House of Commons
Thursday 16 October 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
Mobile Network Operators
Mr Speaker, may I begin by apologising for the fact that the Secretary of State cannot be here for questions? I trust that you were appropriately informed: he is on a trip representing the Government in India.
It is for Ofcom to assess competition in the mobile communications market, and I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that it has found the UK mobile market to be one of the most open and competitive in the world.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but he will know of the recent decisions by the big networks to bring their retailing in-house so that they can keep more of the profits, resulting in the closure of Phones 4u. These decisions risk reducing customer choice and raising prices. Is it not time to ask Ofcom to look at this again before we lose all our retail competitors and end up with a mobile phone market as rigged as the energy market?
It is not appropriate for me to comment on the commercial issues surrounding the decision of the owners of Phones 4u to put the company into receivership, but it is possible to purchase mobile phones not just through the operators’ shops but on the high street and from online outlets; and mobile virtual network operators are also providing a great deal of competition.
Funding decisions for the arts are made independently of Ministers by the Arts Council England, but I am delighted to say—
Mr Speaker, I am incredibly grateful for your guidance. You are quite right that, with your permission, I would like to take this question with Question 3, which I also hotly anticipate. Thank you for correcting me. My eagerness got ahead of me in wishing to communicate to the hon. Lady that for the first time—[Hon. Members: “Get on with it!”] I have been asked to get on with it; things are going from bad to worse, aren’t they?
Arts Funding outside London
Funding decisions for the arts are made independently of Ministers by Arts Council England, but I am delighted to say that 53% of the funding that the Arts Council recently allocated to non-profit organisations will go outside London. It is the first time that the majority of that funding will have gone outside London.
But public funding for the arts in London is 15 times greater than for outside the capital, and Hull city council has seen a 25% cut to its funding during this Parliament. How does the Minister expect Hull to deliver the national city of culture in 2017 with these unfair funding formulas?
I have to say that the hon. Lady’s colleagues in Hull are much more bullish about being the capital of culture and are looking forward to delivering it in 2017. They have received £3 million of funding from the Arts Council. Indeed, the Arts Council has set up a pop-up office in Hull to assist with the capital of culture.
The Minister has been the only witness to the Select Committee’s inquiry into the balance of arts funding in this country not to accept that there is a gross imbalance in funding in favour of London and against regions such as the north-east and the south-west. Even his own chairman of the Arts Council, whom he appointed, accepts that there is a problem. Will he now read the chairman’s evidence and the evidence from all the other witnesses who disagree with him, join the consensus and do something about it?
That is as opposed to when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State and did absolutely nothing about it. I look forward to receiving copies of the many speeches he made when he was Secretary of State talking about the imbalance of funding between London and the regions. We are doing something about it, which is why more funding is now going outside London and why the chairman of the Arts Council said:
“judge us in two years’ time”.
The council accepts that there is an issue and is going to do something about it.
I was recently at an event at Tate where we were praising the Ofer family, who not only have given millions to the National Maritime museum but recently gave £10 million to Tate Modern. There is a great deal of philanthropy in London. I am also pleased that there is a lot outside London—for example, the recent donation by Andrew and Zoë Law of £1 million to the Lowry in Salford.
May I impress upon the Minister the popularity and importance to small local communities of highly localised heritage and arts centres such as those in Desborough, Rothwell and Burton Latimer in the Kettering constituency? For relatively small sums of money, very big things can be done in small local communities, to the immense benefit of large numbers of people.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I am so pleased that the majority of arts funding is now going outside London. However, it is also important to stress that many of the organisations that are funded in London—because they have London postcodes—are touring organisations whose work is seen far and wide outside the capital.
The Minister will know that there are many national museums outside London which are important to national culture, one being the National Media museum in Bradford. He will be aware that the council recently announced £1 million over three years to invest in this museum. Could he give an update on the Government’s thoughts about the future of national museums outside London?
I have been very grateful for the opportunity to work so constructively with the hon. Gentleman on the future of the National Media museum in Bradford, and I was delighted when I heard the news about the council’s funding support. We continue to support a lot of national museums outside London. The Science museum is a particularly good example, particularly given its work with the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, where it has made a real difference.
In my experience the Minister is quite a nice bloke, but he does not get it. If he was the Member for Huddersfield and a Yorkshire MP, he would see the decimation of the arts and culture coming to our region, which were so successful during the Tour de France. Tourism, the arts and culture are intimately interlinked. We see Opera North, the Festival of Light in Huddersfield and so many other iconic events in danger because of Government cuts.
The hon. Gentleman is a very nice man in my experience; no Division is needed to pass that motion. When it comes to the arts and culture in the north and north-east, the list is endless: Sage Gateshead; the Yorkshire sculpture park, which I think is the national museum of the year; and the flourishing Opera North. My glass is very much half-full when it comes to the fantastic cultural delights to be found all over Yorkshire.
The tourism industry is worth an estimated £127 billion gross value added to the UK economy and provides almost 10% of all the jobs in the UK.
I thank the Minister for her response. In Staffordshire, tourism earns £1.4 billion a year and employs 28,000 people, thanks to the excellent work of the county of Staffordshire and the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Next year, Staffordshire will host a qualifying round for the international Ironman competition, as well as the 2015 Corporate games. Given the importance of sporting events to visitor numbers around the country, what work is her Department doing to attract major sporting events to the UK? Will she ensure that, as far as possible, a Minister is present at each of them to show the Department’s support?
Considerable work is being done to ensure that we continue to bid for and host major sporting events. We have had numerous events during the course of the last three years. Hosting such events is good for the economy and tourism and of course inspires people to get involved in sport. I am sure that next year’s Ironman triathlon in Staffordshire will boost tourism even further, and I will do everything I can to ensure that a Minister attends the competition at the appropriate time.
The trouble is that a large number of the events organised around the country, which many people travel to both from overseas and from within this country, are organised by local authorities. However, local authorities up and down the land are cutting these events, quite simply because they do not have enough money and these events are not one of the statutory provisions that they have to make. Will the Government finally own up and admit that it is their cuts in Westminster to local authority budgets that are cutting off our noses to spite our economic faces?
No, I do not agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. Considerable amounts of money go into marketing the country. The GREAT campaign has been very successful and the Chancellor recently announced a 50% increase. The local growth fund, the regional growth fund and the coastal communities fund have also been helpful in growing tourism locally and organising major sporting events.
Our tourism industry is a vital part of our economy, employing over 3 million people, with huge potential for growth in every region in England, in Scotland and in Wales, but it could do even better, especially with the growing number of tourists from China and the other BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia and India. In fact, our market share of Chinese tourists is falling. What it needs is the coherent backing of Government—transport links, visa processing, skills development, and local and regional regeneration. What is the Minister doing to ensure that her Department leads the rest of Government to deliver for the tourism industry?
Our tourism strategy has been very successful. It has seen robust visa reform, cuts in air passenger duty and the creation of a tourism council. Millions of pounds have also been spent on the GREAT campaign. As a result, we have seen record visitor numbers, a record spend and an estimated £127 billion going into the economy as gross value added. I note that the right hon. and learned Lady recently launched a new tourism strategy, but I do not think it adds any more to what we are already doing, and I am not prepared to take finger-pointing from her on tourism issues.
Are figures available to show what has been happening in tourism over recent years, in respect of, say, a reduction in the number of UK citizens travelling overseas and an increase in foreign visitors? Is there something to give us a real picture of what is happening on the ground across the UK?
Various stats are always collected. As I said, we have had record visitor numbers and a record spend. The figures are monitored very carefully. The Deloitte report is always a useful document, but I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with a selection of stats if he would find it helpful.
5. What assessment he has made of the conclusions of the 50th report from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 2013-14, on the rural broadband programme. (905463)
The Government agreed with the Committee’s recommendations and we have made good progress on implementing much of what it recommended.
Will the Minister finally acknowledge that there was a flaw—a major flaw—in the approach to rural broadband because the bid was drawn up to favour one company that could effectively meet the criteria? Is it not now time for the Minister to find a plan B to deliver proper, superfast broadband in rural areas, as well as in inner-city areas such as mine in Shoreditch?
No, I do not accept that at all. The plan was drawn up to encourage open competition, but it is important to remember that anyone who bid for this funding had to allow competitors to use a publicly funded network. BT was the only company prepared to accept those recommendations. In urban areas, there is plenty of healthy competition, and I note that in the east end of London—an area she so ably represents—Virgin Media is now investing in increasing its footprint, covering an additional 100,000 premises.
15. On broadband connections, will the Minister find out why new housing developments, such as the Quay and Moor hospital site in Lancaster, can be built with no telephone or internet connection until a resident moves in and then has to rely on BT to put the connections in at whatever leisurely pace BT chooses? (905476)
We have sat down with various telephone companies— including BT, but also Virgin Media and other companies such as Hyperoptic— and developers to work out a protocol to ensure that all new developments are notified to these telcos. Only this morning I received a letter from the chief executive of BT Openreach, which talked about the progress made and the additional engineers hired.
One concern about broadband services in rural areas is the way in which some customers end up being charged more than those in other areas even though there is no difference in the cost base for the suppliers. My constituent George Drain is in the process of moving from an urban area to a rural area in Scotland. The infrastructure is already there, but his supplier is charging him considerably more in the area to which he is moving, under cover of the market segmentation defined by Ofcom. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that that is reviewed to make sure that people pay a fair price for their broadband services?
It is important to emphasise again—I made the same point in answer to the question about mobile phones—that we have one of the most competitive broadband markets in the world and very low prices. We pay on average about half the price that would be paid in America. I cannot comment on the specific example, but if the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me about it, I will certainly look into it.
13. Rural broadband in Nottinghamshire suffers from the reality that the target of either 95% or 98% of the population is calculated by residence rather than by population. Of course, in a predominantly urban county such as Nottinghamshire, the vast majority of homes that broadband will not reach lie in my constituency and that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Is there any chance with future broadband schemes of changing the formula in order to cover residents rather than residences? (905474)
Some £10 million is going into the Nottinghamshire rural broadband roll-out, and we are planning to cover almost 50,000 premises, but it is hard to see how we could change the criterion to the number of people who lived in those houses. If we are to obtain value for money, we need to get to as many premises as possible with the money that is available.
The whole House knows that the roll-out of rural broadband is 22 months late. Yesterday, however, in answer to my questions, the Minister admitted that after three years only two of the 135 sites involved in the mobile infrastructure project had gone live, and that only £20 million of the £150 million for the super-connected cities programme had been spent. The targets are not going to be met. The Minister is lucky that he does not earn his living as a pizza delivery boy. Will he now apologise to the millions whom he has let down?
I am sure that pizzas were not being delivered last night to the Labour women’s dinner, which I gather took place at the Imperial War museum. No doubt the hon. Lady will want to join me in congratulating the museum, which is so ably led by Di Lees, on its magnificent refurbishment, which has introduced the world war one galleries.
I am pleased to confirm that we are bang on target for our roll-out of superfast broadband. We expect to deliver it to 90% of premises by early 2016, but I expect that, given the pace of the programme, we shall exceed that target. The mobile infrastructure project is a pioneering project which has already brought many benefits to rural areas, and I am pleased to see that the super-connected voucher scheme is well under way.
I spoke to the Minister again in July about broadband in my area, and showed him the map of the proposed coverage. It seems that exchanges just a couple of miles away from main roads such as the A38 and the A370, where fibre-optic cables were laid years ago, cannot be connected, and—to use BT Openreach’s description—the “poor-quality cables” around new cabinets that have been fitted in places such as Wells mean that previously generally reliable but slow services running at 750 kilobits have become desperately unreliable and pathetically slow, at about 250 kilobits. There is no point in changing the provider, because all the signals are carried over the same wires. What do my constituents have to do to get superfast broadband?
We are delivering superfast broadband to Devon and Somerset, and under our programme, which is worth some £50 million, it will reach 90% of premises. However, as my hon. Friend says, this is a very complex engineering project which involves very complex work. I am particularly happy to praise the work that BT has done in many areas where it is already well ahead of schedule.
Online Access (Disabled People)
The Government Digital Service launched the Government’s digital inclusion strategy in April 2014. BDUK is encouraging local authorities to work with Go ON UK to help people to get online.
Last month the charity Becoming Visible arranged for my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and me to meet a group of profoundly deaf constituents. I was struck by how much they wanted to participate and engage and, in particular, to find jobs—but not to be paid less than the minimum wage—and also by how excluded they felt by the lack of British sign language accessibility for the web. I am sure that there is a technological solution. What technologies is the Minister examining that could help those with disabilities, especially the profoundly deaf, to get online?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern. I have been encouraging the use of what is known as the video relay system, which enables people to talk to a British sign language interpreter online. I have written to the top 100 FTSE companies, but very few have replied, and I intend to follow that up soon.
One of the things that held the programme back was a costing of £100 million, which I considered fanciful. When BT installed the system, the costing was between £15,000 and £20,000. The system is very cheap, and companies should install it. The Government should install it as well, and I am trying to encourage my colleagues to ensure that they do.
Women in the Media
The Government are committed to improving equality of opportunity for women in the media industry. The Government are also helping women across all industries by reducing the cost of child care, addressing the gender pay gap, increasing flexible working, and introducing shared parental leave.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I ask her to address another aspect, which is the sexualisation of women and girls in the media? That was raised as a serious concern with me during a recent community consultation. Does she agree that this representation of women and girls is affecting behaviour across society? If so, what is she doing about it and will she join me in backing the Good Night Out campaign, which is working with pubs, clubs, bars and other venues to end harassment on nights out?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This is an important area and the Government are taking a lead. Through our body confidence campaign we have been working with industry to develop positive and diverse representations of women and girls in the media and to tackle and get rid of outdated stereotypes. The women’s engagement programme is also working hard, through a series of round-table meetings, to deal with many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Music Venues (Noise)
The Government have recently reviewed their legislation and believe that the law as currently constituted strikes the appropriate balance between considering the needs of venues and managing the adverse effects that can come from noise.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will know that many people are arguing for an agent of change law in this country, as there is in Australia. They do not believe that existing legislation protects venues from developers who are building around the venue then submitting noise complaints. The owner of The Fleece in Bristol says that
“the reality of the current situation could not be further from the picture painted in the planning practice guidance”,
and the venue’s representatives are back before the planning committee next Wednesday.
The Minister will very soon be getting an invitation to Venues day on 9 December, which will be held just across the river on the south bank. May I urge him to attend that, where he will meet many venue owners who will explain to him just how difficult the situation is on the ground?
The hon. Lady is a great champion of live music, so it does not surprise me that she is raising this issue, and I will certainly consider the invitation to Venues day. As for The Fleece, I understand that Bristol city council has imposed some acoustic restrictions on planned developments around it. The agent of change principle has only recently been implemented in Australia. Some elements of it exist in our own planning policies, but I will certainly raise that with planning Ministers.
I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) about venues. Is not the real solution to the problem to have much more effective regulation of noise from existing venues—strict noise limiters and so on? The problem is not string quartets or small jazz groups; it is heavily amplified popular music. I know people enjoy that, but should it not be limited in volume?
In effect, the hon. Gentleman’s question reveals the dilemma, because the hon. Member for Bristol East was raising the issue of new developments springing up and new residents complaining about a music venue that has been in operation for many years—the Ministry of Sound is the most high profile recent example. At the same time, as the hon. Gentleman says, residents will want to be able to sleep soundly in their beds at night. Squaring that circle is always the difficulty that councils and planning Ministers have to wrestle with.
Mobile Phone Coverage (Rural Areas)
I am pleased to say that mobile coverage is going extremely well. We have the fastest roll-out of superfast broadband in the world and the fastest take-up—6 million customers are already using 4G and 73% of the country is covered.
As my hon. Friend knows, we are looking at a system of national roaming. Ofcom has made it clear that it is technically possible, and we have every intention of proceeding with national roaming, unless and until the mobile operators can come up with proposals that will improve rural mobile coverage.
I am sure the Minister is aware that we are rapidly approaching the point when every farmer in the country will have to complete all their forms online. He will doubtless have had many discussions with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that. What, precisely, is the number of farmers who will not be able to access online services because they have neither mobile nor broadband coverage?
I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that our rural superfast broadband project is going extremely well, and we should have reached 90% of the country by the beginning of 2016, but broadband is already, in effect, universally available to 99% of the population.
We had an extremely good meeting with my hon. Friend and her East Anglian colleagues, and we are looking carefully at the proposals they made. Norfolk, Suffolk and many other counties in East Anglia are great examples of counties that do not just sit back but take the lead and come up with interesting initiatives and proposals.
The Minister will know that it is not just rural areas that suffer from poor mobile phone coverage. For example, mobile phone coverage is not available in many areas in the town of Wishaw. What assessment has been made of towns such as Wishaw?
As I say, we continue to work with Ofcom to identify not-spots, but at the moment the mobile phone companies are undertaking a rapid roll-out of 4G technology. Originally the licences would have required only one operator to provide full 4G to 98% of premises by the end of 2017. We expect EE to have achieved that by the end of 2014 and the rest of the mobile operators to have achieved it by the end of 2015.
I know that the Isle of Wight is benefiting from £6 million of funding and it should have reached 95% connectivity by next summer. We are undertaking pilots in 10 different areas to assess the costs of getting superfast broadband to the last 5% of the country.
Areas such as St. James South Elmham in my constituency face a triple whammy of very poor mobile coverage, an appalling landline service that is always being dug up and geographical challenges that mean we are towards the back of the queue for superfast broadband. Will the Minister provide initial encouragement, inducement and, if necessary, compulsion to network providers to ensure that communities such as St James South Elmham no longer have to put up with this intolerable service?
The phrase “With friends like this” is beginning to enter my head. At the risk of sounding like a scratched record, may I say that we have a fantastic rural broadband roll-out programme? About £1.7 billion is being put in to ensure that, by the end of 2017, 95% of premises in the UK—the whole of the UK—will have superfast broadband speeds of 24 megabits. That is a fantastic achievement and I look forward to subsequent contributions from my hon. Friends to highlight the amazing success of this programme.
Coastal Communities (Economic Regeneration)
I am delighted to move on to talk about the role of the arts and creative industries in supporting economic regeneration, particularly in the Folkestone and Hythe constituency, where a combination of Government support and the extraordinary work of the philanthropist Roger de Haan has seen more than 200 creative businesses flourish in a town that hosts the amazing Folkestone triennial.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I would like to extend an invitation to both him and the Secretary of State to visit the Folkestone triennial arts festival to see the creative-led regeneration of the old town of Folkestone, which, as he said, is creating hundreds of jobs and leading to hundreds of new businesses every year.
I certainly intend to do that. I was in my hon. Friend’s constituency in August and, as I walked with him down the promenade, literally thousands and thousands of his constituents were lining the streets cheering him. I thought that that was one of the most impressive receptions for an MP that I had ever seen, and Prince Harry, who was standing next to me, felt the same thing.
The Government note that UNESCO stands ready to facilitate mediation discussions on the Parthenon sculptures. We will consider the proposal and respond in due course. We are clear that the sculptures are legally owned by the British museum, which continues to provide access for all.
I am sure that if the UK is confident in its position, it will willingly engage with UNESCO in the offer of mediation. Although some might delude themselves on this matter, the fact is that parading stolen booty in the otherwise excellent British museum brings shame on this country. Surely the United Kingdom now needs to engage constructively and graciously recognise that the Parthenon sculptures should return to Athens.
We are engaging constructively. We will respond to the offer in due course. The suitability objectives and benefits of mediation need to be considered before that point, but I repeat that the sculptures are the property of the British museum, which provides access to all free of charge.
Can the Minister be a bit more specific about when the constructive engagement will come to a conclusion? The point made by the hon. Gentleman was that those items were stolen from the people of Greece, and there are very strong feelings in Greece about that. Perhaps our relationship with Greece would be improved if we constructively engaged with it with a view to returning some, if not all, of these items.
I am delighted to hear that question; I look forward to my hon. Friend’s constructive comments about the roll-out of the superfast broadband project, which has seen some £3.5 million invested in Greater Manchester. His point, though, is about the last 5%. As I have already mentioned, there is a £10 million fund and 10 pilot schemes to help us assess the costs of bringing broadband to the last 5%.
The problem is that the more the progress on rolling out superfast broadband to the 95%, the greater the disappointment and disillusionment among the remaining 5%, such as among residents in Affetside and parts of Holcombe and Hawkshaw in my constituency. I urge my hon. Friend to work with other Ministers across Government and the private sector to do all that is possible to speed up the delivery of better broadband and ensure that the final 5% do not become the forgotten 5%.
They are certainly not forgotten, which is why we are undertaking pilot projects. I am also pleased that in many rural areas the roll-out of superfast broadband is now ahead of schedule. I am certainly happy to look at the situation in Affetside and Holcombe where the cabinets are conversion-enabled. It might be that some of the premises are simply too far from the current cabinet.
We have always taken a technologically neutral approach. Obviously, satellite is available throughout the UK, and we have 4G mobile broadband rolling out commercially as well. Indeed the key point about the pilot projects, which I keep banging on about in relation to the last 5%, is that they are experimenting precisely with new technologies to provide cost-effective means of getting to the most difficult premises.
The Secretary of State is in India where he is banging the drum for British business, culture, sport and tourism. Today, he has been giving a speech on the importance of a free internet for the future prosperity of the UK, India and the world. He has also launched a new programme of sport and education for girls, supported museum partnerships between the UK and India and attended a memorial event to commemorate the contribution of Indian soldiers during the first world war. Here at home, his colleagues have also been busy, and we have confirmed our £90 million investment in a new model for English Heritage. In sport, I am pleased to say that all four home nations went undefeated in their European championship qualifying matches.
I particularly welcome that last point. If the research commissioned by the Responsible Gambling Trust into fixed-odds betting terminals is inconclusive or fails to provide coherent conclusions about the impact of the £100 maximum stake, will the Minister proceed on a precautionary basis and cut the maximum stake to £2 per spin?
T4. Tickets for the 2015 rugby world cup are going for eye-watering amounts on the secondary market. The official top price for England-Wales tickets is £315, but viagogo is selling them today at £1,136. What actions are the Government taking to stop fans being ripped off on the secondary market for the rugby world cup? (905483)
I am aware of those concerns, but I am very confident, having met Ticketmaster and seen its 10-point plan, that the tickets will get into the hands of rugby fans. I am sure that the event will be a great success and I ask the hon. Gentleman to take note of the fact that successive Governments and Select Committees have said that regulation should be a last resort.
T3. There are manifest and clear benefits from the game of chess as an educational and sporting tool, but while other countries continue to develop the game, in the UK participation is collapsing, particularly in the state primary school sector. Will the Minister meet me and other members of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on chess to discuss substantive and low-cost changes that we could make to help the sport? (905482)
It is now three years to the month since the Government published a response in which they said that they would set up expert working groups on the barriers to football fans’ owning football clubs. Yesterday, the Minister said that she has set up the expert working group—three years on. She went on to say that it will consider some of the consumer issues about pricing. I have the report in my hand and it clearly says that the expert group will look into issues to do with supporter ownership of football clubs, so the Minister seems to have rewritten the terms of reference. Can she tell us who is on the working group, when it will meet and whether the members of the group know that she has rewritten the terms of reference? Is it not actually the case that the Government have used the expert working group to avoid giving football fans a real voice in the running of their football clubs?
I do not accept anything that the hon. Gentleman has just said. I am determined to set up this expert group of supporters, which is about to be launched. We have members, we have a chair, with whom I had a meeting very recently, and the hon. Gentleman will hear announcements very soon. The group itself will consider ownership, debt and all the various issues that are likely to be of concern to fans.
Clonter Opera theatre in Congleton has produced highly professional productions for 40 years as well as educational events. Last month, I enjoyed an excellent production of Gounod’s “Faust”, which transferred to London. However, despite strong local support, the future of Clonter is now in question. Will the Minister meet me and Clonter to discuss how support can be obtained to ensure it continues to make its unique contribution to arts in the north for many years to come?
T5. Does the Minister agree that we should be very concerned about the early sexualisation of children through exposure to pornography? May I share with him the thoughts of my constituent, who, on getting a new free service for their television, found that their children had access to free pornographic sites? What can we do to protect children from that kind of exposure? (905484)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have worked with internet service providers to supply free filters that can be fitted to consumers’ internet connections. They are working to put together a £25 million a year campaign called Internet Matters, but we should certainly examine the point that he raises as well.
The all-party group for women in Parliament produced a report a few months ago in which it examined sexism in the media. Will my hon. Friend look into that issue and work with the Minister for Women and Equalities to determine what we can do to hold the media to account?
T7. We are more likely to find high-stakes fixed odds betting terminals in deprived areas of urban constituencies such as mine than in the leafy towns of Suffolk, so it is betting shop staff in places such as Stockton and Billingham who will have to consider giving permission to punters who want to place stakes of greater than £50 a time. Will the Minister explain how the Government decided on the sum of £50, the criteria that they would have betting staff use when deciding whether to grant permission, and how the system will be monitored and enforced? (905486)
I congratulate the Minister on the fact that England’s museums and galleries attracted almost 5.9 million visitors in August. That figure was up more than 10% on the year before and represented the highest monthly total ever recorded. To what does he attribute that success?
T8. After a remarkable 43-year career as a reporter at the Corby Telegraph, Helen O’Neill retires next week. Will the Minister join me in sending congratulations to her and in saying that she shows the very best that local journalism and newspapers can be, and how much they can contribute to our communities? (905487)
I think that Helen O’Neill’s 43-year career in journalism is a testament to the fantastic contribution that local newspapers make to our democracy. I am pleased that I will be sitting down with the National Union of Journalists for a seminar on local newspapers because I, for one, want to do everything I can to ensure that they have a vibrant and brilliant future.
Unfortunately we ran out of time before I could ask Question 14, which was about the video games industry. The Minister is aware of how crucial that industry is to the economy of my home city of Dundee. What progress is being made on extending the three-year period for the skills investment fund?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mind that I often pray in aid Dundee as a brilliant example of a city that supports the video games industry. I am happy to tell him that the skills investment fund that we set up has put millions of pounds into skills training. Yesterday I attended the opening of the Industrial Light and Magic headquarters in London, which will employ 200 people in the visual effects industry, and we will certainly consider whether it is possible to extend the scheme.
Our competitors in shooting sports—rifle and shotgun disciplines—contributed some 20 medals at the Commonwealth games. The Minister will know that pistol shooting is restricted legally in the United Kingdom. What steps can she take to relax that restriction so that even more people can be introduced to pistol shooting and win more medals?
The Secretary of State said in September that the terms of reference for the BBC review would be published “very shortly”. Will the Minister tell us what “very shortly” means, and whether the terms of reference will take account of the impact of evasion levels and collection costs on the BBC’s funding?
Whitehall terms are often obscure. For example, it is well known that the Whitehall term “to be published in the spring” covers the period from February to November. However, “very shortly” means exactly what it says—we will publish the terms of reference very shortly. We will certainly take into account the hon. Gentleman’s point about the impact on the BBC.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Women are central to our plans to create economic growth. We have introduced new measures to support those who want to start up or grow their business, for example through StartUp loans or the new enterprise allowance, both of which are seeing very good take-up by women. We have also appointed the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) as the Government’s women’s enterprise champion to advise on what more can be done to support women entrepreneurs.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Emma Sutor on the success of her company, and the many women following suit and setting up their own businesses. As well as running companies, women such as Emma have an important part to play as inspirational role models for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. I encourage other women to consider accessing our Government schemes. It is also right to point out that we are on track to meet the Prime Minister’s pledge to be the first Government in modern history to reduce the overall cost of domestic regulation on business, rather than increase it.
Many women set up as freelancers in order to benefit from the flexibility that provides. However, a recent report has shown that there is a disincentive in the tax system for freelance entrepreneurs to invest in new skills and that, over time, that means the skills of the self-employed are not updated in line with those of the employed. Will the Minister agree to look into that, perhaps with Treasury colleagues, to see how that disincentive can be removed?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to my attention the “Going it Alone” report by Demos on the implications of the growth of self-employment. The Government recognise the importance of developing the skills of female entrepreneurs, something the Women’s Business Council has also highlighted to us. She will understand that it is not my role to write taxation policy, but I will be happy to discuss it further with Treasury colleagues.
Has the Minister noticed that, possibly because men have not yet colonised it, so many superb women are coming through in crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, and will she congratulate them and encourage more women to use crowdfunding to set up their own businesses?
In fact, I have noticed. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and would like to congratulate all the women who are setting up businesses in this country and obtaining funding, whether via crowdfunding or any other sources. It is worth pointing out that in 2012 20% of our small and medium-sized entrepreneurs were either run by women or by a team that was over 50% female, which is an increase from 14% in 2008.
The Minister will recognise the importance of the Federation of Small Businesses in encouraging women to come forward and become entrepreneurs, particularly the FSB breakfast clubs, such as the one in Kettering, which give women the opportunity and confidence to get plugged into local business networks.
I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about the importance of the support that organisations such as the FSB can give to anybody thinking about setting up a business. I would like to draw the attention of all entrepreneurs, but particularly female entrepreneurs, to a new web page for potential and existing female entrepreneurs on the Great Business website—greatbusiness.gov.uk.
The gender pay gap is falling steadily over time, and the full-time pay gap has now been almost eliminated for women under the age of 40. We are promoting pay transparency through the Think, Act, Report initiative and encouraging girls and young women to consider a wider range of careers, including better-paid jobs in science, technology and engineering, through the Your Life campaign.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but how can we judge what progress is being made without the hard data? What can she do to ensure that employers, particularly larger employers—surely it is within their capacity—publish the data so that we can make those kinds of judgments?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that transparency is a really useful tool in being able to make progress on the pay gap. As I have said, with the Think, Act, Report initiative, to which more than 250 companies are now signed up, two thirds are now publishing more information on gender equality, and we are encouraging more and more to undertake equal pay audits. He might also be aware that Grazia magazine—I am sure that he is an avid reader—has been campaigning for further progress on pay transparency, particularly in relation to section 78 of the Equality Act 2010. I think that there will be a significant debate on that in the months running up to the election. As he will know, our party has signed up to that campaign, as I hope others will in future.
As the Minister indicated, one of the reasons for the pay gap is the under-representation of women in high-paying careers such as IT. Wednesday was Ada Lovelace day, celebrating the world’s first computer scientist. In the intervening time, we have gone from 100% female to only 17% female in this area. What progress is the Minister making in changing that?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. I praise her for the work that she has done in highlighting the importance of women in engineering, science and technology careers. I mentioned the Your Life campaign. We are working alongside the different professional bodies within these industries to encourage more young women to study these subjects at school, because that is absolutely crucial if they are to be able to go on to study them at university and go into such careers. We are focusing particularly on significantly boosting the number of girls taking physics and maths A-level. This is work in progress—there is a lot more to do—but we have significant projects under way to deliver it.
As I said in yesterday’s debate on the national minimum wage, great shock has been expressed in all parts of the House about Lord Freud’s remarks, which in no way reflect the opinion of the Government. It is therefore quite right that he has apologised in full for those remarks. It is right to set out on the record that people in all parts of the House believe that the minimum wage should be paid to anybody in work, whether they are male, female, disabled or not disabled. Whatever their characteristics, it is absolutely vital that that is the case.
The Church of England measure that we are going to consider in this House on Monday provides in clause 2 for an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 that says:
“The office of diocesan or suffragan bishop is not a public office.”
Why on earth are the Government allowing the Church of England to bring forward a measure that would carve it out of equality measures just at the time when it is finally allowing the ordination of women bishops?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; he is an avid campaigner on these issues. I think there is great joy about the new measures on women bishops that will come forward for debate on Monday. We need to look at what requirements are needed by religious organisations, as there may well be some cases where they need particular provisions to be made. I will happily look into the issue and write to him.
The Government want half of new public appointments to be women by the end of this Parliament. The Cabinet Office has established the Centre for Public Appointments, which is supporting Departments in modernising recruitment practices, removing long-standing barriers, and emphasising skills and ability over previous experience. This has attracted a more diverse field of candidates to these important roles. The proportion of new female appointments stood at 39% last year, but there is clearly more to do.
Does the Minister agree that as well as board appointments, it is vital that we have more women chief executives in public sector roles? Will she pay tribute to Ros Tolcher, who has become the chief executive of Harrogate hospital, which serves part of my constituency, taking to 100% the female leadership of NHS hospitals supporting Skipton and Ripon?
I certainly support the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the excellent senior women delivering public services in his local health care system. It is important that we have women on boards but also in executive roles. We have been making progress on this in the private sector, although there is clearly a lot more to be done there as well. The executive challenge has perhaps been a slightly more difficult nut to crack at the same speed at which we have been able to improve the numbers of women on boards more generally. The work we are doing to improve the pipeline support for women in the workplace is absolutely vital.
Yesterday Google and Facebook announced that instead of pursuing family-friendly practices, they were offering women a chance to freeze their eggs for 10 years, in essence saying, “If you want to get to board level, you should have frozen your eggs.” Is not this the worst case of institutional sexism, intimidating women into not having babies at the time of their own choosing? Will the Minister unequivocally condemn those companies?
It is up to individual companies to decide which policies they want to offer and, indeed, up to women employees whether they provide any kind of incentive or otherwise. What is important is making sure that there are genuine choices that women in the workplace can make so that they do not feel under any kind of pressure to delay starting a family, if that is what they want to do at a particular point in their career. The Government’s changes to make the procedures for maternity leave and shared parental leave much more modern are essential in making sure that women and men can make the parenting choices that work for them.
Violence against Women
I have regular meetings on this important issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the latest as recently as yesterday. The Ministers for Women and Equalities also attend the quarterly Home Office inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls. The group will meet later this month to discuss progress against the action plan to end violence against women and girls.
On Tuesday, I raised with the Attorney-General my concern that support for two victims of domestic violence in my constituency had not been properly co-ordinated by the various services, leading to two very vulnerable women feeling extremely isolated and in turmoil. He has agreed to look into the cases and I would be grateful if the Minister did likewise so as to ensure that we have a seamless and co-ordinated support service for victims of violence.
I agree with my hon. Friend on the need for a seamless support service for victims. We want victims to be absolutely at the heart of any cases that are brought. I cannot comment on individual cases, but, as my hon. Friend has said, he has raised the issue with my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I hope he will supply him with details. I am happy to have a conversation with the Attorney-General about any points that can be raised and learned from such cases.
The new rape action plan will aid the Government’s drive to ensure that every report of rape is treated seriously and every victim given the help they deserve. I recently announced two new support centres, which will open in Grantham and Crawley, offering victims access to expert advice, support and counselling. That means that this Government have met their commitment to open 15 new support facilities across the country in this Parliament.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Education is at the heart of this Government’s approach to preventing violence against women and girls. It is a topic that schools may include in personal, social, health and economic education. To further support teachers we have set up an expert group on PSHE and we are also extending funding to the PSHE Association to provide specific guidance on consent. Our prevention campaign, “This is Abuse”, encourages teenagers to rethink views about rape, consent and violence in relationships.
I welcome the Government’s consultation on widening the definition of domestic abuse. May I highlight in that context the creation of the Hollie Gazzard Trust, named after a young hairdresser murdered in Gloucester by her ex-boyfriend? The trust’s goal is to help save lives by stopping domestic abuse before it is too late. It now funds awareness sessions in secondary schools by the Gloucestershire Domestic Abuse Support Service. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Nick Gazzard on that and other trust initiatives, which might be cloned elsewhere in the country and spread a powerful message of hope out of tragedy?
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the important work of the Hollie Gazzard Trust and congratulate Nick Gazzard on the work he and others have done to support it. I am aware of that tragic case and the devastating impact of coercive and controlling behaviour on its victims. In recognition of that, the Government definition of domestic abuse has been expanded to capture non-violent behaviour. We are now consulting on whether the law needs to be strengthened to keep pace with those developments and provide the best possible protection to victims.
The Minister spoke a lot over the conference season about the benefits of good quality sex and relationships education, which would go a long way towards tackling violence against women and girls. I agree with her: in SRE lessons at school all young people should be taught about healthy relationships, consent and respect for others. Unlike her, however, I am not the Education Secretary with the power to make that happen—not yet, anyway. Could we therefore see a little less conversation and a lot more action from the Minister on this topic?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady has been listening to what I have said. She will, I hope, know from my previous track record that I am all in favour of action, not just words. I think that PSHE is very important, and that sex and relationships education is also very important. SRE is already required to be taught in maintained schools, and many academies already do it. As I have said, the important thing is to emphasise particularly the relationships aspect, which is why I support the Government’s “This is Abuse” campaign. I intend to continue to look at these areas further.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills if he will make a statement on the proposal for Tata Steel to sell its long products division, and the resulting effect on the economy, manufacturing capability and employment in the United Kingdom.
Tata Steel yesterday announced that it is in negotiations to sell its long products division based in Scunthorpe. At the same time, it has committed to invest further in its Port Talbot strip products business as it focuses its European business on strip products. I can understand that any announcement of this sort brings uncertainty, and we will do all we reasonably can to support the companies in ensuring a competitive future for the business.
Hon. Members will know that, over the past four years, we have seen steel production restart in Redcar, we have introduced support for energy-intensive industries and steel production in the UK is higher now than it was in 2010. The steel industry has an important role to play in generating future economic growth. It underpins a number of key advanced manufacturing sectors, and sustains the livelihoods of many local communities.
Decisions on company ownership are of course commercial matters for the companies involved. Nevertheless, we are working with the metals sector to develop further our metals industrial strategy. The Government believe that there is a sustainable long-term future for the steel industry in the UK.
We have already taken the following actions. We are in contact with both companies to work to secure the future of the business. In India this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills met the global head of Tata, who re-affirmed his commitment to the British steel industry. The national infrastructure plan identifies a pipeline of more than 500 projects—costing about £250 billion to 2015—almost all of which need steel. That includes £1.4 billion in railway infrastructure, and 95% of the steel for the UK’s rail network will come from Tata Steel for the next five to 10 years. We have of course reduced energy costs, including through a £7 billion package for energy-intensive industries.
After decades of decline, steel production in the UK is rising, and we will not rest in our determination to ensure that manufacturing, including steel, has a strong future in our country. I commend this statement to the House.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. The House will appreciate the uncertainty and anxiety, as the Minister said, that yesterday’s announcement by Tata Steel will have caused for thousands of steelworkers, their families, affected communities and firms throughout the manufacturing supply chain.
I want the Minister to respond on four issues. First, steel is a vital foundation for much of the UK’s manufacturing supply chain. The UK is the leading global player in industrial sectors such as aerospace, automotives, construction and energy. The production of steel in the UK underpins—the Minister himself used that word—much of that competitiveness. Britain’s largest steel manufacturer is preparing to sell half its capacity, so what contingencies have been put in place to maintain and enhance the skills and manufacturing capability in this industry, and to ensure that they are not permanently lost to the UK?
Linked to that first point, what commitments have the Government obtained from the potential new owner on the maintenance of existing sites and industrial capability, the safeguarding of jobs, and additional investment? How binding are any of those commitments? Is the Minister concerned by the unions’ criticism of the absence of any consultation or communication with the work force so far, and what will the Government do about that?
Thirdly, the sale affects sites not just in Scunthorpe, but throughout England and Scotland. What discussions have the Government had with their counterparts in Scotland to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and united response for the good of the steel industry in the United Kingdom?
Finally, what will happen if the negotiations on the sale break down? It is clear that Tata wishes to divest itself of its long products division. What active role are the Government taking in the maintenance of the UK’s long products capability for the long term? What are the implications for the Government’s so-called “march of the makers”, which places high-value manufacturing at the heart of the economy? Should not an effective industrial strategy consider, identify and mitigate such risks? It is not good enough for the Government to say, “Let’s wait and see. This is a purely commercial consideration.” They need to show that they are prepared to act for the long-term good of the steel industry and UK manufacturing.
First, may I say that there is a remarkable amount on which the three main parties agree? I will go through the hon. Gentleman’s questions in turn.
The hon. Gentleman is right that steel underpins, quite literally, a huge amount of manufacturing and construction activity in the UK. We have taken strides to strengthen the skills provision for manufacturing, not least by strengthening and expanding the apprenticeships programme, but also more broadly. Should there be changes in employment, we will be there to ensure, as we do everywhere in the country, that people have the opportunity to reskill. However, that is not the situation at the moment because this is a sale.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the sale, we are consulting on strengthening the takeover code, as he knows, to ensure that the assurances that are given are binding. He talked about consultation and communication with the work force. Of course, the sale was announced yesterday, hence that is when the consultation and communication started. Although we are at an early stage, with the memorandum of understanding having just been announced, I would point out that the proposed purchaser brought a long products plant in Italy back into operation last year. We will, of course, be in constant communication with the proposed purchaser and Tata, as well as with the Scottish Government when devolved issues are concerned.
Finally, on the big picture of the long-term future of the steel industry, the Government have overseen an increase not just in the amount of steel that is produced, but in employment in the steel industry. Far from the fall of 8 million tonnes of steel that we saw between 1997 and 2010, there has been an increase under this Government. Clear action is being taken and we will not rest. While we will support all those who may be affected by this decision, that is by no means the path down which we are going. We will keep working to expand manufacturing, as we have done over the past four years.
This matter is not just about Scunthorpe. The Tata beam mill in my constituency makes beams of such high quality that they are in nine of the 10 tallest buildings in the world and the new World Trade Centre in New York. The Government must do everything they can to protect that capability. I thank the Minister for the steps the Government have taken on energy costs, but I ask him to look at the extra taxes that are still paid by energy-intensive industries in this country, which reduce their competitiveness and dwarf the extra levies on financial services.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in this area. The work that he did to restart steel production in Redcar was widely noticed. By getting on the plane around the world to bring investment into that plant, he bears personal responsibility for the restarting of that steel production. He makes an important point about the costs for energy-intensive industries. There is no point in having an economy like the one we had in the past, in which the costs that are laid on energy-intensive industries merely mean that the production moves to other jurisdictions, often with higher carbon emissions. We have taken £7 billion-worth of action, but I take on board his call for more.
My colleagues the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) share my concerns. They are not here today because they are hosting a visit of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) to northern Lincolnshire. The Minister says warm words, but we need actions. He mentions the pipeline of investment in steel products coming down the line, but how will the Government ensure through procurement that UK-made steel is used, not foreign steel?
I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done alongside his parliamentary neighbours. On getting UK content into UK projects, we must ensure, within EU competition rules, that the market is competitive; we cannot restrict procurement to UK projects. Within that, however, we can do everything to support UK suppliers into projects. For instance, the fact that 95% of the steel for the UK’s rail network is expected to come from Tata is important. We work on supply chain management to strengthen supply chains. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we cannot close the borders for procurement, not least because we must ensure value for money for the taxpayer.
May I direct the Minister to an article in The Economist that mentions Gary Klesch, head of the Klesch company, which is thinking of taking over this Tata unit? It states that:
“Europe needs people like Mr Klesch…he brings discipline and fresh ideas.”
Will the Minister reject the doom-mongering of the Labour party, and support Gary Klesch in making the most of this business?
I and the Government will do everything that we reasonably can to secure the future of steel production. Being open to international investment means that there are other opportunities; Tata itself is an international investor. None the less, while I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s argument, we must be vigilant and careful to ensure that should any changes be made, we are ready to support the local community.
The Minister has already said that he will talk to Gary Klesch and the Klesch group very soon, but will he also extend that courtesy to trade unions prior to meeting the Klesch group on the issue? Secondly, given that Tata has made this announcement about 50% of its European operations, which are primarily based in the UK, will the Minister also talk to Tata about its future developments in strip and tube? These types of decisions obviously lead to uncertainty, and we do not want to be here again in a few years’ time.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the tone of his question, and he is absolutely right. We are having those conversations—the Business Secretary is in India as we speak having those conversations with Tata. Tata also has big strip product operations in the Netherlands, but the other announcement it has made on investment in Port Talbot demonstrates its commitment to steel in the UK.
Given that 2 million more people have been employed in the private sector since the last general election, does the Minister agree that that should be a source of optimism for anyone who loses their job that they will find a new one?
Employment in steel manufacturing has gone up in the past few years, and unemployment in all the constituencies affected has come down. None the less, first and foremost my task is to ensure that we support the continuing development of steel manufacturing in the UK, and where there are changes to employment, that we support those who are affected. We will be vigilant in doing so.
Be in no doubt that thousands of steelworkers, suppliers and contractors had a sleepless night last night and woke up this morning with great fear for the future. That is not me talking up a doomsday scenario; that is the reality of working in heavy industry, especially the steel industry in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister give me a more specific answer than he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright)? It is now more than 24 hours since the announcement. Have the Government contacted the Scottish Government? If not, why not, and when exactly will they do so?
The Government are in constant contact with the Scottish Government. It is important to know what is devolved and what is not. Responding to changes in employment is a devolved matter, but support for the tax situation around energy-intensive industries is a reserved matter, so we have to make sure that each Government play their appropriate part.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that by lowering corporate taxes, ensuring that energy-intensive industries have preferential rates on energy prices, and creating a well-skilled work force and record numbers of apprenticeships, this Government are creating the potential for people to invest in industry in this country in the future?
It is not by accident that there has been an increase in steel production in the UK in the past four years. It has been achieved by active involvement, not only through the national infrastructure plan and getting procurement right, but through making the tax environment better and ensuring that people can invest in this country with confidence for the long-term future. It has also been achieved by the personal effort of Members of both coalition parties to support steel in the UK.
The Minister talks about the tone adopted by my colleagues and he is correct about that, but the tone from him and some of the comments from Government Members seem to be of an absolute acceptance that there will be job losses. I would be a little more impressed if, rather than the complacency we see from the Minister, the focus was on the preservation of the industry. If Gary Klesch did so well in Italy, then we should hear from Reuters, which says he has a record of swooping on ailing businesses in the United States—otherwise described as vulture capitalism, which I think is described as asset stripping in this country. What steps do the Government intend to take to ensure that that does not happen? There are 700 jobs at risk in our constituencies.
We are absolutely clear that the potential of the future for steel making in the UK is bright. We have taken action to remove some of the barriers that were put in place by the previous Government. I therefore reject the overly partisan tone that has been taken at times, not least because of the amount of work that has been put in to make sure that we have a strong and bright potential future. That involves, for instance, not just the changes to the takeover code, but the substance of ensuring that it is more competitive to make steel in the UK.
I am extremely concerned about this situation. Steel is absolutely vital for manufacturing businesses in my county of Staffordshire, such as JCB, Alstom, Jaguar Land Rover and many others. It is critical that this core capacity is retained. What work is the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills doing to encourage British businesses to invest in the steel industry, given that the UK has one of the world’s premier centres of capital-raising in the City of London?
In the question lies part of the answer. We have great capacity for production in the UK of products that require steel. There is, therefore, a strong market. Through our industrial strategies, we make sure that we are taking a broad approach to bringing together suppliers in different industries and making sure that all of those opportunities are available. I return to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). We cannot close the borders, but what we can do is make sure that UK companies are in a good position to bid for those contracts.
This year has seen a dramatic increase in imports of steel products that are in direct competition with some of those made in the factories that are being transferred to Klesch. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing in response to the evidence we have that the quality and traceability of some of those products is not up to standard? What is he doing to support the work of the Certification Authority for Reinforcing Steels to ensure a level playing field for UK producers and to ensure safety in the construction industry?
I am sure my constituents will be heartened to hear that both steel output and employment in steel manufacturing are higher than in 2010. Does the Minister assess the future for the UK steel industry as lying in specialised, high-valued-added steel products, in volume, lower-value-added production or in a combination of the two?
Our job is to support the industry in whatever commercial decisions it makes. Arguably, the UK is better placed for the high-end, high-quality, specialised steel making, but let us remember that Redcar brought back high-volume steel making to the UK, so I do not want to cut off any of these options; I want to support the development of all.
Those working in the steel industry in the north-east and elsewhere, and their families, will be increasingly worried by the pathetic laissez-faire attitude of the Minister. They want to know what he will do to support and protect the steel industry and the livelihoods it sustains in this country. In particular, on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), what protection will he give those families to ensure, for example, that their pension funds will not be raided by vulture capitalists?
When Labour was in office, there was no industrial strategy, but there is now, and clear action is being taken to support businesses, as demonstrated by the increase in outputs. In 1997, steel production was 18 million tonnes; it fell by almost a half to 10 million tonnes, but is now up to 12 million tonnes, which shows that we are determined to support the UK steel industry.
The Minister will be aware that many of the concerns about Tata apply to other steel manufacturers in the UK, including Celsa in my constituency. Does he agree that we have a significant problem, in certain markets, with dumping from countries outside the EU, particularly Turkey and China, which is causing huge challenges for those companies, as well as creating the energy problems we have heard about? Will he and the Welsh Secretary meet me, Celsa and others to discuss the challenges and to consider what urgent action can be taken to deal with them?
Of course, I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to consider what more we can do. As he knows, the Government’s record in supporting the steel industry is strong, and if we can strengthen it further, following his suggestions, I am absolutely up for that.
One thousand of my constituents are employed either directly in the steel industry or in related activities, so they are also very anxious about this matter. My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), has talked about the asset-stripping record of the potential buyers of the site. How can I assure the workers that the Government will act to protect their jobs and not allow yet another international company to move Teesside jobs elsewhere?
We can support the steel industry, as we have been doing, and ensure that, if there is a transition, we support those affected. The central point, however, is that the best way to secure the jobs that are increasingly available in Stockton and elsewhere in the country—[Interruption.] Unemployment has fallen by almost 30% in Stockton; the hon. Gentleman should look at our economic record in Stockton, because there and elsewhere, there are more jobs available, while, nationally, unemployment is falling at a record rate. [Interruption.] Opposition Members might want to close their minds to the success of the Government’s economic record, but their voters who have jobs and who can therefore provide for their families do not close their minds to it; their livelihoods are enhanced by the support we have given.
I hope the Minister will return to the issue at hand, because the Clydebridge plant in my constituency has a proud industrial heritage, and could have—and should have—a great future as well. I want to take him back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) made about procurement. The Minister said that he would not rest, so may I suggest one direction in which his activities could take him to ensure a proper, co-ordinated approach to procurement? The nationalists are not here, but recently we had the announcement of a Forth bridge crossing in Scotland, and initially it was announced that steel from China, not Scotland, would be used. Will his Department and the devolved Administration, where they are responsible, ensure that as far as possible UK steel is used for UK products?
That is an absolutely clear and direct statement that we can support. Where possible—a qualifier that I notice the hon. Gentleman used—we should ensure that we support the use of UK products. Of course, transport is a devolved matter, so I cannot take personal responsibility for decisions about bridges in Scotland. Nevertheless, making sure that we support the UK steel industry is, as I have demonstrated, a matter we take extremely seriously. I would be keen to work with the hon. Gentleman on ensuring that we have a bright long-term future for UK steel and support all those involved in the steel industry, as we have to date.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 20 October—Remaining stages of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, followed by motion to approve a Church of England measure relating to women bishops.
Tuesday 21 October—Second Reading of the Recall of MPs Bill.
Wednesday 22 October—Opposition day (7th allotted day). There will be debates in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, including on the National Crime Agency.
Thursday 23 October—Debate on a motion relating to repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, followed by debate on a motion relating to oral hormone pregnancy tests. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 24 October—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 27 October will include:
Monday 27 October—Second Reading of the Taxation of Pensions Bill.
Hon. Members will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the February recess at close of play on Thursday 12 February and return on Monday 23 February.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 30 October will be:
Thursday 30 October—Debate on the first joint report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, “Scrutiny of Arms Exports and Arms Controls”.
May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and February’s recess date? I note, however, that he has not announced a date for this Government to stagger to their painful and inevitable end—or should I say dissolution?
Six weeks ago, the House gave a Second Reading to the Affordable Homes Bill, which mitigates the cruel effects of the bedroom tax. A week later the House also gave a Second Reading to the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill. However, there is still no sign of the money resolutions that would enable either of them to progress to Committee, and the Tory wing of the Government are using parliamentary tricks in an attempt to subvert the will of the House. Will the Leader of the House now give us a commitment that he will respect the decisions of the House by bringing forward those two money resolutions ahead of any money resolution for the European Union (Referendum) Bill, which makes its predictable reappearance on Friday? Or is he so scared by the UKIP threat to his party’s election prospects that he is desperate to let the EU Bill jump the queue?
Yesterday the Prime Minister failed to defend his own welfare Minister, Lord Freud, who claimed that disabled workers are not worth the full minimum wage and promised to go away and think about making them work for £2 an hour. This was not just an unfortunate slip of the tongue; it revealed the truth about this Government’s attitude to people with disabilities, and straight from the mouth of the Minister directly responsible. Why is he still in his job? Is it because too many in the Tory party secretly agree with him or because the Prime Minister is too weak to act? Will the Leader of the House arrange for the publication of all documents commissioned by the Government on the disabled and the minimum wage? As the welfare Minister has been mysteriously pulled from his scheduled appearance in the Lords today, will the Leader of the House ensure that he is available to make a statement in the other place sooner rather than later? The Minister for Employment said yesterday:
“Those words will haunt him,”
but is it not the truth that those words will haunt this Government until Lord Freud resigns?
Senior Tories finally admitted this week that their toxic reorganisation of the NHS has been their biggest mistake in Government—and they are right. Patients are waiting longer in A and E; they are waiting longer to see their GP; and cancer waits are up. Before the election, the Prime Minister promised “no top-down reorganisation” and then embarked on one that has caused chaos and wasted £3 billion. According to senior Tories, as reported in The Times, the Prime Minister did “not understand” the reforms, but he forced them on the NHS anyway. Does the Leader of the House agree that these actions have done profound and intense damage to the NHS? Will he ask the Prime Minister to come to the House to explain why on earth he went ahead with it when he did not even understand it?
I would like to welcome to the House the newly elected Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). She will be a doughty fighter for her constituents and I congratulate her on her victory. I would also like to welcome to an entirely different place in the Chamber the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell)—the new Member for Clacton who has the distinction of being the old Member for Clacton. He should be congratulated on managing to win an election as both the incumbent and the insurgent all at the same time. I note that we will have another by-election in just a few weeks’ time, so let me say to the Leader of the House that to lose one MP may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two is just reckless!
The Conservative party conference in Birmingham might have got off to a bad start with yet another defection, but the swansong address of the Leader of the House steadied the ship. May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his 26th consecutive appearance on his party’s conference platform? Some of us remember his Wilsonian- style address as a precocious 16-year-old. The Prime Minister was so moved by the right hon. Gentleman’s final oration to the party faithful that he has proclaimed him as the greatest living Yorkshireman. This has caused much consternation. Teenagers think it is Louis Tomlinson from One Direction; Guardian readers think it is Alan Bennett and I, of course, think it is my dad. Deep down, however, we all know the truth. He spent years batting on a sticky wicket; he stood strong as his side was collapsing around him; and he made a return to the top team after years in exile. It is not the Leader of the House; it is Geoff Boycott.
Well, I join the hon. Lady in congratulating the two new hon. Members introduced to the House this week, although both are evidently a bit too busy to bother with the business of the House for next week. We of course congratulate all democratically elected Members. The hon. Lady has been very nice about my 26 years—indeed, 37 years—of speaking at Conservative party conferences. The truly greatest-living Yorkshireman would, of course, be too modest to mention the fact, so I shall say no more about that particular subject, but I thank the hon. Lady for drawing attention to it.
The hon. Lady asked about private Members’ Bills. Money resolutions are being considered by the Government in the normal way. She said that the referendum Bill was making a predictable reappearance. It is predictable because of the efforts of Labour Members to prevent any referendum from being held, opposing the wishes of the people of this country to have an in/out referendum on Europe, which is what Conservative Members will continue to advocate.
The hon. Lady asked about the remarks of Lord Freud. I feel passionately about this subject. I hope the hon. Lady will recall that I took the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 through this Parliament and I remain passionate about the rights of disabled people. It is right for Lord Freud to apologise unreservedly, which he has done. He said he was foolish to accept the premise of the question, which I think is right. It is right, too, however, to judge the Government on their record on these matters. Let me point out that overall spending on the main disability benefits will have been higher in every year to 2018 than it was in 2010, and that the number of disabled people in work is now 70,000 higher than it was at the end of the last Government. Those are the really important points. We have provided £400 million for carers to take short breaks from their caring responsibilities. Those are the things that really help disabled people, and I think Governments should be judged on their records. Lord Freud has apologised for his remarks. The hon. Lady asked whether the Prime Minister was too weak to dismiss him; I can assure her that the Prime Minister is never weak.
Talking of leaders, I read in “Labour Uncut” that a move was being planned on the Opposition Front Bench—a move
“so bold that it would reset the political clock… and demonstrate Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials.”
We are talking really bold here: incredibly bold. The centrepiece was to be a reshuffle of those on the Opposition Front Bench—I am glad to see that the hon. Lady is still in her place—which, in turn, was to centre on the ejection of the shadow Chancellor from his position, the well-known “nightmare”, according to the Leader of the Opposition’s advisers. But now, following the Heywood and Middleton by-election, the Leader of the Opposition has apparently decided that he cannot carry out the planned reshuffle; so he is not even bold enough to carry out his own bold plan to be bold. It is no wonder that the Opposition are so riven with speculation about the position of their leader.
The hon. Lady asked about the national health service. The number of doctors and nurses is now higher than it was at any point under the last Labour Government. There are fewer patients waiting longer than 26 or 52 weeks than there were under Labour, and there have been many other achievements, including a 98% reduction in mixed-sex accommodation, which is something that the last Government never achieved.
I noticed that the hon. Lady did not mention the deficit. We knew that the Leader of the Opposition had forgotten the deficit, but we did not know about the creeping amnesia among Opposition Members. Today, we offer a cheer to the first Opposition Member who mentions the deficit, and who remembers the need to tackle the deficit. While they are at it, the Opposition might also remember the economic news of the last two weeks. We have seen the largest annual fall in unemployment in history, the International Monetary Fund confirming that Britain is the fastest-growing economy in the G7, inflation remaining low, and the state pension rising by £75 more than inflation. None of those things ever happened under the Labour Government.
The Leader of the House is fully aware that there is one problem in this country that we do need to debate, and that is coastal erosion. In my constituency, which has a vast amount of coastline, we have the Environment Agency, the Crown, national Government, local government—both district and county—and European funding, but no one has taken responsibility for co-ordination. We have a serious situation for which no one has taken responsibility. May we have some time in this place to discuss a problem that affects constituencies all along the coastline of the United Kingdom, but which we are not addressing?
That is a very important issue, and I know that it is important in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The whole issue of flood prevention and, specifically, coastal erosion is of enormous importance, particularly in view of the weather events that have taken place in this country over the last few years. As he says, in many parts of the country there are overlapping responsibilities. My right hon. Friends who are responsible for these matters have ensured that investment in flood defences in general has been increasing in comparison with investment under the last Government. However, I think that my hon. Friend is well equipped to pursue this topic in, for instance, a Backbench Business debate.
I do not want to feel ashamed about the House, and I very rarely do, so will the Leader of the House assure me that we can have an urgent, full debate about the dreadful disease that is sweeping across Africa, the Ebola virus? The House has heard a statement, but we have not had a major debate. We owe Africa. Our forebears did dreadful things in Africa—slavery, and much else. We ought to take the matter seriously, but we are not acting fast enough to stop this dreadful disease.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the extreme importance of this issue. As he knows, the Secretary of State for Health made a statement in the House on Monday, and I have no doubt that Ministers will want to keep the House fully up date by means of statements and, if necessary, debates.
The hon. Gentleman talked, rightly, about our responsibilities to Africa. Let me reassure him. This country is now making an enormous contribution, a bigger contribution than any other European country, in sending 750 troops to Sierra Leone, in the work that we are doing to set up treatment and medical training centres there, and in the £125 million of assistance that we are providing. We are leading the way internationally in assistance to Africa: the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt about that.
We always expect a literary reference from my hon. Friend. I am not in control of the timing of the report’s release, although Ministers certainly hope it will be available in the not too distant future. My hon. Friend will recall that in 2006 I was moving motions from the Opposition Benches calling for such an inquiry that were resisted for two years.
I supported the Welsh nationalists and they often supported me, but Labour opposed setting up an inquiry. Had it agreed to it, the inquiry would have reported long ago. I certainly hope it reports before the general election, but I am not in control of that.
Last week we had the dreadful announcement that JTI Gallaher intends to close its Ballymena Lisnafillan plant, with the loss of 900 jobs—£60 million gone from the local wage economy and a further £100 million in associated industries. It marks the end of all manufacturing of tobacco products in the United Kingdom. Those jobs are equivalent to 10,000 jobs on the mainland, but the Business Secretary has not bothered to come to this Chamber to make any statement on that devastating loss, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not bothered to come to the Dispatch Box and speak about that loss, either. The sense of hurt and the sense that there has been a turning away from even caring about those jobs is palpable. Will we now have a statement?
The hon. Gentleman speaks up very powerfully for his constituency, and understandably so. I will certainly draw the attention of the Ministers concerned to the remarks he has made in the House today, but I see that he has secured an Adjournment debate on this on Monday 27 October, to which, of course, a Minister will reply, so he will be able to set out the case more fully then.
When I used to travel to Africa my passport was date-stamped with a visa on entry and date-stamped again on exiting the country. To assist in tracking those at risk of spreading Ebola—particularly transit passengers and those with complex travel arrangements—will the Leader of the House suggest that the relevant Ministers speak to the Governments of the affected countries and ensure they return to a rigorous system of date-stamping the passports of those leaving the country at airports and ports? It would be simple and inexpensive, and we could require carriers to police the system so as to minimise the effects of any corruption.
I will draw my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of my colleagues. She will be aware that Border Force officers will determine the travel history of passengers who have recently travelled from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone at passport control, and they can ask additional questions, and they can, of course, examine passports as well. All of that will be done, and is being done already. No system is completely foolproof and there are, of course, passengers who use e-gates and there are some with more than one passport, and passport stamps are not always legible. I can think of many problems with this, therefore, but we should not dismiss any constructive ideas, and I will make sure my hon. Friend’s idea is relayed to my colleagues.
Earlier in the week Members on both sides of the House voted by a huge majority in favour of UK recognition of Palestine as a state. What is the point of these Backbench Business debates if the Government simply pay lip service to them?
I do not think anybody taking part in the debate was under the impression that it was binding on the Government, but the House of Commons certainly passed a resolution and had a full debate. As the hon. Lady knows, it is our policy to recognise a Palestinian state at a moment when it can make a contribution to peace, including through a two-state solution and the creation of a viable sovereign Palestinian state. That remains the position of Her Majesty’s Government.
My hon. Friend might well want to promote a debate himself, which he can do through all the normal means. He is right about the implications of economic growth and the opportunities in the haulage industry. As he knows, we have seen 1.8 million apprenticeships start under this Government in the past four and half years, which is a dramatic increase. That can benefit all industries, but it is open to him to pursue the debate he calls for.