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House of Commons Hansard

Commons Chamber

11 January 2018
Volume 634

    House of Commons

    Thursday 11 January 2018

    The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

    Prayers

    [Mr Speaker in the Chair]

    Oral Answers to Questions

    International Trade

    The Secretary of State was asked—

    Trans-Pacific Partnership

  • 1. What his policy is on the UK joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the UK leaves the EU. [903209]

  • First, I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) to my ministerial team, where he will serve as the Minister for investment. I also pay tribute to the fantastic job that his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), did over the course of his time in the Department.

    It is right that the Government prepare for all possible outcomes from leaving the EU, including preparing for no deal. We will consider a range of options as we establish our independent trade policy on a bilateral, plurilateral and multilateral basis. The Asia-Pacific region is a very important market and an engine for future global growth. We are closely following progress of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

  • The UK’s trade with Trans-Pacific Partnership countries amounts to 7.2% of the UK’s total trade, whereas trade with the EU amounts to 48.6%. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department’s priority is to secure our close economic and trading ties with the world’s largest single market before embarking on negotiations with the other trade blocs?

  • These are not mutually exclusive. We want an open and comprehensive trading agreement with the European Union because it is an important part of our trade. However, TPP trade is already 14% of GDP—it would be 40% were the US to rejoin—and, as the International Monetary Fund has said, 90% of global growth in the next 10 to 15 years will occur outside Europe, where there will be important markets for the United Kingdom.

  • 10. Two of the countries in the TPP are Australia and New Zealand. Will the Secretary of State look closely at their closer economic relationship agreement, which allows free trade of goods and services between those two countries, and will he prioritise an agreement between the United Kingdom and those two countries? [903221]

  • I have made it clear on a number of occasions, including in this House, that when it comes to future free trade agreements, Australia and New Zealand would be two of our top three priorities. If we are able, by another means, to achieve the sort of liberalisation in trade that we would all like to see, then that would be fine.

  • Surely the Secretary of State would agree that no Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will make up for the loss of the European Union market. Has he seen this morning’s independent report, commissioned by the Mayor of London, that shows what a cataclysmic effect leaving the EU will have on our business and so many jobs?

  • As usual, I do not accept the premise of any part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not believe that we will necessarily lose our share of the market. We want to maintain an open agreement with the European Union, and it will want to maintain an open agreement with us, because we are the fifth biggest economy in the world and a major trading partner for it. Of course, this morning’s report was anything but cataclysmic. In fact, its worst assessment was less than half the assessment that was given to us before the European referendum on what our loss of market share might be if there were no deal whatsoever.

  • I, too, welcome the new arrival to the Government Front Bench. I also welcome yesterday’s trade statistics. The Secretary of State and I may disagree over how much that owes to the depreciation of sterling, but we both agree that the narrowing of the trade deficit is a very good thing.

    With regard to the TPP, the Secretary of State says, “These are not mutually exclusive”, but he must account for regulatory alignment, which is part of the impact that joining the TPP would have. Indeed, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy declared that joining the TPP would be “cloud cuckoo land”. Does the Secretary of State consider that that regulatory alignment to a trade agreement negotiated in secret to suit the economies of the Pacific Rim, which constitute under 8% of our export market, is a viable proposition for our country?

  • I am in favour of trade liberalisation, whether it is bilateral, plurilateral or multilateral. If we can achieve openness in the global trading environment so that we can get global trading volumes up, that is of benefit not just to the United Kingdom but particularly to developing countries that should be able to trade their way out of poverty and not depend on aid.

  • Export Strategy

  • 2. What recent progress he has made on the development of the Government’s export strategy. [903211]

  • It is a pleasure to join a Government Front Bench full of fresh young talent—even if I am not among them. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who showed tremendous commitment to investment promotion to the benefit both of his constituents and the nation as a whole.

    Baroness Fairhead, the Minister of State for Trade and Export Promotion, is currently engaging closely with businesses to inform the creation of the new export strategy. Reporting in the spring, the strategy will ensure that the Government have the right financial, practical and promotional support in place to allow businesses to benefit from growth opportunities, generating wealth and wellbeing for the whole of the UK.

  • I thank the Minister for his answer. I congratulate him on his promotion—I am sure he will do well—and I invite him to Mid Derbyshire at some point on his way back to his constituency. How will the Minister ensure that United Kingdom Export Finance is an integral part of the new export strategy?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and I pay tribute to her for all her work promoting businesses in Derbyshire and beyond. UK Export Finance’s mission is to ensure that no viable UK export fails for lack of finance or insurance, and UKEF is at the heart of our export strategy. Today, I am pleased to announce an even more flexible local currency offering from UKEF to help UK exporters to compete for major overseas contracts. Finance is now available in 62 currencies for purchases from the UK, in addition to pounds sterling, which is an increase of 19 currencies, following the 30 added at the 2016 autumn statement.

  • The Secretary of State and his Department have made great play of promoting great British brands. Does the Minister agree that Colman’s of Norwich is best served by keeping production and the brand in Norwich, and will he join me in urging Unilever to do just that?

  • I do not want to get involved in internal battles in UK companies about the sites at which they base their operations, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that growth in manufacturing exports is at a 10-year high and we need to continue to build on that, which would all be threatened if the Labour party were to come into office.

  • Exports are rising, but still only from a small proportion of British businesses. We need more exporters and a change of business culture, so may I urge the new Minister, with his colleagues, to challenge business representative bodies to ensure that exporting in Britain is the norm, not the exception?

  • I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Few people in the House have done so much to promote exports, and he is one of the 28 trade envoys doing a fantastic job for the country. Alongside the envoys, my Department works with 43 business ambassadors, who are at the forefront of the change that he describes. On the business representative bodies, the Department will engage with them in the export strategy review to ensure that the Government and the private sector work to provide businesses with the right practical, promotional and financial information to enable them to export.

  • 11. Membership of the European Union single market is vital for Scotland’s economy. According to the Fraser of Allander Institute, 134,000 jobs in Scotland are supported by trade with the EU, and Brexit threatens to cost our economy £11 billion a year by 2030. Will the Minister reassure businesses in Scotland that they will continue to be able to export tariff-free to the world’s biggest single market after Brexit? [903222]

  • The hon. Lady is quite right to highlight and champion exports from Scotland, and she will know that the greatest export market for Scottish businesses is the rest of the United Kingdom. I can tell her that this Government will stay committed to promoting trade within the United Kingdom, with our neighbours in Europe and with the rest of the world to boot.

  • I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. I enjoyed serving with him on the Education Committee, and I look forward to debating these important matters with him.

    Evidence to the former Business, Innovation and Skills Committee showed a budget of £23.6 million for the trade access partnership in 2013-14, which fell to £11.05 million in 2014-15 and to just £8 million the following year. We are now in the final quarter of this financial year and, just as last year, the Government still have not said what the current budget is. When are they going to end the uncertainty for business, and tell us how much money they are giving to support exporters who want to go to trade shows to promote exports for business and the economy?

  • As usual, I am afraid, Opposition Front Benchers are confusing inputs with outputs and outcomes. We are focused on promoting exports. We are doing that successfully, building on the position in 2010, and that is why we are seeing a record level of the manufacturing and other exports on which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents depend.

  • Trade Deals: Non-EU Countries

  • 3. What progress he has made on securing trade deals with non-EU countries. [903213]

  • As the Prime Minister set out in her Florence speech, the UK will seek a time-limited implementation period with the EU. We will prepare for our future independent trade policy by negotiating trade deals with third countries, which could come into force after the conclusion of the implementation period. To that end, we have already established a series of 14 working groups and high-level dialogues with key trade partners.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is still on track to deliver 40 trade deals with non-EU countries after we leave the European Union in March 2019, as he said he would be? Will he explain to the House what demands there have been from those countries for additional visas for their citizens to come to the United Kingdom, and how that impacts on the tens of thousands figure?

  • The Government are indeed committed to ensuring continuity of the 40 or so EU free trade agreements after we leave the European Union, and that is why we introduced the relevant legislation this week. I am, however, rather disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman and his party saw fit to vote against that legislation, and deny British business that confidence.

  • Should we seek any level of protection, the agreements will take longer and yield less—won’t they?

  • Our clear aim is to achieve continuity and stability. We want the agreements that we have already as part of the EU to be delivered safely and securely into UK law, and that is the point of the Trade Bill.

  • Concerns have been raised that the transitional arrangements may lead to significant changes to the detriment of the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is not intending to make any significant or substantive changes to any of the transitional arrangements?

  • That is absolutely correct; we aim to keep the transitional arrangements as close as possible to the condition they are in today, given that we have some minor changes to make, for example in the disaggregation of tariff-rate quotas.

  • From the preliminary dialogue that my right hon. Friend has had with the United States, what assessment has he made of the prospect of doing a trade deal with that country?

  • May I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his well-deserved recognition of the service that he has given to this House and his constituency? We have four working groups with the United States on continuity, short-term outcomes, the potential scoping of a future free-trade agreement, and working with the US at the World Trade Organisation. I am content that we are making progress on all fronts.

  • I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart). He is a wonderful man, but I warn the Secretary of State not to send him anywhere at very high altitude because he is not very good with that.

    The Secretary of State is right to try to pursue lots of good trade deals with countries outside the European Union, but is one of the major problems the corruption in some of the biggest countries? Brazil, Russia, India and China all fall very low down on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, and especially in Russia it is difficult for British businesses to do big business because they have to pay bribes all the time.

  • The hon. Gentleman is right, and when I am having those discussions I often describe corruption as a supply-side constraint in many of those economies. If we are able to get trade agreements and good legal agreements, and if we make transparency a key element of that, we will be contributing to success on both sides.

  • SMEs: Exports

  • 4. What steps his Department is taking to support exports by small and medium-sized businesses. [903214]

  • 8. What steps his Department is taking to support exports by small and medium-sized businesses. [903219]

  • We have three main ways to support exports by SMEs. First, the great.gov.uk website offers digital tools, and has had more than 2.7 million visitors; secondly, international trade advisers based across England are supporting businesses; and thirdly, UK Export Finance has provided £3 billion in support. Last year it helped 221 UK companies, 79% of which were SMEs.

  • I am grateful for that answer. An additional hurdle faced by many SMEs in growing their exports is obtaining affordable political risk insurance. What steps can the Minister’s Department take to help in that matter?

  • My hon. Friend asks a good and pertinent question, and that is why UK Export Finance is working to ensure that SMEs can access the insurance that they need to export and invest overseas with confidence. Last year we launched an enhanced overseas investment insurance product to protect UK businesses against political risk when investing abroad, and I strongly recommend that product to companies in my hon. Friend’s Milton Keynes constituency.

  • There has been a significant revival of small and medium-sized manufacturing in the Black country over the past two or three years, so does the Minister agree that we need to do all we can to support those small and medium-sized manufacturing companies in the Black country to access markets around the world with development potential?

  • My hon. Friend makes a good, strong, pertinent point, which applies not just in the Black country but throughout the country. We have our export strategy, which will be reporting in the spring. I remind the House of our fantastic manufacturing figures—record growth in output, the highest in 10 years, growing 4% year on year according to new data just out. Confidence in manufacturing is at its highest in four years, according to the EEF.

  • There is a very close relationship between small and medium-sized manufacturers’ success in exporting and the viability of small and medium-sized road hauliers, many of whom are seriously concerned at the possibility of incurring substantial additional costs and facing additional bureaucracy if we cannot get an agreement that, for example, driving licences issued in the UK will be recognised in other countries when we leave the EU. What progress has been made in ensuring cast-iron guarantees that small road hauliers will not face any additional burdens in exporting to the EU after Brexit?

  • As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has pointed out, we are seeking a barrier-free, frictionless trading arrangement with the European Union as we leave. May I point out that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to put in place the potential for barriers between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom? Sixty-four per cent. of Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK, compared with just 15% to the rest of the Union.

  • Many SMEs have identified external and internal finances as well as a lack of awareness of the support available to them as barriers to entering the export market. Will the Minister ensure that those concerns are addressed in the Government’s review of the export strategy?

  • The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that is certainly very much part of the export strategy. I remind him and the whole House of some of the work we have been doing to ensure that finance is more accessible. We signed agreements in July 2016 and July 2017 with the leading UK banks to ensure that their SME customers can access finance more easily and that UK Export Finance assistance in particular is directly available.

  • Regulatory Alignment with the EU

  • 5. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the joint declaration of 8 December 2017 on maintaining full regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK. [903216]

  • 6. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the joint declaration of 8 December 2017 on maintaining full regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK. [903217]

  • 9. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the joint declaration of 8 December 2017 on maintaining full regulatory alignment between the EU and the UK. [903220]

  • As we leave the EU, the Government’s objective remains to maximise overall trading opportunities for the whole of the United Kingdom. As the Prime Minister has made clear—including at the time of the joint declaration of 8 December—we will be seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU, but at the same time looking to forge new and ambitious trade relationships with our partners around the world, as we develop our independent trade policy.

  • What discussions has the Secretary of State had with potential new trade agreement partners, including those that already have an agreement with the EU and those with whom the Government have established trade dialogue or working groups, about regulatory alignment?

  • We are intending to maintain consistency with the agreements that we already have. That is why we brought the trade legislation forward. We do not anticipate any change in that; we intend it to be the same as it is to date, to provide continuity for business.

  • Can the Secretary of State confirm whether maintaining full regulatory alignment with the EU will extend to farming standards in the United Kingdom, and that therefore chlorine-washed chicken will not be entering the UK in the event of a future agreement with the USA?

  • We have made it very clear on numerous occasions that we do not intend there to be any diminution of standards in food safety, environmental standards or workers’ rights as we negotiate new trade agreements.

  • Given how critical this issue is to maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of practical supervision and management of maintaining full regulatory alignment with the European Union as per the joint agreement, and what institutions need to be established?

  • Alignment is about pursuing the same objectives; it is not the same as requiring regulatory harmonisation. We hope that our agreement with the Republic of Ireland is covered by a full and comprehensive agreement with the rest of the European Union.

  • The Irish Government have been clear that a deal that maintains regulatory alignment means free movement of people, goods and services across the border to Northern Ireland. Given that the United Kingdom Government have shown that they are willing to give a nation of the UK a differential deal, will they now bring to Brussels the Scottish Government’s proposals to keep Scotland in the single market and customs union, and if not, why not?

  • Why not? Because when we leave the European Union we leave the single market and the customs union—it is not that complicated.

  • Trade Deals: Developing Countries

  • 7. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of trade deals between the UK and developing countries on the economies of those countries. [903218]

  • The UK is proudly spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance—the first G7 country to honour its promise to do so. We are also committed to ensuring that developing countries can use trade as an engine of poverty reduction, and trade agreements play an important role in that. Our priority is to ensure that developing countries maintain their preferential access to the UK market as we leave the EU.

  • These texts are always delivered by Ministers in mellifluous tones, but they are often far too long. I know that there are people who scribble them for Ministers, but Ministers have a responsibility to recognise the virtues of the blue pencil.

  • But I also recognise the wisdom of the Minister’s answer, Mr Speaker, and I am grateful for it. I share his aspirations. Will he please remind the House what he will do to give those aspirations legislative effect?

  • The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, which had its Second Reading on Monday, provides exactly for the scheme of preferences to be taken across into UK law. I find it extraordinary that the Opposition parties voted against it. They voted against the UK having its own trade preferences scheme for developing countries. That is a disgrace. I very much hope that they will reconsider their position as the Bill passes through the House of Commons.

  • Topical Questions

  • T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903224]

  • Mr Speaker, you should see the length of the answers before we get to this stage.

    My Department is responsible for UK exports, investment and trade policy. As we begin 2018, the House should note that in 2017 we achieved an all-time record for foreign direct investment. Our exports are up by 14% and employment is at a record level. Yesterday we saw that venture capital coming into tech firms was also at an all-time high, and that is before we consider the improvements in our manufacturing performance.

  • The Secretary of State does not want to trade under EU rules, under which we have considerable influence, but he is happy to trade under World Trade Organisation rules, under which we do not have very much influence. What does he find objectionable about EU trading rules that he does not find objectionable about the WTO?

  • That is rather to misunderstand the situation, because the EU itself has to trade under WTO rules and is not exempt from them. We look forward to having our independent seat on the WTO, of which we are a former member, so that we can have a greater say in global trading policy, because as a member of the European Union we have none.

  • T4. What practical steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to increase capacity in developing countries to trade their way to sustainable growth? [903227]

  • Assisting trade capability in the developing world is one of the key parts of our official development assistance strategy, launched by the Department for International Development last year. In Buenos Aires last month the Secretary of State and I announced a big increase in funding for the WTO’s enhanced integrated framework, which does precisely that, making the UK the largest donor to that WTO fund.

  • The steel industry has repeatedly complained that the Government are not prepared to impose penalties on exports from countries with significant market distortions. America is clear, having imposed penalties on China under section 232, and the EU is clear, having recently voted to pass new anti-dumping rules, but the Secretary of State has constantly ducked the issue and refused to say what his Department will do after we leave the EU. When will he give the steel industry a straight answer?

  • What a cheek, in the very week that Labour voted against our ability to impose any penalties whatsoever in future. The steel industry and steelworkers in this country were betrayed this week by Labour Members, who would leave them as sitting ducks for dumping and subsidy, such is their love for their new hard-left, anti-trade ideology.

  • T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that Scotch whisky is one of the UK’s greatest exports, and much of it is produced in my Moray constituency. Around 10% of the industry’s £4 billion of annual exports are linked to EU free trade agreements. Will he update me on the steps he is taking to ensure that, when we leave the EU, the benefits of EU free trade agreements to the industry are maintained? [903226]

  • My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are committed to seeking continuity in our current trade and investment relationships, including those covered by EU trade preferences. Scotch whisky is a very important part of our exports and we want to maintain the vital bilateral dispute mechanisms, all of which are part of Scotch whisky’s contribution to our economy.

  • T2. In setting up the Trade Remedies Authority, the Government will need to include a full range of skills, knowledge and experience. Will that include representations from the devolved Governments and trade unions? [903225]

  • The Government are still looking at the potential membership. Of course before we can do so we have to have the legal basis for establishing the Trade Remedies Authority. The hon. Gentleman voted with his party against its establishment.

  • T5. Last year, I welcomed Nesta and Sage to Parliament when they launched their report on the state of small businesses. It said that just 18% of British small and medium-sized enterprises are exporting around the world, so what more can the Department do to help our innovative small businesses, especially in providing more information on the local rules and regulations those companies face in other markets? [903228]

  • I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for all she does to champion Chelmsford exporters, building on her great expertise in the European Parliament and elsewhere.

    The Department does huge amounts to support small businesses to export and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade Policy explained earlier, we are seeing significant success in that regard. Baroness Fairhead recently announced a new great export readiness tool on great.gov.uk to help SMEs better to understand how export-ready they are and what they can do to start exporting or to expand their exporting activity.

  • T6. Given what we know Saudi Arabia to be doing in Yemen, is it appropriate that we should still be selling arms to it? [903229]

  • All arms exports are covered by the consolidated criteria and, as the recent judicial review showed, the Government pay very due attention not just to the letter, but to the spirit of the consolidated criteria.

  • T7. With particular reference to the Trade Remedies Authority, will my right hon. Friend expand further on the potential consequences had the House voted the Trade Bill down this week? [903230]

  • Were we not to establish our own Trade Remedies Authority, we would be unable to protect British business from dumping and subsidy in future. All those in this country who work in the chemicals, steel or ceramics industries will now know that the Conservative party is determined to have the legal protections they deserve, but the Labour party and its allies in this House voted against giving our businesses and those workers that protection.

  • T8. Scotland is known internationally for its high- quality food and drink such as whisky and seafood, but there is real concern about the loss of protected geographical indications that are backed by the EU. How will the Secretary of State consult all the devolved Governments to help them to protect their unique products? [903231]

  • The hon. Lady should judge the Government by their action. In the transitional adoption of the agreements that we already have as a member of the EU—in those 40 trade agreements—protection of GI is an essential part. I notice that the Scottish National party voted against that as well.

  • Exports from my constituency include agricultural products from firms such as Saltire Seed and exports from the Aiken Group, one of the world’s leading suppliers for engineering solutions. What would the impact on Aberdeen be of not being able to implement continuity trade agreements with countries with which the EU already has trade deals?

  • Clearly, there would be a major disruption in the local economy, which is why it is so important that we get that continuity. The reason the Government introduced the Trade Bill with the parameters it has is that we are looking to get stability and continuity on the agreements we already have. I reiterate what I said in the House a couple of days ago: it is not about new free trade agreements; it is about giving stability to the ones we already have, which is why I am amazed that anyone should vote against the Bill.

  • What analysis has the Department done of the cost to business of complying with possible new non-tariff barriers, and what help will the Government provide companies, particularly SMEs, to understand the impact of any possible changes in this area?

  • Of course we look at all possible scenarios, but I reiterate what I have said several times today: we want to see an open and comprehensive trading agreement with the European Union, because that is good not only for the United Kingdom but for the European Union. European member states are looking for their companies to have access to the UK market, just as we are doing the other direction.

  • Last month, I welcomed a delegation from Taiwan to my constituency, where we met representatives of the offshore renewables sector and the seafood sector. Will Ministers work with me and with local businesses to ensure that we maximise our exports to that growing market?

  • Last month, I chaired the second of our joint economic and trade committee talks with Taiwan, and I can tell my hon. Friend that renewable energy was right at the heart of those talks. The UK has the highest capacity market anywhere in the world for offshore wind, and that is of strong interest to the Taiwanese authorities. Those discussions are ongoing.

  • Order. I am sorry but demand has exceeded supply, as is commonplace, and we must now move on.

  • Women and Equalities

    The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

    Apprenticeships

  • 1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. [903232]

  • 3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. [903234]

  • 12. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that women are able to access high-quality apprenticeships. [903245]

  • It is good news that women now account for over half of all apprentices. We continue to implement apprenticeship reforms to improve the quality of apprenticeships for all, and we are using the employer apprenticeship diversity champions network to champion gender representation in industries where greater participation by women is still needed.

  • I thank the Minister for her response. The National College for Nuclear opens in my neighbouring constituency on 9 February. This will add to an already fantastic asset of training facilities with world-class equipment. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that young people with disabilities are able to access these training courses and apprenticeships?

  • It is great news that the National College for Nuclear is opening shortly, enabling young people and others in the area to access the sort of education and skills that they need for the future. We want to ensure that apprenticeship opportunities are open to all people, and of course that includes people with disabilities. We provide additional funding to employers and training providers working with apprentices with disabilities, to support their learning and enable adjustments to the workplace. As well as engaging employers through the apprenticeship diversity champions network, we are working to ensure that Disability Confident badging is clear for vacancies on the Find an Apprenticeship website, including those for engineering roles.

  • The further education college and the university in Chichester offer a wide range of courses giving young people in my constituency access to high-quality apprenticeships. However, I am concerned that only 21% of places for degree-level apprenticeships in digital, tech and management are filled by women. That is the same as it was 30 years ago when I did that apprenticeship. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage more women and girls to take up apprenticeships as a pathway to a successful career?

  • My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is not enough that more than 50% of apprenticeships are being taken up by women. We want to ensure that there is greater diversity, particularly in areas where lower numbers of women are participating than we would like. Our careers strategy sets out a long-term plan to build a world-class careers system to help young people and adults to choose the career that is right for them, and promotes gender equality by increasing young people’s contact with employers, demonstrating different jobs and career paths to raise aspirations. In addition, a new legal requirement means that schools must give providers the chance to talk to pupils about technical qualifications and apprenticeships. In that way, we hope to raise awareness of the additional routes that are available to young people.

  • I am delighted that 580 people started apprenticeships in Southend last year. Will my right hon. Friend please advise me on what more she can do to incentivise local employers to offer even more apprenticeships to women in Southend?

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a high level of apprenticeship starts in his constituency, but he also makes the point that we need to ensure that women are starting apprenticeships in a variety of areas, and particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects, where they are underrepresented at the moment, with only about 8% of participants being women. We are focusing additional efforts on working with employers through the apprenticeship diversity network to ensure that they show young people the opportunities available in other areas, particularly in the STEM area.

  • In July last year, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who is in his place, made insulting comments, following Government pension changes, about how women born in the 1950s should take up apprenticeships to try to address some of the financial burdens that they face. Will the new Minister set out how many women born in the 1950s and affected by the Government pension changes have taken up apprenticeships? It is frankly nothing more than an insult to all the women who worked for all those years and whose pensions have been delayed by six years.

  • I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman. This Government wholly respect women in their 50s—I have an interest to declare in that particular area—and we will always ensure that apprenticeships are available to people of all ages. Between August 2016 and April 2017, the number of apprenticeship starts was over 53,000 for people aged 45 to 59 and over 3,400 for people aged 60 and over. That represents an increase on the previous year, and we hope to continue that increase.

  • As in the rest of the United Kingdom, barriers to access are a problem for women in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister outline what engagement she and her officials have undertaken with Departments and agencies in Northern Ireland to identify best practice and to try to find workable solutions to eliminate such barriers?

  • We have regular meetings with Ministers from Northern Ireland, and we will always ensure that we share information and best practice where we can, so that women and other people who want to participate in apprenticeships, such as people with disabilities, can access the additional opportunities that we are determined to provide.

  • Is the Minister aware of the latest report from the Young Women’s Trust? It shows that two in five apprentices spend more money in completing their apprenticeship than they earn and that women face an 8% gender pay gap. Is the Minister prepared to act on the trust’s recommendations to increase the number of women accessing high-quality apprenticeships?

  • It is essential that we give women all the opportunities that we can to access the high-quality apprenticeships to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I have not seen that report, but I will certainly take a look and come back to him.

  • Women’s Refuges

  • 2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the provision of sufficient women’s refuges. [903233]

  • The Government are fully committed to protecting victims of domestic abuse and to improving sustainability of funding for refuges. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government—has launched a £20 million domestic abuse accommodation fund, which is supporting 76 projects, creating 2,200 new bed spaces over the next two years and supporting more than 19,000 women. Some of that money is coming to Manchester.

  • A constituent described to me a loved one’s search for a refuge to protect her from domestic violence as hell on earth. Thankfully, they eventually found a space, but 60% of referrals to refuges were declined in 2016-17. The proposed new funding model risks creating a postcode lottery, so how will the Minister ensure that the refuge provision in her constituency is no different from in mine?

  • May I, with respect, correct the hon. Gentleman? It is precisely because we want to ensure that areas across the country share the same best practice that the Ministry of Housing is consulting on how to fund refuges sustainably. The point of the new housing model is to try to ensure that victims, who are in vulnerable situations when they go to refuges after fleeing violence, do not have to fill in housing benefit forms while in the middle of a crisis.

  • I declare an interest as my wife volunteers at a refuge. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that Ministers have met organisations such as Women’s Aid to ensure that their views on the new funding model are properly listened to and considered?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for his question and thank his wife and everyone who works in domestic abuse refuges. We are of course meeting Women’s Aid and other organisations. Along with other colleagues, I am determined to ensure that the future of refuges is funded sustainably, and I urge anyone with an interest in this area to respond to the consultation.

  • The proposed changes to housing benefit will leave refuges in a vulnerable position, and the already underfunded specialist refuges will be most affected. If the Government are serious about protecting women victims of female genital mutilation, domestic violence, forced marriage and trafficking, they have to put more money into specialist services. What commitment will they make to looking seriously at increasing funding for specialist refuges?

  • We have the £20 million domestic abuse fund, which the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is overlooking. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also consulting on the draft domestic abuse Bill this year. I hope that consultation will start soon, and the Government would welcome responses from people who are interested. I make it clear that we are absolutely committed to funding refuges properly, and I am pleased that we have had a 10% rise in bed spaces since 2010.

  • Women in the Scottish Economy

  • 4. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Sawers report on Womenomics. [903235]

  • The Sawers report highlights many of the issues women face in the workplace. The gender pay gap in Scotland is at a near record low, but it must be eradicated completely. The Minister for Women and Equalities regularly meets Cabinet colleagues to discuss such important issues.

  • The Sawers report was intended to be the start of a road map for the engagement of women in Scotland’s economy and not just an end in itself. I suggest that the Minister would be well advised to meet Professor Sawers to discuss how her report can now be taken forward in government.

  • That is a very pleasant suggestion, and I look forward to meeting Professor Sawers in due course.

  • Year of Engineering

  • 5. What steps the Government are taking to encourage more girls and women to get involved with the 2018 Year of Engineering. [903236]

  • The Year of Engineering is an opportunity to tackle historical gender stereotypes. Throughout 2018, the Year of Engineering campaign will highlight the variety and creativity of engineering to improve the understanding of what engineers do and of the enormous opportunities that a career in engineering offers both to young men and young women.

  • Engineering is a vital employment sector for residents of Mid Derbyshire, both in small and medium-sized enterprises and in larger companies like Rolls-Royce, Bombardier and Toyota. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on which external partners in Derby have signed up to the Year of Engineering campaign?

  • My hon. Friend has almost answered the question for me. She is right that Rolls-Royce, Bombardier Transportation and Toyota have all pledged to support the Year of Engineering campaign through activities in schools, both nationwide and in the Derby area.

  • One of the biggest barriers to women and girls entering careers in engineering and physics is the perceptions and expectations of parents. What work is the Minister doing during the Year of Engineering to encourage parents to look at the career options?

  • The hon. Lady is quite right. We have been successful since 2010 because, in England, GCSE entries by girls in physics have risen from 50,600 in 2010 to 66,700 this year, and the number of girls entering A-level physics has risen from 5,800 in 2010 to 6,947 in 2017. Overall, the number of girls taking STEM A-levels has increased by 20% since 2010.

  • As well as ensuring that careers advice encourages more women into engineering, will my right hon. Friend look at financial incentives and at how the apprenticeship levy is working to incentivise companies to employ more women in engineering?

  • My right hon. Friend is quite right. We introduced the apprenticeship levy to boost the importance of apprenticeships. We delivered more than 2 million apprenticeship starts in the last Parliament and are committed to 3 million apprenticeship starts in this Parliament, because this is a Government who are committed to high-quality skills in our economy. The apprenticeship programme is part and parcel of that ambition.

  • Budget Gender Impact Analysis

  • 6. If the Government will commission an independent gender impact analysis of the autumn Budget 2017. [903237]

  • For all Budgets, Treasury Ministers very carefully assess the gender impact of the various measures under consideration. We do that as a statutory duty, but we also do it because it is our firm policy to do so. Of course, one of our centrepieces in the Budget was the 4.4% increase in the national living wage from this April, which will disproportionately benefit women.

  • Women still bear the brunt of the Government’s failed austerity agenda. What was the Minister’s assessment of the autumn Budget’s financial impact on women and those with protected characteristics?

  • As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government constantly carry out assessments. There are various assessments of the impacts of all fiscal events, but I point him not only to the national living wage increase, which disproportionately benefits women, but to the personal allowance increase that takes many hundreds of thousands of women out of tax altogether. Of course, by 2019-20 we will spend some £6 billion a year on childcare, a record level of expenditure.

  • I finally received a letter from the Government Equalities Office in regards to an equality impact assessment. If, as the Minister has just stated, the impact assessment was carried out, it would have shown that 86% of the Government cuts would have fallen on women. Why then did the Government continue with these damaging policies?

  • As I have pointed out, the Government have taken many, many measures—I have just listed some of them in the recent Budget—that specifically assist women on issues such as childcare, the personal tax allowance increases and the national living wage increase that will come in from this April. We will continue to rigorously assess all measures, as we do around all fiscal events, to ensure that women are treated fairly and are an absolute priority for this Government.

  • Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination Tribunals

  • 7. If she will discuss with Cabinet colleagues the adequacy of the time limit for a woman to bring an employment tribunal claim for pregnancy and maternity discrimination. [903238]

  • Discrimination against pregnant women and new mothers is wholly unacceptable, but research the Government commissioned with the Equality and Human Rights Commission did not suggest the three-month time limit for bringing a claim to an employment tribunal was a particular barrier to pregnant women and new mothers. However, the rules permit an extension to that time limit if needed, and of course we will consider further guidance on this if that would be helpful.

  • What steps are this Government taking to prevent further job losses after reports exposed the fact that on average 54,000 new mothers lose their jobs each year because of maternity discrimination?

  • We have to make sure the message is clear to employers that this sort of discrimination is wholly unacceptable, and give new mothers and pregnant women the courage to put forward a claim if it is appropriate. But the message from the Government is clear: this is not acceptable.

  • In response to the Women and Equalities Committee report, the Government have already agreed to act on this issue. Will my hon. Friend update the House on whether the president of the employment tribunal will be issuing guidance in this area on the extension powers she has already mentioned? My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) has also agreed to start collecting data on applications for time extensions on maternity-related cases. Will the Minister undertake to update the House in future on the progress on that?

  • In late 2016, the Select Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, published a report on this. The recommendations were considered and the research we commissioned with the EHRC did not suggest that the three-month time limit for bringing a claim to the employment tribunal is a barrier. I will of course look into it and write to her.

  • I welcome the new Women and Equalities Minister to her place and pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for her dedication to the role. In January last year, the Women and Equalities Committee joined the Justice Committee in calling for an extension of the deadline from three to six months. In response, the Government said that they would keep the time limit for claims to be submitted under review, and we have heard a continuation of that narrative today. Since the statement, the Supreme Court ruled that the UK must abolish tribunal fees and repay those who had made their claim. Is now therefore not the time to make a full review of that system of delivery, remove the further barriers and make a serious commitment today to increasing that time limit to six months?

  • As I say, the Government continue to keep this under review. Following the Supreme Court judgment on employment tribunal fees, we stopped charging fees immediately and arrangements are being put in place by the Ministry of Justice to refund the fees to those who have paid in the past. As I say, this point on discrimination against new mothers and pregnant women is very much being kept under review.

  • Suffrage Centenary Fund

  • 8. What recent discussions she has had with her counterpart in the Scottish Government on plans for the suffrage centenary fund. [903239]

  • This year marks a milestone in our democracy; we will celebrate the achievements of outstanding women who have fought for gender equality. The Scottish Government are receiving centenary funding through the application of the Barnett formula. The Government Equalities Office has monthly meetings with the devolved Administrations, who are responsible for how they choose to mark the centenary in their respective nations.

  • I commend the Government on the establishment of the suffrage centenary fund to ensure that this important milestone is marked. Last year, I wrote to the Scottish Government Minister responsible, but I have received no response. Does the Minister share my belief that the devolved Administrations should spend the funds allocated to them to ensure that the centenary is properly celebrated in all parts of the United Kingdom?

  • Women throughout the UK went to the ballot boxes for the first time in 1918, and all four nations contributed to that landmark change. The Scottish Government are like the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive—they are all responsible for how they choose to mark the centenary in their respective nations. I understand that the Scottish Government will announce their plans shortly, but I cannot see why they would not want to mark such a great celebration in an important way.

  • Does the right hon. Lady agree that, as part of the celebrations, a fitting tribute to the great Winnie Ewing, who was elected 50 years ago last year, would be a portrait in the House of Commons?

  • Well, Mr Speaker, I am sure that you listened carefully to that question, as I understand that that is a matter for the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art.

  • The Works of Art Committee is a very important Committee. I have a feeling that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) is going to beetle her way towards it and pitch in person. I am sure that the Committee looks forward to that prospect with eager anticipation.

  • Parental Leave

  • 9. What steps her Department is taking to promote the right to a balanced share of statutory pay for mothers and fathers taking parental leave. [903242]

  • Perhaps I should begin by declaring an interest: Mrs Griffiths and I are expecting our first child in April. As the Minister responsible, I will be taking my full paternity leave.

    Shared parental leave and pay was developed by the coalition Government. It enables working couples to share childcare responsibility in the first year. It is a radical step forward in the challenging of cultural expectations about the roles of men and women and the idea that the mother is always the primary carer. The Government understand the pressures on working families. We are taking steps to improve the take-up of the scheme, about which I shall say more in due course.

  • I welcome the Minister’s comments and agree that the introduction of shared parental leave and pay was a radical step that is making a difference, but is he aware that fathers get only the mother’s basic maternity pay, which is not enhanced in any way, so uptake of the scheme has been less than 1%? Will he look into this matter, particularly in the light of the court ruling in Snell v. Network Rail, and ensure that dads get a better deal?

  • There would be significant costs to the taxpayer and business were we to increase the rates of parental pay. We are not ruling that out, but it is important that we understand the facts before we change any policy. I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased that the Government have done a huge amount to support fathers and mothers in relation to parental leave. We have cut income tax for more than 13 million women, introduced tax-free childcare and extended free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week, and we are funding people to return to work after a time out. We are a Government who understand the pressures on working families and we are working to help them in their time of need.

  • Domestic Abuse

  • 10. What steps her Department is taking to support other Government Departments better to assist victims of domestic abuse. [903243]

  • The Home Office co-ordinates the cross-Government approach to tackling domestic abuse through our violence against women and girls strategy, which has committed increased funding of £100 million to support victims.

  • The Scottish Government are providing essential training to around 14,000 police officers to help them to spot coercive control. What discussions has the Minister had with herself, in her role as Home Secretary, about the Home Office providing similar training for the police in England and Wales?

  • I do not know whether the Minister is going to admit to talking to herself, but I think we are about to discover.

  • I shall draw a veil over that particular suggestion, but as the hon. Gentleman is aware we have introduced a new offence of coercive or controlling behaviour, which is an important part of our efforts to make sure that we support women and that we address additional forms of abuse that take place in that way. We have also rolled out domestic violence protection orders. Most importantly, this year we will introduce a domestic abuse Bill to do everything we can to protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

  • Topical Questions

  • T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [903248]

  • This year marks the centenary of the first British women getting the vote. We should not forget what it took to achieve that. Hunger-striking suffragettes were brutally force-fed with tubes—a process so painful that it could cause lifelong injuries and even make the prison wardens cry in horror. Those who marched in favour of women’s rights were pelted with rotting vegetables, rocks, and even dead rats. Suffragette Emily Davison was trampled to death by the King’s horse when she walked on to the track to protest. It is only right that we honour the extraordinary efforts and sacrifices of those remarkable women, as well as the landmark change that they brought about. The Government will be making sure that we provide the necessary funds and support to do exactly that.

  • In the 21st century, surely women deserve total equality. Will the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that there is not a pay gap in the civil service in light of the fact that Carrie Gracie recently resigned as China editor at the BBC, citing pay issues there?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important element. It is absolutely essential that we all ensure that the Equal Pay Act 1970 is enforced. As much as I admire the BBC and enjoy listening to and watching its programmes, it clearly has a very serious question to answer here, which I certainly hope that it will address. On the gender pay gap, we are committed to ensuring that we address that as well, and, of course, we have new disclosure arrangements.

  • I, too, welcome the additional burden put on the Minister in her new role, and thank the former Minister for her work. On 26 August 2016, the Prime Minister began her PR exercise on the race disparity audit. On 10 October 2017, the Government released the data. This week, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for governance and inclusive leadership, I launched the Investing in Ethnicity and Race in the Workplace maturity matrix, a free resource for businesses. Will the Minister explain what steps the Government have taken to act on the findings of the race disparity audit?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome and I very much look forward to working with her in this House. I have not yet seen her report, but no doubt, after these questions, she will be kind enough to give me a copy of it. The publication of the race disparity audit shows how committed this Government are to ensuring that, where we find race disparity, we will address it. Each Department is looking at the specific recommendations and will come forward with how they will address them.

  • T4. As the Government rightly push forward legislation to deliver greater use of electric vehicles, Guide Dogs UK has expressed concerns from an equality perspective about possible safety implications for blind and partially sighted pedestrians of greater use of these very quiet vehicles. Will the Minister please raise that concern with the Secretary of State for Transport? [903252]

  • I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I am aware that it is a concern among people who are disabled, particularly among blind people. I just point out that autonomous vehicles will not necessarily be so quiet: the autonomous nature of them means that they will not be driven by an individual, and the noise level will depend on whether they are petrol, diesel or electric, but certainly I have been having conversations with officials at the Department of Transport, and we will make sure that they are aware of that very serious concern.

  • T2. Harriet Shaw Weaver from Frodsham in my constituency was among the many suffragettes who helped women secure the right to vote a century ago. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that, in this centenary year, they address the lack of women’s representation in Parliament? [903249]

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. It is absolutely critical that we celebrate it in this centenary year. I hope that he will speak to the activists in his constituency and consider applying for some support to raise the profile of the historical suffragette in his area. We are absolutely committed as a Government to ensuring that we have high representation not only in Parliament, but in Government. I am delighted to say that women make up 30% of the people attending Cabinet.

  • First, let me congratulate the Home Secretary on her expanded role. I know that she will do a brilliant job. She will know that young people, parents and teachers think that it is vital in a modern internet world to see sex and relationships education updated. Can she confirm that the Government will push ahead with updating the guidance, which is now so out of date, and that she will meet me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) to make sure that we can have cross-party support for the work that is being undertaken?

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for the enormous good work that she did in this role. I will try my best to keep up the momentum that she provided. One of the fantastic things that she did was lead on making sure that sex and relationships education will be provided in all schools. I will be delighted to work with her to ensure that that is the case, and also across the House to ensure that the outcome that we get is one that the whole House can support, as I know that everybody believes in its importance.

  • T3. The requirement for all bus drivers to undertake disability equality training has been standard across the EU since 2013, and the UK’s five-year opt-out ends on 1 March. The Scottish Government have produced their accessible travel framework. Will the Minister tell us whether standardised training will be in place within the next six weeks across England so that the UK meets its obligation and disabled passengers can really access public transport? [903250]

  • I am delighted to answer the hon. Lady’s question. I will certainly ensure that the Minister for Disabled People and the Transport Secretary have an address for that particular point and will write to the hon. Lady.

  • There is a growing concern about the use of non-disclosure agreements in connection with employment. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the use of non-disclosure agreements to conceal wrongdoing of any kind, and to encourage legal regulators to consider whether they are, in fact, ethical?

  • I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend and her important Committee. She has raised an important matter; transparency is such an important part of achieving equality, so I look forward to working with her on this to establish the right way forward.

  • T5. I welcome the Minister to her new role. The BBC claims that 14.5% of its staff are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. But others, including Lenny Henry, have claimed that if we look at the staff who actually make the BBC’s programmes, that figure falls to just 1.5%. Is the Minister concerned that there is a major problem with BAME representation at the BBC, and what discussions has she had with the BBC about what it is doing about it? [903253]

  • I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point, as I had not seen those particular figures. They draw attention to the fact that the overall number suggesting that there is equality sometimes hides the fact that there is nowhere near equality in the specialist areas—often the higher paid areas. I take very seriously the point she has raised, about which there are additional questions for the BBC to answer.

  • Last year, the Government advertised for a disability rights commissioner. Lord Shinkwin applied for the post, was appointed to the post and was promptly told that the post had been abolished at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions reverse the disgraceful decision to abolish the post of disability rights commissioner and restore Lord Shinkwin to his rightful position in that post?

  • The disability commissioner role was an operational matter for the EHRC itself. The Secretary of State has no powers to appoint or reinstate a disability commissioner.

  • T6. Over the weekend, I was sent a screenshot from a Facebook page directed at the female chief executive officer of Wigan Council that read,“horrible bitch should hang wish i held the rope”.Unfortunately, this was not deemed to violate Facebook’s standards. This is not an isolated case. There is a stream of incessant posts aimed at bullying and intimidating female representatives of the borough. What further action will the Government take to ensure that women in public office feel safe? [903254]

  • I thank the hon. Lady for raising this, as it is such an important issue and one that I think all of us in this House are having to deal with. The sheer nastiness of comments online is something that we all disparage. We are actively engaging with the communications service providers on what they can do to take such comments down. I respectfully point out that the recent publication by Lord Bew about conduct in public life showed that it is particularly Conservatives MPs who are on the receiving end. I urge Opposition Members to work with their party to ensure a reduction of nasty Momentum activists.

  • It is evident that some of the largest graduate employers in the country are paying men and women different rates when they start in the workplace, and we know that the gender pay gap only widens as women progress through the workplace and reach the exalted ages of myself and some others. What more can the Government do to tackle this insidious issue?

  • We are very serious about tackling the gender pay gap. From April this year, any employer with more than 250 employees will need to publish that pay gap. It is through transparency that we will get real change.

  • Will the Government carry out an economic impact assessment on the value of investing in a comprehensive childcare provision across the country, in particular looking at the impact on women and gender equality?

  • As I said earlier, we already carry out a wide variety of different impact assessments, including in the kind of area to which the hon. Lady alludes. If she would like to write to me with further details of the exact aspects she is interested in, I would be very happy to consider them.

  • Hamed bin Haydara

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the death sentence verdict made against Hamed bin Haydara, a Yemeni Bahá’í, in Sana’a on 2 January this year.

  • We are very concerned that the Bahá’ís are being persecuted for their religious beliefs in Yemen, particularly in areas controlled by the Houthis and forces aligned to the late former President Saleh. We strongly condemn this mistreatment and continue to work closely with our partners, including the European Union, to raise the issue directly with the de facto authorities.

    We are aware of Mr bin Haydara’s death sentence and have sought to raise the profile of his situation through public diplomacy. The immediate release of all Bahá’ís in Yemen imprisoned for their religious beliefs was a key demand in the September United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, which we supported. We will work closely with all partners to ensure its full implementation.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Members right across the House have concerns about the denial of freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none. The threat to execute Hamed bin Haydara constitutes a grave risk to the life of an innocent man—a father of three—and would accelerate the climate of persecution against the wider Bahá’í community in Yemen as a whole.

    Mr bin Haydara was arrested in December 2013 and has been subjected to torture, beating and electrocution. He has been forced to sign confessions under duress. More than half of the nearly 40 court hearings on his case have been cancelled, raising serious questions about whether there has been any due process. He has been denied treatment for medical conditions that came about as a direct result of the torture inflicted on him. He was not even permitted to be present at the court hearing when he was sentenced to death.

    I have a series of questions for my right hon. Friend to answer, if he can. Have the UK Government any further lines of communication for making representations to the Houthi authorities, who hold the power in Sana’a? I am advised that the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is taking up the case and is in Geneva today. What pressure will he be able to apply at the UN on the Houthis and their backers to persuade them to release this innocent man? How much is known about the situation of other Bahá’ís imprisoned in Sana’a? They are reported to be Keyvan Ghaderi, Walid Ayyash, Mahmood Humaid, Wael al-Arieghie, Badiullah Sana’i and Akram Ayyash. They have all been detained recently and are under threat.

    Will the Minister also say what measures can be taken in respect of reports that senior figures in the national security office and the prosecutor’s office are receiving instructions from Iran to persecute the Bahá’í community? The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief has observed

    “the persistent pattern of persecution of the Bahá’í community”.

    If the Minister can answer those questions, the whole House will be deeply grateful.

  • First, I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend for raising this subject. It is always proper for matters of individual justice of this sort to be raised in the House. Opposing the persecution of religious minorities is a very high priority for the Foreign Office and our diplomatic efforts as we enter this year.

    The Bahá’í faith has been persecuted for the best part of one and a half centuries; the situation described by my hon. Friend is, sadly, a further example of that phenomenon. Although Mr bin Haydara is neither a British national nor an employee of any organisation related to Her Majesty’s Government, that does not in any way diminish our indignation at what is happening and our wish to try to defend his interests and see him released. To that end, we are, of course, also in close contact with the Bahá’í community in London about this case and the wider situation of Bahá’ís in Yemen.

    My hon. Friend asked a number of questions that are very difficult to answer in the context of Yemen, which is essentially a failing state. Mr bin Haydara is held not by the official Government but by the Houthis, who are deemed to be the insurgent force in Yemen and are essential to any successful political outcome the likes of which we are trying to pursue. Getting further lines in to the Houthis on a particular case such as this is therefore extremely difficult—it is difficult, of course, to engage them even in the main thrust of the political solution we would like to see in Yemen. To that end, as my hon. Friend says, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is in Geneva today helping to corral the collective effort that we hope can increase and optimise our influence in this case and on the future of Yemen itself.

    We estimate that there are about 2,000 Bahá’ís in Yemen, and to identify the fate of any individual within that large number is very difficult. We do not have direct diplomatic representation in Sana’a or the sort of detailed engagement with the Houthis that would be necessary to address such issues. It is undeniable that Iranian influence has been drawn into Yemen more than was the case five years ago, when the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative sought a replacement for then President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The current President, President Hadi, has, I am afraid, very little influence over such cases. I very much hope, therefore, that the Iranians will use their efforts to go for justice rather than the persecution of people such as Mr bin Haydara.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing it. As he explained, the facts in this case are clear: Mr Haydara was arrested in southern Yemen in December 2013 and has suffered torture since; his family and lawyers have not been allowed to see him during that time; and he has been forced to sign a 19-page confession while wearing a blindfold, on the basis of which he was charged with spreading the Bahá’í faith in Yemen. All of these events took place under the Government of President Hadi, not the Houthi rebels who took power in early 2015, but it is the Houthis who have held Mr Haydara since then and it is their courts that have now sentenced him to death, so responsibility for this case clearly lies with the Houthis and their supporters in the Iranian regime—we all know the terrible history of Bahá’í persecution in Iran.

    As well as Mr Haydara, five other Bahá’ís are in detention, awaiting trial for no crime other than their religion. We in this House all agree that they must be freed and that Mr Haydara’s death sentence must be quashed. Will the Minister use his influence with the Iranians, who are the ones with influence at the moment, in dealing with the Houthis? He needs to apply as much pressure as he can, because this sentence could be carried out very quickly, so a life is at stake. The Iranians are the key players here. Will he guarantee that he will raise these cases when it becomes possible to renew talks on a political settlement in Yemen? Finally, will he request assurances from the Saudi Government that if President Hadi is restored to power in Yemen, he will cease persecution of the Bahá’í faith?

  • The hon. Gentleman’s perfectly fair questions illustrate the deep complexities of Yemen at the moment. Unfortunately, we cannot just deal with the legitimate Government in the way we might expect to do with other countries. This is a failing state, with the legitimate President, President Hadi, wielding far less power than one would wish and the Houthis wielding far more power than one would wish. Relations on this sort of consular case—if I can describe it as such—are very difficult and our ability to have the influence we would like is far less than we would like.

    The Houthis are Zaidis, not classic Iranian Shi’ites, so they have an affinity with Iran, but it is wrong to say that they take all their orders from it and are its straightforward puppets. The history of Yemen suggests that the position of the Houthis is rather more complex than that. There is an undoubted affinity, however, and one that has grown over the past two or three years. Because of that, we will of course use all our diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Iranians to understand that there is deep concern in this House and more widely across the world about the way in which Mr Haydara and others are being treated.

    I absolutely assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in his dealings with the Iranians, which have increased over the past couple of months, will not fail to raise this issue and the broader issue of religious freedom on any occasion.

  • I thank the Minister for his comments and for speaking very gently and wisely about a matter that is actually very complex. I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s ambassador to Sana’a, Simon Shercliff, who of course is not in Sana’a. He has done an awful lot of work on the Yemen problem, yet through no fault of his own appears to be getting not very much further. I also pay tribute to the Minister for the Middle East, who likewise is doing a lot.

    I associate myself with the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) on the influence of Iran in the region. Does the Minister agree that the rise of religiosity among the Houthis is an extremely worrying sign and something that has arisen only in the last few years? Although there have been many tribal issues in Yemen, the rise of factionalism on religious grounds is a new thing in Yemeni history.

  • I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I know that as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he will investigate the matter deeply with his Committee. He is right that one of the distressing elements of what has unfolded in Yemen over the past five years is that what was really a tribal conflict has converted into more of a sectarian conflict. That contains the danger of further escalation into a deeper proxy conflict. That is exactly the kind of rising tension and complex structure that, through our diplomatic efforts, we want to reduce and de-escalate so that we get to the point where there can be proper and realistic political discussions in that complex, tribal country to bring stability and, crucially, to overcome the massive famine, disease and rising infant mortality that are probably the worst aspect—although a deeply hidden aspect—of what is going on in Yemen.

  • I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing this issue to the House and to the Bahá’í community in the UK for raising it with me this week. As has been mentioned, the Bahá’í community in Yemen is small, but has faced disproportionate persecution by the Houthis, backed by Iran, which has included mass arrests, arbitrary detention, harassment and apparently now shutting down all the Bahá’í centres across the portion of Yemen controlled by the Houthis.

    The sentencing to death of 52-year-old Hamed bin Haydara is an extremely worrying development, as he has been in detention since 2013. I imagine that others who are in detention at the moment will be extremely distressed at their prospects, given this development.

    Noting the context of the wider discussion of the dire situation in Yemen, will the Minister tell the House what discussions he has been able to have with his counterparts in Iran, who are alleged to be driving this religious persecution? The Bahá’í community allege that it follows a similar pattern to the persecution of Bahá’ís that has gone on in Iran.

    In the wider context of countries that choose to continue using the death penalty, what is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to update its strategy on the abolition of the death penalty? What communications could the Minister have with President Hadi, who is in exile but still has a position of influence?

  • I assure the hon. Lady that the abolition of the death penalty is embedded in all our diplomatic and Department for International Development policies. Wherever we go, in any country, that is our policy and we do our best to argue for it wherever possible.

    I have been going to Yemen for over 30 years. I have met President Hadi on about 10 occasions and I met Saleh on about 20. This is a complex country with a vicious history full of conflict and tribal division. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who, as I said, is in Geneva, has been brilliant in trying to gather the maximum possible public international and diplomatic pressure not only on this specific case, but for a broader settlement in Yemen. I can tell from my conversations with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on this matter that he is personally very ambitious to do his utmost to use British influence. British influence in Yemen is perhaps greater than many of us in this House realise. The voice of the UK still does matter. We want, as a priority in the Foreign Office, and indeed in No. 10, to do everything we can to use that historical influence to try to bring an end to this disastrous period of Yemeni conflict, famine, and history.

  • I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend, and indeed friend, the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) in unreservedly condemning both this death sentence and the persecution of the Bahá’í. Will my right hon. Friend set out the role that he believes the Government of the Sultanate of Oman can play not only in successfully helping with this case but, more broadly, in successfully resolving the situation in Yemen?

  • I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I think he is fast establishing himself as one of the great experts in this House, particularly on Oman and Yemen, and indeed the middle east more widely. The Sultanate of Oman, a great ally of the UK, is of enormous importance in the dynamics of any negotiations that might come forward to resolve the Yemen problem. The country’s history with Yemen matters to it, of course, but it is also next door to Iran. Its enlightenment in trying to be an honest and constructive broker with the Houthis is much appreciated in this country. The Sultanate of Oman is a country to which we attribute enormous value and affection. We look forward to working with it further as an important element in trying to find a solution to this conflict.

  • The hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) is clearly a very wise man indeed. In fact, he would perhaps be called a greybeard if he had one.

  • I thank the Minister for his statement. The judgment on Hamed Bin Haydara has called for the confiscation of his goods and also direct action against the Bahá’í, motivated very clearly by a desire to repress a peaceful religious minority. I think that some of the information coming through from the oral reports from Yemeni officials would show that Iran has an influence there. Will the Minister share with the House what representations he has had on this case, apart from those this morning? What representations are the Government going to be able to make to urge the Houthi authorities to overturn this judgment? What help can he give to the prisoners in jail who need medical attention?

  • We have very little direct contact with the Houthis because of the complicated nature of the Yemeni conflict. However, through all available channels—public and UN pressure, the UN Human Rights Council, collective comments within the middle east through ambassadors, and other forums—we have made every conceivable representation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to do so—perhaps, after this urgent question, even more noisily and robustly than before.

  • Will my right hon. Friend remind the House of what the UK is doing to support the UN political process?

  • We have been a full part of the UN process ever since the Arab Spring of 2011 and the GCC initiative that saw the replacement of President Saleh with President Hadi. In 2015 there was the important UN Security Council resolution 2216. As I said earlier, the Human Rights Council resolution of September last year is an important further part of the same UN process, in which we play our full part.

  • Will the Minister use this opportunity to restate the Government’s opposition to the use of torture in any circumstances? Are there any new, concrete initiatives that he expects to come from the international community to try to stop the conflict in Yemen, because that is what has enabled this atrocious decision to be taken?

  • It is very nice to have an opportunity to fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Certainly we are absolutely resolute in our opposition to torture and degrading treatment in all its forms.

    As I said earlier, we really want to start this year doing everything we possibly can to get people talking. We have done so through gathering together the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Omanis and the UN. We will continue to work with them, crucially in trying to find direct contact with people in Yemen who can make a difference—something that the international community is trying to work out following the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh in December last year.

  • I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. What are the Government doing to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?

  • I am familiar with this from the days when I was an International Development Minister, and even then—without such a conflict—Yemen had dire needs. We are deeply concerned by what may be nearly 500,000 cases of cholera, by rising infant mortality and by the fact that almost all the food—certainly all the rice—is imported. To that end, therefore, it has been essential to open the port of Hodeidah, which I am pleased to say has happened since last month. DFID is spending over £200 million in this financial year, but the access to those in need and the delivery of humanitarian aid remains a very complex and difficult problem in such a lawless and disintegrating society.

  • May I thank you, Mr Speaker—as, indeed, I thank my right hon. Friend —for your dedication to religious freedom and human rights? Does my right hon. Friend agree that human rights and religious freedom are absolutely integral parts of our humanitarian and development aid work across the world?

  • Yes. If human rights and the rule of law are not upheld, the efficacy of development is severely reduced, so I totally agree with my hon. Friend. That is written in as a principle to all the ways in which DFID goes about its business.

  • In my experience, one could not find a more gentle and more engaging people than those of the Bahá’í faith, who bear their persecution with great forbearance. What communications has the Minister had with representatives of the Bahá’í faith in this country?

  • We are in contact with the Bahá’í community in the UK. As I said earlier, the Bahá’ís are a gentle sect, as it were, of Islam, who fully deserve to be defended whenever this inexplicable persecution takes place. It has been going on since they were founded in the mid-19th century, and I think that their being persecuted from the start and having it persistently thrust on them for more than a century and a half is a miserable aspect of our relatively recent history.

  • I welcome my right hon. Friend’s assurances of opposition to this terrible death penalty. What assessment have the Government made of the effects of the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh on the horrific crisis in Yemen and on the chances of a positive resolution?

  • I hope the House will accept that what I am going to say are just my own thoughts, as someone who has taken an interest in Yemen for so long, rather than the official assessment of Her Majesty’s Government, because this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Whereas Ali Abdullah Saleh was working with the Houthis, he turned against them and there was a rather serious battle between the two sides, in which he died. What will now happen to the influence he wielded through the General People’s Congress and his own forces is difficult to assess at this early stage, but I suppose one can say that, at its simplest, it has probably reinforced the power of the Houthis. I hope that, from that position of strength, the Houthis might now be prepared to negotiate directly with Saudi Arabia and other interested parties, so that we can reach a political solution and put an end to this conflict.

  • What role did my right hon. Friend and the Foreign Office play in the reopening of the port of Hodeidah? Its reopening is crucial for access for humanitarian aid and relief for some 7 million Yemenis who are on the brink of famine.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. While the ports remained closed, the entire country was essentially under siege and at risk of starvation. The UK Government played a very significant part in working with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to try to open the port of Hodeidah. An agreement was reached last month, and I hope that supplies are now flowing in, as they must, and that increasing supplies will flow in to bring much needed sustenance, medicine and help to a country that is in deep peril.

  • Business of the House

  • Will the Leader of the House please update us on the forthcoming business?

  • As eagle-eyed Members will have noticed, I am not the Leader of the House. My right hon. Friend is attending Sandringham for a meeting of the Privy Council. She sends her apologies, and I am standing in for her. I will do my best to aspire to meet her high standards.

    The business for the week commencing 15 January 2018 will include:

    Monday 15 January—Second Reading of the Space Industry Bill [Lords].

    Tuesday 16 January—Remaining stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (day 1).

    Wednesday 17 January—Conclusion of remaining stages of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

    Thursday 18 January—Debate on a motion on treatment of SMEs by RBS Global Restructuring Group, followed by a general debate on Holocaust Memorial Day 2018. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

    Friday 19 January—Private Members’ Bills.

    The provisional business for the week commencing 22 January 2018 will include:

    Monday 22 January—Second Reading of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [Lords].

    Tuesday 23 January—Remaining stages of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill.

    Wednesday 24 January—Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

    Thursday 25 January—Debate on a motion on joint enterprise followed by a general debate on the proscription of Hezbollah. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

    Friday 26 January—The House will not be sitting.

    On behalf of the Leader of House I am sure I join all hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) on his promotion from Deputy Leader of the House to his new role at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. I am sure that his urbane approach will be well received and suit him well. I also welcome all Members back from what I hope was a restful and peaceful Christmas and new year break. I hope that they appreciated the efforts of the Leader of the House in restarting the bells of Big Ben for new year, which I am sure added to our collective enjoyment of that important feast. I hope that we all have an interesting and exciting 2018—but not too exciting, because we do not like too much excitement in politics, do we?

  • I am excited already, Mr Speaker.

    I thank the Minister for turning up and taking Business questions, and for setting out Government business. I know that the Leader of the House has an important engagement. As the Minister said, the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) has done an admirable job. He has now been promoted—perhaps he is irreplaceable—and we thank him for all his work. Will the Minister please confirm whether there will be a new Deputy Leader of the House? Following your suggestion to those on the Treasury Bench yesterday, Mr Speaker, will the Minister ensure that the list of those with ministerial responsibilities is updated as soon as possible?

    I am not sure whether Bananarama was on the Prime Minister’s playlist, but I wonder whether Members recall the song that goes:

    “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it,

    and that’s what gets results.”

    The reshuffle was the same old, same old people—new titles, but all the responsibilities were already in their departmental portfolios. Will the Minister ensure that the change of titles does not lead to any further cost to the public purse? It seems that men can say no, and the PM goes, “all right then”, but when a woman says no, she is sacked. To paraphrase the Prime Minister, there really are boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs, and we wait to see what the fall out will be.

    It seems that the Government are following what the Opposition are doing. The Opposition already have a Minister responsible for housing and a Minister responsible for social care at shadow Cabinet level, and that is now policy. The Government have announced no vote on fox hunting, and measures on wild animal in circuses. The Wild Animals in Circuses Bill was introduced by former DEFRA Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He put that through in September 2014 and the Government have done nothing. The Government now say they will introduce legislation, so could the Minister please confirm that it will not be another four years before we get legislation to ban wild animals in circuses? It seems that the Government have really gone from hunting animals to hugging animals.

    The Secretary of State for Transport is missing—missing on the day that the rail fares were increased by 3.4%, the highest increase in five years, and missing the opportunity to explain to the House why, when the Passenger Focus survey found that 91% of people are satisfied with the east coast main line that returned £l billion to the Treasury, the Government sell it off, with no explanation of why the franchise is terminated and the taxpayer has to bail out the companies. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport—he was present for our Opposition day yesterday—not only on the projected profits if the service had remained in public hands, but on the full costs of the bailout? Yet again, the Government did not vote in favour of our Opposition day motion, or oppose it or even amend it.

    There seems to be a fatal flaw in the Government’s arguments. They say they planned for the winter, so my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Health was right when he said that the crisis was preventable and predictable. The evidence in the NHS is clear: cancelled operations and people waiting on trolleys. My friend and constituent Tassidiq Khan was discharged from New Cross Hospital on 15 December and I spoke to him. By 2 January, he had had a huge heart attack and was dead. The Secretary of State has to take responsibility and be accountable. If there are no concerns on behalf of the Government, why has the Care Quality Commission decided to suspend routine inspections because, it says, of winter pressures? Did the Government plan for that? Could we have a statement on today’s announcement by NHS providers that they cannot deliver, as set out under the NHS constitution, safe, decent standards of patient care?

    This is about accountability and responsibility. My hon. Friend the shadow deputy Leader of the House—as we have a deputy shadow Leader of the House—has written an excellent article in the Health Service Journal about accountability. Mr Speaker, you will recall that Nye Bevan said that if a bedpan dropped in Tredegar, it would be heard in Whitehall. We say it is the other way round: what happens in Whitehall should be heard at a local level. It is accountability that is the most important, yet it seems that if companies do not get contracts, they sue and are paid out of public money; if and they cannot fulfil the contracts, they are bailed out by public money. Either way, the public are paying.

    Could the Minister please tell the House the Government’s position on the inquiry announced today by the Commissioner for Public Appointments into the Government’s failure to follow due diligence in appointments to the Office for Students? Why had the Minister concerned not done the appropriate checks?

    Finally, as we celebrate 100 years of women being able to vote, I hope we can also celebrate that, wherever people work, they are paid equally, whether called Carrie or John. Like the Minister, I welcome everyone back to the House and wish them a very happy new year.

  • I hope that the hon. Lady retains her sense of excitement throughout the forthcoming exchanges. I am disappointed, though, that she wanted me to be replaced so quickly in the new role that I am required to perform today. None the less, I will do my best in the short time that I have available.

    The hon. Lady rightly raises the importance of winter planning in the NHS, and I am sure she will have carefully read yesterday’s debate and listened carefully to the words of the Prime Minister, who has made clear that she has apologised to all those whose operations have been cancelled. We spent £437 million on winter planning for A&E this year, and NHS providers have been clear that the NHS has never been better prepared for winter. Part of appropriate planning for winter is making sure that patients do not find out on the day that their operation has been cancelled.

    I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments on many of the environmental policies that the Government are adopting. It is welcome and right that we are soon to have a 25-year plan for the environment, and many Members across the House will be interested to see what that will involve. I hope she will welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement today of the extension that we shall be making to the plastic bag charge. The charge has contributed some £95 million to good causes across the country so far. It is right that we now extend that to smaller enterprises, because I am sure they too have been very keen to participate.

    The hon. Lady referred to one of my previous areas of expertise: rail fares. I am surprised that she wants a statement so soon, given that we had a lengthy Opposition day debate on rail franchising only yesterday, during which many of these issues were discussed. The challenge for the Opposition is clear. As they will be aware, the Secretary of State for Transport has made it clear that he aspires to move to the consumer prices index, but one of the biggest obstacles to that comes from the hon. Lady’s own side. I would love to be a fly on the wall when the Labour party tries to persuade the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to drop its excessive retail prices index wage demands.

    As a child of the ’80s, I have fond memories of Bananarama. They had many hits, but perhaps the hon. Lady will recall their Comic Relief guise of La-na-nee-nee-noo-noo, which I think was much more the tone of her comments on the reshuffle. I find it bizarre that anyone on the Opposition Benches has the temerity to criticise a Government reshuffle. I remember when, in the not-so-distant past, Opposition reshuffles came along as often as London buses. It was almost like a random number generator; the composition of the Opposition Front-Bench team was as random and unpredictable as the balls on the national lottery—she might regard herself as the bonus ball in any reshuffle. What we see today on the Government Front Bench, with a range of new Ministers—at least five when I stood up at the Dispatch Box—shows how our Government increasingly resemble the nation we seek to serve. We are seeing a range of new talent coming through. When we have a reshuffle, we have a positive sense of progress. I thank the hon. Lady for her comments today.

  • Order. I exhort Members to ask brief questions about the business of the House for next week and provisionally for the week after, and I know that the hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench will respond in similar vein.

  • Will my hon. Friend find time for a debate on the enforcement of legislation concerning employment agencies and temporary workers? I worked in recruitment for many years before becoming an MP, and I am horrified by the way the law is being flouted, with adverse consequences for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and for the workers themselves.

  • I know that I cannot go far without my hon. Friend pursuing me to the Dispatch Box. He is obviously a doughty defender of the people of Southend, and his expertise on this issue is noted across the House. As he will know, we have commissioned Matthew Taylor to review employment practices across the country. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently reviewing the responses to the consultation, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in looking forward to hearing the views at the end of the process.

  • Mr Speaker, I wish you and all the staff of the House a happy new year.

    I thank the hon. Gentleman for announcing the business for next week. Dazzled as I was by the overwhelming success of the Cabinet reshuffle, I thought that I had missed the announcement on the deputy Leader of the House, but one had not been made. We are all grateful to the hon. Gentleman for filling in. Who knows, he might just dazzle us enough today to be given the job permanently—and who would not jump at the chance to respond to the pre-recess Adjournment debates? I am relieved to hear that the Leader of the House is still firmly in her place. It has not been a “Cruel Summer”, in the words of Bananarama, but a cruel winter, given some of these reshuffles. The reshuffle was supposed to restore the Government’s diminished authority, but it has left them between a Hunt and a hard place. Never before has a Cabinet reshuffle actually diminished the authority of a Prime Minister in quite such a way. It is an outstanding feat, even for this chaotic Government.

    The repeal Bill returns next week, and there is profound disappointment in Scotland that no amendments have been made, as promised, for the devolution-threatening clause 11. It was the Secretary of State for Scotland who set himself this timetable, and the failure to deliver has even disappointed and frustrated his own Scottish Conservative colleagues. What will be totally and utterly unacceptable is for these issues to be considered in the unelected House of Lords. The nation’s aristocrats, Church of England bishops and party donors and cronies will now have more say on these critical issues than directly elected Members of Parliament from Scotland. In what sort of tin-pot democracy could that possibly be acceptable? It is a big test for my friends in the Scottish Conservative party, because they cannot possibly vote for this, knowing the flaws, in the hope that the be-ermined ones might fix it for them. [Interruption.] Is all this blind loyalty really worth it? For all their commitment to the Lobby-fodder cause, not one of them was thought to be of sufficiently quality to be promoted—[Interruption.]

  • Order. We are immensely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has completed his contribution. We are deeply obliged to him.

  • I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s ingenious word play, and I sometimes think I should play a game of bingo with his appearances in the Chamber, because I measure the success of my colleagues from Scotland not just by what they do, but by how often the hon. Gentleman refers to them, as I know that the more he refers to them, the better the job they are doing.

    The hon. Gentleman expresses concern over the EU Bill. He will have heard from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster just yesterday that negotiations are intensifying over getting the clause in question right, and when they have agreed, it will appear on the Order Paper. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can use his immense influence in Edinburgh to help ensure those negotiations go as speedily as possible. We are keen to get that amendment on the Order Paper; I hope he is just as keen. Let us help him to help us.

  • As we know, the best way to get a good deal out of the EU is to make it clear to the EU that we are prepared for no deal, so when we debate the withdrawal Bill next week, will we have the Minister for hard Brexit in the Chamber, as we were promised before the reshuffle, so we can question him or her—and if not, why not?

  • I am sure we will have a range of dedicated Ministers across a number of Departments focused on making a success of our leaving the EU. I am sure it will be a lively debate next week, and I look forward to all Members making a full contribution to it.

  • I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all members of staff and all Members around the House a very happy and healthy 2018—happy new year to everyone.

    The Backbench Business Committee has received a very heavily subscribed application for a debate about the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Do the Government have any plans to hold such a debate in Government time in the near future, as we had thought they would? That would be preferable to using Backbench Business Committee time which is already under heavy pressure.

    Now that the festivities are over, you might remember, Mr Speaker, that just before Christmas I invited you and the Leader of the House to visit Gateshead and Newcastle for the great exhibition of the north, beginning in June this year and running through to September, culminating in the great north run in September. May I renew that invitation? Please do come and visit us for the great exhibition of the north; it will be the north at its best.

  • I am grateful to the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, and this is my first chance to thank him for all the work he does; the Committee is an important part of the House’s business.

    The hon. Gentleman mentions the R and R debate. He is right that the Government are keen to ensure that we hear the views of those on all sides on this issue. We are working hard to secure the right date in the parliamentary calendar to make sure as many hon. Members as possible can take part. I know there is a Backbench Business Committee debate, but that should not obviate the need to have a wider debate, and I hope we will secure a date for it as soon as possible.

    I hear the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation. I spent many days in Durham between Christmas and new year, and I enjoyed my tour of Gateshead. I went to see the angel of the north, for example. So I have already been to see it and was much impressed.

  • Can a debate on rural bus transport be organised? The residents of the village of Tiverton have a once-a-week bus service and it has been cancelled, meaning they cannot access the pharmacy or collect their pensions from the local village, and my constituents also have problems with increasing journey times from Winsford to Chester.

  • As a native son of the fine county of Cheshire, I well know what a beautiful range of villages my hon. Friend represents. It is vital that they have good bus connections, and I urge her to make use of the opportunity afforded by Transport questions on Thursday to put those questions to the new ministerial team.

  • Yesterday, Rose Gentle, the mother of Gordon Gentle, one of the first soldiers to die in the Iraq war, expressed her regret at the Government statement that seems to absolve Parliament from the conclusions of the Chilcot report. We need, as she called for, an act of apology from this House and this Parliament. It was not one man; it was the Opposition and three Select Committees, who were cheerleaders for that worst mistake we have made this century. Would not a suitable act of apology be followed by the reading of the names of the 179 soldiers whom we sent to their deaths?

  • The hon. Gentleman has been a consistent campaigner on this issue over many years and has earned the House’s respect for his consistency. I will ensure that I pass his comments on to the Leader of the House, who I am sure will do her best to get him a suitable response to his point.

  • Could we please have a debate in Government time on the failure of consultation on major infrastructure projects? Junction 25 on the M5 is an arterial route, and the Government have quite rightly pulled in certain proposals because of the behaviour of certain estate agents, councillors and, unfortunately, businessmen. They cannot hold these things up, but the Government have to check the priorities in local government. Could we please have a debate on that?

  • I recognise the fact that my hon. Friend has a long-running concern over these issues, and I urge him to apply for either an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate so that he can give them a proper airing and get the ministerial response to which I believe he is genuinely entitled.

  • The NatWest bank is 73% publicly owned, yet it is closing its branch in Porthcawl where millions roll in from the businesses across the town and the large number of retirees who live there. Is it not time for the largely publicly owned banks that were bailed out by the public to sign a social responsibility clause before being allowed to continue, so that they cannot close without the permission of the community they serve?

  • I recognise the fact that the hon. Lady’s concerns over banking in the community are widely shared on both sides of the House. At a time when banking practices, and the ways in which consumers engage with their banks, are changing, this remains a concern. She will know that she will have a chance to take part in a debate on the role of banking in the community at 3 pm today in Westminster Hall, and I am sure that she will make her voice heard there.

  • My hon. Friend was an excellent rail Minister before taking up his new role earlier this week. I do not know whether he is in the habit of buying The Daily Mail when he travels on Virgin Trains, but he will know that the company has in effect taken action to ban its customers from buying that newspaper. May we have a debate on this rather unacceptable act by Virgin?

  • My hon. Friend is certainly more than welcome to apply for an Adjournment debate on such an issue. I would merely observe that that might be a matter for the particular company. As a commuter on that line, I hope that as a Government Minister I would not be seen to be in contravention of its corporate values and no longer be allowed to travel, because getting home might become quite difficult as a consequence.

  • The UK Government have finally got round to launching their 25-year plan on the plastic bag levy, thereby, just six years later, catching up with the Welsh Labour Government. However, the plan lacks substance. It is full of missed opportunities and weak proposals, and it contains no laws. It is neither innovative nor radical; it is a cheap attempt by the Prime Minister to rebrand the Tories with greenwash. Will the Government commit to making a statement on the plan in the House, to allow for proper scrutiny?

  • I am disappointed that the hon. Lady seems a little churlish about what we are seeking to do. I hope that there are some issues on which we can unite across the House to do what is right for future generations. I caution her to wait and to get more information about what is being decided. I am sure this matter will be discussed at length across the House in the forthcoming business. She will learn more today and, I hope, more in the future.

  • Earlier this week, a cable theft brought rail services at my local station, Bristol Parkway, to a complete halt, causing major disruption for commuter services across the south-west. May we have a debate on the effects of crime on rail services and on the contingency planning for the disruption that it causes?

  • My hon. Friend is tempting me back to my former pastures, but I must assiduously try to avoid returning to them whenever possible. I would simply urge him to apply for an Adjournment debate on that subject. Getting the balance right when rail services break down at short notice is always a difficult thing to perfect, but as he will know, the Office of Rail and Road has specific consumer powers relating to disruption, and I am sure he could take that matter up with the ORR to see what redress could be achieved.

  • Many of the NHS trusts in Yorkshire are currently considering proposals to transfer NHS staff over to wholly owned companies, amounting to a race to the bottom in employment practices. May we please have a debate on that in Government time?

  • I recognise that many hon. Members are interested in the move towards accountable care organisations, but I urge people to keep sight of the fact that we are seeking to bring care providers together in local areas to make things more effective. We want to ensure better continuity of provision, so that fewer people need to attend hospital, ensuring that all our NHS resources are best deployed in the interests of our local communities.

  • Back to railways, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend knows that the Secretary of State for Transport is keen to open some of the closed railway lines around the country, as my hon. Friend was when he was a Transport Minister. Will it be possible to get an early statement on what those lines may be? Many people in the Ribble Valley are keen to have the Clitheroe to Hellifield line reopened, which would allow them to visit places such as Skipton, Leeds, Bradford and other great places. The people of Yorkshire may also be able to come and visit the people of Lancashire to see what great hospitality we have in store for them.

  • Lancashire is blessed by a range of potential lines to reopen, but it is important to stress to all hon. Members that the best vehicle to seek to promote a line reopening is through their local enterprise partnership or local council. The Government will look favourably on schemes where there are opportunities for economic growth and housing. More information will be released in due course on the best methods for going about promoting such opportunities.

  • A number of my constituents have contacted me over the leasehold scandal, whereby people have found that their leasehold has been sold on to unscrupulous financiers. The Government have said that they are going to do something about it, but what about the people already caught in the trap? May we have a debate in Government time to hear what the Government intend to do about the people who have already been affected?

  • I recognise that those concerns are shared across the House, and we have already committed to making progress on the matter. The hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Prime Minister had to say about addressing the concerns, and I am sure that he will have the opportunity to secure an Adjournment or Westminster Hall debate to raise this important issue.

  • May we have a statement on the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, because that would seem to be the only way of showing that no changes have been made to chemotherapy treatment at that hospital?

  • There has certainly been a degree of confusion over what is happening at the Churchill Hospital. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) was clear in the Chamber yesterday, and no one currently undergoing cancer treatment at the Churchill Hospital should in any way doubt that their treatment will continue. I would welcome any opportunity to make the situation at the Churchill Hospital clear.

  • May we have a statement on the records that the Government hold of former Ministry of Defence civil servants who served overseas, particularly on how such individuals should proceed if they want to access their service records? A constituent of mine served in the former British forces education service and taught in British military schools in Germany, but following a subject access request to the MOD he was told that no record of his service exists. When I wrote to the MOD on his behalf, I was advised that he should submit yet another subject access request, even though he has already done so twice. My constituent requires proof of service so that his grandchildren may claim their British passports, so a written statement with some clear guidance is urgently needed.

  • That is clearly an important matter for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. The Leader of the House is always assiduous in following up on issues raised in the Chamber during business questions, and I am sure that she will pick this one up and deal with it through the MOD to seek further clarification.

  • May we have an urgent statement on the fact that, despite Government guidelines, hospital car parking charges for most people have increased by 47% and that 50% of hospitals charge disabled people to park? I do not know whether my hon. Friend saw the Daily Mirror campaign over Christmas that showed how patients and visitors are suffering due to high hospital car parking charges, but will he write to the Health Secretary to secure an urgent statement?

  • My right hon. Friend has been a doughty and long-term campaigner on the issue of hospital car parking, and I pay tribute to him. He raises an important matter that I am sure will be discussed in more detail at the next Health questions, but he is of course always welcome to seek a Westminster Hall debate to raise what is an important issue for many Members on both sides of the Chamber.

  • While conducting a survey on bus services in my constituency of Barnsley East, I heard time and again that the needs of residents are being ignored by bus companies that prioritise profit over passengers. Can we have a debate in Government time on allowing local authorities to operate bus companies to ensure they are run in the interests of local people so that bus services remain just that—a service?

  • The hon. Lady will be aware that we recently passed the Bus Services Act 2017, which gives much greater opportunities to local councils to choose how best to deploy their bus services. She will also know that next Thursday’s Transport questions is a perfect opportunity for her to raise that question in the Chamber with a Minister who knows a better answer than I do.

  • Can we have a debate on how this Government are supporting growth deals? Moray has some very ambitious plans, but it needs both our Governments to work together to deliver the best possible results. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Scottish National party’s comments this week that it might go it alone on some growth deals, such as for Moray, would be counterproductive and deliver far less for our area than a joint growth deal involving both the UK Government and the Scottish Government? [Interruption.]

  • That is further proof, should I need it, that the more noise I hear from Opposition Members, the more I know my hon. Friend is doing the right thing. He is right to raise this issue, and we heard about Stirling at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. It is important that, as a Westminster Government, we do all we can to support local growth in areas of Scotland.

  • Will the Minister make sure that the Foreign Secretary comes to the House to explain his policy on Bermuda? Bermuda was required to introduce same-sex marriage last summer, which it has now done. But six months later, the Bermudan Parliament is begging the Foreign Secretary to allow it to cancel same-sex marriage, which is an entirely retrograde step. Six couples have already been married, and they are to be unmarried, which surely even this Government must think is wrong. Will the Minister make sure that the Government tell the Bermudan Parliament very firmly, “No way, we are sticking with same-sex marriage”?

  • I start by wishing the hon. Gentleman many happy returns. When I saw his age, I could put it down only to the clean air of Rhondda that he looks so youthful. I have long waited to face him from the Dispatch Box. Maybe he could sign my Hansard at the end, as that would be a fitting souvenir.

    The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will make sure the Leader of the House communicates it to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to try to get him the answer he seeks.

  • In his previous role, my hon. Friend conducted a detailed consultation on disabled access at stations, and many of my constituents took the opportunity to ask for lifts to be installed at Stanmore and Canons Park stations. Will he therefore arrange for his successor to come to the House to make a statement on what is going to happen now happen on providing proper disabled access to our stations across the country?

  • My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of improving disabled access to all our stations. He will be more than aware that we have an ongoing accessibility consultation, and I spent a very happy Christmas reading all the replies. I am more than aware of the interest. Access for All is an important programme, and the Government are carefully considering how best to target it. I am sure we will hear an announcement in due course on the response to the consultation.

  • Not everybody had a good new year. Another four young men were stabbed and killed on new year’s eve in London. Clearly our thoughts go out to the family and friends who are dealing with such tragic grief and loss. We need to know when the Government’s serious violence strategy will be published, and I urge them to look at the root causes of youth violence as part of that strategy.

  • I am sure we all share the hon. Lady’s shock at what occurred on new year’s eve and in the early hours of new year’s morning. I was certainly horrified when I saw the news the next day. She will be aware that a lot of work is being done by the Mayor of London, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Home Office to make sure we look carefully at how we best use stop and search powers. The hon. Lady makes an important and powerful point, and I will make sure we seek to get a suitable answer on the date of publication as soon as we can.

  • The Leader of the House is attending to Privy Council business in Sandringham, but the residents of Sandringham Place in Wordsley have had to put up with derelict shops falling into rack and ruin over many years. Can we have a debate in Government time on the power of local authorities to deal with derelict buildings and to bring them back into use, whether as shops, commercial or housing?

  • I can only applaud my hon. Friend’s dexterity in making his point. I know from experience that it often takes a long time for local councils to get details of the ownership of vacant houses, so he is right to raise the issue. I urge him to apply for a Westminster Hall debate to fully air the issue with Ministers.

  • Has the temporary Deputy Leader of the House seen early-day motion 775?

    [This House notes with concern that airlines are increasingly requiring musicians to purchase a seat for guitars, and other musical instruments of similar size, or requiring that they be placed in the aircraft hold where temperatures are very low and damage may occur during transit; further notes the campaign led by the Musicians Union to show more consideration to musicians travelling with their instruments; and calls on the airline industry to adopt a code of practice to give musicians travelling with their instruments greater consideration, fair and consistent treatment, and peace of mind.]

    I declare my interest as a member of the Musicians Union. Airlines are increasingly making life difficult for musicians who have guitar-sized and smaller musical instruments. Is it not time for the Government to have a debate about this, or at least to call in the airlines to talk to them about setting up some kind of code of conduct to ensure that our very talented musicians are not impaired in this way?

  • I know the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue before on a number of occasions. I have not yet got to the stage of taking my EDM book home with me for bedtime reading, but perhaps I should go down that path. As he knows, we have Transport questions on Thursday, which is a perfect opportunity to speak to the new aviation Minister to see what they have to say about this important issue. I recognise that this can be a real challenge, particularly for those with larger instruments.

  • I know the importance my hon. Friend places on apprenticeships. May we have a debate on the importance of further education colleges, such as Stafford College and Newcastle-under-Lyme College in Staffordshire, in providing those high-quality apprenticeships locally?

  • My hon. Friend is right to make sure that we have parity of esteem between all possible educational avenues at the post-18 point. Further education is really important. I have a superb provider in my constituency and I know he does, too. Perhaps he would like to apply to the Backbench Business Committee to make sure that we can all have a say in that important matter.

  • Tea in the Pot, a women’s support service in my constituency, is recognised in early-day motion 731.

    [That this House congratulates the Tea in the Pot Drop-in and support service based in Govan for its ongoing work to support women to become actively engaged in the community and to enable women to identify and value their skills, experiences and talents, and to feel empowered and confident to share these with others; notes this work despite their lack of core funding and supports their ongoing campaign for resources; further notes the service provides a safe and relaxing atmosphere where women can meet up with old friends and make new friends and assists women who may be coping with difficulties, or who feel under stress, have health issues of simply feel isolated; and applauds the work of the support service in supporting and empowering the WASPI women in the community which is valuable and necessary and continues to support their work in defeating isolation.]

    May we have a debate or statement on funding for volunteer women’s support services, to ensure that they have the resources to empower women and defeat isolation?

  • I know that the Leader of the House attaches great importance to this issue, as does the Home Secretary. I am sure they would join me in praising the work of the local organisation to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I urge him to keep pressing for suitable debate opportunities in the House to draw attention to this important issue for all hon. Members across the House.

  • With the threat of a national supermarket chain looking to take over a highly influential high-street location, the people of Crickhowell in my constituency came together to buy the building known as the “corn exchange”. Some 220 people invested in the project, which completed at Christmas time and now offers three outstanding shops and flats for rent. This is a prime example of an ambitious community-led project, so may we have a debate on what more the Government can do to encourage such outstanding community projects?

  • I praise the corn exchange project for what it has achieved in Crickhowell, and I direct all hon. Members to look more closely at the community ownership schemes, the community asset schemes, the bright ideas fund and the community shares programmes, because this is such a fertile ground for all community projects and there is plenty of opportunity out there to make sure that we do all we can in our local towns.

  • For some years, I have been in correspondence with the chief executive of Persimmon about houses that were built in my constituency whose gardens are slipping into the drain. I got no response until I threatened to raise this issue in Parliament. However, when I heard that that same chief executive, Jeff Fairburn, was to receive £110 million as a bonus, on the back of the Government’s policy of Help to Buy, which equates to about £3,100 per house built, I wondered whether the Government thought it was now time to have a debate in this House about corporate greed and corporate responsibility?

  • The hon. Lady has raised an important issue in her constituency already in this Chamber, but I urge her to go further and secure an Adjournment debate to raise it more fully, because it sounds as though it deserves it.

  • Given the challenges NHS services regularly face during the winter, and the excellent cost-effective contribution that local GP surgeries can make in easing pressure at accident and emergency departments in particular, may we have an urgent debate on the support the Government can give to ensure that GPs surgeries are fully equipped to give the required primary care?

  • My hon. Friend makes an important point about how we need to ensure that we manage rising demand, with 2.9 million more attendances at A&E since 2010. Clearly, we have a dynamically changing healthcare demand pattern, so it is important that we do all we can in our local communities to manage that demand better. GPs have a key role to play in that, and he makes an important point that I hope can be added to further in this Chamber.

  • Maryhill jobcentre in my constituency will close tomorrow, in the face of massive public opposition. When will the new Minister for Employment, the hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), come to the House and reassure us that no further jobcentres in Glasgow are under threat?

  • I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say and understand his concern. We are increasing the number of Jobcentre Plus staff in Scotland and throughout the country to provide more support to those who need it most. We are merging a number of smaller offices into bigger sites as leases come to an end. We have consulted the public in areas where people will have to travel more than 3 miles or for more than 20 minutes. If the hon. Gentleman still has concerns about his example in Glasgow, I urge him to secure an Adjournment debate so that he can hear more detailed answers as to the circumstances in Maryhill.

  • Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the past seven years have seen excessive increases in air and marine pollution, and in the pollution of the countryside? Is it not about time that we had a debate so that we can really scrutinise the Government’s record on environmental protection?

  • It is a pleasure to encounter the hon. Gentleman again; I can only assume from how often I see him in the Chamber that he is doughty attendee at all Question Times, and he raises some important issues. He will be aware that our 25-year environment plan is forthcoming, and that is the obvious vehicle by which to ensure that we address many of the concerns he rightly raises.

  • Tonight, Clydebank Asbestos Group is celebrating the opening of its new headquarters in West Dunbartonshire, where it will continue its work of 25 years to offer support to those suffering from and seeking compensation for asbestos-related conditions such as pleural plaques. Does the hon. Gentleman not only join me in congratulating the group, but agree that it is time the Government made time to debate whether those living with pleural plaques in England and Wales receive the same compensation as that given by the Holyrood Parliament in Scotland to those suffering from pleural plaques more than 10 years ago?

  • I very much support what the hon. Gentleman has to say and congratulate the local organisation that provides that support in his part of Scotland. I hear his case for a debate and urge him to consider an Adjournment debate on the issue to allow the Minister responsible to explain what we are doing here in England.

  • The most recent figures show that a staggering 69% of new houses built in the north-west are unnecessarily sold as leaseholds, leaving homeowners at the mercy of cowboy financiers who block-buy their freeholds in job lots in order to exploit them financially. The hon. Gentleman gave a poor answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) when he asked about this earlier. May we have an urgent debate in Government time about what the Government are going to do now to help the thousands of people, including many of my constituents, who are subjected to this appalling financial exploitation?

  • I am always disappointed if Opposition Members are disappointed by my replies. I am keen to make sure that we address the concerns the hon. Lady has expressed. The Prime Minister was clear yesterday that we are bringing forward changes to legislation. I suggest that the hon. Lady urges a degree of patience while we make sure that we get it right. We can then discuss our proposals.

  • May I press the Minister to tell us when exactly there is going to be a Government statement on today’s public relations launch by the Prime Minister of the 25-year plan for the environment? When are we going to see it?

  • I am sure there will be—

  • Just answer the question.

  • If the hon. Lady would give me a chance to get my mouth in gear to actually say something, she might hear what I have to say. Unfortunately, my voice box does not operate at the same speed as everybody else’s, so please be patient.

    I am sure that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) will agree that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be keen to make sure that the House is fully aware of all that we seek to do with our environmental plans. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long to hear in this place what we are seeking to do. The Prime Minister is today making several important announcements, and I am sure we will have further opportunities to discuss them in the days and weeks to come.

  • The Government’s welcome review of fixed-odds betting terminals will enable them to change the stakes and many other aspects of FOBT policy without the need for primary legislation. That is welcome, as we do not want the changes to be delayed any further, but it will leave a democratic deficit. Will the Government allow a debate in Government time on the issues relating to FOBTs so that we can ensure that this crucial issue is properly debated?

  • We have already had several debates in the House on FOBTs, which I know from my casework are an important issue in my constituency. I urge the hon. Gentleman to apply for all sorts of debates so that we can keep exploring the issue further. An announcement is coming in due course; perhaps his work will hasten its arrival.

  • In the past few years, my constituents have seen a rise in moped-related crime and knife crime. The police do their best to investigate these problems, but prosecution rates have flatlined. Will the Government provide time to debate this inability to deliver justice to victims and their families, and when will they improve their shabby track record?

  • I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the volume of work that is going on right now between all those involved—the Mayor of London, the Metropolitan police and the Home Office—to try to understand the underlying causes that have led to the increases that we have seen and the changes in modus operandi at the moment. He is quite right to keep pressing the Government, and I urge him to do so through the usual channels and by calling for debates.

  • This week, the Cabinet Office confirmed to me that the target turnaround time for a response to letters from hon. Members is 20 days, yet in response to letters that I have sent, it took two months to get a letter from the Chancellor. I am now approaching 100 days and counting for a response from the Environment Secretary and two months and counting for a response from the Energy Minister. Can the Minister make a statement, outlining what is going to be done to hold this new dynamic Cabinet to account when it comes to responding to hon. Members?

  • I know that the Leader of the House takes this matter immensely seriously, and I certainly did when I was a responding Minister. We have strict guidelines to which we expect Departments to adhere, and they are monitored carefully. I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he chases up the replies that he has not received. We will make sure—as I am sure that the Leader of the House will do—that we always strive for continuous improvement.

  • Can the Minister make time to debate the planned closure of the Unilever and Britvic plants in Norwich South? Local people want the Government and Ministers to take action. So far, we have a Business Secretary refusing to come to the city to meet the workers, a trade Minister who says that he does not want to be involved and another business Minister who says that he actively wants to see the plant close. Will the Government please pull their finger out?

  • I certainly heard the hon. Member’s point of order yesterday and I share and understand the concern that many Unilever employees feel about the current and growing uncertainty. The Government are certainly disappointed that Unilever has decided to close the Norwich plant. We welcome its commitment to maintaining most of the mint production in Norwich, and stand by ready to help the workforce wherever we can. This is a worrying time, and we need to work with Unilever to get further clarity over what is intended.

  • The automotive sector in this country is facing challenging times, and no more so than the Vauxhall car plant in my constituency where another 250 redundancies were announced this week on top of 400 last October. May we have a debate please, as a matter of urgency, about what practical steps the Government can take to protect manufacturing jobs in this country and secure the future of the car plant?

  • As I said earlier, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that, as someone from Cheshire, I understand the importance of Vauxhall Motors to the Ellesmere Port community. I was as disappointed as I am sure he was to hear about the further job losses. The rapid response service of Jobcentre Plus has already been put into action, and the Government are trying to engage with Vauxhall further throughout the process to do all we can both to protect UK jobs and to help those who are affected. There will be much more help available to those who are affected, but I recognise his concerns and will make sure that the Leader of the House passes them on to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

  • You may be aware, Mr Speaker, of the concern that many parents have about skin gambling and loot boxes and worries in the video gaming sector about unauthorised third party website selling those items from those loot boxes, thus potentially turning young people into gamblers. There have been reports of young people losing a great deal of money very quickly. May we have a debate in Government time on how best to protect our young people and also safeguard our very successful and vibrant video game industry?

  • The hon. Gentleman has raised an important example of how internet development and technologies can change rapidly and create new threats and dangers for which we need to ensure that we are fully prepared. He raises an important point. It sounds like a perfect vehicle for an Adjournment debate or a Westminster Hall debate, which will then make sure that the Minister’s attention is drawn to the matter more fully.

  • The Minister has already commented on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, clause 11, and the debates and discussions that are taking place elsewhere in regard to it. However, may we have an urgent statement rectifying the record where assurances were made to Members across this House that the amendments would be tabled next week?

  • I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s many assiduous points of order that have been made hitherto. Clearly, he has been following this closely and will have heard my earlier reply that the Government are committed to ensuring that the amendment is tabled, but they can do so only when those negotiations are successfully concluded. We are intensifying our efforts, and hope that that will be as soon as possible.

  • Despite not one single Minister setting foot in any of the jobcentres that the Government will close in Glasgow starting from tomorrow, they plan to go ahead anyway. Can we have a statement, because this news comes in the same week that privately-owned First Bus UK is increasing fares by up to 40% for some travellers in the city? When this programme of closures finishes, there will be nine centres; there are currently 16. We need an urgent debate. Will the Minister facilitate that?

  • I know that this matter has been discussed on a number occasions in many venues in the House. I ask the hon. Gentleman to focus not just on the input—the number of jobcentres—but the output. There will be more work coaches available across Glasgow, which will lead to better outcomes for his constituents who need support from the jobcentre.

  • I have been working with two teenage constituents whose mother sadly passed away after a terminal illness. Due to not having a witnessed will, the daughters will not inherit any of the pension, which will go to the mother’s estranged second husband. Can we please have a statement from the Treasury about the issue of wrongful inheritance?

  • The hon. Gentleman raises a point that is important to his constituents, although it is, of course, not one to which I can give him an answer today. He may wish to pursue a written question, which results in a statement of fact from the relevant Department that will help him to progress that particular piece of casework.

  • Has the Minister seen the BBC reports this week on the results of a survey about bullying in this place—results that will come as no surprise to members of the Unite parliamentary staff branch? In view of this survey, will he tell the House whether there has been any progress on the publication of the report into bullying and sexual harassment?

  • I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Leader of the House is taking this issue extremely seriously. She has played a key role, working with the shadow Leader of the House on the working group that is trying to come up with a cross-party consensus on the steps that should be taken. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that any workplace bullying—whatever the venue—is wrong, more so than ever in this place. We all rely on the people who work so hard in our private offices to manage both the constituency end of the business and what we do here in Westminster, and they deserve to be treated with respect at all times.

  • Let me first say that I am grateful to the Prime Minister for lengthily raising the importance of the freedom of religion or belief in her Christmas message. In December last year, I mentioned the alarming scale of deaths caused by persistent violence between the Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers in Nigeria’s middle belt. The new year parade saw several attacks on Christians in five communities in Benue State, where more than 50 people were killed. Will the Minister request a statement to review the training that the UK provides to the Nigerian armed forces to ensure that Nigeria’s citizens are protected?

  • The hon. Gentleman is, quite rightly, an assiduous campaigner on this issue, and there are numerous debates on this issue. I am struck by how many of my constituents also contact me with these concerns. I congratulate him on his persistence and urge him to continue with those debates on this very important issue.

  • The Minister will have been made aware today of the impending closure of the jobcentre in Maryhill and Possilpark that serves half of my constituency, but he may not be aware of a freedom of information request that was made for an impact assessment of that closure. That has determined that the nearest jobcentre will be three miles aware in Springburn, and that there will be a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities and caring responsibilities. Will the Minister insist that the new Minister for Employment attends this House and makes a statement on the impact that this closure will have, and on how he will mitigate it?

  • The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this matter. He will have heard me say earlier that where longer journeys times were involved, we had a full public consultation on the decision. I ask him to bear in mind what I also said to the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), which is that I would like him to focus as much as possible on the outputs of the process, which will lead to more work coaches assisting his constituents.

  • The Scottish Government have now twice written to the outgoing Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, asking her to intervene in order to save jobs in the culture and sports sectors following the severe decline in lottery revenues seeing huge cuts to the money going to devolved sports and culture bodies. May we have a debate on the importance of sport and culture, and on how we plug the huge gap in resources causing these sectors to suffer?

  • I will certainly mention that point to the Leader of the House, who will want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets the response he expects. At the same time, I urge him to consider the various avenues for debates in this place to find an appropriate forum to air his concerns.

  • I am most grateful to the Government Whip on duty, and thank him for his sterling service. He has had to respond to a vast litany of different inquiries and, if I may say so, has performed with great dexterity.

  • Fostering

    Education Committee

    Select Committee statement

  • We now come to the Select Committee statement. The Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which time no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, the occupant of the Chair will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and will call the right hon. Gentleman to respond to those questions in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may take part in questioning.

  • I am delighted to make this short statement about our Committee’s report. Social justice is one of the primary objectives of the Education Committee. It is vital that young people in foster care are able to climb the educational ladder of opportunity like anybody else. I begin by paying tribute to the previous Committee of the 2015 Parliament and particularly to its Chair, the former Member for Stroud. I also thank the officers of the Education Committee, who have done a huge amount of work on this report.

    In our final evidence session, we heard moving testimony from young people with experience of foster care. Members present had dry throats and some had tears in their eyes. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), the former Minister for Children and Families, for whom I have huge respect; he was willing to share his evidence session with the young people, which created an important and unique session.

    In our report, we wrote of the importance of valuing the three pillars of fostering: valuing young people, valuing foster carers and valuing the care system itself. The fact is that the foster care system in England is under significant pressure. That must be of national concern, given that it is often the most vulnerable young people in our society who are being failed by a care system that does not meet their needs.

    The number of looked-after children has risen by 7% since 2013. I welcome the fact that the Government have recognised that pressure and commissioned their own review of fostering by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers. I understand that that review is with Ministers at the moment and will be considered alongside the recommendations made by our Committee.

    Let us begin with valuing young people. Foster children face a lottery of care, frequent placements, and the possibility of being separated from their siblings. We heard moving evidence from young people who spoke about the number of placements they experienced. One young person in foster care had been through eight placements in four years. Another spoke about having

    “moved six times in less than no time”,

    while another had lived in thirteen different foster placements and two children’s homes in five years. Such frequency of placement change can only be damaging to the children’s wellbeing, development and future prospects. The Government must redouble every effort to ensure that young people and children do not face the prospect of such a dizzying number of placements.

    What truly shocked every member of the Committee was that some foster children move placements with very short notice, little to no information, and often without any advocacy rights at all. It is clear that the guidelines intended to tackle these issues are being applied inconsistently at best and inhumanely at worst.

    To give another example, we heard about young people in foster care being separated from their siblings. Figures suggest that 70% of siblings are not placed together when one is already in care. A 17-year-old, who had been moved away from her siblings, told us that

    “to lose a bond with your own siblings is sad, because you’re by yourself in the world and your siblings are practically your best friends and now you’re losing them—you’ve lost your parents and then your siblings, and it’s like your whole world has crashed down really quite quickly.”

    Young people must be placed with siblings wherever it is possible and appropriate. If it is not, social workers and others have to make a greater effort to facilitate regular and meaningful contact. I urge the new Minister with responsibility for children to ensure consistency and guarantees of advocacy for all foster children. Ofsted says that one in three children do not even receive any information on their placement, which is unacceptable.

    The second chapter of our report focuses on valuing foster carers. They play an important role in our society—they provide remarkable care in difficult circumstances—but are often under-appreciated, undermined and undervalued. The Fostering Network estimates that there is a deficit of 7,600 foster carers. The foster carer population is disproportionately female and ever ageing. Too often they have to wade through a treacle of bureaucracy, and they are not adequately supported financially or professionally in the vital work they do. Their status is unclear in terms of employment—but not, sadly, with the Inland Revenue, which treats them as if they were employed.

    In our report, we press the Government to ensure that all foster carers are paid the national minimum allowance. The Fostering Network found that 12% of local authority fostering services were paying below the national minimum allowance for at least one age bracket, that 47% had frozen allowances and that five had reduced rates compared with 2016-17. Ministers need to make sure that the allowance matches rises in living costs and allows carers to meet the needs of those they are caring for. Carers must also benefit from legal protection against the increasing number of malicious and unfounded allegations.

    The final section of the report concerns valuing care. We recommend that the Department for Education establish a national college to work towards improving working conditions for carers, provide a resource for their training and support and give them a national voice and representation. Initially, we envisage not a building but a virtual college on the internet. We believe there is value in a mechanism for greater sharing of best practice and increasing professionalism and for creating a proper identity for all foster carers across our country. We believe that a national recruitment and awareness campaign, initiated by the Department, could help to improve capacity in the system.

    For too many children and young people, the experience of care is of something done to them, not with them. There has to be greater involvement of foster children and better information for them on their placements, and a consistency of practice to ensure that all young people can benefit from an appropriate and positive experience of foster care. The Government listened to the strong representations from Committee members on extending the extra 15 hours a week childcare entitlement to children in foster care, and I welcome the moves that have been made on that. In this new year, the Committee hopes that Ministers will consider the recommendations in our report and show that we truly value foster children and foster care.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for ensuring that the fostering report was finished in this Parliament. I was a member of the Select Committee in the previous Parliament, and am a member in this one, and I am glad he shares my views on the importance of making sure that children in care have a voice. Does he agree that one of the most powerful points made to the Committee during the inquiry was on the importance of stability and permanence in a child’s life, especially for children who have experienced so much instability and disruption? Will he work with me to ensure that both their voices and that issue continue to be heard in the House?

  • May I put on the record my huge thanks to my hon. Friend for her support and hard work on the Committee in getting the report to the House and for her remarkable knowledge about and passion for children in care? She is absolutely right that stability is one of the most important things. It is incredible to me that children are moved from pillar to post, often without any knowledge of what is going to happen, any choice or any access to advocacy. That has to change.

  • I warmly commend the right hon. Gentleman and the whole Committee for the report. I know from my next-door neighbours, who have been foster carers and have now adopted, of the phenomenal love, tenderness, care, dedication and commitment of foster carers, often in the face of phenomenal bureaucratic obstacles.

    The right hon. Gentleman will probably know of the statistics that show that the proportion of girls in care who go on to become teenage mums or to be raped is much higher than the proportion among other girls. What can we do to ensure that these people—the most vulnerable people in our society—are properly protected?

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful question and for raising that wider point. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) talks about this issue quite a bit. The crucial thing is early intervention and prevention to avoid the problems the hon. Gentleman raises. My view is that we need a wider review of the whole issue of vulnerable children and children in care. He touches on points that will no doubt be further discussed in the House and in the Committee.

  • May I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?

    I welcome the report and very much hope that it will be taken seriously by the Department for Education, in tandem with the Narey report, which has been submitted. I entirely recognise the problems that my right hon. Friend’s Committee has flagged up in respect of the shortage of supply of foster carers, too many foster children being moved around too often, too many of them being moved well out of the area of their placing authority, and too many sibling groups—that vital anchor—bring broken up.

    On foster carers, what examples of good practice by local authorities in recruitment and retention did the Committee see? What lessons does my right hon. Friend think can be learned from the work that some of us did in the Department for Education on adoption through centralised recruitment to encourage adopters to come forward and, crucially, on offering adoption support services to make the job of the wonderful adopters so much easier and placements much more sustainable? That is still not happening to the same extent for foster children.

  • I thank my hon. Friend for his question and welcome his new-look Gandalf-type beard. He raises some important issues. The previous Committee and the current Committee received evidence from different local authorities and fostering providers. There is good practice, and we need to learn from it. That is why the report suggests that we have a national college for foster carers that shares best practice, whether it comes from adoption or from good local authorities. I do think we need a national recruitment campaign for foster carers. They need much more of an identity and should be seen much more as the professionals that they are. We have to learn from best practice.

  • Backbench Business

    Defence

  • I beg to move,

    That this House pays tribute to the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces; believes that the Armed Forces must be fully-equipped and resourced to carry out their duties; and calls on the Government to ensure that defence expenditure is maintained at least at current levels, that no significant capabilities are withdrawn from service, that the number of regular serving personnel across the Armed Forced is maintained, and that current levels of training are maintained.

    I am not sure whether I have to declare an interest, but I want to put it on the record that my son-in-law is an active member of Her Majesty’s reserves. As a family, we are all very proud of him, as no doubt many other hon. Members will be proud of individual members of their families.

    I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting the application and all Members of the House who supported my securing this debate, including the Chair of the Select Committee on Defence, my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

    No one questions the desire of any Member of this Parliament to defend our country against any threat. I say loudly and clearly that neither does anyone question Parliament’s pride or belief in the professionalism and immense dedication to duty of our armed forces. It is really important to say to those watching this debate that Parliament will rightly challenge the Government and hold them to account, but all of us, whether on the Government or Opposition Benches, are united in wanting to defend our country and in our immense pride for the dedication and professionalism of all our armed forces.

    No one questions that, but Parliament does sometimes have to ask whether starting these debates is enough. At a time when our country faces real challenges, we have to match our rhetoric with the reality of the threats that we face. The Government, like all of us in this House, will know—indeed, this is what prompted so many of us to ask for this debate—of the constant media speculation and headline splashes about cuts to the various capabilities of our armed forces. It is vital that our defence budget, whatever that is, ensures that our armed forces are properly equipped for the challenges we will face in the future. It is abundantly clear that our armed forces—this will be one theme of what I say and, I am sure, of what is said by many other Members—need resources over and above what is currently planned for them, particularly in the light of the increasing threats we face as a country.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his commitment to defence. Is it not true that the Government have not set out a strategic vision of how we, as a country, will meet the threats we face?

  • That question goes to the heart of everything we read from the all the various Select Committees and debates. It is the desire of all those Committees, of this Parliament and of all of us who take an interest in defence that we identify the strategic threats we face as a country, and then mould and adapt our armed forces and our security and intelligence services to meet those threats. I will say a little more about my hon. Friend’s point in a minute.

    Only yesterday, General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the British Army, said on the “Today” programme that the threats had never been greater in his 40-year career. In evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Mark Sedwill, the National Security Adviser, confirmed that in the last two years we have seen an intensification of the threats we face. Indeed, the former Defence Secretary spoke at another evidence session of an intensification of the risks that our country faces.

    We can all name those risks: we have seen the various adventures that Russia has been involved in; we have seen what has happened with China and North Korea; we have seen terrible terrorist incidents in our country; we have seen the identification of risks in respect of new technologies, cyber and artificial intelligence and where that may take us; and we have seen the undermining of the rules-based international order. Those are not made-up threats; they are very real assessments of what our country faces, alongside its allies and those who stand with us. Parliament has a responsibility and a duty to debate how we will meet those threats. That is, I believe, something that the public would expect us to do.

    This has been added to, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, by Brexit, which has caused us, as a nation, to reflect on our place in the world. I say strongly to hon. Members—looking around, I think many will agree—that this Parliament should once again send a clear message to our allies and the rest of the world that as a senior member of NATO, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a leader of the Commonwealth, we will not turn inwards and we will not flinch from our historical role as a promoter of democracy and defender of human rights, while also ensuring that our own interests are fully protected.

  • My hon. Friend mentioned North Korea. Is it not the case that the actions of the North Korean regime are a massive threat to the international rules-based order, and does not that need to have higher priority in the thinking not only of our own Government but of our allies?

  • My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. North Korea and China are threatening some of the rules-based international order—particularly, as he says, North Korea. We have to meet that threat, and this debate is partly about how we do that. We have to win the argument again with the British public on this. The British public have to be persuaded—or not, because they can say, “We don’t agree.” We as a Parliament have to make the case again for why it is sometimes important for us to be concerned about actions that are taking place thousands and thousands of miles away, and understand why they have an impact on our own interests and our own security here at home. It can no longer be enough just to assert a problem—we have to once again make the case as to why matters such as North Korea are important.

    Just two years after the strategic defence and security review of 2015, here we are in the midst of another review, led by Mark Sedwill. I know—other Members have mentioned this to me—that the Defence Secretary is trying to pull away the defence part of the security capability to provide a longer time to reflect, and I hope he is successful in doing that. However, as it stands, we have a review that is shrouded in uncertainty and that we are now told is to be delayed. One particular thing that was said in the Committee is completely wrong and has to be changed by the Government. Mr Sedwill said that

    “this exercise was commissioned by the Council as fiscally neutral.”

    Fiscally neutral? How can we come to such a conclusion before all the strands of the review are finished? Surely this is about matching resources to threats, not the other way round. Let this be the line in the sand that ensures that this principle is at the heart of the decisions we take as we now move forward.

    We see story after story appearing in the media, speculating on which capability may or may not be cut. Why does this speculation abound? Why are there not statements to Parliament? Why is there no explanation of what is actually going on? To be fair to the Minister, I know that he will be concerned about some of this, but it is not good enough for the Government to dismiss these potential capability cuts as mere speculation by saying, “We don’t comment on these” or “No decisions have been made”. I do not want—nor, I am sure, does any Member of this House—a statement to be made to this House in three months’ time telling us what is going to be done rather than this House having debated and discussed it and come to a view as to where we should go. I do not want, and I do not believe Parliament wants, to wait for a set of decisions to be presented to us as a fait accompli. That is not good enough. Our country deserves better. The public and Parliament need to be properly informed. I am certain that colleagues across this House believe that it is for Parliament to debate the issues, to inform the decisions, and to play our full part in the choices we make as to how we defend our country and its freedoms.

    According to the permanent secretary at a hearing of the Defence Committee at the end of last year, it appears that the Secretary of State has, as yet, made no explicit request for additional funding from the Chancellor. Will the Minister tell us where the discussions that have been reported in the media have got to? Will he confirm what the Defence Secretary is now saying to the Chancellor? Has he demanded any additional funding? Where has the discussion got to, or not, as to whether there is to be any additional funding? Will the Minister also confirm whether the defence aspect of the capabilities review has been delayed?

  • The hon. Gentleman will probably be astonished to learn that the National Security Adviser—Sir Mark Sedwill, as he now is—wrote to me on 23 October and said:

    “Because the main decisions on Defence were taken during the”

    2015

    “SDSR, this review is not defence-focused. Defence capability is one of several projects within the review.”

    We are therefore finding difficulty in bringing the National Security Adviser to the Defence Committee because he says that the review is not defence-focused. Yet the first thing we will know about the review is when we are told what major defence capabilities are going to be cut.

  • I could not agree more with the Chair of the Defence Committee. He is absolutely right. Sir Mark Sedwill says that the review is not defence-focused, but he also said to the Committee, if I remember correctly—he has certainly been reported as saying this in the media—that there is a need for us to increase spending on our cyber and intelligence capabilities. This is fiscally neutral, so where is the money going to come from? That is why we get the speculation about the cuts in defence capabilities to which the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) refers. Because this is fiscally neutral, we are looking to take money from one thing to pay for another. The whole thrust of my argument is that if one thing is a threat and another thing is a threat, we do not rob from one to pay for the other—we fund them both because our country would demand that we do so.

  • I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. With regard to many of the commitments that were made in SDSR 2015, the money that would be needed to deliver on all those does not match up with what has been allocated to defence in the Budget statements. We are already being promised a lot of commitments that do not bear any relation to the amount of money that is currently allocated to defence in the Budget.

  • I agree. I will come on to the point that my hon. Friend has made very well when I talk about affordability.

  • I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate and on his speech, with every single word of which the whole House would agree. We also could not possibly disagree with the motion, with one exception. It is exceptionally disappointing that he calls for defence expenditure to be maintained “at current levels”. Actually, defence expenditure should be increased quite substantially, and that is the thrust of his speech, so he has got the wording of the motion slightly wrong.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his advice. I am sure that he has read the whole motion, which says that expenditure should be maintained

    “at least at current levels”.

    This is the problem that I have in trying to be conciliatory. I tried to put together something that everybody would agree with, but perhaps I should have been a bit stronger. I take the admonishment, but I did say “at least”.

  • My hon. Friend refers to maintaining a fiscally neutral position in defence spending. Does he recognise that in the past few years defence inflation has been 3.9%, on average, whereas the background GDP deflator has been only 0.8%? We are seeing a huge erosion of the effective purchasing power of the defence budget every year that is eroding our capability every year.

  • My hon. Friend knows, from his own background in the defence industry, the importance of the point he has made. It is not just the headline inflation figure but the real inflation rate we face that needs to be addressed when we make any spending decisions, so the point is very well made. If I may, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will speak for just a few more minutes.

    We find ourselves in an incredibly serious situation, given that a Defence Minister is reported to have threatened to resign if the Army numbers are reduced any further. Will the Government rule out any further reductions in troop numbers below the 82,000 figure? The Army is already 4,000 below that figure, recruitment and retention in our armed forces as a whole has reached crisis point and the current deficit in the number of service personnel needed is 5.6%. I say to the Minister that central to this—I know the Government have made some noises about it—is lifting the 1% public pay cap for our armed forces. We should ensure that something is done about it as soon as possible.

    What about the cuts to training that we have all read about? The Government have confirmed that a number of training exercises have already been cancelled for 2018, largely due to costs. According to a parliamentary written answer I have seen, those include Exercise Black Horse and Exercise Curry Trail, which involves jungle training. Have we now abandoned the foolish idea of cutting the marines by 1,000 people, and of getting rid of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, which would mean we did not have the ability to mount beach landings? As I have said, the Government say that this is speculation, but the Minister now has an opportunity to rule out such things; he could say that this is speculation, that these things are not going to happen and that this Government will not let them take place.

    Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), all of this is taking place against the backdrop of continuing financial pressures on the MOD’s £178 billion 10-year equipment plan. The National Audit Office has said:

    “The risks to the affordability of the Ministry of Defence Equipment Plan are greater than at any point since reporting began in 2012”.

    That is surely right. The plan relies heavily on efficiency savings being made in order to make ends meet. The MOD’s permanent secretary has stated that there is a need to save £30 billion over a 10-year period.

    The 10-year equipment plan for the MOD does have amazing new equipment for our armed forces—new frigates, new planes and the Ajax fighting vehicle—and our defence companies provide massive employment opportunities, including apprenticeships. Many areas depend on this military spending, as well as businesses such as BAE, Airbus, Thales, Raytheon, Babcock and many others, including small and medium-sized enterprises. They need certainty in their orders, however, and regular orders to maintain their skill base, and the questions raised by the Defence Committee and the National Audit Office about affordability and efficiency savings cannot just be dismissed. The refreshed defence industrial strategy must be something that makes a tangible difference.

  • I strongly agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. We must support our brave men and women in our armed forces in every way we can, particularly in equipping them sufficiently. I know he would agree with me that it is critical to support our armed forces personnel after they leave and to resource such support properly. There is one part of the United Kingdom that does not have full implementation of the armed forces covenant, and that is Northern Ireland, due to Sinn Féin’s continued antipathy to the armed forces. Does he not agree that we should all work together to make sure that our armed forces personnel are fully supported not only while they are in the Army, but after they leave, and that there should be full implementation in Northern Ireland as soon as possible?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for the important point she makes. It is obviously crucial that all our veterans, wherever they are, are supported and that arrangements are made to do so. Exactly how that should be done in Northern Ireland needs to be a matter for discussion, but let me say it is clear that arrangements must and should be put in place to support our veterans.

    I was talking about the equipment plan, and I will take a couple more minutes to put before the House some points that highlight the problems. Will the Minister be more specific about the cost of the F-35 fighter plane for our wonderful new aircraft carriers? This is crucial because if we do not know how much the planes will cost, we do not know what the impact will be on the other parts of the equipment budget. If I may say so to the right hon. Member for New Forest East, I thought the Defence Committee’s report was brilliant on this, including the questioning from the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and others.

    I find it frustrating that the Committee, and other Members of this House, use the Government’s figures, but are then told something else. The total estimated cost to 2026-27 is £9.1 billion, during which time we will purchase 48 aircraft. However, the Government tell us that they cannot say how much each aircraft will cost. They then dispute the £9.1 billion figure, saying it includes this and includes that, and then arrive at a different figure, so what is the right figure? If we are wrong to divide £9.1 billion by 48, which gives £189 million per aircraft, and if the figure of £150 million given in The Times is wrong, what figure are the Government using to make sure that their equipment plan adds up? These are crucial questions, because if they will not say what is affordable, we will not know the impact on other capabilities.

    Let me conclude by saying that the stark choices before us have recently been quite starkly spoken about by three very distinguished former armed forces commanders when they expressed their concerns and observations about the national security capability review. General Sir Richard Barrons said that

    “if you do not put this money back into defence and pay the bill for SDSR 2015, you will be responsible for tipping the armed forces into institutional failure. That will be a failure of Government, not the armed forces.”

    Air Vice-Marshal Sir Baz North said that the Government needed to

    “Fund the corrections of 2015”,

    and, agreeing, Admiral Sir George Zambellas said:

    “I cannot add value to the strategic comments of my colleagues.”

    This debate gives the House—this Parliament—an opportunity to speak for the country, and to give our armed forces the resources they need to meet the threats that this country faces. Our armed forces deserve it, our country deserves it and our allies are looking to us to provide it.

  • I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). Not for the first time, he has given great service to the cause of defence. He was an outstandingly good shadow Defence Secretary, and as long as there are people like him in the ranks of the Labour party the prospects for a bipartisan approach to defence remain excellent. I must extend that praise to all 11 Members from the four parties represented on the Defence Committee, every one of whom is strongly committed to the defence of this country.

    Until recent years, little attention was paid to a possible threat from post-communist Russia, because for a long time after 9/11 counter-insurgency campaigns in third world countries were thought to be the principal role of the armed forces. However, we are now spending just £0.4 billion on operations of that type out of an annual defence budget of about £36 billion. According to the 2015 SDSR, that budget should by 2020 fund 82,000 soldiers, more than 30,000 sailors and marines, and almost 32,000 RAF personnel, plus another 35,000 reservists. To these must be added some 41,000 civilians, many of whom, like those who serve in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, are service personnel in all but name. Finally, there are special forces, as well as new units that have been created to deal with cyber-security and counter-propaganda. Then there is all the equipment, which currently comprises over 4,000 Army vehicles, including tanks and artillery; about 75 Royal Navy ships and submarines, including the nuclear deterrent; and over 1,000 RAF fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. As a portent of things to come, the services also operate a mixture of large and small surveillance drones and 10 unmanned hunter-killer aerial attack vehicles.

    All in all, we still have a fairly full spectrum of military capability, and in absolute terms—as I am sure we would all accept—£36 billion a year is a considerable sum. Set in historical perspective, however, that level of defence investment falls far below the efforts that we have traditionally made when confronted by danger internationally.

    The Defence Committee published a report on defence expenditure in April 2016. Entitled, “Shifting the Goalposts?”, it attracted attention for highlighting the inclusion of costly items such as war pensions and MOD civilian pensions at a time when Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne were scrambling to meet the 2% of GDP benchmark which, as we know, was set by NATO as a minimum—not as a target—for all its members. The Government were entitled to include such items in their 2% calculations, but they had never chosen to do so previously. It was therefore clear that by resorting to a form of creative accountancy, we were no longer strictly comparing like with like in overall expenditure terms.

    Our report was especially revealing in its tables and graphs, which were well researched by Committee staff. They showed UK defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP, year by year, from the mid-1950s to the present day, and compared those data with the corresponding figures for spending on welfare, education and health. We found that in 1963 we spent similar sums—about 6% of GDP—on both welfare and defence. Now we spend six times on welfare what we spend on defence. In the mid-1980s, the last time we faced a simultaneous threat from an assertive Soviet Union, as it then was, and a major terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, we spent similar sums—about 5% of GDP—on education, on health, and on defence. Now we spend two and half times on education, and nearly four times on health, what we spend on defence.

    At the height of the east-west confrontation, in every year from 1981 until 1987, we spent between 4.3% and 5.1% of GDP on defence. Between the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the failure of the Moscow coup in 1991, the cold war came to an end. Consequently, and predictably, a reduction in defence expenditure followed. That was known as the peace dividend yet—this is the key point—even after it had been taken, and even as late as the financial year 1995-96, we were still spending not 2% of GDP, which is the NATO minimum, but fully 3% of GDP on defence. That was without the accounting adjustments that have been used to scrape over the 2% line in the past few years.

    To sum up, from 1988 when the cold war began to evaporate, until 2014 when we pulled back from Afghanistan, defence spending almost halved as a proportion of GDP. Now that we face a newly assertive Russia and a global terrorist threat, the decision to set 3% of GDP as our defence expenditure target can no longer be delayed.

  • I have also looked at the statistics mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, and he is absolutely right about the creative accounting. Even taking that into account, it seems impossible to reach the conclusion that we have ever spent as little as we currently spend on defence in comparison with our GDP.

  • That is absolutely right. It is a measure of how far downwards our expectations were managed during the reductions in percentage GDP spent on defence under the Blair Government and the Cameron coalition Government, that it was regarded as a cause for triumph and congratulation when it was finally confirmed that we would not be dropping expenditure below 2%. The matter had never been questioned at all prior to that period.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and it is a pleasure to serve under his stout chairmanship of the Defence Committee—[Interruption.] I mean stout in personality terms.

    In some ways, the situation is even more challenging than the one my right hon. Friend lays out. He has rightly given the figures in terms of GDP, but in recent years—as we heard in testimony from the permanent under-secretary—in almost every strategic defence and security review and comprehensive spending review, the MOD has had to sign up to additional sets of efficiency savings, now totalling some £30 billion over time. Not only does the MOD have a constricted budget, it has had to find those efficiency savings as well, which makes the situation even more challenging.

  • My right hon. Friend speaks with great experience as a former Armed Forces Minister, and he made a considerable input to our recent report, “Gambling on ‘Efficiency’: Defence Acquisition and Procurement”, by making that very point.

    Quite rightly, the hon. Member for Gedling emphasised the current process involving the national security capability review, and he focused on the question of fiscal neutrality, which the National Security Adviser says he has been told to observe. When I challenged the National Security Adviser with that on 18 December, when he appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, he said, “Well, it’s not as if the defence budget isn’t growing; it is fiscal neutrality within a growing budget.” He then did something else, which is indicative of a worrying trend: he lumped together the £36 billion that we are spending avowedly on defence with all the other money that we spend on everything else related to security, and he started talking about a £56 billion budget. That lumping together of money for security and intelligence services, counter-terrorism and even the relevant aspects of policing with the defence budget, is a form of sleight of hand that causes me concern. That is what I wish to address in the second half of my remarks.

    We have a real problem in this country because the tried and tested system for strategic decision making has broken down. In my years as a research student, my area of study was the way that Britain planned towards the end of the second world war, and the early period after it, for what form of strategy we would need to deal with future threats. I was struck by the fact that there was a huge argument between 1944 and 1946 between clever officials in the Foreign Office who wanted to make the Anglo-Soviet alliance of 1942 the cornerstone of our post-war foreign policy, and the Chiefs of Staff who wanted to prepare their assessments of what Britain might have to face militarily on alternative assumptions that that alliance might well continue—in which case all would be well—but that it might break down. There was a tremendous stand-off until 1946, when finally the iron curtain had descended and it became clear that the Chiefs of Staff, who had looked at the Anglo-Soviet alliance in theoretical terms and said, “Well it could work, but it might not”, had been right to be cautious, and the Foreign Office staff, who wanted to put all their eggs in the basket of being able to continue the wartime alliance into peacetime, had been wrong. I was very struck by the systematic way in which the strategic arguments were hammered out, and at the centre of it all was the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

    The Chiefs of Staff Committee, as we all know, is made up of the heads of each of the three services. The shocking thing that I have to say to the House today is that one can now become chief of staff of any of the three armed services—one can become head of the Royal Navy, or head of the Army, or head of the Royal Air Force—and yet have no direct input into the strategic planning process. This is all part of the lumping together of military strategic planning with national security strategies that are vague and amorphous and, above all, primarily in the hands of civil servants.

    If the civil servants themselves were steeped, as they used to be, in the subject matter of their Departments, that would be less of a problem than it is today. But some years ago, it was decided that those in the senior levels of the civil service—which are, of course, peopled by very clever and able individuals; that is not in dispute—should be able to hop from one Department to another. One might be at a senior level in one Department and then go for the top job in another, including, for example, the Ministry of Defence. What we have is a combination where formerly specialist civil servants have become generalists and the professional military advisers—the Chiefs of Staff—have become more like business managers serving as chief executives with an allocated budget to administer to their services. All their thoughts about strategy get fed through just one single individual—the Chief of the Defence Staff—who then has to represent all their views on the National Security Council. It is this melding together, this mishmash, of the military, the security and the civilian roles that is undermining what we need, which is a clear-headed and systematic approach to the strategic challenges facing this country.

  • My right hon. Friend is making an extremely important point about the whole structure of decision making within the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence. Does he agree that he has not yet mentioned a very important element in that, namely Ministers? He has not yet discussed Ministers’ role in considering the strategy of the nation. Is it not particularly interesting that when Sir Mark Sedwill appeared before the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy the other day, he let us know that the review that is currently being undertaken by his Department was commissioned during the general election campaign, when presumably Ministers had their minds on something else? I would be interested to know exactly who it was who commissioned the strategy at that particular time.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he made a very useful contribution to the questioning of Mark Sedwill on 18 December. The reason I have not really mentioned Ministers is that, frankly, Ministers do not seem to be having much of a role in this, either. What I did not say, because I did not want to dwell too long on it, is that the stand-off between the Chiefs of Staff and the Foreign Office in 1944 was finally resolved when it went all the way up to Churchill, who finally gave the Chiefs of Staff permission to continue doing the contingency planning for a possibly hostile Soviet Union that they wanted to do, and that the Foreign Office did not want them to do. The reality here is that there has been a loss of focus. There is no proper machinery, other than this rather woolly concept of a National Security Council, served by a secretariat, run effectively by the Cabinet Office.

    In conclusion, what I really want to say is this. Constitutionally, we know what is right. That was confirmed when we spoke to the former Secretary of State for Defence in the Defence Committee and he was attended by a senior MOD official. We asked him, “Is it still the case that the Chiefs of Staff—the heads of the armed forces—retain the right to go directly to No. 10 if they think the danger to the country is such that they have to make direct representations?” The answer was yes, it is. But what is the point of their having that right if they are not actually allowed to do the job of planning the strategies and doing what they used to do as a Committee —serving as the military advisers to the Government? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) says, ultimately, the Government always have the right to accept or reject such military advice as they get from the service chiefs, but the service chiefs ought to be in a position to give that advice.

  • My right hon. Friend is coming to his peroration, and I want to go back to his initial point, if I may try your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker. The important point, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), was the comparison between defence, education and health spending going back a couple of decades. Of course we have had the cold war demise, but I would recommend that hon. Members read the Prime Minister’s speech at the Guildhall in November, which talks about the new threats that are coming round. I pose the question: as we try and passionately make the case for the necessary funding for our armed forces, would it be easier for that case to be made if the passion and enthusiasm for our armed forces on the doorstep, as we campaign for general elections and so on, was comparable with that for health and education? I pose that question because I think there is a role for all of us to play in confirming what status our armed forces should have in future.

  • I am grateful to the Minister for making that point in that way, and nobody could be doing more than he is, within the constraints of his office, to make the case. We all know that.

    The reality is that defence is always difficult to get funded in peacetime because it is analogous to paying the premiums on an insurance policy, and people are always reluctant to pay the premiums, although they are very glad to have paid them when the time comes to call in the policy because something adverse has occurred.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee for giving way, but surely this is the role of Ministers. It is the role of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence to be providing t