House of Commons
Wednesday 14 January 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
That is already Government policy. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Smith commission heads of agreement stated that the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Government are committed to publishing draft clauses in that respect by 25 January.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to that part of the Smith agreement, to which my party is also committed, not least because it will put an end to the attempts by some people to suggest that without the devolution of licensing, the Scottish Government are powerless to stop fracking if they want to. They already have powers over planning and regulation, but I hope that this change will close that argument down, to everybody’s benefit.
The hon. Lady is right to say that the Scottish Government have planning and environmental regulation powers that would enable them to block any fracking project they wanted to block. It is sensible, in the circumstances, that they should be given responsibility for the licensing of such activities as well. That will be done as part of the Smith process.
The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party have been pressing for the devolution of all powers over fracking for some time. Why have the UK Government ruled out devolving power over fracking licences until after the general election?
That is part of the timetable to which we are all committed. Until I heard the Deputy First Minister speak at the National museum, I had thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party was committed to it as well. We are proceeding with that speedy and tight process. I will publish the draft clauses before 25 August—sorry, I mean 25 January, which is, incidentally, before 25 August. With 25 January being a Sunday, we might even meet the deadline with a few days to spare.
Until now, the UK Government’s position has been to remove the right of Scottish householders to object to unconventional gas or oil drilling underneath their homes. What will the position be between now and the full devolution of powers over fracking? Will the Department of Energy and Climate Change give an undertaking that it will not issue any fresh licences?
The position will be as it is at the moment, which is that if there is any fracking project in Scotland, the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government will have the power, using planning or environmental regulations, to block it. They should not seek to push the blame on to anyone else.
11. I welcome what the Secretary of State has said. Recently, I wrote to the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism in the Scottish Government to ask whether it was their policy to block such developments. He wrote back to say that he endorsed the principle of robust regulation, but gave no answer on what their policy was. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to whether he has heard anything from the Scottish Government on this matter? (906928)
No, I am afraid that I cannot assist the hon. Lady in that regard. All I can do is point to the fact that the Scottish Government seem to be desperate to speak about the powers that are held by others, rather than about the way in which they will exercise the powers that they already have. Her constituents and others will doubtless draw their own conclusions.
The Secretary of State will be aware that, following the amendments that I moved in the Committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill yesterday, there has been movement from the Government, which we should all welcome. Will he help the House by clarifying the fact that having a licence does not enable somebody to undertake any extraction or exploration activity? It has been suggested that it does, but that is absolutely not the case.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts on this matter and, in particular, for tabling his amendments. As was made clear to him yesterday in Committee, the Government will return to the matter on Report. We will table an amendment that we believe will achieve the same end, which is the carving out of Scotland from those provisions in the Infrastructure Bill. He is absolutely right that licensing is just one element—it provides no overall entitlement. For fracking to go ahead, the Scottish Government have to give consent on planning and environmental grounds.
Labour recently called for immediate devolution in this area, and we welcome the Government’s response, which as the Secretary of State has said is part of the ongoing commitment to the Smith agreement. Where appropriate, the Government should move immediately to devolve the powers agreed by the Smith commission.
Today, the leaders of Scotland’s three largest cities, home to a quarter of Scotland’s population, have joined us in calling for job-creating powers to be devolved too. Will the Secretary of State bring forward a section 106 order so that those powers can go to Scotland as soon as possible and we can start the work to reverse the failure of this Government’s Work programme?
The hon. Lady and I discussed a section 106 order when we met recently, but I have to tell her that the route that she has identified—a section 106 order followed by a section 63 order—is not, in our view, the appropriate one to honour the commitments in the Smith programme. That would devolve competence to the Government in Scotland, not the Parliament, which would need a section 30 order. I just do not see how we will achieve that end in the time available to us in this Parliament, but we are determined that where there is a need for joint working between the two Governments to achieve a better transfer of power, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be engaged in that process.
Estimates of the number and proportion of children in relative low income are published in the National Statistics households below average income series. Those estimates are available for each financial year up to 2012-13, and they show that since 2010 the number and percentage of children in relative low income in Scotland have remained at 200,000 and 17% respectively.
It is incredible how complacent the Government are about the fact that child poverty in Scotland is increasing. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it is set to increase by a further 100,000 by 2020 if the current Government’s policies are followed. Is it not about time that both the UK and Scottish Governments, who seem to be relaxed about that increase in poverty, got together and worked out how we can effectively use policy on distribution so that the poorest can benefit?
I am somewhat surprised at the hon. Lady taking the nationalist line on the IFS figures. I completely reject those figures about prospective increases in child poverty in Scotland. This Government are not complacent, but what our policies have achieved are a reduction in unemployment, an increase in employment and wage increases outstripping inflation. Work is the best way out of poverty, and that is what this Government’s policy is.
The Child Poverty Action Group says that more than one in five children in Scotland are living in poverty, which is far higher than in many other European countries, and that the number is increasing as the days pass. Can the Minister explain why child poverty is continuing to increase under his Government?
I do not accept the premise of an increase. The Scottish Government’s most recent report stated that we should not take a snapshot and should instead look at indications over a longer period. I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) on one point, however: we have to see closer working together by the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and the third sector. That is the best way to achieve a reduction in child poverty.
National Insurance Contributions
3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on businesses in Scotland of the removal of the requirement for employers to pay national insurance contributions in respect of employees under the age of 21 and apprentices under the age of 25. (906920)
Abolishing employer national insurance contributions for under-21s is expected to help Scottish businesses save £45 million and support jobs for 138,000 young people. Extending that to apprentices under 25 will help about 31,000 apprentices in Scotland, and it will be more than £1,000 a year cheaper to employ an apprentice earning £16,000.
Is it correct that the employment level in Scotland rose to a record level in the last financial quarter—even higher than the UK average? Does that not demonstrate that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working across the United Kingdom and especially in Scotland?
Indeed, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is especially true in areas that are hardest to move, such as youth unemployment, which is down by 5.1% over the past 12 months. Of course it is still too high and of course there is still a great deal to do, but those figures and the ones that she has just mentioned demonstrate that the Government’s plan is right, that it is working and that we should not put it at risk by handing power to those who would just borrow, spend and play games for political ends.
When my right hon. Friend next travels down the A9, may I commend to him a stop in Brora to visit Highland Bespoke Furniture? It now employs six people as a direct result of the reduction in national insurance that has helped it to recruit further skilled work. Will the Government consider extending the scheme to workers over 25 who are coming back to work, as that would help further to expand that business and employment in that area?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I look forward to joining him in the not-too-distant future, and if Brora is a place in his constituency that he thinks I should see, I will be more than happy to go there with him. He is right to mention the opportunities that have been created as a result of this measure, and businesses the length and breadth of Scotland will tell a story similar to the one he has just related. On his proposal to extend the scheme, he will be aware that a Budget is coming up in March, and he or any hon. Member from across the House who wants to make representations can do so through the Scotland Office.
East Coast Main Line
The new deal the Government have signed for the east coast main line franchise with Virgin and Stagecoach will provide new services, new state-of-the-art trains with more capacity, and reductions in journey times.
I thank the Minister for that answer. He will know that the east coast main line is an important link through my constituency, but it has been reported that the new franchisee intends to drop one station south of Edinburgh from the line, raising fears that other stations may be dropped from the new service. Will he give an absolute assurance that, after the change of franchisee, services on the east coast main line will continue to stop at all the stations currently used?
I hoped that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues would welcome the new franchise with its services to Falkirk and Stirling. There is no suggestion that there will be any reduction in services, but I am happy to make further inquiries for him on that point.
Will the Minister acknowledge that to increase the reliability, speed and efficiency of the service between Edinburgh and Aberdeen on the east coast main line, we need an upgrade of that line, not least the ending of the single track south of Montrose? What steps can he and/or the Scottish Government, or the two together, take to ensure that investment?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that we actively engage in discussions with the Scottish Government on important strategic transport projects that impact the whole United Kingdom, such as the Forth crossing. I am sure that colleagues in the Scottish Government will have heard his points, and I will certainly raise them further with them.
The Minister said that my constituents can have confidence that there will be no reduction in the service on the east coast main line, but can he explain why the Minister at the Department for Transport who has responsibility for rail franchises said that the service at Dunbar was to be reduced?
It is important that the train services that are meant to run actually do so. The Minister will know that services on the east coast main line were severely disrupted on 27 December and two days later as well. Will he meet colleagues to try to ensure that when there are disruptions on the line—they were no fault of East Coast, by the way—they are dealt with more effectively, passengers are given real alternative information, and the system is made more resilient to such disruption?
Broadband and Mobile Phone Coverage
The Government’s superfast broadband rollout programme has provided over £120 million to the Scottish Government to improve broadband services. More than 160,000 additional Scottish homes and businesses now have access to broadband as a result. The Government have recently achieved a deal with the mobile network operators that will reduce complete not spots in Scotland by about two thirds, and partial not spots by one half.
I very much welcome that investment, but the money to bring superfast broadband to my constituency was handed over to the Scottish Government, who are supposed to be organising the delivery work. However, many of my constituents complain to me that neither the Scottish Government nor BT are able to tell them when, or even if, they will benefit from this project. Will my right hon. Friend please get on to the Scottish Government and tell them to publish a clear timetable for the delivery of this important work?
Unfortunately, this is a tale I hear as I travel around Scotland, especially in the highlands and islands. The communities my hon. Friend is talking to—I am sure he represents many of them—are not unreasonable, but they do want to know what to expect, so that they can plan for their services and their businesses. One would not think that it was that difficult.
Mobile coverage is an important social utility, as we have seen quite recently. Because of storms and lightning, BT lines have been down for weeks in parts of Lewis and Harris. Special thanks are due to BT and hydro engineers, who have been working hard in very bad weather to repair utilities. What are the right hon. Gentleman’s Government doing to ensure that island and rural areas are not left behind with 90% 4G telephone coverage, especially considering that 2G and 3G have been bad and that, with its high data speeds, 4G coverage is an excellent system for accessing broadband?
May I first join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the hydro engineers and telecoms engineers, who are working throughout the highlands and islands even as we speak? They provide an excellent service to our local communities and we should place on record our gratitude towards them. They work in very difficult circumstances.
On 4G coverage, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware of the deal my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made recently with mobile network operators. That offers the opportunity for greater coverage of 3G and 4G. We will need to see, when they come forward with the actual proposals, what that will mean for our communities, but I can assure him that I am keeping an eye on it.
In echoing and endorsing entirely the points made by my immediate highland constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), may I encourage the Secretary of State to stress to the Scottish Government the need in particular to draw BT’s attention to Openreach? It is ironically entitled, as constituents and consumers cannot reach it openly and cannot contact it directly, which is why they cannot get an answer to the legitimate question: when is last year’s £10 million investment of UK Government money actually going to meet their needs and be delivered?
It is clear, beyond any doubt, that a substantial amount of money is going in from this Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and European funds to this most important area of economic development. Responsibility for delivery, at the end of that money, rests with the Scottish Government. I take it, from the comments of my right hon. Friend and others in the House, that the Scottish Government need to be telling our communities more.
Someone once said:
“We have got to stop thinking of broadband and other connectivity issues as being some sort of luxury. It is as important to the future sustainability of our communities as having a supply of water or electricity.”
Does the Secretary of State still agree with his own words? If so, can he tell communities in Ochil and South Perthshire and elsewhere in Scotland why, when we have running water and electricity, we still do not have superfast broadband?
I absolutely stand by my own words. I recognised them as soon as the hon. Gentleman started to quote them. It is a view that I still hold and it is why this Government have made a substantial investment. If he has particular cases relating to delivery, which unfortunately we have passed to the Scottish Government, I am more than happy to help him in any way I can.
It was deeply regrettable that City Link went into administration over the festive period, particularly for its employees and contractors. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary spoke regularly with the unions to discuss the situation, and our focus now is on supporting those made redundant. The Department for Work and Pensions has been liaising with its counterparts in the Partnership Action for Continuing Employment service to ensure that support is available to those made redundant in Scotland.
Many people lost their jobs at City Link’s Eurocentral depot in my constituency. I have been struck by the fact that not only direct employees but many so-called self-employed subcontractors lost their jobs. In reality, the latter were solely employed by City Link and had worked there for decades. They have been left not just without redundancy payments but with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. What are the Government doing to ensure that bogus self-employment is tackled and that this never happens again?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, the administrators will provide a report to the Insolvency Service on what happened at City Link during the period immediately before the redundancies and administration were announced, and we will obviously reflect on that. I take on board her point about self-employed contractors, and I will raise that directly with DWP colleagues.
When I met workers from City Link this week, they told me they found out from the media on Christmas eve that their company was closing, and the redundancies were confirmed on Hogmanay. This is an appalling situation, and no worker should be treated in such a way. It is too late for those workers, but will the Minister ensure that his Government conduct a full and proper inquiry into the circumstances that led to the failure at City Link, so that workers can never be treated in that way again?
As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, the administrators will provide a report to the Insolvency Service. The Government have demonstrated, in their action over Comet, that if such a report highlights practices that should be investigated, they will be.
The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have made it clear that the Government are committed to delivering draft clauses by 25 January.
12. The Smith commission agreement contained a strong desire to see devolution extend to local government. Will the Secretary of State impress upon the SNP Government the need to embrace that desire, release their iron grip on power and devolve to local government? (906929)
Indeed. This is something we hear from communities across the country in Scotland. Power in Scotland has been sucked up, particularly from local councils, and exercised at the centre by the Scottish Government. That was not how devolution was ever intended to work, and they need to change their approach.
The Smith commission is not the only example of parties working together. Yesterday, we saw a fantastic example, when Scottish Labour walked through the Lobby with the Conservatives to support Conservative austerity. Does the Secretary of State envisage any other such “better together” moments coming before the next general election?
I commend my hon. Friend on his work in recent years on this serious issue. Tackling this problem is a priority for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I understand that the Minister with responsibility for culture, communications and creative industries will meet him later today to discuss the matter.
Over the last two years, trials run by councils and trading standards officers have installed call blockers in the homes of 400 older and vulnerable Scots, blocking more than 100,000 nuisance calls, improving their quality of life and protecting them from becoming the victims of scams. Does the Minister agree that the time for pilots is over, as the technology is proven, and that we need to establish a national scheme to protect 300,000 Scots rather than just 300?
I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important issue. The pilots have been necessary to test the technology involved. I am sure he will be able to make that very point to the Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport when he meets him later today.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 January. (906978)
Given the damaging uncertainty over future investment in jobs that the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation strategy is creating in the business community, will the Prime Minister today give a guarantee that he will not support an out vote in any future in/out EU referendum?
I am sure the whole House will want to honour the bravery of NHS Ebola volunteers and welcome the news that Nurse Pauline Cafferkey is off the critical list. As the Oxford vaccine group moves to the next stage of its Ebola trial, will the Prime Minister congratulate it on its outstanding work so far and offer all possible support in the race to develop this vital vaccine?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I am sure everyone is thinking of Pauline Cafferkey. It is very good news that she is out of critical care, but there is still a long way to go. What my hon. Friend says about developing a vaccine is vital. The Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is leading the work on this, ensuring that we do everything to cut through some of the bureaucracy that would otherwise be in place, so that we can develop a vaccine fast.
The whole country, across all faiths and communities, felt a sense of solidarity with the people of France following last week’s dreadful attacks. Those who seek to terrorise and divide us should be in no doubt: they will fail. This House of Commons has sent a clear signal on this issue: we are united.
Turning to the actions that need to be taken, does the Prime Minister agree with me that a key objective of our counter-terrorism efforts must be to prevent young people from being drawn into violent extremism in the first place? Does he also agree that the programme designed to tackle the problem, Prevent, needs to be expanded so that it supports, in particular, community-led action and is given the priority it deserves?
Let me agree with the right hon. Gentleman about how important it is to stand together in favour of free speech, freedom of expression, the rule of law and democracy—the values that we hold dear. I think the demonstration in Paris and the outpouring we have seen both here and around the world against these horrific attacks shows that those values will not be defeated.
On what the right hon. Gentleman says about what must be done, we have to prepare for any attack that could take place. That means making sure that we fund our counter-terrorism policing properly, as we do. It means reaching out to potentially vulnerable groups of people—for instance, I met the Jewish Leadership Council yesterday. But as the right hon. Gentleman says, it also means confronting the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism. That is what we are doing through putting a duty on every public organisation to confront extremism wherever they find it, whether that is in universities, schools, on campuses, in prisons or elsewhere. That is what the Prevent programme, which we are expanding, is all about.
Let me associate myself with what the Prime Minister said, and particularly what he said about anti-Semitism and prejudice wherever we find it. On the point about British citizens who travel to Syria to participate in the conflict, does he agree that, with more than half of them having returned, we need to do more? In particular, does he agree that we need a much more rigorous approach, including compulsory engagement with de-radicalisation programmes to turn people away from violent extremism?
I think it right for us to we do everything we can to stop people travelling to Syria to take part in these activities, and that is what the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill—which is going through the House of Lords right now—is intended to do; but also, as the right hon. Gentleman says, people coming back to this country should be looked at on a case-by-case basis, and in every case consideration should be given to whether they would benefit from a counter-radicalisation programme.
As for the Prevent programme, it was reviewed by Lord Carlile in 2011, and he said of that existing programme:
“there have been cases where groups whom we would now consider to support an extremist ideology have received funding.”
That is why we changed Prevent. We are now expanding the programme, and, as the right hon. Gentleman says, we need to ensure that everyone who would benefit from counter-radicalisation gets it.
Let me make one final point, in, I hope, a spirit of friendliness across the House. One or two people, referring to our current situation, have said that this is something of a zombie Parliament. Let me point out that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is absolutely vital to the defeating of terrorism, is being discussed and debated in the Houses of Parliament right now.
I am glad that we can work across parties on that issue, and we will endeavour to continue to do so. Let me now turn to an issue on which there is less agreement. In May 2010, speaking about the television debates, a party leader said:
“it would have been feeble to find some excuse to back out so I thought we’ve got to stick at this, we’ve got to do it.”
Will the Prime Minister remind us of who said that?
I will debate with anyone whom the broadcasters invite, but the man who said that it would be feeble to back out of the debates was the Prime Minister. Now, we all understand that as long ago as last Thursday his abiding passion was to give the Green party a platform, but it is frankly a pathetic excuse. [Interruption.] It is not for him, it is not for me, it is not for any party leader to decide who is in the debate. It is up to the broadcasters. That is the country that we live in. Is the Prime Minister really telling the people of Britain that he will seek to deny them the television debates if he does not get to choose who is in them?
We had a set of European elections last year, and UKIP and the Greens both beat the Liberal Democrats, I am afraid to say. It is very simple. You either have both of them, or you have none of them. So let me ask the right hon. Gentleman again: why is he so chicken when it comes to the Greens?
There is only one person who is running scared of these debates, and that is this Prime Minister. When he says that he does not want to take part because of the Greens, no one, but no one, believes him—not the people behind him, not the person next to him, not the country. However he dresses it up, everyone knows that he is running scared. These debates do not belong to me, and they do not belong to him. They belong to the British people. What does he think gives him the right to run away from these debates?
There are two credible sets of debates. You can either have a debate with all the national parties who appear in the House, or you can have a debate between two people, one of whom will become Prime Minister—or you can have both. Those are the credible debates. So I ask the right hon. Gentleman again: when he looks at the Green party, why is he so scared?
Is it not interesting, Mr Speaker? With just 10 of these sessions to go, the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate having a debate. He cannot talk about unemployment, because it is coming down; he cannot talk about growth in the economy, because it is going up; he cannot talk about his energy price freeze, because it has turned him into a total joke. I have to say to him that the more time he and I can spend in the television studio and on television, the happier I shall be. But please, if he has any more questions left, will he ask a serious one?
The former Prime Minister Mr Blair had to be summoned to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday to reluctantly give evidence. We now understand that the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, is refusing to give evidence to another Select Committee on the grounds that he is a Member of Parliament. He is also a paid public servant. Is it not time that we reviewed the matter of parliamentary privilege in this place?
I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. Obviously it is a matter for the Select Committee and the House, but the general rule should be that people involved in the senior management of the BBC who are summoned to appear in front of a Select Committee should come, because the BBC needs to be, and is, publicly accountable. I think Lord Hall does a very good job at the BBC, and I am sure he would give a good account of himself, but I will have a careful look at what my hon. Friend says.
Q2. At the Liaison Committee meeting on 16 December the Prime Minister promised to look into the full publication of the extensively redacted DEFRA report on shale gas rural economy impacts. Has he looked into this, and is he now going to insist on full and unredacted publication? (906979)
Q3. In a speech last week the director general of MI5 identified a number of important gaps in its surveillance which need to be addressed in law. Some have called that a breach of civil liberties, and others have said that it is just another snoopers charter, but does the Prime Minister agree that public safety must come above everything else and that civil liberty must include not being bombed, shot or beheaded by some deranged jihadist? (906980)
I agree with my hon. Friend that the first duty of every Government is to keep the country safe. We certainly do not do that by trashing our own civil liberties and traditions. When it comes to this vital issue of being able to have proper surveillance of the communications of potential terrorists, up until now this Parliament and British Governments have taken a very clear view: whether it has been about looking at letters, or about fixed telephone communications or mobile communications, we have always believed that, in extremis, on the production of a signed warrant from the Home Secretary, it should be possible to look at someone’s communications to try and stop a terrorist outrage. The decision we have to take is: are we prepared to allow in future, as technology develops, safe spaces for terrorists to communicate? The principle I think we should adopt is that we are not content for that to happen, and as a result we should look to legislate accordingly.
Raif Badawi faces 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison because he wrote some articles with which his Government disagreed. Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the barbaric and mediaeval regime of Saudi Arabia, and does he believe that our international alliances should be founded more on human rights and less on economic muscle?
Q4. Unemployment down 44%, youth unemployment down 45%, long-term unemployment down 44%, business start-ups up 31% and 800 apprenticeship starts—all in the last year in South Basildon and East Thurrock. What does my right hon. Friend think that says about our long-term economic plan? (906981)
I am delighted at the news that my hon. Friend brings. It is remarkable how in almost every constituency in this House the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is down and the number of young people claiming benefit is down. There are 224,000—almost a quarter of a million—more people in work in the east of England as a whole. Those are statistics, but every one of those statistics is about someone who is going out and earning a wage, supporting their family and managing to achieve a better standard of living. That is what we must continue with, and that is why we must stick to the long-term economic plan.
We said we would get the deficit down and the deficit is down by half as a share of our national economy, from the disgraceful situation left by Labour. I thought the hon. Gentleman would take the opportunity to talk about the vital steel interests in his constituency, which we will be talking about later today. We are working as hard as we can to make sure we keep steel production growing in our country, but as the hon. Gentleman has introduced a political element, so might I. Under this Government steel production is up, whereas it was down under Labour. Under this Government employment in the steel industry is up, whereas it was down under Labour. Why is that? Because we have a car industry that is growing, an aerospace industry that is growing, and construction is growing. We are getting Britain back to work.
Q6. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past 12 months, more than 60 journalists have been killed in the course of their work, including those at Charlie Hebdo last week? Just five weeks ago, I and several other Members of Parliament attended the signing in Paris of a declaration by representatives of every European country, recognising the vital role of journalists in a free society and pledging to do everything possible to protect their safety. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that commitment today? (906983)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in supporting the freedom of the press and I certainly reiterate what he says today. This most struck me when I visited Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, and went to see a newspaper office that had been shot up, bombed and burned. That brings home what journalists in other countries have for years faced in bringing the truth and putting it in front of the people, which is a vital part of a free democratic system. Obviously, the events in Paris are truly horrific, and the duty of everyone in public life is not necessarily to say whether or not we agree with this or that being published—everyone can have their opinion; it is not that that matters. What matters is that we should always defend the right of people to publish whatever is within the law and in their opinion right to publish. That is our job and we must do it properly.
Q7. We are seeing a meltdown in emergency care, yet the Prime Minister’s Health Secretary accuses us of whipping up a crisis. Is it not time for some honesty? This Government are simply failing our NHS. (906984)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the NHS because, absolutely, we do face real challenges this winter with the pressures on A and E. But in her own constituency, the Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust proved what can be done with the extra resources that we are putting in and the excellent management of that hospital. Last week, 96.6% of people going to A and E in her constituency were seen within four hours.
Q8. Last week I met Chloe, a care assistant apprentice who started her apprenticeship after visiting my most recent jobs fair in Halesowen. Will the Prime Minister congratulate all those people who have got jobs and started apprenticeships in my constituency since 2010, where unemployment has fallen by 30% in the last year alone—further evidence that the Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering better quality jobs and opportunities for people across Halesowen and Rowley Regis? (906985)
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Chloe on starting her apprenticeship. In his constituency, nearly 4,000 people have begun an apprenticeship since 2010 and the claimant count there is down 42% since the election. The long-term youth claimant count—that should be of the greatest concern to us, because that is young people on unemployment benefit month after month—is down by 58% in the last year alone. This recovery is gathering pace and is providing jobs for people, and each one of those jobs is a chance for them to provide a better future for their families. But we must stick to the plan and a key part of the plan is getting the deficit down.
Q9. Ambulance trusts are under such pressure that they are downgrading calls from some of the sickest people in the country. In the East of England area, 57 people are believed to have died while waiting for an ambulance that never arrived. Is not the Prime Minister ashamed that this is what happens when the Tories run the NHS? (906986)
Clearly, what happened in East Anglia was wrong, and the change was made without the knowledge of the trust’s board. As soon as it was found out, the chief executive reversed the decision and ordered that an independent investigation be carried out by someone outside the trust. That investigation found that there had been no harm to patients, and I think it is important to put this in context. The hon. Gentleman quite rightly says that it is important that we conduct this debate in a good and civilised way. At the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition was asked seven times whether he had used the phrase that he wanted to “weaponise the NHS”. Seven times he refused to answer the question. Everybody knows that he said those words, and if he had a shred of decency in him, he would get up and explain that he should not have said those words, and apologise.
A few weeks ago, a tragic event occurred in my constituency when a five-year-old girl, Andrea Gada, was killed in a traffic accident. Since then, Eastbourne and her school, Shinewater primary, have rallied round to support her parents and the rest of her family. They have raised money to try to bring her grandparents and her aunt over from Zimbabwe to Eastbourne to join the family at the funeral, but the Home Office has refused those relatives entry, saying that they would abscond. The parents have given me an undertaking that this will not happen, and I have gone a step further and said that I will act as a guarantor that the relatives will return to Zimbabwe. The Home Office’s decision is cruel and unkind. Prime Minister, will you intervene?
It is absolutely horrific when children are killed in accidents like this, and we all know of individual cases in our own constituencies. It is heartbreaking when it happens. I will certainly look at the case—I was just discussing it with the Home Secretary—and make sure that the Home Office has a careful look to see what can be done.
Q10. The Prime Minister will be aware that members of the public and small businesses across the UK have had to endure very high fuel bills in recent years when oil prices were averaging more than $100 a barrel. In recent weeks, that price has dropped steadily and now stands at less that half that level. However, fuel prices at the pump have not been reduced by anything like that amount. Last week, the Chancellor indicated that some action would be taken against the fuel companies. Will the Prime Minister outline what action that will be? (906987)
First, we should welcome this fall in oil prices. We are beginning to see prices fall quite substantially at the pumps, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to see them go down further and faster. Some of this will depend on the buying strategies that the fuel companies had, but we will ensure that the competition authorities and the Government do everything they can to ensure that those fuel prices are passed on.
On 30 January, I shall be holding a dementia summit in my constituency to bring together some of the fantastic work that voluntary sector organisations such as Wetherby in Support of the Elderly—WiSE—and Peter Smith in Rothwell have done on dementia. Does my right hon. Friend agree that dementia is one of the biggest challenges that this country faces in the coming century? Does he also agree that we need a strong economy if we are to be able to invest in dementia research?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a crisis for our country. It has been creeping up like a sort of silent crisis, because the diagnosis rate has not been high enough and I do not think there has been enough action across our communities to join up and deal with it. That is now happening, however, and we have a clear dementia strategy. We are doubling the amount of money going into research and we are training many more people in our NHS and our care homes to deal with people with dementia better. Also, we are ensuring that more people in the community become dementia friends, with a target of more than 1 million people doing so. We had a session in Cabinet the other day at which every member of the Cabinet became a dementia friend. I commend what my hon. Friend is doing in his constituency—I did the same in mine—getting together all the organisations that can help people with dementia so that we can spread the word about good practice. People with dementia need not only great health care but help when they are at the post office, the bank and the building society, and when they are on the bus or at the train station. They need help in every part of their life and we all have a role to play.
The fact is that nation wide we have 3,300 more nurses, and I can give the hon. Gentleman some figures for his own constituency. The NHS Redbridge clinical commissioning group is this year getting an increase in funding of 4.79% and the numbers of staff in it are up. If we look at Barts hospital, we see that last week over 6,630 people were seen within four hours, and performance across the London area has been very good. I make one further point to him, which he might want to bring home to his own local authorities—this is important when we consider what is happening in social care. He has two local authorities: Redbridge, which has seen its reserves go up by £65 million since 2010; and Waltham Forest, whose reserves have gone up by £26 million since 2010. That is what is happening and that actually would fill the gap. Finally, let me give him the information on Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Newham as a whole in terms of the winter funding money: that has provided 22 more doctors, 27 more nurses and 146 more beds.
Q12. There are over 3 million people with diabetes in this country, and today Diabetes UK has published its state of the nation report. It calls for education to help people prevent type 2 diabetes; education so that people know when to approach their general practitioner with symptoms of type 1 or type 2; and education of people with the condition so that they can self-manage and take pressure off the NHS. Will the Prime Minister look at the report and act on its findings? (906989)
I will certainly look at this report, because, of all the health care conditions, diabetes is one of the ones where, if we act on it fast, we could have a huge knock-on effect on the NHS. If we look at the costs of things such as amputations and other treatments because people are getting diabetes, we see that we could make an enormous impact. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people being able to self-regulate. An enormous amount of exciting new technology is coming forward on diabetes, and I want to make sure that that technology is rapidly adopted by the NHS.
The OBR says exactly what the Treasury says, which is that everyone who last night voted for the fiscal mandate is committed to £30 billion of adjustment in the next two years. My party has set out exactly how we meet that: it is £13 billion of departmental cuts and £12 billion of welfare cuts and £5 billion from tax evasion and avoidance. So far the Labour party has told us absolutely diddly-squat about how it would raise a single penny of that money, so the challenge for the Labour party is: if you are going to sign up to £30 billion of adjustment, is it not time you told us which taxes are going to go up, what you are going to do about debt and how you are going to wreck this country’s economy?
Q13. Has my right hon. Friend seen the story of White Van Alison in The Sun, on page 6, today? Is he aware that under this Government white van women are flourishing? Over 20% of businesses are run by women and over 53% of apprenticeships are started by females. Does he agree that white van women, especially those from Essex, are the wheels of our long-term economic plan? (906990)
Absolutely, and those wheels must keep turning. The point my hon. Friend makes is important. Of course I look at The Sun every morning, and I was fascinated to see this article. The fact is that under Labour, female unemployment went up by 24%. Under this Government the number of women in work is at its highest since records began. The proportion of women-led businesses in our country is up by a third, but it is still true that if we could get the same level of female entrepreneurship in Britain as there is in America, we would virtually wipe out the remaining unemployment.
At 1 o’clock this afternoon a petition will be laid at No. 10 Downing street by parents and children who are suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It calls on the Prime Minister personally to get involved to get NHS England to stop a bureaucratic internal debate which is preventing the licensing of the drug Translarna, which can have an effect on young boys that means they do not have to go into a wheelchair before it is absolutely necessary. At the moment most of them are in a wheelchair before they reach their teens. Will the Prime Minister personally get involved and get this resolved as a matter of urgency?
I will try to find time to see those parents today. I was looking at this issue last night and there was a child, who was about the same age as my son, pictured with his local football team, just as my son was. It made me think how vital it is to get these drugs through as quickly as we can. I know that there has been a debate on whether these drugs should be licensed quickly and on all the issues and problems. I will meet those parents, look at their petition and see what can be done.
I think that in the three stages of man—or at least the three stages of Miliband—we are now at the final part. Labour Members have, I think, finally accepted that there is a deficit. They have now voted for £30 billion of adjustment, but they cannot manage to tell us how much they will raise in taxes and what they will do with spending. They have had four and a half years to come up with an economic policy and they have absolutely no plan for our country.
My 94-year-old constituent was taken by ambulance from her GP to A and E at Charing Cross hospital where she waited six hours in a corridor before being admitted. The next morning, she was moved to another hospital because there were no beds available. Does the Prime Minister think that axing A and E and all but 24 of 360 inpatient beds at Charing Cross, as he proposes, will make such appalling incidents more or less likely in the future?
The truth is that, nation wide, 94% of people have so far this year been seeing a doctor within four hours at A and E. But everybody in this House knows, and everybody who is a neighbouring Member of Parliament of the hon. Gentleman knows, that he is absolutely instrumental in spreading disinformation campaign after disinformation campaign about his local hospitals. For once, he should take the truth and put it in a leaflet.
Q15. Some people are quick to criticise the NHS when it faces challenges. It must also then be right to celebrate its successes, so will the Prime Minister congratulate Milton Keynes hospital and the university of Buckingham on establishing a new medical school that will not only train the next generation of clinicians but raise standards at our hospital? (906992)
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that. Making sure that we educate the next generation of doctors, nurses and clinicians is vital. Under this Government, we have 9,000 more doctors and 3,300 more nurses. We are treating 1.3 million more people in A and E, and there are 6 million more out-patient appointments. That is what is happening in our NHS, and all credit to the hard-working staff who are carrying out that vital work.
Welfare benefit recipients are often demonised as a burden on our taxpayers, but does the Prime Minister agree that the real burden on taxpayers are those employers who can afford to pay well above the minimum wage, but do not, thereby leaving hard-working families to state dependency and food banks.
I am in favour of the living wage. Those organisations that can pay the living wage should pay the living wage. It is something that should happen. But in addition to that, what we can help with—[Interruption.] I hear the Leader of the Opposition. Doncaster council does not pay the living wage, so perhaps he should start with his own backyard. That shut him up. In addition to that and to seeing the minimum wage rise, we should be taking the lowest-paid people out of tax. Under this Government, we have taken 3 million of the lowest paid people out of tax.
Terrorist Attacks (Paris)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the threat we face from terrorism in the United Kingdom.
It will take some time for us to learn the full details of the attacks last week, but the basic facts are now clear. Seventeen innocent people were murdered in cold blood, and a number of others were injured. Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who attacked the Jewish supermarket, claimed his actions were carried out in the name of ISIL. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Cherif and Said Kouachi—the two brothers who attacked the office of Charlie Hebdo—were associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the same al-Qaeda affiliate that had been in contact with the men who murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013.
As the appalling events in Paris were unfolding, this House was debating the Government's Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, and the threat level in the United Kingdom—which is set by the independent Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre—remains at severe. This means that a terrorist attack in our country is highly likely and could occur without warning.
Three serious terrorist plots have been disrupted in recent months alone. Nearly 600 people from this country have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight, around half of them have returned, and there are thousands of people from across Europe who have done the same. As I said during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill and have said on many, repeated occasions, the Government will do everything they can to keep the public safe.
As soon as the attacks in France took place, the Government increased security at the UK border. Officers from Border Force, the police and other organisations intensified checks on passengers, vehicles and goods entering the UK, and we offered the French Government all assistance necessary, including the full co-operation of our police and security and intelligence agencies.
On Sunday, before I attended the peace rally in Paris, I held talks with my counterparts from Europe, the United States and Canada to discuss what action we can take together. There was firm support from all the countries present for new action to share intelligence, track the movement of terrorists and defeat the ideology that lies behind the threat. It is important that we now deliver on those talks, and my officials, the Security Minister and I will keep up the pace—in particular when it comes to passenger name records—with other European member states.
On Monday, the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and I held a security meeting with senior officials to review the Paris attacks and the risks to the UK of a similar attack. Of course, we have long had detailed plans for dealing with these kinds of attacks. The House will recall the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 when terrorists armed with assault weapons and explosives took the lives of more than 150 people. Since 2010, and learning the lessons of that attack, we have improved our police firearms capability and the speed of our military response, and we have enhanced protective security where possible through a range of other measures. We have improved joint working between the emergency services to deal specifically with marauding gun attacks. Specialist joint police, ambulance and fire teams are now in place in key areas across England, with equivalents in Scotland and Wales, and they are trained and equipped to manage casualties in the event of that kind of an attack.
The police and other agencies regularly carry out exercises to test the response to a terrorist attack, and these exercises include scenarios that are similar to the events in Paris. We will ensure that future exercises reflect specific elements of the Paris attacks, so we can learn from them and be ready for them should they ever occur in the United Kingdom. In addition, I should tell the House that the police can call on appropriate military assistance when required across the country.
The attacks in Paris were enabled by the availability of assault weapons. Although there are obviously a number of illegal weapons in the UK, we have some of the toughest gun laws in the world, and as a result firearms offences make up only a small proportion of overall recorded crime. The types of firearms used in the attacks in Paris are not unknown in the UK, but they are extremely uncommon. However, as the Prime Minister has said, we must step up our efforts with other countries to crack down on the illegal smuggling of weapons across borders. In particular, the member states of the European Union need to work together to put beyond use the vast numbers of weapons in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and disrupt the supply of weapons from other parts of the world, especially north Africa.
The measures we have taken following events in Paris are in addition to the substantial work that the Government have undertaken, and continue to undertake, to counter the threat from terrorism. Last summer, Parliament approved emergency legislation to prevent the sudden and rapid loss of access to communications data and to provide for the ability to intercept communications where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. Parliament is of course scrutinising the proposals in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill as we speak. This important legislation will strengthen our powers to disrupt the ability of people to travel abroad to fight, and control their ability to return here. It will also enhance our ability to deal with those in the UK who pose a risk. In particular, it will allow the relocation of people subject to terrorism prevention and investigation measures to other parts of the country. In addition, the Prime Minister has announced funding of £130 million over the next two years for the agencies, police and others, on top of the more than £500 million spent on counter-terrorism policing every year.
This Government have done more to confront the ideology that lies behind the threat we face. I have excluded more foreign hate preachers than any Home Secretary before me; we have deported Abu Qatada and extradited Abu Hamza; we have reformed the Prevent strategy so that it tackles non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism; and we have invested more time, resources and money in counter-narrative operations.
We have always been clear that the police and the security agencies must have the capabilities and powers they need to do their job, and following the attacks in Paris the Prime Minister has reiterated that commitment. Unfortunately, when it comes to communications data and the intercept of communications, there is no cross-party consensus and therefore no Parliamentary majority to pass the legislation to give the police and security services the capabilities they need. Let me be absolutely clear: every day that passes without the proposals in the draft Communications Data Bill, the capabilities of the people who keep us safe diminish; and as those capabilities diminish, more people find themselves in danger and—yes—crimes will go unpunished and innocent lives will be put at risk.
This is not, as I have heard it said, “letting the Government snoop on your e-mails”. It is allowing the police and the security services, under a tightly regulated and controlled regime, to find out the who, where, when and how of a communication but not its content, so that they can prove and disprove alibis, identify associations between suspects, and tie suspects and victims to specific locations. It is too soon to say for certain, but it is highly probable that communications data were used in the Paris attacks to locate the suspects and establish the links between the two attacks. Quite simply, if we want the police and the security services to protect the public and save lives, they need this capability.
Last weekend people of all nationalities, faiths and backgrounds came out on to the streets of France and other countries to demonstrate their opposition to terror, and to stand for democracy and freedom. We must stand in solidarity with them, and do all that we can to confront extremism and terrorism in all its forms.
The attacks last week in Paris demonstrated the savagery with which terrorists seek to divide us. The murderous intolerance and the bigotry that they pursue aim to spread fear and also to sow division, which they believe exists—us against them. Paris has not let the terrorists win and we must not do so either.
The French police have been praised for the actions that they took. Charlie Hebdo is being published today. Faiths have united, abhorring the anti-Semitism and grieving for the victims of the attack on the kosher supermarket. Muslims across the world have condemned an attack which is not Islamic and is not in the name of their religion, and the brother of the French Muslim police officer, Ahmed Merabet, said, “My brother was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims. They are terrorists. That’s it.” The Leader of the Opposition rightly attended the unity rally in Paris along with the Prime Minister, and on Saturday I joined people in Trafalgar square raising pens in solidarity with the “Je suis Charlie” cause.
In the attack, the terrorists targeted other peaceful religions, they targeted writers, and they targeted those whose job it is to keep us safe. In other words, they targeted both liberty and security, and the response of democratic Governments everywhere to these sorts of attacks must be to defend both. Governments need to keep our people safe so that we can enjoy the very freedoms that our democracy depends on.
Let me turn to the specific issues in the Home Secretary’s statement. I am concerned about the rushed way that she has made this statement today; I did not see it before coming into the House. I hope that she can set out what the reasons were and what has changed in the Home Office’s position this morning that meant that the statement was changed at late notice.
I welcome the action taken by the intelligence agencies and police to support their counterparts in Paris. I think the whole House will want to pay tribute to the work of our security and intelligence services and the counter-terror police, who do so much to keep us safe. It is important that they have the resources they need, and I welcome the resources that the Home Secretary mentioned.
As the Home Secretary said, the Government have going through Parliament right now the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which we have supported and continue to support, and which includes restoring the relocation powers for serious terror suspects that she abolished four years ago and for whose reinstatement we have called. She will know that the agencies have pointed to the ongoing threat in this country posed by the estimated 300 people returning from the conflict in Syria. Have any of those estimated 300 been prosecuted? Can she confirm that none of them is currently subject to terrorism prevention and investigation measures, even though these powers are supposed to be for dangerous suspects whose activity needs to be restricted to keep us safe? Are the Security Service and the police now reviewing all those cases to see whether TPIMs could help, especially with relocation powers restored, or whether there needs to be any further change to the TPIMs powers, which are different from the previous control orders? How many of the estimated 300 have engaged with the Channel programme? Does she agree that we should now make that compulsory for those returning, for which the Bill does not yet provide?
On access to dangerous weapons, the Home Secretary will know that there has been concern about reduced customs and border checks. What action is she taking to increase border checks for dangerous weapons?
The Home Secretary raised the issue of communications data. Technology is changing all the time, and that means that the law needs to keep up, in the capabilities of the agencies to get the vital intelligence we need and in the oversight that we need. In July, Parliament supported emergency legislation to ensure that the agencies and police could maintain vital capabilities. This month, the Commons supported extending those powers to ensure that IP addresses are covered in the same way as telephone numbers. In July, all parties agreed to support a review by David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terrorism, of the powers and the oversight needed to keep up with changing technology.
The Home Secretary referred to the draft Communications Data Bill. That was rejected three years ago by the Joint Committee that the Government established to scrutinise it because, the Committee said, it was too vague, too widely drawn, and put too much power directly in the hands of the Home Secretary. The Committee recommended that the new legislation needed should be drawn up in a far more limited way, and that the Government should provide more evidence and clarity about what they wanted to achieve. Since then, the Home Secretary has not come forward with any revised proposals. She has not come to me to discuss such proposals or put them to Parliament, even though we have said that we were happy to discuss details with her. Given the urgency she says there now is, why did she not come forward with revised proposals after the conclusions of the Joint Committee three years ago?
In July, the Home Secretary was happy to agree to the statutory review by David Anderson, which is due to report before the election. Today she has not mentioned that review. Has she now discarded it, or will she be waiting for its conclusions?
This is an extremely important issue, and the detail—about the powers and capabilities that our intelligence agencies need, as well as about the safeguards and oversight that are also needed—matters. We agree that the police and the agencies need to get the intelligence to keep us safe and that they need updated legislation, and we also need safeguards and stronger oversight to make sure that powers are effectively and appropriately used.
I strongly caution the Home Secretary and the Liberal Democrats against setting up a caricatured argument between them about security on the one hand and liberty on the other, because we need to protect both in our democracy and we need a responsible debate on getting the detail right. The terrorists targeted both writers and police officers on that first day. The editor of Charlie Hebdo had police protection to protect his freedom of speech. That shows the strong link between our security and our liberty in any democracy.
We know that the most important thing to keep us safe in any democracy is making sure that we have the cohesive communities that can prevent hatred from spreading. We have supported extending Prevent by putting it on a statutory footing. I hope that the Home Secretary will now listen to the concerns we have expressed over some years about more needing to be done to have community-led programmes to tackle the hatred and to challenge the spread of extremism, including through social media, as well as in local communities and organisations. I hope that she will work with local government to that effect. Is she working with the Community Security Trust on tackling anti-Semitism, because we need to tackle all forms of extremism?
Terrorists try to silence us, to cow us and to divide us. Paris has shown, as millions marched and as we stood in solidarity with them, that we will not be silenced, and that we will not give into fear and into division as we defend our democracy. Although some were targeted in Paris, we know that this is about all of us: “Je suis juif”, “Je suis flic”, “Je suis Ahmed” and “Je suis Charlie”.
First, I apologise to the shadow Home Secretary for her late receipt of the statement. I apologised to her privately when we came into the Chamber, but I am happy to reiterate that apology on the Floor of the House.
I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to our counter-terrorist police—and, indeed, all our police—and our security and intelligence agencies. We cannot say often enough that these people are working day and night to keep us safe and to protect us. For obvious reasons, as members of our security and intelligence agencies, many of them are unseen and unknown. We are grateful to them for the work they do, and we should publicly recognise their important role.
The right hon. Lady asked a number of questions covering a number of issues. On reviews, there is no suggestion, simply because a review was not mentioned in my statement, that we have in any way side-tracked it. David Anderson is doing his work. As far as I am aware, he is undertaking discussions with relevant parties about the issues that he is looking at. Alongside that, our own Intelligence and Security Committee is conducting its work on questions of privacy, civil liberties and security. I think that those key reviews will be brought before the House in time to enable it to take account of them when it does the necessary job of looking at least at the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, which is under a sunset clause to 2016. The House will obviously want to take account of all aspects of those two reviews.
The Government publish the number of people under TPIMs every quarter. On the question of whether somebody should be put on a TPIM, it is for the Security Service to initiate a request to me as Home Secretary. I of course look at the request, and if I agree to it, a court process is then gone through to ensure that such a decision is reasonable. As I say, it is for the Security Service to come forward with any such proposals.
The right hon. Lady asked about making Channel compulsory, and the Leader of the Opposition raised that during Prime Minister’s questions. We believe that Channel does important work, as does Prevent, which works with community groups. Decisions about whether individuals are put on a Channel programme should be taken case by case. We are very clear, as we have been in discussions on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill in relation to temporary exclusion orders—they will ensure that people return from Syria on our terms, where that is appropriate—that we may seek to take action of various sorts in relation to individuals in the UK, but that what is appropriate for the individual concerned has to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
On the question of firearms, it is for us to work with others in the European Union to consider the spread of firearms across European Union. As I said, the United Kingdom has some of the toughest gun laws, but major exercises have already been undertaken, primarily led by the National Crime Agency, to look at the availability of firearms in the UK. That process started before the terrible attacks took place in Paris.
On the draft Communications Data Bill, there is a difference of opinion among parties in the House about what powers should be taken by Government. We did in fact respond to the proposals from the Joint Committee, and we did in fact provide revised proposals in relation to the measures. I am clear, as is the Prime Minister, that we need to return to that issue. I believe that it is important to have the right powers available to deal with such matters.
Finally, the right hon. Lady asked whether we speak to those at the CST. Of course we do so regularly. I have had a number of meetings with them, and the police of course have meetings with them to discuss the whole question of what protective security is available. Protective security was stepped up when the threat level was raised, but it has now been stepped up further.
Various press reports have stated that the director general of MI5 called in his speech of 8 January for wide new powers of surveillance for the agencies. Will the Home Secretary confirm that that is not correct? In the speech, which my right hon. Friend and I attended in person, the director general expressed his main concern:
“Changes in the technology that people are using to communicate are making it harder for the Agencies to maintain the capability to intercept the communications of terrorists.”
Is not the prime requirement at present to ensure that the agencies can continue to exercise the capability they have enjoyed for a number of years but which, because of new technology, is increasingly denied them?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct in his description of what the director general of MI5 said in the speech. It is unfortunate that people very often mix up some of the aspects of communications data and intercepts, and sometimes believe that the Government were trying, in the draft Communications Data Bill, to expand the powers of the agencies, which was not the case. Indeed, the director general of MI5 said:
“The ability to access communications data is likewise vital to our ability to protect our national security”,
“unless we maintain this capability, our ability to protect the country will be eroded.”
The Bill was about maintaining that capability, and we and others, as evidenced by the quote, see that as so important.
As there has been a revolution in communications in the 16 years since I introduced the proposals that became the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, it seems to me to be beyond argument that the legislation, including in respect of communications data, has to be revised. Does the Home Secretary agree that a serious debate about the extent of the powers is not remotely helped by the parody that states that the powers sought are “some kind of snoopers charter”? Since I believe that the distance between the two main parties in the House on this issue is actually very narrow, may we have the kind of close collaboration that my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary spoke in favour of so that we can resolve this issue as soon as possible, and ensure that the intelligence and security agencies and the police have the capabilities today and tomorrow that they had in the past under legislation freely agreed by this House?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is important, in the debate on this issue, that the facts and arguments are presented properly. Sadly, the terminology that has been used about the communications data Bill, such as its being a snoopers charter, has set all sorts of hares running that are not accurate and that do not reflect what was proposed. He is right that it is important for all of us in this House to look at this matter calmly and carefully, and to consider the powers that our agencies need if they are to maintain their capabilities. Otherwise, as those capabilities degrade, it makes it harder for our agencies to keep us safe.
The Prime Minister made a proposal not to allow any online communications that could not be intercepted. That would cause huge problems for anyone who relies on secure online transactions for banking, shopping or anything else, and would jeopardise Britain’s reputation as a good and safe place to do business. Is that genuinely what the Home Secretary wants to do? Does she really want to join the small group of countries that includes Iran, Belarus, Moldova and Kazakhstan in trying to ban encryption?
I say to my hon. Friend that we are determined that, as far as is possible, there should be no safe spaces for terrorists to communicate. The Prime Minister reiterated that principle in Prime Minister’s questions today. I would have hoped that that principle was held by everybody across all parties in the House of Commons. As far as I and the Conservative party are concerned, our manifesto will make it clear that we will introduce the legislation that is needed to restore our declining communications data capability, and that we will use all the legal powers that are available to ensure that, where appropriate, the police and the security and intelligence agencies have the maximum ability to intercept the communications of suspects, while ensuring that such intrusive techniques are, of course, properly overseen.
Of course the security services must have the necessary tools for the job. However, does the Home Secretary accept that the priority now is to speak up against, stand up against and, where necessary, confront Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism and the fascist groups, such as the British National party and its derivatives, that spread such poison, as well as the vile prejudices of far too many representatives and members of UKIP?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that everybody in this House needs to send a very clear message that we stand for freedom, including the freedom of the press, and democracy, and that we oppose the vile views that lead to the behaviour and incidents we saw in Paris. We must recognise that we have seen a number of terrorist attacks in this country over the years, the most recent of which was in 2013, when we saw not only Fusilier Lee Rigby’s murder, but the murder of Mohammed Saleem and the attempt to plant a number of bombs at mosques in the west midlands, which were undertaken by a far-right extremist. We must stand against terrorism and extremism in all their forms.
If one good thing has come out of the horrible events of recent days, it is the evidence of the British people’s affection for France in her hour of trial. Speaking as the chairman of the amitié group between the two Parliaments and on behalf of our Back Benchers, I would like to extend the warmest fraternal greetings to our French colleagues in the Assemblée Nationale, express our support for them and say that, as has been the case for the last 100 years, our two nations stand shoulder to shoulder against tyranny and terror.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. We stand alongside France against terror and for freedom and democracy. It was a very moving experience to be part of the march in Paris on Sunday not only because it involved so many people—nearly 4 million across France and an estimated 2 million in Paris—but because of the reaction of the people alongside the march, who constantly expressed their support for all those who were standing for freedom of the press and the freedoms of our democracy.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I join the Home Secretary, the shadow Home Secretary and Members from all parts of the House in their condemnation of the terrorist attacks in Paris. I also want to put on the record our appreciation for those who work so hard on our behalf to keep our society safe.
The Home Secretary went into great detail in her statement about the co-operation with European Union partners and other countries, which was very welcome. She did not have the opportunity to update the House on the co-operation with the other jurisdictions within the United Kingdoms on policing and safety, which is very important for all of us. No doubt she has spoken to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, since last week. Will she update the House on what was discussed and on how the UK Government plan to co-operate with the Scottish Government, the Northern Irish Government and the Welsh Administration?
Discussions have taken place at official level with the devolved Administrations about the preparedness for an attack similar to that in Paris. Obviously we work very closely with the devolved Administrations. We worked particularly closely with the Scottish Government last year in preparation for the Commonwealth games, when we had some joint exercises. The co-operation and interaction between Police Scotland and the police forces in England and Wales are very good across a wide range of matters. Co-operation on the matters that we are discussing is obviously very important. We will continue to talk with the devolved Administrations at every level—ministerial and official—about these matters.
Is the Home Secretary aware that when the Prophet Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina all those years ago to establish the first Islamic state, he did not set up a sectarian caliphate, such as that demanded by the Paris murderers, but rather, under the charter of Medina, he created a multi-faith society, where Jews and Christians had the right to worship and were able to proclaim their faiths?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for elucidating that fact for the House. It is very clear—everybody is very clear—that the attacks were not about Islam. The voices of Muslim communities and Muslim leaders in the United Kingdom, France and across the world have made it very clear that the attacks were not undertaken in their name. We should reiterate that very clear message.
Is the Home Secretary satisfied with the capacity of the London fire and rescue service to respond to any terrorist outrages that may occur, in view of the current fire station closure programme, which includes the fire station at Clerkenwell, which serves an area that includes major hospitals, major railway stations and major tourist attractions that may very well be the premier targets of terrorism?
A great deal of work has been undertaken in recent years to look at the operation of the emergency services in the event of a terrorist attack. Work has been done, as I indicated in my statement, to bring together specialist teams from fire services, ambulance services and the police across England and their equivalents in Scotland and Wales. We have also introduced the joint emergency services interoperability programme, or JESIP, which is about ensuring that it is easier for the three emergency services to work together in such circumstances. Obviously, we continue to update and revise, where necessary, the protocols and the way in which such operations are conducted to ensure that our emergency services are able to do the job we all want them to do, should an attack take place.
I sat on the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill three years ago, which lasted for six months. We heard extensive evidence from numerous sources that made it abundantly clear that having the communications data is crucial and will save lives. It will save those who threaten suicide, it will save children at risk and it will prevent other incidents, dramas, accidents and crimes, as well as helping us to catch terrorists. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has said that it will save lives. The director of Europol said at the Home Affairs Committee yesterday that there was a gap. Is the—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that a significant number of people who are in positions where they are aware of the impact of communications data have made the necessity of communications data well known and public. As I indicated earlier, I hope that everybody in the House understands and appreciates the importance of ensuring that, as far as is possible, there are no safe spaces for terrorists to communicate.
The Home Secretary will be aware that in the cases of the London bombings, the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby and, according to early reports, what happened in Paris last week, those involved were on the periphery of investigations that had already been undertaken. Will she give a commitment that she will have urgent talks with the Security Service and the leadership of counter-terrorism police about how we can get smarter in reviewing the previous investigations and cases in which those individuals and networks, who clearly pose a threat, have appeared on the periphery?
The right hon. Gentleman is correct about those who appear on the periphery of investigations. The Intelligence and Security Committee referred to that in its report on the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, and I have already had discussions about it with counter-terrorism police and the security services and continue to talk to them about it. We need to continue to look at a number of issues involving those who appear at the periphery of various groups, and at the links between potential terrorists and criminal activity of various sorts.
May I add my voice to those supporting the updating of our communications data capability merely to keep pace with changes in technology, so that we maintain the capabilities that we have? May I also invite the Home Secretary to use this latest incident as a case study to establish what the journey is that a good Islamic person may take that finishes with them being a terrorist—what is the psychological journey, what are the stimulants that create that terrorist, and how do we get inside that process to prevent it from happening?
It is of course important that in our work to prevent people from moving down the road to terrorist activity and from being radicalised we look at the factors in play when somebody becomes a terrorist or is radicalised. Those issues are already examined, and every opportunity is taken to learn lessons and identify what the journey is for individuals, so that we can better ensure that we are able to prevent radicalisation and prevent people from moving into terrorism. However, that will be complex, and many factors will be involved, which will vary from individual to individual.
In his evidence at Westminster yesterday, the director of Europol spoke of a security gap among police forces across Europe in trying to track down online terrorists. Terrorism has no national boundaries. Is the Home Secretary confident about the structures that currently exist for the sharing of information across Europe, and indeed across the Atlantic? What further action can the internet companies take? Should we not now consider having an organisation similar to the Internet Watch Foundation to deal specifically with counter-terrorism?
We discussed sharing intelligence and information between countries when it is appropriate to do so, and particularly across Europe, at the meeting convened by Monsieur Cazeneuve, the French Interior Minister, on Sunday. People have looked to Europol to play a role in that, and of course we will work not only with other countries but with organisations such as Europol to ensure that we get the maximum benefit from the information sharing that takes place. That will mean that we have the maximum possible ability to identify terrorists in advance and ensure that attacks do not take place.
Order. I am very keen to accommodate colleagues, but I remind the House that this is an Opposition day, with two well-subscribed debates to come, so what I am looking for now is Members who will ask a short question without preamble. I feel sure that the Home Secretary will provide us with her characteristically pithy replies.
The unwise response of previous Governments to outrages such as 9/11 and 7/7 led to the Iraq war and the introduction of the failed identity cards scheme. Does the Home Secretary agree that our response to this outrage must be one of sober wisdom, not a rush to squander British liberties because of those who wish so violently to take them away from us anyway?
I am sure the whole House was pleased to hear the Home Secretary say that real Islam had absolutely nothing to do with the attacks in Paris. Will she take the opportunity to decry the statement that Rupert Murdoch made at the weekend that all Muslims were to blame, and to ask him to get a grip of Fox News and its so-called terrorism experts, who set about insulting Birmingham, London and everywhere else with their silly comments?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that we reiterate the message that this is not about Islam; it is about a perversion of Islam. There are Muslims in this country and other countries around the world who condemn these acts of violence and terrorism, and their voices are being heard in increasing numbers. As I said, they are sending a clear message that this is not in their name. I also say to the hon. Lady that freedom of the press means freedom of the press.
Purveyors of extremism find fertile ground in communities that are not properly assimilated into the mainstream of society. Bearing that in mind, will the Home Secretary consider supporting the introduction of parts on compulsory written and spoken English into the British citizenship test? I believe that shared values and a shared language underpin a strong society, and particularly that if women in such communities were emancipated, they would help pacify young men who might be tempted to copy the extremist behaviour seen so graphically in Paris last week.
The Government have of course increased the requirements for those coming into the United Kingdom to be able to speak and understand English. My hon. Friend mentions the role of women, and I share his view that it is important that we hear female voices from the Muslim community. I commend Sara Khan, who has once again stood up and spoken about that issue. In the latter part of last year I attended an inspirational event that she held as part of the #MakingAStand campaign that she was running with Muslim women around the country, saying that they wished to take a stand against those who were trying to radicalise young people in the Muslim community.
Will the Home Secretary join me in rejecting the new imperialism that we hear after incidents such as this, which seeks to condemn the killings but somehow excuse the actions by blaming ourselves—in this case by saying that the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were somehow unnecessarily provocative? Does she not agree that we cannot continue to absolve those engaged in terrorism of their responsibility, and that we must agree that responsibility for those actions lies squarely with those who kill innocent people?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, particularly the words about tackling extreme ideology. May I ask her and the security services to be mindful of places of worship where mainstream, tolerant and open opinion can often be marginalised, creating a vacuum in which extremism thrives and creates the roots of so much poisonous ideology?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern to ensure that we deal with extremism in all its forms and wherever it appears, and we are mindful of the issue that he raises. Of course, the Government will in due course publish a new extremism strategy, which will go beyond the counter-terrorism strategy that we have already published.
The acts in Paris were carried out by terrorists, not in my name or that of the religion that I follow. I want to put the record straight on that. These people are totally and unreservedly condemned for the attacks.
After the Joint Committee on the draft Data Communications Bill objected to the original Bill, the Home Secretary said that she would make proposals. What are they, where are they, and when will we see them?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is important that someone such as him stands up in this Chamber and gives a clear message about terrorism, and says that none of us supports terrorism and that we condemn it absolutely. At the time we indicated the areas of the Communications Data Bill where we were willing to make changes in response to the views from the Joint Committee—indeed, we said that we were taking on board virtually all the comments made by that Committee.
Does the Home Secretary agree that if we are to be serious about our internal security and the safety and security of our borders, including at Dover, we must promote the unity of integration over the division of multiculturalism? It is important to ensure that our borders are properly strengthened and that security is maintained, including at Calais.
My hon. Friend is right, and as I indicated in my statement in immediate response to the attacks in Paris, the Border Force and others at our borders took appropriate steps to increase security and intensify the checks taking place. It is right that we maintain an appropriate level of security at our borders, both in the UK but also at juxtaposed controls elsewhere. It is also important to recognise that within the United Kingdom there are people of a variety of faiths and of no faith. We must all accept people of different faiths, and recognise that people have different beliefs. If we disagree with them, the way to deal with that is through discussion. It is important to allow people the freedom to worship as they wish and follow the faith they wish to follow.
The unjustifiable and horrific scenes in Paris were not just an attack on France, but an attack on peace, freedom and Islam. This is not a clash of civilisations: it is a straight fight between right and wrong, and between humanity and insanity. On that basis, I urge caution from the Home Secretary because the worst time to react is when things are raw, and we cannot defeat extremism with extreme reactions. Finally, the true Muslim on that day was the policeman, Ahmed, who lost his life protecting the freedom of a publication to ridicule his faith. In his tragic story we see the obvious truth: freedom is the right to be wrong; it is never the right to do wrong.
I commend the hon. Gentleman’s comments. As the shadow Home Secretary pointed out, the brother of the policeman who was murdered gave a very dignified response that we can all recognise and support. It is important to recognise that the people who carry out these attacks are criminals and terrorists, and are not acting in the name of any religion. We should be very clear about the message we give.
On intelligence data gaps, will the Home Secretary confirm that she will be inspired by the patriotism of Lord Evans and people such as the head of MI5, and avoid any consultation on such issues with the Deputy Prime Minister, who during his “Today” programme interview put party so disgracefully over national security?
It is no surprise to anyone in the House that the Deputy Prime Minister and I have a different opinion on communications data and the Communications Data Bill. I believe it is important that we maintain those capabilities, and I reiterate that the Bill is not a snoopers charter.
Does the Home Secretary agree that while there cannot be a scintilla of an excuse for the psychopathic slaughter that we saw in Paris last week, and that security measures must be paramount, in the long run one thing that will make us safe is to reach out to marginalised communities in this country that mirror those from which the killers came? We must ensure, whether by addressing education or employment, that those communities cannot become fishing grounds for people who pedal violence, hatred, and nihilism.
As I indicated earlier, the reasons why people become radicalised are various and often complex, and it is important that we try to understand those reasons. It is also important that in any community in our country we look at the issues that matter to people. For everybody around the country, those are things such as the availability of jobs and the education and public services they receive, and we consider those matters for everybody.
As well as a substantial Muslim community, which has been quick to condemn the atrocities in Paris, Worcester hosts the longest continuously running newspaper in the English language, and the tomb of King John, whose unwilling but lasting legacy of the Magna Carta will be commemorated this year. Does the Home Secretary agree that the survival of that charter over 800 years, and recent events, demonstrates that the pen, if properly defended, can be mightier than the sword?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and to his constituency and its links with the Magna Carta. That was an important document, and it is right to celebrate its anniversary this year. We all recognise the importance of the words in that document, and the fact that it and its principles have survived over the centuries is testament to that. In response to the attacks and murders of the cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo, everybody must make it clear that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Will the Secretary of State agree that the lessons of Paris are that our real strength is in unity and fraternity? We should keep together on this; there is no big political divide. We must keep together across the parties, and have a dialogue and conversation with the vast majority of Muslim people in this country who are law abiding and want to help us to defeat terrorism.
News organisations must use their independent professional judgment as to whether they reprint the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. Although in their own eyes, many were avoiding the risk of offending some of their readers, in the eyes of the jihadis, some were undoubtedly viewed as being intimidated into censorship, which to me was reason enough to reprint. Does my right hon. Friend agree that true free speech, not just the illusion of it, includes the right to insult and offend? We do not defend free speech, if that is truly what we want to do, by casting aside those who push at its boundaries.
I absolutely agree. Freedom of the press means that the press should be free to publish what it chooses within the law. As the Prime Minister reiterated earlier, freedom of the press, which we all believe in, means that we should accept that it can publish what it wishes to publish within the law, and we should not set artificial boundaries on that.
Will the Home Secretary update the House on how well the Prevent strategy is working in reaching people at the grass roots who work with young people? Whatever the House does, quite rightly, to protect people’s primary civil liberty—that of life and limb—through new legislation, the security services cannot be everywhere and that network on the ground is most important.
I am happy to give the hon. Lady some figures on Prevent. Thirty local authority areas are currently classified as Prevent priority areas, and 14 more supported areas are eligible for funding for Prevent projects. Since early 2012, local projects have reached more than 45,000 people. This is an extensive piece of work, and we continually look at Prevent and consider how we can help it to do its job better, hence the statutory duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.
On Monday, the Leader of the House and I met parents and governors at the Mathilda Marks-Kennedy and Beit Shvidler schools in my constituency, and during our discussion the attacks in Paris were raised. Will the Home Secretary take the opportunity to allay the fears of some of those parents, and indeed many other people who were not at the meeting, about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, and say how we can keep those children safe while in school?
This is very important. As I indicated earlier, I have met the CST and other Jewish community leaders on a number of occasions. My last meeting with them was shortly before the Christmas recess. We are committed to ensuring that the work of the trust and others, in keeping Jewish communities safe, is supported. As I also indicated earlier, the police talk with the CST and others, and indeed with individual institutions, about what protective security can be provided. As I understand it, they have been providing extra patrols in certain areas to ensure that greater support is given. I am very clear that nobody should feel that they are likely to be subject to the sort of anti-Semitic attacks that, sadly, we have seen too many of in the United Kingdom in the past year. It is very important that people are able to live in this country, follow their faith and live a life free from fear.
Last week, while gunmen were rampaging through the streets of Paris, a leading Muslim spokesman in Northern Ireland, Dr Al-Wazzan, was telling the BBC that the west had brought this on itself through its foreign policy. He later withdrew those remarks under pressure. Will the Home Secretary join me in calling for all those who have leadership in the Muslim community to say and do nothing that would give any justification for people to believe that terrorism in the name of their faith is ever justified, and to realise that such words only breed and create division?
It is absolutely right that it is important for those in leadership roles in the Muslim community to make it very clear, as many have been doing, that these terrorist attacks are not about their religion and their faith and are not in their name. It is very important to send a very clear message that the only people responsible for terrorist attacks are the terrorists themselves.
Interception of communications data is critical to successful counter-terrorism. If the Liberal Democrats will not support what is needed for the defence of our nation, will my right hon. Friend confirm that necessary legislation to fill capabilities gaps will feature in the Conservative manifesto and will be taken forward as soon as possible in the next Parliament?
There has been a significant rise in co-ordinated anti-Semitic attacks in London, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff. Will the Home Secretary indicate what steps have been taken to co-ordinate action to stop attacks on Israeli and Jewish people and property across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
As I have indicated, I have had a number of meetings and the police have been meeting Jewish communities, representative groups and the CST, in view of the role it plays in providing protective security for synagogues, Jewish schools and so on. We have also looked at a number of other aspects. I had a meeting recently, involving the Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the College of Policing, to look at the advice and guidance available to ensure that the police and the prosecution service respond properly when anti-Semitic attacks are undertaken and that, where prosecution is possible, it is taken forward.
The Government’s taskforce on tackling radicalism and extremism, chaired by the Prime Minister, recommended in 2013 a new banning order for groups that fall short of being legally termed “terrorist” but which undermine democracy, and a new civil power to target those who radicalise others. Will the Home Secretary confirm whether those measures are excluded from the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill and whether that is because they have been blocked by the Liberal Democrats? If so, given the comments of the shadow Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and in the light of recent events in Paris, is there scope to revisit the recommendations made by the Prime Minister’s taskforce, as that would be most welcome?
My hon. Friend raises these issues. I have been very clear that it has not been possible to take those particular proposals forward on a Government basis, but I was also very clear—indeed, I said it in the speech I gave at our party conference last year—that it is the Conservative party’s intention to take them forward.
The Prevent strategy is key to preventing radicalisation. Given the new roles and responsibilities of schools, colleges and universities, will the Home Secretary state what proportion of the 2015-16 budget will be allocated to those organisations to implement that? What training and support is being provided to principals?
The Home Office funding for Prevent has increased in recent years, but further money will be made available, as part of the £130 million that the Prime Minister announced in November, in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The majority of that will be for agencies, but other funding will be for the Home Office, including funding for Prevent. It will also include funding for counter-terrorism policing. Discussions are taking place on how it will be most appropriately spent.
Like a couple of earlier speakers, in 2012 I was a member of the Joint Committee considering the draft Communications Data Bill. The Committee supported the need for new legislation, but proposed a number of safeguards that we thought would improve the Bill. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that in any future legislation those safeguards would be considered and, hopefully, included?
I am very happy to confirm that. The Joint Committee came back with a very well-considered and detailed response, and the Government were clear that we would take on board most of its recommendations. That continues to be my view as Home Secretary and as a Conservative politician looking at the prospect of a Conservative Government introducing that legislation.
The Home Secretary referred to the capabilities of the people keeping us safe diminishing. In the context of the security of the people of the entirety of the United Kingdom, how central does she think the National Crime Agency is and how important it is that it is fully operational in all of the United Kingdom, particularly in Northern Ireland?
I believe that the NCA does play an important role. Obviously, its clear focus is on serious and organised crime, but it is also focused on economic crime, border crime, child exploitation and online protection. It is a valuable agency. In the operations it has undertaken, it has already shown the benefit of having set it up. I consider that it would be appropriate and beneficial if it were possible for the agency to operate in Northern Ireland, as it does in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Not only is the number of anti-Semitic incidents on the rise, but surveys demonstrate a greater public acceptance of anti-Semitic attitudes. What further reassurance can my right hon. Friend offer to the Jewish community in particular that we will have zero tolerance of anti-Semitism? We need to educate the public that such attitudes should not exist in this country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should be very clear that we will not tolerate anti-Semitism. We can deal with this in a number of ways. First, it is important that we provide support and advice on protective security for those who maybe under the threat of anti-Semitic incidents. It is also very important for us to give a clear message, as a Government and from this House, that we will not accept anti-Semitic incidents. The work led by the Department for Communities and Local Government in the taskforce it has brought together on anti-Semitism plays an important role in that.
I was previously on the civil libertarian side of these arguments, but given recent events—not just in France, but elsewhere—I have come to the conclusion that the Home Secretary is absolutely right.
Returning to the subject of the Jewish community, the Home Secretary will have seen the front page of The Independent today, which shows that a huge number of Jewish people have real apprehension of living in the United Kingdom. I welcome her words in response to other Members, but will she make a statement not just on anti-Semitism but about the positive contribution Jewish people bring to this country to ensure that they feel proud of living here?
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. It should be a matter of deep concern to us all in this House when people from the Jewish community, as surveys suggest, are feeling that it is less easy to live in the United Kingdom. We have seen over the years people leaving other countries in the European Union as a result of anti-Semitic incidents. I never thought we would see the day when surveys showed this sort of feeling by Jewish people here in the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right not only that we are clear in our condemnation of anti-Semitism and that we give the protective security and other support I have referred to, but that we send a very clear message that members of the Jewish community play an important and significant role in our communities in their contributions to our society. We should welcome them here. We should applaud the contributions they make. We should ensure that they all feel able to stay living in the United Kingdom and make their important contribution to our society.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In Question Time earlier, I put some figures to the Prime Minister. I said that under the Government-endorsed “Shaping a Healthier Future” programme, the number of in-patient beds at Charing Cross hospital would fall from 360 to 24. In response, the Prime Minister said that I was “spreading disinformation”, that this was known to my neighbouring Members of Parliament and that I should “take the truth and put it in a leaflet”. I have checked last July’s clinical strategy for Imperial College healthcare trust. In that strategy, and in other places, my figures are confirmed. Other papers also confirm that, as I stated, the A and E department would move from Charing Cross to St Mary’s, Paddington. Seven of my neighbouring MPs and I have written to the Secretary of State on these matters. The Prime Minister is entitled not to answer my question, but he stated that my figures were false. I wanted to put it on the record that they were not false, but I also seek your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on how I can get him to correct the record.
Mr Slaughter, as I am sure you realise, the points you make are a continuation of the debate that started in Prime Minister’s Question Time, and you have now put on the record the clear point you wanted to get across. I am sure there is no advice I can give you that, being an experienced parliamentarian, you have not already thought of and will not be deploying in this Chamber to the best of your considerable abilities over the coming months.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a tradition and a courtesy of the House that when one Member visits another Member’s constituency, they give them prior notice. I anticipate a visit to my constituency early next week. When should that Member advise me that they will be visiting my constituency?
The convention is that the Member should be notified before the visit. Speaking from experience, sometimes it will be on the morning of the visit, although I think Members need a little more notice than that. However, it has to be before, and that is the convention. By the sound of it, the hon. Gentleman has some time to go yet, but I wish him luck in getting enough notice of what I am sure will be a splendid visit from whomever it is—I have no idea who it is.
Voting (Civic Obligation)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a civic obligation either to vote or to state an intention to abstain from voting; and for connected purposes.
It is appropriate that I should be asking permission to introduce this measure following the exchanges on terrorism, because our democracy will flourish long after the terrorists and their objectives have been decisively defeated.
Despite what I am going to say, my proposed measure will inevitably be described as compulsory voting. As I shall point out, it is not my intention to force anyone to vote in an election; if there was such a proposal, I would vote against it. I have, however, long advocated, with others, legislation for a civic obligation—a duty, if you like—to vote at least in a general election. However, if my Bill became law, if anyone had no wish to vote, so be it—all they would need do is let the electoral authorities know beforehand, and provide information about where they live, proof and so on, or turn up on the day and tell the clerk at the polling station that they do not intend to vote, and that would be the end of it. There would be no martyrs, and no one would need to go to prison because they do not want to vote—of course, many people sadly went to prison in this country and elsewhere because they wanted the right to vote.
The excellent report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), outlines the decline in voting over the years. I shall provide one or two facts about the last election. More people did not vote then than voted for any one political party contesting the election. If we add that figure to the number not correctly registered, it adds up to more than voted for the two main parties in the election, and certainly more than voted for the two parties forming the coalition. That should be a matter of serious concern to the House, whether or not my proposal is accepted.
The decline in voting should be a matter of concern to politicians and the country as a whole. If we want our democracy to flourish and strengthen, surely common sense dictates that we should do what we can to get far more people participating in elections. I have been speaking about general elections, but far fewer people of course vote in local elections. The turnout in the 2001 general election was just over 59%. Four years later, it rose to 61%, and last time, it increased to 65%, meaning that a large one third did not vote. In 2001, there were 66 constituencies in which turnout was under 50%. Four years later, that figure was 37. As we know, there is a gap between older people and 18 to 24-year-olds. At the last election, when the total turnout was 65%, only 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds voted. There has also been a decline in the number of women voting.
I notice reports that the Conservative party wants to change the law on union elections to ensure that at least 40% of those eligible have to vote for industrial action in order for that action to be valid. One might ask how many Conservative MPs were elected by less than 40% of the electorate. I will tell hon. Members: 86%. So no lectures please from the Tories about people voting in union elections!
It is sometimes argued that such a proposal as mine would be an infringement of civil liberties, but why? Do we not all have obligations? We all have to pay—fortunately—national and local taxes and, if we drive, road tax. We cannot opt out, and we do not want anyone to opt out. Is that an infringement of civil liberties? Children must be sent to school. They may be educated at home, if it satisfies the local authorities, but in the main children must go to school, and if parents do not send their children to school, they will be rightly fined. We cannot drive a vehicle without taking a test. Is that an infringement of civil liberties? I am pleased to say—because I voted for it—that smoking is now banned in public places, including pubs and clubs. Is that an infringement of civil liberties? As the Home Secretary said in exchanges a few moments ago, we cannot possess weapons without authorisation from the police. Why should a civic obligation to vote, with the option to abstain, be attacked on the grounds that our liberties are somehow being undermined?
In a number of democratic countries—not many, but they include Belgium and Luxembourg—there is a duty to vote. I leave aside dictatorships, of course. In Australia, turnout in elections for the House of Representatives is 95%. Many years ago, in the last election there before the law was changed where everyone had a duty to vote—there is a small fine if people do not vote—that turnout was under 60%. However, in the first contest under the law that I would like to see applied in Britain, the turnout was 91%— and it has never gone below 90%. I am not aware that Amnesty International or any other human rights group has put Australia on its list of authoritarian states. There are many aspects of Australian politics today that I and my hon. Friends do not like, but the fact of the matter is that it is a democracy, just like ours. Why should anyone take the view that my suggestion is unnecessary and arbitrary?
Would it work here? I accept that if the law were changed, it is possible that many people might say, “No, we are not interested; we will not obey the law”. I think it unlikely, and if it happened, we would obviously have to change the law again, but why not give it a try? Why not use every opportunity to ensure that when we sit in this place, we have the satisfaction of knowing that the overwhelming majority of the people, whichever way they voted, did vote in the general election. I strongly believe that the House of Commons should give serious consideration to what I am proposing. I hope that in due course—I hope I will live long enough to see it—such a change in the law will happen.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr David Winnick, Mr Graham Allen, Mr Ronnie Campbell, Mr Jim Cunningham, Geraint Davies, Mr Brian H. Donohoe, Mike Gapes, Meg Hillier, Jim McGovern, Grahame M. Morris and Mr Dave Watts present the Bill.
Mr David Winnick accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March, and to be printed (Bill 153).
[12th Allotted Day]