House of Commons
Wednesday 27 November 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—
Amnesty International Report
Let me first express my sadness at the passing of Alec Reid and Eddie McGrady, who will be sadly missed as strong supporters of peace in Northern Ireland.
I have considered the proposals in the recent report by Amnesty, which covers devolved responsibilities in the main, but also covers some reserved matters relating to Northern Ireland’s past. I expect the all-party group chaired by Richard Haass also to take account of Amnesty’s contribution to the debate on these important matters.
This morning I hosted the parliamentary launch of the report, which reinforces the need for a comprehensive mechanism to deal with the past, addressing justice, truth, recognition and support for the bereaved and the injured, and also reconciliation. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that the Government will support, co-operate with and properly resource any such comprehensive process emerging from the Haass talks, allowing the Police Service of Northern Ireland to focus its finite resources on policing the present, and, in particular, protecting our community from those—from both loyalist and republican sources—who wish to drag us back to the past?
Let me take this opportunity to reiterate the calls made in Northern Ireland in the wake of recent attacks. There is determination that Northern Ireland will not be dragged back to its past, and there is universal condemnation of the disgraceful attacks that we have seen in recent days.
The Government strongly support the Haass process. We welcomed its establishment, and we urged the Executive to examine the very divisive issues involved. We will, of course, consider the outcome of the process very seriously, and will give thought to what resources we can deploy to support it within the constraints of the budgets available to us.
The report states that
“there are longstanding allegations that Irish authorities turned a blind eye to arms smuggling across the border and to members of republican groups fleeing—after attacks had been carried out—back to the Republic of Ireland”.
Will my right hon. Friend raise that aspect of the report with the Irish authorities to ensure their full co-operation?
I shall be happy to do so. Let me add, however, that the security co-operation between the police services north and south of the border has never been stronger. It is hugely important in combating the threat not just from dissident republicans, but from other criminals who seek to use the border to enhance their criminal activities. We continue to work with the authorities in the Republic of Ireland to establish how we can enhance our security co-operation with them.
The Amnesty report contains a section on inquests. Has the Secretary of State been offered any explanation of why the Attorney-General in Northern Ireland, who has ordered the reopening of more than 40 historic inquests, now seems to believe that they should be abandoned?
The Attorney-General’s remarks were patently made on his own behalf rather than that of the Northern Ireland Executive or the Government, and they received almost universal criticism. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we have no plans to introduce an amnesty along the lines suggested by the Attorney-General—and yes, I acknowledge that there is a degree of contradiction between his actions and his comments in relation to inquests.
Will the Secretary of State go a bit further and tell the House what action she is prepared to take to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done, rather than justice and the process of law being abandoned, which is what a senior law officer in Northern Ireland wants to happen?
The Government are entirely committed to the integrity of the rule of law, and we will maintain our position. I think it important for the outcome of the Haass discussions also to abide by that principle, and to be consistent with maintaining the integrity of the rule of law.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all the victims out there still need truth and justice, and, indeed, are entitled to truth and justice? What assessment has she made of last week’s “Panorama” programme about the military reaction force and the murders committed by its members?
Let me take this opportunity to emphasise how important it is for victims to be at the centre of any proposals on dealing with the past. That was also emphasised during the Democratic Unionist party’s Opposition day debate. The allegations made in the “Panorama” programme have been referred to the police, and it is for the police to investigate them. I should stress that when the troops were operational in Northern Ireland they operated according to strict rules, and that the vast majority of the police and the Army officers who served there during the troubles were entirely courageous, supportive, and compliant with the rule of law.
May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Father Alec Reid?
On the Amnesty report, will the right hon. Lady go further in agreeing with me that the problem with last week’s proposals from Northern Ireland’s Attorney-General is that they would deliver neither truth nor justice, and that instead of healing the wounds of the past, they would cause them to fester even further?
The death of Father Alec Reid is a very sad loss. He played a key part in establishing the peace process, particularly in its early stages. As I have said, the Government have no plans to follow the advice of the Northern Ireland Attorney-General. I do not believe that it represents a viable solution to the past, and it received almost universal condemnation. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, it would result in significant problems, and many victims would feel real concern if people advocated that we follow that route.
Will the Secretary of State assure us that she is working with the Irish Government to engage with all parties involved in the Haass talks to seek a comprehensive framework to address the past? Such a framework needs to deal with truth, justice and reconciliation in a meaningful and substantive way. Tinkering at the edges will be seen as a missed opportunity with potentially lasting consequences, and it is essential that the Secretary of State shows leadership at this crucial time.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am very supportive of the Haass process and very engaged with the Irish Government. I have had discussions with all the political parties on these crucial matters. I have also had a number of helpful discussions in the United States about how our American friends can continue their role of supporting Northern Ireland’s political leadership in the difficult decisions that it needs to make on the issues that are the subject of the Haass process.
Building a Shared Future
I have discussed the importance of tackling sectarian divisions and building a shared society with the Northern Ireland Executive on many occasions, most recently with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on 11 November. They both agree on the importance of delivering the commitments set out in their strategy document “Together: Building a United Community”.
The disturbances over the summer confirmed that there is much work to be done on building a just and fair society in Ulster. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that the community relations strategy announced by the Northern Ireland Executive is brought to fruition?
We very much welcome the publication of the strategy. It was something that the UK Government had encouraged, and we worked with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on it. When it is delivered, it will make a real difference to starting to heal the sectarian divisions that have been so divisive and corrosive and that can feed the scenes of disgraceful violence in Northern Ireland. The important challenge now is to ensure that the commitments in that strategy are delivered, and the Government will continue to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to do that.
If we are to achieve a shared future for Northern Ireland, it is important that the threat of terrorism should be addressed. Is the Secretary of State aware that the dissident republicans’ failed mortar attack at Cullyhanna in south Armagh showed a level of sophistication and technological detail that had never been seen before in Northern Ireland but that has been recorded in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Perhaps that shows international terrorism links. Will she tell us what steps she is taking to eradicate the dissident republican threat in Northern Ireland?
I have been briefed on that attack. It and all the others we have seen in recent weeks are a matter of grave concern. The sad fact is that the threat of terrorism from dissident republicans continues to be severe; it has been set at that level since 2009. That is why the Government remain absolutely vigilant and completely supportive of the PSNI and the extra visibility mechanisms that it is deploying in Belfast. We have deployed an extra £200 million in funding to assist the PSNI and its partners in tackling this threat, and we will continue to give them every support.
On the economic shared future, will the Secretary of State tell me what work is being done on the legacy of this year’s Derry-Londonderry UK city of culture to ensure that the benefits continue to come to the city and to the whole of Northern Ireland?
I am confident that there will be a very positive legacy. Interestingly, I am sure that the legacy will be felt on both sides of the border, because this is having a significant impact on areas in the south, too. We are determined that there will be a legacy from successful events such as the city of culture and the G8 meeting. That is one reason why the Prime Minister attended an investment conference a couple of months ago to promote Northern Ireland as a great place to do business, following on from the success of the G8 meeting.
I am happy to do that, and I believe that our respective offices are in discussions about a date. It is very important to distinguish between the small minority of extremists within the loyalist community, who might have been responsible for the disgraceful scenes of rioting, and the vast majority, who are committed to peace and want to help to build a shared future for Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady makes the point well.
Policing and Security
I hold regular meetings with the Chief Constable of the PSNI, and we speak frequently by phone. We discuss a range of subjects, including police resourcing and the security situation in Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that so-called punishment attacks continue to be carried out in Northern Ireland by both loyalist and republican groups. Will she condemn these acts of barbarism and give the House an indication of what the PSNI is doing to counter those criminals who prey on communities across parts of Northern Ireland?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s condemnation of these brutal attacks. We have seen a number of horrific attacks along these lines: the murder of Kevin Kearney, the attack on Jemma McGrath and, distressingly, an attack on a 15-year-old boy in recent weeks. These vigilante attacks are cowardly, ruthless and callous, and they are utterly unacceptable. I know that the PSNI is doing all it can to bring those responsible to justice.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the despicable terrorist attack on Belfast city centre at the weekend and other recent attacks represent a grave escalation in dissident terrorist activity, in an attempt to undermine investment, jobs and tourists coming to Northern Ireland? Can she give an assurance that she will stand with the people of Northern Ireland and the Executive in their determination to move ahead and not let these people drag us backwards?
I can. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with Northern Ireland’s political leadership and the whole community in condemning these attacks and in supporting the determination to continue to make progress in Northern Ireland. These attacks are disgraceful; they could have put many lives at risk, and they are deliberately aimed at disrupting the economy in Northern Ireland and sowing the seeds of community division. I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will not let the dissidents succeed in their objective of dividing our community.
I thank the Secretary of State for that assurance. Will she go further and say that she will commit herself to working closely with the Executive, the police and the security forces in Northern Ireland to look at what extra measures can be put in place to increase the operational capacity of the police, and to examine legislative changes that will enhance intelligence gathering for the security forces?
I am happy to give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance on both those points. We always look at ways in which the effectiveness of the police can be enhanced. Of course, there is a debate to be had on the Executive’s resourcing of the police in the next spending review. We are working with the police on that, and it is very important.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of whether all paramilitary organisations are observing ceasefires? Does she agree that if any are not doing so, they are betraying rather than serving the people they purport to represent?
I completely agree, and I think that my hon. Friend puts it very well when he says that paramilitary groups that come off their ceasefire are betraying the communities they purport to represent. My understanding is that, at the moment, no paramilitary organisations have come off their ceasefire, although I am, of course, well aware of the concerns felt about individual members of the Ulster Volunteer Force who are involved in criminality in east Belfast. The police are taking action to counter that.
Small business Saturday is important throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, but it is especially important in Northern Ireland. Last Friday, business people in Belfast and in Comber told me of their concerns and fears that the planned protests this Saturday will overshadow all the good work of small business Saturday. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the PSNI will receive the resources and assistance it needs to ensure that positive images are not drowned out by chaotic cacophony from the streets?
The hon. Gentleman puts his point well. We are entirely supportive of the efforts that the police will make to police the protest. I urge everyone involved to ensure that their protest is not only peaceful but entirely lawful and complies with the decision of the Parades Commission. I also call on them to think again about whether this is a wise thing to do. Although it will be disruptive, Belfast will be open for business. Many people will be out in the city centre doing their Christmas shopping despite the protest disruption.
I am answering these questions together as they use exactly the same wording, which is a rather strange coincidence.
Specific measures on this issue are for the Northern Ireland Executive. However, the economic pact we concluded with them in June will help to rebalance the economy and improve employment prospects. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the number of those who are unemployed in Northern Ireland has fallen dramatically over the past year, and the number of employee jobs has increased by more than 5,000.
Worklessness, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive, but we support them in their stand to increase employment and reduce the number of people on unemployment benefit. The best route out of poverty is through work. As he will know, we are turning the corner on the economy, which is increasing employment both in the United Kingdom as a whole and in Northern Ireland specifically.
Does the Minister of State agree that it is difficult to tackle unemployment when the major bank in Northern Ireland is implicated in a report that shows that the Royal Bank of Scotland was responsible for making viable businesses go to the wall in order to plunder their assets? Will he ensure that any investigation arising from the Tomlinson report includes the activities of Ulster bank and how it dealt with businesses in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue, and I agree with him, of course. That is not the specific responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office; it is more for the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, I absolutely support what he says. Everyone in the Chamber should deprecate the actions of any bank that has been pushing small businesses out of business.
9. As part of the need to address worklessness in Northern Ireland, will the Minister have immediate discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Treasury to address the issue of the closure, in March 2015, of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs centre in Newry, which makes a major contribution to the local economy in the southern part of my constituency? Will the Minister meet my colleagues and me to discuss that important issue? (901232)
I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues. We should be clear that any redundancies in HMRC in Newry are voluntary. Nobody likes to see people lose their jobs be it voluntarily or otherwise. However, I say gently to her that the way in which people do business with HMRC and other Government agencies is changing, with much more being done online. I think she would agree that the most important thing is that customers of HMRC—the taxpayers—get a decent service. It might be the case that by doing business online there is less need for the current number of employees.
5. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s welfare reforms on Northern Ireland. (901227)
8. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government’s welfare reforms on Northern Ireland. (901230)
When fully implemented, the introduction of universal credit will make over 3 million low to middle-income households in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK better off. These reforms will ensure work always pays and help lift people out of poverty by helping them into work.
First, I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Lady has used, although I am sure that it has been put out by Labour party headquarters. As I have said in answer to previous questions, the way in which we can help people to prosper in Northern Ireland, as we all want, is to improve the economy and to get people into well-paid work. That is what we are doing. We are rebalancing the economy away from the disproportionate number of public sector employees in Northern Ireland. Currently, 30% of people in Northern Ireland are employed in the public sector whereas in the rest of the United Kingdom the figure is only 20%.
Some 32,000 households in Northern Ireland are affected by the bedroom tax. Although existing tenants are exempt, new tenants will be hit by the fact that the vast majority of social housing in Northern Ireland has three bedrooms or more. Is that not just another example of how the bedroom tax is unworkable? It is costing more money than it saves and should be abolished in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK.
The purpose of social housing is to help those who cannot afford their own housing, which I welcome. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would like to discuss with his constituents and, indeed, the people of Northern Ireland whether the general taxpayer should pay for unnecessary housing for people who do not use it. That is why we are ending the spare room subsidy and that, I think, is supported by the people of Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might find that he is on the wrong side of the argument with his constituents.
But does the Minister of State not accept that if what was termed the “bedroom tax” here on the mainland was introduced in Northern Ireland, it would cause rent arrears to rocket, cause havoc across settled communities and increase already high levels of poverty?
I am afraid that I do not entirely accept that. I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right. I know that the Northern Ireland Executive are considering, through the discretionary housing payments, having a transitional period, which is sensible. If he asks his constituents in Northern Ireland whether they believe that the general taxpayer should support extra accommodation for people in social housing, he will find that most of them do not.
13. Does the Minister agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that Northern Ireland is getting the best deal on welfare when changes could potentially take £450 million a year out of vulnerable people’s—[Interruption.] (901237)
I agree with commentators in Northern Ireland, including the Belfast Telegraph, which stated:
“Quite simply, we cannot pretend that we can have it both ways; that we can continue to benefit from the Treasury—we get back more than we raise in taxes—while people in other parts of the UK suffer from the reforms.”
These are necessary welfare reforms across the United Kingdom. We support them and I think the hon. Gentleman will find that his constituents support them, too—[Interruption.]
The investment conference was attended by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and successfully highlighted the many benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland. Although it is too early to assess the full impact, Invest Northern Ireland has said that it is actively engaging with a number of companies as a direct result of the conference.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Northern Ireland is a fantastic location to do business, as demonstrated by the firms that have already invested there, such as Allstate, HBO and Bombardier? Does she also agree that what would be disastrous for the Northern Irish economy as a location for investment and jobs would be any repeat of the scenes we saw because of the flag protest in the run-up to last Christmas and earlier this year?
I agree that there have been tremendous success stories in Northern Ireland in terms of inward investment, including the ones that my hon. Friend has mentioned and others like the New York Stock Exchange. It is true that riots on the streets are a huge deterrent to inward investment and I strongly urge anyone involved in protesting to make sure that their protests are both peaceful and entirely lawful.
Will the Secretary of State agree with me that we need to see more conferences of this type? It was successful; investment will come from it. But will she also agree that the companies that attended it were impressed by the skills base in Northern Ireland and the innovation shown by companies?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The education system in Northern Ireland produces some tremendous results. Its two universities are producing thousands of excellent graduates every year. That is one of the reasons why companies investing in Northern Ireland are so successful. They may come for the low cost base but they stay for the people.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This week I have launched a cross-party campaign with the support of the GMB union, to provide justice for the 3,213 workers and their families who were victims of blacklisting by 44 construction companies. We have written to all the companies involved and will post their responses on our website, stoptheblacklisting.com. Will the Prime Minister join me in this campaign to support hard-working people and stamp out the terrible disease of blacklisting?
I am very glad to join my hon. Friend and I congratulate him on the work that he has done on this issue. Blacklisting is illegal and wrong. This sort of intimidation is wrong, just as intimidation of non-striking workers, or indeed managers, is wrong. I am happy to condemn both forms of intimidation and I hope that others will as well.
Following his U-turn on payday lending, can I ask the Prime Minister why he has moved in two short months from believing that intervening in broken markets is living in a “Marxist universe” to believing that it is a solemn duty of Government?
As I have said, there are some dreadful practices that take place in the payday lending market. There are some very disturbing cases. And frankly, for 13 years, Labour did absolutely nothing about it. So I am proud of the fact that we have intervened to regulate this market properly, and we are also going to be putting in place a cap. But let me be very fair to the right hon. Gentleman: I followed very carefully his interview on “Desert Island Discs” and I think it is fair to say he is no longer a follower of Marx; he is loving Engels instead.
You would have thought the right hon. Gentleman would be spending his time trying to be the Prime Minister, Mr Speaker. What is surprising is that the Chancellor said, just a few weeks ago, that
“attempts to fix prices…crush endeavour and blunt aspiration”.
For the avoidance of doubt, can the Prime Minister reassure us that his U-turn had nothing to do with the prospect of losing a vote in Parliament the following day?
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has had a slight sense of humour failure. I do not think that is a very good start to these exchanges. I have done a little bit of research, and in three years he has never asked me a question about payday lending—not once, not a single question. I have been asked about all sorts of things. Look, it is right to intervene when markets are not working and people are getting hurt. That is what we are doing. Labour had 13 years. They looked at a cap in 2004 and they rejected it. That was when the right hon. Gentleman was working in the Treasury. We have looked at a cap. We have looked at the evidence from Australia, Florida and elsewhere. It is the right thing to do and I am proud that we are doing it.
Even by the right hon. Gentleman’s standards, this is a bit rich. On 22 May 2012, the Government voted against capping payday lenders; on 4 July 2011 they voted against capping payday lenders; and on 3 February 2011 they voted against capping payday lenders. We were for it; they were against it. Now clearly, he wants to claim that this is a principled decision, so can the Prime Minister explain why the Government intervening to cap the cost of credit is right, but the Government capping energy bills is communism?
I feel like one of those radio hosts who say, “And your complaint is, caller, exactly?” We are taking action, but they did not. We are doing the right thing. The right hon. Gentleman should stand up and congratulate us. He wants to turn to energy, so let me turn specifically to that. The point is, we do not have control of the international price of gas, so we need more competition to get profits down and roll back the costs of regulation to get prices down. That is a proper energy policy. We know his version of intervention: take money off the Co-op and don’t ask any questions.
Here is the reality. This is not a minor policy adjustment—it is an intellectual collapse of the Government’s position. For two months, they have been saying that if we take action to intervene in markets it is back to the ’70s—it is Marxism—but now they realise that they are on the wrong side of public opinion. That is the reality. On energy, the Prime Minister must realise—[Interruption.]
They are shouting because they have no answer, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister must realise the gravity of the situation, as figures this week show that there were 31,000 deaths as a result of the cold winter, with about 10,000 as the result of cold homes. Can he explain how things will be better this winter than they were last?
What there will be this winter—and this is a vitally important issue—are the cold weather payments that we have doubled from their previous level. The winter fuel payment will be in place, as will the warm home discount, which helps 2 million people in our country. Last year’s increase in the pension of £5.30 a week will be in place. Every excess death in the winter is a tragedy, and there were 31,000 last year. The right hon. Gentleman might care to recall that when he was Energy Secretary there were 36,500.
I asked the Prime Minister a very specific question: how are things going to be better this winter than last? The reality is that prices will be higher this winter than last. For the average household, the British Gas bill went up £123 this week. It was also revealed that the profits of the energy companies were up 75% in the last year alone. Why, under his Government, is it acceptable for the British people to pay exorbitant prices to fund exorbitant profits?
What is intellectual incoherence is not to address the fact that there were 36,500 winter deaths when the right hon. Gentleman was standing here as Energy Secretary. That number was lower last year. What is intellectually incoherent is to promise a price freeze for 20 months’ time when we do not control the global price of gas—that is completely incoherent and a total con. When we are on the collapse of intellectual positions, more borrowing, more spending and more taxing are exactly the things that got us into this mess in the first place, and he remains committed to each and every one.
I will tell you what is the con, Mr Speaker. It is saying one thing before the election and another thing as Prime Minister. Here is what the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said about him. He likes reading out tweets, so perhaps he will listen to this one:
“‘If the PM can casually drop something that was so central to his identity, he can drop anything.’… #greencrap”.
That is this Prime Minister all over. The truth is that any action he takes on the cost of living crisis is because he has been dragged there kicking and screaming. On the cost of living crisis, he is not the solution—he is the problem. Nobody believes that he or his Cabinet have any sense of the pressures facing the people of Britain.
I think everyone can recognise a collapse when they see one, and we just saw one right now. Is it not interesting? The week before the autumn statement, and the right hon. Gentleman cannot ask about the economy because it is growing. He cannot ask about the deficit because it is falling. He cannot ask about the numbers in work because they are rising. People can see that we have a long-term plan to turn our country around, and people can also see him sitting in his room, desperate for bad news to suit his own short-term political interests.
One in eight men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, the silent killer of middle-aged men. Survival rates have risen from 30% to 80% because of breakthroughs in genetics, diagnostics and drugs, and because of charities such as Movember, which has gone from five blokes raising $500 to the world’s biggest prostate charity raising $300 million. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and representatives of UK research charities to see what we can do to make the NHS adopt innovation more quickly?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Everyone wants to see more research and better outcomes for prostate cancer. May I personally praise him for that magnificent growth on his top lip? I have noticed the number of my colleagues, and others on these Benches, suddenly resembling banditos. It is not something that I am fully capable of myself, so I am jealous of that. It is an important campaign. Better diagnosis, better knowledge and better information are all vital to beat prostate cancer.
What we see happening is that because we are cutting taxes, disposable income went up last year. What we have done is lift the first £10,000 that people earn out of tax altogether. That is worth £700 for every person who pays that tax. That is something that the hon. Gentleman should welcome. In addition, we have frozen the council tax, cut the petrol duty, and helped in all sorts of ways with families’ income—every single step opposed by Labour.
Q3. The Tibbs Foundation provides uplifting support for people living with dementia in Bedfordshire and for their carers. Following his challenge on dementia last year, and ahead of the G8 summit that he will host in London next month, will my right hon. Friend send a message to my constituents about his commitment to achieving real progress on dementia research and care? (901285)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. For too long in our country people thought of dementia as a natural part of ageing, rather than what it is, which is a disease that we should be fighting with all the energy with which we are fighting heart disease and cancer. As part of the dementia challenge, we have said that we will double research funding over the lifetime of this Government from £26 million to more than £66 million a year in 2014-15. But we also want to see an increase in diagnosis rates, because getting to grips with dementia early is vital, and we want the diagnosis rate to go from less than a half to two thirds. I think my hon. Friend’s constituents will welcome those pledges, and obviously, through our G8 chairmanship, we can galvanise action around the world as well.
For two years the people of Scotland were promised that they would receive a detailed and costed White Paper that would answer all the questions. Instead, they got a thick document full of false promises. In the absence of any detailed costings, it was not a blueprint for independence, but a wish list. Given that the entire White Paper is based on the assumption that Scotland would keep the pound as part of a sterling zone with no plan B, can the Prime Minister tell us whether the lack of that plan B calls into question the entire credibility of the White Paper?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been waiting a long time for this document. We were told that it would answer every question, yet there is no answer on the currency, no answer on the issue of EU membership, and no proper answers on NATO. We are just left with a huge set of questions and, for Scottish people, the prospect of a £1,000 bill as the price of separation.
Q4. We are celebrating a year since new owners took over the former Pfizer site, and with the Prime Minister’s commitment to £40 million for our small and medium-sized enterprises in Kent, we now have 1,400 jobs and 60 companies. Does the Prime Minister agree that when the private sector meets a proactive Government, we can replicate such successes around the country? (901286)
First of all, may I praise my hon. Friend for the work that she put in? Clearly, it was a blow when Pfizer made its announcement and its decision. I think that many people thought that that would be end for the site in terms of jobs and investment, but because of the hard work that she has put in—my right hon. Friends the Business Secretary and the Science Minister have also put in a huge amount of work—the enterprise zone is working well and it has attracted over 20 high-tech companies. Pfizer is now staying, with 700 jobs as well. It has been a success and it shows that if you work together with the private sector, you can get good results like this.
The Disability Benefits Consortium of over 50 charities has signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for immediate action to exempt disabled people from the bedroom tax. Why on earth do the Prime Minister and his Government refuse to listen?
Obviously, what we have done is to exempt disabled people who need an extra room. This does, I think, come back to a basic issue of fairness, which is this: people in private sector rented accommodation who get housing benefit do not get a subsidy for spare rooms, whereas people in council houses do get a subsidy for spare rooms. That is why it was right to end it, and it is right to end it thinking of the 1.8 million people in our country on housing waiting lists.
Q5. I wonder whether the Prime Minister has had a chance to watch any of the fantastic rugby league world cup semi-final match that took place between England and New Zealand at the weekend. The tournament has been a great success, and shortly rugby fans will have the rugby union world cup to look forward to in 2015, with games in England and some games in Wales. Does he agree that this great interest in the game of rugby presents a real opportunity for my constituency to attract visitors to the birthplace of the game? (901287)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is the best possible advertisement for his town. I have done a public meeting in his high street and know what a warm, interesting and varied reception you can get in the town of Rugby. It is hard to keep up at the moment with the quantity and quality of rugby union and rugby league games. I made a wager with the New Zealand Prime Minister that I would wear Kiwi cufflinks if they won in the rugby union match. I did so last week but fortunately nobody noticed.
The Prime Minister has vowed to fight for the United Kingdom with his head, heart and soul, but when it comes to a debate it is some guts that he needs to find. We now have the blueprint for independence, and we know what his United Kingdom will look like. Will he now stop being a pathetic big feartie and get out and debate the issues with the First Minister?
I am enjoying the debate we are having now; that is where the debate should take place. Of course there should be a debate, including televised debates, but this is a debate between people in Scotland. This is not a debate between the leader of the Conservative party, or even the UK Prime Minister and the Scottish First Minister; it is a debate, rightly, between the leader of the no campaign and the leader of the yes campaign, and they should fight it out on the facts and on the issues. I know the hon. Gentleman wants to find every sort of distraction possible because when it comes to the economy, when it comes to jobs, and when it comes to Europe, all the arguments are for staying together. [Interruption.]
Q6. Small businesses and traders are the lifeblood of our economy, with 14 million people employed in them. In Brentford and Isleworth, 825 new businesses have been set up in the past two years. In preparation for small business Saturday on 7 December, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging businesses to become business and enterprise champions in all our secondary schools to foster and inspire another generation of entrepreneurs? (901288)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, first of all, about the new businesses setting up in Britain. We have 400,000 more businesses than three years ago. The point she makes about encouraging businesses into schools to inspire young people about enterprise, about small business, and about what that can involve is really, really important. I would urge all MPs to make the most of small business Saturday, but also, in the visits that they make to primary and secondary schools, to push the case for good business access and good business discussions.
Four weeks ago in Eccles, I met Joy Watson, who is 55 years old, a mum and married to Tony. For the past four years, Joy has had problems with her memory and on her 55th birthday she was diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Her family are devastated, but she is an inspirational woman and is now fighting for better services for people in similar circumstances. Will the Prime Minister ensure, at the G8 in London in two weeks’ time, that there will be a real push for an increase in research into the quality of care and support and prevention, as well as into the important search for a cure?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. There is no one single thing we have to do: the research budget needs to go up—and it is—but we also need to work within the health and social care sectors to improve standards. Frankly, we also need to make our communities more dementia-friendly. Something we can all do is become a dementia friend, which involves a simple, relatively short test and a bit of learning about how to help people with dementia in our communities. It is not just about the health and social care sectors, but about when people are trying to go on a bus, access their bank account or go down to the post office. How they actually live their lives is something we can all make a difference to.
Q7. Last Friday, on the border between Gibraltar and Spain, the Guardia Civil opened one of our diplomatic pouches, which is a clear breach of our sovereignty. What further measures—political or otherwise—can we take towards Spain to stop this harassment of our people in Gibraltar? (901289)
First of all, my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, because it is a breach of the principle of state immunity and the principles underlying the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. An extremely serious action took place. We asked the Spanish authorities to investigate urgently and they have done so. We have now received an explanation from the Spanish and we are reassured that it will not happen again, but let me be absolutely clear: we will always stand up for the rights of people in Gibraltar and for the sovereignty of Gibraltar.
Q8. Earlier the Prime Minister outlined what the Government are doing in relation to fuel poverty over the winter. Does he accept that the further north we go in the United Kingdom, the colder it is, incomes are lower and fuel prices are higher? What additional measures can he undertake to ensure that he alleviates the problems suffered by people in Northern Ireland? (901290)
As I said, I think that the cold weather payments are perhaps the key thing, because they are triggered by low temperatures and kick in at £25 a week. I think that makes the biggest difference. I outlined all of the things we are doing, including the warm home discount, which the energy companies themselves are putting in place to help tackle fuel poverty. On the previous Government’s fuel poverty measures, fuel poverty is actually lower today than it was when Labour was in office.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern in Suffolk about using a road toll to pay for improvements to the A14 and the consequent risk that introducing tolls on roads without a toll-free alternative may undermine support for the sensible concept of road pricing?
I am well aware of the strong feelings in Suffolk about this issue and I have been approached about it by many Members of Parliament. I believe that road tolls can play an important part in providing new road capacity and it is important that we find ways to pay for road capacity, but I also understand the concerns about this individual case.
Q9. Does the Prime Minister realise that he has something in common with the Scottish National Party? He refuses to back Labour’s call for a freeze on energy bills and the plan announced yesterday for an independent Scotland shows clearly that the First Minister will not get to grips with the energy companies. What does the Prime Minister think that says to the millions of Scots who face rocketing fuel bills this winter? (901291)
Getting to grips with energy bills means more competition in the market, which we are delivering. We were left the big six by the Labour party. New companies are coming in and people such as the Leader of the Opposition are sensibly deciding to switch their energy supplier, which is a very good Tory principle. We also need to roll back the cost of some of the levies, and we are looking at that as well.
The Prime Minister will be aware that MPs from rural areas and across party lines have for many years campaigned for a fair funding formula for schools, ably led by David Kidney, the former Labour MP in the previous Parliament, and by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) in this Parliament. The issue has been brought to a head again and we have been led to expect news shortly. Is the Prime Minister able to reassure pupils and teachers in rural schools that good news is on its way and that they will not be disappointed?
I do understand the concerns, because these funding formulas have built up over many years. There are places in our country that do feel disadvantaged, particularly those in rural areas that can suffer exclusion and poverty, and feel that that is not properly reflected in the funding formula. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary continues to look at this, and we will see what we can do.
I can tell the hon. Lady what we have done on business rates, which is to extend the freeze on business rates that the last Government were going to get rid of. What we are also doing on business rates is to have a £2,000 cut in national insurance for every business in the country. For small businesses up and down our high streets, I cannot think of anything that will make a bigger difference than seeing their national insurance bill go down by £2,000 and being able to employ more people.
On the subject of how to help business, how on earth can it be a good idea to say that you want to increase corporation tax as you go into the next Parliament? That seems to me absolutely mad—a new Labour jobs tax.
By the end of this year, more than 8,000 people in our country will have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, of which only 4% will have even the chance of a five-year survival rate. Those figures have not changed for the last 30 years. Will the Prime Minister join the all-party group on pancreatic cancer and Pancreatic Cancer UK in their aim, which is that it is time to change and improve on those dreadful outcomes?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. An issue always raised by charities campaigning on some of the less well-known and less prevalent cancers is that they do not get a fair share of the research funding. That is an issue that I have taken up with the Health Secretary. We need to make sure that we are spreading research funding and the work we do into cancer fairly across the different disciplines and across the different cancers.
Q11. May I repeat that energy companies made 77% more profit per customer in 2012? Does the Prime Minister agree that this is not acceptable, and if so, what immediate steps does he propose to take to protect customers from blatant profiteering? (901293)
What we need to do is to create a more competitive energy market. As I said, we inherited a situation with just six big companies. We have seen seven new companies come into the market and the number of people with independent suppliers—such as the Leader of the Opposition—has actually doubled during this Parliament, so we are making progress.
I always follow what the hon. Gentleman says. Recently, he gave an interview when he went on the radio and said about Labour’s policy: “Do you know, I don’t know our position on welfare, I don’t know our position on education, I don’t know our position on how we’d run the health service?” I think a question about that would be a good thing.
Q12. The Prime Minister’s plans to restrict benefits to immigrants are wise and welcome. What lessons has my right hon. Friend learned from the failures of the last Labour Government who, despite claiming that just 13,000 Polish immigrants would arrive in the UK, deliberately allowed more than 1 million to come into our country? (901294)
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course there are benefits of free movement within the EU, but there should be proper transition controls. We increased the transition controls on Bulgaria and Romania from five years to seven years when we became the Government, but it still absolutely baffles me why the last Labour Government decided in 2004 to have no transitional controls at all. They predicted 14,000 Polish people would arrive to work in Britain; in the event, the number was over 700,000. It was a shameful dereliction of duty.
Q15. The Prime Minister will be aware that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, proposes to close nearly every single ticket office on the London Underground network, with more than 700 jobs being lost. Does the Prime Minister believe that that is the way to raise living standards for ordinary Londoners? (901297)
The best way to help Londoners is to ensure that we have a safe and affordable tube, and that we use modern technology to deliver that. The conversation that the hon. Lady needs to have is with the trade union that has done so much damage to our underground. We ought to have no-strike deals on the underground and permanent systems that provide a good service.
Q13. Earlier this week in Brighton, I was tested for HIV. This Sunday is world AIDS day. In view of the fact that one in five people with HIV in this country does not know that they have it, does the Prime Minister agree that regular testing is to be encouraged? (901295)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, all hon. Members across the House and everyone in politics who campaign so persistently and consistently on this issue. It is vital that we improve the livelihoods of people who have HIV and AIDS in the UK, but it is also vital that we continue working internationally, including through our aid budget, to tackle HIV and AIDS around the world. We can be proud of the money that we have put into things such as the global fund and of the fact that this country has achieved the target of 0.7% of gross national income, when many other countries have broken their promises.
Across all the utilities, we want it to be easier for people to switch. We have done that on banks. It is now easier to switch bank accounts because of the hard work of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is now easier to switch energy providers because of the excellent work of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. It ought to be easier to switch with other utilities. That is an important bit of work that we are doing.
Q14. The number of apprenticeships in Cornwall has doubled since 2010, which is helping to create a stronger economy and a fairer society. Will the Prime Minister meet me and a delegation of young people from Cornwall to see how we can further promote these very worthwhile schemes? (901296)
I am delighted with the news about the number of apprenticeships in Cornwall. The Government have made a major financial commitment to funding apprenticeships. That is making a difference, but there is far further to go in tackling youth unemployment and worklessness among people between the ages of 16 and 24. I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps a suitable moment might be when I am in Cornwall.
The greatest danger in terms of interest rates would be to have a Government who believed in more borrowing, more spending and more taxing. That is what would drive up interest rates, that is what would hit the cost of living and that is what every family in this country should dread.
Points of order come after statements. That is a well-established feature of our system.
We will come to the urgent question in a moment. There is another urgent question to follow and a statement by a Minister. I therefore hope that the House will understand that I do not intend to run the first urgent question at great length. It concerns an extremely important matter, but the House will have to treat of it briefly.
Diplomatic Relations (Spain)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Spain in the light of recent escalating events concerning Gibraltar, most recently the searching of a diplomatic bag as it was leaving the Rock.
On Friday 22 November, two British Government bags containing official correspondence and communications, and clearly marked as such, were opened by Spanish officials while the bags were in transit. That represents a serious interference with the official correspondence and property of Her Majesty’s Government, and therefore a breach of the principles underlying the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, and the principle of state immunity. We take any infringement of those principles very seriously.
Following reports of the incident, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made representations to the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation at senior level over the weekend of 23 and 24 November, and the British Embassy in Madrid submitted a formal written protest to the Ministry on Monday 25 November. In our protests we requested an urgent explanation of the incident from the Spanish Government, and sought assurances that there will be no further interference with the UK’s official correspondence. The unauthorised opening of UK official communications, including diplomatic bags, is a matter of grave concern and we made that clear to the Spanish Government. If the Spanish authorities had concerns about the contents of our bags, internationally accepted practice would require them to contact the British authorities.
We have now received an explanation from the Spanish Government and been assured that we will not see a repeat of those actions. As the Spanish authorities know, overriding international principles provide for both state immunity and the freedom of official communication between a state and its representatives. Tampering with the bags was a breach of the principles embodied in the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The UK strictly adheres to those principles, and expects other states to do the same.
We are maintaining strong pressure on the Spanish Government to de-escalate current tensions and work with us to manage our differences through diplomatic and political routes. A major escalation could harm all parties, not least the many thousands of Spanish families who benefit, directly or indirectly, from the economic prosperity of Gibraltar. The UK wants to maintain a strong bilateral relationship with Spain across a range of policy areas, and such a relationship benefits the interests of this country, Gibraltar and Spain alike. We have reiterated to the Spanish Government the Foreign Secretary’s proposal of April 2012 for ad hoc talks involving all relevant parties, and there have been constructive discussions with the Spanish about these proposals.
I am grateful to the Minister of State for that response. As he said, the serious incident last Friday goes against the 1961 Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. Official correspondence and diplomatic bags should simply not be tampered with. Last time anything such as this happened was 13 years ago with the Zimbabwean regime of Robert Mugabe—not the best company to be associated with. This is the first time that an EU state or NATO ally has opened a UK diplomatic bag, violating the 1961 Vienna convention. That enormously serious breach comes on top of tedious and spiteful delays at the Gibraltar-Spanish border, and the incursion of a Spanish vessel into waters off Gibraltar. The deterioration of relations between the United Kingdom, Gibraltar and Spain serves nobody well.
The Spanish ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office last week but clearly that has not had the desired effect. Nobody wants a further escalation of events or further deterioration in relations, but at the same time Spain must be made to know that its actions are intolerable, unwarranted, and will be met with an appropriate response, defending the rights of the people of Gibraltar and respecting international conventions. What actions will Her Majesty’s Government take to ensure that once and for all Spain gets the message? Hands off the Rock!
I think the Spanish authorities are in no doubt about the Government’s resolve and, I believe, the resolve of the House as a whole that there should be no transfer of the sovereignty of Gibraltar to any other country, unless that were freely consented to by the people of Gibraltar. I reiterate that we will not engage in any process of talks or negotiations about sovereignty with which Gibraltar is not content. I hope that that reiteration will be some assurance to my hon. Friend.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) on securing the urgent question. I reiterate the Opposition’s growing concerns, and those on both sides of the House, about this latest event in a series of events around Gibraltar’s borders.
We heard yesterday that two diplomatic bags were opened by Spanish police at the Gibraltarian border. It has been reported that the bags were taken from Gibraltar to Seville airport in Spain. As the Minister has rightly said, that represents a serious interference with the official correspondence of Her Majesty’s Government, and a serious breach of both the principles underlying the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations and the principles of state immunity.
In the written statement before the House today, the Minister says he has received an explanation from the Spanish Government—he reiterated that just now. I am sure Members on both sides of the House would welcome hearing the specific details of that explanation, which were missing from the Minister’s written statement. Will he therefore set out the details of that explanation and say whether they came in writing? Will he agree to lay them before the House by placing them in the House of Commons Library? Will he also set out how long it took to receive the explanation from the Spanish Government once he had become aware of the incident? Will he be clear for the House on whether the British Government have a taken a view that the explanation was sufficient? If it was not sufficient, will he set out what further assurances the Government will seek from Spain on the matter, and how such incidents can be prevented from happening in future?
Will the Minister tell the House whether the Prime Minister has been in touch with his counterpart in Spain to discuss not just this matter but the series of recent incidents at the Gibraltarian border? Will the Minister also make it clear whether it is the British Government’s view that this was a case of Spanish officials locally failing to follow due process, or whether it was an intentional provocation authorised by the Spanish authorities?
Following the EU Commission’s observation mission to Gibraltar in September, from which it concluded that there was “no evidence” of Spain’s infringing rules of the border controls, will the Minster call on the Commission to carry out an urgent further mission and investigate any further incidents as they arise?
Finally, it is vital that the Spanish Government today hear a united statement from the House that such provocative and unlawful acts are not acceptable to this Parliament or to the British people. They cannot be ignored.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his overall support for the Government’s position. I shall try to answer his questions.
As I have said, we were alerted to the incident over the weekend, and we made representations to the most senior officials we could reach in Madrid over the weekend. We also ensured that the Spanish authorities at all levels were well aware of the gravity of our concern about the incident.
The explanation that the Spanish have given to us—it arrived late yesterday—was that there was an error at junior operational level at the crossing point between Gibraltar and Spain, and that the more senior Spanish official present put a stop to that interference with our official correspondence as soon as he realised what was happening.
As I have said, we have had assurance that such action will not be repeated. We trust that Spain will live up fully to its obligations under the Vienna conventions and international law.
It is rather an easy explanation—is it not?—to say that the decision was taken at junior operational level. If I may say so, I think we are entitled to press the Spanish Government further on the protocol and the understanding of those who have responsibility for these matters at the border. The House will be united in condemnation of any breach of the Vienna convention. Have we had an unequivocal apology for the incident from the Spanish Government at the necessarily highest level, and an equally unequivocal assurance that steps will be taken to ensure that it never happens again?
The protocol that should be observed, not simply at the border between Gibraltar and Spain but at any international crossing point, is that containers that are clearly marked as diplomatic and official correspondence are inviolate under the terms of the Vienna convention. It is true that, from time to time, people at operational level make mistakes. I trust that the Spanish authorities will now show, by their actions, that they will adhere fully to their international obligations.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) for putting this question. If this alleged error by a jobsworth was the only act of interference and aggression by the Spanish authorities on the frontier with Gibraltar, it might just get by, but it is part of a succession of harassment after harassment after harassment, and it will not do. The Government’s softly, softly approach is simply not working. May I put it to the Minister that if anything like this ever happens again, the Spanish ambassador should be expelled from this country?
Clearly, any repetition, in the light of the weekend’s events, would be a matter of the utmost seriousness. The right hon. Gentleman decries the Government’s approach, but last week we had evidence that it worked in the case of the Spanish oceanographic survey vessel, which mounted an incursion into Gibraltar waters and sought to carry out survey work. Following the Government’s vigorous protests, including summoning the Spanish ambassador, and the strong views expressed in this House, notably in questions put to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) following his oral statement last week, the Spanish vessel pursued its survey work but did not mount any further incursion into British Gibraltar waters. The vessel carried out its survey work within Spanish waters. That shows that we should not write off the Government’s approach.
The Minister of State must surely now realise that this is a long series of acts of aggression by the Spanish Government against the loyal subjects of Gibraltar, and that the time has come to take firm and decisive action. Is it not time to send the Spanish ambassador back to Madrid?
I endorse the strong criticism across the House of the serious breach of an international treaty in opening the bag, but may I probe the Minister’s diplomatic strategy to resolve the escalating tension of the past few months? Will he revisit the work done by Lord Howe and Lord Garel-Jones under his party’s leadership in government, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and I under the previous Labour Government, which respects the paramount rights of Gibraltarians but recognises that Spain, currently one of our closest friends, has an historic grievance? Until we bring people together for proper negotiations, we will not resolve these matters.
I would like to see people come together through the ad hoc talks on practical issues, which were proposed in 2012 by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. We still hope that it will be possible for such talks to take place. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support, but may I add, as gently as I can, that I do not believe that the example he and the former Foreign Secretary set when they were in government would help? It added hugely to the sense of mistrust in Gibraltar about the intentions of the British Government.
Which Royal Navy warships are currently in the waters around Gibraltar, and do not these provocations give the lie to those who have complacently argued for years that the Royal Navy was not important? The best preservation of peace is the strength of the Royal Navy.
The most important thing that we can do with fellow members of the European Union and other allied countries—indeed, this is what we have been seeking to do—is draw their attention to the fact that Gibraltar is not some exploited colony; it is a self-governing territory whose people have time and again freely expressed their wish to remain under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.
Hundreds of thousands of British people live in Spain and large numbers of Spanish people live in this country. Many of them will be very concerned about a possible deterioration in the relationship between the two countries. What action will the Minister take to resolve the matter by involving the European Commission again, given that we are both member states of the European Union?
We will always consider trying to involve the European Commission where it has competence, but it does not have competence to determine sovereignty. That sovereignty was set out in the treaty of Utrecht and has been confirmed by the freely expressed vote of the people of Gibraltar many times.
Does the Minister agree that the explanation that the Spanish Government have given is extraordinary and, frankly, would not pass muster in the Bromley magistrates court, let alone anywhere else? Will he redouble his efforts to explain through our NATO allies that the behaviour of the current Spanish Government, who are stooping to the levels of Franco’s Government, is not that of a NATO ally and is not acceptable? Will he consider reinforcing the naval deployments available to us in Gibraltar?
What would be in the interests of both this country and Spain, as fellow members of NATO and the European Union, would be to take forward talks on practical issues concerning co-operation on matters that affect Gibraltar and the campo, to park the admitted irreconcilable difference over sovereignty and to focus on the wider agenda, where the UK and Spain have a great deal on which they should be able to work together constructively.
Just a few days ago Members on both sides of the House warned that every time the Foreign Office summoned the ambassador there was some sort of nonsense from the Spanish in response. Will the Minister answer the specific question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), which he forgot to answer? Has either the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary personally spoken with their counterparts in Spain?
The contacts with the Spanish authorities have been at all appropriate senior levels. We remain ready, in the event of further serious incidents—we hope that they will not happen—to make representations to Spain at whatever level we consider appropriate given the circumstances.
About 200 metres off the coast of Morocco lies Perejil island, a rocky and disputed outcrop in sight of the Moroccan coast. The Spanish refuse even to negotiate or discuss its position. Perhaps we could help our Spanish allies understand the frustration we feel with this type of interference if we recognised Morocco’s right to the island.
Romanian and Bulgarian Accession
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on Romanian and Bulgarian accession.
In June 2005, the previous Government signed accession treaties with Romania and Bulgaria, and in doing so they granted all Romanians and Bulgarians the right to come to Britain. The treaties came into effect in 2007, and as a result the seven-year transitional controls relating to free movement will end on 1 January 2014. From that date, Romanians and Bulgarians will have the right to largely unrestricted free movement across Europe.
Unlike the previous Government, who chose not to apply the transitional controls for countries such as Poland and Hungary in 2004, this Government are doing everything we can to ensure that we are prepared for this latest extension in EU free movement rights. First, we are making use of the full seven years available to us to impose transitional controls, something the Labour party failed to do in 2004, which meant that Britain was the only major economy in Europe to grant full access to its labour market to millions of Poles, Hungarians and others.
Secondly, we are tightening the European immigration regulations to ensure that we do not gold-plate EU free movement rules. We are therefore amending the regulations to create a statutory presumption that a European’s right to reside here ends after six months unless they can prove that they are actively seeking work and stand a real chance of finding it.
Thirdly, we are taking action to limit the pull factors that attract people to come to Britain. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is introducing a three-month delay before a European jobseeker can claim benefits and a new minimum earnings threshold to ensure that EU nationals are genuinely working in the UK before they can access benefits. He is also developing a tougher six-month test to assess whether benefit claimants have a genuine chance of finding work. That will apply to all EU nationals who come here to look for work and those who have already worked here. Those changes will come into effect as soon as possible in the new year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is ensuring that, wherever possible, the NHS claims back the cost of treating Europeans from their home country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will issue new statutory guidance to ensure that local authorities set a residency requirement, or a minimum period of residence in a community, before a person qualifies for social housing.
Fourthly, we are ensuring that there is a full and proper operational response to the challenges brought by that extension in free movement. We are working with the police, local authorities and other agencies to identify Europeans who are rough-sleeping and not exercising their treaty right to be in the UK. Where appropriate, those people will be removed. We are also changing the European immigration regulations to introduce a 12-month bar on their return to Britain, unless they can prove that they have a proper reason to be here.
Fifthly, I have lobbied other member states in the Council of Ministers about the abuse of free movement, and there is a growing coalition of support for change. In April this year, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, along with Britain, wrote to the European presidency and the Commission to make the case for change. Although I am pleased that the European Commission has at long last admitted that there is a problem, it is still refusing to do anything meaningful about it.
Those are the measures we are taking to prepare us for the extension of free movement in January, but in the long term there is much more we need to do. The Prime Minister made it clear at the beginning of the year that any future Government he leads will seek to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU before we hold a referendum, and that referendum will ask the people whether we should be in or out. As I have made clear in the past and reiterate today, that renegotiation must address the problems caused by free movement. Now, in her reply, the shadow Home Secretary needs to tell the House whether she agrees with that renegotiation and referendum and whether she agrees that the renegotiation must address the problems caused by free movement.
For generations, people have come to this country and worked hard to contribute to Britain, building some of our biggest businesses and even becoming Olympic medal winners, but the principle of contribution is an important one, and the controls on immigration must be fair to those who live here. That is why we called for stronger restrictions on benefits for new arrivals from the EU, including proposals eight months ago to strengthen the habitual residence test to make it clear that people should not be able to claim benefits when they first arrive. We also said that the framework for the free movement of labour should be looked at again.
At the time, the Government dismissed those proposals, but eight months later they have changed their minds. That is welcome, but will the Home Secretary say why she did not bring those proposals forward at the time? It is now the end of November, and accession for Romania and Bulgaria will occur in a month’s time, so will she tell the House which of these measures will be in place by the beginning of January, when the transitional controls for Romania and Bulgaria end? Will the restrictions on jobseeker’s allowance be in by January? Will the housing benefit restrictions be in by January? Will the minimum wage fines be in place by January? If not, why not? We called for these proposals eight months ago, so why the delay?
We all agree that transitional arrangements should have been in place for the A8 countries. At the time, the Conservative party voted for A8 accession even without transitional arrangements. The Home Secretary’s party also supported the Romanian and Bulgarian accession agreement. The Prime Minister has today claimed that the rules on transitional controls should have been changed at that time, but he did not argue for changing transitional controls then and failed to do anything about changing transitional controls when this Government endorsed Croatian accession in 2011 with exactly the same transitional control rules in place. Will she explain why the Prime Minister failed to act in 2011, given what he has said today?
Neither are the Government doing anything about the impact of accession on the workplace. Most people from Europe come to Britain to work, not to claim benefits, and 1 million British citizens live and work elsewhere in Europe too, yet there is a serious problem of low-skilled migrant workers being exploited, undercutting local workers and responsible businesses too. That is bad for everyone, yet she is doing nothing about it. We have urged her to take action, against recruitment agencies that target only foreign workers; against factories that segregate shifts by nationality; against the loophole in the minimum wage that means migrant workers are put into overcrowded tied accommodation to get round the rules; and against employers in the care sector, for example, who have recruited heavily from abroad but failed to train or to pay the minimum wage. Each time she has refused, so what is the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister doing to address those problems for wages and jobs? Nothing.
All parties should take a responsible approach to immigration. We will not enter an arms race of rhetoric. Instead, we need practical measures to address people’s concerns. We are glad that the Prime Minister has adopted our proposals on benefit restrictions, but the Government should not have delayed them for eight months so that they will not be in place for January. It is not enough, either. They need to take action over jobs and wages now.
Order. The temperature is rising. I keep a close eye on these things, and I understood the reference to be a collective reference, not an accusation of individual impropriety. [Interruption.] Order. I do not require any assistance, although the sage nodding of the head by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) is always a matter of great parliamentary interest. That is why I took the view I did. I urge Members to be moderate in their use of language, but the Home Secretary is in order.
Despite all the evidence and warnings, the Labour party in government refused to impose transitional controls in 2004, but now it seeks to lecture us about immigration. I do not know whether the shadow Home Secretary has seen a copy of today’s Daily Mail, but it contains a fascinating article written by Britain’s ambassador in Warsaw in 2004, who describes the “incredulity” of the Poles when he told them that Britain would not be imposing transitional controls. He writes that the Polish Government
“instinctively knew what Tony Blair’s Labour government consistently denied: the immediate abolition of all border restrictions would lead to a surge of”
their people coming to these shores.
The Labour Government told us that only 13,000 people would come; the truth was that more than 1 million came. It was the biggest single influx this country has ever experienced, and who suffered as a result? The right hon. Lady talks about doing something about wages and jobs. In the five years following Labour’s failure to impose transitional controls, more than 90% of the increase in employment in Britain was accounted for by foreign nationals. Under this Government, thanks to our measures to control immigration and reform welfare, two thirds of the increase in employment has been accounted for by British people.
But if the right hon. Lady does not want to listen to me or the former British ambassador to Poland, perhaps she should listen to the succession of former Labour Home Secretaries who have admitted what the British people already knew. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) describes the failure to impose transitional controls as a “spectacular mistake”. And let us remember: it was not just European immigration that Labour let get out of control, but all forms of immigration. Under Labour, net immigration reached 2.2 million, which is twice the population of the city of Birmingham.
I come again to the right hon. Lady’s point about what is being done on wages and jobs. The Labour Government knew just what they were doing. The hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), the Leader of the Opposition’s policy guru, has said that Labour were
“using migration to introduce a covert 21st century incomes policy.”
Labour, which claims to be the party of the working man and woman, admits that it used immigration deliberately to keep down wages.
In answer to the right hon. Lady’s question, I have gone through what the Government are doing to prepare for January: we have been making full use of transitional controls; we are tightening the immigration rules so that we do not gold-plate EU free-movement rules; we are limiting the pull factors that attract people to Britain; we are ensuring a strong operational response to the challenges brought by free movement; and we are working with other member states to cut out the abuse of free movement. She claims we have done nothing about the habitual residence test, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has tightened it, and that is already in operation. We want to renegotiate our relationship with the EU and ensure we address the problems caused by free movement as part of that renegotiation.
In its 13 years in government Labour did nothing about those issues. The shadow Home Secretary’s comments today show that she has not learned any lessons from 2004, has failed to come up with any solutions of her own and has failed to support our plan to fix the problems caused by free movement in the renegotiation. On this issue, as on others, she has no credibility whatsoever.
My right hon. Friend rightly adverted to the fact that the previous Government, virtually alone among the major economies, allowed unfettered access to this country to the large populations of the accession countries in 2004. Will she assure me that this Government will not do what the previous Government further did, which was, at the same time, to grant a large number of work permits to workers from outside the EU, in a policy that has never been properly explained and remains mysterious to this day, even though it sounds very much as though the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) would like to repeat it.
Indeed, and a leading Labour party Front Bencher has already indicated that a Labour Government might consider increasing levels of immigration, were Labour to come back into power. Certainly this Government have been tightening up not just on the work permit route from outside the EU into the UK, but on every route of access into the UK. As the Conservative party committed to doing before the election and as was agreed in the coalition agreement, the Government have introduced a cap on non-EU economic migration into the UK. We have a limit on the number of people who can come here as tier 2 workers and we have reformed the other routes, and I am pleased to say that as a result we have seen immigration from outside the EU fall.
Of course it is right for all Governments to target the abuse of benefits. Will the Home Secretary reassure us, however, that this measure is not designed specifically to deal with Romanians and Bulgarians as the transition ends in just 30 days’ time? Does she agree that the real issue is the push and pull factors? That is why it is necessary to work with the Romanian and Bulgarian Governments to find out the reasons and causes of this migration. Romania has not as yet accessed 87% of the funds it was given on accession. We need to work with the Romanians so that they can build on their infrastructure and their citizens are able to remain there—this applies to Bulgaria, too—which is what they want to do. We cannot have freedom of movement without movement, which makes this a fundamental issue for the European Union rather than one that can be dealt with by a change in the benefit rules.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his measured response and his question. Of course he is right to say that making the changes to tighten the benefit rules, seeking to remove people not exercising their treaty rights and then providing a year-long ban applies not only to Romanians and Bulgarians but to all those exercising their free movement rights and coming here from the European Union. What I took from the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question was, I think, support for the concept that this Government have set out—that we want to renegotiate the treaty. My party has certainly set that out, and the Prime Minister has set it out. We want the treaty to be renegotiated and, within that, we want to address the issue of free movement. Crucially, other member states across the EU are now working with us, because they also see potential problems arising from the abuse of the free movement right.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her incredibly robust statement today, which will be warmly welcomed by the British people, and may I join her in condemning the nauseating hypocrisy of Labour Members, who allowed 2.2 million to come into this country as a deliberate act of policy? We saw on the television young doctors in Bulgaria wishing to come to this country because they could earn in two days here what they earn in a month in Bulgaria. Is not their membership of the EU completely contradicted if all the talent leaves Bulgaria and comes to the UK and other advanced European countries? Even at this late stage, I invite my right hon. Friend to contemplate extending the transitional arrangements so that we have another two or three years to prepare for this.
My hon. Friend makes an important and serious point about people moving to the UK who would be of benefit to their own countries if they remained in them. It is important to look at the issue he raises about the disparity of wages and salaries that can be earned, particularly when looking at renegotiation, free movement and transitional controls. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that one aspect that we are currently considering is whether a more flexible approach on transitional controls, reflecting potential disparities and extending transitional controls while certain disparities remained, would be more beneficial than the blunt instrument we have now.
As a foreign national who came to this country, I find some of the tone of the right hon. Lady’s response to be slightly distasteful. Some of what she wants to put in place is right and proper, but she did not answer the shadow Home Secretary’s question about why those things were not put in place when we called for them eight months ago. Does she anticipate that all the provisions she mentions will be in place by 1 January?
I have made it clear on many occasions that I think immigration has been good for the United Kingdom overall. The problem we faced was uncontrolled immigration under the previous Labour Government, whom the hon. Lady supported. We therefore needed to ensure that we brought some control into our immigration system. Most members of the public think that it is only fair when they are hard working and contributing to the NHS, for example, that other people coming here should be required to contribute as well, while those who come here legitimately think it only fair that those who are here illegitimately and illegally should be removed from this country. Some of the measures—the tightening of the habitual residence test, for example—have been renegotiated in recent months. These policies are being looked at and they will be in place by 1 January; others will be put in place as soon after 1 January as is possible.
My hon. Friend raises the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) raised, and I suspect that other hon. Friends would like to raise the same point. I think it right for this Government to look at everything we can do to ensure that we can maintain the control of migration to which we have been committed to introducing in the UK. The current legal position is clear, and I have set it out, but it is right to look at every possibility to ensure that we deal with the situation. I have set out in my response to the urgent question the moves that we are making.
Given the abject failure, as the right hon. Lady describes it, of the European Commission adequately to respond to a joint initiative that included the German Government and others, would it not be a good idea to press the matter further, to extend the transitional provisions of the 2005 treaty until such time as we can have a referendum and see what decision the British people have made, and to maintain the status quo in the meantime?
As I noted, a number of hon. Members have raised this issue, so I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on being the third to do so. I have just responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on that very matter. On the point about the European Commission, I agree that it has so far failed to respond. It has, however, moved in that it has accepted that the concept of free movement can be abused and that some abuse of it does take place. This is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and I are working to build within the EU, a coalition of member states—beyond those I have already mentioned—that remain concerned about this issue, wish to see something done about it and can bring greater pressure on the Commission.
It is clearly right to clamp down on abuse, but will the Home Secretary confirm that the vast majority of EU migrants here do not claim benefits and instead contribute substantially to our country and our economy—to the tune of £25 billion, according to one study from University college London?
The problem is that the last Labour Government made no attempt to collect any information, so nobody knows the number of people claiming benefits when coming into this country in 2004. This Government are now starting to collect that information so that we can build up a better picture at the same time as we are tightening up access to those benefits. We are not able to say what the picture was previously because the last Government failed to collect the figures.
I am sure that the Home Secretary will realise that my constituents are concerned not just about benefits. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) has drawn attention to the challenges posed by the large influx of Roma-Slovak migrants into our constituencies. Does she accept that that poses major challenges to community cohesion and puts significant pressures on housing overcrowding and health and school services in our constituencies? Does she agree that the Government need to develop a strategy to work with councils such as Sheffield to meet those challenges to the benefit of all concerned?
The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that I know concerns a number of communities around the country; local authorities are seeking to address it. There are a number of ways in which the Government have worked on these issues—in respect of certain groups in London, for example—including by working with the Romanian police, who have been over here to support us on this particular question. We need to ensure that we can maintain community cohesion so that we do not see a rise in the concerns to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The Government will strengthen their ability to ensure that those who are removed for not exercising their treaty rights are not able to return for a year.
Will my right hon. Friend note Lord Mandelson’s comment that the last Labour Government sent out “search parties” to encourage mass immigration? Moreover, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has said not only that the Labour Government’s policy was a “spectacular mistake”, but that it left them—and should have left them—with “red faces”. In the light of those admissions from certain leading Labour figures, will my right hon. Friend ensure that she continues to repair the damage done to this country by the negligence of the last Government?
My hon. Friend is right, and I assure him that, working with colleagues such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I will do all that I can to repair the damage left by the last Government. Given that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), Lord Mandelson—as my hon. Friend pointed out—and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) have all been reflecting on the mistakes made by the Labour Government in relation to immigration, I think that it would have been far preferable for the shadow Secretary of State to come to the House and apologise today.
The Home Secretary has announced what appear to be substantial proposed changes to freedom of movement, but freedom of movement is a two-way street. It is estimated that 2.2 million United Kingdom citizens are living or working in other parts of the European Union. What assessment has the Home Secretary made of the impact on those citizens of reciprocal changes that may be made by EU nations?
It is true that a number of people from the United Kingdom have chosen to exercise free movement rights and move to other parts of Europe. The figure that I have seen is slightly lower than the one given by the hon. Gentleman, but that does not affect the principle, or the fact that people have exercised those rights. What I think this country should do, in conjunction with other EU member states—and we are working with other member states—is decide what makes sense, and what is fair to our citizens. We must have a system that ensures that those who exercise free movement rights exercise them properly, and that we are able to reduce the pull factors that encourage people to come here and, potentially, not exercise those rights properly.
Will my right hon. Friend say to our colleagues in the European Union that, given that the last Labour Government let in 2.2 million migrants, Britain has taken more than its fair share of migrants throughout Europe, and it is high time that this Parliament regained sovereignty over our immigration policy?
In many respects, we have rather more control over our borders than a number of other European Union member states. We are not in Schengen, for example, and we intend to remain outside it and retain our ability to exercise border controls. I think that the measures I have announced today demonstrate that we are increasingly sending the European Commission the message that we think it important for us to be able to make decisions about such matters as the habitual residence test on the basis of what is right for people living here in the United Kingdom.
Let me say first that I think we should consider what changes could be made in relation to how free the movement of labour should be in the European Union. My constituents raise that issue with me regularly. May I also ask the Home Secretary what estimate her Department has made of the impact that the changes will have on the number of EU citizens coming to, and staying in, this country, and on what date the benefit changes will take effect?
The Government have produced no estimate, and independent commentators have expressed the view that that is a sensible approach. Because of the number of variables, it would be very difficult to make such an estimate other than within a very large range.
Some of the measures that I have announced—including the ability to ensure that people who are removed because they are not exercising their treaty rights do not return for a year—will take effect on 1 January, while others will be introduced as early as possible in the new year.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement, but I do not think that either the coalition Government or the Opposition are listening carefully enough to what people are saying. My constituents take the view that this country is full, and that we should not open our borders to Romania and Bulgaria. Yes, if we do not open our borders to them the country will be taken to court, but we will have sent a signal of firm intent about our renegotiation of the EU treaties—and hopefully, by the time the case comes to court the referendum will have taken place, and we will have left this wretched organisation altogether.
I note my hon. Friend’s robust remarks, which are no less than I would have expected from him on this issue. I understand people’s concern about it—and, indeed, about immigration generally—but I think that their concern is largely a response to what they saw happening under the last Government. We are taking a number of steps to deal with that, not just in terms of what will happen after the end of the transitional controls but in the Immigration Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. It is this Government who are introducing changes that I believe are absolutely fair to hard-working people in this country.
Surely the fact that new Labour got it spectacularly wrong on European immigration—as some of us argued at the time—does not entitle the Government to make the same mistake. Am I not right in thinking that by the end of the first week in January, every citizen of Romania, every citizen of Bulgaria, and everyone else who has managed to get Romanian and Bulgarian passports will be able to enter the United Kingdom without hindrance?
The hon. Gentleman said that mistakes had been made by the last Government. He also referred to new Labour; I am not sure whether that is something different from the Labour party that he now represents. He claimed that this Government were not learning from those mistakes, but we have indeed learnt from them. That is why we have been clear about transitional controls, and why we want to renegotiate the treaty and ensure that free movement is part of that renegotiation.
As one who strongly supports our continued membership of the European Union but was very critical of Labour’s action in doing away with the transitional arrangements for the eastern European countries, and as one who also strongly supports our not joining the Schengen agreement, I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement because it deals with some of the deep concerns expressed by our constituents. However, will she ensure that over the next few weeks the coalition Government disseminate very clearly, for the benefit of the public and local councils, information about exactly what the rules are in relation to people from other countries? There are people outside the House—and, sometimes, people in the House—who misrepresent the picture in a way that generates fear of immigrants and fear of immigration, and does no good to our community cohesion.
My right hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. We will do all that we can to ensure that people are aware of the rules that will operate—including, obviously, those who will put the rules into practice—so that everyone recognises the actions that the coalition Government are taking. The right hon. Gentleman referred specifically to councils. In my response to the urgent question, I mentioned the new guidance that will be issued by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government concerning the residency in the community test for access to social housing. We will ensure that those who need to know what action we are taking are given a full picture of what the Government are doing to address an issue that is of concern to them.
My Harlow residents will welcome the measures announced by my right hon. Friend because they are entirely fair, but will not many hard-working immigrants who do not claim handouts from the British taxpayer welcome them as well, because they create a level playing field?
My hon. Friend has put his finger on an important point. What we are doing is fair to the hard-working people who have come to the UK legally, played by the rules and done the right thing. It is every bit as frustrating for them to see people coming here and abusing and playing the system. That is another reason why it is absolutely right for us to take this action.
None of us believes everything we read in the newspapers, but there have been reports of British recruitment agencies working in Romania and Bulgaria actively to recruit people to come here in January. What steps are the Home Secretary and other members of her Government taking to deal with that?
I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady has raised. If recruitment agencies were attempting to recruit only from certain countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, that would be discriminatory and against the law. The Minister for Immigration is taking that matter up with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is the relevant enforcement body.
The only way for the Home Secretary to deal with the problem of thousands of people coming to this country from Romania and Bulgaria is to extend the transitional arrangements, and it would be perfectly legal for her to do so. My private Member’s Bill, which has its Second Reading this Friday, would do exactly that, and by the end of a five-year extension, the referendum would have taken place. I urge my right hon. Friend to be here on Friday if she can, and to support my Bill.
I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that when he sees me here on Friday, it might have something to do with another private Members’ Bill that is being debated on that day. It is an important Bill that will put in place the legislation on the EU referendum, which we are clear that we should have.
I have indicated that the habitual residence test will be available from 1 January, and that the measures for those people who will be removed—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked which measures would not be ready. He can work it out for himself, because I have told him which one will be in place on 1 January.
I am sorry to have to ask the same question for about the sixth time. It is open to the Government to abrogate their treaty obligations, and it is open to the House to legislate. The free movement of people is no longer working in the interests of this nation, so why do Her Majesty’s Government lack the political will to change the law?
I am tempted to say that I suspect my hon. Friend was not sorry to have to ask that question for a sixth time. I have answered it in relation to an earlier question. The Government are taking steps to ensure that we can do what we believe to be necessary to address the issue of the removal of transitional controls on people coming from Romania and Bulgaria. I hope that my hon. Friend understands the intentions and good faith behind what the Government have done across the immigration system over the past three and a half years. We have explored every possible avenue to do everything we can to repair the damage, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), that was done by the last Labour Government’s policies.
I welcome the restrictions, because I have long felt that rules designed for an EU made up of a small number of advanced economies cannot really work for a much bigger organisation. Given the Home Secretary’s admission that the new rules on the national minimum wage will not be in force on 1 January, however, why will she not introduce legislation now to make the necessary changes more quickly?
We will bring forward the various legislative requirements as and when the time to do so is appropriate. We are looking across the board in dealing with these issues. Some measures will be in place, and some regulatory changes will take place before the end of this term and before the Christmas recess. The Government are taking action.
My constituents are getting thoroughly fed up with being told what to do by EU officials on the radio this morning and elsewhere. Can the Home Secretary decide what will happen in the UK in future without interference from the EU?
My hon. Friend’s constituents might be interested to hear that we will find ourselves in considerable disagreement with the European Union over a number of the measures that we are taking. We are prepared to take those measures, however, because we believe that they are right for this country.