House of Commons
Monday 2 December 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that we have scrapped national targets, improved police accountability, reformed pay and conditions, abolished bureaucracy, set up the National Crime Agency and College of Policing and brought in elected police and crime commissioners. Those are the most radical reforms in the history of policing.
Again, I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that crime is down on both the reported measures of recorded crime and the crime survey. Recorded crime is down by more than 10% under this Government, and that is backed up by the independent crime survey, which shows that crime has halved since 1995 and is indeed at its lowest level since the survey began in 1981.
Has the Home Secretary had an opportunity to look at Lord Stevens’ report, which was published last week? In it, he says that the police are in danger of
“beating a retreat from the beat.”
Is it not time for us to reaffirm the importance of neighbourhood policing and the wider social justice purpose of policing?
The Home Secretary will know that I am a strong supporter of the police, but I hope she will bear in mind the lack of confidence that exists in the way that complaints about the police are investigated. For the public to have confidence in the police, it is important that complaints are properly investigated. I have some serious issues in west Yorkshire about how a particular case has been dealt with. Will she look again at how West Yorkshire police investigates complaints about its own police officers?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of ensuring that complaints against the police are dealt with properly and the concern that members of the public often have about the police investigating themselves. That is precisely why we are giving extra resources and powers to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. In future, the IPCC, rather than the police themselves, will investigate serious and sensitive complaints against the police. I am pleased to say that for the other complaints that will remain with the police at local level, many police and crime commissioners are looking at how they can introduce a degree of independent oversight or consideration of those complaints.
Greater Manchester police is constantly having to reform because its numbers have been cut by more than 400 since 2010. For the next 12 weeks, our local police and 150 specialist officers are being deployed to control a very small protest against the development of shale gas at Barton Moss. I am concerned that the police response to what is a small protest is complete overkill and very costly and that crime could soar in my constituency given that our diminished force is now being diminished even more.
I am pleased to say that crime in the Greater Manchester area is down by 9%. The hon. Lady raises the issue of how a particular protest is being policed by Greater Manchester police. That of course is an operational matter, which is entirely for the chief constable and officers of Greater Manchester police.
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Home Office does ensure that there are rules about what particular crimes should be recorded. This is a matter that will be looked at, and is looked at, by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. Under our new arrangements, the police and crime commissioners have, in at least one case, taken action. In Kent, the PCC asked HMIC to come in and look at the recording of crime to see whether there were any problems and to ensure that lessons were learned.
In an unprecedented step commissioned by the Opposition and a royal commission in all but name, Lord Stevens reported last week with the most comprehensive analysis in half a century of British policing. He sounds the warning bell that the Government’s reforms, and cuts to the front line—10,460—and partnership working risk returning our police service to a discredited model of reactive policing. Does the Home Secretary agree with Lord Stevens and does she support his recommendation that there should be a guaranteed level of neighbourhood policing? It is what works and it is what local people want.
Of course, Lord Stevens produced a number of recommendations in his report and I am happy to say that the Government have put quite a few of them in place through all the reforms we have been making—reforms that have, I might say, been opposed at every stage by those on the Labour Front Bench.
We are committed to tackling the supply of illegal drugs in the UK and overseas. Action to restrict drug supply is a priority for the police and the new National Crime Agency. The coalition Government’s new serious and organised crime strategy emphasises the importance of tackling the organised crime that is associated with the drugs trade.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that it is vital that the police target resources to crack down on the supply of drugs and will he therefore welcome the success of Operation Silence, recently launched by West Mercia police to target drugs in Worcester? Would he agree with the local police officer who said:
“To be as determined and tenacious as our drug dealers is morally the right thing to do”?
Yes, I do agree with that. I am pleased to hear that robust action is being taken to damage that trade in my hon. Friend’s area and elsewhere in the country. I agree that visible law enforcement activity can be effective in restricting the supply of drugs and I am pleased to see the partnership in West Mercia and Warwickshire to steer drug misusers into treatment.
I congratulate the National Crime Agency and Border Force on that seizure, which is believed to be the largest cocaine seizure in Britain for more than two years. It is a good example of the benefits that intelligence sharing and partnerships between law enforcement agencies can bring about in disrupting drug traffickers and other criminals. That is a key element in our efforts to tackle organised and serious crime.
Are not the Government adding to the supply of illegal drugs by criminalising a relatively low-harm drug, khat? That action will drive a wedge of antagonism between the police and two already marginalised communities. Is not the experience that every drug that is banned has an increase in its use and supply?
No, that last point is not true at all. Some of the action we have taken on so-called legal highs, for example, has been very successful in driving down the use of those substances. As for khat, the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to exchange views with me at great length in the Select Committee on Home Affairs last week and I refer him to the comments I made on that occasion.
I agree. We have a very good early warning system in this country, which is perhaps further ahead than those elsewhere in Europe. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that as a consequence of the action we have been keen to see occur, last week we saw a week of action from the police, the National Crime Agency, Border Force and others that led to 39 arrests and the seizure of thousands of pounds of cash, a firearm and 9 kg of substances from a head shop in Kent.
I am tempted to say that I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago and at great length in the Home Affairs Committee. I went through the careful procedure that led the Home Secretary to conclude that the matter should be dealt with in the way that she dealt with it. That matter was decided long before I was a Minister in this office.
The Government are taking a range of steps to combat online crime. They include significantly strengthening law enforcement’s capabilities through the creation of the national cybercrime unit, the establishment of specialist regional policing teams and training 5,000 police officers in digital investigation skills.
My hon. Friend makes an important point on the need for specialist capabilities in the new national cybercrime unit, and indeed in the National Crime Agency. The NCA has established a specials programme to encourage people to volunteer to provide specialist knowledge. I do not know whether my hon. Friend, who has a strong background in IT, is making his case for being a special in the National Crime Agency, but that is certainly something that we are seeking to encourage.
20. The Olympics were overseen by police Operation Podium to stop online criminal ticket touting. Will the Minister look into working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to make the rugby world cup an event of national significance, and to stop real fans being ripped off? (901352)
I think the hon. Gentleman will be aware that ticketing fraud has been looked at by colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Operation Podium was a great success for the Metropolitan police. The economic crime unit in the National Crime Agency is very focused on combating all forms of fraud. Certainly, we will continue to reflect on the need to take firm action on all fraud, wherever it occurs.
Immigration: Romania and Bulgaria
I am grateful for that answer. Having seen the numbers last week for the increase in migrants from the EU, does the Minister still believe that we can get total net migration down to the tens of thousands in this Parliament without having some restrictions on immigration by Romanians and Bulgarians next year?
If my hon. Friend looked closely at the net migration statistics last week, he will have seen that what was interesting about them was not only the reduction in emigration by European Union nationals, but the fact that the increase in migration from the European Union involved people from not eastern Europe, or Romania and Bulgaria, but some of the southern European states, reflecting the weakness in their economy and the strength of ours.
Yesterday was the national day of Romania, celebrated in Bucharest, and also in White Hart Lane, where a young, talented Romanian, Vlad Chiriches, was man of the match. Is it still the Government’s position, as set out on the website in Bucharest, that we want Romanians to come to this country to live and work, provided that they do not claim benefits? How many members of the Government support the retention of the restrictions?
Of course, since 2007, Romanians and Bulgarians have been able to come to Britain to study, if they are self-sufficient, or to work in a skilled occupation, where they have asked for permission to do so. All that is happening at the end of the year is that the general restrictions are being lifted. Of course, if they want to come here to work and contribute, they are very welcome to do so; the changes set out last week by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary make it clear that we do not want them coming here just to claim benefits. I think that those reforms are welcome and are supported by Government Members.
I congratulate the Government and the Minister on getting non-EU immigration figures down. I want to be helpful to him. He will know that the respected think-tank Migration Watch UK has predicted that between 30,000 and 70,000 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants will come to the UK every year for five years. What figures, within those parameters, does he favour?
As I said, we consulted the Migration Advisory Committee. I have seen a range of forecasts. I have seen the Migration Watch UK one, forecasts from the two countries concerned, which are much lower, and other forecasts that are much higher. The fact that there is such a range of forecasts from independent commentators demonstrates how sensible the Government’s decision was not to join in.
Three million Bulgarians have left their country to work in other countries over the last few years, because they have had the right to access 15 European countries. Is not a lot of the rhetoric that we have heard recently just scaremongering, following on from the disgraceful situation in the Eastleigh by-election? [Interruption.] I see a Member squinting; in that by-election, it was said that 3.1 million Bulgarians—more than half the population of Bulgaria—would be coming here in January next year. Why does the Minister not publish the actual number of Bulgarians who have come here to work in the past few years, so that we do not have this rhetoric running around the media?
I wish that I could control the rhetoric running around the media, but unfortunately I cannot. Today I did an interview with the BBC in which I was more or less told that there is no problem, which was interesting, because, as I gently pointed out, it is running an entire week of programmes on the subject. That suggests it has a strange sense of priorities. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s point seriously, the Government have been clear that if people want to come here to work and contribute, as Romanians and Bulgarians have done since 2007, that is absolutely fine. The changes we made last week are about ensuring that people do not come here to claim benefits. It is also worth noting that 79% of the new jobs created since the Government came to power have gone to British citizens.
Although I welcome the measures that the Government have taken on benefits, which will have an effect, are not the concerns about immigration from Romania and Bulgaria really just the tip of a wider problem? With much of southern and eastern Europe still heading into recession, tolerance of the free movement of people is quite close to reaching its natural end.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is why our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week that we very much want to look at free movement and how we negotiate future accession arrangements for large countries. He set out a range of things we might want to consider, other than just time limits—for example, relative income levels in countries—which I think has great merit.
The Minister did not really answer the question from the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), so let me give him another go. Given that figures published last week show that net migration rose to 182,000, from 167,000, over the previous year, before the impact of any Romanian and Bulgarian immigration in January, does he think that the target, as set out in the Prime Minister’s solemn manifesto pledge, of having a net migration in the “tens of thousands,” to quote the hon. Member for Amber Valley, by May 2015 will be met—yes or no?
When the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, net migration reached 2.1 million. I should also point out, to help the shadow Home Secretary, who was challenged on this yesterday by Andrew Neil, that most of that immigration was from countries outside the European Union. There was a large bar chart showing that on the television screen, but she denied what is reality.
Access to Benefits
My hon. Friend will have noted the steps set out last week by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to tighten up the benefits system and ensure that those coming to Britain do so to work and contribute, rather than to take out of the country.
A thought-provoking article on migration published last week by Civitas shows that the British sense of fairness dictates that there should be some link between what people put into the welfare state and what they get out of it. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the case of new immigrants there is very little link at all, and does that not need to be looked at?
My hon. Friend is spot on. A number of the changes we set out last week do exactly that. For example, we are limiting the period over which a jobseeker can keep claiming benefits to six months. Colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions have strengthened the habitual residence test to ensure that it is tougher. We have also made sure that if people who come here are not exercising treaty rights and we remove them from the United Kingdom, we can stop them returning unless they demonstrate that they are going to do so.
Much of the detail on access to benefits is determined locally, and it is quite difficult, even after checking with the House of Commons Library or the website, to understand what some of the precise definitions mean. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that local authorities and the various agencies interpret what he thinks is a toughening consistently across the country?
On the hon. Lady’s point about benefits, those are not decisions for local authorities but for the Department for Work and Pensions, which trains its staff very carefully and gives them clear guidance. They are rolling out the new habitual residence test, which is robust and has a clear script with questions that people are asked. There will be further changes on access to housing benefit. We will make sure that where these decisions are for local authorities they are provided with clear guidance so that they can make the right decisions in the tougher regime.
On 1 January, when the transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria are lifted, will entry also be permitted to non-EU citizens who have Bulgarian or Romanian passports? If so, will the very large number of Moldovans who have Romanian passports be entitled to benefits, like Romanians and Bulgarians?
I may be missing something, but if people have Romanian or Bulgarian passports and are citizens of Romania or Bulgaria, they are entitled to come to Britain because those countries are members of the European Union. Indeed, they could come to Britain today; the transitional restrictions are only about whether they can come here to work. People with a Romanian or Bulgarian passports—citizens of those countries—are of course able to come to Britain today.
My constituents are pretty accepting of migration and have been for very many years, and I have always been liberal about migration to our country, but what does worry them is not just the benefit position but whether we have enough school places and social housing. Do we have enough public services to meet the challenge of a fresh wave of immigration?
It is very good, of course, that the hon. Gentleman takes a very liberal approach; he will have been delighted, then, when his party was in power and had net migration of 2.1 million over its period in office, but I do not think that was the general view. On the availability of public services, it is exactly because of the pressures on school places and on access to GPs that the Government have reduced net migration by nearly a third since the election. We want to make sure that people who are coming here are doing so to contribute and to pay their way, and that immigration is properly controlled.
Deportation Appeals System
We are making changes in the Immigration Bill to reduce the number of appeal rights and to ensure that those convicted of criminal offences will, in most cases, be able to be deported first and their appeal to take place from overseas.
I am grateful to the Minister for tightening up the previous Government’s deportation regulations so that the scandalous waste of time it took to deport Hamza and Qatada can never happen again. Can he confirm that the proposals he has tabled are unlikely to be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights? If they might be, is he prepared to take action against the European convention on human rights first?
We have looked very carefully at this, and we are confident that the measures in the Immigration Bill, including the changes that clause 14 makes to put article 8 on a proper statutory basis, are robust. The Home Secretary has made it clear that at the election we will have to deal with the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the convention. Indeed, that has been reinforced by comments from Lord Sumption, who pointed out that the Court is now engaged in judicial law-making, which is in constitutional terms remarkable, taking many contentious issues that should be questions for political debate and turning them into questions of law to be resolved by a tribunal. I could not agree with him more.
The Home Office chaired a meeting with the former Director of Public Prosecutions in September. This has led to a six-point plan to increase the number of referrals from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service. I am meeting the new Director of Public Prosecutions this week to discuss what more we can do to secure more convictions. However, it should be noted that last year saw the highest ever conviction rate for domestic violence prosecutions.
I thank the Minister for that answer. However, as we know from the crime survey, instances of domestic violence are increasing quite dramatically at the moment, and there has been a 13% fall in the number of cases referred to the CPS from the police since the election. Is a six-point plan really enough to tackle this serious problem?
I agree that it is a serious problem, and that is why the Home Secretary and I have been working to deal with it. The six-point plan includes Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary looking specifically at police referrals to the CPS, reviewing the use of out-of-court disposals for these cases, and convening a national scrutiny panel to look at the trends in, for example, rape referral levels. We are taking these matters very seriously. As I said, I am meeting the DPP this week.
I welcome the Government’s decision last week to introduce Clare’s law and, in parallel, domestic violence protection orders. Does the Minister agree that those two steps will do a great deal to protect women against domestic violence?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and welcome the action she has taken for a long time on these matters. The pilot schemes for both Clare’s law and the protection orders demonstrated that they were useful. They were well used in the pilot areas and make a difference in driving down the incidence of domestic violence.
Referrals are going down, but reported cases of domestic violence are going up. Today’s The Times also reports leaked figures showing that other crimes, including burglary and street robbery, are going up. Does the Minister now regret the Government’s complacency and the way in which they have undermined crime prevention specialist units, neighbourhood police and domestic violence support services?
I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong on almost all counts. On the piece in this morning’s The Times, the hon. Gentleman might want to know that crime recorded by north-west police has fallen by 17% since June 2010 and that West Yorkshire has seen a drop of 15% in the same period. We welcome the fact that we now have a system whereby people—and women in particular—have more confidence to come forward to report domestic violence. [Interruption.] I hope you can hear me above the hubble-bubble opposite, Mr Speaker. I hope the situation will lead in due course to an increase in the number of prosecutions and convictions. Given that the matters are now firmly in the public mind, as they should be, historical cases are also coming forward and they are pushing the figures up.
Immigration Status Inquiries
That is a surprising answer, because a number of us have witnessed immigration officers at Metropolitan line and other tube stations around London stopping people and asking them for their immigration status. Will the Minister assure me that no immigration officer would ever stop anyone randomly in a public place, ask them for identity documents and then call in the police to assist them with their inquiries, when there is no requirement to carry identity cards at any time in this country? Indeed, such identity cards do not even exist.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we do not conduct random operations; we conduct intelligence-led operations, as did the previous Government, and they are very successful. The street operations we have conducted this year have led to the arrest of almost a third of those encountered. They are very successful in enforcing our immigration laws. We do not stop people at random; we are not empowered to do so by law and even if we were, we would not do so as a matter of policy. We stop people when we think there is intelligence to indicate that they are breaking our immigration laws, and I make no apology for that.
I thank the Minister and his staff for the support they gave recently to a constituent of mine to clarify a situation and smooth over the problems.
The number of illegals being identified by the police at the ferry terminals in my area—which is part of the common travel area—has fallen only slightly. Is the Minister able to tell the House the number of people in that category who are stopped but not properly processed and who simply disappear?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks.
I do not have the figures to hand, because I was not aware that he intended to ask that question. I will look at the issue in detail and write to him, but on the common travel area in general, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims signed an agreement with the Irish Justice Minister in, I think, December 2011. We are taking steps with the Irish Republic to strengthen the common travel area to make sure that our borders continue to get more secure.
Violence against Women and Girls
13. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on preventing violence against women and girls. (901345)
The Department for Education routinely attends meetings of the violence against women and girls inter-ministerial group. We are committed to working in collaboration with the Department of Education to deliver actions from the violence against women and girls action plan to help young people better understand issues such as consent and healthy relationships.
Given that two women a week die at the hands of a partner or ex-partner and, alarmingly, that 50% of young men and 43% of young women feel it is acceptable for men to be aggressive towards their partners, the situation needs collective action. What in particular is the Home Secretary doing in conjunction with the Education Secretary about the introduction of compulsory relationship and sex education, not just in the secondary maintained sector, but in the primary and secondary sectors?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point to the appalling figures for the number of women who lose their lives each week in this country at the hands of a partner or former partner. Sadly, that figure has not changed for many years. Regularly, for a number of years, about two women a week have lost their lives in that way.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the figures showing the number of young people who think that abuse within a relationship is normal. That is something that we must change. It is why the Home Office will shortly relaunch our very successful “This is Abuse” national campaign, which shows young people when actions constitute abuse and helps them to understand that.
Early next year, Home Office Ministers will meet Ministers from the Department for Education and teaching unions to raise awareness among staff and pupils about risks linked to violence against women and girls. I am pleased to say that the Department for Education is providing funding to the PSHE Association to work with schools that are developing their personal, social, health and economic education curricula, which includes sex and relationships education.
14. What steps she is taking to ensure that all appropriate powers are available to seize the UK and overseas assets of people engaged in human trafficking. (901346)
The Government are committed to tackling human trafficking and are determined to build on the UK’s strong record in supporting victims. The proposed modern slavery Bill, the first of its kind in Europe, will strengthen our response by increasing the number of successful prosecutions and convictions. The new serious and organised crime strategy makes it clear that attacking criminal finances is at the heart of our efforts to pursue all organised criminals. We are committed to strengthening legislation and ensuring that existing powers are effectively deployed both here and overseas.
I think that it is important to underline to my hon. and learned Friend the steps that are being taken. Last year, about £1 million was taken off human trafficking offenders by way of enforcement of confiscation orders. Equally, I am absolutely clear on the need for more action. That is why the new National Crime Agency has been tasked with making the tackling of modern slavery one of its priorities, and why we are introducing the modern slavery Bill to up prosecutions and up such enforcement action. Indeed, the Bill will include provision for a new commissioner to get a stronger operational response on the recovery of assets and on other prosecutions.
One of the poisonous sidelines in the deplorable trade of human trafficking is of course the existence of rogue and criminal gangmasters. Are the Government minded to support Labour’s call to extend the gangmasters licensing regime to cover sectors to which this devastating trade has now spread, because it has gone beyond its traditional areas into construction, social care and other sectors where these rogues and criminals reside?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the National Crime Agency is working closely with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and, indeed, has been involved in an important operation in Cambridgeshire in the past few weeks. Evidence is being taken by the Centre for Social Justice as part of our preparations for the modern slavery Bill. We are focusing on provisions that relate to enforcement by policing and law enforcement agencies, but we will clearly keep operational matters under review.
On the basis of figures about UK citizens receiving consular advice for alleged trafficking and the fact that very few seem to be brought to justice overseas, is the Minister giving proper attention and resources to ensuring that UK citizens who ply this evil trade abroad are properly brought to justice?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on the need to look at this complex issue both domestically in the UK and overseas. That is why we are working with other Governments and our embassies to strengthen support services for victims and to prevent these appalling crimes from occurring. The National Crime Agency has a focus on looking internationally and co-ordinating its work with overseas law enforcement agencies, so ensuring that where there is evidence, those involved in these pernicious crimes will be brought to justice.
15. What steps she is taking to reduce net immigration. (901347)
We have reduced net migration by nearly a third since its peak in 2010. Immigration continues to fall, with immigration from outside the EU at its lowest level since 1998. We will continue to take steps to keep immigration under control, while allowing the best and the brightest to come to Britain to contribute to our economy.
From last week’s announcements, my hon. Friend will have noted that we are changing the relevant regulations so that if EU citizens in Britain are, for example, involved in low-level criminality or rough sleeping, and not exercising their treaty rights, we will be able to remove them and prevent them from coming back, unless they can demonstrate that they will immediately be exercising those treaty rights. I think that those changes will be welcomed in the country.
Will the Minister address that part of his responsibilities in this policy area as they affect would-be foreign students coming to study in this country? On 17 October, he painted a pretty positive picture in a written answer to me on this issue, but that stands in stark contrast to what the UK university sector is saying about a massive loss of income and of international good will for our country.
I am surprised by that, because figures published last week showed a 7% increase—an increased increase on the previous statistics—in the number of such students going to our universities. There is no reason why a student who is properly qualified, who can speak English and who can pay their fees cannot come to a university, and if they get a graduate-level job, they can stay afterwards to work and to continue contributing, so I am not sure why the university sector is saying that. The increase in the number of students does not support its argument.
Although I can understand, given the grotesque underestimate by the previous Government, my hon. Friend’s reluctance to predict the number of Bulgarians and Romanians likely to come to this country, may I encourage him to give the public and local authorities some indication so that they can plan? Furthermore, even at this late stage, may I invite the Government to support new clause 1 to the Immigration Bill to extend the transitional arrangements—and let us see the courts of these islands, or indeed the European Court of Justice, defy the will of Parliament?
On the first point, predictions only have any value if they are accurate. I am sure that my hon. Friend was listening carefully to my earlier answer, but the figures from independent commentators—from the countries concerned to Migration Watch and other forecasters—are wide-ranging. Indeed, from what I think I heard an Opposition Member say, there is a political party in this country that thinks that all 29 million citizens of those two countries are going to arrive at Heathrow airport on 1 January. With that range of forecasts, it would not be wise to make any predictions.
Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures
TPIMs provide some of the most restrictive measures available in the democratic world and, unlike control orders, they have been consistently upheld by the courts. The Security Service and police believe they have been effective in reducing the threat posed by TPIM subjects, and the Government have made it clear to the police and Security Service that every available power under TPIMs should be used to its fullest possible extent.
In the last year under the Homes Secretary’s scheme, Ibrahim Magag and Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed have absconded. Does she have any idea where either man is, and will she confirm that, contrary to what she said last time she was in the House, she has no idea where Mr Mohamed’s passport is?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make verbally the amendment I made in Hansard. In my statement to the House about Mr Mohamed, I told the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, that I thought the police had his passport. I wrote to him afterwards explaining that that information was incorrect. The police did not have his passport, because when he returned to the UK, he was not in possession of a passport and therefore it was not possible to remove it from him.
The Home Secretary’s weak TPIMs regime reaches a milestone on 26 January 2014, when seven out of the eight TPIM orders expire and cannot be renewed. This includes the TPIM governing AY, who is believed to be a key member of the group behind attempts to blow up transatlantic flights with liquid bombs and who travelled to Pakistan to learn bomb making, and AM, who was involved in the same plot. Lord Justice Wilkie concluded that he was “highly intelligent” and
“prepared to be a martyr in an attack designed to take many lives.”
Will she explain why these individuals will be freed from all restrictions by the end of January 2014?
The hon. Lady is aware of the legislation, as is everybody else, but I take issue with her description of TPIMs. As she will have heard me say in answer to her hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), TPIMs provide some of the most restrictive measures available in the democratic world. The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation stated:
“In terms of security, the TPIM regime continues to provide a high degree of protection against untriable and undeportable persons who are judged on substantial grounds to be dangerous terrorists,”.
The hon. Lady talks about people coming off TPIMs as if no one had ever come off a control order. In fact, 43 people came off control orders because the previous Government revoked them because they were quashed in court, or in six cases because people absconded and were never seen again.
We have moved away from a single point of recruitment and are introducing entry direct to senior police ranks to encourage the most able and those with strong evidence of delivery. There are now different routes to enter as a constable, including having a level 3 qualification, a police qualification or relevant policing experience.
Some claim that a person cannot serve as a senior police officer without having served in the lower ranks, but direct entry is successful in the armed forces and the prison service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the College of Policing should look at best practice in those professions to ensure that direct entry encourages the best and brightest talent from all walks of life to join the police service?
I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that the College of Policing will do exactly that. Clearly, many of the best and brightest people already join the police service, but we can always make it better. The proposals are designed to ensure that a wider talent pool is available to the police.
In July 2012, prior to its incorporation into the National Crime Agency, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre received information via Interpol from Toronto police as part of Project Spade. The NCA CEOP command has now undertaken additional assessment of the data provided, and information was provided to police forces on 26 November. Investigations in the UK are therefore ongoing. Being part of the NCA brings advantages for CEOP, including the ability to draw on specialist skills, resources and the international network.
The Prime Minister and Home Secretary talk often about the need to combat child abuse images, and keep asking for more powers. We now know that when excellent police work happens in Canada, which released 386 young children, and 2,345 specific suspects are passed on to CEOP and the British police, the British police do nothing for 18 months. Does the Minister agree it is important for the police to get the basics right, not to keep asking for more powers?
That is precisely why CEOP has been moved to the National Crime Agency. Since its launch, the NCA can already demonstrate operational success in tackling child exploitation. As part of a recent operation by the NCA, which has been up and running for only a couple of months, 25 individuals were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the distribution of indecent images of children. The move to the NCA has made CEOP even more effective than it was in the past.
My Department continues its work to bring forward a modern slavery Bill, which will strengthen our response to that appalling crime. We propose to introduce new legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows, and will publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Bill will clarify existing legislation and enable the courts to restrict activity that puts others at risk, ensuring that more traffickers are identified, disrupted and brought to justice. We are determined to build on the UK’s strong track record in supporting victims and fighting traffickers.
The House will be aware of Friday’s tragic incident in Glasgow, in which a Police Scotland helicopter crashed into the Clutha pub. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their friends and families. The national police operational co-ordination centre stands ready to assist Police Scotland in any way it can, and the National Police Air Service has also offered air support to Scotland for critical incidents.
I am sure the whole House joins the Home Secretary in her condolences to those affected by the growing tragedy in Glasgow.
Recently in Fleetwood, a joint operation between Wyre borough council, Fleetwood police, and local pub landlords through Pubwatch targeted the illegal use of drugs. Interestingly, a drug sniffer dog was used among customers, which was totally welcomed by customers and landlords alike—except, perhaps, by the one person arrested. Does the Home Secretary welcome more of those joint and direct operations by police and local councils on the front line to bring back confidence in our communities?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he gives me the opportunity to welcome joint action at local level. I commend Wyre borough council, Lancashire police and publicans for their work. I am pleased to say that we will announce shortly a number of local alcohol action areas, which will seek to tackle alcohol-related crime and health harms, and diversify the night-time economy beyond businesses centred on selling alcohol.
I join the Home Secretary is sending our sympathy to those who have lost loved ones or been affected by the tragic helicopter crash in Glasgow. We pay tribute to the emergency services who are still working hard to help people.
The Home Secretary will be aware that before the election the number of prosecutions and convictions for rape, domestic violence and child abuse was going up year on year as a result of the bravery of victims and hard work by the police, Crown Prosecution Service, Government agencies and support workers. The police recognised today that the number of prosecutions and convictions for rape has fallen since the election, even though more crimes are being recorded. The number of cases being referred by the police to the courts has dropped by 33% since the election. Will she tell the House why that has happened?
The right hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the figures; they are a concern and the Government are looking at them. My hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention will be taking this issue forward. As he said in response to an earlier question, there was a meeting at the Home Office between Ministers and the Director of Public Prosecutions a couple of months or so ago to look at the issue and find out where the problem lies. Historic incidents are now being reported— we have seen a number of reports of claims of crimes in relation to Operation Yewtree and others—but it is right that we look carefully to ascertain what the issue is. That is exactly what the Minister for Crime Prevention will be doing when he takes this matter forward with the incoming Director of Public Prosecutions later this week.
I have to say that there seem to be a lot of meetings that are just not working. The trouble is that this is not just about rape: prosecutions and convictions are down for domestic violence and child abuse, too, even though the number of reported crimes in those areas is also increasing. The police are referring 13% fewer domestic violence cases and 28% fewer child abuse cases to the courts since the election, before which the figures were going up. Those are shocking figures: there are more crimes and more serious offenders are getting away with it. The police are being hollowed out and specialist units cut. The Home Secretary said three years ago that tackling violence against women was her priority. I urge her to start treating it as such.
I note that we are seeing higher conviction rates for rape, and we should all welcome that. I tried to answer the right hon. Lady’s question in a way that was serious and sensible. This is a matter that we need to be concerned about and consider, but we cannot know what the answer is until we have identified why, for example, we have seen fewer referrals from the police. Until we—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady is muttering from a sedentary position and making certain assumptions. I take a simple view: it is right and proper to consider the causes behind these figures. Only when we do that will we be able to ensure that the action we take will address the issue. I repeat that she must recognise, as I am sure she does, that the figures for higher reports of violence and abuse include a significant increase as a result of historical operations—
T2. My constituents are concerned about immigration from Romania and Bulgaria and would like to see the transitional period extended. Public opinion in neighbouring EU states shows that that view is widely shared. Have the Government had discussions with other EU Governments on united action? (901359)
It is not possible to extend transitional controls due to the terms of the accession treaties signed by the Labour party when it was in government. Eight other European countries will remove those controls at the end of the year. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has, however, been working with our European colleagues to tighten the rules so that we see a reduction in the abuse of free movement.
I welcome that fact that now, under Clare’s law, victims of serial perpetrators of domestic violence will be able to get disclosures from right across the country. The Home Secretary knows that victims are probably at their most vulnerable at the point of disclosure, so will she ensure that organisations such as Women’s Aid and domestic violence advisers have sufficient resources to be able to protect those victims at that point?
I recognise the interest that the right hon. Lady has taken in the question of Clare’s law and the work that she did to promote the concept behind it, following the sad and tragic death of one of her constituents who did not have access to information about their partner. What we have seen among the police forces that have been piloting Clare’s law is a real understanding of the need to work closely with other organisations such as Women’s Aid to ensure that there is support for victims. I am pleased to say that the Government have ring-fenced £40 million for local support, including for independent domestic violence advocates, who often play a key role in such cases.
We are indeed taking steps. It is not right that someone who is here illegally should be able to access UK driving licences, which are used not just for driving but to get access to benefits and services. The Immigration Bill strengthens our ability to issue licences only to those who are lawfully here and enables us for the first time to revoke licences held by those who should not be here.
Does the Minister share my concern at reports that, because of pressure on police numbers, police officers are increasingly attending domestic violence incidents singly, which makes it more difficult for them to separate partners and puts the officers themselves at risk?
I am confident that the police can deal with domestic violence incidents more effectively now that domestic violence protection orders are in place, which enable them to separate the perpetrator and victim immediately by requiring the perpetrator to leave the premises.
T4. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is right for the Government to review the implications of the free movement directive, particularly for EU migration—and I welcome her remarks last week—and to look at individual measures such as imposing a cap on numbers of European migrants, once they reach a certain threshold? (901361)
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to look at the issue of free movement—and it will be possible to do that because the Conservatives have a commitment as a party to renegotiate the treaty and to look at free movement within it. In future, we should consider a number of measures regarding the accession of countries into the EU and into free movement, so that we can protect public and other services that are available to our citizens.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the police and crime commissioner for the Thames Valley has blamed her 20% cut in spending on the police for the cuts he has made to the community safety funds for local government. My authority of Slough has been cut by £40,000, while the right hon. Lady’s has been cut by nothing. Can that be fair in an era when Slough has already reduced crime by 5% and needs these resources to carry on making progress?
I am happy to tell the hon. Lady what is fair. What is fair is that recorded crime in the Slough community safety partnership is down by 26% in the 12 months to June 2013, which is greater than the overall figure for England and Wales. That was between 2012 and 2013, so I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome this improved service to her constituents.
T5. After the wave of mass immigration under the previous Labour Government, my constituents believe that this country is full, and do not want to see unrestricted immigration from Romania, Bulgaria and, as it now turns out, up to one third of Moldova. At this late stage with a month to go, I urge the Home Secretary to think again and not to waive the transitional controls. (901362)
Obviously I understand why my hon. Friend’s constituents are concerned, given the appalling job that was done by the Labour Government. In fact, under Labour twice as many people arrived from outside the European Union as arrived from within it. However, as I said earlier, the transitional controls under the accession treaties that Labour signed can last only until the end of the year, and eight other European countries are removing those controls. That is why we have announced changes to ensure that anyone who comes to this country comes to work and not to claim benefits.
A number of my constituents who have been given leave to remain in this country, in some cases after appealing, are now spending several months waiting for the paperwork to come through, with the result that a number of them cannot take up job offers. What steps is the Department taking to deal with that?
If the hon. Lady knows of any specific cases and has not already written to me about them, I suggest that she do so. Since we split up the UK Border Agency, UK Visas and Immigration has been concentrating on improving its customer service standards. We have already reduced the backlog of cases by a significant amount in the current financial year, and we will continue to do so. The new director general is focusing on improving performance for our customers.
T6. What action is the Home Secretary taking to ensure that child victims of trafficking are receiving all the support to which they are entitled, and would she consider piloting a system of independent guardianship? (901363)
Ultimately, child trafficking is a form of child abuse. When such crimes take place, not only should those responsible be brought to justice, but victims should receive all the support that they need. Local authorities have a strategy duty under the Children Act 2004 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, and the Department for Education, recognising the specific needs of child victims of trafficking, is considering ways of strengthening support arrangements for them.
The Home Secretary will, I hope, be aware of the tragic murder of my constituent Bijan Ebrahimi, whose killer was sentenced last Thursday. He was attacked because his neighbours thought, quite unjustifiably, that he was a paedophile. I have written to the Home Secretary, but may I urge her to do all that she can to ensure that the Independent Police Complaints Commission has the resources that will enable it to report as quickly as possible? Resolving this matter is very important for community cohesion in the area.
The hon. Lady has made a very serious point about what is, as she says, a terrible case. I have not yet seen the letter that she sent to me, but I will look at it extremely carefully. We are providing extra resources for the IPCC to try to ensure that it can do its job effectively in looking into the way in which complaints about the police have been dealt with.
T7. What improvements are planned to exit and entry checks at ports of entry on the Irish sea which form part of the common border area with the Irish Republic? (901364)
I know that this matter is of concern to my hon. Friend and his constituents, because he wrote to me about it early this year. As I said earlier during Home Office questions, we continue to work closely with the Irish Republic following the protocol signed by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. We work closely with the Republic in sharing intelligence to strengthen the controls that ensure that our country is properly protected.
I am pleased to say that we are taking strong action in that regard, in particular by promoting the alternatives to animal experiments to the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. We are leading the world in that regard.
T8. At a time when Britain is showing strong leadership internationally against sexual violence, is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary aware of the work done domestically and locally by the Norfolk Says No campaign against domestic abuse, which completed a great week of work last week? (901365)
I congratulate those who are involved in the Norfolk Says No campaign. We need more such examples of excellent local practice to ensure that our message reaches women in their daily lives, and police and crime commissioners have a role to play in the matter.
With permission Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the action the Government are taking to reduce the impact of Government policies on energy bills.
British households pay some of the lowest prices for gas and electricity in Europe, but that is no comfort to those who have seen energy bills rise considerably over the past 10 years. The latest round of price rises announced by the energy companies has been particularly unwelcome, coming ahead of what is likely to be a cold winter. In such circumstances, it is right that people ask whether these rises are justified and what the Government are doing to keep energy bills affordable now and in the long term.
The main driver of the energy price rises has been rising wholesale energy costs, and the need to upgrade energy infrastructure to ensure security of supply in the long term. Wholesale and network costs make up over two thirds of bills. Supplier costs and profits make up around a fifth. Energy companies need to be more open about these costs so that consumers can judge which suppliers are acting responsibly and keeping their costs down.
Working with Ofgem, the Government are making this possible by forcing the energy companies to open up their books and justify price rises to their customers. We are increasing competition in the market to bear down on prices and provide people with a proper choice of supplier, and as I announced in the annual energy statement, Ofgem, working with the competition authorities, will report annually on the state of competition in the market, looking in depth and across the energy sector at profits and prices, barriers to entry and consumer engagement. Ofgem’s reforms for competition in the retail market are already making it easier for people to understand their bills, work out where they can get the best deal, and switch providers easily.
But it is also right that the Government are open about their social and environmental policies, which make up just under a 10th of the average bill. Our policies provide for immediate help for the most vulnerable with direct cuts to bills, as well as long-term savings on bills through energy-efficiency programmes and support for low-carbon energy that boosts energy security and tackles climate change. For example, the warm home discount cuts the bills of 2 million vulnerable households by £135. The energy company obligation provides permanent long-term savings on bills, including to the most vulnerable, by helping people to upgrade their homes and making them easier and cheaper to keep warm.
Support for cleaner energy increases our energy security and boosts investment in our thriving renewable energy industry, with tens of thousands of green jobs being created, but unlike the winter fuel payment, which provides around 12.5 million pensioners with help with their bills, and cold weather payments, which last year provided over £146 million to cut bills for the most vulnerable, policies such as the renewables obligation, ECO and the warm home discount are paid for directly by consumers through their bills, rather than through general taxation. So it is right that Government keep these social and environmental obligations paid for by energy bill payers under continuous review, and where we can act to reduce their impact on bills, while maintaining the integrity of our policy, we will, but as we do this, we must act responsibly. We must ensure—[Interruption.] We must ensure that the changes we make maintain the support provided to the most vulnerable, maintain the investment in clean energy and do not have a negative impact on our carbon reduction ambitions.
In this spirit, the Government have reviewed the cost profile of social and environmental policies and I can today announce proposals that would reduce the average household bill next year by £50 on average. First, the Government will provide £300 million—[Interruption.]
Order. Let us have a bit of order in the House. The Secretary of State is doing his best to plough on—[Interruption.] No, he is doing his best to plough on through his statement. Let me say to the House that the opportunity to question the Secretary of State will arise, and that is what he would expect, but the Secretary of State is entitled to be heard courteously from start to finish.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
First, the Government will provide £300 million in both 2014 and 2015, £600 million in all, for a new rebate to all domestic electricity customers worth £12. Secondly, we propose to consult on remodelling the ECO so that it is easier and cheaper to deliver. The changes to the ECO would result in between £30 and £35 off average bills next year, although the precise reduction in individual households’ bills would depend on their energy supplier. The existing dedicated support in the ECO for low-income and vulnerable households—affordable warmth and the carbon saving community obligation—will both be maintained at current levels and extended from March 2015 until March 2017. The other element of the ECO, the carbon emissions reduction obligation, will also be extended by two years but reduced by 33%. These changes are subject to consultation, which will be carried out early in the new year. In addition to Government action, the electricity distribution network operators are willing to take voluntary action to reduce network costs in 2014-15, which would enable suppliers to pass on an average one-off £5 reduction in domestic electricity bills.
I have been clear from the start that support for low-carbon energy should not change, and it will not. The Government recognise that green energy investment incentives such as the renewables obligation, contracts for difference and feed-in tariffs are essential for investment in future home-grown clean energy generation. Without this low-carbon investment, energy security would be jeopardised as Britain would become ever more dependent on imported oil and gas, and energy bills in the future would be increasingly subject to high and volatile fossil fuel prices. The Government will also ensure that their overall approach will cut just as much carbon as planned. New measures, worth more than £540 million over three years, will boost energy efficiency even further by introducing new schemes for home-movers, landlords and public sector buildings.
In future, when people buy a new home, they could get up to £1,000 from the Government to spend on important energy-saving measures—equivalent to half the stamp duty on the average house—or up to £4,000 for particularly expensive measures. The scheme will be available to all people moving house, including those who do not pay stamp duty, helping around 60,000 homes a year over three years. The Government will also introduce a scheme to support private landlords in improving the energy efficiency of their properties, which will improve some 15,000 of the least energy-efficient rental properties each year for three years. Together, the home buyers and private rental schemes will be worth £450 million over three years. In addition, £90 million over three years will be spent on improving the energy efficiency of schools, hospitals and other public sector buildings.
The Government will deliver a significant boost to the green deal, increasing the funds available to local authorities this year through the green deal communities scheme from £20 million to £80 million, to help support “street-by-street” programmes for hard-to-treat homes in a cost-effective way. We will keep the green deal cashback scheme open, which will protect jobs in the energy efficiency industry before the new measures take effect.
All the major energy suppliers have confirmed that they will pass the benefits of this package on to their customers. The reduction in individual household bills will depend on the energy supplier: some companies have not yet announced price rises for 2014, or have limited their rise until the Government’s review of green levies concluded. Others have announced price rises and have indicated that they will reduce their customers’ bills as a result of these changes. Energy companies will now make final detailed decisions about how to apply these measures, but these cost reductions will ensure that average energy bills are lower in 2014 than they otherwise would have been—on average, by £50 per household. As the major energy companies have now confirmed, there will be no need for price rises in 2014, unless of course there is a major change in wholesale or network costs. Some have gone further, with commitments to hold prices down for longer.
Today’s announcement of cuts to energy bills is just part of the concerted action the Government are taking to help hard-working families, including through income tax cuts, the council tax freeze and the fuel duty freeze. This help for people with energy bills is being achieved while we maintain and extend support for the fuel-poor and continue to back green energy, and by boosting energy efficiency. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by asking the Secretary of State a very simple question: does he accept that the sum total of everything he said in his statement today, which includes spending £600 million of taxpayers’ money and weakening the obligation on energy companies to deliver energy efficiency, is that the energy companies will still be allowed to put up people’s bills this winter? Does he really think that is a good deal for consumers?
The Secretary of State claimed that today’s announcement would lead to a £50 reduction in people’s bills. To be clear, will he confirm that if the average increase in energy bills this winter is £120, even if the companies do pass on the reductions from the cut in levies, the average household bill will actually be £70 higher than last winter? As I understand it, one supplier has announced that it will wait until March before passing on any price reduction, and another has made no commitment at all on reducing bills. What powers, if any, does the Secretary of State have to ensure that this reduction is passed on fully and immediately?
The Secretary of State will know that for the past two years we have said that the energy company obligation is bureaucratic, inefficient and poorly targeted. The scheme was designed and implemented under his Government. Indeed, the Prime Minister boasted in the House on 23 January that it was “bigger and better” than the schemes that had gone before it. When did the Secretary of State decide that the scheme needed to be cut? Was it this weekend? Could that explain why an impact assessment will not be published until next year? Will he also tell us how many fewer households will receive energy efficiency measures this year and next year than was originally planned under the scheme?
The Secretary of State wants to talk about the total number of households that will be helped, but if the scheme was meant to run for two years and will now run for four, does not that mean that half as many people will receive help in each year? Will he also tell us what discussions he has had with the insulation industry about the effect of this announcement, and what assessment he has made of any potential job losses in that industry?
As for the warm home discount, will the Secretary of State confirm that all he has actually done is move the cost from people’s bills to their taxes? Evidence that we published last month, and in our Green Paper last week, showed that increases in wholesale costs—which the Secretary State blamed in his statement for rising bills—cannot explain the price rises we have seen in the past two years, and neither can increases in network charges and policy costs.
Last month, the Secretary of State appeared to agree with our criticism of the way in which the energy companies had put up their prices, when he said that they were treating their customers like “cash cows”. In the light of that, will he confirm that there was not a single measure in the package that he announced today that will cost the energy companies a single penny? Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being spent, the energy companies are helping fewer households with energy efficiency, and people’s bills will still be higher this winter than last, yet the energy companies are still allowed to carry on overcharging people. Whatever the Secretary of State says today, if we genuinely want to get people’s bills down, nothing less than a price freeze and action to stop the energy companies overcharging will do.
Members will notice that the right hon. Lady did not welcome this cut in energy bills for her constituents. Her constituents will want to know why she is not prepared to welcome it, and the constituents of every Labour Member who stands up to speak today will also want to know whether their Member of Parliament welcomes it.
We looked at the Opposition’s energy freeze proposal, and it was clear that it would not work. The energy companies would put up bills before it and afterwards. It was, and remains, a con. Worse than that, it would undermine competition and investment. Our proposals are real measures based on real facts, and they are going to help people across the country.
The right hon. Lady asked about the big six. We made it clear in our discussions that we expect them to pass on these cuts so that average bills go down by £50, and that is what will happen. She wants to know what we have said about the big six. We have pushed real competition measures. The big six were created by Labour. In 2000, there were 17 companies in the sector. By the time Labour left office, there were just six. The big six are Labour’s big six. This coalition has produced competition, which is really having an effect.
It was interesting to listen to the last Opposition day debate on this subject, in which the right hon. Lady revealed that she had not even read Ofgem’s proposals for competition in the wholesale market. That shows how much she is not on top of her brief. On the ECO, she has tried to suggest that we are cutting support for fuel poverty, but it is quite the reverse. As I made clear in my statement, we are not only maintaining support for the fuel poverty schemes within the ECO but extending them for two more years.
The right hon. Lady asked what had happened to the impact assessment. I have made it clear that we are going to consult, as she would expect. We will publish the impact assessment when we publish the consultation paper, as we would normally.
The right hon. Lady talks about the insulation industry. I am extremely concerned to ensure that it keeps people employed and keeps investing in people’s homes so that they can have permanently lower bills. Our proposal on the stamp duty—£1,000 off for people who move their homes, even if they do not pay stamp duty, to help the lowest-income home owners—will help the energy-efficiency industry, and it is welcoming it.
Finally, the right hon. Lady asked about shifting costs from bills to taxes. I would have thought she had spoken to the fuel poverty campaign groups, because it is they that have wanted this, as it is more progressive. So not only are our policies helping the fuel poor, but they are far more progressive than those we inherited from Labour.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an even bigger proportion of average fuel bills is accounted for by the transmission and distribution charges, and that further cuts in fuel bills could therefore be achieved if there was more pressure on the monopoly providers of transmission and distribution, such as the National Grid Company, whose prices are currently not subject to any competitive pressure or any market forces?
My hon. Friend will have heard in my statement that the electricity distribution network operators will indeed be contributing £5 to this package next year. He will also know that Ofgem has called in the plans of the DNOs and the transmission distribution companies to look at them again, and it is for the independent regulator to scrutinise them with the care we expect.
Despite the Secretary of State’s ploughing, he has markedly failed to deliver a straight furrow. Despite his criticism of the big six—they were the big six for the three years of his coalition Government and Labour’s big six for a week—there is not one penny coming from those companies to help reduce costs now, and this delay in the implementation of the ECO scheme means that there will be even bigger bills to be paid in the future.
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. The ECO scheme remains—let us be clear about that. The affordable warmth component of the ECO not only maintains at its current level, but is extended for two years. Similarly, the carbon saving community obligation continues in force now and is extended. The only part of the ECO that is being cut at all—but it still remains—is the carbon emissions reduction obligation. She ought to welcome that, not least because the proposals published by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) suggest that the Labour party would get rid of that part of the ECO.
Does the Secretary of State agree that moving towards general taxation means that the cost of the social and environmental measures he wishes to take will be borne by those who are better off, rather than by people with very low incomes and vulnerable households, whom we seek to help?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; moving some of the costs that were on the bill and having to be paid by all bill payers, no matter whether they pay tax or not, to taxation results in a more progressive system overall. One would have thought that the Labour party would welcome that.
Does the Minister understand that an increasing number of people in this country are now terrified to use their heating because they are frightened of what their bills will be as a result of the very large increases? We are returning to the fuel poverty that existed under the last Labour Government—[Laughter.] I thought the Tories would cheer at that. It is because they do not want to recognise the fuel poverty that existed under the Tory Government, and it was the Labour Government who brought in the necessary measures to help so many people. This inadequate statement would not even have been made without the pressure from the Leader of the Opposition.
It was the last Labour Government’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary who said that
“alarming people about energy issues is not a mature way to conduct politics”—[Official Report, 13 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 773.]
If only he had kept to his word. This coalition Government have taken energy bills seriously, unlike the previous Government. They killed competition, whereas we are increasing it. They did not take the measures that we are taking, and they should be ashamed of their appalling record.
Will the Secretary of State give me a personal guarantee that his hasty changes to the energy company obligation will not curtail or delay the ECO-funded Nottingham greener housing scheme, which is providing external wall insulation to the thousands of tenants and residents on Clifton estate who live in hard-to-treat solid wall houses? Will he meet me and representatives of the scheme to ensure that fuel-poor residents in hard-to-treat homes across Nottingham will be protected?
As a lad of Nottingham and someone who has been on a visit with the hon. Lady to a number of homes that are benefiting from the ECO scheme, I agree with her. We must ensure that communities around the country are benefiting, which is why we have increased the money for the green deal communities from £20 million to £80 million. I am happy to look at the case that the hon. Lady has raised.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Government had not increased cold weather payments and the basic state pension and had not protected winter fuel payments, many vulnerable people would be even worse off when facing increasing energy bills?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the first acts of this Government was to confirm the trebling of cold weather payments, so that people who were on low incomes had the money when they needed it. Under the triple lock, we have seen some of the biggest ever increases in the basic state pension, which has been greatly welcomed by pensioners up and down the country. By contrast, when Labour was in power, it oversaw an increase in the state pension in one year of just 75p.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that these problems have built up over many years and were not tackled by the previous Labour Government? He may also wish to know that in 2006, under the previous Government, fuel poverty in St Albans was at 6.4%, and it rose to a height of 13.7%. Does he agree that freezing energy for one year only would do nothing and that we need a sustained approach to cutting the number of taxes on people?
My hon. Friend is right that fuel poverty rose to record levels under the previous Government. On their definition, the figures have come down under this Government. It is also interesting to note that the average increases in gas and electricity prices in the last Parliament under Labour were higher than the average annual increases in gas and electricity prices under this Government.
The fact is that many of my constituents will still struggle to afford to put on their heating, because this is an inadequate response to rising prices. I asked the Secretary of State in June whether he had raised with the energy companies the issue of profits. He said that he had not. Since then, in any other such meetings, has he raised any concerns about their level of profits?
In 2010, EDF sold its three English networks for £5.8 billion at a 27% premium on Ofgem’s value. In 2011, E.ON sold its networks at a 40% premium. Does the Secretary of State think that returns allowed on UK-regulated energy networks have been and are too generous? If so, is Ofgem fit for purpose.
Ofgem is fit for purpose. It needs to ensure that the returns on network business are fair to enable profits, but not beyond that. That is why it has acted. It has asked the network companies to justify the current investment programmes that they have put to it.
Is it not true that we were sold the privatisation of utilities on the supposed knowledge that there was a transfer of risk from the public sector to the private sector? What we have seen today is a transfer of risk from the billed utility customer to the taxpayer, so the same people are paying the same money through a different route while the companies get off scot-free and with a £600 million taxpayer bung.
I do not recognise anything that the hon. Gentleman has just said. If he does not understand the difference between bill payers and tax payers, he needs to ask the fuel poverty lobby groups that are saying that people in his constituency on low incomes will benefit from this change, which moves some of the cost from bills to taxes. He really ought to talk to the fuel poverty lobby groups.
Last week during Energy questions, I pressed the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), on the insulation of solid wall properties in rural areas, and he made some comforting remarks. Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), may I be assured that the programme to insulate solid wall properties in rural areas will not be slowed down by what he has announced today?
I said that the rural sub-obligation would be improved to ensure that people are benefiting from it. We have some evidence that during the first year of the ECO it was not getting through to rural people, so reforming that would be a real benefit. It is true that there will almost certainly be fewer solid wall insulations done as a result of the changes. We have not hidden that, but we have ensured that there is a minimum floor to give the industry confidence. The measures we are proposing for the energy efficiency industry—the stamp duty incentive and the money for private sector landlords—will also help to ensure that the solid wall insulation industry continues to get support.
You may well be right that the Energy Secretary is doing his best, Mr Speaker, but it is simply not good enough. After today, people will still see their energy bills going up, so would they not be right to conclude that he and the Prime Minister are simply too weak and unwilling to stand up to the big energy companies?
Not at all. People will look at the Labour party and see a party that is offering a con, a party that will undermine competition and reduce choice, meaning that they end up paying higher bills, and a party that is going against the national interest. We need to see investment in our energy industry to ensure that we keep the lights on. People around the country would not thank any Government who did not ensure that we had the investment for energy security.
The Leader of the Opposition hiked up energy prices when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and is now trying to claim credit for keeping them at that hiked-up level. Unfortunately, we have heard the same clap-trap from the Secretary of State today as we heard from the Leader of the Opposition when he was Secretary of State. My constituents want the Government to source the cheapest energy rather than the greenest energy. When is the Secretary of State going to start doing that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution, as always, but I must say that the most secure and effective policy is a mixed diverse approach. The mixed diverse approach ensures energy security but as, over time, we see reductions in the cost of alternative energy, such as clean energy, it also becomes increasingly good value for money.
That was like a bad sketch in “The Fast Show”, with the Secretary of State saying, “The consumer gives the energy companies £120. I will give them £600 million and they can give the consumer £50 back.” He repeatedly referred to the most vulnerable consumers. Many of those in my constituency are forced to use expensive prepayment cards; what is the Secretary of State doing to protect them?
Does my right hon. Friend not think that problems with the energy market, such as those relating to long-term generating capacity, built up over many years but had been ignored, including when the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons why we have to increase investment so much over a relatively short time, which comes at a price, is the failure of the last Government to invest in energy infrastructure. People warned them, and warned the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, currently the Leader of the Opposition, to do something; he failed.
The Secretary of State says that he is spreading the money for the energy company obligation over an extra two years. That delays measures that would help people to keep their bills down. Is not the truth that people in fuel poverty will pay higher bills for longer after this statement?
Not only did I not say what the hon. Gentleman said I did, but that is not true. Fuel poverty programmes, such as the affordable warmth programme and the carbon saving community obligation, remain in place, remain at the same rate in each year, and are being continued for two more years, so this is more investment to tackle fuel poverty.
Within the next decade, we must invest £110 billion, probably more, in our energy infrastructure—the pipes, pylons and power stations—to keep our lights switched on. Does my right hon. Friend agree with energy experts and industry players that a freeze would jeopardise that investment, which would mean that the poor old taxpayers were even more hard-pressed because they would have to foot the bill?
It would be worse than that: it would be the poor old consumers who did so, because the cost of capital would go up. There would also be a reduction in investment in green energy, which the Opposition claim to support, so the Opposition’s policy is both irresponsible and reckless.
Around 100 people from my constituency, and hundreds more, face two extra hours on their working day after npower announced it was closing its Thornaby office, and that those people would therefore have further to travel. The company says that it is doing that, and sacking hundreds more and transferring the jobs to India, to help keep bills down. Has npower told the Secretary of State how much bills will come down by, at the expense of those lost and transferred jobs?
This was discussed in a little more depth in oral questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change last week. I made it clear that other Secretaries of State, particularly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I will look at what we can do to help people who are affected by npower’s redundancy package.
I welcome the Energy Secretary’s announcement, and congratulate him on the robust defence that he has rightly made of the Government’s position. Further to an earlier question, may I ask him what more can be done for those in rural areas who rely on oil to heat their homes?
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), has been doing a huge amount of work on this. There will be a new code, or protocol, on working with industry to make sure that a lot of the policies that we have introduced, such as the “buy early” campaign, really help people who are off-grid in rural areas and who are dependent on fuel sources like oil.
The Energy Secretary talked about there being no need to alarm people, but I have never known a time when older people in my constituency were more alarmed, probably because of the £300 by which their bills have already gone up. Despite the cut to green energy levies, bills will still go up by £70, so those older people do not need alarming; they are already alarmed. Is it not time that the Secretary of State stood up to the energy companies and supported a price freeze?
I was quoting the leader of the hon. Lady’s party when I talked about not alarming people; I was making it clear that he said one thing when he was in government and changed his mind in opposition. The hon. Lady, like many of her hon. Friends, failed to welcome the announcement of an average of £50 off household energy bills; she should welcome it, and welcome the fact that this Government, through our tough competition policies, are taking on the big six that Labour created.
I welcome the positive response to the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change’s recommendation that some of the costs of the levies be transferred to general taxation, as a fairer way of funding those levies. What is being done to assist people in switching, and to ensure that they realise that that is now meant to be simpler, and the best way for them to get the best deal?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome. He is quite right: we looked at what the Select Committee said on those issues, and considered it carefully. He is also right to say that switching is a really important part of the way to help people, because there are some good deals out there. In the annual energy statement, I talked about our ambition to improve and make switching easier, and we are already working with he industry to bring about quicker switching.
The Secretary of State said that he wanted to make bills easier for the public to understand, but the public know that even after this reduction their bills will rise over Christmas and rise next year. Exactly what has he got out of the energy companies and, as we say in Telford, when are they going to dob some money in?
The really important thing for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is that the average energy bill in his constituency will go down by £50, compared with what it otherwise would have been. If we had listened to the Labour party and continued its policies, for example with the renewable heat incentive, bills would be £179 higher.
My constituents will see through the crocodile tears of Opposition Members, because they know that energy prices doubled under the previous Government. Is my right hon. Friend aware that EDF, the local energy company in my constituency, is offering customers significant decreases through fixed-term tariffs? It is also ensuring that customers know about other companies’ deals. Does that not show that increased competition is the best way to get energy prices down?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we came to power we found that there were far too few energy companies and that the big six had it all their own way. As a result of the measures we have taken, through deregulation and the retail market review, we are seeing independent suppliers come in and offer some really good deals. He mentioned making energy bills simpler, which will help people know their options and be able to choose to switch to lower prices and better deals.
Is there any part of his statement that the Secretary of State might wish to review in the light of what his own Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), said yesterday, which was that the cuts in ECO will result in far less carbon being saved over the next period? Does he accept that ECO’s original intention, which was to cut bills by up to £400 for those who benefited from it permanently, is now seriously at risk as a result of what he has undertaken today?
We approached the review with the intention of ensuring not only that we kept the support for the fuel-poor and the investment for green energy, but that it was carbon neutral. The package we have put together, not only with the energy efficiency investments we have announced today but with announcements that will be made in the autumn statement, will show that it is indeed carbon neutral.
We need to ask what the Secretary of State has been doing for the past three and a half years. He has blamed everybody but himself. When the issue first arose, he told people to wear pullovers. What he is offering people today is less than 90p a week off their energy bills. How does that square with the bedroom tax? It will affect a hell of a lot of poor people in this country. This must be one of the cruellest Governments we have ever had.
I must say that the hon. Gentleman, to whom I normally listen with attention, is wrong on every point. For example, he did not draw attention to the fact that the warm home discount is delivering £130 directly off the bills of the 2 million lowest income households in our country, including over 1 million of the poorest pensioners, something that I thought he would welcome..
It is this Government who have introduced a code of practice for off-grid suppliers, raised the basic pension and increased cold weather payments in a multiple way. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this reduction will help the vulnerable and elderly, in particular, in my constituency?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He is also right to put this announcement in the context of all the other things the Government are doing, whether it is the income tax cut that is taking some of our lowest paid out of income tax altogether, delivering a £700 tax cut for people on the basic rate of tax, the council tax freeze or the fuel duty freeze. These things are never admitted by Labour Members, but our constituents are benefiting from them every day in every way.
Many of my constituents who get their energy from SSE saw their prices rise on 15 November. They now understand that they will be paying more through taxation and probably will not see any money from the energy company until April at least. The question they will be asking is whether this Secretary of State ever actually asked any of the energy companies for a price freeze—and if not, why not?
I am surprised that the hon. Lady mentions SSE, because it has announced a £50 price cut from next year and a pledge to keep prices flat until spring 2015, subject obviously to wholesale energy costs. I would have thought that she would welcome SSE’s announcement.
The best way to cut electricity and gas bills would be to abolish VAT on them. Will the Secretary of State, as an enthusiast for the European Union, confirm that it is the European Union that prevents VAT from being removed? What efforts have he and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made in Brussels to get a derogation from those restrictions?
I am being tempted by my colleagues on the Back Benches. I hope they can cast their minds back to a former Conservative Government who wanted to put VAT at 17.5% on energy bills while my party campaigned against that. As I want to ensure that our coalition parties are working closely together, I respectfully repeat that that proposal would be against the law.
All one needs to know about this Government is summed up in the first few words of the Secretary of State’s statement when he said that this Government were taking action “to reduce the impact of Government policies on energy bills.” I want to increase the effect of Government policies on energy bills, because I want a Government who are going to stand up to the energy companies and make sure that we reduce bills. Why will the Government not do that?
The hon. Gentleman shows his lack of understanding of the policy. It is very important that we have Government policies to tackle fuel poverty and boost energy efficiency, and I would have thought he would welcome that. We are combining those policies with our very strong policies on competition. I only wish that when Labour was in government it had pursued competition policies as rigorous as ours.
Will my right hon. Friend describe to the House just how much control he has over global gas wholesale prices?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Neither I nor my predecessor, nor the Leader of the Opposition when he was doing my job, has any control over international gas markets. That is why Labour’s policy of a price freeze makes no economic sense whatsoever. During that freeze we could find some small suppliers making serious losses or going out of business if wholesale prices went up. That would reduce competition and we would be back to the big six. Of course, that is what Labour wants, because it created the big six.
Hundreds of people in Splott and Tremorfa in my constituency who suffer from some of the highest levels of fuel poverty and energy debt in Cardiff have signed a petition calling for a freeze in energy bills, but instead they will see their bills continue to rise. Is the Secretary of State just telling them to pipe down and settle for his announcement?