House of Commons
Wednesday 13 February 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
There is currently just over 2 GW of installed and operational nuclear capacity in Scotland, split between Torness and Hunterston B. In 2011, 33% of electricity generated in Scotland came from these two nuclear power stations.
Is the Secretary of State aware that Wylfa and Anglesey are about to benefit from a massive investment in a new nuclear power station? Does he share my disappointment in the attitude shown by the Scottish Government, who reject any new nuclear investment?
Clearly, there is a significant contribution to our current energy mix from nuclear. My hon. Friend will be aware that planning on these matters is devolved to Scotland. It is a matter, rightly, for the Scottish Parliament to determine. For my part, I am delighted that we are seeing an increase in the proportion of renewables in our energy mix as part of a sustainable, affordable energy supply in the UK.
EDF Group’s nuclear power stations, including Torness in my constituency, produced their highest output for seven years in 2012. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a continuing long-term role for nuclear in keeping the lights on in Scotland?
I do not think that anybody can ignore the significant contribution that nuclear makes. Like the hon. Lady, I have many constituents who are employed at Torness. Nuclear power stations play an important role in our local economies, but I want to see a sustainable mix across the energy supplies and generation sector, and with renewables and others in the mix, that is a good thing too.
Why are this Government determined to throw money at an industry that has never been economically viable, while refusing to set a decarbonisation target to boost the renewables industry, which is already creating thousands of new jobs in Scotland?
Through energy market reform, we are underpinning the renewables sector for a very long time to come. What I do not understand is how the Scottish National party can propose independence, when Scottish Renewables would end up losing the biggest source of consumers who underpin the economics of that very important sector.
In its impact assessment, published on 28 June 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that 80,000 claimants of housing benefit in the social rented sector in Scotland will be affected by the under-occupation measure.
The Minister knows as well as I do that thousands of people in low-income households in Scotland who are going to lose out because of the bedroom tax have no realistic prospect of moving to a smaller house. According to that impact assessment, claimants in Scotland will be disproportionately hit because of the mismatch between the available housing stock and the needs of tenants, so will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to distance himself from the shameful attempt of this Government to stigmatise and penalise people who live in council houses and need help with their rent?
What is shameful is the way that the Scottish National party plays party politics with vulnerable people, pretending that there can be no welfare changes, yet putting forward nothing in their place and not indicating how welfare would be paid for in an independent Scotland.
12. The bedroom tax and other changes to housing benefit mean that millions of pounds will be removed from the Scottish economy and hundreds of jobs will be lost across the country, according to the Fraser of Allander Institute. Can the Minister tell the House what discussions he has had with the Chancellor about how to mitigate these losses to the Scottish economy? (142171)
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues fail ever to mention the discretionary housing payments fund, which will support people in difficult situations. He and his colleagues should be urging councils in Scotland to make use of that money. Scotland will get a very good share of the £155 million being provided.
Does the Minister not recognise the fact that there are people crying as a result of being given notices right now that tell them that they will have to get out of their house, or lose housing benefit as a result, come 1 April? That is the reality of the situation. Can the Minister not waken up to that fact?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman and others are not working with their local councils and housing associations to draw attention to the availability of the discretionary payments funds and the fact that there will be an opportunity to support the most vulnerable.
As well as the bedroom tax, the Government are preparing to tighten further the worst squeeze on ordinary people’s living standards in decades by cutting most benefits and tax credits by 4% in real terms over the next three years in plans that hurt the poorest 40% in Scotland three and a half times harder than the wealthiest. Does the Minister not accept that, with 800,000 working-age couples and single people in Scotland losing up to £5 a week, those cuts are not just socially brutal, but disastrous for the Scottish economy?
What I accept is that the Labour party put this country into the financial circumstances we found after the 2010 election. It says it wanted to reform welfare. It is quite happy to criticise individual measures, but it comes up with no proposals at all on how to fund them and puts forward no alternative proposals.
I welcome the recent announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on the planned extension of HS2 to Manchester and Leeds. Journey times between Scotland and London will be significantly reduced as a result.
The Minister’s answers simply will not do. If he was serious about improving transport links between Scotland and England, HS2, which is a massive investment, would not start in London and grind to a halt halfway through England in Manchester or Leeds; it would carry on to Glasgow and Edinburgh along the west and east coasts of Scotland. I ask him to go one better than the Department for Transport and tell us whether the Government have even a time scale for developing a plan for completing HS2 to Scotland.
As chair of the all-party west coast main line group, I wrote to a Scottish Government Minister to ask what they were prepared to do with regard to investment for the HS2 route starting from the north. Is it not irresponsible that the Scottish Government will not answer that question on HS2, even though two city councils—Edinburgh and Glasgow—will discuss it?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman, particularly in his capacity as chair of the all-party west coast main line group, has not had a response from the Scottish Government. As I indicated in my earlier answer, the UK Government are waiting for a response from the Scottish Government. We have made it absolutely clear that we want to work with them to ensure that the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom benefit from HS2.
I agree with earlier questioners and the Minister that HS2, if it is to go ahead, will be exceedingly important to both the north of England and transport links between Scotland and England. Can I therefore have his assurance that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will argue formidably for that in Cabinet and encourage the Government to start HS2, if it goes ahead, in the north?
Connectivity between Scotland and London is crucial to Scotland’s economic future. Can the Minister explain why, despite ongoing conversations between the UK and Scottish Governments, Scots are still in the dark about whether we will actually see a new line in Scotland?
I do not accept that Scots are in the dark with regard to a new line to Scotland. The UK Government have made it perfectly clear that their aspiration is to achieve high-speed rail to Scotland. We want to work very closely with the Scottish Government and we look forward to their making specific proposals.
I am in close contact with the Scottish business community and Treasury colleagues in the run-up to Budget 2013, and I have discussed with them a range of measures to support economic growth and fairness.
The Secretary of State is well respected across this House, but surely he, as a Liberal Democrat, can see the unfairness in giving millionaires a massive tax cut in April while introducing the bedroom tax. Could he make urgent representations to the Chancellor to reverse both of those policies before the draconian bedroom tax does untold damage not only to the vulnerable and disabled, but to our councils and housing associations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind opening comments. I point out to him that, as a result of measures that we have already taken and which, as a Liberal Democrat, I am very happy to champion, 183,000 Scots will be taken out of tax altogether from this April; 2 million people in low and middle-income families will pay less tax; and people on the minimum wage are paying half the tax that they were under the previous Government. Our 45p tax rate in April will be higher than that which prevailed under Labour for 12 years and 11 months. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is proud of that record.
Twenty-seven one-bedroom houses were available for let in the social sector in Edinburgh last week. Bids for them ranged from 30-odd to 300. New-build affordable starts in Scotland have fallen in the past two years from 7,900 to 3,400 because of cuts by the Scottish Government. Will the Secretary of State go to his Government in advance of the Budget and argue for a U-turn? His Government saved the trees; why not save the people?
I say politely to the hon. Lady that, like many of her colleagues, she routinely forgets the terrible financial backdrop against which we have had to make some very difficult decisions. We want a sustainable welfare system and will continue to emphasise and develop the fairness agenda, which is what we have achieved through cuts in tax and by introducing change, through universal credit, to get a much stronger and better welfare system.
Does the Minister agree that having the lowest corporation tax of all the G7 countries makes Scotland an incredibly attractive place to invest, and that that would be endangered in the unlikely event, I hope, of Scotland becoming independent?
I absolutely agree that it is essential that we have a competitive business environment, and our corporation tax proposals go right to the heart of that. We want to continue to rebalance and strengthen the economy and take it away from the terrible cliff that we came to under the previous Government.
10. I thank the Under-Secretary for organising the fuel summit in Glasgow, at which it was revealed that the island fuel duty discount could go up to 7p or 8p a litre while remaining in the Treasury budget of £5 million. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State lobby the Chancellor to increase the discount to 7p or 8p in the Budget, so that the full budget is spent to the benefit of island motorists? (142169)
It was important to have that summit to discuss all the key issues and to emphasise how that fuel discount has provided for people in island and remote communities. My hon. Friend has made a strong case for the Budget and I am sure that the Chancellor will have heard it.
Has the Secretary of State raised the unfairness of the bedroom tax with the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will he not tell him that it is one of the most rancid pieces of legislation to have been rammed through since the poll tax? Will he remind us how many Scottish Members of this House voted for it?
Anybody watching this debate will have noticed that the Secretary of State was not prepared to confirm that 82% of Scottish Members of this House voted against the bedroom tax. Just as with the poll tax, an unpopular, regressive measure is being imposed on the people in Scotland when the overwhelming majority of their public representatives are totally opposed to it. Could the Secretary of State explain how, in a modern, 21st-centruy democracy, it is possible to impose something just like the poll tax—the bedroom tax—on Scotland?
I want a sustainable welfare system that protects the most vulnerable and supports people into work and makes it pay. The reforms under universal credit will help to ensure that happens—backed up by our fair tax delivery, which has meant that more than 180,000 Scots have been taken out of tax altogether and that 2 million Scottish families on low and middle incomes are paying less tax.
Will the Secretary of State make a representation on behalf of my constituent, Mrs Frances Connor? Treatment for her cancer has left her with no feeling in her feet or hands. Her only help comes from her son, who stays with her three nights a week. The bedroom tax means that she cannot afford the room where her son stays. Why is the Secretary of State making it impossible for a son to care for his mother?
Like the hon. Lady, I express my deepest sympathy to her constituent and her family and recognise the challenging personal circumstances in which they live. We are looking to support some of the most vulnerable in these circumstances with transitional arrangements, and I would be happy to discuss that further with the hon. Lady.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Perhaps in that discussion we could talk about the thousands of others who are hit by this bedroom tax, because the transitional protections do not help those people. I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman ever imagined that he would be signing off such policies with the Tories. Last year he said:
“judge us by our record.”
Is making a son’s care for his mother unaffordable what he had in mind?
May I, as I did in response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), remind the hon. Lady of the scale of the financial challenge that faced this Government when they came into office and the need to tackle those serious problems? She should also remember that we have introduced huge extra measures to help families across Scotland. I have to say to her, as I said to the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), that we are not hearing credible solutions coming forward from her and her colleagues. Until such time as we do, we will not take any lessons on fairness from her.
6. What consideration his Department has given to the recommendations of the Electoral Commission’s report on the Scottish referendum. (142165)
The United Kingdom Government welcome the reports from the Electoral Commission. We agree with the commission’s advice on the question, on the funding levels for the referendum, and on the clarity of the process.
When in opposition the Secretary of State wanted to extinguish his office; now he is in government he is publishing papers that talk about extinguishing Scotland—yes, extinguishing Scotland. As an act of repentance, will he ensure that his Tory-Liberal Government play fair with the Electoral Commission, as the Scottish National party Government are doing, and, as the Electoral Commission referee has asked, enter into dialogue together on Scotland’s future?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the publication earlier this week of this major contribution to the debate by the UK Government. We agree with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. The document fleshes out the issues on the legal status of Scotland within the UK. Of course, over time, as these issues are discussed further, we will, as appropriate, meet the Scottish Government, as I have already said on many occasions. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I am delighted that that is good news for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.
We all want the referendum campaign to be fair. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that all parties taking part in the referendum campaign must adhere to what the Electoral Commission has said about spending limits?
Now that we have cross-party agreement on accepting the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, will the Secretary of State say what information he is going to put into the public domain on the implications of separation from the UK for things such as pensions, the welfare system and the economy of Scotland, which people need to know before they cast their vote?
The hon. Lady is entirely right to focus on the need for us to move on from the process arguments to the issues of substance for families across Scotland. I am delighted that yesterday in the Privy Council the section 30 order was approved so that now we will have a legal, fair and decisive referendum. In that referendum, we have to discuss the big issues. As we have seen this week with the legal paper, which will be followed by others on the issues she mentions, there are some big questions that need to be debated—and so far no answers from the Scottish National party.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the outcome of the referendum is to engage the confidence of the Scottish people, the campaign must be conducted with candour and transparency? This week the Government published their view of the legal consequences of independence. Is it not time for those who argue for independence to do the same?
It has been a curious week, but my right hon. and learned Friend is right to highlight that at times the Scottish National party has not been clear whether to embrace the opinions of our legal experts or to lambast them. The great merit of this document is that we have now laid out all the key arguments, backed up by the most impressive legal opinions, and nothing has come forward from the Scottish Government.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with representatives of universities in Scotland on a range of issues.
I thank the Minister for his response—so far, so good. He will know how important foreign students are to our economy. He will also know how unhappy our universities are with his Government, and they have every right to be. His Tory Government’s obsession with immigration is starting to really hurt us: a 26% reduction in students from India, a 25% reduction from Pakistan and a 14% reduction from Nigeria. Surely he can agree that we could obviously do this much better in Scotland if we had control over these issues.
Not for the first time I am confused by the SNP position. On some occasions, it states that it wants to have the same immigration rules as the rest of the UK so it can be in a common travel area; on other occasions, such as this, it says it wants uncontrolled mass immigration. Which is it?
13. Scotland’s proud history of research, innovation and discovery is inextricably bound up with the success of the United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that the only sure and certain and the best way to ensure that Scotland remains a leader in world-class research is for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom? (142172)
8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Ministers in the Scottish Government on the level of gambling machine usage in Scotland. (142167)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and with Scottish Ministers on a range of issues.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I will take cheers from anywhere.
Fixed-odds gambling terminals have sucked up £122 million in profits in the betting shops in Scotland. They are called the crack cocaine of the gambling industry. Is it not time for the Secretary of State to join me in lobbying to have the gambling prevalence survey reinstated, considering how much addictive gambling there is in Scotland and other parts of the UK?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on the reintroduction of the prevalence survey, but I commend the Daily Record and the hon. Gentleman for highlighting issues relating to problem gambling. He may be aware that the Government are currently conducting a consultation on the links between problem gambling and B2 machines. I urge him, Daily Record readers and everyone with an interest in this matter to contribute to that consultation.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with representatives of local government in Scotland on a range of issues.
The truth is that the Secretary of State has not met the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities since 12 September last year. The consequences of the bedroom tax, which he voted for and which risks making 10,000 people in Scotland homeless, will be dealt with by local authorities. What will he do about that and when will he meet COSLA?
The hon. Lady should know that the Secretary of State has met COSLA within the past two weeks and is in regular contact with its leader. He will be making COSLA aware of the discretionary payments fund, which has been greatly increased in Scotland, and of how local authorities can utilise that.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s assumption is wrong. At meetings with COSLA, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations and my noble Friend Lord Freud, we have discussed that very issue and satisfied the concerns of housing associations and local authorities.
The Prime Minister was asked—
My constituent Constable Philippa Reynolds is being buried this afternoon, having been killed on duty with the PSNI in Londonderry. I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing sympathy to her family and acknowledging her dedicated service.
The horsemeat scandal has not only seriously undermined confidence in the safety of the food we eat, but threatens a very successful meat industry. Will the Prime Minister assure me that the Government will relentlessly follow every lead until each person or business responsible for any criminal or fraudulent act has been caught, exposed, prosecuted and then expelled from ever again having any part in the UK food industry?
I fully support what the hon. Gentleman has said, but first let me join him in praising Constable Reynolds, who died going about her job, keeping people safe in the community she loved. As well as wishing the two injured officers a full and quick recovery, I join him in sending my deepest condolences and those of everyone in the House to Constable Reynolds’ colleagues and loved ones.
On the appalling situation of people buying beef products in supermarkets and finding out that they could contain horsemeat, let me remind the House of what has happened and then bring it up to date. On 15 January, the Irish authorities identified problems in a number of beef products. On 16 January, I told the House that I had asked the Food Standards Agency to conduct an urgent investigation. As part of that investigation, there has been more testing and tracing, and this enhanced testing regime actually led to the discovery from Findus and others of not just contamination but, in some instances, of horsemeat being passed off as beef.
That is completely unacceptable, which is why it is right that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has led these meetings with retailers and producers. We have agreed a tougher inspection regime, and have asked hospitals, schools and prisons to check with their suppliers that they are testing their products. As the hon. Gentleman and the House know, yesterday the police and the FSA raided two premises, one in west Yorkshire, the other in west Wales, and as he said, if there has been criminal activity, there should be the full intervention of the law. We have also asked for meaningful tests from retailers and producers, and those will be published in full. He is right to say what he does.
In a week when both sides of the House have celebrated the wonders of the United Kingdom, I am delighted to discover that I now represent a midlands constituency. Will the Prime Minister please join me in celebrating a culture that touches both sides of the English-Scottish border by celebrating Cumbria day with us today?
I am very much looking forward to joining my hon. Friend at the celebration of Cumbria day here in the House of Commons. He is incredibly fortunate to represent one of the most beautiful and brilliant constituencies in the House of Commons. I particularly remember the time we spent at the Butchers Arms in his constituency—an outstanding pub in a beautiful part of our world.
We are helping working people by giving 24 million people a tax cut this year, and living standards will certainly be higher for those people on the minimum wage who are working full time, whose income tax bill has already been halved under this Government.
The answer is that people will be a lot better off than they were under Labour with a record deficit, with unreformed welfare and with a busted banking system. They will have seen a Government who have got the deficit down, cut their income taxes and dealt with the banks. As the Governor of the Bank of England said today, we are on the road to recovery.
All the right hon. Gentleman shows is how out of touch he is. He is even out of touch with his own Office for Budget Responsibility’s figures, which show that, by 2015, people will be worse off than they were in 2010 because prices have been rising faster than earnings under his Government. Why is this happening? He told us that the economy would be growing, but the truth is that it has been flatlining. Will he acknowledge that it is his failure to get growth that means that we have falling, not rising, living standards in this country?
The right hon. Gentleman says that prices are rising, but I would remind him that inflation is lower under this Government than what we inherited from Labour. It has been cut in half from its peak. Of course, if his question is, “Have you had to take difficult decisions to deal with the deficit, to get on top of the problems that we face, to reform welfare and to clean up our banks”—you bet we have had to take difficult decisions! No one in this country is in any doubt about why we have had to take difficult decisions; it is because of the mess that he left.
First, the deficit is going up, not down, because of the right hon. Gentleman’s economic failure. Secondly, we have a flatlining economy and—this will be the question over the next two years—declining living standards as a result. But of course, amidst those falling living standards, there is one group for whom the good times will come this April. Can he just remind us what the thinking was when he decided to provide an average tax cut of £100,000 for everyone earning over £1 million in this country?
The right hon. Gentleman should be familiar with the figures. When he put the top rate of tax up to 50p, millionaires paid £7 billion less in tax. That is what happened under his plans. I will tell him what is going to happen in April: every single taxpayer in this country, all 24 million of them, will see a tax cut as we raise the personal allowance, and as we get close to our goal of being able to earn £10,000 without paying any income tax at all. Of course, the biggest tax cut has been for those hard-working people on the minimum wage, going out to work day after day, who have seen their income tax bills cut in half. That is who we stand for, and that is who we are helping.
No matter how much the right hon. Gentleman blusters, he knows the truth. He has cut tax credits and raised VAT, and people are worse off, not better off. Does it not speak to how out of touch he is that last week he attended the Tory party winter ball, auctioned off a portrait of himself for £100,000 and then declared, without a hint of irony, that the Tories were
“no longer the party of privilege”?
You couldn’t make it up! Let me put the question another way. We are talking about people who are earning £20,000 a week—[Interruption.] Let me ask him the question again. What is it about those people that made him think that, this April, they needed extra help to keep the wolf from the door?
Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is this Government who have helped working people by freezing council tax, cutting petrol duty, cutting tax for 24 million people, and legislating so that people get the lowest tariff on their energy bills. That is what we have done while having a top rate of tax that is higher than any year when he was in the Treasury.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about important political events and speeches, and perhaps he will confirm something. I have here an invitation; he is going to make a major speech tomorrow, and I have the invitation. This is the invitation that has been sent out:
“Ed Miliband is going to make a ‘major’ speech on the economy on Thursday. It won’t have any new policies in it,”.
Let me tell the Prime Minister that he would be most welcome to attend the speech and he might learn something.
Every week that goes by, evidence mounts against the Government on the economy. There is a living standards crisis for the many and all he does is stand up for a few at the top. We have a failing Prime Minister; he is out of touch, and he stands up for the wrong people.
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about the deficit, nothing to say about welfare, and nothing to say about growth. Now he is going to make a speech tomorrow, which he kindly invites me to, but if there are not any policies, what would be the point of coming? Let me refer him to his policy guru, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who is responsible for Labour’s manifesto. He says:
“Simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good,”.
That is right; the whole Opposition Front Bench is no good.
Q2. The welfare state and the NHS are there to support our constituents when they fall on difficult times. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that the Government will not allow them to be abused by illegal immigrants and foreign nationals who come here as benefit tourists? (142824)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Britain has always been an open and welcoming economy, but it is not right if our systems are being abused. That is why yesterday I chaired a committee meeting in Whitehall, which my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is leading, where we are going to look at every single one of our systems—housing, health, benefits—and make sure that we are not a soft touch for those who want to come here. It is vital that we get this right. Many parts of our current arrangements simply do not pass a simple common-sense test in terms of access to housing, access to the health service and access to justice, and other things that should be the right of all British citizens but are not the right of anyone who just chooses to come here.
The coalition must be clearly labelled at all points. However, the right hon. Gentleman references an important point which is that retailers bear a real responsibility. At the end of the day, they are putting products on their shelves and they must be really clear about where that meat came from and who it was supplied by. It is up to them to test that, and I think that is vital.
Q3. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that with the Government’s plans to cap social care bills at £75,000 we are finally starting to defuse the ticking time bomb that is adult social care? The action will allow the insurance market to grow to protect against the liability, and we are helping people to protect their family homes in their old age. (142825)
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I would have thought that every Member of Parliament had heard from their constituents, and in meetings with groups such as Age Concern, and others, that right now it is completely unfair that the fickle finger of fate can pick someone out for dementia or Alzheimer’s and they lose the house they have invested their lifetime savings in. That is not fair, and for the first time this Government have come up with the money to make sure that we put a cap on what any family has to spend. It is the biggest pro-inheritance move that any Government have made in 20 years. Let us be clear: the intention is not that people should have to spend £75,000, but because we have put a cap in place there should be a proper insurance market. I do not want anyone to have to pay anything, and that is what these reforms can help to achieve.
That was a very good line, but I do think this is a serious issue. People are genuinely worried about what they are buying at the supermarket, and I really think we have got to get a grip of this rather than make jokes about it—but I will think of another one by the end of the session.
—such as campaigning against greenfield development and then voting for it, as the Liberal Democrat candidate in Eastleigh has, or purporting to support fan ownership of football clubs while undermining the community buy-out of Pompey, as the Professional Footballers Association has done this week?
First, may I wish my hon. Friend well in her campaign to help Portsmouth football club? What she does is very important. On the Eastleigh by-election—I hope all my hon. Friends will join me on the campaign trail in Eastleigh—what I would say to people in Eastleigh is that if they want a straight-talking candidate who does exactly what it says on the tin, Maria Hutchings is a local mum and a fantastic campaigner, and she would make a great Member of Parliament.
May I ask the Prime Minister for his help? I have to say to the House that I am defeated in my attempts to get a response from NHS South West London, on behalf of my constituent, Mr Aziz, who has pulmonary hypertension, chronic lung disease and left heart disease. Those at NHS South West London will not respond to my correspondence asking whether they will agree to look at allowing Professor Madden, the world famous cardiologist, to prescribe sildenafil for Mr Aziz’s treatment. I can get no response and my constituent might die, should he not get a decision.
Q6. Each year many dozens of my constituents have to sell their houses to pay for social care, which is random and unfair. Does the Prime Minister agree that the proposals announced last week will at last start to mitigate this issue? (142828)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As he says, it is completely random who can end up suffering from dementia and then suddenly find that, because they could be spending five, 10 or even more years in a care home, all the savings that they carefully put away through their hard-working life are completely wiped out. To cap the cost for the first time is a major breakthrough. It is a progressive move, but it will also help hard-working families who want to save and pass on their houses to their children. It will be this Government who will have made that possible.
Q7. Since the coalition came to power, some 350 libraries have closed. The Communities Secretary has dismissed those campaigning to save local libraries—parents hoping to teach their children to read or those who want to study our history and literature—as “just…a bunch of luvvies.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 561.]Whatever happened to the big society? (142829)
I strongly support our libraries and in my constituency we have worked very hard to ensure that libraries will be staying open—and they will be. The hon. Gentleman asks about the big society. Part of the answer to helping to keep libraries open is to tap the enthusiasm of communities to volunteer in libraries and to work in libraries to keep them open. I am sure that he, like me, will welcome the report this week showing that volunteering is up and charitable giving is up. I think the big society has a big role to play in keeping libraries open, sometimes in the teeth of opposition from Labour councils.
On Saturday I spoke at an event in my constituency, organised by Christian Aid and hosted by the Woodlands church in Clifton, on tax avoidance in developing countries. Does the Prime Minister agree that we could do much to combat this problem by assisting developing countries to develop their own tax collection and assessment capabilities, and by requiring British companies to be completely transparent about profits made and taxes paid in each country of operation?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and there is a huge amount of things we can do here. The work we have done with some less developed countries has actually seen their tax base sometimes as much as treble, and we need to do far more in all these countries because it is an absolutely vital part of development. I also agree with the issue he raises with respect to tax transparency, and that is why the Government are putting it at the head of our G8 agenda for the meeting that will take place in June at Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. One of the great things about this agenda is that it brings together developed and developing countries with a shared agenda that is good for both.
Q8. The Prime Minister gave the House an update on the EU negotiations on the budget, and he will know that regional aid, which comes from the EU, plays an important role for some of the regional assemblies when it comes to attracting inward investment. Will he update the House on the continuation of regional aid? (142830)
The outcome of the budget leaves the amount of overall regional aid that Britain will receive broadly similar to the last period at around €11 billion. There are changes in the definitions of regions, partly because of the new concept of transition regions. What we now need to do is to sit down, as the United Kingdom, and work out how best to make sure that the money is fairly divided between Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. There are transition regions in England that are looking to benefit, but I am sure that we can have fruitful discussions and come to a good conclusion.
Is my right hon. Friend amused that the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister are both trying to claim credit for his brilliant achievement of a real-terms cut in the EU budget? Does he hope that they will now follow his lead and both call for a referendum to be put to the British people?
I hope that, first, they will convince their MEPs to vote for the budget reduction: that would be helpful—[Interruption.] I also hope we can make some progress on the referendum issue, because the shadow Chancellor, who—as ever—is shouting from a sedentary position, was asked whether Labour would support an EU referendum, and he said:
“That slightly depends on how stupid we are, doesn’t it?”
That was his opening gambit. He went on to say that
“we’ve absolutely not ruled out a referendum”.
That is slightly in contrast to the leader of the Labour party, who said, “We don’t want an in-out referendum.” Perhaps when they have come up with an answer to this question, they will come to the House of Commons and tell us what it is.
Q9. According to a freedom of information answer, there were 4,000 fewer uniformed police officers on London’s streets after the Prime Minister’s first two years in office. With the percentage of crimes being solved in London down as well, why has the Prime Minister broken his promise to protect front-line policing? (142831)
Crime is down by 10%, not just generally, but specifically in the Harrow community safety partnership area—the hon. Gentleman’s area. That is a much greater reduction than for the whole Metropolitan police area. The number of neighbourhood police officers is actually up since the election, from 895 to 3,418, and there are many fewer officers in back-office jobs. In 2010, there were 1,346 of them and there are now fewer than 1,000. On all this, what we have seen is, yes, a reform agenda for the police and there have been spending reductions, but crime is down and visible policing is up.
With Japan, the eurozone and Switzerland all talking down their currencies, despite the statement by the G7 yesterday, does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important aim of the G20 meeting in Moscow this coming weekend should be to establish means to prevent competitive devaluation, which in the 1930s—[Interruption.] I was alive in the 1930s—as I can remember from my father’s experience, caused widespread unemployment and the protectionism that goes with it?
First, I would like to confirm that my right hon. Friend was not only alive in the 1930s but was, as now, absolutely thriving. What he says is important: no one wants to see a string of competitive devaluations. What happened to sterling as a result of the very deep recession here obviously was a depreciation. I do not believe that we can depreciate our way to growth, whatever country we are, but what we should do is use the benefit when there is a structural change to make sure we increase our competitiveness. That is what Britain needs to do.
Q10. The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways on care for elderly—with delivery and quality going on at the same time as council cuts. In Coventry, for example, an extra £28 million has to be cut from the budget—for Birmingham, the figure is £600 million—with nearly 1,000 jobs being lost over a period of two or three years. May we have a fair deal for the elderly, a fair deal for Coventry and a fair deal for the west midlands? (142832)
At the start of this Government in 2010 when we made the decision not to cut the NHS, we put NHS money into adult social care in local government because we recognised the importance of that budget. I would argue, too, that this week’s move to cap social care costs, while of course not solving the whole problem, was important. By creating a cap on what people will be charged, we can create an insurance market so that everyone can try to protect themselves against the long-term costs of social care. That should see more money coming into this absolutely vital area.
I certainly join my hon. Friend on that. This problem has dogged our economy over the last few years. No one wants us to go back to the 110% mortgages that we had during the boom times, but we need to make available to young people the chance of earning a decent salary to be able to buy a decent flat or house with a mortgage that does not require a massive deposit. That has not been possible for people in recent years, and I think that the Bank of England move on the funding for lending scheme—£80 billion—is now feeding through to the mortgage market and making available lower mortgages at a decent long-term rate. That is very important for our market.
I will pay all the taxes that are due in the proper way. The point I would make is that all the years in which the hon. Gentleman sat on this side of the House, there was a top rate of tax that was lower than the one we are putting in place. I did not hear any groaning from the hon. Gentleman then.
Q13. A typical council tax payer in my Aberconwy constituency will now pay £124 more than they did in 2010 because the money made available to the Labour Welsh Government has been used to fund their pet project to secure their majority in the Assembly. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that hard-working families in Wales are being used in order to fund the Labour party’s pork-barrel policy in Cardiff Bay? (142835)
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This Government have made available money for a council tax freeze. That has the consequence that money for that freeze is available in Wales, so people in Wales will know who to blame if their council tax is not frozen. It is the Labour Assembly Government in Wales: they are to blame; they are the ones who are charging hard-working people more for their council tax.
Q14. We all remember the Prime Minister’s promise last October that he would legislate to force energy companies to put customers on the lowest tariff. Will he explain why his Energy Bill contains no such commitment and why he has broken that promise? (142836)
Schools in Cambridgeshire were underfunded for decades by both the last Labour Government and the one before that, and the latest figure shows that they receive £600 per pupil per year less than the English average—the worst funding in the entire country. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is simply unfair? Will he support the Cambridge News “Fair deal for our schools” campaign, and pledge to end the discrepancy during the current Parliament?
I will consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said, but I will say to him now that we have protected the schools budget so that per-pupil funding is the same throughout this Parliament, and head teachers can plan on that basis. By encouraging academy schools and free schools, we are ensuring that more of the education money goes directly to them.
Q15. The Institute for Fiscal Affairs described the Chancellor’s tax changes and benefit cuts as giving with one hand and taking away with many others. Does the Prime Minister think that that is fair on hard-working families, when at the same time he is giving to millionaires with both hands? (142837)
I do not agree that that is what the IFS said. As I said when I quoted the IFS last week, it has pointed out that the highest increase in tax payments has come from the better off, and the changes that the Government have made are particularly helping hard-working people on the minimum wage who will see their income tax bills cut in half. That is what this Government are doing, and we will not forget the abolition of the 10p tax rate that clobbered every hard-working person in the country.
I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the Watford community exchange, which will take place on Friday. It will involve a meeting between 50 businesses and 50 charities and community organisations. I hope that the Prime Minister will congratulate Chris Luff of Freedom Communications, which has already offered 150 hours of its time to help local charities, including Westfield community centre. I also hope that the Prime Minister will encourage all his colleagues, including Ministers, to initiate similar proceedings in their constituencies, because this is the big society in action.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A very large part of the big society is businesses coming together to help voluntary groups and charities in local communities. I think it is excellent that my hon. Friend is doing that good work in his constituency, and I pay tribute to all who are joining him. As I said earlier, it is good news that volunteering is up, charitable giving is up, and the big society is getting bigger.
Procedures at the Northern Lincolnshire and Goole Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are being reviewed because of the high mortality rate, which is obviously of considerable concern to my constituents. Will the Prime Minister assure them that whatever recommendations result from the review will be implemented in full?
I can certainly give that assurance. It is important that we get to the bottom of any hospital having an unnaturally high mortality rate. It is also important that such inspections and investigations are carried out properly, and that we all learn the lessons of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry report.
I must make it clear that following the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, cross-party talks have been exploring different ways of implementing the tough self-regulatory system for the press which he recommended, and which would ensure that justice was done for the victims of press abuse.
As Members will know, there are already several press bills in the public domain which have been published by various organisations. The draft royal charter published by my party yesterday is outside the normal arrangements for collective agreement, and does not reflect an agreed position between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
I made it clear to the House on 3 December that we would
“send a loud message to the press of this country, and…that the status quo is not an option.” —[Official Report, 3 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 594.]
Both the Prime Minister and I wholeheartedly support a tough new system of independent self-regulation, as outlined by Lord Justice Leveson. We know that any new model must restore public confidence and ensure that the abuses of the past cannot happen again, but we continue to have grave reservations about statutory underpinning and, as such, we have concerns about implementing a press Bill. The royal charter I have published would put in place Leveson’s recommendations without the need for statutory underpinning. It would see the toughest press regulation this country has ever had, without compromising press freedom. The royal charter implements the principles of Leveson in a practical fashion and is the Conservative party’s alternative to Lord Justice Leveson’s suggested use of Ofcom as a verifying body. All parties now agree with us that handing further powers to Ofcom, an already powerful body, would not be appropriate.
Let us be clear: the charter does not create a regulator; rather, it establishes the body that will oversee the regulator. The regulatory system that the royal charter body will oversee will be tough, and the regulator will have the powers that Leveson set out to investigate serious or systemic breaches of the press code; to impose up to £1 million fines; and to require corrections and other remedies, including prominent apologies. The royal charter body will provide tough oversight and ensure that the new regulatory body is efficient and effective.
We have also published draft clauses for exemplary damages, which will provide real incentives for the industry to join the regulator and ensure that there are serious consequences for those that do not. This is tough regulation and a tough package, and delivers the principles of Leveson.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report was almost 2,000 pages long, and areas were raised in it about which all political parties have expressed great concern. Ofcom is but one example. All political parties expressed serious reservations around data protection proposals and their potential impact on important investigative journalism. There were also concerns about whether it would be appropriate for the Information Commissioner to investigate, and then decide on, public interest.
The royal charter reflects a principled way forward, proposed by the Conservative side of the coalition. We are clear that this is a workable solution, but it is only a draft, and we will continue to debate it as part of the cross-party talks, and we will continue to seek to secure agreement. We are all committed to the Leveson principles. This is about taking the Leveson report forward, and making sure it can work in practice. The challenge before all of us is to find an agreement. The victims deserve nothing less.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will she acknowledge that, as they stand, the Conservatives’ proposals do not implement the Leveson report recommendations? We called for cross-party talks and have been engaging in them in good faith, with her and with the Minister for Government Policy. Does she agree that what Leveson proposes is fair and is reasonable? It protects free speech and protects people from abuse and harassment by the press. There can be no justification for watering it down. The most straightforward way of implementing Leveson is by statute, rather than by royal charter and statute, but whichever route is chosen, we must implement the full Leveson, not Leveson-lite.
Leveson said that the system must be independent of Government, yet, through the Privy Council, Ministers would be able to tamper with the royal charter at any time. Will the Secretary of State address that problem with clauses in statute providing that, once established, Ministers cannot tamper with the charter? Leveson said the recognition panel must be independent of the press, yet the royal charter as drafted will allow the press to be part of the appointment process to the very body whose job is to guarantee the independence of the system. Will the Secretary of State take the press out of the appointment system, and will she undertake to come forward with changes to the recognition criteria, so that what is in the royal charter matches, rather than dilutes, Leveson?
Leveson’s report was published in November and there is growing impatience for it to be implemented. The December debate in this House made that clear, and the vote in the Lords on the Defamation Bill last week showed that there will be no acceptance of Leveson being watered down or kicked into the long grass. We will be reasonable on this, but we will be robust. We have an opportunity to make an important change that has been needed for decades. We must ensure that what the press did to the Dowlers, the McCanns, Abigail Witchalls’s family and to so many others, who suffered so terribly and whose lives were made a misery, can never happen again. Their heart-rending evidence to Leveson is the unanswerable case for lasting change. A big responsibility falls on us, and history will judge us as having failed in our duty if we do not implement Leveson now.
I start by thanking the right hon. and learned Lady for the work we have been doing together and for today’s opportunity to clarify some of the points she has raised. She is right to start by making sure that we all focus on the group of people we need to focus on—the victims. She knows that the Conservative party, myself and the Prime Minister are absolutely committed to implementing the principles in Leveson. She may need to reconsider her choice of words in advocating implementing Leveson in full, because she will know that that is not what her party advocates, and it is not what my party advocates either. There are clear recommendations on data protection and the use of Ofcom as the verifying body that she has already expressed deep concerns about, so I am sure she did not mean to say that she would advocate the full implementation of Leveson, as she just did in her remarks.
The right hon. and learned Lady rightly says that if we are to take a royal charter approach—I was pleased to see that there was not a wholehearted rejection of that when we put it forward yesterday—we do need to make sure that it cannot be tampered with. She will know, having looked at the charter itself, that we have made clear provisions to ensure that such tampering is not possible. I would very much welcome her intervening on me now to give her party’s clear undertaking that that would not be an approach she would take; she can take it from the Conservative party that there is no way that we would ever want to tamper with a royal charter, and I am sure that she would be able to give those undertakings, too.
The right hon. and learned Lady also raised the issue of the appointment process, rightly saying that it needs to be independent. That is why we have taken the approach that we have, which is to involve the Commissioner for Public Appointments and to make sure that we are following the good practice that we have on appointments to organisations that are similar to this. I have to say that some of the bodies involved in the conversations about the Leveson report, such as Hacked Off, have actually proposed involving politicians and the press in an appointments process. We would wholeheartedly reject that, because we do not think it is right. We know that the appointments process for the verification body needs to be independent, and those who have read the details of what we are proposing will see that that is exactly what we are doing.
The right hon. and learned Lady also outlined concerns about the recognition criteria. She is right to say that we need to make sure that we give very full regard to the criteria as set out in the Leveson report. That is why we have used his recommendations as the basis for that section of the royal charter, but clearly we have to make sure that they work in practice, and remove any uncertainty and any concerns about clarity. I know that she and I would agree that, as we move forward, certainty and clarity are vital in this area.
The Liberal Democrats have always been clear that we would prefer independent press regulation backed by statute rather than a royal charter, but we do accept that a royal charter could work. Unfortunately, the draft royal charter currently fails to meet the general requirements set out by Leveson. Regardless of what political parties might say now, does the Secretary of State accept that, as it stands, there is nothing to prevent the charter in law from being amended by a future Government through the Privy Council?
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome support. I give a clear undertaking that we will continue to work together through the cross-party process to make sure that we come to a consensus. I completely understand his desire to make sure that any verification body has clarity, certainty and longevity. That is exactly why we will put clear provisions in the charter that state clearly that any changes would have to have the full support of the three party leaders and a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Parliament. I believe that provides the sort of certainty that my hon. Friend is looking for.
May I ask the Secretary of State about data protection? I acknowledge the concerns expressed on both sides about Leveson’s chapter on data protection, but in 2008-09 both sides of the House agreed to change the Data Protection Act to provide for a two-year maximum jail sentence for breach of the data protection rules, with a clear public interest defence for journalists. The provision is on the statute book, and for four years we have been asking for it to be brought into force. Will the Secretary of State say what possible reason there is for not bringing in that very important provision? It is not about catching out journalists acting in the public interest, but about dealing with unscrupulous claims management companies—people who unlawfully trade in data and are getting away with it at the moment, because the Government have failed to implement that section.
The right hon. Gentleman raised that point in our last debate on this subject and I understand the depth of his feeling. Numerous changes are going on in the area of data protection, particularly with regard to the EU regulations. It is something I am looking at very carefully. I am also looking at consulting on the provisions in Leveson, so that we have people’s input and can make one set of changes to data protection rather than having a slightly more ad hoc piecemeal approach.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is considerable public impatience to have a new, strong independent regulator in place as soon as possible? Will she re-emphasise to the industry the need to reach agreement very swiftly, and will she confirm that her approach will both ensure that the new body conforms with all Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and allow it to start its work without waiting for legislation?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right; momentum is important. The implications of the amendments made in the Lords last week are that people want to see change. That clear message has gone out to the press, and it is certainly something that we are underlining through our response to this urgent question.
As someone who has expressed my long-standing repugnance towards statutory regulation of the press, may I point out to the right hon. Lady that it is getting on for three months since the Leveson report was published? The Government said they would act speedily, yet the press continue to wriggle out of any agreement or responsibility and are seeking to abolish the licensing hours for the last chance saloon. Will she make it absolutely clear that this is unacceptable and that she will set a deadline, and if that deadline is reached without agreement by the press, the House will have to act?
The right hon. Gentleman makes his point powerfully. Perhaps I can reassure him by saying that the self-regulatory approach that Leveson advocated requires the press to put together a new regulatory regime. Every indication I have is that that is exactly what is happening. The publication of the plans yesterday for a royal charter oversight body is our contribution to doing exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is calling for, which is to act as swiftly as we can. Putting the charter body in place will take significantly less time than some of the recommendations for Bills that have come from other quarters.
In this place, the first reaction to scandal is to call for statutory regulation. May I urge colleagues who make such a call to learn from personal experience? In that context, perhaps we should call the new statutory regulator the independent press standards authority—or IPSA for short.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I underline the fact that this would be the toughest press regulation that this country had ever seen. There would be a £1 million fine if someone is not a member of the self-regulatory body, as they would be subject to exemplary damages. Those are not things that the press want to see—they are things that Leveson called for, and would be enacted under the approach that we are taking.
The Prime Minister looked the Dowler family in the eye and gave them a solemn pledge that he would enact Leveson in full. Does the Secretary of State think that they deserve an explanation from him on why that is not the case in these proposals?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we are absolutely committed to taking forward the principles of Leveson but, even more importantly, we want to make sure that oversight of the self-regulatory approach that we have taken is fully independent of both the press and the Government. He might agree that having a charter that is not subject to continuous amendment by the House may well give us that result.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be appropriate for Lord Justice Leveson to come to the House so that aspects of his report can be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, perhaps by the Committee on which I used to serve?
I know that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has raised this issue, and it is something to which Lord Justice Leveson would need to respond directly. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that I will always be available to come to the Committee and explain the rationale behind our approach.
The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that a consensual approach is needed, which is why I am pleased that, for the past three months, we have been working together to reach a position in which all three parties can agree. The Conservative party published the royal charter yesterday as a way of trying to move that process forward and, as I said, I was pleased that it was not rejected. We will have further cross-party talks tomorrow. I really think that he is right: we need to reach consensus on this.
If the measures proposed by my right hon. Friend had been in place, would they have made any less likely the great scandals that led to the setting up of Leveson—namely the failure of the police to investigate and prosecute on phone hacking, and the criminal libel of the McCann family by the Sunday Express?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the police and the comments that were made in Lord Justice Leveson’s report about their role. My right hon. Friend will have noted, I hope, the report by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary yesterday, in which she took up the issues that Lord Justice Leveson raised. I would make a further point about culture—not just culture in the police force but the culture of the press. The tough self-regulatory approach that Lord Justice Leveson set out will do a great deal to make sure that that culture and the ethos of the press prevent such abuses from happening again.
The Leveson report also recommended consideration of the insertion of conscience clauses in journalists’ contracts, which would enable a journalist to reject and refuse any instruction from an editor or employer that was contrary to the code of practice. The National Union of Journalists has approached editors to negotiate a change of contracts to include a conscience clause, but the editors are not engaging in meaningful discussions on that recommendation. Will the Government urge all sides to come together to meet and discuss effectively the introduction of conscience clauses, as that would give further protection to everyone concerned in the industry?
Clearly that is something for the editors as employers to look at carefully. I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—it is important that we have a journalistic industry with integrity, and I am sure that he is making that point very well and that it will be heard by people outside the House.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on coming up with proposals that avoid legislation, but she has sadly failed to satisfy fully either side in the debate. Will she specifically tell the House how the proposals are viewed by the local press, and what representation it will have under future regulatory structures?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution, and I hope that by trying to take the Leveson proposals and make them workable we will come to an arrangement that everyone will feel will make the situation much better for the future. She is right to raise the issue of the local press: the press industry itself, in its deliberations on the new self-regulatory body, is looking at that in detail. It is for it to work out how the local press is accommodated, but I echo her concern, particularly given, as we all know, the financially difficult times that the local press faces, and remembering that it is not necessarily the architect of the problems that we are trying to address. That needs to be recognised in the way in which self-regulation is worked through in future.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. As part of ongoing talks about Leveson, press standards and press regulation, will she update the House on discussions that she and her officials have had with the devolved institutions, and the possible impact of a royal charter in a place such as Northern Ireland where press standards are of the utmost importance?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of the devolved authorities, and that is something that we have firmly in our sights. In particular, there are issues with the approach that the Scottish Government might take. Our approach would be clear: we need some commonality if at all possible, so that publishers have one set of regulatory provisions. We shall certainly try to continue our talks with the devolved authorities in that respect.
A vital principle that underpins democracy is the freedom of the press from statutory regulation. My right hon. Friend has proposed a system of regulation based on a royal charter, which she described as a basis for discussion. Can she reassure us that the vital principle of non-statutory regulation will be maintained whatever solution is finally agreed?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that undertaking. We believe that we can achieve the ends and principles that Leveson set out without taking a statutory approach, and the royal charter document that we published yesterday gives us grounds to believe that that is fully achievable.
I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The real problem with the royal charter process is that it is the most autocratic tool in any Government’s weaponry, because it is easily changed at will by a Government, and no Government can bind their successors unless that is underpinned by statute. Will most people not think that this is a pretty shabby deal between the Government and proprietors, as the Government promised last year that they would publish the details of all meetings with proprietors by Cabinet Ministers, but they have not done so since last June? Must they not publish before tomorrow’s meeting the details of all their meetings with proprietors?
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to answer his question about the amendability of a charter, he will see in the royal charter that there are clear provisions that it should not be tampered with. If he feels that his party might tamper with the charter in that way, perhaps the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) should underline that that would not happen. Finally, the hon. Gentleman can give no guarantee that a press Bill would not be changed. Ultimately, the parliamentary process leaves any Bill that comes before the House subject to amendment. We believe that a charter approach gives us something that is a far clearer way of providing the freedom of speech that we want for the press in future.
My hon. Friend will know that the editors’ code already sets out clear provisions to achieve that. The new approach that Lord Justice Leveson has proposed would underline the importance of the culture of the press. We are working swiftly to make sure that that is put in place, and by implementing a royal charter to put in place a verification body we can do that an awful lot more swiftly than through a Bill that would go through Parliament.
Public trust, both in the media and in this House, is the big issue that is to be discussed in relation to Leveson. How can the public trust that what is coming from Government is not a political compromise, rather than something that will protect the public from the abuse that they have faced in the past?
The very clear assurance that I can give the hon. Lady is the assurance that the Prime Minister gave on 29 November, that we agree in full with the Leveson principles and are taking them forward. I find it difficult to believe that anybody would think that the press facing £1 million fines or, if publications are not part of the self-regulatory body, exemplary damages, is anything other than the toughest form of regulation that this country has ever seen and among the toughest in the western world.
Although it is important that we keep the press out of the appointments process and that we do not allow any room at all for ministerial interference, I welcome the progress that we have made so far, but I would like clarity on one point from the Secretary of State. Part of the goal that everyone shares is to even out the playing field between David and Goliath, whoever David happens to be. Surely part of that requires arbitration to be free for complainants, not merely inexpensive, whatever that means—free, as it is at present under the Press Complaints Commission.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of access to justice. He will know from reading Lord Justice Leveson’s report that he considers it very important that there should be a cost-effective process and ready access. We are trying to make that objective work in the way that it works in many other areas of the law in relation to tribunal access. There would be a very low cost barrier in place for people to get into the arbitral arm. Above all, they will always be free to put forward any complaints and internal processes will continue to be free at the point of access.
Yesterday Gerry McCann, the father of Madeleine McCann, said:
“This royal charter plan falls far short of Leveson . . . The Conservative party can’t rewrite Leveson now. They must think again.”
Does not the reaction of Mr McCann show that this plan fails the very test that the Prime Minister himself set out in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry—that everything must satisfy the victims of press abuse in this country?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we are taking a 2,000-page document and making it work in practice. That has been our objective every step of the way. None of the main political parties in the House agrees with every single recommendation of Lord Justice Leveson. We have outlined the issues that those on both sides of the House have with regard to data protection and the potential roles of Ofcom that were outlined in the report. The hon. Gentleman should understand that making that report work in practice has been our central drive over the past two and a half to three months and we will continue to do so, making sure that the full principles of Leveson are put in place. We owe that to the people whom we are trying to support.
I certainly welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend is putting forward, as far as they go. Can she confirm that it will not be compulsory for publications to sign up to the new body if they do not feel the need to do so? That freedom is important, even if it means that they are taking more of a risk by staying outside.
My hon. Friend will know from the provisions in the Leveson report that there is no compulsion there. He has formed his recommendations on the basis of the use of incentives. That is where the clauses dealing with defamation and the exemplary damages come into play. That provides the sort of incentive that publications which feel that they are at risk in this area need, but clearly, those publications that do not feel they are at risk may choose not to be members of the new self-regulatory body. That is their decision.
Last week the Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard from representatives of the Press Council of Ireland. They made two important points. One was the important and positive role that the National Union of Journalists plays in the process over there. Secondly, they were bemused, as were many Opposition Members, at the discontent shown by proprietors in this country, whereas they are content with the legislation in Ireland. Can the Secretary of State explain why?
I am not sure I can explain any discontent on the part of proprietors on that score. The Committee would need to call them and question them more closely. But what I have seen from the press is a desire to engage and to put in place the sort of self-regulatory body that Lord Justice Leveson called for. In parallel with that, it is timely that we also make sure that the verification body that plays such an important part is also in place, otherwise we will not be able to implement Leveson in full. That is why cross-party talks are so important and why we need consensus on this. We need to be clear on that point.
I welcome the progress that has been made, in particular the agreement now from the Government that some statute is required in order to create the incentives to join such a new system. I acknowledge that a royal charter could be an alternative way of establishing an independent body, provided the recognition criteria are right. But can my right hon. Friend explain to the House what happens if there is no regulator that is worthy of recognition, in the view of the recognition body? In that instance, will all newspapers automatically be subject to the exemplary fines and the costs, or will we have no system at all?
On a day when six more former journalists of the News of the World have been arrested, including two sitting journalists of The Sun, on charges which the police say represent a new conspiracy in the phone-hacking scandal, is it not even more important than ever that the Secretary of State shows some urgency about her action? Unless real action is taken and unless the full principles of Leveson are implemented, the public will not forgive her.
The hon. Gentleman is right that urgency is a vital part of this. Momentum is important. That is why we published our royal charter document yesterday and why I was pleased to see that there was a general acceptance that this could well be a way forward. We have further cross-party talks tomorrow. The point was made earlier in our discussions that we need a consensus, and this is the time when that consensus can start to be formed.
Whatever proposal passes this House, surely the important thing is that the culture of the press changes. Should not we, as a Government, set an example? One of the criticisms was that the Government and press were getting too close together, yet earlier this week, on Monday, we had the social care statement, which had been widely leaked to the press the previous weekend. Favourite journalists were given advance information. The Government must stop that if the public are to take us seriously on the issue.
My hon. Friend is right that it is a culture issue, which I raised before in my comments. We need to make sure that the calls for transparency in Lord Leveson’s report are heeded. The subject has been part of our cross-party discussions and we have formulated a paper on it, which is at present with the Opposition. I hope that tomorrow, in our further discussions, we can pick up on the issue of transparency and they can respond to our recommendations.
Consensus is very important, but what I am hearing here from the Secretary of State is, “Consensus on my terms”— consensus that takes away any suggestion that there could be statutory underpinning and it undermines many of the other recommendations. That is not really consensus, is it?
The hon. Lady should be focusing on the ends, not the means. All our parties agree with the principles in Leveson. All our parties agree that we would not want to see the Leveson report implemented in full. We have to work together in the environment in which we find ourselves and come to an agreement. We believe that the charter document provides a way of getting to absolutely the same ends, just by different means.
Does the Secretary of State accept that whenever statutory underpinning is promoted, we must remember that it runs the risk of a future Minister restricting press activity that is genuinely in the public interest? Therefore, can she reassure me that the principles of Leveson can be delivered without statutory underpinning?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I think that there is a philosophical difference between the approach of the parties in that regard, but it is not an unbridgeable gap. I will continue to try to work with both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party to come to an agreement on this. Otherwise, we run the risk of not moving forward with Leveson, which I think would be inexcusable and unforgiveable.
Newsquest Media Group, Johnston Press, Ackrill Media Group and all the local newspapers in Yorkshire and the north have stated unanimously that they do not want Parliament bearing down on them. We just want to hold local organisations and politicians hard to account. I urge the Secretary of State to push forward quickly with her proposals, which are excellent and what people in the north want. Well done.
I thank my hon. Friend for that endorsement of our approach. He makes an extremely important point, which is that we have to understand that our local papers are a vital part of our local communities. We must ensure that they can continue to be vibrant and that they do not fall foul of an approach that was not really designed to affect them; it was designed to deal with abuses in other areas of the press. He makes an extremely important point.
My right hon. Friend said that the Government totally accept the main principles of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. She also suggested that the report’s main recommendations are acceptable. Is it possible for those main recommendations to be instituted without some form of statutory underpinning?
My hon. Friend raises the issue of Leveson’s criteria and approach, which we believe can be effected in the main without statutory underpinning. What we have been talking about, however, is the importance of recognising the exemplary damages through statute, which would need to be in place to make sure that it is as effective as it needs to be so that the balance of provisions that Leveson put forward work in the way he intended.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm—I hope the Secretary of State will stay for this, as I will be brief—that there is a process whereby a Minister can correct what they have said in the House when they have inadvertently misled it? The Secretary of State said earlier that the details of meetings between newspaper proprietors and editors and Ministers are published in the ordinary way—I think the precise words she used were “the normal way”. In actual fact, they have not now been published in the normal or ordinary way for eight months. At a time when the Government are debating a very sensitive issue and bringing forward proposals in relation to the newspaper industry, I think that our voters would expect complete transparency on the matter. She can correct the record, can she not?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am familiar with his book and have myself read it. He has put it on the record. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), is requesting a copy. I do not think that the purpose of the exercise was to increase sales of the book, but that might be the inadvertent consequence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you had any notice from Ministers in either the Home Office or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that they wish to correct the record of written answers to me regarding a report prepared by Operation Podium on ticket crime? I ask because Ministers in both Departments responded to my request that they place a copy of the report in the Library by saying that the information it contained is operationally sensitive. I have a copy in my possession and know that it does not contain sensitive information. In fact, it states clearly on the front that it is not protectively marked and that it is suitable for the publication scheme. I am also aware that it has been distributed to many commercial organisations. I am sure that Ministers did not intend to mislead the House or withhold information from it, so if you have not received word that Ministers would like to correct the record, will you advise me on the best course of action to pursue to remind the Government of their duties to Members of the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order and for her courtesy in providing me with notice of it. She has expressed her dissatisfaction with the answers to her questions she has received and explained the basis of that dissatisfaction. Ministers will also have noted her concerns, or will shortly hear of them. If she remains dissatisfied, she may pursue the matter through the mechanism of debate, or it is open to her to raise the nature of the answers she has received with the House’s Procedure Committee. One approach would be to write to, or otherwise have contact with, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), who chairs the Committee. Those on the Treasury Bench will have heard her point of order. I hope that addresses the matter for today.
Science, Technology and Engineering (Careers Information in Schools)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable pupils in primary, middle, high and secondary schools to gain greater understanding of careers in science, technology and engineering; to establish a duty on schools to provide opportunities for pupils to gain such understanding; to provide for the establishment of advisory groups drawn from industry and relevant external bodies to assist schools in the provision of such opportunities; to require governing bodies of middle, secondary and high schools to include two local employers; to impose a duty on the Department for Education to ensure a database of national schemes providing relevant opportunities is established; to enable graduate level practitioners of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to teach these subjects in schools for limited periods without full teaching qualifications; and for connected purposes.
I begin with two declarations of interest. First, I was recently appointed as a non-executive director of a small advanced manufacturing company. Secondly, one of my two heroes is that most brilliant of engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As someone who now wishes he had been an engineer, recent experience has convinced me that the shortage of engineering and technological skills is one of the greatest avoidable threats to our nation’s prosperity and security. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), for being here to listen to the case.
What I am trying to do in the Bill is simple and focused: to increase demand from young people and to make them more enthusiastic about pursuing STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and careers, whether as apprentices or graduates; to inspire them about the possibilities in engineering, science and technology; to show them by practical example and experience while at school that engineering and technology are exciting and important careers; and then to sustain that interest throughout their time at school.
I am grateful to all the engineering institutions, professional organisations and trade associations, and to the CBI and the many large companies I have consulted in bringing forward these proposals. Without exception, they have told me that they enthusiastically support my analysis and what the Bill seeks to do.
In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, engineering got a pretty bad press. The news was dominated by strikes and job losses. It is hardly surprising that the legacy of that time has had its impact. It is no wonder parents have been reluctant to recommend engineering careers to their children. But during my five years as Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in the last Parliament, and during my two and a half years as a Defence Minister in this one, the overriding concern I heard time and again from manufacturing and technology companies was that there just are not enough engineers—apprentices and graduates—to meet demand. I remember one test and evaluation company telling me last year that it had been forced to give up looking for engineering graduates in the UK and was now recruiting from Spain, Portugal and Greece. That might help to plug the skills gap for the companies that take that decision, but it is a lost opportunity for the country and for our young people.
Furthermore, recruiting from abroad is not always an option. In defence, the armed forces, the civil service and in companies, we often have to have UK nationals doing the work on national security grounds—the so-called “UK eyes only” requirement. To take the most obvious example, unlike a nuclear engineering company in the civil sector, defence companies providing and supporting the nuclear deterrent simply cannot rely on foreign engineering skills.
There are some real signs of encouragement. The number of GCSE single science entrants is going up, as are applications to university for STEM subjects. Apprenticeships in engineering and technology are increasing, too. However, there is a wide consensus that we have to do much more to sustain that improvement over many years. As the Science and Technology Committee stated in a report last week,
“there is a persistent shortfall in the numbers of engineers required to achieve economic growth, a situation that is likely to worsen unless radical action is taken.”
We need at least half as many more engineers. We might even need to double the numbers qualifying at both level 3 and 4. To succeed in this, we need to repeat three key messages. First, designing, making and building things matters and provides real job satisfaction—old truths that are being rediscovered. Secondly, careers in engineering and technology are now well paid. Thirdly, engineering has changed as technology has developed; it is now about problem solving, not oily rags. Considerable practical outreach activity is directed at school key stages 3 and 4. Some estimates suggest that there are more than 3,000 schemes reaching out to those age groups across the country, but their reach is worryingly patchy: there are hot spots of overlapping activity and deserts of inactivity. Unless pupils towards the end of key stage 2—ages 10 and 11—realise the importance of doing well in maths and physics, they will never be able to pursue engineering or science careers. As the Science and Technology Committee said in last week’s report,
“young people must be inspired to study science and engineering in the first place.”
At its simplest, we need to inspire boys and girls at a much younger age to want to do well in the two key subjects of maths and physics. Perhaps the single greatest need is to make more girls want to do physics. We do not need more schemes in order to do so. Indeed, there are probably already too many. Rather, we should build on the excellent existing work of EngineeringUK, the Royal Academy of Engineering and many others.
We need more co-ordinated and focused business and official support for schemes designed to attract young people to science, engineering and technology by providing real experience, challenge and understanding. Such schemes include Big Bang, Tomorrow’s Engineers, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network and its ambassador programme, the STEM directories and Primary Engineer, which is particularly important in addressing the key stage 2 point.
We also need to make even better use of the many other more specific schemes that exist. Two of my favourites include, first, the Bloodhound SSC—supersonic car—project, which will attempt the 1,000 mph land speed record next year and is reaching out to about 4,000 schools. The project will feature in a programme on CBBC this evening—your children might like to watch it, Mr Speaker. Secondly, Imagineering began in the midlands and is a long-standing practical scheme to give young people real engineering challenges at school.
A major issue is that in most schools—this is not a criticism, just an observation—teachers are not aware of the reality of modern engineering and science. They just cannot steer pupils in the right direction. However, as an engineering employer told the Science and Technology Committee:
“I believe it is unreasonable to expect teachers to have a great in-depth experience and knowledge of the manufacturing sector…the only group that can do that is the employers. That is our bit of the bargain.”
Schools often deter girls from engineering and science careers. Defence company BAE Systems tells the story of a girl whose recent application to become an apprentice was shredded by her head teacher because, “Girls don’t do that sort of thing.” Well, they do—and they do it outstandingly well, both as apprentices and as graduates. Nevertheless, however we measure the participation of women in engineering, it comes out at about 10% at best, which is the lowest rate in the European Union—27th out of 27.
It need not be like that. Missile manufacturer MBDA’s engineering intake is now 50% female. If its success could be replicated more widely, our skills problem would be solved. Securing genuinely equal access at school to information on the modern reality of engineering and science would help achieve this, and that is a key aim of this Bill. Such equal access would show that there is something in engineering and technology for everyone—fast jets, passenger aircraft, avionics, cars, bridges, tunnels, satellites, mobile phones, green technologies, environmental sustainability, water supplies in the third world, food, health and medicine, and even vacuum cleaners and hand dryers. The list goes on.
The Bill contains some of the ideas that command strongest support in the professions and industry. Each measure is a free-standing proposal to the Government, but taken together they could be really powerful. My proposals build in part on suggestions in Lord Heseltine’s report on growth and they go some way to addressing my concern about the profound inadequacy of careers advice in schools.
The Bill does five things. First, it imposes a light-touch duty on schools—primary, middle and secondary—to expose their pupils to the realities of modern engineering and technology. Secondly, it imposes a parallel obligation on local enterprise partnerships to help schools in their area to fulfil that duty. Thirdly, it adopts Lord Heseltine’s recommendation that secondary schools should have two employers on the governing body, but adds that they cannot both be accountants, solicitors or estate agents—one must be from a science, technology, engineering or manufacturing background. Fourthly, it imposes a duty on the Department for Education to continue its support for activity on engineering-awareness schemes. I say to the skills Minister that I am not convinced that the Department really understands how vital it is to help young people make informed career choices. Finally, it sweeps away all restrictions on schools using professional engineers and scientists from local employers to teach maths and physics where they have teacher shortages. It is better to be taught—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) strongly agrees with this—by an enthusiastic young professional who can show the value of the subject to a sceptical class than by someone who is a good professional teacher in other subjects, but who has no training in maths or physics.
An early measure of success over time would be the number of young people doing well in GCSE maths and physics. Later, it would be a significant increase in the number of girls taking A-level physics. Eventually, it would be a sustained increase in applicants to engineering courses and increasing female participation in the profession.
Of course, we have been talking about this for years, but we cannot be complacent. We are, as the Prime Minister has said, in a global race. China is moving up the value chain. Like India, it is churning out thousands of engineers every year. Our place as one of the largest manufacturing nations on the planet—which we still are—is threatened. Our resilience and security over a wide range of threats, from food and water shortages to cyber-security and defence, depend on getting more British engineers and scientists.
If the Bill’s measures worked, the system would have to respond with more teachers, more university technology colleges, more places in further and higher education institutions, different courses and so on. That, however, is the supply side; this Bill is about increasing demand. First, let us help more young people to understand the great careers available in science, engineering and technology.
With my A-level physics and maths I, too, should have been an engineer, but to my continuing regret no one told me at the right time about the exciting careers in engineering. I do not want ignorance of the opportunities to be a reason for more young people to make the same mistake as me.
We have had the pleasure of the presence of the hon. Gentleman in this House for two decades. That is, perhaps, some compensation. The question is that the hon. Member have leave to bring in the Bill. [Interruption.] Mr Birtwistle, you are poised; is that because you wish to speak in opposition to the Bill?