House of Commons
Wednesday 18 June 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—
May I start by offering the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is unable to attend questions today as he is overseas on departmental business?
The UK’s total funding for Syria and the region is now £600 million. To date, the Department for International Development has allocated just under £250 million to partners working in Syria, which has helped hundreds of thousands in dire need of assistance. A significant element of UK aid inside Syria is now being delivered by non-governmental organisations directly from neighbouring countries across Syria’s borders.
The Minister will recognise that the UK is making a significant contribution to the Syrian crisis, yet UN and other agencies estimate that there is still a shortfall of around $5 billion in required investment. What steps can she take to encourage partner agencies and other countries to step up to the plate and contribute as well?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We can be proud of the Government’s role; we are the second largest country donor providing assistance. He is right that we need to see more countries in the region and internationally stepping up to the plate and putting their hands in their pockets to help to provide assistance to those in the region who are in such dire need.
There is always consular assistance for those who have been injured overseas. I am not aware of any British nationals being injured, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that a number of humanitarian workers have been injured and—I think I am right in saying—more than 40 killed while delivering aid to people inside Syria.
I am grateful for the letter that the Secretary of State sent to me on the subject of Syria. She referred to the demands of the Security Council to grant rapid, safe and unhindered access to those in need inside Syria and to the continued use of siege and starvation tactics as a weapon of war. What exactly are we doing at the Security Council to try to resolve this impasse? I know her Department is doing various other things, but we really ought to be pushing the Security Council hard.
The right hon. Lady is right. I discussed this matter with Baroness Amos, who heads up the UN agency tackling humanitarian assistance. It has now presented its third report to the UN Security Council, outlining grave concerns about the Syrian regime’s defiance, in many respects, of the resolution on allowing humanitarian access. Our role is to continue to push and to look at ways we can remove some of the barriers that the regime is putting in place as excuses to stop aid getting through.
As the conflict in Syria spills over into Iraq, the Red Crescent estimates that up to 500,000 additional people may have been displaced from their homes. What are the Government doing to anticipate and resource the emerging humanitarian needs in the region?
The hon. Lady is quite right, and nearly 250,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border into Iraq, to which we were already providing some support. She may be aware that I have announced an initial £3 million of humanitarian support. In addition, I am proud that a DFID team was one of the first on the ground, having been sent out last Thursday to assess need and work directly with UN agencies setting up the camps that are now required.
The Syrian conflict is in its fourth year, and we have seen the re-emergence of polio, the use of chemical weapons and the slaughter of innocents, with entire cities under siege. With the world’s focus rightly on neighbouring Iraq, this is a conflict that still demands our attention. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of proposals from the normally recalcitrant Russians to open four border crossings to help the vast numbers of people in need of humanitarian aid?
We have to ensure that the Syrian crisis does not become a forgotten crisis and that the refugees and those affected in Syria are not forgotten in the midst of the crisis now emerging in Iraq. In response to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I alluded to independent monitors checking aid in cross-border areas, which is one of the issues on which we are looking to work with the Russians. One of the issues raised by the Syrian Government is that they do not always believe that cross-border aid is inappropriate—in fact, they do not agree with it. We have to push for cross-border aid, because there is no other way of getting to the people in need inside Syria.
Some people who fled the Syrian conflict into Iraq are, heartbreakingly, now fleeing the Iraq crisis back into Syria. Some 200,000 Syrians have fled into Kurdish Iraq and now 300,000 internally displaced persons have fled the ISIS advance into Iraqi Kurdistan, so what assessment has the Secretary of State and her Department made of the additional humanitarian support now required by the Kurdish authorities to deal with this double crisis that they now face?
Around 95% of the Syrian refugees who had fled into Iraq are themselves Kurdish in origin. In total over recent weeks, around 1 million people have been displaced within Iraq itself. As I set out earlier, a three-person team went out last Thursday: two of them are working directly with the Government of Kurdistan to discover what we can do to help that regional Government to respond; the other is working with the UN to help set up the camps. As with the refugees from the crisis in Syria, most displaced people are staying in host communities rather than in camps, which are very limited in the facilities they can provide.
Post-2015 Development Framework
The UK objective for post-2015 is to agree a simple, inspiring, measurable set of goals centred on eradicating extreme poverty that should finish the job that the millennium development goals started. The goal should be outcome focused, measuring reductions in preventable death and disease and giving women and girls sexual and reproductive health rights
Despite progress on reducing maternal mortality and promoting universal access to reproductive health, this remains the slowest of the millennium development goals. Will the Secretary of State explain why DFID supported fewer women to give birth with the support of nurse, midwife or doctor in 2012-13 than it did in 2011-12?
Overall, I think we can be proud of the fact that we are the first Government to live up to the commitment to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on international development, and that includes doing more work on health. We are, for example, increasing our spend on key health areas such as malaria, pledging up to £1 billion of support to the global health fund. I can assure the hon. Lady that tackling maternal mortality remains a core part of my Department’s work and that we are pressing for a comprehensive health goal and target as part of the post-2015 framework.
The Secretary of State will be aware that HIV/AIDS remains one of the world’s greatest public health challenges. While over 10 million people from low to middle-income countries are receiving antiretroviral treatment, about another 20 million are not. What is the right hon. Lady doing about this issue, and how will it be taken up in the millennium development goals process?
I can very clear that we want to see an HIV, TB and malaria goal as being part of the health goal; we want to see specific targets on tackling those diseases. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the incidence of HIV has grown, largely because people are now able to survive it. We must work harder to ensure that we reduce incidence and do more on prevention.
How does the Secretary of State intend to achieve these health goals when a third of the health care delivery projects that started on her Government’s watch are falling short? Schemes in Montserrat, Uganda, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Somalia—schemes totalling nearly £0.5 billion—are failing. What does she intend to do to transform those projects and prove that universal coverage is not only desirable but achievable?
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is setting out just a small number of the many health programmes that the Department has under way. One of the key things I have done over the past year has been to strengthen our programme management and increase the focus on getting results for the Department. I can assure him that there is a heavy focus on achieving all the goals that we set ourselves. We set out the results very clearly when we came into government, because we felt that there was not a clear enough focus on impact under the last Government.
3. What work her Department is undertaking in support of governance, the rule of law and building stable economic institutions. (904295)
My Department supports governance and the rule of law by supporting democratic governance, tackling corruption, increasing tax revenues, improving security and justice for all and strengthening civil society. My Department helps to build stable economic institutions by reducing barriers to doing business and supporting property rights.
We are doing a significant amount of work in Commonwealth countries and indeed through the Commonwealth. In recent weeks, of course, we have seen some challenges to stability in northern Nigeria, and most of our work in the country is focused on the north. We are one of the few donors delivering education—in the long term, of course, one of the best ways of achieving stability.
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, we have provided various forms of support in recent years. Some of it has, of course, been humanitarian, but we are also providing political and technical advice. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State spends a great deal of time in Yemen and the surrounding region personally ensuring that our relationship is not only strong but productive. We hope that, with a new Government in place, Yemen can achieve the reforms that it needs to achieve to stabilise its economy, and, in doing so, can embark on a better development track for the future.
We have an incredibly difficult job to do in Sudan. Again, much of our work has been focused on humanitarian support. We have tried to strengthen institutions as well, but I think we all recognise that, given the political situation, we face a real challenge and a long-term job. Ultimately, political leadership will be needed in South Sudan itself.
DFID provides support and assistance on the ground in Colombia, where state forces continue to ride roughshod over human rights and extra-judicial killings of civil activists are taking place. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Colombian Government about human rights abuses, and will she specifically raise our concerns about Martha Diaz and David Flórez?
DFID has no plans to establish a bilateral aid programme with Cuba. We provide assistance through our share of contributions to multilateral agencies, and the British embassy provides some funding to promote economic development.
Look, I understand why we do not wish to aid Cuba generally—it still has many political prisoners, for instance—but the Minister knows as well as I do that it has a good national health service for its citizens, which, because of a lack of foreign exchange, is unable to buy modern drugs. Surely we can target aid in that area without actually assisting the Cuban Government.
I am afraid that we cannot do as my hon. Friend wishes. We carried out bilateral and multilateral aid reviews to help us to determine where our aid was best focused, and the results did not include Cuba, so we have no plans to give it any bilateral aid.
The United Kingdom has been encouraging commitment to democracy and rule of law in Thailand following the coup. The Government are liaising closely with EU partners and others on a united response. DFID does not have a programme in Thailand, because it is an upper middle-income country.
The Oxford development economist Paul Collier has charted the way in which aid can, in fact, increase the risk of a military coup. What action is DFID taking, bilaterally or through multilateral engagement with Thailand, to send the unequivocal message that democratic governance must be restored?
As I have said, DFID does not have a bilateral aid programme in Thailand, but the UK is working closely with EU and others in the international community, including our ambassador in Thailand, to secure commitment to the values of democracy and the rule of law in the interests of Thailand’s peace and stability.
As the Minister will know, much concern has been expressed about arbitrary detentions and restrictions on the media and the right to protest in Thailand. While I appreciate that DFID does not fund Thailand directly and has no aid programme in the country, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), said on 25 May that owing to the current political situation there, the Government would have to review the scope of their co-operation with it. Was DFID involved in those discussions?
The hon. Member is absolutely right. We are particularly concerned by the restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and expression, and by the large number of arbitrary detentions. However, this is an FCO lead, so we do not make those particular representations.
The Minister has indicated that we do not have an aid programme with Thailand, but are the Government reviewing aid programmes in the general region, as they may be affected by the coup in Thailand and people moving from Thailand across the border?
We obviously keep a watching brief on the region, and in fact at the moment it is the other way round, because some funding from our Burmese programme is supporting the Burmese refugee camps in Thailand. At the moment, from what we can see the coup does not seem to be having any impact outside the country.
Female Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation is violence against women and girls. The UK has made the largest donor commitment ever to help end FGM, with a flagship programme of £35 million in at least 17 countries. The Prime Minister will host a summit in July that will step up global efforts to end both FGM and child, early and forced marriage within a generation.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and her efforts on this. Does she agree with many of the people who have given evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs saying that we should ensure all children in the UK are taught about FGM and the fact that it is not allowed, and that we should not allow parents to take their children out of such classes, because children whose parents would not want them to know are exactly the children we need to target?
I thank my hon. Friend. He raises a critical issue. When I went to Burkina Faso, one of the leading countries in Africa in tackling and reducing FGM, I visited a school to watch an FGM lesson. It is part of the curriculum there, and I do believe that this needs to be a required part of the curriculum here in high-prevalence areas. In a recent speech on development, the Deputy Prime Minister made a commitment both to this and to giving support to the front-line professionals, because we know from the helpline of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that professionals need support and training.
Does my hon. Friend agree that female genital mutilation is part of a much wider issue of cultures where gender equality is not recognised, and will she take every opportunity possible when contacting countries where this applies to further the cause of gender equality?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I can assure her that I do take every opportunity to raise the issue, because these social norms, which oppress and suppress women and have been going for 4,000 years, are really because of women’s low status in the world in terms of rights and of voice, choice and control over their own lives.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for International Development visited Nepal in February, where he met with Mr Sushil Koirala, now the Nepalese Prime Minister, and assured him of the UK’s ongoing commitment to development. We will continue to support the new Government to improve the lives of the poorest people in Nepal.
It is clear that a new constitution is an essential step in ensuring political stability. The UK provided support to Nepal’s elections last year, and we stand ready to provide continued support to the constitution-drafting process. We are also encouraging the Nepalese Government and political parties to hold local elections, and that sits alongside the work we are doing on livelihoods and education and basic service provision.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. (904283)
I would like to take this opportunity to update the House on my Department’s response to the situation in Iraq. DFID rapidly deployed a team of humanitarian assessors to Erbil in Iraq last Thursday. On Saturday, I announced a £3 million package of UK relief comprising £2 million via the rapid response facility mechanism to help tens of thousands of Iraqi women, men and children get clean water, medicine and sanitation and £1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide mobile protection teams to support vulnerable women and girls.
I can assure my hon. and learned Friend that the Department for International Development is closely monitoring the situation. He has raised this question with me in the past. We are finalising funding to the World Health Organisation to respond to the national Ebola emergency response proposal through training, the use of surveillance tools, the purchase of infection control equipment and the provision of global expertise. We are also working with non-governmental organisation partners to make sure that people are well aware of the outbreak that is taking place in the region. [Interruption.]
T3. The Newport NATO summit is likely to be an event of great political significance. What work is the Secretary of State doing in her Department to ensure that the important issues of international development are prominent on the agenda? (904285)
The hon. Gentleman has raised a pertinent question. Over recent years, we have really understood just how stability in countries is critical for development to take place. If we look at the millennium development goals, we can see that none has been achieved by countries in conflict. It is why we increasingly work with not only the Foreign Office but the Ministry of Defence in helping to have programmes that can give us the best prospect of stability.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s passion for ensuring that our development work in Afghanistan is effective. He will be aware that we have done a significant amount of work in relation to livelihoods and economic development both in Kabul and, critically, out in Helmand. I am happy to write to him with further details on that.
T4. I warmly welcome the allocation of £3 million by the rapid response facility to help those who are fleeing persecution in Iraq. Will that money be used to help those who are not only fleeing within the country but crossing national frontiers? (904286)
T6. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State update us on the welcome announcement that the green investment bank will now work with the International Climate Fund to bring expertise to developing countries, which will be an important target for export markets for UK plc? (904288)
I hope that we can all agree that the green investment bank, which was established by this Government, has been an excellent way of not only tackling our own domestic issues around climate change but, increasingly, looking at how we can use that institution to further our development aims in that regard too.
This is an important scheme that enables us not just to provide support to people in the region—the overwhelming majority of them are still there—but to be one of those countries that provides a haven for people who need to be removed from the region and supported here in the UK. I am proud that we have that programme in place. We expect several hundred to benefit from it, and I can assure the hon. Lady that it is up and running.
We will continue to provide support to the Palestinian people. The UK has welcomed the formation of the new interim technocratic Government. We have also made it clear that our continued support for that new Government will rest on their commitment to the principles of non-violence and their acceptance of all previous agreements and obligations, including Israel’s legitimate right to exist.
T9. Because of the Government’s inconsistent policies, Britain’s relationships with Rwanda are fraying. What is being done to rebuild those relationships, particularly given the problems in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo? (904291)
I returned from Rwanda just over a week ago and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that relations are good. Rwanda is an exemplar in terms of development, but I had to raise the issue of political space and other human rights issues.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I spoke yesterday to my constituent, Delyth Thompson, who, like the constituents of many colleagues across the House, was anxious because her son’s passport had not arrived on time. Given the dreadful level of service she described to me, she was quite shocked to find that the Passport Office returned a surplus of £73 million. What does it say about the values of the right hon. Gentleman’s Government that the Chancellor is actually making a profit out of our constituents’ misery?
What I would say to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, and any other constituent of any MP in this House—because this is an important issue; it is a difficult issue and we must get it right—is that anyone who needs to travel within the next week and who has waited more than three weeks through no fault of their own, will be fast-tracked for no extra cost so that they can get their passport in time. I do not want anyone to miss their holiday because of these difficulties. We have seen a 15% increase over the last week in the number of passports being processed, but we need to go faster and we need to hire more people. The Home Secretary will be updating the House on that this afternoon.
Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing sentiment that, as the publication of the Chilcot report has been so long delayed, the ancient but still existing power of Back Benchers to commence the procedure of impeachment should now be activated to bring Mr Tony Blair to account for allegedly misleading the House on the necessity of the invasion of Iraq in 2003?
I would say to my right hon. Friend and Father of the House that it is important that we see the results of the Iraq inquiry. It has had access to all of the papers, all of the officials and all of the Ministers. Frankly, if the Iraq inquiry had started when the Conservative party and indeed the Liberal Democrats suggested it, the report would have been published by now. But Opposition Members, including, incidentally, the Leader of the Opposition, voted against starting the Iraq inquiry on no fewer than four occasions.
All of us will have been appalled by the images of the brutal aggression of ISIS that has spread across Iraq, terrorising its citizens and undermining its fragile democracy. Iraq is today facing fundamental threats to its integrity, security and stability. Will the Prime Minister provide the House with his latest assessment of the situation in Iraq? Following the welcome appearance yesterday of Prime Minister Maliki with Kurdish and Sunni representatives, calling for national unity, what more does he believe can be done to encourage a more inclusive and representative Government, which is essential for the future of Iraq?
The Leader of the Opposition is absolutely right that one of the crucial things that needs to happen is for the Iraqi Government to take a more inclusive approach towards Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd, as the important constituent parts of Iraq. I can tell the House that the latest reports indicate that fighting is continuing on a front from Samarra to Baqubah; that the Baiji oil refinery in Tikrit is under attack by ISIL; and that the Peshmerga are fighting ISIL in Diyala province. But meanwhile there is this large-scale recruitment not only of Shi’a militias but also of other young recruits to the Iraqi armed forces, and it is vital that that proceeds and that ISIL is pushed back by the Iraqis. The absolutely key thing to recognise here is that when there is this combination of poor governance, of ungoverned spaces and of support for extremism, that provides an opportunity for the terrorist, and we have to address this on each of those three fronts, supporting the Iraqi Government with the work that they need to do.
I agree with the Prime Minister. This crisis, though, is not affecting just Iraq, but has consequences for the whole world, including the UK. Can he tell us the extra measures that the Government are taking and contemplating, including through the Border Agency and the Home Office, to ensure that British nationals in the region cannot return here and engage in violent extremism or terrorism, and can he say what the Government are doing to prevent people in this country from becoming radicalised and travelling to the region in order to fight?
I believe this is the correct focus. As I said yesterday, our approach to this issue must be based on a hard-headed assessment of our national interest. Most important of all is how to keep our citizens safe here at home. The Leader of the Opposition asks specifically about the actions we are taking. We will be legislating in this Session of Parliament to make the planning of terrorist attacks overseas illegal here in the UK. We will be making sure that our security, intelligence and policing resources are focused particularly on that part of the world and the danger of British people travelling there, becoming radicalised and returning to the UK. We have already stopped a number of people travelling, we have taken away passports, including using the new powers that we legislated for in the previous Parliament, and we will continue to do everything we can to keep our country safe.
The Prime Minister will have our full support in doing so, and if there are further measures, we will look at those.
I want to talk about Iran and its role in this crisis. We support the announcement made yesterday by the Foreign Secretary of the plans to reopen the British embassy in Tehran and the dialogue started by the Foreign Secretary with his counterpart, but the challenge we face in Iraq is that although Iran opposes ISIS, the Iranian regime in the past has shown that it does not support a vision for an inclusive and democratic state in Iraq. So can the Prime Minister give the House his current assessment—and that of the Government—of the willingness and intent of the current Iranian regime to play a constructive rather than a divisive role in helping to resolve the Iraqi crisis?
I am grateful for the cross-party approach on this and will make two points. It is important to re-engage in dialogue with Iran, and that is why we are planning to reopen the embassy. It should be done on a step-by-step basis. As I said, it should be done with a very clear eye and a very hard head because we know of the appalling things that happened to our embassy back in 2011. To people who say there is some sort of inconsistency in having dialogue with Iran while at the same time recognising how much it has done to destabilise the region, I would say that we need to take a consistent approach with all the players in the region, which is to say that we support the voices of moderation and the voices that support democracy, inclusive government and pluralistic politics under the rule of law. We need the Iranian Government to play that role, as well as everybody else.
The broader context to this is, of course, the wider Sunni/Shi’ite schism across the region. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that it is not just Iran, but other significant countries across the region that have a huge responsibility not to take steps that will further fuel the sectarian conflict? That includes support for extremist groups, including ISIS. Will the Prime Minister make it clear in his conversations with all countries in the region that that will simply fuel the conflict?
Whatever we are looking to do, whether it is to support the voices of moderation and democracy in Syria, whether it is to try to help the Iraqi Government close down the ungoverned space in Iraq, or whether it is in the conversations that we have with other regional players, it is very important that we are consistent in that engagement and that we oppose extremism, terrorism and violence. Let me reassure the House that when it comes to the support that we have given to rebels in Syria, we do that through the official Syrian opposition, who are committed to those things and not to extremism, violence and terrorism. Our engagement with the Saudi Arabians, the Qataris, Emiratis and others is all on the basis that none of us should be supporting those violent terrorists or extremists.
I want to ask about the humanitarian situation in the region and the consequences of what is happening in Iraq. We have British allies in the region, such as Jordan, that are already dealing with a huge refugee crisis, and events in Iraq threaten to make that worse. Britain is doing a good job of providing welcome humanitarian support for those in the refugee camps, but there are more refugees outside the camps than inside the camps. What further practical measures does the Prime Minister believe we can take to support countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that are affected by this crisis?
Let me update the House. When it comes to the Syrian refugee situation, we remain the second largest bilateral aid donor anywhere in the world, which is something I think Britain can be proud of. We are providing shelter, food, clothing and support for the millions of people who have been made homeless by the conflict. When it comes to supporting neighbouring countries, we have given some direct help to Jordan, because the increase in the population of Jordan, and indeed of Lebanon, is equivalent—thinking about it in our own terms—to almost 15 million coming to the UK. In terms of the humanitarian situation emerging in Iraq as a result of ISIL’s murderous regime, we have already announced £3 million of humanitarian aid for people who have been displaced in the region, and I can announce today that we will be increasing that to £5 million. Yet again, Britain will be playing its role for those who, through no fault of their own, have been displaced by conflict and face a very difficult situation.
I welcome that and hope that the Prime Minister will continue to look at what more can be done for those outside the camps and to support the infrastructure in countries such as Jordan.
Finally, everything we are seeing across the region begs a fundamental question about whether it can develop a politics where people live alongside each other as citizens, rather than dividing along sectarian, ethnic or religious lines. Does he agree with me that while we can and should provide assistance to make that happen, in the end it is the political will of those in the region that will determine whether that happens?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be a mistake to believe that the only answer to these problems is the hard attack of direct intervention, which we know can create problems in itself, but I also disagree with those people who think that this has nothing to do with us and that if they want to have some sort of extreme Islamist regime in the middle of Iraq that will not affect us, because it will. The people in that regime, as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom, so the right answer is to be long-term, hard-headed, patient and intelligent in the interventions we make. The most important intervention of all is to ensure that those Governments are fully representative of the people who live in their countries, that they close down the ungoverned space and that they remove the support for the extremists. We must do that not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, because these problems will come back and hit us at home if we do not.
Q2. This week construction begins on Watford’s new university technical college, which is sponsored by the Meller Education Trust. In it, students will receive a first-class academic education, but also real preparation for real jobs in the real world. Will the Prime Minister encourage young people in Watford to explore the opportunities that this wonderful new school will offer? (904309)
I know that we are doing all we can to help get the Watford university technical college ready to open its doors in September so that students can start to benefit. Having visited university technical colleges in Harlow and Staffordshire, I think that they represent the filling in of one of the missing links in our education system that was left after the second world war, when ironically we helped the Germans establish good technical schools but did not put them in place here in the United Kingdom. I am very proud to be leading a Government who are putting that right.
Three large GP practices in the most deprived areas of North East Derbyshire are facing crisis. In England we are at least 10,000 GPs short of what we need, so it is no surprise that people cannot get an appointment. Labour is promising a maximum 48-hour wait to see a GP. What is the Prime Minister promising?
In order to provide more GPs, we need to provide money. This Government have increased spending on the NHS, which the Labour party told us was irresponsible. What we see in our NHS today is 7,000 more doctors, more nurses and more midwives, but 19,000 fewer bureaucrats. I think that is absolutely vital in providing the health services we need.
Q3. The Prime Minister knows that I am awaiting a detailed response from him about a dire pollution event in Avonmouth in my constituency, but will he welcome the happier news that just up the river we are in the midst of a volunteering week of action to renovate the historic Lamplighters pub? It was closed under Enterprise Inns in 2009 but is now reopening thanks to the determination of local residents and the new owners, Kathie and Dominic Gundry-White. Will he welcome all the jobs, community spirit and real ale that will bring?
I am delighted to welcome that real ale, and I of course recommend that my hon. Friend’s constituents take advantage of the 1p cut—not just in this Budget, but in the previous Budget. I know that people in Avonmouth have suffered unacceptably from the air pollution problem, and I am very happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend. We are seeing a growth of community pubs, and that is all to the good. It is of course welcome that we introduced the community right to bid, which has enabled a number of communities to take hold of such facilities and operate them for the use of the public.
Q4. In its recent report on the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Woolwich, the Care Quality Commission praised the staff for being “kind, caring and respectful”, but highlighted serious capacity constraints in the A and E department. Does the Prime Minister remember that a year ago, before being stopped by judicial review, his Government proposed to close the A and E department in the neighbouring Lewisham hospital, which would have added massively to the pressures on the already overstretched Queen Elizabeth? What lessons have been learned from that serious error of judgment? (904311)
The most important thing with our health service is to praise good service when we see it, but to recognise that where we see poor service, it has to be turned around. We are very clear about the turnaround work that is being done in many of our hospitals and that was left for year after year under Labour. The House might be interested to know that the average wait in A and E was 77 minutes when Labour was in power; it is now 30 minutes under this Government.
Q5. Will the Prime Minister advise my constituents about what action the Government are taking to ensure that areas of regeneration, such as Colindale in my constituency, receive the necessary public service infrastructure to support the increase in population? (904312)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously, things such as the new homes bonus have helped to make sure that local authorities can put infrastructure in place. We have revised and strengthened new planning guidance to ensure that infrastructure is provided to support new development. My hon. Friend will also know that, as a result of the recent award of the Thameslink franchise, there will be new rolling stock on the line and that by the end of 2018 there will be over 3,000 more seats on trains running through Hendon at peak times, which I hope is welcome to his constituents.
Q6. What does the Prime Minister believe are the underlying causes of the £2 billion deficit forecast for English national health service trusts for next year, and what are his remedies? (904313)
The estimates being made today are made on the basis that we have set challenges for the NHS in terms of making efficiencies. What I can report to the House, after four years in government, is that it has met those efficiency challenges every single year under this Government, and that money has been ploughed back into better patient care in our NHS. The great question for the NHS in British politics today, I would argue, is: why is it that in Wales—under Labour control—8% cuts have been made in the NHS budget? [Interruption.] Opposition Members might be yawning; people are not yawning in Wales because they are stuck on waiting lists desperate for treatment.
Q7. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the England women’s football team on their success in the World cup qualifiers? On and off the pitch, women are delivering for England, with more women in employment and more women setting up businesses than in 2010. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in our long-term economic plan, we will ensure that women can continue to score the goals for the UK economy, and that no one is left behind? (904314)
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing so. As a keen fan of not just the England football team but the English cricket team, I have had the great pleasure of having representatives of the England women’s football and cricket teams in Downing street recently. I made the point to them that they seem to put us through considerably less heartache, stress and worry when they are qualifying for major competitions—and indeed, in the cricket team’s case, when they are winning the Ashes.
There is some good news to celebrate. Female employment is at a record high in our country. There are nearly 700,000 more women in work than at the election. We are seeing more women entrepreneurs starting up businesses. We are making sure that it is fairer for women in terms of pensions. I believe that this Government have a good record, but there is always more to be done.
Exactly 20 years ago today, gunmen went into a pub in a place called Loughinisland in my constituency and killed six men. There have been widespread claims about collusion and police cover-up, and their families have never received truth and justice. Only two weeks ago, the police ensured that the police ombudsman’s investigation was stalled. Does the Prime Minister agree that all UK police services must co-operate fully with their oversight authorities, according to the letter and the spirit of the law, to ensure that families such as those I represent in Loughinisland receive truth and justice?
I agree with the hon. Lady that everyone should co-operate with the police ombudsman. The police ombudsman system in Northern Ireland is now a model that other countries are looking to follow. This is something I discussed recently with the Taoiseach in relation to what happens in the Republic of Ireland. We have a system that works. We have the Historical Enquiries Team, which is also working. I very much hope that the work can continue between the parties in Northern Ireland to discuss the Haass principles and ideas for flags, parades and the past, and that everyone can come together to sort these issues out.
Q8. In Gillingham and Rainham, youth unemployment is down, overall unemployment is down and business creation is up. Does the Prime Minister agree that this clearly shows that our long-term economic plan is working? Linked to that, will he join me in welcoming the creation of a new university technical college in Medway, which will ensure that our future generations have the right skills to succeed in life? (904315)
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that it is welcome that youth unemployment, which has been too high for too long in our country, is down by 25% this year in his constituency, and that long-term youth unemployment is down 41%. He made the point about university technical colleges. I want to see one of those in every major town in our country, so that we can really give our young people the opportunity of a good technical education if that is what they choose, and I want those schools to be well funded, well resourced and partnered—as is the case in his constituency—with good organisations that can bring their expertise to bear.
It is a simple issue of principle. This is much more connected to the principle than to the name, and I think that the principle will be shared on every side of the House. It is that the members of the European Council, the Prime Ministers and Presidents elected under the treaties, should choose who runs the European Commission. I do not mind how many people on the European Council disagree with me; I will fight this right to the very end.
I say this to my colleagues on the European Council, many of whom have expressed interesting views about this principle and this person: if you want reform in Europe, you have got to stand up for it, and if you want a change in Europe, you have got to vote for it. That is the message that I will take, and that is the right message for our country.
Q9. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last year, a Cabinet Office Minister said:“Relocation of staff out of expensive London offices to other regions continues to be high on the agenda…to deliver the savings needed.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 964W.]Will the Prime Minister look into moving some of those jobs to Redcar and Cleveland, where we have low-cost offices, affordable housing, school places, people who are ready to work, and a great lifestyle? (904316)
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the relocation of jobs, and of course we want to see that develop. I know that it was disappointing about the changes to the Insolvency Service in Stockton last year, but one of the reasons that happened was that there had been such a sharp fall in bankruptcy and company closures, which is a welcome development. As he knows, employment in the north-east is rising overall—it rose by 47,000 last year—but we need to ensure not only that we generate private sector jobs but that, where we can sensibly locate public sector jobs to different parts of the country, we continue with that programme.
The estimate so far is that about 400 people from the UK have taken part in fighting with ISIS. However, that number is based much more on what is happening in Syria, rather than in Iraq, on which we have considerably less information. Together with the Home Secretary and others, I have chaired a series of meetings in Whitehall to ensure that our intelligence, security and policing services are focused as sharply as they can be on this problem. It is estimated to be a greater threat to the UK than the return of foreign jihadis or fighters from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. As I have said, we need to ensure that we are doing everything we can to keep our country safe.
Q10. While it is good news that the budget deficit has been cut by a third, there is much more to do. One way of helping our country to live within its means is to send back all the convicted criminals who are foreign nationals, because it is costing British taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds each year to keep them in our prisons. All too often, attempts to send back such criminals are scuppered by human rights legislation. What plans does the Prime Minister have to put an end to that ludicrous state of affairs? (904317)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more on that front. We have removed about 20,000 foreign national offenders since the Government came to office, but the number is still too high. I have allotted individual Ministers to individual territories that have the highest numbers of foreign offenders—countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica, Vietnam and China—to ensure that we make progress on returning those prisoners. We need to use the prisoner transfer agreement within the European Union, because that could lead to the return of a large number of prisoners, not least to Poland. We have to keep up the pressure on this issue. I believe that if we get a Conservative Government after the next election, we will have substantive reform of the Human Rights Act, which is not working properly for Britain.
Q11. Last month, the national health service missed its cancer treatment target for the very first time. What does the Prime Minister have to say to the patients and their families who have had to put their lives on hold while they wait for vital treatment to start? (904318)
There is not a family in this country who are not affected by cancer and the difficulties in ensuring that they get the treatment that they need as fast as they can. We have a series of targets for cancer treatment and we are meeting almost all of them. We have seen an increase of about 15% in the number of people who are being treated for cancer. Of course, we have introduced something that never existed under the previous Government—the cancer drugs fund. The hon. Lady probably knows people in her constituency, just as I know people in mine, who are getting medicines that they need, which they never got before.
Q12. The Prime Minister will know that the economic recovery in Essex has been led by the private sector, with Essex firms creating thousands of new jobs and exporting across the globe. Will he commend Essex businesses and support their efforts to export more by looking favourably on our plans to upgrade the infrastructure on the road and rail networks across Essex? (904319)
As I have said before, where Essex leads, the rest of the country follows. Private sector employment, entrepreneurialism and the employment of more people are exactly what the economy needs in the economic recovery, and that is what our economic plan is delivering. Last week, we saw a record increase in employment. This week, we have seen inflation fall to a five-year low. I had very successful meetings yesterday with the Chinese Premier, in which we signed £14 billion-worth of important deals that will bring jobs, growth and investment to this country. We have to keep working on every aspect of our plan, including increasing our exports to the fastest growing countries in the world.
The former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, has made a strong case for looking at our constitutional arrangements, whatever the outcome in Scotland in September. Does the Prime Minister accept that devolution in England, outside London, is very much unfinished business? If our great cities such as Birmingham want to remain the economic engines, they require radically reformed funding structures and our regions require strategic directly elected mayors.
As the hon. Lady knows, I am a fan of directly elected mayors. However, the people of Birmingham had their chance to make that decision and they voted not to have a mayor. I hope that people will see successful mayors in London, Liverpool, Bristol and other parts of the country, and see that there are benefits from that approach. I agree with her that, even if we do not move to a mayoral system, there is more that we can do through city deals, local enterprise partnerships and devolving some of the funding in Whitehall further down towards cities and regions. All that would be to the good. It is worth while and welcome that in its policy review, her party has decided not to tear up local enterprise partnerships, but to extend them. It is good that there is cross-party agreement on how to drive devolution out to our great cities around the country.
Q13. On behalf of my Burntwood constituents, may I thank the Prime Minister for his swift and effective action in giving what is, in effect, a posthumous honour to my constituent Stephen Sutton? With the economic plan now working well, how can we build on that and on the legacy that Stephen Sutton set for charitable giving? (904320)
Stephen was an absolutely inspiring individual, and his zest for life, even as he was suffering from a very difficult and progressive cancer, was completely extraordinary and very inspiring. He raised a huge amount of money for teenage cancer services, and he raised it from right around the world as well as the UK. I think it is right that our honours system properly rewards people who give to charity, and who give of their time, from the very bottom to the very top. There is probably more we can do to make sure that our honours system really reflects what the British public want, which is to see giving, generosity and compassion rewarded.
The Prime Minister may recollect that a few months ago at Prime Minister’s questions I asked him to meet the victims of the drug Primodos. More than 50 of them are coming to Parliament today, and I ask the Prime Minister if he would see them; look at the documents that we have produced, which show that the then medical community knew that the drug was causing deformities in babies and nothing was done about it; and consider a public inquiry.
I do not think I will be able, I am afraid, today to see her constituents and the people she is bringing to the House of Commons. I am very happy to have another conversation with her about what can be done and to understand what more can be communicated to those people, so perhaps we can fix that up.
Q14. In welcoming the Chinese Premier Mr Li to this country, and in recognising that China is one of the greatest export markets for Britain, may I ask the Prime Minister to use his good offices to unblock the barrier to the export of pigs’ feet for human consumption, which will bring in thousands of pounds and ensure the long-term economic growth of north Yorkshire? (904321)
I will certainly take up my hon. Friend on that issue. I recall that on a previous visit to China we unlocked the export of pig semen to China, so we made progress. I seem to remember that the press release referred to “the pig society”—sorry about that one. I will look very carefully at the question of pigs’ feet, and if exports can be allowed and jobs can be created by that, I will be happy to help.
Q15. Notwithstanding serious problems elsewhere, does the Prime Minister share my concern about the crisis in South Sudan, where 4 million people are facing famine? What steps are being taken to implement the peace process? (904322)
I discussed the issue yesterday with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who, very bravely, had been with local church leaders to the town of Bor, which has been the site of some of the most serious fighting. It is a very different part of the world from the one we discussed earlier, but some of the same rules apply. We need a Government who govern on behalf of all the people in that country, Dinka and Nuer, and who do not try to divide the country along ethnic lines. We will do what we can. When we talk about intervention in this country, it is intervention through diplomacy, through aid, through assistance and through advice, and we will continue to do that good work.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that at the conference this weekend in Athens of the national chairmen of the European Select Committees, which was attended by delegates from all parties as well as by chairmen of the European parliamentary committees, the British delegation defeated an attempt to treat the word “euroscepticism” as equivalent to xenophobia and racism; and, furthermore, that on the question of the procedure relating to the proposed appointment or election of Mr Juncker, the conference agreed with the British delegation that that was an unprecedented, unacceptable and unsuccessful procedure?
There are no surprises that my hon. Friend was successful in this very important negotiation on behalf of Britain. There is support right around Europe for the concept of the Council of Ministers making these choices, but, as I say, it requires the elected Prime Ministers and Presidents to vote in the way that they believe.
What I meant when I said we would protect the NHS is just that. We are spending £12.7 billion more on the NHS; Labour said that that was irresponsible. We have 7,000 more doctors in our NHS, 3,000 more nurses in our NHS, and over 1,000 more midwives in our NHS, but there is something we have less of in our NHS—we have 19,000 fewer bureaucrats, and that money has been piled into patient care, including improving primary care right around the country.
The people of Newark have enjoyed becoming better acquainted with the Prime Minister this past month.
I regret to inform the Prime Minister that last week the town of Southwell in my constituency was again flooded. Will he reaffirm his commitment to supporting my proposal that the parts of Nottinghamshire that were severely affected by the floods of 2013 receive similar grants to the parts elsewhere in the country flooded at the beginning of this year?
First of all, may I welcome my hon. Friend to his place in the House of Commons after what was a long and arduous but well fought and very positive by-election campaign?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that there are parts of the country, in Nottinghamshire but also elsewhere, that flooded during the course of 2013 and were not eligible for some of the payments made subsequent to the flooding at the turn of the last year, with support for householders and farmers and other sorts of proposals. We are looking very hard at whether we can put back to the beginning of the 2013 financial year the eligibility criteria for that flood work. I will look at this issue very carefully and talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see whether we can resolve it for my hon. Friend.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, of which I have given notice to the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford). Yesterday the hon. Gentleman made a point of order about a meeting that took place in my constituency that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government attended. He did not have the courtesy to inform me in advance of his intention. He complained that the meeting held at Rushden Lakes in my constituency had pre-empted the Department’s proper announcement re the planning application. He implied that Wellingborough councillor Tom Pursglove—the excellent Conservative parliamentary candidate for Corby—and I knew in advance of the planning decision and planned the event days in advance. The truth of the matter is that neither I nor Tom Pursglove knew in advance of the official announcement. It is also untrue that the Secretary of State’s visit was a ministerial visit; it was in fact a Conservative party event that he attended without any officials. It is also simply untrue that this event had been planned in advance. Could you advise me, Sir, as to whether there is any requirement for hon. Members to notify other hon. Members about party events that are happening wholly within their constituencies?
Let me begin by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, of which, with characteristic courtesy, he gave me notice. Yesterday’s point of order and my response did not address the issue of notification of visits to other Members’ constituencies. The conventions on that matter are clear. Any Member intending to visit another Member’s constituency on official business should give notice of their plans to the constituency Member. What I would like to say at this stage to the hon. Gentleman, and to the House, is that I think that the House has probably heard enough about this matter. I say that in no pejorative spirit but in a factual sense, especially as there is an Adjournment debate on it this evening. Of that fact, of course, the hon. Gentleman is himself keenly aware, for the debate is his. We will leave it there for the time being.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to seek your advice. The House is obviously privileged to be the subject of a documentary, which is being filmed at present, but I am sure no one would wish to breach the integrity of a ballot that is currently taking place for the position of Chair of the Health Committee. May I seek your advice to ensure that the integrity of what should be a secret ballot will not be compromised?
We will come to the separate point of order in a moment. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her courtesy.
I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for her point of order and for giving my office advance notice of it. I can reassure her and the House that there can be no question of the integrity of the ballot being compromised in any way. The fact of the documentary is well known. Those undertaking it have been told explicitly that they must not interfere with the running of the ballot or in any way put at risk the secrecy of the ballots being cast. [Interruption.] Order. I can also assure the hon. Lady that the film crew will not—I repeat, will not—be allowed to see any more of the actual process of counting than can be seen by Members. I can also tell the House that I plan to announce the result shortly after 4 o’clock, after the conclusion of any Division on the first Opposition day motion.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. On a separate matter, I wonder whether you could help us. There is a feeling among Members that the TV cameras are going perhaps too far, too fast. There is a rumour going around that they will be coming into the voting Lobbies while we are actually voting. I would suggest that you might be able to put our minds at rest and tell us that that is not going to happen.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Some of us are strongly supportive of Michael Cockerell and his film crew going around the House. The public out there get the wrong impression from seeing things such as Prime Minister’s Question Time, and people such as me strongly support the fact that Michael Cockerell is getting into the voting Lobbies and elsewhere and that he will demonstrate to the world that we do a good job here. Let us see them in the voting Lobbies and elsewhere.
I am grateful to hon. Members for the points of order they have raised. What I would like to say to the House is this: the fact of the documentary being granted permission is well known. That decision was made some time ago on the basis of deliberations by the Administration Committee. That is a well-established fact and I make no secret of the fact that I support wholeheartedly that decision. I think that Members would accept that it would be invidious for the Chair, on anything of a regular basis, to be expected to comment on particular requests. Suffice it to say that I am in regular touch, of course, with representatives of both sides of the House at the highest level, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton would expect, and, of course, with the Chair of the Administration Committee. Each request should, I think, be treated on its merits.
I have heard of one request that is apparently to be winging its way towards me, to which neither the hon. Lady nor any other Member has referred today, which I would regard as wholly intrusive, unfair to Members and unacceptable. If such a request to interfere with the private space of Members when they are relaxing, enjoying themselves and consuming food or drink in the Tea Room is made, those making the request will be disappointed. [Hon. Members: “What is wrong with it?”] What is wrong with it? I do not think that an hon. Member consuming a cup of tea and beans on toast should be subjected to a film crew.
Three cheers for the Speaker!
Before I take a point of order from the hon. Gentleman, to whom I always listen with the greatest respect, I should record for posterity that the Secretary of State for Education, either deliberately and sincerely, or ironically and teasingly—I leave hon. Members to judge—said “Three cheers for the Speaker”. He is on the record.
The right hon. Gentleman says it was sincerely. It is on the record and I shall treasure it.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) always seeks to behave in an orderly manner and with respect to precedent and the rulings of the Chair, so I therefore assume that he is not raising a point of order on the same matter.
I do venture, Mr Speaker, to raise a point of order on the same matter, because I was unclear as to your answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). Whether the remarks of the Secretary of State for Education will now be part of the national curriculum may be another matter, but I think it is pertinent to this House whether cameras will be allowed into the Division Lobby. Often, extremely private conversations take place in the Division Lobby—[Hon. Members: “Plotting!”] Indeed, plotting takes place in both Lobbies. I think that an important constitutional issue is at stake. In the Lobby, right hon. and hon. Members confer, often on sensitive matters, and in my humble opinion it would be quite improper for those conversations to be recorded.
I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I will reflect carefully on it. I simply invite him—he is a keen reader at all times—to study Hansard tomorrow. If thereafter he wishes to come back to me or to the House, I think he will require no encouragement. We will leave it there for today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Some of the exchanges we have just heard remind me of the controversy over whether the House should be televised. I voted in favour of that, and I am glad we did that. Some of the reservations expressed today were not really justified.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and I think I will leave it there. In passing, however, I note and congratulate him on what is now 39 years’ service in the House. I think I am right about that—four years from ’66 to ’70, and 35 years since ’79—so unless my arithmetic is flawed, he has only one more year to get to 40.
[1st Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House expresses concern at the experience of constituents applying for passports at HM Passport Office, including lengthy delays and consequential cancellations of holidays and business visits; notes the Government’s response to the Urgent Question from the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford of 12 June 2014, setting out emergency measures to deal with the passport backlog after an increase in demand; further notes that HM Passport Office is taking over responsibility for issuing an estimated 350,000 passports to citizens overseas from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office this year; believes that the Government failed to properly plan to meet the level of demand this year; calls on the Government to expand its emergency measures by compensating passport applicants who had to pay for urgent upgrades in recent weeks because of internal delays with HM Passport Office; and further calls for the Secretary of State for the Home Department to publish monthly figures for passport applications from within the UK and abroad compared to previous years to monitor performance at HM Passport Office.
The Opposition have called this debate because we are still not getting answers about what is happening to get people the passports and travel documents they need. In answer to a question earlier, the Prime Minister suggested that the Home Secretary might have more to announce today. I hope that that is the case, because the action taken so far is clearly not enough. It is disappointing that we get answers and action only when the Home Secretary is called to the House of Commons. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to make further progress.
Since we last heard from the Home Secretary, MPs have had yet more constituents get in touch to raise their concerns and problems.
Will the shadow Home Secretary join me in wishing well my constituent, Jordan Frapwell, at the European triathlon championships in Austria, and extend her thanks to the Passport Office for making sure that he could get there in time to compete?
I certainly wish the hon. Gentleman’s constituent all the best, and I am glad that he got his passport in time. I also hope that he did not face undue stress over any delays. Other hon. Members have constituents who have been attending international sporting competitions and have had to drive halfway across the country to Durham the night before they were due to fly out to make sure that they had their passport on time.
About 23 minutes ago, yet another constituent contacted me with the problem of a delayed passport—that makes almost 30 cases I have had since this episode started. That constituent may benefit from the free upgrading service announced by the Secretary of State last week, but I had an e-mail this morning from another constituent who has spent a total of £176.50 on upgrading passport applications for herself and her children because their passports were delayed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such people should get a refund?
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of my 94-year-old constituent. She was going on a cruise—her first holiday for 20 years—and we managed to get her passport, thankfully, the day before she was due to travel, but she had to pay an extra £55. Her daughter told the Daily Mail:
“They’re holding people to ransom. It’s disgusting”.
The family had to pay the money, because otherwise their relative would not have been able to go on holiday, but why should she have had to pay when she applied in good time for her passport?
My hon. Friend is right. So many people have worked hard to save up for holidays, for months and sometimes years, and they do not want those precious holidays that they have been looking forward to put at risk. That is why they have been forking out, but it simply is not fair on people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent.
Does the right hon. Lady share my concern that at yesterday’s meeting of the Home Affairs Committee the PCS refused to rule out strike action? Does she agree with the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) that it would do nothing to enhance the reputation of the PCS if it strikes while hard-working taxpayers are waiting for passports for their holidays or to go on business?
I was very interested to hear the intervention by the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who is no longer in his place. I have received an e-mail from a constituent whose son applied for a passport in March to go to Austria at the end of this month as part of achieving his explorer badge with the Scouts. Does my right hon. Friend hope that my constituent is able to get his passport like the hon. Gentleman’s constituent did?
I have also had constituents contact me with concerns, and in most cases those have been sorted out, but in addition I am being contacted by constituents before the target time has been exceeded. Does the right hon. Lady share my concern that perhaps people are unnecessarily getting the message that they should be anxious about their passport applications?
The unfortunate thing is that the message on the Government’s websites and helplines still says that passports will be processed within three weeks. Families are making decisions on that basis: they think it will be done within three weeks and then it is not. It can be delayed by many weeks, and that is a huge problem, because they have made plans and invested in booking holidays.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that staff in places such as Liverpool passport office are doing their best with the backlog, and that this is a systemic failure on the part of the Government and not the fault of people who have been put in an intolerable position by staff cuts?
Does my right hon. Friend think that my constituent should be refunded? She was standing in the queue at Newport passport office being asked to part with £55 for the privilege of getting her delayed passport at the very moment that the Home Secretary was on her feet last week saying that charges would be waived from the following Monday. Should she not have that £55 refunded, as well as a letter of apology, perhaps?
My hon. Friend is right. It is unfair on British citizens across the country who have been asked to pay more money in order that they can go on holiday simply because of the Home Office’s incompetence. Carla McGillivary and Dean Anderson applied for a passport for Dean more than six weeks ago. He cannot get an urgent upgrade because his is a first-time adult application. They paid for their holiday to Portugal out of Carla’s redundancy pay. Her new job is a zero-hours contract, so she does not know when she will be able to book a holiday again. They have been looking forward to this holiday, even arranging for their son to go swimming with dolphins. They fear now that they will have to cancel their holiday or risk losing all the money—they are supposed to pay the remainder of the deposit today. They have not got Dean’s passport and they do not know when it will arrive. Carla said:
“This is our first family holiday. I have no idea when we will be able to go on holiday again. I just don’t know what to do.”
One family had to leave their young son behind with his grandparents, because his passport did not come in time. One man missed his brother’s wedding in Greece because his passport did not come in time, despite his applying weeks in advance. People have saved up, worked hard and looked forward to a precious holiday for months. People have weddings, funerals, family events abroad, business trips, conferences, meetings and deals to make. Some people who are living abroad are keen to come home or just want to make sure that their visas are still valid.
Today we need to know whether the Home Secretary yet has control of the problem, whether she knows when things will be back to normal and whether she understands what went wrong in the first place. We also want to debate the new policies that she has announced. Are they working and are they enough to solve the problem? So far we have had little reassurance that the Home Secretary has been on top of the problem. Just last week she and the Minister for Security and Immigration were saying that there was no backlog. Now we know that it is hundreds of thousands. Last week the Home Secretary said how pleased she was that the Passport Office was meeting the service standards and that 99% of passports were being sent out within four weeks. Yesterday we learnt from the Passport Office chief executive that tens of thousands of passports every week are missing those service standards.
My hon. Friend is right to say that people are facing long waits. The Home Office simply does not seem to know what is going on. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), the shadow Immigration Minister, has asked countless questions to try to get to the facts of what is happening. A typical answer from the Minister reads, “The Home Office has indicated that it will not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period. An answer is being prepared and will be provided as soon as it is available.” The Home Office cannot even answer questions, never mind get people’s passports to them on time.
The Home Office does not seem to understand the financial realities for people affected by this situation. One of my constituents is stuck out in Saudi Arabia. His work has ended but he cannot return to the UK. He is broke, but the Home Office does not seem to be doing anything urgently about the problem.
We share a concern to make sure that people get their passports as quickly as possible, as I hope everyone would agree. Can the right hon. Lady point me to any line in her motion that would help someone who is currently waiting for their passport? What has she proposed that would help someone, as opposed to putting blame about?
On the subject of what the Government could and should do, I asked the Home Secretary last week about the wording on the Government’s website on the three-week time. We have already heard the estimates my hon. Friends have made of the cases they have seen. The wording gives every indication that it should take three weeks—no more, no less. Is it not that that is causing the problem? What does my right hon. Friend think the Government should do right now to help people?
My hon. Friend is right. People rely on the advice they are given on the website and via the helpline. When they go to the post office to do the check and send they are given information, but they have had no response or further information from the Home Office to tell them that something is going wrong. They make plans accordingly, and as a result they suddenly find themselves in the lurch.
I will make a little more progress and then come back to my hon. Friends.
We do not even know whether the Home Secretary has got to the bottom of why she is in this mess in the first place. Why was the increase in passport applications such a surprise to the Government? Ministers tell us that demand is up by 300,000 compared to last year, and the Passport Office chief executive said it may be 500,000 higher over the course of the year. Why were they so surprised by that? Last year already saw a big increase, with applications going up by 400,000 compared to the year before. Was it really beyond the wit of the Home Office to ensure that it had plans in place in case the number went up again, especially when Ministers’ own decisions were pushing up demand?
The Home Secretary agreed to close the international offices and bring passport applications for overseas residents back home this year. She did not make sure there was enough capacity to cope. According to the Passport Office chief executive, that decision alone has led to an increase of 400,000 more applications to the Passport Office this year. Those cases have seen some of the longest delays of all. It used to take 15 days to sort those passports out—that is what it says in the Foreign Office annual report—but now some of those families are being told it could take nine or 10 weeks. That is affecting everyone else’s applications, too. This is what one mother from Liverpool was told when she tried to chase her son’s passport application. She said:
“I called the Liverpool office again. A lady said they were much busier than normal as they are now processing passports for all over the world not just for the UK and passports are taking 6 to 8 weeks to process.”
The right hon. Lady is very generous, but I fear she has misunderstood the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee heard from the chief executive of the Passport Office. He was very clear that the increase in demand was not solely from processing foreign applications but from a whole range of sources, and that it was conducting a review to find out exactly what they were. Foreign applications were not the reason why it was experiencing an increase in demand.
Does not the hon. Lady have some concern that neither the Home Secretary nor the chief executive of the Passport Office have been able to break down the increase in demand? They simply have not told us how much is due to the increase in foreign residents’ applications, which we know is taking place as a result of their policy decisions, and how much is increased demand from British residents. She simply has not given us those facts.
Whatever Mr Pugh said yesterday, let me read what he put in his annual report only a year ago. He said, on the transfer of work in 2014, that
“IPS will be providing passport services for approximately 350,000 additional customers worldwide annually.”
That is the increase in demand that he predicted.
Exactly. We know there has been a substantial increase as a result of foreign residents applying for their British passports to be renewed, or applying for new passports for their children. Those who are living abroad are often the most complex cases, yet it is clear that the Home Secretary has not put in place the capacity to cope.
My right hon. Friend might be aware that yesterday the Home Affairs Committee spoke to the gentleman representing the union. He said that the unions and the people working in the Passport Office had told the management there were a lot of applications and that the cuts in numbers were not helping. This matter was raised with the management on many occasions.
My hon. Friend is right. I know she raised that point in the Committee’s evidence session yesterday. People have made it very clear, including the very nice lady who spoke to a constituent at the Liverpool office, that it is having an impact, because they are having to process so many more foreign applications. That was a decision taken by the Government, by Ministers, and yet they failed to put the additional capacity they needed in place.
Does the right hon. Lady not agree that the UK has a very cumbersome process for passport applications? A constituent of mine in Hong Kong applied months ago for a passport for her new baby son, but after months of delay with not much happening she has now decided to apply for a Canadian passport for her son, as the father is Canadian. She is choosing Canadian citizenship for their child over being a British subject because the passport will be given solely on the basis of the father’s birth certificate, as opposed to sending passports away to a passport office in another country. The passport application process is done far more easily in Canada in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. Is there not something the UK can learn from places like Canada?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that it used to be done in a fraction of the time. The British Passport Office used to be able to process passports much more rapidly. The international centres used to be able to process passports within 15 days, but they are not doing so now because of decisions Ministers have taken.
The majority of the delays I have seen have been for parents with very small children and babies. They have been very distressed. The problem is not just the delay in itself. As she said, my constituent, Mr Martin Griffin, had to drive up to Durham, after paying extra money, the night before the holiday. He talked about days and weeks of distress and very poor contradictory advice, with different things being told to them every day. While his wife was trying to care for their little baby son, they were very anxious about their holiday. Day in, day out they were told different things. There is no excuse for the delay, but there is no excuse for all that confusion either.
My hon. Friend is right. It is clear that a lot of the cases being raised are where there are long delays for families applying for their child’s first passport. Those applications should be relatively straightforward, but families are facing very long delays and that is jeopardising family holidays.
Is not the fundamental issue a complete lack of confidence in what the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister are saying? Two constituents contacted me on Twitter yesterday to say that promised emergency travel documents were still out of reach and that the embassy in Qatar was clueless on how to issue them. They have newborns still stuck here. What seems to be consistent is that they are hearing one message from the Home Secretary, but when they try to deal with the system, it does not follow through.
That is a very important point and I will come on to some of the problems with the emergency measures the Home Secretary has introduced, because it is clear that they are not yet working.
The problem is that the Home Office simply did not listen to the warnings. Why did the Home Secretary not act in January when the Passport Office says it first realised there was a problem? Why did she not act in February when applications kept going up? My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn, the shadow Immigration Minister, wrote to the Immigration Minister in March, three months ago, to warn him about the problem. Why did she not act then? [Interruption.] The Home Secretary sits on the Front Bench and says that she did act. How come so many people are still waiting so long for their passports, when they have paid so much extra to get them on time? Why did the Home Secretary not do enough in April, when more and more MPs’ complaints started coming in? Why did she not act in May, when diplomats warned her the system was not working? Why, even in June, did she spend days denying there was a backlog, denying there was a problem and boasting about meeting all the targets?
The Prime Minister claimed last week that the Home Office has been on it since January. On what? It certainly was not on it even last week. The Home Secretary did not have her eye on the ball. She was too busy dealing with the Education Secretary’s hissy fits and too busy blaming everyone else. She said last week it was the seasonal upsurge. How British—it really must be the weather to blame! She then said that the problem was an unprecedented increase in demand—the Home Secretary blames the passport crisis on people wanting passports. The Prime Minister blamed identity cards. Conservative Back Benchers even claimed it was a crisis manufactured by the Opposition. With this Home Secretary, it is always someone else’s fault. She blames the weather, the holidaymakers, the economy, the Labour party, the civil service and even the Education Secretary—we will join her in that, but round in circles they go. We have known for some time that the Government are not going anywhere, but now no one else is going anywhere.
When will the crisis be over? Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary said that 98% of targets were being met. This week, the Passport Office chief executive said that 90% were being met. It is getting worse, not better. How many months will it take to have the system back on track? What difference will the new measures make now? The Home Secretary has said that there will be 250 extra staff. It is clear from the Passport Office chief executive that many of them are still being trained. In addition, they are coming from other parts of the Home Office, including borders. Just as this is a busy time for the Passport Office, it is an increasingly busy time at our borders. We know that customs checks are not being done, so what else is being put at risk? Is the Home Secretary confident that she now has enough staff in place to clear the backlog? If she has enough, surely she can give us a timetable on when applications and processing will be back to normal, and when families can be reassured that they will not face delays.
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that many of the staff in Liverpool are constituents of mine. They are extremely concerned at the lack of urgency that she has very well described. Does she agree that the Passport Office refusal to meet the trade union after repeated requests demonstrates what a fiasco this is, and how badly the problem has been approached? The union is attempting to help resolve the issue. Surely that offer of help should have been taken at the earliest opportunity.
The Home Affairs Committee was very surprised when we heard that the amount of work in progress was 493,000, because we have not yet reached the peak of the application period. However, we were even more surprised when no timetable was given. The chief executive said it would be done in a reasonable time. When we asked him what a reasonable time was, he said, “How long is a piece of string?” We need a timetable to get work in progress quickly.
The Home Affairs Committee work in taking evidence has been important, because my right hon. Friend is exactly right that we need a time scale. We need to know how long this piece of string is. Is it a short piece of string or a long one? Are we talking about a few weeks or a few months, or about this time next year? People who have holidays in September or business trips in October need to know how far in advance they should plan and whether they should be worried. Ministers are not giving us answers on how long it will take.
The Home Secretary has said that there will be 650 extra staff on the telephone helpline, which means more extra staff for the helpline than for clearing passports. How much does she think that will help? Currently, most people’s experience of the helpline is that people take messages and promise that someone else will call back. The person who is supposed to call back does not do so, and the people on the helpline do not know the answers.
That system is doing people’s heads in. We heard from Ria Runsewe and her family in Bromley. On 5 May, they applied for a passport for their 10-week-old son, and then heard nothing. She said:
“I called the helpline to check its progress…I was told someone would call me back within 48 hours, but I missed the call while I was changing my son’s nappy. Ten minutes later, I called back—only to be told that I had gone to the bottom of the queue and would have to wait another 48 hours.”
She eventually got through to someone and asked to upgrade to the premium service, and spent two more weeks chasing before someone else called her back to take payment and promise that the passport would be there the following day.
Another family gave us this account of their conversation on the helpline. Passport Office: “We can’t guarantee when your passport will be sent or when you will receive it.” Me: “What can I do?” Him: “You can’t do anything?” Me: “Can’t I pay to upgrade?” Him: “We can’t talk about that. You have to ring another number.” Me: “But that is your number.” Him: “We can’t talk about it until you mention it.” Me: “Okay. I’m mentioning it, and, in fact, I can categorically say I want it.” Him: “We can’t guarantee that they will do anything and they may not respond to you, but you can apply again for an urgent upgrade after that, and you may be lucky that time.” That is not even Kafkaesque; it is Monty Python. We do not need a system that simply has more staff to take messages. We need staff in place to clear passports and ensure that constituents throughout the country are told what is going on.
I have just had an e-mail from Michelle Morris, a member of my staff who has been waiting for three days to hear back from the helpline about her case. She has had a phone call in which she was told that the case is too complicated. She was due to leave today from Gatwick with her son. The travel agents have rescheduled the flight for Friday. The question is whether the helpline will ring back to tell us that the passport will be sorted out by then.