House of Commons
Wednesday 12 February 2014
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Businesses in Wrexham tell me that the biggest barrier to growth is the lack of availability of finance. Today Barclays has talked of more redundancies and more bankers’ bonuses. Will the Secretary of State support me by establishing a regional bank for Wales which will be attuned to the local economy, and which will provide the finance for business that will enable the local economy to grow?
The proposal for a development bank for Wales was floated recently by Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, and I believe that he is now conducting another exercise for Edwina Hart, the business development Minister in Wales. We are certainly prepared to consider the proposal, and, in fact, I have already discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome the fact that it was this Government who passed the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013, which enabled local banks to come into existence and has resulted in the creation of more than 20 new challenger banks, and which the Labour party voted against?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Furthermore, the Government are working closely with the British Bankers Association to set up a business finance taskforce, which gives bank customers a right of appeal when they feel that they have been treated unfairly.
Why, instead of coming out with the usual Government flannel, does the Secretary of State not admit that, according to the House of Commons Library, net bank lending—that is, new loans minus repayments—to small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales has been negative over the last two years? Since the third quarter of 2011, small businesses in Wales have paid back to the banks £148 million more than they have been able to borrow, and medium-sized businesses have paid back £186 million more than they have been lent. The truth is that the banking system in Wales is broken, and the Secretary of State is doing nothing about it.
On the contrary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has just pointed out, the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act has put a great deal more power into the hands of customers. It has also done a great deal to repair the damage that was done under the last Labour Administration.
Many of my constituents continue to be affected by the interest rate swap scandal, when banks were deliberately targeting businesses, and wrecking lives and real economic activity. My constituents Mr and Mrs Bartels, for instance, were deliberately bankrupted by Barclays. What can the Secretary of State do to support the excellent work of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and the all-party parliamentary group on interest rate swap mis-selling to secure justice for Welsh businesses that have been ripped off by exploitative banks?
The position on bankers’ bonuses is entirely clear. In respect of the banks in which the Government have a shareholding, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already said that there will be no cash bonuses of more than £2,000 at RBS and Lloyds Banking Group, and that the Government will veto any proposals to increase overall pay—that is, pay and bonus bills—at RBS.
Our long-term economic plan is working, and it is working for Wales. The economy is growing, and there have never been more people in work in Wales as unemployment continues to fall. I want to see all parts of Wales share in that positive trend.
My hon. Friend is, as ever, exactly right. Wales has seen a larger fall in economic inactivity than any other part of the United Kingdom. We all welcome the fact that 57,000 fewer people are economically inactive in Wales, but that has come about only because of the responsible decisions made by the Government—decisions that were opposed by the Labour party.
I do not quite recognise that rosy picture of unemployment rates. Since 2011, long-term and youth unemployment in Wales has quadrupled. That is not something to celebrate. What are the Government doing to ensure that young people are able to find good jobs in Wales? Are the Government going to consider applying for part of the €6 billion European youth jobs guarantee fund, and if not, why not?
Nobody is painting a rosy picture. There is still a long way to go and, in Wales in particular, there are still serious challenges to address. But neither are we in denial about the positive picture that is starting to emerge. That is something that we want all parts of Wales and people from all walks of life, including young people, to benefit from. That is one of the reasons that we are making it easier for businesses to hire young workers through the national insurance holiday for businesses.
We have already heard about the importance of the small and medium-sized enterprise sector to Wales. One thing that would assist it is a further cut in business rates. Are the Government going to consider that, given that roughly 90% of employment in Wales is in the SME sector?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that small and medium-sized businesses are the engines of job creation in Wales. They are the ones that are driving the fall in unemployment. Decisions on business rates have largely been devolved to the Welsh Government, and we are taking forward proposals to devolve them entirely, so that is really a discussion that he ought to be having with colleagues in Cardiff.
10. Does my hon. Friend agree with my Welsh relatives that the reduction in the number of people unemployed in the last quarter by 12,000 is entirely due to the fact that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working? (902463)
My hon. Friend and his relatives in Wales are right. That is exactly what is happening. There is a long way to go, however. The recovery is patchy, but a positive picture is emerging for Wales. Nobody should be in denial about the growth that we are seeing across Wales.
Recent improvements in employment rates in Wales are obviously profoundly welcome, but chronic unemployment continues to dog us. Last week, I met a miner in my constituency who had not worked for 30 years, since the pit closure programme. He, like many others in Wales, wants to know the full truth about the political motivations that lay behind that programme, which poured thousands of Welsh people on to the dole. Does the Minister agree that the papers should now be published in full so that we can know the truth?
I am not going to be drawn on that specific issue, but there is a serious problem with long-term unemployment in Wales, with 200,000 people there who have never worked a day in their lives and 92,000 children living in homes where nobody works. That is exactly why the hon. Gentleman should be supporting what we are doing through the Work programme and our welfare reforms, which are going to benefit exactly those people.
So a Minister for Wales refuses to engage on the issue of the miners’ strike that poured thousands of people on to the dole in Wales. Is he seriously telling those Welsh miners that they do not have the right to know the truth? Will he take the opportunity, when he comes back to the Dispatch Box, to apologise for the actions of his predecessors and for the political motivations that lay behind that strike?
We understand why the shadow Secretary of State is bringing this politically motivated issue to the Dispatch Box today: it is because he has run out of things to say about the economy in Wales, about unemployment and about growth. Over the past three years, he has been proved wrong on all those issues.
May I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to congratulate the management of Dunbia on the announcement that 200 new jobs are to be created at Felinfach in the Aeron valley, contributing to the food processing sector that is so important to rural Wales? Those new jobs are good news for Wales.
I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the investment from that meat processing company in his constituency. The agri-food sector is incredibly important to west Wales, and not least to Ceredigion. My hon. Friend represents one of the most important farming and agricultural constituencies in the UK, and the investment by that company is a sign of the growing confidence in the UK economy and the Welsh economy.
Midwifery (Fitness to Practise)
The Health Select Committee drew attention last year to the fact that there were 400 unresolved cases going back over a two-year period. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many of those cases are in Wales and how long they have been waiting for resolution? Is it not unfair on patients in Wales that that matter is still hanging over those hospitals?
I commend the right hon. Lady for her role in chairing the committee that came up with such an important report on the processing of complaints in the health service.
Although the issue of complaints about nurses and midwives must be one for the Nursing and Midwifery Council, we are clearly anxious to ensure that complaints should be properly investigated. That is why we were extremely pleased that the Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services has now instituted his own inquiry into this issue.
Does the Minister agree that people who have complaints about the NHS in Wales under the Labour Welsh Assembly Government are unable simply to cross the border and access the far better treatments, wider range of drugs and shorter waiting lists on offer to those fortunate enough to be served by the Conservative coalition Government in England?
MOJ Shared Services Centre (Newport)
The Wales Office is in close contact with the Ministry of Justice, which is still at an early stage in evaluating options for the shared services centre in Newport. The Government are committed to ensuring that services are delivered efficiently, while providing value for money for taxpayers.
In December, hundreds of workers at the MOJ’s shared services centre in Newport learned that their jobs could be privatised, and obviously the work force has great concern that jobs could be outsourced or offshored, as we have seen with the Government’s model. Given the bad news that Newport received last week with the potential loss of jobs at Avana Bakeries, will the Minister speak up for public sector workers in Newport and tell the MOJ to abandon its plans?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. On the point about Avana Bakeries, she should be aware that I spoke to that company on Friday afternoon; the scenario is obviously very difficult for the city of Newport.
On the shared services centre, the evaluation of options is, as I said in my initial answer, at an early stage, but the Government will work with staff, trade unions and other stakeholders to assess any impact on staff. We are very mindful of the jobs impact on the hon. Lady’s constituency.
I am concerned that Wales risks being left behind in the employment market. All young people deserve an education system that provides them with the qualifications, skills and training needed to compete successfully in the global jobs market.
You will know, Mr Speaker, that I served on the Committee that dealt with the Welsh Language Act 1993, that my mother is a Welsh language speaker and that I very much support bilingualism in Wales. However, does my right hon. Friend share my surprise that when I was debating the low standard of education in Wales with the Labour First Minister, he admitted that his Government took their “eye off the ball”? A whole generation of Welsh children was betrayed by the Labour Welsh Government.
The First Minister clearly did take his eye off the ball. The recent programme for international student assessment—PISA—ratings show the extent to which the Welsh educational system is failing. That is because the Welsh Government are pursuing a course that does not mirror the improvements we are making in England, and I very much hope that the new Welsh Minister for Education and Skills will learn from the reforms we are implementing.
12. My two children were educated in Wrexham in their early years. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the PISA league tables, which he mentioned? What discussions is he having with the Welsh Assembly Government to try to ensure the very best education for all our children in Wales? (902465)
Mental Health Services (Veterans)
6. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government on waiting times for mental health support for combat veterans in Wales compared with those in England. (902458)
A military veteran living in Carmarthenshire has been told by NHS Wales that he has to wait up to eight months for urgent mental health treatment. The Veterans Association tells me that in parts of England the wait would be seven to 10 days. Will the Secretary of State sort out this problem on behalf of Welsh veterans?
The generosity of Welsh people in donating to mental health charities for veterans is unsurpassed. However, there have been concerns in recent months about the regulation and oversight of some of those charities and of some of the treatments available. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss those concerns to ensure that every penny piece that is raised by people in Wales goes towards the very best treatment for our veterans?
On Friday I met members of Swansea’s Combat Stress group, who told me that the nearest places for in-patient treatment were in Shropshire, Surrey or Scotland. Will the Secretary of State meet me and the Secretary of State for Defence, who is now in his seat, to talk about providing facilities for in-patient care for war veterans in St Athan and the idea of moving units coming out of Germany to St Athan in south Wales to provide much needed employment and economic stimulus?
As a result of the £57 million investment by this coalition Government in Westminster, the roll-out of superfast broadband in Wales will transform our broadband network. Last month, it was confirmed that 100,000 Welsh homes and businesses can now get access to superfast broadband.
I thank the Minister for his response. I welcome the fact that the roll-out is doing well in Wales. Will he respond to the fact that Llandudno and Llandudno junction, which are key commercial centres in north Wales, are not even scheduled for roll-out as yet? Is that another example of the Welsh Labour Government prioritising south Wales over north Wales?
All Welsh Members of Parliament want their constituencies to be at the front of the queue for superfast broadband. The roll-out implementation plans are agreed between BT Cymru, the Welsh Government and Broadband Delivery UK. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns about that process, will he please raise them with me, and I will ensure that they get an airing?
14. I represent a very rural constituency where poor broadband is a particularly important issue. Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the effect of poor internet connections on property values? That issue applies to the whole of Britain as well. (902467)
I am not aware of any specific studies on the value of properties with regard to a lack of access to good-quality broadband, but I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes. High-quality broadband is vital for revitalising the private sector and many of our rural communities.
The Government are currently consulting on the proposal to create a new company, still subject to Government oversight, which would be responsible for delivering land registration services.
The Land Registry has a customer satisfaction rating of 98%. As a trading fund, it does not cost the taxpayer anything; indeed, it makes a significant surplus year on year. It made £98.8 million in the past year alone, yet the Government are now consulting to end its trading fund status. Will the Minister confirm that if, as a result of the consultation, the status of the Land Registry is changed to that of a Government-owned company, the people of Swansea will be protected, jobs will be protected and the services will not be changed?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will say again that no decisions on implementation have yet been taken, as all views from the consultation on the right commercial model for Land Registry need to be considered before any decision is taken. None the less, we expect that the majority of staff will be transferred to the new service delivery company, with a small minority remaining in the office of the chief land registrar.
VAT (Tourism and Hospitality)
Tourism and hospitality play an important role in the economy in Wales, attracting more than 4 million people from across Great Britain between July and September last year. The World Economic Forum has recently ranked the UK fifth in Europe in its travel and tourism competitiveness index.
Our near neighbours, the Republic of Ireland, and most other European countries have reduced the level of value added tax in the tourism sector, boosting jobs, growth and investment in their countries. The United Kingdom and Wales are among those with the highest rates of VAT in Europe, and, according to an independent inquiry, that has led to the suppression of jobs and investment. Will the Secretary of State lobby the Treasury to ensure that we have a competitive rate of VAT and that we reduce VAT, which is a tax on jobs?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as happy as I am that tourism expenditure in Wales increased by £746 million over the past year. The United Kingdom is highly competitive in the tourism market. As I said in my initial answer, the World Economic Forum has indicated that the UK is the fifth most competitive economy in Europe, ahead of France, Portugal and Italy.
As in Scotland, VAT on tourism in Wales has a negative effect on the industry. Will he press his Treasury colleagues to ensure a reduction from 20% to 5%, as requested in yesterday’s debate in Westminster Hall, to benefit very scenic constituencies like mine and Carmarthen East and Dinefwr?
I thank the Secretary of State for that brief response. In his maiden speech as a Member of the Welsh Assembly, the right hon. Gentleman said, “We have no tax-raising powers—long may that state of affairs continue.” As someone who supported the Assembly having tax-levying powers in the 1997 referendum, I find that view extraordinary. Surely the reason he now wants income tax to be devolved to Wales is to cut public services and cut taxes for the rich.
Rather than concentrating on what I said in 2002, the hon. Lady ought to listen to what her hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) said only last week. The Labour Government in Wales do not want income tax devolved to Wales, but the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition Government here in Westminster do.
Wales had seen the biggest increase in average earnings of all the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, with earnings increasing at twice the national average and more than twice the current rate of inflation. Wage levels are still not where we want them to be, but that is still positive news for Wales.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already said where he wants to see the national minimum wage going, as conditions allow. We want to see a strong minimum wage that will benefit low-paid workers. One of the most important things we are doing is taking 130,000 of the lowest-paid people in Wales out of income tax altogether by increasing the personal allowance to £10,000, something the hon. Lady and her colleagues should very much support.
Does the Minister accept that wages in Flintshire have dropped dramatically since the election of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government and that the situation is not helped by cuts to child tax credits, by the bedroom tax or by other measures they are taking? Will he join my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) this afternoon in his plan to introduce a Bill to scrap the bedroom tax?
If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the figures, he will see that the biggest destruction in real wage levels occurred under the last three years of the previous Labour Government, and we are still recovering from the economic trauma of that period. Wage levels are still not where we want them to be, but they are increasing in Wales, which is positive news for people on the lowest incomes.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Our hearts go out to everyone whose lives are being devastated by the current floods. I am sure we all welcome the Prime Minister’s promise yesterday that he will do everything he can both with the relief effort and in building a more resilient country into the future. Does he therefore agree that it would be both complacent and ignorant to flout the warnings of the Met Office and his own advisers, who warn that climate change will lead to even more such events in the future? Can he confirm for the House and for everyone in my Brighton constituency that doing everything he can will include not only reversing cuts to the Environment Agency budget and giving proper funding for flood prevention but, crucially, removing anyone from the Cabinet—[Interruption.]
Let me reassure the hon. Lady that I listen very carefully to my experts in the Met Office and in the Environment Agency. Every Cobra meeting starts with a briefing from the Met Office. I think it is clear that we are seeing more extreme weather events, and I suspect that we will go on seeing more extreme weather events. We need to do everything we can to improve the resilience of our country. Let me repeat again that, as I said yesterday, when it comes to this relief effort, money is no object. We will spend what is necessary to help families, to help people and to help communities get through this very difficult time. I have to say that things are likely to get worse before they get better, because of the very high levels of rainfall we have seen—and we are seeing very serious high winds as we speak here in the House today—but whatever can be done to help will be done.
Q2. Last year, my constituent Georgia Williams was brutally murdered. At the subsequent trial, it was revealed that her attacker had previously attacked another young girl five years earlier. Yet, unbelievably, that attacker got off the earlier offence with just a police caution—a written warning. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on West Mercia police to publish all relevant material relating to that earlier case in order that any lessons that can be learned will be learned? (902544)
First of all, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to take up his constituent’s case in this way. He has written to me about this specific case. My sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Georgia Williams. As he has asked, I understand that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is currently considering its response to a referral from West Mercia police into the handling of this case and what needs to be published. On the issue of cautions, we announced last year that we are banning the use of simple cautions for all of the most serious offences, including manslaughter, rape and robbery, as well as a range of other offences that devastate lives and tear apart communities. Clearly, this is a tragic case and we must get to the bottom of what went wrong.
I join the Prime Minister in expressing all my sympathies with people who have been affected by the floods, who have been driven out of their homes, and who are facing disruption to their lives. I also join him in paying tribute to all those helping with relief efforts and to the extraordinary resilience we have seen in the past few weeks of the people of our country. He will know that people in affected communities are relieved that help from the armed forces and emergency services has now arrived, but many feel they were sent in too late. With further flooding expected in the coming hours and days, can the Prime Minister provide an assurance that people will be getting help in time, not after the event?
I can certainly give that assurance. Let me repeat again that it is important, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to praise our emergency services, to praise volunteers, and to praise all those working for the Environment Agency, who have worked night and day, round the clock, to help our communities. They really have done amazing work, and we should thank them.
In terms of the engagement of the military, I think that this is important. It has always been possible for gold commanders in these emergency situations to call on military assets. Indeed, a military liaison officer is supposed to sit with those gold commanders and liaise with them. What we have done in recent days is to say very clearly to all the local authorities concerned, which we have contacted individually, “If you want military assistance, don’t think twice about it: think once, then ask, and they’ll be there.” We have now got thousands of military at a state of readiness to help out. A huge number have already been deployed; and yes, as we see the levels potentially rising on the Thames again coming into this weekend, we should do everything we can now to get extra help into those communities that could be affected and make sure that they are helped. All the military assistance that is required is there; people only have to ask.
I welcome that promise of proactive help from the Prime Minister. Given the forecasts of extreme weather and that river levels are rising, one of the key issues that will concern people is not just their homes but continuing gas and electricity supplies. We have learned from experience in 2007 that protecting electricity substations that can be responsible for power for hundreds of thousands of homes is of particular importance. Can he reassure the House about the steps being taken to protect these vital services?
I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy carried out a review into the resilience of our infrastructure. A lot of extra steps were taken following that, and that has made a difference. Also, in the Cobra system, we are monitoring every day those particular bits of infrastructure that could be under threat. In recent days, it has more been about water-treatment works than electricity works.
I also spoke to the Minister responsible for energy policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), at this morning’s Cobra to make sure that everything is done to contact the energy companies to stand up the people who will be necessary if there are further supply interruptions over the coming days. Since the experience of the problems in Kent after Christmas, the energy companies and the network companies have done a better job at reconnecting people more quickly.
I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. One of the reassurances that he provided yesterday, as he said in an earlier answer, was to say that money was no object, but this morning the Transport Secretary said that it is not a “blank cheque”. Will the Prime Minister tell the House exactly what areas of spending yesterday’s promise covers?
I was very clear last night, and let me repeat again that, as I said last night, money is no object in this relief effort. I want communities who are suffering and people who see water lapping at their doors to know that when it comes to the military, sandbags, the emergency services, restoring broken flood defences—all of those things—money is no object. To be fair to the Transport Secretary, this is what he said this morning:
“money is not the issue while we’re in this relief job.”
That is what he said. He is absolutely right.
The Prime Minister is of course absolutely right about the relief effort. He also said yesterday that he will
“spend whatever it takes to recover from this”
and make sure that we have a
“resilient country for the future.”
Let me give him an example in that context. Yesterday, he praised the staff of the Environment Agency, but it is in the process, this year, of making 550 people dealing with flooding redundant. These are staff who help put in place and maintain flood defences, and help deal with clean-up. If money is no object, as he said, is he committing now to reconsidering these redundancies?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what we are doing with the Environment Agency and with the flood defence budget. We are spending £2.4 billion over the four-year period between 2010 and 2014, which compares with just £2.2 billion in the previous four-year period. What I can say to the House—I think that this is important—is that as the waters recede, it will be important for the Environment Agency and for local authorities all to look again at the flood patterns we have seen and the models that they have, and to work out what fresh flood defences will be necessary.
In addition to that, I can tell the House that we will be introducing a grant for all affected home owners and businesses to build in better flood protection as they repair their properties. That will be up to £5,000 per house and per business. On top of that, we are announcing a £10 million fund to help farmers who have seen their land waterlogged day after day, week after week. I can also announce today that we will be deferring the tax payments that businesses have to pay, and all the businesses that have been affected by floods will get 100% business rate relief.
Those steps are welcome and will be welcomed across the House, but I am afraid that the Prime Minister did not answer the specific question I asked, which is about the 550 people who work on flood defences who the Environment Agency is planning to make redundant. They are people who are currently helping with the clean-up, and who put in place the flood defences.
Similarly, on the issue of spending on flood defence, the Committee on Climate Change says that we are spending significantly less on flood defence than we should. My question is a simple one: given yesterday’s promise to make sure that we have a
“resilient country for the future”
“spend whatever it takes”,
is the Prime Minister committing now to reconsidering these redundancies and the amount of money we invest in flood defences?
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we are doing with the Environment Agency budget into the future. We have set out the figures for the Environment Agency budget in terms of capital spending all the way up to 2020. We have made capital spending pledges only in areas such as transport and flood defences—pledges that no one else is able to match, particularly not if they are committed to a zero-based budget review, but promises we are happy to make so that people can see how much money will be spent on flood defences in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. We are only able to make those pledges because we have managed our economy effectively and managed our Budgets effectively.
I say to the Prime Minister that he came along to his press conference yesterday and made what sounded like a very grand promise to
“spend whatever it takes to recover from this and to make sure we have a resilient country for the future”.
The simple point that I am making to him is that there are real doubts about that when it comes to making members of the Environment Agency who deal with flooding redundant and the Committee on Climate Change—the expert body that is charged with this—says that the investment in flood defences is not happening. He needs to reconsider those things.
I urge the Prime Minister to ensure this in the coming days: the Government need to speak with one voice on this issue; the response needs to be speedier than it has been in the past; and everyone affected needs to feel that they are getting the help they need. If the Government do that, they will have our full support.
What I said last night is exactly what I have said today: when it comes to this relief effort, money will be no object. I do not want people to worry about penny-pinching as they see the vital work that is needed to help them with their houses and to deal with the floods. This is what this Government are doing: we are deploying the military when we are asked for the military; we deployed extra pumps when we were asked for pumps; we are raising the compensation to local government to 100%, because that is what local communities should have. I am only sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to divide the House, when we should be coming together for the nation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his recent visit to Plymouth to discuss our broken rail link. Will he commit our Government to finding long-term solutions to providing rail resilience in the far south-west? Will he join me today in sending a very clear signal to the rest of the country that, despite our current problems, Devon and Cornwall are firmly open for business?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That message needs to go out loud and clear. Businesses, including tourism businesses, in Cornwall and Devon want people’s custom and want people to know that the peninsula is very much open for business. On his specific question, yes we are finding £31 million to fund 10 rail-resilience projects in the south-west to improve the resilience against flooding. That will include work at Cowley bridge junction, Chipping Sodbury, Hinksey, Whiteball tunnel and a number of other places including Honiton and Crewkerne. Clearly, the most important thing is that Dawlish rail link. I saw for myself yesterday the intense damage that has been done to that track and the huge destruction that was wrought by the waves. That work will take up to six weeks. I know that Network Rail is working as hard as it can. I have said to it that for any help that it needs, it needs only to ask.
Minimum Wage (Non-payment Penalties)
We are the first Government to name and shame employers that fail to pay the minimum wage. The name of the first company was published in 2011. We have revised the scheme to make publication easier, but I am not satisfied that that is going fast enough. The identity of companies that have been found to have broken the law will be made public very soon.
I thank the Prime Minister for that response. However, two employment agencies in my constituency have recently been found not to have been paying the minimum wage to their workers and have had to pay penalties, but the Government say that they have to protect the confidentiality of those companies. My constituents think that the Government are standing up for the wrong people—the rip-off agencies—rather than the workers. Will he look at that matter?
As I said, we will publish the names of those companies—something that never happened under the Labour party. We are taking action. When it comes to penalties for not paying the minimum wage, last year more than 700 employers received penalties for failing to comply with minimum wage law and the value of those penalties was almost seven times higher than in the final year of the last Labour Government. We hear a lot of talk about enforcing the minimum wage from the Labour party, but there is a lot of action from this Government.
Q4. Crime is down by 10% and our excellent Home Secretary’s police reforms are allowing good officers to do more with less. Will the Prime Minister implement the Normington reforms of the Police Federation immediately so that police culture can be further improved? (902546)
We are working with the Police Federation on this issue, and it is clearly an organisation in need of reform. To be fair, the new head of the Police Federation—whom I have met—recognises that and wants to act, and I think we should support him in sorting out that organisation so that it better represents its members.
Q5. Two weeks ago, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury refused to rule out any further tax cuts for millionaires, but last week he said that that would be over his dead body. Can the Prime Minister help him out today by ruling out any further tax cuts for top earners, or should his Chief Secretary be looking to up his life insurance? (902547)
I saw the Chief Secretary this morning at Cobra and he looked alive and well to me, so the hon. Lady does not have any worries on that front. I have said that that is not our priority; our priority is to cut taxes for low and middle earners, and that is what we have done. When it comes to April this year, her constituents will be able to earn £10,000 without paying any income tax at all. That is equivalent to a 10% increase in the minimum wage, and means that their income tax bill will have gone down by two thirds under this Government. Those are the sorts of tax cuts that we are interested in.
May I thank the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister for their personal engagement with our issues on the Somerset levels, and may I ask the Prime Minister a question that I do not think the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government quite grasped on Monday? When the emergency, the crisis phase of this problem, is over, we must have sustainable plans to protect people on the Somerset levels. That will require a revenue stream that will come through local government, and that means changes to the way that is administered. When we have those detailed plans, will the Prime Minister meet me and others from Somerset to ensure that we have a sustainable future?
I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other MPs from Somerset, and I have visited twice to see for myself. The problem at the moment, as we know, is simply the pumping capacity. It is now taking 3 million tonnes—soon 5 million tonnes—of water off the Somerset levels, but because there are 65 million tonnes, or more, of water on the levels, it is going to take time. What we need to do once that water level starts to come down is get the dredging going, and then work out the long-term programme for ensuring that this man-made environment is properly looked after by man, so that it is sustainable for the future. I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss that.
Q6. Conditions outside are dreadful; the voluntary sector, emergency services and individuals have been amazing, but people and businesses are angry. In my region, the south-west, people are angry because of what they see as the excessive costs of High Speed 2, when the whole of the west country is without a resilient rail network. The money that was announced—reannounced—today, is welcome but not enough. Will the Prime Minister commit in the medium term to ensuring that he supports growth and recovery in the region, and that Plymouth is put on the strategic road transport network? It is not there at the moment, and it should be. (902548)
I would make three quick points to the hon. Lady. I totally understand her concern and the concern of her constituents. First, I do not want anyone to be under the misapprehension that HS2 will be built at the expense of the west country—it will not. In the next Parliament, we will spend three times more on other road and rail schemes as we will spend on HS2, and some of those schemes will directly benefit people in the west country. Secondly, while we are working as fast as we can to restore the Dawlish link, we need to look at longer-term alternatives, and I have discussed that with Network Rail and First Great Western to see what more can be done. Thirdly, in the meantime, while Dawlish is as it is, we need to go on boosting the air services to the peninsula. That is why I met Flybe in Newquay. It has doubled the number of flights and we have taken £5 off the cost of each of those flights. We also need to make sure that the replacement bus services are as good as they can be. If we do all those things, that will lessen the impact of this tragedy for the west country.
Q7. With flooding in Frampton for residents and for businesses in Woodchester, and more risks to my constituency associated with warnings for the Severn estuary, does the Prime Minister agree that the action taken so far by various agencies and councils has been helpful? Can he reassure my constituents that the Government will continue to invest in flood defences? (902549)
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is right to mention the difficulties on the River Severn, because the River Severn, the River Tame and the River Wye are all expected to respond to recent rainfall, and levels are likely to go up. In terms of the Thames, I should tell the House that a second peak in Thames levels is expected on Sunday and Monday, which could potentially put 800 properties at risk. We will go on doing whatever we can to help people—getting people to communities before they are flooded. It is worth making the point, to be fair to the previous Government as well as this one, that all the schemes that have been built since the 2007 floods, when 55,000 homes were flooded, are now protecting well over 1 million properties that would have been flooded this time around, were it not for the important work that has been done.
Q8. This week Shelter found that house prices have been rising faster than wages in most parts of the country. Does the Prime Minister not agree that the lack of affordable housing is making the cost of living crisis worse for millions of people across our country? Will he confirm that this Government have presided over the fewest new homes built since the 1920s? (902550)
Housing starts are up from the dreadful situation we were left by the previous Government. We are now investing huge amounts into affordable housing. I make no apology for the fact that it is right to deal with the demand side on housing, as well as the supply side. Programmes such as Help to Buy are helping to get builders building, because builders will not build unless they believe that buyers are able to buy. We are fixing this problem and house building is rising.
Parts of my constituency are suffering from flooding. I want to put on record my thanks to the council officers from West Berkshire council and Reading borough council, the volunteer flood wardens in places such as Purley and the soldiers of the 7th Battalion the Rifles for the work they are doing to help my constituents. I welcome the schemes the Prime Minister has talked about to help individuals and businesses. Will he ensure that the details of those schemes are made available to everyone affected, so that they can make use of them?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he is working very hard to bring people together in his own constituency to make sure that everything that can be done in Reading is done. Obviously, they will be concerned about the rise in the Thames. We will publish details of all the announcements I have made, and we will add into that the fact that the major banks are coming forward with more than £750 million of financial support, which will mean repayment holidays, reduced or waived fees, loan extensions, increased flexibility of terms and specialist support teams deployed on the ground for businesses and farmers who desperately need help. It is a time for our insurance companies and our banks to demonstrate real social responsibility. I believe that they are beginning to do that and we should encourage them to do so.
Q9. Does the Prime agree that, after months of letting energy companies get away with increasing their profits on the back of hard-working people across the country, the Energy Secretary’s letter to the regulator this week was simply too little, too late? (902551)
The Energy Secretary was right to write to Ofgem, because it is part of the competition review we have announced. It is on this side of the House that we have delivered the £50 off bills by rolling back the cost of the green levies. That is the right approach, rather than promising a freeze that only means prices will go up.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the success of coalition policies in helping to create more jobs than forecast is very encouraging? Does he also agree that to get sustained growth we need businesses to invest more? Will he do all he can to support my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary in encouraging more business investment?
In this next stage of the recovery, an increase in business investment is what we need to see. I think there are positive signs from the last GDP numbers. My hon. Friend talks about there being more jobs than forecast. It is worth remembering that the Leader of the Opposition told the CBI in October 2010:
“They have a programme which will lead to the disappearance of a million…jobs.”
Since he made that statement, we have seen 1.6 million new private sector jobs and 1.3 million more people in work—more forecasts like that please.
The Work programme has done an excellent job in getting people into work. If we look at the job creation record under this Government, we see, as I have just said, 1.3 million more people in work, a reduction in youth unemployment and a reduction in long-term unemployment. There are more people in our work force than ever before. There is always more to do to get young people into work. The best schemes we have had are those such as the work experience scheme, which seem to be providing real hope and jobs for our young people.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to Plymouth on Monday to see for himself how hard First Great Western is working to try to get trains back on track? One thing that would be incredibly helpful would be to ensure we have a timetable for those actions so that we can deliver a resilient railway line as well.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Obviously the gap in rail provision created by the Dawlish disaster will take time to deal with. Above and beyond that, I know that what he and people in Plymouth want is a timetable for achieving a three-hour service to Plymouth and for more trains to arrive early in the morning. As I have said, we have a longer-term programme of looking at rail alternatives at the same time as restoring the Dawlish line.
Q11. With economic growth delayed for three years after the election, we have been left—[Interruption.] We have been left with more young people out of work long term than at any time for 20 years. Surely we must do more so that we do not waste the potential of a generation. (902553)
I can only think that the right hon. Gentleman is suffering from a form of memory loss. He was a Treasury Minister when we lost 7% of our GDP, when youth unemployment doubled, and when people were being thrown out of work. Under this Government, 1.3 million more people are in work, young people are getting back to work and, while countries elsewhere are struggling, our economy is growing. That is partly because we took tough and difficult decisions to get the budget deficit, which he and his henchmen left us, under control.
Unfortunately, some tourist concerns in my constituency have reported lost bookings, partly as a result of over-sensationalising of the crisis. When the crisis is over, will the Prime Minister talk to the Treasury about allocating a sum of money to market the far south-west to potential visitors and businesses, to get the message across that we really are open for business?
This was a point made to me by a number of the businesses that I visited in Cornwall and Devon over the last couple of days, all wanting to see much more advertising and publicity about how the area is open for business. I will take every opportunity I have to help with that issue. When the Dawlish line is restored, it will be a big moment to market the benefits of Devon and Cornwall, where I have been on holiday myself.
Q12. May I invite the Prime Minister to recall the day that he asked the country to imagine a Tory Government who would be the most family-friendly in Europe? When he reflects on that day, will he also consider the recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research that shows that the cost of raising a child and getting him or her through university has risen by £5,000 in one year? Does he think that for most families money is no object? (902554)
Many families have faced a very tough time in this country, not least because of the appalling recession that we had under the Labour party. But this Government have taken steps to encourage flexible working; we are introducing tax-free child care; and we have supported more child care for more families than the last Government did, helping two, three and four-year-olds. We have the new rules on shared parental leave and, above all, many families now have someone in work because the economy is moving and businesses are employing people. Those 1.3 million extra jobs mean 1.3 million more families with the security and peace of mind of a regular pay cheque coming in. That is the best way to help our families.
May I remind the Prime Minister that in 1998 Northampton suffered serious floods, sadly killing two people and affecting 2,000 houses? Since that time I have noticed that we have not over-bothered not to build on floodplains. After this episode has been dealt with and his time is more readily available, will he ensure that we do not build on floodplains so that people are not inconvenienced in this way?
I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. The figures suggest that, in applications to build properties on flood plains, the official advice, which includes the advice from the Environment Agency, is followed on 99% of occasions. It is worth remembering that areas such as London are part of flood plains, so it is not possible simply to say that no house can ever be built on a flood plain, but we need to look at the rules, listen to the experts and ensure we build only where we can protect.
Q13. Thanks to Labour in the Scottish Parliament, Scots may soon be free of the iniquitous bedroom tax, so will the Prime Minister today give an assurance to the House and the Scottish people that he will work with the Scottish Government to help bring that about, or, better still, scrap that hated tax for everyone in Britain? If he will not, Labour will. (902555)
Obviously, under our devolved system, different parts of the United Kingdom can make different decisions to spend money as they choose. My view is that it is not fair to tell someone in private rented accommodation that they do not get money for extra bedrooms and tell someone in social accommodation that they do. It is a basic issue of fairness, which is why it has overwhelming public support.
Q14. Last week, I undertook a one and a half hour walk organised by Guide Dogs for the Blind to experience at first hand the difficulties that blind and partially sighted people experience as pedestrians—it was very tricky. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the recommendations of that organisation on shared surface streets? (902556)
I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says. Everyone has noticed the huge amount of improvements that have been made to the way in which streets, traffic lights and pavements are arranged for that purpose. I am happy to look at what he says and see what more needs to be done.
Q15. If the Prime Minister believes that flood defence is so important, why did he cut the budget when he came into office? (902557)
As I have explained, we will be spending £2.4 billion in this four-year period, which compares with £2.2 billion under Labour. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that 2.4 is more than 2.2. Also, by setting out the spending figures all the way up to 2020, he must ask the shadow Chancellor, who is back in the gesticulation game, whether, if he has a zero-based budget review, he has to admit to his colleagues that he cannot guarantee to match any of the spending we have announced. Silence.
The Prime Minister is aware of a cross-party group of some 80 MPs campaigning for recognition of our nuclear test veterans. Given that the UK compares poorly with other countries on the treatment of veterans and the very high incidence of ill health suffered by their descendants, will the Prime Minister meet us? We have hit a brick wall with the Ministry of Defence and the Government have a good track record of recognising past wrongs.
My hon. Friend has consistently campaigned on that. I have discussed it with him before and wrote to him a month ago setting out the Government’s view. The frequently stated position of this Government and previous ones is that there is no published peer-reviewed evidence of excess illness or mortality, but it is right to go on looking at the issue, as I know he will. We will continue to discuss it with him.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Hillsborough stadium tragedy.
It is over a year now since Parliament last debated Hillsborough and the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. I hope the House will join me again in expressing my thanks and gratitude to the panel’s chairman, Bishop James Jones, and all his colleagues for their remarkable work. The contents of the panel’s report were truly shocking, and on the day it was published, the Prime Minister apologised to the families of the 96 for what he described as a “double injustice”. The first injustice, he said, was the appalling events; the second was the treatment of victims by the press.
I would like to pay tribute to the bereaved families, the survivors and all those who have campaigned on their behalf. As Home Secretary, I have met a number of the bereaved families, and I have always been impressed by the dignified way they and their supporters have continued their search for truth and justice. I would also like to pay tribute to those in the House who have campaigned on behalf of the families, including the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Halton (Derek Twigg) and the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham).
So significant were the conclusions of the panel’s report that its publication on 12 September 2012 set in train a number of important events. By the end of that year, this had resulted in the High Court’s quashing of the original inquest verdicts and the ordering of fresh inquests, and the establishment of two major investigations. In a debate in the House following publication of the panel’s report, I said that
“after the truth must come justice; and after the apology, accountability.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 721.]
As lead Minister, it is my responsibility to ensure that the various processes of Government and the criminal justice system are working effectively and are properly resourced to ensure that justice can be done, not only for those who died, but, just as importantly, for their families and all those who have campaigned on their behalf ever since.
Today, I would like to update the House on the progress made in respect of the new inquests and the new investigations. First, I shall deal with the inquests. Last year, and within two months of the decision by the High Court, Lord Justice Goldring was appointed as coroner to conduct the fresh inquests. A number of pre-inquest hearings have already been held. The police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigations are working in support of the coroner to a timetable determined by him, and the Government welcome the fact that Lord Justice Goldring has made it clear that the fresh inquests will start on 31 March.
I have always made it clear that the Government will support the families in their quest for justice and, as part of that commitment, we are funding a comprehensive legal representation scheme. Work began on this immediately after the original inquest verdicts were quashed, and the scheme that is now in place will ensure that the families are properly represented and supported at the inquests.
In addition to the inquests, there is the investigative process, to which there are two elements. The first is led by the IPCC. This is its biggest-ever investigation, and its principal focus is on police involvement in the aftermath of Hillsborough. It is worth reminding the House that this includes not just the role and actions of the South Yorkshire police, the force responsible for policing the match, but the West Midlands police, who played a significant role in the aftermath, providing support to Lord Taylor’s inquiry, producing the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions and assisting the then South Yorkshire West coroner, Dr Stefan Popper. I can therefore confirm that the experience of survivors, again brought to public attention in the last week, is part of the ongoing IPCC investigation.
The second element is a criminal investigation—Operation Resolve—led by Jon Stoddart, the former chief constable of Durham. He was appointed by me in December 2012 and his key role is to investigate the deaths at Hillsborough. Working alongside both investigations is a discrete Crown Prosecution Service team, through which lawyers from the CPS provide ongoing advice.
When he was the Bishop of Liverpool and sitting in another place, Bishop James Jones said that justice was about process as well as outcomes. The unique, complex and wide-ranging circumstances of Hillsborough meant that two major and large-scale investigations had to be created from scratch, and both had to have firm foundations. Suitable premises had to be found, acquired and fitted out. This has been done. Suitably skilled and appropriate staff had to be identified and recruited. This has also been done. It was inevitable that this would take time but the investigations are now located together on one site in Warrington—close to the source of the investigation—and are making good progress.
Like a number of the bereaved families and a number of those in this House, I have been to Warrington to see both investigations for myself. I have met some of the staff from the IPCC and Operation Resolve investigations and I was struck by their dedication and professionalism. I welcome the fact that the IPCC and Operation Resolve want their investigations to be open and transparent and both investigations have welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate to families the work they are doing.
I would like now to set out to the House some of the progress being made; first, in respect of the IPCC. Over 1,600 people have now responded to the IPCC’s witness appeal. This includes over 250 people who have never given accounts before. The IPCC is conducting detailed analysis of every response and is following up the evidence provided. Separately around 400 witnesses have made requests to the IPCC to see their original statements and the IPCC is helping people to access those statements.
In addition, the IPCC has recovered around 2,500 police pocket notebooks. These pocket books had not been made available to previous investigations and are now being analysed by IPCC investigators.
The IPCC has also conducted further analysis of the 242 police accounts now believed to have been amended. In this context, it has completed more than 160 interviews and these interviews continue. Alongside the IPCC investigation, the police investigation—Operation Resolve—has, first, worked to the coroner’s priorities and timetable, meeting all the deadlines set by him; secondly, has worked in parallel on other aspects of the criminal investigation that are complementary to the work being done for the coroner; thirdly, has obtained access to the best quality audio-visual material and carried out extensive analysis and, in doing so, has drawn on advances in digital imagery and forensic technology not available to previous investigative teams; and fourthly, has now completed more than 1,000 interviews of witnesses.
The work being done by Operation Resolve is aimed at providing the fullest possible picture of what happened at Hillsborough, both to ensure that the inquest is able to answer the questions that the bereaved families still have and in support of the criminal investigation.
As Jon Stoddart has said,
“If we find there were health and safety breaches or evidence of wilful neglect, we will seek to ensure the appropriate action is taken against those responsible. If we find that, with the benefit of hindsight, there are lessons to be learned, we will endeavour to ensure that they are addressed. And if we find evidence of criminal behaviour, including manslaughter through neglect, we will seek to lay charges and put people and organisations before the courts.”
As I have said, this new phase of work on Hillsborough began with the publication of the independent panel’s report. One particularly important aspect of the way in which the panel approached its work was its consultation with the bereaved families and I was keen to learn from and build on that dialogue. So I was pleased when Bishop James Jones agreed to act as my adviser on Hillsborough, bringing with him his knowledge and experience from his time as chair of the independent panel.
Operation Resolve and the IPCC have invested significant effort engaging with families, including by offering the opportunity for families to visit their offices in Warrington. “Family forums”, proposed by Bishop James Jones and building on work done by the IPCC, the Crown Prosecution Service and Operation Resolve, are now taking place regularly. The forums provide a regular and structured opportunity for bereaved families to have face-to-face discussions with those conducting and advising the investigations, and they provide an important opportunity for the families to probe and ask questions.
Bishop James Jones, in recent conversations with me, has described the families’ position as being “encouraged” but not “persuaded.” Mr Speaker, this is a sentiment I can understand. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, it is the sentiment that underlies my continuing commitment to do everything I can to ensure that the process of disclosing the truth, started by the panel, is followed by the process of justice.
I commend this statement to the House.
Order. Just before I call the shadow Home Secretary and then other colleagues, it might be helpful if I emphasised to the House that the special inquest has not yet formally opened. I think there have been pre-hearings, but the hearing itself has not opened. Therefore, the matter is not sub judice. However, colleagues might think it wise to exercise a degree of restraint and to weigh their words carefully if they seek to express opinions on matters that plainly fall to be determined by the inquest. That is not in any sense intended to chill; it is simply to make the point to colleagues, who will exercise their own judgment as to how to proceed in this matter.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement and welcome the points she has made updating the House on the progress made in getting justice for the families of the 96 people who lost their lives at Hillsborough.
This year we approach 25 years since that dreadful day. I pay tribute, alongside the Home Secretary, to the Hillsborough Family Support Group, the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Hope for Hillsborough, which have shown such determination in their campaign for their loved ones. None of us should underestimate the strength they have shown and what they have endured over the last quarter of a century, or how difficult it is still for them as the inquest approaches—something that no family would ever want to go through. We should show them our respect and our support in their pursuit of justice.
In October 2012, when the Home Secretary last addressed the House on the disaster, we all welcomed the independent panel report and paid tribute to the panel, led by Bishop James Jones. I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) and the work he did to establish it, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), who I know spoke to her about giving today’s statement, my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Halton (Derek Twigg), and colleagues in all parts of the House who continue to support their constituents in the pursuit of justice.
The list of failures exposed by the panel at that time was extensive, shocking and deeply distressing—the failure to improve the safety of the ground in the years before Hillsborough; the holding of the game at a ground without a safety certificate just four years after the Bradford fire; the failure to organise crowd safety; the failure to close the tunnel; the failure to help fans speedily; and also the failure to be honest about what happened and to investigate, and the falsehoods that were perpetuated afterwards. This House came together to make clear our view that it was a betrayal of victims and their families.
Since the panel’s report, I welcome the overturning of the original coroner’s verdict, at the instigation of the Attorney-General, and the plans to reopen the inquest next month. I welcome the Home Secretary’s agreement to our proposal for more powers for the IPCC and her decision to provide more resources for such a substantial investigation. I welcome the work by the Stoddart and IPCC inquiries and the substantial investigations that are under way. She is right to highlight the importance of support, including information and legal support for the families, but let me ask her some further questions about developments.
The Home Secretary will obviously know the importance of the inquest to everyone and the concern at how long everything takes. Can she assure the House, first, that the inquest will start on 31 March and that every effort is being made to ensure that all evidence and papers are in place, and that there are no further delays? Secondly, will she tell the House what more she is doing to ensure that every police force organisation and agency provides full disclosure to the Stoddart investigation and the IPCC, and does not simply wait to be asked for information? She will know the distress it has already caused to find that important and shocking information was never revealed to the independent panel—the pocket books she referred to—but also that far more police and witness statements were altered.
We have heard, for example, the disturbing testimony of one witness, who was a teenage student at the time. He told the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme that he was threatened with prosecution for complaining about failings by South Yorkshire police, saying:
“I’m a 19-year-old boy, three weeks out of Hillsborough, traumatised, and he’s threatening me that he’s going to put together a case for wasting police time because he didn’t like my evidence”.
I know that the Home Secretary would agree with me that it is a matter of deep concern that full information was not given to the panel at the time and would welcome the work done by the investigations to get more evidence since, but will she give a direction to all forces to provide all information related to the Hillsborough disaster to the two investigations?
The Home Secretary will also be aware of concern among the families about surveillance operations against families in the aftermath of the tragedy. I understand that the IPCC is not currently investigating those claims or concerns. Will the Home Secretary commit today to ordering the release of any material on surveillance, including intercept surveillance, of Hillsborough families in the aftermath of the disaster to the IPCC?
Thirdly, will she update us on the progress that has been made on the wider investigations that go beyond the inquest and on decisions on prosecutions? Clearly, the main focus of the investigations has been preparing information for the inquest, but what progress has been made in investigating criminal wrongdoing? According to what timetable does she believe files will be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service from the IPCC and the Stoddart investigation?
Finally, will the Home Secretary reassure us that the IPCC will have the resources it needs and that she will ensure that the inquiries work effectively alongside each other? She will know that concerns have previously been raised about co-ordination between the inquiries. Will she keep that under review to ensure that the investigations are fully co-ordinated?
The last quarter century has been immensely difficult for the families of the 96, and they know that the coming months will be very hard, too. The House should pay tribute to them and to their faith and determination over a quarter of a century, as well as to those who have stood by them, particularly the people of Liverpool. We should strain every sinew to ensure that they get justice now.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments and echo her point about how difficult it will be for the families when the inquest starts to have to relive the tragedy yet again. None of us can fully appreciate how difficult and traumatic that will be for the families and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.
As for the date of the inquest, as I said in my statement, Lord Justice Goldring has said that the fresh inquest will start on 31 March. That is obviously a matter for him and not for me as Home Secretary, but I am sure from the way he has conducted matters so far that he will recognise the significance of the inquest over which he will preside and the importance of ensuring that it goes ahead according to an appropriate timetable.
The right hon. Lady asked about disclosure, what information is available to the two investigations and what information was not made available to the panel. The panel saw some 450,000 documents from more than 80 organisations, so it did an extremely good job and, having seen all that evidence, it was able to come up with its shocking results about what had happened at Hillsborough. However, everybody has been perhaps not surprised but disappointed that further documents have emerged as a result of the two investigations, particularly the police pocket notebooks and other such documents. I have written to both Dame Anne Owers, as chairman of the IPCC, and Jon Stoddart—they are in charge of the investigations and it is up to them to amass the information they need—to ask whether they were having any problems getting material and whether it would be helpful for me to write to the chief constables of all police forces to ask them to look for any material that they might have.
The right hon. Lady asked about possible undercover operations and although no formal complaint or allegation has been made to the IPCC, it is aware of the concerns and is considering how best to address them. It is reviewing the material on Hillsborough so if it discovers any evidence in its investigation that suggests that surveillance such as that which has been suggested took place it will pursue that evidence.
I recognise, particularly given what has happened over the past 25 years, that everybody is keen to ensure that there should be no sense that the timetable is not be followed appropriately. I discussed the matter with Operation Resolve and the IPCC when I was in Warrington. They are keen to ensure that at every stage they do everything properly so that there can be no opportunity to challenge their results. We would all agree that that is appropriate, but it takes time to do that. I can assure the right hon. Lady that I am making resources available to the IPCC and we talk to it and Operation Resolve regularly about what is necessary.
I was pleased to see—I am going to use the term appropriate again—the appropriate level of co-ordination between the two investigations. They are considering separate issues, although of course the IPCC is managing part of the Operation Resolve investigation, and they are working together in a manner that is fit and proper, ensuring that everything that is being done is being done in a way that will ensure that people have confidence in the results when they come out, whether they result in criminal charges or other findings.
There is indeed a level of co-operation from retired police officers. Not everybody whom the IPCC has wished to interview has been willing to come forward for interview, but we are talking about people who are being interviewed as witnesses. The fact that an officer is retired would have no relevance if somebody were to be found to be suspected of criminal activity. The investigation would of course proceed as appropriate.
As for the families and their access to information, there are two ways in which families can ask questions. First, they can go to Warrington and meet members of the investigation teams and talk to them. When I was in Warrington, I was taken through the sort of information that the investigators could provide to the family of a particular individual. Families rightly have questions. One benefit for those involved in the investigations when families go in to talk to them is that they can identify any questions that the families might ask that might not be the first to come to mind for the investigators. The forums are also important, as they provide families with the opportunity to raise questions face to face. As I have said, they are ably chaired and managed by Bishop James Jones.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and express my continued admiration for how she is leading this process. People might think of the families’ battle as being won, but in truth only now are they entering the most difficult period of all. Parents such as my constituent, Delia Brown, are only now finding out basic details about what happened to their sons and daughters between 3.15 and 4 o’clock. With that in mind, does the Home Secretary share my disgust and disbelief that South Yorkshire police have today, using public money, rerun slurs about alcohol that were dismissed by Lord Justice Taylor in 1989 and by the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012?
The right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the families are well made. This is a very difficult time and, as he says, it is only now that some families are in any sense able to fill in the picture of what happened to their loved ones. I am concerned by his reference to South Yorkshire police and would be grateful if he and I could have a further discussion about that matter. I am certainly prepared to look into it.
I join the tributes to the Opposition MPs who have led the persistent campaigns for the families. Sadly, in the 1980s I was involved in two sets of crushings. The first was at an archbishop’s funeral, when 14 people died around me. The other was at the Heysel stadium, where, within 200 feet of me, 39 people died. As well as finding out what went wrong at Hillsborough and after Hillsborough, which I hope the inquest will achieve, we ought to pay tribute to the Police Federation for being the first to call for the safety of grounds from the 1930s through to the 1970s. May I say to my right hon. Friend that perimeter safety and crowd safety could be another tribute to those who sadly lost their lives?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We should all be constantly aware of the need to ensure safety at stadiums when large numbers of people are at football matches and other events. It is extremely important that we learn the lessons from the tragedies from the past to ensure the safety of those who attend such events in the future.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for agreeing to update the House today. In her statement, she said that in 2012 the Prime Minister apologised for a double injustice, yet now we learn that Hillsborough may have been a treble injustice. Ever since the disaster, the families of the 96 have expressed concerns that their phones may have been hacked and electronic communications monitored. First, families lost loved ones, then they were criminalised, and now it seems that they may even have been shadowed by terrorists. I have one simple question, so that the right hon. Lady can put the families’ minds at rest. Will she confirm unequivocally that at no stage since the disaster were the families subjected to surveillance by the police or security services of this country?
I fully appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the families’ concerns, but he will recognise, as I am sure his right hon. and hon. Friends will too, that we do not identify those who may or may not have been subject to interception in any form. I know that this is difficult and I know that some would prefer a somewhat different answer, but it has always been the case that the police do not confirm or deny whether an individual has been subject to interception. There are two avenues that I would refer to in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question. The first is that, as I said in response to the shadow Home Secretary, the IPCC is aware of these concerns and is considering how best to address them. If it does find any evidence during its investigation that suggests that surveillance has taken place, it will pursue it. It is also available to those who feel that they have been subject to unlawful interception by the authorities, to refer that to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which provides an independent forum for investigating complaints.
As a special constable, I can vouch for the fact that most police officers are hard-working and honest, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that if there is evidence of any wrongdoing by any individual police officers, they will face the full force of the law?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the purpose of the work that is being undertaken is to ensure that we can provide justice for the families. Jon Stoddart has made it absolutely clear that at whatever level they find that errors have been made, be they in relation to health and safety or criminal activity, appropriate action will be taken. If it is criminal activity, people will be charged and prosecutions will be brought.
The tenacity of the bereaved families has led to the exposure of organised deceit following the Hillsborough disaster and to where we are today with a new inquest and a major inquiry. How will the Home Secretary ensure that she maintains the trust of those bereaved families, and will she denounce the outrageous slur that Bishop Jones’ independent panel might have had its own agenda?
I am very happy to reject completely the suggestion that Bishop James Jones’ panel had its own agenda. It did an extremely good job. It identified a significant number of documents, and some are still coming forward. It did the first important task, which was to reveal to all of us the validity of the comments and claims made by the families over the years, who had not been believed and had not been listened to. The panel showed that the families were right and that errors and potential criminal activity needed to be investigated. The work of the independent panel was crucial. It was essential in enabling what is now happening in terms of trying to ensure that we get justice for the families. Had it not been for the independent panel’s inquiry and the results that it had, we would not be in the position that we are in today with two investigations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the update to the House today. Many people will be surprised to learn about the number of police notebooks that have suddenly become available. I am sure that the Police (Complaints and Conduct) Act 2012 has facilitated some of the investigation, but does she agree that there is a moral imperative for the Police Federation to ensure that all serving and former police officers co-operate fully with the investigation?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Most people will be surprised to know that police officers retain their police notebooks in the first place, and secondly that in this instance they kept them and did not reveal them to the panel. It is good that around 2,500 notebooks have now been made available to the investigators. I encourage anybody who has any information relating to Hillsborough—any documents, any files, anything—to come forward with that. I also support my hon. Friend’s suggestion that the Police Federation encourages all police officers and former police officers, who may have information relevant to these investigations, to make that information available.
I think that I speak on behalf of all my colleagues from Sheffield and the people of Sheffield when I commend the Home Secretary for both her statement and its delivery, and the work that she has been doing. I endorse the tribute paid by the Home Secretary and the shadow Home Secretary to the families and the concern that they expressed for them as we approach the 25th anniversary.
Finding the information in the form of the handbooks that have just been discovered will have shocked all of us once again, as will the information that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) mentioned. Those of us who are concerned to ensure that successor bodies are both open and transparent, and to ensure that we get to the truth and hold to account those who were responsible 25 years ago, should co-operate in any way possible. I would be prepared to join my right hon. Friend and the Home Secretary in dealing with any allegations that are made about South Yorkshire police or any other local body that may at this point in time be acting inappropriately.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his offer. As he says, it is extremely important that all those who can encourage others to act appropriately, do so, and are willing to challenge those who are not acting appropriately.
If I may, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) asked another question, which I did not answer, about how I could maintain the trust of the families. I see the families from time to time, and as I have explained, Bishop James Jones is my adviser on the matter and he is seeing the families through the forums. I have made it clear both to Bishop Jones and to the families that if they have any concerns at all they should feel free to raise them directly with me and I will look into them.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for her update today and the work that she is doing on this issue. I pay tribute to the strength of the families who have been pursuing justice through this dreadful almost 25 years. Will the Home Secretary clarify whether she believes that criminal prosecutions will take place and whether she believes that criminal prosecutions must take place to provide justice for those families?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern around this issue. It is not my place to say whether a criminal prosecution will take place. The investigation takes place and the Crown Prosecution Service will independently determine whether prosecutions are appropriate. What I can say is that all those involved in the investigation are absolutely clear that where they find criminal activity, they will do their best to ensure that that is pursued, because everybody wants justice for the families.
I also welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and thank her for updating the House in the way that she has. May I take her back to the questions of the hon. Members for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)? The right hon. Lady is right that we should encourage people to co-operate, but I understand that 13 police officers have refused to be interviewed by the IPCC and two have declined to respond to its letters. She may have better figures. We do not just need encouragement; we need compulsion. They need to be made to co-operate so that we get to the truth.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: for the purposes of the IPCC investigation, 13 of the 242 officers whose statements have been amended have declined to be interviewed. Those who are being regarded as witnesses are not required to be interviewed at this stage, and there are those who have said that they do not believe that they have anything to add to the information that has been available in the past. I would therefore suggest a degree of caution in respect of how those who are not taking up the request for an interview are portrayed. As I have said, if the IPCC identifies someone who is potentially suspected of a criminal offence, that will not be an impediment, and the IPCC will act accordingly.
I was on the Lepping lane terraces at the FA cup semi-final of 1981. Around me, several spectators were crushed, and had to be treated by the medics. That was eight years before the Hillsborough tragedy. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what lessons were learnt from previous FA cup semi-finals at Hillsborough, and will she arrange for that information to be published so that we can see what planning took place before the tragedy?
One of the things that emerged from the independent panel’s inquiry was that, sadly, there were apparently indications of problems relating to the ground, but not all the necessary lessons had been learnt from previous experience. That is why it is so important—as one of my hon. Friends said earlier—that in the event of an incident of any scale, but particularly an incident of the scale of the Hillsborough tragedy, lessons are learnt and people look at what went wrong. Part of the current process involves consideration of whether there was any neglect in relation to the ground and the operations that took place there. Sadly, as I have said, it appears that there were indications of problems, but lessons were not learnt before this particular football game.
Let me first record my appreciation of the work that the Home Secretary has been doing, and also my admiration for the families’ continuing and amazing drive to seek justice.
I understand that up to nine police forces are currently being contacted, but I want to concentrate on the Cheshire force and its former chief constable, Mervyn Jones. In a letter that I received from the IPCC, I was told:
“Records were found that indicated that 22 boxes of documents were recovered by South Yorkshire police on the 22nd of January 1998. These records indicated they were copy documents taken by Mervyn Jones.”
The documents had been kept in the armoury of Cheshire constabulary.
As the Home Secretary is aware, a number of those documents were policy files, and were rather important, because Mervyn Jones led the west midlands inquiry. He took them away with him after leaving the force. I found out today that they contain references to files that have since been deleted from the HOLMES computer system, which stores information about major incidents. May I ask the Home Secretary what lessons can be learnt from that? How can it can be ensured that in the event of any future major incident—or, God forbid, any future disaster—it will not be possible for a chief constable, or an assistant chief constable, to take files away rather than storing them at a central point?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important point. As he presumably knows—because it has been in touch with him about this particular individual—the IPCC is aware of the issue, has identified Mervyn Jones as a person who is of interest to it, and is planning to interview him.
This issue has raised questions in my mind about the ability of police officers to retain documents that have been relevant to them in a particular role, and to take those documents away with them as if they were personal possessions. That has been highlighted not just in relation to the question of the pocket notebooks, but, on a slightly larger scale, in relation to the case of one person, Mervyn Jones, and I think that we need to look into it further.
About 2,500 police notebooks have now been supplied to those conducting the investigations. I would encourage any officer out there who may have a notebook that is relevant and who has still not provided it to do so, because I think it important for all the notebooks to be made available.
I pay tribute to the courage and bravery shown by all those affected by the Hillsborough disaster over the past 25 years, and especially in recent months.
May I ask the Home Secretary again about the police pocket notebooks? She has said that about 2,500 of them were not made available to those conducting earlier investigations. Does she know, or has she asked, why they were not made available?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement, and for her work on this most sensitive and troubling of issues. I also pay tribute to the Hillsborough families for their steadfast campaigning. They are about to enter a very difficult phase in the process.
I make no apology for returning to the issue—the shocking issue—of the disclosure of 2,500 police notebooks. May I ask two questions? First, the IPCC now has those notebooks, but will those involved in Operation Resolve have copies of them? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a thorough review of the storage of police notebooks, given that the issue has implications for all historical investigations, criminal and civil?
I thank my hon. Friend for reiterating the point of concern about the police pocket notebooks. Although the two investigations are concerned with slightly different aspects of the Hillsborough tragedy, it has been made clear that information that is relevant to both should be available to both.
As for my hon. Friend’s wider question, as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), it is important for us to look at the issue of documents that are acquired by police officers in relation to investigations or to incidents that they attend and are required in the course of their duty, but which, in the cases that we are discussing, were treated as if they were personal possessions that officers could take home and deal with as they wished. That is an issue to which I shall want to return.
I, too, thank the Home Secretary both for her statement and for the way in which she continues to handle this most important issue. Does she agree that one of the truly alarming things that we have discovered in the recent past is the extent to which there was what could almost be described as an organised stereotyping distortion of what had taken place, and the extent of the prejudice against those who attended the game at Hillsborough—both those who lost their lives and those who survived? Does she agree that one legacy that we should really want is the knowledge that, in any future situations of this kind, such prejudices will be continually challenged and rooted out? The only guarantee that we can have that something like this will not happen again is a guarantee that those attitudes will be utterly condemned, and will become a thing of the past.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a very important point. As I said earlier, when the Prime Minister made his own statement in 2012, he said that the second injustice that had taken place was the treatment that the families had received at the hands of the press. However, the injustice was wider than that: it did not just involve the press.
The press set out their particular portrait of what had happened, and of the families involved, but a collective view was then taken by society as a whole. With very few—but notable and honourable—exceptions, people had that collective belief, and felt that it was not necessary to take the matter further. Like others, I pay tribute not just to the families who continued the fight, but to the Members of Parliament and others who consistently challenged that view and said that it was not right to let the issue lie. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: while I hope that we never see an incident of this sort again, it is important for those who try to set a public perception on such issues to be challenged.
On the question of the police notebooks, will the Home Secretary find out—it will be difficult, but not impossible in this computer age—how many police notebooks relating to the Hillsborough inquiry were used by the same police officers who in the 1984 miners strike compiled notebooks and statements all saying the same thing in the first few sentences?
May I add my praise for the families, whose tenacity and courage are an example to us all? I know from speaking to many of my constituents how difficult this is for them. What plans does the Home Secretary have to offer counselling and additional support to the friends and families of the victims, who are going to relive the trauma of 1989 during the impending inquests?
The hon. Lady makes an important point; this is going to be a very difficult time for the families. Additional consultation space will be provided for them so that they can have meetings with their legal teams, and every effort is being made to ensure that, in every practical sense, attendance at the inquests is made as easy as possible for them. We recognise that support of the kind she describes needs to be provided to those involved, and the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice and the coroner are working together to ensure that that is made available.
I should like to echo other Members in thanking the Home Secretary for her statement and for paying tribute to the families, campaigners and Members of the House for their work on this matter over the past 25 years. May I take the Home Secretary back to the issue of Lord Justice Goldring’s deadline of 31 March for fresh inquests? Understandably, she has said that that is a matter for him, but does she understand that it is important for the families that everything that can possibly be done is being done to ensure that that deadline is met?
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. I know that the investigatory teams are aware of the importance of meeting Lord Justice Goldring’s timetable in relation to the support they are giving him as coroner. Indeed, up to now they have met all his deadlines. They are clear that, in order for him to do his job, any requests put to them should be dealt with in the timetable that he has set.
The Home Secretary has made a welcome commitment to look again at the issue of the police withholding evidence. Does she not agree, however, that the fact that the notebooks, and other alarming acts, have only just been uncovered, despite all the previous investigations over many years, shows that the current system of police accountability and scrutiny is not fit for purpose, despite having been strengthened? She must know that she would get support from right across the House if she were to announce a radical overhaul of the system.
I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about this matter, but the Government have already acted in a number of ways in relation to this question. We have enhanced the powers of the IPCC to deal with these issues, and we will be giving it more resources to enable it to investigate all serious and sensitive complaints against the police itself, rather than passing them back to police forces. That is an important change. Also, I have already announced to the House a number of steps that are being taken in relation to the wider question of police integrity. The findings of the Hillsborough panel have raised a very real question in people’s minds about police integrity, and I welcome the steps by the College of Policing to introduce a code of ethics. A number of steps are being taken to improve that issue, so that people will feel that they can have full confidence in the police. The vast majority of police officers work day in, day out for our protection and to cut crime, and they work honestly and with integrity. However, when there are those who do not, it taints the picture that people have of the others. It is our duty to encourage and enhance people’s confidence in their police.
The Home Secretary has referred in previous answers to the police notebooks being kept by individual officers. Will she clarify whether all the 2,500 notebooks were recovered from individual officers, or whether some of them were collectively stored by the police and deliberately withheld from previous investigations?
A number of police forces, including South Yorkshire, have failed to provide evidence about Hillsborough. Does the Home Secretary think that that is due to a lack of resources or does she think that there is a worrying, ongoing reluctance to get to the truth?
It is extremely unfortunate that, at various stages, South Yorkshire police did not provide all the evidence, but I was pleased that they were willing to respond to and provide information to the independent panel. It is in everyone’s interests that we should be able to get to the full truth and to see justice done.
Perhaps the biggest risk to safety in football stadiums today is that posed by a panic mass evacuation, following a bomb scare, for example, or a terrorist incident. Will the Home Secretary confirm that there is no requirement on any stadium to have a test mass evacuation using real people, that no such tests have been carried out and that every football stadium in the country relies on computer simulations to determine whether its mass evacuation plans will actually work?
I am sure the Home Secretary will recall that when we debated these issues in the House some time ago, the overwhelming sentiment on both sides of the House was that there was a need for full transparency and disclosure, not just as a prerequisite for justice but as a first step towards resolution. In the light of that, may I return to the question of the 13 retired police officers who have refused to comply with the IPCC’s requests for interviews? Does she agree that, rather than it being a matter for those officers to decide, before any interviews take place, that they have nothing to add, the IPCC should be allowed to discover whether that is the case during the process of such interviews?
As I said in response to earlier questions, those who have refused to be interviewed so far have been regarded as witnesses, which means that there is no requirement for them to take part in an interview at this stage. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about who should be the judge of whether they have anything to add to the investigation, but as I have said, they are being regarded as witnesses and are therefore not required to be interviewed.
I hope that this question will not be regarded as trivial, but at a meeting I attended recently with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), it was suggested that the facilities for the families at the inquests—toilets, tea and coffee-making facilities, catering and comfortable seating, for example—were not quite as good as they should be. Will the Home Secretary check that they are in fact up to scratch, because it is essential that those families should be made to feel as welcome and as comfortable as possible at the inquests?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. As I said earlier, it is my understanding that every effort is being made to ensure that the facilities are appropriate for the families, and that it will be as easy as possible for them to attend. She will have noted that the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), is in his place. He will have heard her comments, and I am sure that he will take them away to the Ministry of Justice.
I am sure the Home Secretary is aware that the families have asked for one person to be put in charge of the entire investigation so that they can co-ordinate all the various investigations that are going on. Will she consider doing that?
I have had a number of discussions with representatives of the families about this matter and what the most appropriate structure is to have in place. I believe that we do have the right structure at the moment, because the two investigations are looking at different aspects of this tragedy. It is of course important that there is co-ordination between them, and as I said earlier, the IPCC is managing part of the Operation Resolve investigation. What I have seen from visiting Warrington is that both investigations are conscious of not only those areas where it is necessary for them to co-ordinate, but those areas where it is necessary for them to recognise the difference in their investigation.
I acknowledge the worthy statement of the Home Secretary on the double injustice, but why should the ethic of apology and accountability not extend to the third possible level of injustice—the hostile surveillance of victims’ families? What standing policy says that evidence in that regard can continue to be withheld? Surely that is what would tell us how far and how high this syndicate of deceit and vilification actually reached. Before the Home Secretary tells me, as she told my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), that families can go to the IPT, will she tell us what the IPT’s record is of upholding complaints or ever giving a reason?
I will disappoint the hon. Gentleman, in that I will not be giving a different answer to the one I gave earlier. As I indicated, the IPCC is aware of this issue and is considering how best to address it. If it finds evidence of surveillance that has taken place, it will deal with that as appropriate.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Home Secretary, in answer to my earlier question, said that it would not be the practice of the police to confirm whether or not surveillance had taken place. Chief Constable Mick Creedon did provide such information to the Select Committee on Home Affairs when allegations were raised about surveillance of the Lawrence family. May I therefore ask her, given the helpful way in which she has responded to all the comments on the statement today, to look further at the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram)?
If I may, Mr Speaker, I will provide clarification. I apologise if my language was loosely used earlier, as it should not have been. It is the accepted policy that we do not deny or confirm whether somebody has been subject to interception, which I understood was potentially part of the issue raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), but I have noted the concern that has been raised in this House and I will take that matter away.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You were very helpful at the start of this statement in explaining the need not to prejudice the investigation or the inquest next month, when the legal proceedings start properly. Could you expand on that and provide further information? My concern is that the information I am being given and that some of my colleagues are being given suggests that this situation can only get worse: people thought it was bad enough with the report, but it will only worsen as information comes out. We do not want to prejudice those legal proceedings, but at the same time there may be a need for parliamentary scrutiny of or debate on issues that appear in and come out of the investigations and proceedings. Would it be possible for you to issue some clearer guidance—it could be written if you think that is appropriate—on what MPs can and cannot raise in the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for his indication to me a few moments ago of his intention to raise it. The straightforward position is that once the inquest has formally opened, the matters of which it treats are then sub judice. In those circumstances, the Chair does have discretion to waive the sub judice rule, though it has to be said that no such judgment would be made lightly, for I have to be conscious of and respectful towards the resolution relating to sub judice that the House has itself passed. I am sorry if my reply today is not as informative as the hon. Gentleman would wish. However, I will keep abreast of events and I am well aware of the sensitive balance of considerations here as between the proper concern of Members with freedom of speech, on the one hand, and the crucial imperative of not prejudicing the conduct of the inquest, on the other. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and others will feel that I am very conscious of those balancing considerations and will attend to them keenly. If, at any stage, an hon. Member wishes to approach me for guidance as to the appropriateness or otherwise of what he or she might be minded to say, I would certainly always, guided by the Clerks, attempt to be helpful to Members.
Perhaps we can leave it there for today. It is always nice to be smiled at by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), who seems to be in a relatively cheery mood, whether with me, with the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) or with the House I do not know.
I am not sure how grateful I am to the hon. Gentleman for what he has just said, but I will take his advice. If there are no further points of order, we come now to the ten-minute rule motion, for which the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has been patiently waiting.
Housing Benefit and Universal Credit in the Social Housing Sector (Regular Payments)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish the right of persons in receipt of housing benefit and universal credit in the social housing sector to receive said benefits at regular intervals; to provide that such persons should not be financially penalised in relation to the number of bedrooms in a residence; and for connected purposes.
I would hope that my Bill would receive support from Members in all parties. It is an olive branch for those who, perhaps wrongly, underestimated the real consequences of walking through the Government Lobby to support the introduction of the bedroom tax. Perhaps I am being too generous in saying that, but the alternative—that those who supported the introduction of the bedroom tax knew fully of the dire consequences it would have on those affected—quite frankly beggars belief. Make no mistake about it, the full and sole intention of this Bill is to sweep away the dreaded bedroom tax. It seeks to restore justice for up to 660,000 people—some of our country’s most vulnerable citizens, two thirds of whom are disabled. They have been inhumanely let down by the Government's reforms to housing benefit in the social sector. The tax has caused heartache and devastation to thousands of residents up and down this country. It is a tax whose forced implementation has put extreme pressure on councils, housing associations and social landlords. It is a tax that has put extreme pressure on the ordinary working people who are forced to deal with those unable to move and those unable to pay.
On the introduction of the tax, Ministers argued that the changes would encourage people to downsize to smaller properties and, in doing so, help to cut the £23 billion annual bill for housing benefit; would free up living space for overcrowded families; and would encourage people to get jobs. Significantly, it has achieved none of those objectives. At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions has trumpeted the measure as, “returning fairness to housing benefit.” The words “fairness” and “bedroom tax” should not be uttered in the same sentence.
This tax is a problem in each and every constituency up and down the country; this is not simply a problem in Labour-dominated authorities. I was contacted only last week by a distraught resident from the Tory shires who is hoping that my Bill will be successful, because he, a disabled man, is living in a three-bedroom property and has just received an eviction notice for bedroom tax arrears. He is not alone. The bedroom tax sufferers in Liberal Democrat and Tory constituencies number around 250,000. Perhaps we should ask them whether they think this abominable tax has restored fairness to housing benefit.
My Bill seeks to restore fairness and to end the misery that the bedroom tax has caused. There are hundreds if not thousands of appalling examples of suffering. There was the mother of two who suffered a crippling illness. She committed suicide after realising that she could not pay the bedroom tax. Her family received correspondence later saying that she should have been exempt from paying the tax.
A widow, aged 59, pleaded with the Prime Minister not to force her to move. Her husband’s ashes had been buried in the garden under the rose bushes that she had been given by her friends at the funeral. She did not have a disability or health problems, but this was a family home for goodness’ sake, and that means something. A home is where people bring up their children and cry tears of joy. In this case, there were many tears of sadness when the husband unfortunately passed away.
This next case is hard to comprehend; it really is difficult to try to get to grips with. The family of the 1999 child of courage who spent years battling multiple cancers is suffering at the hands of this horrible reform. These people are not living a life of luxury in palatial properties; they are living in a place in which they feel safe and which they call home. It is time to listen. I am sure that most fair-minded individuals would agree that a bedroom is not spare when carers sleep in it, when couples use it because one of them has health problems and they cannot share a bed, or when it houses vital medical equipment, yet this indiscriminate tax deems it so.
The reality is that yet another measure introduced by this Government is in total and utter chaos. It lies in tatters, with the victims left to pick up the pieces. As thousands suffer, there is a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. The National Housing Federation has said that the savings claimed by the Government are “highly questionable”, partly because those who are forced to move to the private rented sector will end up costing more in housing benefit.
Surely, as politicians and members of the general public, we are entitled to question the motives behind the introduction of the bedroom tax. The tax does not deal with the problem of under-occupation. In fact, the Government’s costings on the yield raised from the bedroom tax explicitly assume that people will not move into smaller properties. There are simply not enough smaller properties for people to move into.
Some 180,000 households were deemed to be under-occupying two-bedroom homes, yet only 85,000 one-bedroom homes became available during the whole of 2012. The savings projections of the Department for Work and Pensions assume that not one of the 660,000 households affected would respond to the policy by moving to a smaller home. Put simply, this is yet another example of the Government balancing the books on the backs of the disabled and the vulnerable. The tax must be scrapped now.
Housing associations say that tens of millions of pounds are likely to be lost through the build-up of arrears. Reports this morning estimate that 144,000 people have fallen behind with their rents since the introduction of the bedroom tax and that 14% have received eviction notices. Was that really meant to happen? Was this eviction of the poor really the plan of the Government?
In October, research by the University of York, which was based on data by the housing associations that have tenants affected by the bedroom tax, suggested that the policy could save up to 39% less than the DWP had predicted. In the past week, it has emerged that more than half of the £500 million that the Government claim will be saved by the hated tax will be spent on re-housing disabled people. These are vulnerable people who already live in properties that have been adapted for their needs and who have built up local support networks with their friends, family and neighbours. The future for them lies in communities that are unknown and foreign to them. They have been cast out like the proverbial dog in the night.
In the past months, it has emerged that a loophole in policy exempts thousands of people. Instead of looking at that loophole—[Interruption.] It is suggested that that loophole has been closed. As Ministers scramble to mop up the mistakes, another challenge to the hated tax has arisen. A judge has overturned the tax in the case of a Rochdale man who argued that one of his bedrooms was used as a dining room. The appeal was upheld on the basis that the dictionary definition of a bedroom is a room that contains a bed that is used for sleeping in. An avalanche of appeals is on its way.
I am proud to see that, only last week, the Scottish Labour party shamed the Scottish National party into abolishing the bedroom tax. I must put it on the record that I am also proud that one of the first acts of a future Labour Government will be to end this full frontal attack on the vulnerable. However, we cannot afford to wait until the general election of 2015. I urge the supporters of this tax to think again. The question is this: are they happy to see the misery and social disruption of the vulnerable and disabled?
I began this speech by expressing the view that those who voted in favour of introducing this dreaded bedroom tax may have underestimated the human suffering that it would cause. That is no longer in any doubt, so I urge them all to do the honourable thing and support my Bill.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
That Ian Lavery, Grahame M. Morris, Ian Mearns, Katy Clark, Mrs Linda Riordan, Mark Durkan, Lucy Powell, Pat Glass, Pamela Nash, John Cryer, Ian Lucas and Chris Williamson present the Bill.
Ian Lavery accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 28 February, and to be printed (Bill 174).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not know whether you noticed, because you are blind in some of these matters—deliberately so—but the Tory Whips were standing outside the Chamber during the Division and persuading Conservative Members not to vote, so we on the Opposition side of the House hope that that means that they have changed their minds and will get rid of the bedroom tax as soon as possible. If they will not, we will.
My point of order relates to the bedroom tax. Mr Speaker, you will recall that earlier this year, when asked how many people had been affected by the loophole in the bedroom tax legislation, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, a Member of this House, said that the number was between 3,000 and 5,000. In a written answer, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), also a Member of this House, said that she did not know how many had been affected. Lord Freud, a Minister in another place, said that it was an insignificant number. Today, however, he told the Work and Pensions Committee of this House that the number was 5,000. We have been doing their work for them, and from freedom of information requests to local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland, we already know, from just the third that replied, of 16,000 cases. I know that there is a means whereby a Minister in this House can correct the record, but how can a Minister in the other House correct the record in this House?
As I understand it, at this stage the matter is essentially the property of the Committee. I readily accept that it is a Committee of this House, as the hon. Gentleman has just advised me. The matter is with the Committee. If the Minister has made a mistake—I make no comment on that, because I do not know—he will have the opportunity to correct it. If the Committee believes that he has made a mistake and wishes to pursue it with him, it is open to the Committee to do so. At this stage, therefore, there is nothing further to add. To the extent that I have already advised, it is a legitimate matter for the Chair because of the involvement of a Committee of this House. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to all colleagues.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, I can confirm that that was exactly what the Minister told us this morning, and we will be pursuing the matter further.