 tower blocks with cladding need safety checks, but nearly three weeks on the Secretary of State confirms today that only 181 have been tested so far—and all have failed. Will he accept that these tests are too slow and too narrow? Will he confirm that the Government are testing only one component of the cladding—not the panels, adhesives and insulation; not the cladding as a composite system; and not the installation method or impact on the buildings? All those things can affect fire-safety qualities. Importantly, will he confirm that cladding is not the whole story? We know that from the two coroners’ reports after the previous fires at Shirley Towers and Lakanal House, four years ago. So will he act now—not wait for the public inquiry—to reassure residents in all other tower blocks by starting the overhaul of building regulations; by retrofitting sprinkler systems, starting with the highest-risk blocks; and by making it very clear that the Government will fund, up front, the full costs of any necessary remedial works?

    Turning to the public inquiry, which the Secretary of State mentioned, the Prime Minister has rightly set up this inquiry to get to the bottom of what went wrong at Grenfell Tower and help make sure this can never happen again. She said:

    “No stone will be left unturned”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2017; Vol. 626, c. 168.]

    Yet Sir Martin Moore-Bick has said:

    “I’ve been asked to undertake this inquiry on the basis that it would be pretty well limited to the problems surrounding the start of the fire and its rapid development”.

    So I say to the Secretary of State that I recognise the importance of the independence of the inquiry, but will he make it clear to the House today what brief Sir Martin has been given by the Prime Minister for this inquiry? As the Secretary of State said, John Barradell is leading the strategic co-ordination group at present, providing the emergency response, relief and leadership that Kensington and Chelsea Council failed to do after the fire. How long will it be running these council operations? What is the hand-back plan? Who will it hand back to?

    There are deeper flaws in this council, beyond the very serious failings in response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and every public statement from the ruling politicians confirms that they are in denial. These are exactly the deeper problems that commissioners and a full corporate governance inspection would help put right. The Government are still off the pace. If this council were a school, it would be in special measures, fresh leadership would be needed and fresh confidence would be built, as it must be built in this council. Actions speak louder than words, and actions count most in helping the Grenfell Tower survivors, and in rebuilding their confidence in the future and the wider public trust that must be there for the residents who live in our tower blocks and make them their homes right across the country.

  • I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He asked several questions, and I shall start with the first, on temporary housing. Our commitment has been clear and it is unchanged from day one: all residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk will be offered temporary accommodation in Kensington and Chelsea or a neighbouring borough within three weeks. I just explained in my statement what that offer means. I want to make sure people are offered high-quality accommodation that is appropriate for their family type and size, but they should not and will not be forced to accept accommodation that they do not want to move into at this point.

    I was at the Westway centre again on Saturday, and my hon. Friend the Housing Minister was there on Sunday. I met many of the residents and talked to them, mainly about their needs. I wanted to listen to them, because when officials have come back to me and said they are finding that a lot of people are saying, for example, “I’d rather stay in hotels for now and perhaps then exercise an opportunity to move into some of the permanent accommodation that has already been identified, especially the 68 units at Kensington Row,” that is something we should take into account. It would be absolutely wrong for us to say, “No, you cannot stay in the hotels. You have to move, and then you’re going to have to move again.” We should be led by the residents.

    I have also met residents who have said, “I thought I wanted something close to where I lived before,” but when they went to one of the available properties, despite it being of high quality and appropriate in many ways, when they looked out the window they saw the tower, were clearly reminded of things they would rather not be reminded of, and changed their minds. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is not saying that in those circumstances we should force families to accept the accommodation, no matter what. We will be led by the families and their needs. Our commitment is clear: come Wednesday, every single family and every household from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk that has so far come forward to us will have been offered high-quality temporary accommodation.

    The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether temporary accommodation includes hotels. Hotels are emergency accommodation; temporary accommodation—I went to see some examples myself in a neighbouring borough on Saturday—is high-quality accommodation. It may be houses or flats—whatever the residents choose. There is also permanent social housing, which it will take more time to identify, especially if the family desires that it is in the borough. As I have said, it is well known that we have already identified 68 units, and we are very close to adding a number of other units to that availability. That will be permanent housing that we will offer to the families, and they will be able to decide whether it is appropriate for them.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked about the testing process; it can move only as fast as the samples come in. Since I made my previous statement, there has been a sharp pick-up in the number of samples coming in from local authorities and housing associations. We are turning those around within hours of their coming in, with the results going immediately to the landlord. The test itself is on a component—the core—of each of the cladding panels. A sample of the core is taken, then categorised for its limited combustibility as either category 3, 2 or 1, with categories 3 and 2 being deemed not to meet the building regulation guidance.

    The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether the whole system is being tested. As I said, the core of the panel is being tested. It is possible to conduct whole-system tests. That is not the test that is currently being conducted by the BRE, but the expert panel is meeting again today to advise how things can be done appropriately so that we are convinced that a whole-system test actually works and leads to a positive result. So far though, as I said in my statement, we have yet to see any evidence showing that any builder has passed the whole-system test.

    The right hon. Gentleman asked about funding. We have made it clear that whatever measures need to be taken—any remedial measures to make buildings safe—local authorities and housing associations should get on with them. If local authorities or housing associations need help with funding, we are ready to discuss that with them and we will work with them.

    The right hon. Gentleman rightly reminded the House that the public inquiry is independent. We have to be careful what we say about it in the House or elsewhere, but we should remember that Sir Martin started immediately, meeting victims, volunteers and others, as he should. He will set out the terms of the inquiry. He is not there yet—he should take the right amount of time that is necessary and make sure that the inquiry is broad and to the satisfaction of the victims, their families and friends, and that they feel that the terms of reference are appropriate.

    Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about Kensington and Chelsea. Clearly, the Grenfell response team—what has been referred to as the gold team led by John Barradell—is being led appropriately with tremendous resource, both from the local government and voluntary sectors and from central Government. At some point, the process of recovery for the longer term will transfer to the council. We are not at that point yet. When we are, we need to make sure that the council is property resourced with expertise as well as money and any other help that it needs. We will make sure that when that happens it is properly resourced.

  • Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working with devolved Governments to ensure that every tower block around the country is going through the same fire safety tests?

  • Yes, I can confirm that to my hon. Friend. So far, the Welsh Government have identified 13 tower blocks with aluminium composite material, and they are all being tested.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House to make a statement on the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and I appreciate the chance to have advance sight of the statement, which was very useful. I also welcome the announcement about the 112 households that have received payments. I am not certain whether he has said this already, but I would appreciate knowing how many households still need to receive payment and the timescales for those payments—how long are they likely to take?

    Along with many Members in the House, I have been approached by residents in my constituency who live in multi-storey blocks. I commend the work that local authorities have done to take action to test buildings and to reassure tenants who live in those buildings. I used to live in a local authority multi-storey, and I well understand the access issues that concern people. I appreciate the moves that have been made by a number of organisations working together to provide reassurance.

    I restate the position of the Scottish National party that the public inquiry should be as wide-ranging as possible. At every stage, the views of the Grenfell Tower survivors should be taken into account. I would also ask a couple of things. I would like reassurance that residents are being helped as far as possible to replace documentation that they lost in the fire, and about residents whose families want to take part in the inquiry and who live abroad. What financial help is available for them to ensure that they can come and take an active part in the inquiry?

    Lastly, I would welcome confirmation that there will be no prosecution of the tenants. It is really important that those tenants, and anyone who has been living there, come forward, and I would welcome the Government’s views about that.

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. First, on payments so far from the discretionary fund, there is £5 million available from that fund; £2.44 million has been paid out so far. Of the grants, 249 £500 cash payments have been made, amounting to £124,500, and there have been 112 payments of the £5,000 grant. I should also remind people listening to the statement that that has no impact on benefits or any other compensation that individuals might receive.

    I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady’s comments about the public inquiry. It should be as wide-ranging as possible, and should absolutely have the input of victims, their families and friends. Those victims must get the legal support that they need to make proper and full representations.

    On lost documentation, I can confirm that since soon after the tragedy, in the Westway centre but also in the victim unit support in my Department in Westminster, almost every Government Department necessary has been represented. In fact, I saw a fantastic example on Saturday, when I met a team from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency from Swansea. They turned up at the Westway centre within a couple of days of the disaster, and they brought with them driving licences that they had printed out. Residents turned up saying, “I need a driving licence”, fully expecting to make an application, and the DVLA team handed it to them in the envelope once an identity check had been done. That is the extent of the efforts many Government Departments have gone to, and that is what we expect as we continue to help these people—the victims—with their recovery.

  • My right hon. Friend has described the tests taking place in housing association and local authority housing, schools and hospitals. What conversations has he had with the insurance industry regarding totally private tower blocks? Leeds has seen much regeneration and there are lots of tall tower buildings with cladding. It strikes me that insurance companies have a vested interest in ensuring that such blocks are dealt with before new regulations come into place.

  • My hon. Friend is right to point that out. The insurance industry has been taking a great interest in the work that is happening, especially in the testing. The Chancellor had a meeting with the insurance industry just last week.

  • The Secretary of State will be aware that the statement from the new independent chair that the scope of the inquiry might be limited to the start of the fire and how it spread has caused some alarm among survivors. Will he say a little bit more about that? Will he also confirm that all survivors will get proper legal aid so that they can have proper, independent solicitors and barristers representing their interests?

  • Yes, I can confirm that. I was there again on Saturday, soon after Sir Martin’s first visit, and a number of survivors and their families made the same point to me. It is worth reiterating and making clear that although the judge will rightly ultimately determine the scope of the inquiry, we all expect it to be as broad and wide-ranging as possible. We absolutely want to ensure that all victims, survivors, families and friends feel that they are properly represented and get the proper financial support.

  • My right hon. Friend has sadly informed the House that, so far, 100% of all 181 samples taken from buildings have failed the combustion tests. I do not wish to prejudice the public inquiry or any future criminal action, but will he tell the House whether the cladding originates from one source or whether it is from multiple sources, which would hint at a more systemic failure across the industry?

  • I can tell my hon. Friend that there are multiple sources.

  • Order. The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) is a most estimable fellow, but I think he is probably still enjoying his honeymoon, which we hope that he celebrated with great joy. But I gently point out to him that he beetled into the Chamber 17 minutes after the statement started and that, therefore, it is a trifle saucy to expect to be called on this occasion. We will store him up for another occasion on which he can give the House the benefit of his wisdom.

  • A week ago, the Secretary of State told us that the Government were capable of processing 100 tests a day. We now know that there is a backlog of 419 tower blocks that have not yet been tested. Can he tell us about that backlog? How many samples are currently in the laboratory, how many have failed to be provided and what is he doing to ensure that they are all supplied?

  • There is no backlog. We can only process the tests as soon as the samples come in. When they do come in, they are processed within hours and the landlord is informed along with the local fire and rescue service. I can update the House on numbers. Before we received the information back from the local authorities and housing associations, the original estimate was that they could own up to 600 similarly clad buildings. We now think that figure is around 530.

  • I commend the Secretary of State for the speed of cladding testing to which he just referred. When interim recommendations are made, what processes are in place to ensure that landlords actually comply and carry them out?

  • In the immediate term, we have made sure that the landlord is informed immediately when a piece of cladding fails the test. The local fire and rescue service will carry out the fire safety check, and we expect all those recommendations to be followed. The involvement of the local fire and rescue services, which will report back to my Department, means that we are able to monitor progress.

  • I do not think that the Secretary of State made reference to the review of building regulations and to the fire guidance contained in Approved Document B, which officers of the all-party group on fire safety rescue had the opportunity to raise with the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government—we were grateful for that opportunity. The review was recommended by the coroner’s inquiry from Lakanal House; it is 11 years since the last review. Does the independent panel of experts have the power or authority to recommend a recall of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee working party on Approved Document B so that this work can begin now, rather than waiting till the end of the public inquiry?

  • The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about building regulations and the guidance on them. It is already clear to us all that there will need to be changes, and that we need to look carefully at the causes and at the fact that so many buildings are failing the guidance test. The expert panel has a wide remit, which is broadly to recommend to the Government immediately any action it thinks we should take that will improve public safety. For the longer term, we will set out in due course how we intend to tackle the much wider review I think will be necessary.

  • Some media outlets have suggested that Grenfell survivors have been forced to move to cities in the north of England. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that nobody who chooses to not move out of London will be deemed intentionally homeless?

  • I, too, have heard these rumours, yet no one has come forward with any evidence of any such thing taking place—of someone being moved outside London. I can also give my hon. Friend a reassurance on the intentionally homeless point; in fact, I wrote to every resident last Thursday to make that point very clear to them.

  • The safety of domestic appliances is a vital element of fire safety in tower blocks—and, indeed, in all homes. This horrendous fire started with a fault in a fridge, so will the Government revisit the decision of March last year to dismiss or delay many of the recommendations of the Lynn Faulds Wood review into product recall, which I commissioned in 2014? In particular, will the Secretary of State recognise that funding for the enforcement of safety regulations through trading standards is inadequate and must be urgently addressed?

  • My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at this issue very seriously. He is a member of the taskforce that has been discussing this and many other issues. He is speaking to many manufacturers about what can be done to make sure that, when products are recalled, that happens much more quickly and much more safely.

  • I am sorry to say this, but I find the sophistry of the Secretary of State today quite sickening. The reason why people are refusing offers of accommodation is that they are not suitable, sometimes by reason of people’s age or disability, and not because these are fussy people. The units of social housing being offered are existing social housing, so what happens to the people who would have gone into them? We are going to have a net reduction in the amount of social housing. It is an open secret in west London that the administration in Kensington and Chelsea could not run a bath. That is why the residents of north Ken have had such a raw deal for so long. So when will the Secretary of State put country before party and send in the commissioners?

  • The hon. Gentleman is a local London MP, and he has an opportunity now to put party politics aside and just do the right thing for his constituents. His constituents are watching him.

  • On Friday afternoon, I met the chief executive and the leader of Corby Borough Council, who assured me that the council has complied with all the requests the Department has made, and I shall ask the same questions of East Northamptonshire Council this Friday. However, is there anything more that individual Members can do to support Ministers and the Government, working across party lines and with local authorities, in the review process ahead?

  • One role that many individual Members, including my hon. Friend, have been playing well is making sure that their constituents are well informed about what the testing process is and what the results actually mean. That was one of the reasons why we published the explanatory note last Friday, and many Members have used it to inform their constituents.

  • Let us come back to the issue of the commissioners whom the Mayor of London, among others, has asked to be put into Kensington and Chelsea. Of course they need not be put in to manage the whole council, but just its social housing responsibilities. As a localist, I believe that commissioners should be put in only in extremis—in cases such as Rotherham or Tower Hamlets—but surely this is an extreme example of a failure of governance. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to this request and what factors has he taken into account? If he rejects it, does that mean that he has full confidence in Kensington and Chelsea’s ability to manage its social housing stock?

  • The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights that when control of the recovery effort transfers to Kensington and Chelsea for the longer term, we need to make sure that the right resources are there, including the right expertise and good leadership, but that is not about to happen. Before it happens, the Government will rightly consider all options that will bring that about.

  • The Secretary of State talks about having a broad and wide-ranging public inquiry, yet Sir Martin describes his remit as very narrow. Will the Secretary of State explain this conflict? How he will clarify the situation, because this process has to get us the answers in the end?

  • The hon. Lady will know that in an independent inquiry, and rightly so, it is important that the judge ultimately sets the terms of reference. This is just the beginning of the process. I urge her and all hon. Members to give the judge time to speak to victims and their supporters, the families, the volunteers and others, and then to come to the final judgment on how wide the terms of reference should be.

  • This terrible disaster obviously raises questions about the effectiveness of local emergency planning. What steps are being taken here and elsewhere to ensure that other local authorities have good emergency responses should disasters befall them?

  • One of the lessons that has already come from this tragedy is about trying to make sure, across the country, that we take a fresh look at planning for civil emergencies. That work has already begun, led by the Cabinet Office.

  • Based on the intelligence of survivors, it appears that a number of the flats were severely overcrowded. We have to assume that those flats were being sub-let illegally and inhabited by people with unstable immigration status, and possibly even those who had been trafficked, as that has been identified as a problem in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. What are Ministers doing to ensure that private landlords, legal or otherwise, are properly declaring vulnerable people who were in the building on the night of the fire, and not potentially profiteering from any properties or finances being offered to survivors?

  • The hon. Lady will know that one of the steps that we have taken to recognise this picture, which absolutely may well have been happening where there was illegal sub-letting, was yesterday’s announcement by the Director of Public Prosecutions that we want everyone with any piece of information to come forward. That was why the guarantee that they will not be prosecuted was offered, and I think that that will help and make a big difference.

  • Over the past few weeks, I have been visiting tower blocks across my constituency with fire officers and housing officers. Residents remain very, very concerned. Frankly, they do not understand why the Government and successive Ministers appear to have ignored the recommendations of the coroner’s report on sprinklers following the Lakanal House fire. I would suggest that Ministers who are shaking their heads try visiting my constituents, standing on the 15th floor, and explaining in person to those residents why there are no sprinklers.

  • It is good that the hon. Lady has been visiting tower blocks in Bristol and I hope that she has been able to reassure some of her constituents. It is good to have MPs’ involvement. However, she is wrong about the recommendations on sprinklers in the coroner’s report on Lakanal House because they were implemented fully.

  • Given what the Grenfell Tower fire has exposed about the combustibility of external cladding in the UK, can the Secretary of State confirm that appropriate tests are being conducted at non-high-rise as well as high-rise buildings?

  • Our priority has been buildings that are taller than 18 metres—typically more than six storeys—and residential buildings, as that is where one would expect the highest risk, because naturally people would be there overnight. That is the starting point and the priority. We expect that after we have dealt with the priority cases, we can make the testing facility available for all other types of buildings.

  • I am sure that the Secretary of State knows that many other public buildings, including hospitals, use tower blocks for accommodation and that they might have vulnerable cladding on them. Will he confirm how many hospitals have been tested so far and how many have failed those tests?

  • As I said in my statement, I can confirm that hospitals, schools and other buildings in the public sector are being looked at. That work is being led, through the Government Property Unit, by the Cabinet Office. The process of testing is ongoing. Even before the cladding can be tested, we have made sure that local fire and rescue services have been informed and that any necessary mitigating measures have been taken.

  • The Secretary of State said that testing of the core of cladding had resulted in 181 failures and that that meant local authorities had breached building control regulations. Does that mean regulations at the time the cladding was put up, or regulations as they stand today?

  • The last time there was any significant change in building regulations guidance was in 2006 and much of the cladding was put up in the early 2000s. There has been no significant change in building regulations or building regulations guidance pertaining to fire safety for a number of years. I said in my statement that the samples had failed a limited combustibility test, and that test has been around for a number of years.

  • I want to take the Secretary of State back to the issue of hospitals, because my local hospital is a tower block with cladding that was put on in the past four years. The Hull royal infirmary management team has been very reluctant to tell the public what additional checks have been undertaken, but after being pressed several times by the local BBC, it has now admitted that the cladding has been sent for testing. Is not it about time that we had a statement from the Secretary of State for Health so that we can be clear about all our hospitals and other buildings with cladding, and so that the public can know what is happening?

  • I assure the hon. Lady that this is being taken very seriously. Where ACM or suspected ACM cladding has been found on any hospital, regardless of whether or not it is a tall building, it has been submitted for testing. Even before the results of those tests are back, the local health trusts have taken action to put in place mitigating measures. For example, many of them have put in place full-time fire wardens, 24 hours a day, to make sure that they provide maximum public safety.

  • The lessons of Hillsborough are that survivors must be listened to at all times and that inquiries must be transparent and comprehensive. What assurances can the Secretary of State give in relation to Grenfell Tower?

  • I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. Those are very important lessons to learn. I am confident that the judge, Sir Martin, will address them as he approaches his inquiry. I think that the first public sign of that will be when he sets his terms of interest.

  • Tenants in high-rise blocks in my constituency are often disabled or elderly, and in some cases they have poor or no English. Will the Government start to work with local authorities and housing providers to develop effective strategies to protect those most vulnerable tenants in the event of a fire or other disaster?

  • There are already many rules and regulations in place to do just that. As we learn all the lessons from this terrible tragedy, it is important that we ensure that we do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable.

  • I understand the focus of the Secretary of State and his Department on cladding, but may I ask him about the insulation? Some reports say that the insulation caught fire and combusted three times quicker than the cladding. Industry experts say that we should consider a system of non-combustible insulation, which is available on the market. What is the Secretary of State doing to investigate the safety of insulation, including when buildings are uncladded and the insulation is exposed to the elements?

  • The police report on the Grenfell Tower tragedy rightly referred to the insulation. After that, our guidance to local authorities and housing associations was immediately publicly updated to say that there should be checks on insulation, too.

  • Points of Order

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You would have heard earlier the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers stating, in response to questions about reductions in police numbers in specific forces, that police funding has increased in real terms. It is the case that overall funding has been protected since 2015, but I would argue that it is misleading to suggest that that is relevant to numbers of police officers on the ground when it is in fact due to increases in funding for specific issues such as cybercrime and child sexual exploitation. As a result, some forces have not seen a single increase in resources since 2015. Only today, the chief constable of West Midlands police said that the Government need to offer real-terms protection and that policing is getting smaller and smaller. Will you advise me on how I may correct the record?

  • It is a pleasure to seek to advise the hon. Lady, in so far as it could in any way be said that she requires my advice. Let me begin by saying to her that she is an individual both sophisticated and wily. Notwithstanding what she regards as effectively—whether by intention or not—misleading statements, it is apparent from the very terms of her point of order that she, unsurprisingly, has not been hoodwinked in any way. She is on to the matter. She is seized of the issues. She is unpersuaded by the rhetorical blandishments of people opposite her.

    I know that the hon. Lady is ferociously bright, but I am sure she will not suppose that others are automatically in every case less so, and therefore incapable of comprehending and seeing their way through the thickets in the way that she has so successfully done. In short, I say to her that these are matters of debate, and she has used the ruse—I use the word “ruse” advisedly—of an attempted but utterly bogus point of order to highlight her grave concern about this important matter. In that mission, she has been successful, for she has aired it and she has persuaded me to respond in terms.

    We will leave it there for today but, knowing the hon. Lady as I do, I daresay that she will be at it again with vigour and ingenuity ere long.

  • Gosh! I just referred to the intelligence of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and we now have no less a figure than a QC on her feet.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your assistance as to how I might put the record straight regarding an exchange that I had with the Prime Minister last week about the requirement for European Union citizens resident in the United Kingdom to have comprehensive sickness insurance. On Monday 26 June during the Prime Minister’s statement on the European Council, I raised the concern of my Lithuanian constituent who, despite having been resident in Scotland for more than five years, is unable to claim permanent residency because she does not have comprehensive sickness insurance. The Prime Minister’s answer gave the impression that her Government could do nothing about the predicament of such EU nationals in the UK until the UK leaves the EU, because comprehensive sickness insurance is a requirement in EU law. I fear that this inadvertently gave a misleading impression, and I am afraid that the matter was compounded by the Minister for Immigration repeating the same assertion in an answer to me earlier this afternoon.

    While it is correct that comprehensive sickness insurance is a requirement of European Union law, there are steps that the Government could take immediately to state that access to the NHS in the UK satisfies that requirement. That is not just my view: it was the unanimous recommendation of the cross-party Exiting the European Union Committee in the last Parliament at paragraph 73 of its second report. I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware of the Committee’s recommendation and would, like me, not wish the record to stand uncorrected.

  • I am extremely grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for her point of order and for her courtesy in giving me advance notice of its gist. What I would say to her is that I am not psychic and therefore cannot say for sure what was, or was not, in the mind of the Prime Minister at the time she answered the hon. and learned Lady’s question. Whether the Prime Minister did know, as the hon. and learned Lady clearly does, the contents of paragraph 73 of the Exiting the European Union Committee’s second report of Session 2016-17 entitled “The Government’s Negotiating Objectives”, I do not know. The Prime Minister might have been aware of the said paragraph at that time, in which case she has a quite extraordinarily compendious memory and power of recall when answering questions. It is possible, to be fair, that the Prime Minister might not have been immediately conscious of that particular paragraph. What I think it is fair to say is that the Prime Minister was endeavouring to provide a succinct reply. In that mission she was successful—her answer to the hon. and learned Lady consisted of 34 words.

    I have no reason to suppose that the Prime Minister was seeking deliberately to mislead the hon. and learned Lady, or indeed the House. That causes me to say to the hon. and learned Lady, in thanking her for raising this matter, that differences of interpretation are not infrequent occurrences in the Chamber of the House of Commons, a point with which I suspect she will concur. I have no doubt that she will want to return to this issue and I therefore have a little advice for her. “Erskine May”, with which the hon. and learned Lady is immensely familiar—I am referring of course to the 24th edition, as I feel sure she knows, and, as I feel equally sure she knows, to page 358—states:

    “The purpose of a question is to obtain information or press for action”.

    In this case I think that the hon. and learned Lady is seeking to press for action rather than simply to obtain information. This I think she has achieved, at least in so far as Ministers on the Treasury Bench have now heard what she has had to say. They may or may not take initiatives as a result. If they do, I hope they satisfy her; if they do not, I feel sure the hon. and learned Lady will require no further encouragement from the Chair to raise this matter on subsequent occasions.

  • On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will be aware of my interest in the estimates process. I was terribly excited to see estimates on the agenda for this week, but tomorrow estimates will be decided without debate. I understand that this is because the Liaison Committee is not in place, and it therefore cannot put forward reports for debate. On the following day, supply and appropriation will be on the agenda, but that will also be decided without debate. Being particularly keen, I went to the Vote Office to see if I could get some papers on the estimates, but I understand that no papers will be available until after we have taken tomorrow night’s motion—that was what I was told in the Vote Office just now. I understand the circumstances that mean there are no debates right now—I get that. However, my concern about the lack of information is one that I think the House should consider.

  • I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I was not aware of that matter. I feel modestly confident in suggesting that the estimates themselves will doubtless be available but, off the top of my head, I do not know how accessible they will be to the hon. Lady. Certainly the estimates—the figures—should be available. Whether there is other and better, more satisfactory, more discursive, more informative material available by way of commentary or assessment relating to those estimates, I do not know. If no material is available, the hon. Lady has identified quite a serious point. Rather than flannel and suggest to her that I have a comprehensive answer to that concern, I would say that I will make inquiries to Ministers in the relevant Department. If the position is as she describes, I will see whether anything can be done to offer her satisfaction before she is called upon to vote.

    If there are no further points of order and Members’ palates have, at least for now, been satisfied, I suggest that the Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day.

  • Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill

    Second Reading

  • Before I call the Minister of State to move that the Bill be read a Second time, I warn new Members, large numbers of whom are seeking to make their maiden speeches, that they must remain for the opening speeches and that remaining for the Minister of State’s speech means that they not only are about to learn quite a lot about air travel organisation and licensing, but will probably benefit from a fair number of literary and possibly philosophical references in the course of his oration. I speak with some experience of these matters.

  • I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

    It is both fitting and humbling, as you will gladly acknowledge, Mr Speaker, that I should have been chosen to introduce the first piece of legislation of this new Parliament—fitting because of my status and popularity, and humbling because it does not pay to draw attention to either of them.

    Hon. Members will recognise in taking a look at the Bill, as I am sure they have, that it reflects that this Government, like others before it, recognise the value of providing UK businesses with the best possible opportunities to grow and also ensuring that consumers are protected when and how they need to be in respect of, in this case, how and when they purchase their holidays. I am introducing the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill so that we can ensure that consumer protection for holidaymakers can keep pace with changes in the travel market.

    The Bill has a long genesis in two ways. First, it builds on long established good practice. The arrangement in the Bill is born of the arrangement of a similar kind that began in the 1970s to protect the interests of travellers. Secondly, we have already debated these issues at some length. We had an earlier Bill, to which I will refer later, in which these measures were included. We gave that Bill a Second Reading and debated it in Committee in some detail. That was done in a convivial, consensual and helpful way, and I shall also refer to that later.

    There is recognition across the House that the consumer protection measures in respect of holidays and holidaymakers need to keep pace with changing circumstances and conditions in the travel market. There may be those in the Chamber who, affected by the specious and pernicious appeal of liberalism—because it does appeal to some people—believe that the free market can sort all these things out for itself. That is not a view that I hold, and I know that there will be wise heads across the Chamber who recognise the efficacious role of Government in intervening where the market fails. It does not happen regularly in respect of holiday companies: anyone who looks at the history of this area of the Government’s work will recognise that it has been rare for the fund established by the air travel organisers’ licence to be called upon. None the less, it is an important fund and an important protection. It provides assurance and confidence to holidaymakers as they go about their lawful and regular business.

  • Order. I am sorry that I am not able to continue to enjoy the right hon. Gentleman’s oratory, but that particular pleasure is now to be enjoyed by the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. I have heard the first of the right hon. Gentleman’s philosophical references and I am sure that the Chamber will hear several more in the minutes to follow. New Members are probably somewhat befuddled by this state of affairs, but I think I can tell colleagues that the right hon. Gentleman is what might be called a one-off.

  • Madam Deputy Speaker, let me say—as the Speaker leaves the Chamber—that I was about to move to John Ruskin, who said:

    “the first test of a truly great man is his humility.”

    We present this legislation in that humble spirit, recognising that this is a changing market and the Government must act to reflect that change, but recognising, too, that the market will continue to change. Any Government who believed that this was the end of the story would, I think, be disregarding the further changes that are likely to result from technology, the way people organise their affairs, the way they book their holidays, the way the internet operates, and the fact that other technology will change the way we go about our business. I therefore have no doubt that there will be a need for further provision at some point in the future, but, at this stage, the Bill is an important step in bringing the ATOL provisions up to date and up to speed.

  • I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, who played a useful role in the Committee to which I referred a few moments ago.

  • I thank the Minister for giving way, and for saying that I played a useful role. As he knows, this legislation was part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. What will happen to other measures that were in that Bill, particularly those relating to offences involving the use of lasers that affect pilots?

  • I would not want to test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, or indeed your largesse, by ranging widely across the provisions of the other aspects of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, but the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that, as I said earlier, these measures had their origin—their genesis—in that Bill. We will bring further measures to the House: the Queen’s Speech makes it clear, for example, that we will address the issues of autonomous and electric vehicles, which the hon. Gentleman debated, alongside the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), and others, in the Committee that I mentioned. Further measures will be presented, and—not wishing to test your generosity any further, Madam Deputy Speaker—I think I will leave it at that.

    In this new Parliament, many of the measures that I described as essential will be introduced, and this ATOL reform is one of them. I hope that our debate today will match the convivial and consensual spirit of our discussions in the Bill Committee to which the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) alluded. We made progress on both sides of that Committee, and I hope that it continues. I think it fair to say that those discussions demonstrated that there was really

    “no difference of ​principle between the Government and the Opposition on this matter.”—[Official Report, Vehicle Technology and Aviation Public Bill Committee, 21 March 2017; c. 25.]

    Those are not my words, but the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who also played a useful role in the Committee.

  • I very much agreed with the Minister’s earlier philosophical comments about the appropriateness of Government regulation in matters such as this. I am sure that many holidaymakers will feel more secure when the Bill has been passed, knowing that they will not be left stranded abroad with no means of getting back. May I ask whether the Minister has consulted closely with the airlines, particularly those that fly planes from London Luton airport with holiday packages?

  • I will come to that later, because the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the role of the airlines in all this. As he will know, they are covered by other licensing arrangements, but I will address the specific points that he has made. As ever, he has made a case for his Luton constituents, and particularly for Luton airport, which I know is in his constituency.

  • As the Minister knows, Cardiff international airport is owned by the Welsh people via our own Government. What discussions has he had with the Welsh Government about the Bill’s impact on operators working from Cardiff?

  • Prior to that first Bill, we had discussions with devolved Governments about its character and content, and I think that there is agreement across the kingdom about the necessity for these measures. I always enjoy my discussions with the devolved Governments, and will continue to do so in my role as Minister of State. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Bill will affect all parts of our kingdom, not least because of the travel that takes place to and from different parts of it by air. We will certainly want to continue to receive representations from those Governments as these matters roll out.

    Before I go any further, let me say something that I should have said at the outset. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, there has been some debate in the Chamber in recent days about sartorial standards. I ought to say, as a matter of courtesy, that I will not be taking interventions from any Member who is not wearing a tie, on whichever side of the House that Member may sit. However, I believe in generosity as well as in courtesy, and I will provide a tie, which I have here, for anyone who is sartorially challenged or inadequate. Of course, I exclude lady Members from that; I would hardly expect them to dress in my tie, their own or anyone else’s.

    Let us move to the origins of the UK holiday market. This week will see one of the UK’s, and the world’s, leading travel brands celebrate 175 years of travel. It was on 5 July 1841 that Thomas Cook arranged the first excursion. That was a one-day train journey from Leicester to a temperance meeting in Loughborough. The train carried around 500 passengers a distance of 12 miles and back for a shilling. Contrary to popular belief, I was not the Transport Minister at the time, and I certainly was not one of the passengers, but those early excursions were significant. They helped to form the foundations of the travel and tourism sector in the UK. The growth of the railways meant that, for the first time, affordable travel could be combined with leisure activities or accommodation and offered to a growing population of consumers.

    Of course, today’s holidays—today’s excursions—are quite different from those first ones. Society has changed, and the promise of sun, sea and sand means holidays are more likely to be driven by temperature than temperance. I personally choose to have my holidays on the east coast of England, largely, in Broadstairs, Northumberland and most places in between, but not everyone does, and those who want to travel further afield and those who wish to use technology to make those choices will want to know that they are protected in doing so.

    The advancement of technology has continued to drive the biggest challenges facing the leisure travel sector. Affordable air travel and fuel efficient planes mean that people are able to travel further, and for longer. The growth of the internet and mobile phone technologies have revolutionised the way people book holidays, creating greater opportunities for consumers and businesses.

    We debated these issues on the Committee to which the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun referred. It was clear to us then, and I think to the whole House, that the UK has continued to lead the way. We have one of the most innovative and advanced leisure travel sectors in the world and one of the biggest markets in Europe. Overall, tourism contributes close to £121 billion to our economy annually, with outbound tourism contributing around £30 billion.

    Strong consumer protection is vital to underpin confidence in that important sector. By its very nature, there are a number of risks in the holiday market which have existed ever since those first excursions. It is common for consumers to pay up front on the promise of a holiday, which may be many weeks or even months away. There can be a lack of awareness of the financial stability of holiday providers, particularly as services are often provided by third parties. In the rare event of a company failure—I mentioned at the outset that it is rare— consumers may experience a financial loss from a cancelled holiday, or significant difficulties from being stranded abroad. It was against that backdrop that the air travel organiser’s licence scheme, the ATOL scheme, was introduced in the 1970s for UK holidaymakers flying overseas.

    I will not tire the House with a long, exhaustive history of the ATOL scheme. I see that that is disappointing to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to others, but I want to give all Members as much opportunity as possible to contribute to this important debate. Suffice it to say that the ATOL scheme protects consumers if their travel company fails. It does that in two ways.

    First, travel firms that sell flight packages in the UK must hold an ATOL licence, issued by the Civil Aviation Authority. That helps to regulate entry into the market and to filter out companies that are not financially robust. Secondly, the scheme acts as a fund to compensate consumers who might be caught up in a failure. The ATOL licensed company must pay a small levy, £2.50, for each person protected by ATOL. That money is then held in the air travel trust fund and used by the CAA to ensure that consumers are returned home or refunded when a company fails.

  • The Minister looks delighted to give way on that specific point; I am sure he will want to say more about it. First, a correction—Luton airport is in the constituency of Luton South. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) and I have many a competitive conversation about it. On the £2.50 levy, I understand that there is a significant surplus in the fund now. Is the Minister confident that, under the new arrangements, where airlines may look around European member states in considering the best regime into which to pay, £2.50 is competitive and the right figure to charge?

  • First, I apologise for ascribing Luton airport to the constituency neighbour of the hon. Gentleman, and not to him. As he will know, in a previous ministerial job, I was able to visit Luton South and to enjoy his hospitality there alongside the local authority. Luton is playing a bigger part in this debate than we may have expected; both Luton Members have contributed to it. As he will know, the fund is administered by the CAA, with trustees appointed by the Secretary of State. It builds up and is invested accordingly.

    As we speak, there is about £140 million in the fund. If a major holiday company collapsed, it would be essential that there were sufficient moneys in the fund to cover that collapse. That could happen more than once in a short period; that is not inconceivable. The critical thing is that the fund is never short of money. The guarantee is that we will protect consumers and get people home safely from perhaps far-flung destinations and that they will not lose out as a result of things that they could not have anticipated or affected.

    If it is helpful, I will be more than happy to provide the whole House with a further note on how the fund has changed and grown over time. I have mentioned what it is comprised of. I think it would be helpful for me to make available to the Library, and therefore to the House, more details of the kind the hon. Gentleman has asked about. It will help to inform further consideration of these matters as we move from Second Reading.

  • The Minister is right to say that there is cross-party support for greater protection of consumers, but he also mentioned safety. Could he take this opportunity to tell us whether Transport Ministers intend to introduce legislation to deal not just with the dangers posed by laser pens, but with the dangers posed by drones, which we have heard about again today?

  • The hon. Lady will know that that, too, was raised in our discussions on what was originally known as the modern transport Bill—or at least apocryphally known as such—and became the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. She will also know—because of her keen interest in transport matters and her enthusiasm to take those matters further with an election, to which I will not refer more than obliquely—that we are consulting on those matters; the consultation has finished and we will bring our conclusions to the House and elsewhere very shortly. However, she is right to say—I am happy to put this on the record—that that is a matter of some concern. Existing legislation provides some protection. For example, if a drone were interfering with military aircraft or a secure site, existing legislation would cover that to some degree, but there is a case to do more, which is why we have consulted on the matter. I know that she will give the results of the consultation and our response to it her close attention, as she always does.

    Let me move on; as I said, I do not want to prolong this exciting speech too much. As I said, the scheme also acts to compensate consumers who might be caught up in a failure. I have talked about the fund which is administered by the CAA to ensure that consumers are returned home, and since the 1990s the ATOL scheme has been the primary method by which the UK travel sector provides insolvency protection under the UK and Europe package travel regimes. Today the scheme protects over 20 million people each year, giving peace of mind to holidaymakers in Luton and elsewhere.

  • It is reported in the notes that between 1998 and 2009 the proportion of ATOL sales fell from 90% of leisure flights to just 50%. That is a substantial drop in just 11 years. Were some passengers affected by not being covered during that period?

  • As I said at the beginning of my remarks, the purpose of this Bill is to ensure that ATOL remains fit for purpose. The hon. Gentleman is right that the way people travel, the means by which they book their holidays, and the organisations they use to do so are changing. That is why we must look again at ATOL: not because it has not worked or because its principles are not right, but because it needs to reflect those changes. This Bill is the first step in doing so. Anticipating—although not impertinently—what the shadow Secretary of State might ask me, it is also true to say that this Bill is just that: a first step that creates a framework that will allow us to update ATOL.

    Further steps will be required, which might come through regulation or further review of the appropriateness of what we are putting into place today. The hon. Gentleman raised that point when we debated these matters briefly before, and I have no doubt that he will want to press me on it again today, but there is an absolute acknowledgement that this is a rapidly moving marketplace that will require rapidity in our response.

  • Having also served on the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill Committee, I have a sense of déjà vu here. I agree with the general nature of the measures the Minister wishes to introduce, because he is right that it is a fast-moving market, but there is also some concern in the industry, which plans typically 12 to 18 months ahead, that it will need some of the detail of the secondary legislation as soon as possible, to allow it to prepare effectively for that.

  • My hon. Friend might have raised that point in that Committee; my memory is good but not encyclopaedic, but I do seem to recall that he has made this point previously. He is both authoritative on matters regarding transport, having served with distinction on the Select Committee, and consistent in his line of argument. His is a perfectly fair question, and it is what the Opposition and the whole House would expect, so we will provide as much information as we can about what further steps we might take in terms of regulation. There is nothing to be hidden here; there is no unnecessary contention associated with this and certainly no desire not to get this right, and the best way of getting it right is to listen and learn—as is so often the case in politics, in Government and in life.

    I have talked a little about the diversification of the market and the growth of the internet and smart technologies. That is not a bad thing: consumers now have many options at their fingertips to buy holidays and put together their own packages. Indeed, an ABTA survey estimates that about 75% of UK consumers now book their holidays over the internet. As methods of selling holidays modernise, we must adapt the schemes and regulations that protect them.

    “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort”,

    as Ruskin also said. That is why we took steps in 2012 to update the ATOL scheme; we introduced the ATOL certificate confirming the protection covered, and broadened the scope of protection to include “flight plus” holidays. These interventions have had a positive impact, extending consumer protection, levelling the playing field for businesses and improving clarity for all. The key here is that consumers know when and how they are protected: making sure the system is as comprehensible and comprehensive as possible is an important aim.

    We now need to build upon the changes we made then, and make sure that ATOL keeps pace with the changing travel market. In particular, the new EU package travel directive was agreed in 2015 to bring similar, but further-reaching, improvements to consumer protection across the whole of Europe. I said earlier that the United Kingdom had led the way in this field. It is not unreasonable to say that Europe is now saying it wants similar provisions across other countries to the ones we have had here for some time. So that travel directive is both reflective of, and perhaps even, to some degree, inspired by, the success of our arrangements. This will need to be implemented into the UK package travel regulations by 1 January 2018.

    The Government supported the rationale for updating the package travel directive. It will help to modernise and harmonise protection across Europe. Broadly, it will mean that the protection offered across Europe will be closer to the protection we have enjoyed from the beginning of ATOL, but most especially since the changes we put in place in 2012. It will ensure there is a consistent approach to the protection.

  • The Minister is giving an interesting and full explanation of the benefits of this Bill.

    Will the Minister clarify that the point is that the ATOL regulations currently apply to first-leg flights out from the United Kingdom and a UK airport, but that under this Bill the intention will be that in future if a UK ATOL-regulated operator sells a package virtually anywhere in Europe, as long as they comply with the rules here, that will be covered by the ATOL scheme and the potential levy?

  • Yes, that is part of what we aim to do: the aim is to ensure that if a holiday is bought here, wherever the person goes they are protected in exactly the way my hon. Friend described. He is also right to say that part of the change is the way people book and make their holiday plans, and part is about how and where people travel. The package holidays people first enjoyed in the 1960s and ’70s are less routine now in that they are no longer the routine way people travel to the continent and further afield, and ATOL was of course born in that period when things were simpler—thus my point for the need for it to evolve, as it has to keep pace with these kinds of changes. That consistent protection of holidays across Europe will ensure that informal package holidays booked online will get the same protection as traditional package holidays booked on the high street—holidays of the kind that had their beginnings in the ’60s and ’70s.

    For the first time, these measures will also bring protection to a new concept of “linked travel arrangements”, which I think is what my hon. Friend was referring to. This concept is designed to provide some protection to business models which are not packages, but which often compete closely with packages.

    Overall, the new directive has the potential to provide a greater level of protection to UK consumers, whether they purchase from a company established in the UK or overseas. It will also help to level the playing field for companies whether they are in the UK or overseas, and whether they operate on the high street or online.

    That point matters in itself. This is about protecting consumers, and about the clarity and comprehensibility that I described. It is also important for those in the travel sector and the industry to know where they stand. Creating a greater degree of consistency for them matters too, particularly for smaller businesses that really need to know, as well as to feel, that the regulations apply across the board in a consistent, fair, reasonable and implementable way.

    In order to bring the new directive into force by July 2018, the four clauses simply enable the ATOL scheme to be aligned with the updated package travel regulations. The combined clauses will mean UK-established companies are able to sell holidays more easily. They will be able to protect these holidays through ATOL, and they will not need to comply with different schemes in each country. That is the essence of what we are trying to achieve today. The Bill will also extend the CAA’s information powers so that they are more able to regulate the scheme and this cross-border activity.

    Finally, the Bill will allow the scheme to be able to adapt more effectively to changes in the travel market. I have said that I anticipate further change as time goes on, and the Bill paves the way for that. Overall, the updates we will make to the ATOL and package travel regulations will mean that consumer protection can extend to a broader range of holidays. This will mean that protection is provided for traditional and online package holidays, but also for looser combinations of travel, which have previously been out of scope.

    Of course, we also need to be mindful that the regulatory landscape will need to be able to adapt to changes in our relationship with the European Union. The changes we are making are in keeping with this principle. They will help UK consumers, businesses and regulators to transition to the new package travel regulations in 2018 with minimal impact, but we will also retain flexibility in ATOL regulations to adapt to the changes in our relationship with the European Union, ensuring that we continue to have strong consumer protections in place as we leave the EU.

    I hope that that has given a clear and reasonably concise picture of the Bill and the reasons for introducing it. As I have said, the UK has always been a leader in this field. We have led in so many ways and so many areas, and when it comes to providing protection for holiday makers, the Bill will ensure that the UK continues to lead, whether we are inside or outside the EU. It will provide UK businesses with the opportunity to expand and grow, and it will provide a framework to ensure that ATOL remains flexible enough to cope with future trends. The Bill is indicative of a Government who are willing to act to protect and preserve the people’s interests, and I stand here as a Minister ready to do that. It is a Bill for the people from a Government of the people.

  • It was all going so well until that last comment! The Minister has it right, however, when he says that the Bill is to be welcomed. The events of failure are rare, but it is imperative that this market and the response to it should develop so that people who experience those failures have recourse to a remedy. He will find a great deal of support on this side of the House for what he has said and for the Bill. I thank him for his summary and his account. He is right to say that matters in the related Bill were conducted with a great deal of conviviality, courtesy and humility, and he is to be credited with ensuring that that was so.

    As the Minister said, it is with a sense of déjà vu that we are debating these changes to the air travel organisers’ licensing system. It has been only four months since these self-same clauses received their Second Reading when they made up part of the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill—or VTAB, as we liked to call it. It ought to be an Act by now—VTAA—but sadly we must still refer to it as VTAB. The Prime Minister’s decision to call an early election meant that VTAB, along with a whole host of other legislation, had to be dropped.

    Given that we had wasted a great deal of parliamentary time and effort, it was quite a surprise to see that there was no reference to VTAB in the Queen’s Speech. Instead, the Government have decided to fragment the legislation, splitting it between the Bill we are debating today and the automated and electric vehicles Bill that will be introduced later in the Parliament. It is interesting to note that 50% of the legislative programme relating to transport for the next two years of this Parliament will merely be clauses that have been copied and pasted from VTAB, a Bill that should have already been passed into law. This surely highlights how this minority Government are out of ideas and have very little new to offer the country as they focus their attention on a desperate attempt to cling to power.

  • With the greatest respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman is underselling himself. The progress we made in Committee and on consideration of the previous Bill meant that, when the Government came to look at the model of what good legislation should look like, they needed to look no further than the work that he and I had done. I take most of the credit for that, but I think he should take some too.

  • As ever, the Minister is extremely generous in his praise. He is right, however, to say that we made a lot of progress. I just hope that we do not have to do it all over again. That is the point.

    The Government do not have a plan to reintroduce VTAB in its entirety, even though it should already have been taken through. Madam Deputy Speaker, you could be forgiven for asking why the Government do not dare to try to pass legislation that has already passed through this place and received support from both sides of the House. Indeed, it is a matter of considerable concern that a number of important clauses from VTAB appear to have been left out of the Government’s forthcoming legislative programme. They include the clauses in part 4 of VTAB that related to vehicle testing, the shining of lasers—which the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned earlier—and diversionary driving courses. The clauses in part 3 relating to air traffic services also appear to have been axed. Perhaps the Minister can offer some explanation of why he previously deemed it a necessity to legislate on those issues, as they are not being reintroduced now.

    Moreover, during the progression of VTAB, Labour Members raised concerns over the absence of legislation to create a regulatory framework to deal with drones. With the proliferation of drones in recent years, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of near misses with planes. The latest figures show that there were 33 such incidents confirmed in the first five months of this year and 70 last year, compared with only 29 in 2015 and just 10 in the five years before that. Representatives of the aviation industry have expressed their concern over the Government’s failure to bring in legislation to tackle this worrying trend.

  • I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I enjoyed our exchanges in the Committee stage of the previous Bill. I may be wrong, but given the intervention I made on the Minister earlier, I believe that it is important to get this Bill on to the statute book as early as possible so that the subsequent regulations can come into effect in an industry that has to plan 12 to 18 months in advance. The other measures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are important, but they could be put into a different Bill. Perhaps that is the reason they are not in this one.

  • The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but those matters were considered an important part of VTAB, as were the bits relating to ATOL. It is a gross omission for us to come this far and not deal with such important matters now. Certainly, if the roles were reversed, we would want to introduce legislation before a near miss turns into a catastrophic incident that could have been avoided. We have heard about an incident at Gatwick airport in the past 24 hours, and this matter should concern everyone in the House. I make a genuine offer to the Minister that we will be nothing other than wholly supportive if the Government wish to bring forward legislation and regulations better to protect our airports and other places of great sensitivity. This is a huge issue, and the drone industry and others who support such legislation believe that the freedom to indulge in this activity is coming ahead of safety at the moment. I put it gently to colleagues that we should really be looking closely at this.

  • The hon. Gentleman does the House a service in raising this matter. The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) challenged me on it in an earlier intervention, and I made it clear that we had consulted on it—the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the consultation exercise that we have been engaged in—precisely because we agree that the matter requires further consideration. I am happy to engage directly in discussions with him so that we can find a way forward on drones. He is right to say that this a changing and potentially challenging matter, and we need to work not only as a Government but as a Parliament to address it, so I am happy to take up his offer of discussions on the back of that consultation and our response to it.