House of Commons
Thursday 15 January 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
The Office for National Statistics estimates that the direct contribution of the tourism sector to the economy in 2013 was £56 billion. Taking account of indirect benefits, Deloitte estimates that in the same year the sector was worth £127 billion gross value added to the UK economy, supporting 3.1 million jobs.
I welcome that response. As my right hon. Friend will know, Crawley contains Gatwick airport, which is a major gateway to the UK. What more can the tourism industry do to ensure that people coming to the UK travel on to other destinations and take advantage of the many benefits and tourist attractions in Crawley and West Sussex?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will be aware that Gatwick is already a major local economic driver, generating some 23,000 jobs at the airport alone, and he is right to ask what more it could do to attract visitors to Crawley and Sussex. He will be aware of Visit Sussex, and I encourage the town to work more closely with that and with Tourism South East, to see what more it can do to show its local attractions.
The Secretary of State will be aware that across Kent tourism accounts for the direct employment of nearly 65,000 people. Tourism VAT rates across the EU are much lower than in the UK, and if VAT on accommodation was reduced to 5% that would boost jobs and bring a further £1 million into Kent. What conversations has he had with the Treasury about the benefits of a future cut to VAT, as that would bring jobs and growth into Kent and the UK as a whole?
My hon. Friend has raised that issue before and I know she feels passionately about it. She will know that tax is an issue for the Treasury, and we have ongoing discussions with the Treasury on a number of issues. I am sure she will join me in welcoming the fact that in 2013, because of the support the Government have provided to the sector, we saw record levels of tourism, and it looks as if 2014 will be another record year.
Tourism is particularly important in rural areas. What can we do to encourage VisitBritain to highlight the excellent hotels, holiday accommodation and visitor attractions in rural Wales, and indeed the entire west of England, to make it a tourist destination for people coming from abroad?
My hon. Friend is right to say that tourism is vital for local economies, and I have a big ambition to get more people out of the cities and visiting our fantastic countryside. He will be pleased to know that one week from today we will launch the Countryside is Great campaign in New York, with the fantastic Katherine Jenkins performing. That will help make clearer to international tourists exactly what our fantastic countryside has to offer, including in Wales.
Economic estimates for the creative industries published this week have shown that the sector plays a leading role in our long-term economic plan. The figures estimated that in 2013 there were 84,000 jobs in the creative industries in the east midlands, and the Government continue to work closely with the sector so that it can produce further jobs and growth across Britain.
Welcome as those figures are, does the Secretary of State agree that there is sometimes an imbalance with the creative industries necessarily being located in the inner cities, city centres and business districts for tourism, heritage and media, and that very few go to the outer-city estates and working-class areas of the sort I represent? I chair the Rebalancing Nottingham North charity. Will he find some time in his busy diary to meet me and discuss how we can balance the expansion of creative industries so that everyone can benefit?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that important point, and I commend his excellent work in taking forward the Rebalancing the Outer Estates Foundation. He will know that the Arts Council supports many regions around the country and helps with that rebalancing effort, but there is always more we can do, and I or the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy would be happy to meet him to take that issue forward.
The BBC has an excellent building in Glasgow, as does STV, and a lot of money has been put in by these large companies. One thing that has been missed is localism within the creative industries, and although a certain amount of action is supposed to take place outside the M25 corridor, we are not seeing that north of the border.
I referred earlier to a report published this week, which shows strong growth in the creative industries throughout the UK in every region, including Scotland. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to take a look at it. If he has any fresh ideas that he thinks we should look at, I would be happy to speak to him.
VAT (Digital Services)
The changes relate to the announcement in the 2013 Budget and came into effect on 1 January 2015. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs established an external working group to consider their effect on small and medium-sized businesses. The Treasury and HMRC are actively engaging with it.
I thank the Minister for that response and for agreeing to reinstate the question after his officials tried to transfer it to the Treasury. That was very kind of him. As he will know, musicians are very concerned that they will end up having to fill out quarterly VAT returns for very small sources of income. If they sell their music through iTunes or Bandcamp, they will perhaps do the administration for them, but it is a real issue if musicians have to handle it themselves. I urge the Minister to take part in those discussions with the Treasury and ensure that the voices of musicians and other people in the creative sector are heard.
I would never dodge a question from the hon. Lady, particularly as she represents the constituency of Bristol East, where I stood famously in the 1997 election and turned a 5,000 Labour majority into a 17,000 Labour majority. The changes will protect and increase revenue. The hon. Lady is a great champion for the music industry. I take on board her point and I will certainly engage with HMRC.
Promotion of Hatred (Television Programmes)
Ofcom has strict rules, set out in the broadcasting code, forbidding the broadcast of harmful extremist material and hate speech. This includes the promotion of hatred against the Ahmadi Muslim community, which is well represented in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
On 22 December, Geo TV broadcast a programme that incited hatred against the Ahmadi Muslim community. Five days later, an Ahmadi Muslim was murdered in Gujranwala, Pakistan. We know that Ofcom has an enormous job to do, given the large number of satellite TV channels, in many languages and dialects, that come into the UK. What help can the Government give Ofcom to monitor hatred that might lead to the radicalisation of some of our young people in the UK?
Ofcom does important work in this area. It is worth recording that it fined Takbeer TV £25,000 for abusing Ahmadis. Ofcom has also required it to broadcast a summary of that decision. Ofcom is investigating complaints that have been raised recently. It will assess them as quickly as possible and come to a conclusion.
After the horrific murders in France last week, it has never been more important unequivocally to assert our commitment to the right of free speech and a free press, and the right to be provocative and even offensive, including the right to lampoon religion. After last week, however, the reality is that a shadow hangs over broadcasters, bloggers, journalists and satirists. They and their staff should not have to look over their shoulder, fearing violence. Will the Minister tell the House what the Secretary of State has done to reassure them not only of the Government’s in-principle support, but that every step is being taken to give them the security they need to exercise their rights in our democratic society? Has the Secretary of State spoken directly with the media about their concerns? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary?
The Secretary of State made very clear his views in an article in The Times on Saturday. I commend that article, and his very clear commitment to free speech and freedom of expression, to hon. Members. The security of the media and all citizens is a vital issue, one that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary take extremely seriously. As Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, we will play our part in working with them to ensure the appropriate levels of security for anyone who champions freedom of expression.
Local Television Services (North-east Wales)
Local TV will increase the range and availability of local news, information and other local programming. Ofcom awarded the local TV licence for Mold, which covers parts of north-east Wales, in January 2014. The successful bidder for the licence, Bay TV, has two years from the licence award to begin broadcasting.
The licence granted does not cover Wrexham, which is the largest town in north-east Wales. MPs from all parties in north Wales support the extension of the current licence to cover the largest population centre, which all parties believe would be in the best interest of improving the very limited broadcasting that exists in north Wales—we have no BBC local radio, for example. Will the Minister please meet north Wales MPs in order to take this forward?
I know that the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, other MPs met Ofcom at the end of last year. There are some technical difficulties involved in broadcasting to Wrexham. Unfortunately, because of those technical difficulties to do with spectrum, local TV cannot broadcast in all areas. I know that Ofcom will write to the hon. Gentleman. I would, of course, be delighted to have a meeting with him and any other interested MPs to discuss the issue further.
Rugby World Cup
The selection of host city venues and team training camps is a matter for England 2015, the tournament organisers.
Is the Minister aware of the wonderful facilities at the Ricoh arena in Coventry, particularly for sport? There are also restaurants and tourist facilities there. I would like to say that Ministers have been very helpful to Coventry in respect of the Charterhouse project for tourists.
I do know of the wonderful facilities in Coventry, and I am confident that there will be opportunities for Coventry to benefit from England hosting the rugby world cup. That could include participation in the domestic trophy tour in the Festival of Rugby. I recommend that local authority venues in cities, including the Ricoh arena in Coventry, continue to discuss opportunities with England Rugby 2015.
Football Supporter Ownership and Engagement Group
7. What progress has been made by the Government’s Expert Working Group on Football Supporter Ownership and Engagement Group. (906999)
The group had its first meeting on 25 November and shortly after issued a call for evidence. I expect to publish its initial findings in the coming months and a full report later this year.
I am pleased that although it has taken since 2011, when one of the Minister’s predecessors promised it would happen, the working group is now finally up and running. She will be aware of the concern of many football fans—I declare an interest as a Fulham fan—that their club grounds are potentially worth more for purposes other than football and there is uncertainty about clubs maintaining their links with their communities. Fortunately for Fulham, despite misguided property speculators and ill-advised owners in the past, we have managed to survive at Craven Cottage, which is an iconic football ground and part of the English football fabric. Is the Minister aware of the concerns of fans, and does she think it is a good idea to have statutory consultation, ensuring that any change of use of football grounds is done with the fans in mind to protect grounds from asset stripping?
There were a few issues in that question. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This expert group is being set up so that fans can air their views. It will give them profile and a good platform. I am sure that issues such as this will be raised and reported to me in due course. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his point in more detail.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the controversial Glazer family takeover at Manchester United—against the wishes of the vast majority of United fans. This saddled the club with vast debts to pay for the takeover. Does the Minister agree that football clubs and their supporters should be better protected from these predatory takeovers that can threaten the long-term viability of many of our football clubs?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and responsible club ownership is important to all of us. The football authorities take it very seriously, and I am pleased that the owners and directors test has been strengthened. Following two debates here late last year, I asked the football authorities if there was a way of tightening this important test.
Is not the importance of listening to fans and of supporter engagement shown by the welcome decision taken by the Cardiff City board to put Cardiff City back in blue? I was delighted to be there on Saturday to see the club beat Fulham 1-0—in their traditional blue colours.
The Government have an excellent record of creating new opportunities for investing in the arts and creative industries. Following the success of UK film tax credits, which have generated billions in investment since 2010, we have introduced new tax reliefs for TV, video games, animation and theatres, and continue to invest in skills and innovation.
Huddersfield Town, one of the most famous football clubs, plays in blue as well.
There are some very good things going on in the arts, such as the international film awards. But the community arts scene, certainly in places such as Yorkshire, is really feeling the pinch. A lot of our talent starts off in little community groups and grows but there is an absolute desert at the grass roots of the arts for lack of funding.
First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for what has been achieved in the arts under this Government. He makes a good point. If I remember correctly, he raised recently the issue of social investment tax relief, which can help community arts activities as well as other charitable activities. He had called for an increase in the cap and he will know that the Chancellor announced just that in the last autumn statement. He can see from that that the Government are listening and doing what we can to help community arts.
I congratulate the Government on their investment through tax credits and the wonderful boost that that has given to the UK film industry. Will he join me in celebrating the investment made by small cinemas such as the Ritz in Thirsk and the Palace in Malton to bring digital cinema to a wider rural community and giving people a great night out?
I support everyone having a great night out and if the Government can help with that, it is a good thing. But seriously Mr Speaker, my hon. Friend is right to point out the support that the Government have provided to the film industry. Just in the last year, the Government have helped support over 300 films made in the UK with expenditure of almost £3 billion across the country, which is a good thing for us all.
Mobile Telephone Coverage
Not spots are particularly frustrating not only for those who live in isolated villages where mobile phone coverage is often essential, but for those who are on the move by road or by train. What is the Secretary of State doing to tackle the problem of not spots?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of trains and communications, which is why the Government have made a commitment to improve connectivity on trains. He may be aware that Network Rail is in the middle of a competition to work out the best solution to the problem. On Government support, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced a few months back £53 million of funding for the programme, with money that Network Rail was supposed to return to the Government. I will also ask my right hon. Friend to give my hon. Friend an update.
The Secretary of State has taken some bold steps to push mobile telephone companies to increase coverage in not spots. However, even in areas such as mine in Shoreditch, with mobile coverage, wi-fi and broadband, there is a real issue about planning permission for buildings that are tall enough to allow other technologies to flourish. Will he update the House on conversations he is having or will be having with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about changing planning permission to allow these other technologies to flourish?
The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. We are having ongoing discussions, and we have ongoing plans to improve the situation. As the hon. Lady may know, the deal that was announced last month with mobile phone operators included an agreement by the Government to give them access, at market prices, to Government-owned property on which we have the freehold, and I think that that is a positive step.
It seems rather bizarre that commercial airlines flying over the Ribble valley are now able to use mobile phones, while, below them, rural parts of my constituency have no coverage whatsoever. Will the Secretary of State encourage mobile phone operators to use the new technologies that are available, to ensure that rural England has full coverage?
My hon. Friend is right, but, as he will know, although the deal announced last month is voluntary, it is binding on each of the operators because of licence changes that are to be made. It will massively increase coverage throughout the United Kingdom, halving the number of what are known as partial not spots, and reducing the number of total not spots by two thirds. There will be improved coverage of data as well as voice.
Members on both sides of the House have rightly pointed out that not spots are not only infuriating for individuals but bad for businesses, especially small businesses, in many cities as well as rural areas. Unfortunately, the Government left it until the dying moments of this Parliament before taking action. What the Secretary of State described a moment ago as a landmark agreement is falling apart. Will he confirm that mobile network operators have told him, as they have told us, that he has reneged on the promises that he made about the electronic communications code—the amendments to the Infrastructure Bill that he has tabled at the last minute are wholly inadequate—and that he cannot tell the taxpayer whether this will cost us all £1 billion in lost revenues to Ofcom? Is not the truth of the matter that we now need a Labour Government to do the job properly?
Some things never change. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is clutching at straws. He has a reputation for opposing everything that comes before him, even if it is blindingly obvious that it will be great for everyone in the country. Given that he is new in his present role, having been kicked out of his old one, and that it is the start of a new year, we thought that he might have turned over a new leaf, but no such luck. I am sure, however, that he is intelligent enough to look at the deal carefully, and when he does so, he will see that it is a good result for everyone in the United Kingdom—including his constituents, who currently have some of the worst mobile phone coverage in the country.
Arts and Culture (Funding)
Normal service is now resuming.
The Government strongly support the fair distribution of funding for culture and arts throughout the country to increase opportunities for access and participation. We recently announced new cultural investment in the north of England. The Arts Council intends to build on its current trend of 60% grant in aid and 70% lottery investment outside London. That will, of course, include Hull, which will become the UK city of culture in 2017.
Despite the continuing imbalance of arts funding in favour of London, I am pleased that Rosie Millard and Martin Green are to lead our preparations for 2017. They are doing an excellent job. Will the Minister tell me, however, what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the disproportionate cuts that Hull has suffered under his regime—I believe that a further £24 million was cut in December—and about the impact that they will have on Hull’s ability to lead our national celebrations in 2017?
The hon. Lady’s question raises the much wider issue of the work that the Government are having to do to clean up the chaos and mess left by the Labour Government and balance the books. It is highly hypocritical—that is, it is very odd to hear her mention this matter, given that Labour Members trooped through the Lobby with us to secure the cuts that were necessary to balance the budget in the next three years.
We cannot put up with the chaos that is emanating from the Labour Benches. Last week they were tweeting that they supported cuts in the arts, boasting about them, while at the same time pretending that they opposed them.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Harlow is the cultural oasis of the east of England? We have the Gibberd gallery, the beautiful Parndon mill, the Harlow museum and much more besides, and we are also a sculpture town. Will he consider what he can do to support our beautiful town and culture and arts in Harlow?
Via Sport England, we invest nearly £70 million each year in outdoor sporting activities, and through VisitEngland and VisitBritain we will be promoting visits to the great outdoors through our “Countryside is Great” campaign.
Given the importance of tackling the increasing challenge of physical inactivity and given the potential of tourism in rural communities, does my hon. Friend agree that this is a good time to consider establishing a national strategy for outdoor recreation to sit alongside the Government’s successful sports strategy, to get more people active outdoors?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend that outdoor recreation is fantastic for our country, and we very much appreciate the work he does in promoting the benefits. I have had several meetings across Government on this issue, and I am engaging with the sector more widely. I will present more on this vision soon, and will be happy to update him in due course.
We are doing a lot to get girls participating in sport and outdoor activity—I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard of the £10 million Sport England “This Girl Can” campaign, which was launched this week. It is a cutting-edge consumer campaign aiming to normalise sport and outdoor activity, and I think it will do very well in increasing participation, and also deal with the health and emotional well-being issues that we have got to get to grips with.
Will the Minister join me in sending our support and condolences to Alex Thomson from Gosport, the yachtsman who was dramatically demasted last night while leading the Barcelona world race? Fortunately, none of the crew was hurt. In a place such as Gosport, where we have a world-class marine scene, he is one of our true champions.
I join the Minister in welcoming the Sport England “This Girl Can” campaign designed to encourage more women and girls to get active, but in order to have a lasting impact we must inspire the next generation, so she must feel shamed by the Youth Sport Trust survey figures published yesterday showing a fall in the time spent by children doing sport in schools since 2010. It is too late to put things right at the fag-end of this Parliament, but is it not clear that this Government squandered a golden legacy in sport and failed to inspire the next generation?
I cannot believe what I am hearing. We have more young people participating in sport now than we did when we bid for the Olympics in 2005, we invest £450 million in the school sport premium, which ignites an interest in sport from an early age, we invest £150 million in school sports, which brings competition back into schools, and we have nearly 17,000 schools participating, so I really do not recognise the very gloomy picture the shadow Minister is desperately trying to paint.
In spring last year we published the first ever nuisance calls action plan, which includes both legislative and other proposals to tackle the problem, so we are taking measures. We have, for example, recently consulted on lowering—or, indeed, removing—the legal threshold for the Information Commissioner’s Office, and we will be publishing our response to that consultation very soon.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but there is an insufficient sense of urgency on this. To some people these calls are not merely a nuisance; particularly for older people, they are a source of great distress, worry and anxiety, to the extent that some people will not answer their landlines at all, which is a safety issue in some cases. What are we doing to address the fact that existing regulations are not strong enough, which results in our getting all these robot calls and calls from people supposedly doing surveys? What are the Government going to do about that?
I regularly meet a range of stakeholders involved in this matter. We have allowed the ICO and Ofcom to share information, and we are going to lower or remove the threshold for taking action. We have also massively increased the level of fines that can be levied. We work with telecoms companies on technology solutions and we have worked with the consumer group Which? on a range of reforms. Only yesterday, I met the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) to talk about how we can help vulnerable people with call-blocking technology, so we are engaged with this issue.
The Minister referred to the nuisance calls taskforce report prepared by Which? on the Government’s behalf, which was published last month. He and I were at the report’s launch. Has he found its 15 recommendations useful, and if so, what plans does he have to implement them?
We work closely with Which? on this issue, and I was delighted to see my hon. Friend at the launch of the report. It contains a number of recommendations, which we are looking at, and I am particularly taken by the idea of holding members of the board of a company responsible for this issue, so that someone is accountable. We will evaluate the recommendations and implement those that are suitable.
Museums and Galleries (Funding)
This Government have done more than any of their predecessors to cultivate philanthropy and corporate sponsorship in support of our cultural sector. I commend all those individuals, businesses, trusts and foundations that support museums and galleries across the country.
Museums and galleries right across the country—not just those in London—have never been busier or more successful. Does the Secretary of State agree with the principle of more tax breaks to encourage philanthropic support, and should the magnificent approach taken by the British Museum be encouraged by introducing wider tax breaks elsewhere?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Tax breaks are part of the incentives and the action that the Government can take to encourage more giving. The cultural gift scheme is an example, as is the increase in the annual cap on tax relief that the Government have implemented. We have also simplified the gift aid scheme, but there is always more that we can do. If he has any ideas, I would be happy to listen.
The year 2014 ended on a high note for the Department as we secured a landmark deal to improve mobile phone coverage right across the UK. The new year has also got off to a good start: official figures released this week show that Britain’s creative industries grew at a rate of almost 10% in 2013 and delivered 66,000 new jobs. This is further proof that culture has a vital role to play in the Government’s long-term economic plan.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Superfast North Yorkshire has done a great job of rolling out superfast broadband across our county, making it one of the best connected in the country. I am now pressing for as many business parks as possible to be included in future plans. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for as many small and medium-sized businesses as possible to have access to superfast broadband so that they can conduct their business as efficiently as possible?
My hon. Friend has taken a strong interest in this issue on behalf of his constituents and I agree with him wholeheartedly. He is right to praise Superfast North Yorkshire; the project is making excellent progress. Phase 1 is expected to complete in March this year, taking coverage in the county to 87%. Phase 2 will increase coverage to 89%.
T4. When research by the Responsible Gambling Trust reveals that a third of fixed-odds betting terminal users have a problem with gambling, is it not time to end the £100 maximum stake, which means that a person in my constituency can spend his whole income in just four spins? (907026)
I know that the hon. Lady is concerned about these issues, and so am I. The Responsible Gambling Trust report endorsed the precautionary approach that we took in April, when we introduced proportionate and measured reforms that gave local authorities more power. I can also tell her that I shall be meeting the chief executives of all the betting industry companies in a few weeks’ time to see what more they are prepared to do.
T2. The Minister with responsibility for sport visited Osterley and Chiswick on Monday to meet some of Brentford football club’s community sports trust’s fantastic apprentices. Does the Secretary of State agree that apprenticeships in sport are incredibly valuable for building the knowledge and skills needed for a successful career in the industry, and that we should encourage even more of them? (907024)
I know that Brentford is having probably one of its best years on the pitch. I am pleased to say that the club has done excellent work off the pitch too, which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), went to see for herself. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) on the importance of apprenticeships in sport and the great opportunity they offer for individuals to develop important skills. That is why I am pleased with the support that Sport England already provides. Brentford FC is a good example to many others, showing what clubs can do to help their local community.
T5. The Minister and I entertained one another in a debate on nuisance phone calls about 18 months ago, when his response was, “It’s okay, guys. I’m on top of this. Something’s going to happen really quickly.” Since then we have had an action plan and lots of talking, but nothing has changed. When will he commit to a communications Bill to deal with the problem? (907027)
I remember our entertaining exchange, and I take exception to the accusation that nothing has happened. We have already passed one piece of legislation and we are about to put through some more legislation to bring about some of the changes that people have called for. We do a lot of work with companies and with telecoms companies, and we have made a real impact on nuisance calls.
T3. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the roll-out of superfast broadband in Mid Derbyshire, especially in Oakwood, Belper and Morley, where Morley school, for instance, cannot teach the national curriculum properly using the internet because of the unreliability? [Interruption.] (907025)
Members on the Labour Front Bench are saying that the situation is absolutely fine and it is completely marvellous. I would not go that far, but that is a good assessment of our rural broadband programme. I know that in Belper, for example, at the end of last year 1,500 premises were connected, thanks to the rural broadband programme. I hear what my hon. Friend says about Morley school and I will be happy to engage with her on the specifics of that issue.
T7. Superfast broadband seems to be a popular topic today. Does the Minister agree with the BT group strategy, policy and portfolio director that getting superfast broadband to 95% of the country might take until 2018? This was stated in an answer from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 3 December. The gap between superfast broadband availability—73%—and take-up is 21%, so there is a shortfall of 52%. Does the Minister agree that superfast broadband might be priced just a little too high? What is he doing to close the gap between the 21% and the 73%? (907030)
I do enjoy the running commentary that we get from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) throughout questions. Like the Duracell bunny, will he ever run out of energy? It is really impressive.
In this country we have some of the lowest costs for superfast broadband, but I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson), along with the hon. Member for Rhondda, will welcome our fantastic advertising campaign for superfast broadband, which I hope will bridge the gap between availability and take-up.
T6. There are too many rural communities in my South Downs constituency that have no broadband access. West Sussex county council’s plan to achieve 95% superfast coverage by 2017 is excellent, but is it not important to ensure that the remaining 5%, which will cover many rural areas, have digital access? Public subsidy should be directed at those areas first. (907028)
We are doing well in my right hon. Friend’s part of the world. West Sussex will get 94% superfast broadband coverage by the end of phase 1. That is £12 million worth of investment. My right hon. Friend is an experienced parliamentarian and I take what he says very seriously.
As we are well into the 100-year commemorations of the first world war, will the Minister assure the House, veterans in my area and my local armed forces network that she will ask Sky to reconsider the scheduling of the broadcast of matches on Remembrance Sunday, which has happened in Sunderland two years in a row, and instead schedule the games for the Saturday so as to respect the original intentions of that special day—remembering those who gave their lives for our country?
T8. I thank the Secretary of State very much for the focus that has gone on broadband in Cumbria. We have, however, faced a serious challenge with the European regional development fund. May I have his assurance that we will focus relentlessly on overcoming those problems to make sure that we can get the extension and deliver the broadband, as promised? (907031)
My hon. Friend has been working very hard on this issue, and I commend him for the work he has done on behalf of his constituents and for bringing this matter to my attention again and again. My Department is working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government, Cumbria county council and BT to ensure that the problem is resolved. I can also tell him that, following initial discussions, I am confident that the project can be fully delivered to give a great result for residents and businesses in Cumbria.
Channel 4 has just launched its 360° charter, which is making a real commitment to improving diversity, to the extent that executives will lose their bonuses if they do not meet the targets. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that other companies follow suit?
The hon. Lady rightly raises a very important point. My hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy was at that launch. I have spoken a number of times about seeing more diversity in the media. For example, I talked about it just last month on Radio 4, mentioning both the work that Channel 4 is doing, which is a huge improvement on the past, and that done by the BBC, Sky and others. More can always be done, and if the hon. Lady also has some ideas, I would be happy to talk to her.
I often ask questions about the provision of high-speed broadband in rural areas, but mobile phone coverage is just as bad. If I want to get a signal in my house, I have to clamber up on top of the kitchen unit or else trudge up the lane. Does the Minister realise that when we talk about 90% or 95% coverage, the 10% or 15% of people who are left out are always the same people—the people who live in rural Britain?
As part of our commitment from the Department of Health to get Britain moving, we might have to leave my hon. Friend’s home out of our rural broadband roll-out, so that he keeps moving about the house rather than taking calls from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] I am waiting to establish what point the Labour Front-Bench team are trying to make.
They want me to speed up. I can take as long as you want, Mr Speaker. As has been repeatedly stated from this Dispatch Box, a landmark deal at the end of last year with mobile phone companies will see partial not spots reduced by two thirds and not spots reduced by half.
May I return to the question I asked the Under-Secretary about sport? Clearly there is a problem with getting young people to continue to take part in sport once they leave school, and that is particularly the case for young girls. She referred to a number of programmes, so may I ask her how her Department is monitoring whether there has been a significant increase in the number of young people, particularly girls, taking part in sport after they have left school?
Our £1 billion youth and community strategy is helping to make sure that more young people, especially girls, participate in sport. Sport England is also running a very good campaign, the satellite community sports club campaign, which tries to bridge the gap between young girls doing sport at school and continuing to do those sports in the community when they leave school.
After the great success of the Tour de France in Yorkshire last year, which gave an estimated £100 million boost to the Yorkshire economy, is the Secretary of State as excited as everybody else in Yorkshire about the route to be declared next week for the Tour de Yorkshire, the new international cycling race which is being introduced? Will he join me in congratulating Gary Verity on the role he has played in organising that, as well as on bringing the Tour de France to Yorkshire, and support my campaign for him to receive a knighthood in the next honours list?
I agree very much with what my hon. Friend says. I remember visiting the Tour and being hugely impressed by the participation; people of all ages turned out for that spectator sport. It has been a great thing for Yorkshire and the new initiative is very welcome. I very much agree with his comments about what Gary Verity has achieved for Yorkshire; my hon. Friend’s point should be looked at.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Equality of Opportunity
Women make up almost 47% of the work force, but their representation falls in more senior positions. We want to ensure that women can take advantage of all the opportunities that their workplace offers them. For example, we are ensuring that parents can balance work and family life through measures such as extending flexible working and introducing shared parental leave and tax-free child care. We are also working with business to implement the recommendations in the Lord Davies report.
May I push the Minister on that? We still lag behind France and the Scandinavian countries in how we allow women to release their potential as managers, members of corporation boards, scientists and engineers. We are lagging behind the competition, so why did she and her party not support the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) which would at least have provided equal pay in the workplace?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the gender pay gap has narrowed again under this Government. For workers under the age of 40 it has almost been eliminated. He also knows that there are more systemic reasons for the continuing pay gap between men and women. Part of that is about the inspiration and advice that our young women get when they are at school. I am talking about the options, the careers and the subjects that they should be taking. That is a long-term systemic problem, which is part of the reason why, as Secretary of State for Education, I announced before Christmas that we were backing an independent careers enterprise company.
This Government have made the most progress ever on increasing the numbers of women on boards, but does the Secretary of State agree that it is still unacceptable to have only five female chief executives in the FTSE 100? Does she believe, as I do, that there is more to be done on the executive pipeline?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We need only 24 more women on boards to reach Lord Davies’ target of 25% of women on FTSE 100 boards. We now have no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. It is important to bear in mind that not all women want to become FTSE 100 board directors, but we should ensure that equality of opportunity goes right the way through all our workplaces.
In 2011-12, there were 1,700 employment tribunal claims which included, for example, maternity rights-based claims. Of those, 900 were ACAS-conciliated, 120 were successful at hearing and 430 were withdrawn. A claim can be launched with a payment of just over £200. It is right that people still have the option to go to employment tribunals, but the fact that the ACAS numbers are so high shows that it is possible to reach agreement between employers and employees.
I very much agree that transparency is extremely important, which is why this Government have backed the Think, Act, Report initiative that encourages companies to think very hard about equality and diversity, including pay, right the way through their organisations. We now have more than 270 employers signed up covering 2.5 million employees.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and I congratulate Libby Lane on becoming the new Bishop of Stockport and the first female bishop in the Church of England. I am delighted to see the Church of England moving into the 21st century, at least in this respect.
I do agree with my hon. Friend. Role models such as Libby Lane are very important, which is why the Government are supporting schemes such as “Your Life” and “Inspiring Women”, which is led by the formidably impressive lawyer, Miriam Gonzales. I believe that her husband has a job, too, but I think we can all agree that she is the role model in that family.
Gender Pay Gap
The gender pay gap is at its narrowest ever and has been entirely eliminated among full-time workers under the age of 40. Of course the gender pay gap is still too wide, which is why we are closing it further by encouraging girls and young women to consider a wider range of careers, including well-paid careers in technology and engineering.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Successful businesses know that they cannot afford to miss out on the talents and experiences of half our population, and the Government are working closely with business on that, especially through the Women’s Business Council, which was established by this Government in 2012. We are helping businesses to ensure that women can fully contribute to the country’s economic growth.
It is great that the pay gap has been eradicated for women under the age of 40, but if a woman happens to be aged between 40 and 49, the pay gap is 13.9%, and if they are aged between 50 and 59, it is over 18%. That is clearly unacceptable. Will the Minister now direct her attention towards ensuring the eradication of the pay gap for those aged over 40?
As I have already mentioned, research shows that the pay gap is mostly not about direct discrimination, but about the jobs and sectors that women enter and the progress that they make, particularly if they take time out of the labour market. In November, we announced that we were investing over £2 million in helping women, especially women over 40 and those working part time, to move from low-paid, low-skilled work to higher paid, higher-skill work. That programme of work is delivered by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which will start by focusing on helping women to develop skills in science, technology, engineering and maths, retail, hospitality and the agricultural sector.
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development research shows that people stuck in low pay—women who have been in low-paid jobs for 10 years—are more likely to be unable to escape it. I have not heard from the Minister any strategy to help those older women escape low pay. It is all very well talking about money, but what is happening on the ground to help older women?
The hon. Lady did not listen to the answer that I have just given. We are investing money, working with organisations such as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, and particularly looking at enabling women in low-paid, low-skill work to develop further skills, for exactly the reasons that she cited—so that they can have higher paid jobs, which obviously provides more security for them and their families.
I wonder whether the Minister would accept that the Government made a mistake in not implementing compulsory reporting on gender pay. Not enough businesses have voluntarily taken up such reporting. It is not too late to make the change; perhaps she would like to commit to doing so.
We as a Government have always said that we would keep that section under review, but I believe that it will be much better, and we shall achieve much more systemic change, with companies thinking very hard about the pay that they offer their employees and about the diversity in their work force, if we work with them on the voluntary approach—the Think, Act, Report approach—rather than burdening them with more regulations.
Homophobic bullying is absolutely unacceptable and we are committed to eliminating it. That is why we have announced £2 million of grant funding to support schools to address the issue more effectively. That, of course, complements the £4 million that the Department for Education currently provides to charitable organisations to tackle all forms of bullying. Schools policy in Wales, including bullying, is a matter for the Welsh Government.
Only yesterday, another concerned Clacton parent contacted me about bullying. Obviously, and quite rightly, academies are self-governing. Notwithstanding that, is there specific advice that the Minister might like to give to academies to try to address that problem?
There is plenty of guidance available, but the point of the work that we are funding is to help develop further the evidence base on the most appropriate and effective forms of intervention, which we will be able to share more widely with schools, so that they know how best to tackle such bullying. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to these important issues; I only wish that the rest of his party’s members took the same approach.
According to Stonewall’s latest figures, more than half of secondary school teachers fail to challenge homophobic bullying, while 17% feel they are inadequately trained to tackle such bullying. Therefore, does the Minister acknowledge that the Government’s failure to make sexual relationships education compulsory in the curriculum in mainstream teacher training has failed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people, as teachers feel ill equipped to deal with homophobia in the classroom, or to advise children who approach them in confidence?
Sexual relationships education is compulsory, but the hon. Lady raises an important point about training, and about ensuring that teachers feel comfortable in discussing these issues and know the best way to do so. We recognise that more can be done; that is why we have announced the project to develop that evidence base, so that teachers can see what best practice is, and how they can develop the confidence to tackle these issues effectively in the classroom. [Official Report, 21 January 2015, Vol. 591, c. 2MC.]
Under-occupancy Penalty: Disabled People
The spare room subsidy is about ensuring that the same rules apply in the social housing sector as in the private sector. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have made available significant amounts of discretionary housing payments so that local authorities can deal with cases in which they think the specific circumstances are appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman is a good Minister, but he will know that that is a nonsense answer. According to the Government’s own interim evaluation report, disabled people in adapted homes hit by the bedroom tax are not being awarded discretionary housing payments, because their disability benefits are causing them to fail the test. The Minister needs to look at this a bit more carefully.
The hon. Gentleman is a little churlish in his response to my answer. I have looked at the discretionary housing payment guidance in significant detail and it gives local authorities complete discretion. Local authorities are the ones considering specific cases and they are in possession of all the facts. I trust them to make good, sensible decisions.
My hon. Friend raised a similar question at the previous Question Time and I put in the Library information on the amount of money the Government have made available to each local authority in the country compared with what they are spending. We do not have a list broken down by local authority of every single person affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy and their level of disability, so I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact information he requires, but I think I have done the best that I can.
The Government are committed to improving social mobility. That is why we have extended free early education to disadvantaged two-year-olds, introduced a £2.5 billion a year investment in the pupil premium, delivered 2 million apprenticeship starts within this Parliament and have more than 180 major employers signed up to the social mobility business compact to inspire young people and improve access to employment opportunities.
Bristol’s fairness commission reported last year and described Bristol as a “tale of two cities,” with some areas facing “persistent deprivation.” When the Government entered power, they refused to implement clause 1 of the Equality Act 2010, the socio-economic duty, which would have placed a duty on all public bodies to have awareness of the effect of economic inequality on their policies. Will the Government reconsider that, because it is an issue that they have completely overlooked?
It is not the Government’s intention to do so at the moment, but of course local authorities have plenty of discretion, powers and tools to tackle these issues. The hon. Lady rightly highlights that there are important issues of deprivation within local authorities and it is vital that they are tackled.
According to the annual survey of hours and earnings, 24.6% of women were paid below two thirds of the median wage in 2014. Although that is still too high, we are making progress as the percentage of women in low-paid work is falling compared with 2010, when the rate was 25.9%.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but she will know, as we do, that according to the House of Commons Library women have lost six times as much financially as men under the policies of this Government. Does she think that is fair and what is she going to do about it?
I would be very interested to see the report, which I understand has been requested by the Opposition and has not been forthcoming. We have cut income tax for people on low pay, many of whom are women, and in particular, the majority of the 3 million people who have been taken out of paying income tax at all are women. The Government take these issues seriously to ensure that women and indeed men are protected in these difficult economic times.
As employment relations Minister I certainly would not endorse that as good employment practice. There are clearly significant issues with zero-hours contracts and the Government recognise that, which is why we are legislating through the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill to make exclusivity clauses illegal. It is also why we are taking further steps to work with industry sectors to produce guidance so that best practice is followed in using such contracts, which work for some people, as the surveys from the CIPD clearly show. We need to ensure that the contracts are used properly and I agree with the hon. Lady when she points out that there are examples of bad practice in that area.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 19 January—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill.
Tuesday 20 January—Opposition day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party on Trident renewal.
Wednesday 21 January—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism.
Thursday 22 January—Debate on a motion relating to the governance of the House of Commons.
Friday 23 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 26 January will include:
Monday 26 January—Remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by a debate on a motion relating to accommodation for young people in care. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 28 January—Opposition day (15th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 29 January—Debate on a motion relating to the Iraq inquiry, followed by a general debate on financial support available for restoration of open-cast coal sites. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 30 January—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of January will be:
Thursday 22 January—Debate on the third report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee on the green deal, followed by a debate on the first report from the Justice Committee on crime reduction policies.
Thursday 29 January—Debate on the second report from the Home Affairs Select Committee on female genital mutilation, followed by a debate on the second report from the Science and Technology Committee on UK blood safety and the risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business, including all stages of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill next Monday?
Even those of us who feel that the unelected and supersized Chamber at the other end of the building is in need of more radical reform can welcome this Bill. Prior to the creation of Labour’s senate of the nations and regions, it is only right that the Lords Spiritual should consist of women bishops as well as men.
I also welcome the debate that the Leader of the House has scheduled for next Thursday on the report from the Governance Committee. I hope that the House will not only agree to the recommendations but agree on a timetable for implementing them so that we have a new management system in place before Dissolution. Will the Leader of the House tell the House how this will be accomplished if the motion is carried?
The Committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill is due to conclude upstairs today, and the Leader of the House has announced that we will debate it on Report on 26 January. It is over seven months since consideration of the Bill began in the other place, so will he explain why last Friday 60 pages of amendments reforming the electronic communications code appeared out of nowhere? Why is the drafting of the amendments so bad that mobile phone operators have thrown into doubt the Government’s uncosted deal with them to extend mobile phone coverage? Will he now consider extending the Report stage to give the House the time it needs to improve these badly drafted amendments? Is this yet another example of this Government’s competence, or is it simply more chaos?
Despite repeated Government promises that free speech would be protected, last week the Electoral Commission wrote to a range of political blogs warning them about falling foul of the Government’s lobbying Act. Bishop Harries’ commission on civil society and democratic engagement has said that the law is already having a widespread chilling effect on campaigning by charities and other organisations in the run-up to the general election. When does the Leader of the House intend to put section 39 of the Act into effect, as he has only a few days left? Will he now admit that despite all the false promises from Government Front Benchers, this law is having the effect they desired in silencing criticism of the Government and suppressing healthy democratic debate? Does he accept that the only reasonable thing to do now is to repeal this disgraceful assault on free speech?
The Conservative election campaign continues to lurch from one embarrassment to another. First, we had the fiasco of the German road that, it now turns out, was airbrushed to remove all the potholes. This week the Conservatives have unveiled six election priorities, which, amazingly, make no mention of the NHS.
Such is the Conservatives’ popularity that they have been caught spending tens of thousands of pounds buying their own Facebook friends, and now they are so confident of victory that the Prime Minister is running scared of each and every chance to be held to account in debates. He promised to be interviewed by Bite the Ballot in front of first-time voters, which every other party leader has now done, including leaders of the minor parties, such as the Deputy Prime Minister—even he turned up to his appointment with Bite the Ballot. The Prime Minister, however, has suddenly pulled out, absurdly claiming that of the 111 days left until the election there are
“no dates that would work.”
Then we have the saga of the TV debates. The Prime Minister has been clucking for days that he will not do them without the Greens, but he is actually frightened that he would be in for a roasting. Is not it blindingly obvious that that is a fowl excuse?
The Liberal Democrats are not doing much better. After the Prime Minister rebuked the Tory Chief Whip for messing with his mobile phone in Cabinet, the Chief Secretary decided to take the secretary part of his job very seriously and leapt to reinforce the Prime Minister’s message, pointing out that he too had spotted others using their phones during Cabinet. Doesn’t everyone just love a teacher’s pet?
I think that the Business Secretary is jealous. After being unceremoniously dumped as economic spokesman from the farcical Liberal Democrat cabinet within a Cabinet that is apparently designed to shadow the Cabinet while actually propping up the Cabinet, he has insisted that he is still economic spokesman and that his demotion is just a “minor internal matter.” That sounds like how the Tories refer to the Liberal Democrats.
In just a few hours we will learn who has been nominated for an Oscar, and this year I think us Brits have got at least one in the bag: this Government will win the award for best farce.
I welcome the opening remarks of the shadow Leader of the House: we are united in our support of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill and there will be a good deal of time to debate it next Monday. The allocation of time motion will provide for that, including a four-hour Second Reading debate. I hope it will enjoy the unanimous support of the House. We shall see.
When it comes to the debate on the governance of the House, it will be important for us all to listen to the views of the House. The hon. Lady and I have both signed the motion tabled by the members of the Governance Committee. There is a great deal of support for their recommendations, some of which will require legislation in order to implement them, but the majority of them can be proceeded with very speedily. If the motion is passed, the relevant authorities will be empowered and, in effect, instructed to get on with those actions and the necessary recruitment processes.
On the Infrastructure Bill, the Culture Secretary has been working on a tremendous improvement in mobile phone coverage in this country. The hon. Lady asked for more time on Report to discuss amendments. I might have considered that differently had the Opposition used the time they had asked for and obtained on other Report stages, but they did not do so. For instance, they asked for, and we provided, six days’ debate on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, including two days on Report, but the House rose early on both of those days by several hours. I think the time we have provided will be adequate to discuss the Infrastructure Bill.
I will look at the point raised by the hon. Lady about section 39 of the transparency of lobbying Act, but some vigorous campaigning is already going on without anybody being silenced in the run-up to the general election campaign.
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Government’s competence. I pay tribute to her, as I often do, because at least she can remember what she is meant to be talking about when she comes to the House. However, the Leader of the Opposition is having increasing problems recalling things, including whether he said he would “weaponise” the national health service, despite being asked seven times on television on Sunday and being challenged in this House. He could not remember the main issue—the biggest problem facing the country—in his party conference speech, and now he cannot remember what he said about the issue he has most often raised, which makes us wonder whether he would remember anything he was meant to do if he became Prime Minister of this country or, indeed, what the day was on any particular day. She is clearly in a stronger position.
I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition remembers that he promised to freeze energy prices, and that when he stood at the Dispatch Box only 15 months ago he said:
“Nothing less than a price freeze will do”.—[Official Report, 30 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 912.]
Yesterday, the awful realisation at last dawned on the Opposition that had we had a price freeze when they asked for it, energy prices would not now be falling, as they are. The cheapest energy tariff is now £100 cheaper than it was a year ago, meaning that it would be £100 more expensive had we frozen energy prices when they asked for that. [Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members shaking their heads about wanting a freeze because it is all there in motions they tabled in this House. Such motions demanded nothing other than a freeze, including one on 18 June, which stated:
“That this House notes the policy of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition to freeze energy prices for 20 months”.—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1185.]
Seven months later, energy prices are falling, which would not have been possible. Yesterday, they decided that a freeze meant a cap, but that was the first time they had done so. From my own experience, I can tell the Leader of the Opposition that reaching for a cap when in difficulty is not always a good idea.
I pointed out last week that the Opposition have dropped 12 policies in under 10 days, and they have now been joined by a 13th policy. The Opposition have started to announce their policies in secret, such as their latest one to carpet the countryside with unnecessary wind turbines if they win the next general election, to which they do not want to give any publicity.
The real story about what has happened this week is one of competence: the World Bank has confirmed that the UK is the fastest-growing G7 economy; UK manufacturing is now performing at levels not seen since 2002; and the pensioner bonds launched today will reward people who have worked hard and saved hard throughout their lives.
Please may we have a debate on the accurate use of words and phrases? It would give Members the chance to make clear that there is a difference between the deficit and the debt, that positive action or positive discrimination is still discrimination, and that tax avoidance is legal while tax evasion is illegal.
I am not sure, with only 40 sitting days until the Dissolution of Parliament, that there will be time for a debate, but it would be very beneficial to discuss such things at every opportunity. Of course, to know whether you are talking about the deficit or the debt, you must remember that you intended to talk about it in the first place, which is a particularly serious difficulty for the Leader of the Opposition.
May I first invite the Leader of the House to examine the physics of freezing? Water can be frozen at any point between zero and absolute zero, which is minus 273° C, so I offer him the thought that our metaphor of a freeze is consistent with both prices being level and prices falling.
May I express my gratitude to the Leader of the House and his private office, as well as to my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, for their very active co-operation in working with my Committee to agree the motion—he has tabled motion 91, to which I have added my name—for debate on Thursday? I hope, if there is agreement, that we can indeed make rapid progress towards implementing the House of Commons Governance Committee’s recommendations, including for pushing the minor changes in legislation through both Houses.
The right hon. Gentleman has given by far the best description from the Opposition Benches of what a freeze is meant to mean, but sadly it was not included in the motion on 18 June last year. I can see why Labour Members are thinking of water running out beneath them and ice cracking on top—I think that is what he was describing—because that is what is currently happening to their policy. Perhaps we have taken this physics discussion far enough.
I pay tribute again to the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for putting together such a well thought out report that commands a great deal of support across the House. It is on the governance of the House, and Opposition Members who were paying attention would have been able to follow that. As he may know, I am also looking at how, even this Session before the end of this Parliament, we can pass the small piece of legislation required by the report.
Following a storm more than a month ago, BT has still not restored a landline service to many of my constituents. Mobile phone services are also affected—for example, it took Vodafone 20 days to repair a fault in December, and a large part of Argyll has been without a Vodafone mobile service since last Thursday. Such delays are unacceptable. May we have an urgent statement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on what can be done to make those companies carry out repairs more quickly in future?
As I recall, this is the second time my hon. Friend has found it necessary to raise that issue, which is clearly a serious problem in his constituency, and I hope that BT and all those responsible will take full note of his raising the matter in the House. We have just had questions to DCMS Ministers, and I will alert them to the problem he raises.
Might we expect a statement from the Government on the potential job losses announced by BP today? If so, will it include the implications of those job losses, and the potential impact on the supply chain for that sector across the United Kingdom?
Overall, as the House will recognise, the reduction in oil prices is beneficial to the British economy and indeed the world economy, but as those announcements show it can also have a damaging effect on employment in the North sea industry. That is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor reduced taxes on the industry, and he showed considerable foresight in doing so. The Energy and Climate Change Secretary is in Aberdeen today discussing the situation with industry leaders, and the Government are taking the situation seriously.
Will the Leader of the House please confirm that, as indicated by the Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison) last March, there will be a debate on the Government’s proposed mitochondrial donation regulations before Members are asked to vote on them?
Regulations to allow the clinical use of those techniques for the first time were laid in Parliament on 17 December, as my hon. Friend knows. The regulations are affirmative and therefore subject to a debate in both Houses of Parliament. We are working on how to schedule that debate and where it will take place, and I hope to update the House soon.
May I support what the shadow Leader of the House said about having two days on Report for the Infrastructure Bill? When it came before the House on Second Reading, the Bill already covered areas that required great scrutiny such as shale gas, Highways Agency reform and zero-carbon homes. Since it has been in Committee, new amendments have been tabled on mayoral powers, reforms to the Electricity Act 1989, and a range of other areas, including the electronic communications code that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned. Some of those issues were not covered by the long title, or by debate in the House of Lords or on Second Reading. Is it too much to say that if those measures are to get the scrutiny they need, we should have two days on Report?
I always take seriously requests for further time on important Bills, but as I stressed to the shadow Leader of the House, my experience in my short time as Leader of the House—six months so far—is that when additional time has been asked for on Report, the days have not been fully used, and that affects how we regard further requests for time on other Bills.
Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity of noting the Westminster Hall debate last week on the economy of coastal towns? The importance of the coastal communities fund was raised by Members on all sides of the House. Can he find time for a debate on the future of the coastal communities fund, which is very important to constituencies such as mine?
That was an important debate on coastal communities. It will have been an important opportunity for hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend, to raise many of the issues that come up in their constituencies. I cannot promise a further debate on these issues, but he can use all the normal means, including the Backbench Business Committee, to ask for such a debate. He is a very strong champion of coastal communities.
For Tuesday’s debate on Trident renewal, would it be an idea to reorganise the furniture of the House, so that we have the Westminster establishment parties of Tory and Labour on one side arguing the case for £100 billion to be spent on Trident while indulging in austerity, and the progressive alliance of Greens, Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru on the other proving the case for why that money should be spent not on weapons of mass destruction but on social programmes?
I am sure hon. Members will be able to take part in the debate from whatever point of view and wherever they are sitting. It will not be necessary to reorganise the furniture. Of course, the basic furniture of the British constitution was supported by the people of Scotland when they voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, including those who live in the area represented by the hon. Gentleman.
Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement next week on the leaders’ debate? The Prime Minister is absolutely right that national parties should be included, including the Greens. I understand that the Scottish National party is considering running candidates in England. If so, could it be included in the debate? If it runs in north Northamptonshire it will get more votes than the Liberal Democrats.
I think it is fair to say that that suggestion will receive a mixed reception in the coalition Government, but I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of the Green party also being able to take part in the debates if other parties that are not the long-recognised major parties of the country do so. I do not know why the Labour party is so afraid of having the Green party take part in the debates.
I add my voice to the congratulations to the Leader of the House on the speed with which he has reacted to the Governance Committee report, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Those of us who were able to give oral and written evidence are very pleased, although I still remember the expression on my right hon. Friend’s face when I said that I wanted this place to be run more like John Lewis.
May I join the call for two days of debate on the Infrastructure Bill? Has the Leader of the House seen the Consumers Association analysis published this morning that the taxpayer and the traveller will be burdened with £200 billion-plus to pay for this infrastructure? Is it not time we reconsidered HS2, the costs of which are adding up to £80 billion, money that could be spent on the national health service?
There was a lot in that question. I have not heard the governance of the House being linked to HS2 before. That was an artful journey through many different matters. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the Governance Committee report. Many right hon. and hon. Members contributed, as he did, to its thinking and they were right do so. I will look at the analysis from the Consumers Association. I will, however, make the point I have made before: the time requested for the Report stage of Bills has so far not been well taken up.
The Ministry of Justice has a woeful record on answering parliamentary questions on time, to such an extent that it has been chastised by the Procedure Committee. On 18 November I asked the Secretary of State for Justice how many prisoners convicted of terrorist-related offences had been released on temporary licence in each of the past five years. It is bad enough that that question has still not been answered, but given the nature of the question and the appalling events in Paris is it not essential that the Government are on top of how many prisoners convicted of terrorist offences have been released on temporary licence? Will the Leader of the House urge the Justice Secretary not only to answer the question, but to make a statement to the House so that we can see what risk this country faces from these kinds of people?
My hon. Friend knows that the Home Secretary made a statement yesterday about our preparedness to counter terrorist attacks. It is important that Departments give timely answers to questions. I certainly attach a great deal of importance to that, as does the Procedure Committee. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has explained to the Procedure Committee the measures that he is taking to improve the performance of the Ministry of Justice on this. While that is taking place, I will remind my right hon. Friend of the specific question that my hon. Friend has asked.
At the end of this month, the Foreign Office will receive a copy of the consultant’s report on the feasibility of the Chagos islanders returning to their homeland from which they were disgracefully removed many decades ago. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is the case, that there will be an imminent statement from the Foreign Office shortly after the report is received and that there will be an opportunity before the end of this Parliament for a full debate on the situation facing the Chagos islanders and the assertion of their right to return to the islands from which they were so wrongly removed all those decades ago?
The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing campaigner on this issue and I had discussions with him when I was Foreign Secretary. Indeed it was my decision as Foreign Secretary to set up this further feasibility study about the Chagos islands. It has always been intended that it would report at the beginning of this year; in other words, very soon. He will have to ask a Foreign Office Minister specifically about the Department’s approach. It is Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday, so he might have an opportunity to do so then, but I will remind the FCO that there is considerable interest in the House as to how the report will be handled and the FCO response to it.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the expulsion and ethnic cleansing from the Kashmir valley of Hindu Pandits, who were forcibly removed from homes they had occupied for thousands of years. This weekend there will be a peace march ending at Trafalgar square, and in several Hindu temples across the country there will be services commemorating this evil event. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement or debate on this subject so that the attitude of the British Government to this terrible event can be put on the record?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the long-standing position of the UK on this, which is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for us to try to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one, but we continue to follow developments in the region closely. I know that my hon. Friend has raised the issue before in debate and he will be aware of the further opportunities there are to continue to bring it to the attention of the House, as he has done today.
There is growing concern in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire about the awarding of a contract for a PET scanner to a private company, Alliance. Given that local MPs have asked for a meeting with the chief executive of NHS England about this and so far have not had a reply, may I ask for an urgent debate in the House on the issue of procurement in the NHS and the wider implications it has for the reconfiguration of services?
As the hon. Lady knows, matters of procurement in the NHS are regularly debated with Health Ministers and regularly come up at Health questions. There are many opportunities to raise it. She mentioned that she has raised it specifically with NHS England and I hope it will respond to her. It will owe her a quick response, given that people are clearly concerned.
We all know that ISIS is taking lives throughout Syria and Iraq, but what is less well known is that it is also trying to take the soul of the region through a systematic and epic looting of antiquities and works of art on a scale that has not been seen since the end of the second world war. What is more, this is believed to be the third-greatest source of revenue for ISIS after energy and bank robbing. It is a national security issue, as well as an issue of great cultural concern to the world. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate in the House on the issue, and perhaps enlist the support of his friend Angelina Jolie to give some international support to what is a really important issue?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this issue. I cannot pledge Angelina Jolie to engage with issues other than those on which I already work with her, but he is absolutely right that what is happening in that region involves the devastation of antiquities as well as so many atrocities inflicted on human beings, which are, of course, our top concern—particularly the enslavement of people and the tyrannical and brutal treatment of people living in areas taken over by ISIS, or ISIL. It shows the importance of the action we have taken with other nations, working with the Government of Iraq and with the Kurdish Regional Government. As my hon. Friend knows, that action is having some success in turning back the advance of ISIS, or ISIL. He will be able to raise the issue with Foreign Office Ministers at questions on Tuesday—if he catches your eye, Mr Speaker.
We all want to sort out mobile telephony coverage around the country, but the way in which the Government have proceeded by introducing significant amendments to the electronic communications code at the very last stage of the Infrastructure Bill is a wholly inappropriate way of doing business. The mobile network operators are furious about it, and we will not be able to support the changes, even though we would love to see proper change. Without two days for Report, it is going to be impossible to get this right. The danger is that we will then not have the change that the Government, the Opposition, the mobile network operators and everybody wants. The Government may lose in the House of Lords and lose their Bill.
The hon. Gentleman raises the same point as others, including the shadow Leader of the House. I do not have much more to add to what I said earlier. I said I would look at the evidence and representations on the matter and will always listen to concerns about adequate time for debating legislation. On any Bill for which representations are made for more time and more time is given, it is important to use that time—otherwise it takes up time to debate for other matters. [Interruption.] That has been the pattern so far.
Is it possible to have an early debate on the plight of the dairy industry in the United Kingdom? I welcome the fact that inflation is running at 0.5%, but when supermarkets advertise milk at 89p for four pints—considerably cheaper than the price of water on their shelves—something is clearly going wrong. As my right hon. Friend knows, many farmers did not get paid for several weeks and the wholesale price they are paid has collapsed. May we have an urgent debate to ensure that the vitality of this important industry is preserved?
My hon. Friend will be able to pursue the need for debate through all the normal methods, with which he is extremely familiar. Today, the farming Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, our hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is discussing with the industry and the National Farmers Union how to help manage the volatility of prices, such as through the creation of a futures market. We recognise that milk prices continue to fall and that it is a concerning time for British dairy farmers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) will know that we have worked with the industry to open up new export markets, and exports are rising. We have given dairy farmers the opportunity to unite in producer organisations so that they have greater clout in the marketplace. As I said, the Minister is discussing with the industry and the unions what further we can do.
Notwithstanding the representations made by the shadow Leader of the House and other hon. Members in respect of the Infrastructure Bill, would the Leader of the House consider having a specific debate about the merits of, and safety factors involved in, undersea coal gasification? I have raised the issue in questions with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and I am told that an internal working group has been established, but would it not be beneficial, in the interest of transparency, to have a full debate, perhaps in Government time, so that my constituents and others can better understand the merits and potential benefits as well as the risks to the local economy?
It is perfectly reasonable to request time to debate such matters, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the main opportunities for debates of that kind are now provided by the Backbench Business Committee, the Adjournment and Westminster Hall, and I suggest that he use those channels. Government time is not available for such general debates, important and interesting though they might be.
Tesco is pulling out of a planned store in Huddersfield, and Yorkshire-based Morrisons has announced that it is to close a store at Ravensthorpe, near Huddersfield. May we have a debate on the state of the UK’s supermarket industry, and its relationships with both suppliers and customers?
Steps to promote independent retail were debated in Westminster Hall last year, but my hon. Friend raises the wider issue of supermarkets, and the grocery market is obviously undergoing a great deal of structural change. A further debate would allow the Government to give further details of our support for high streets and market towns—for instance, the £2.3 million that we are providing for the 27 Portas pilots and 330 town teams across England, the £10 million high street innovation fund, and our work on business improvement districts—so it could indeed be very beneficial.
Today, in Nottingham, Rural Community Action Nottinghamshire will celebrate 90 years of partnership work in rural communities, and celebrations will continue throughout the country this year. Much of that work depends on rural community councils, and much of their own work depends on advice, support and funding from the rural community network organisation Action with Communities in Rural England, or ACRE. However, ACRE has been informed out of the blue, with no notice, that its funding will be discontinued from this March, and the decision may be made by Ministers behind closed doors as early as next week.
Will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—who is in China at the moment—or other Ministers in the Department to provide the House with a full impact assessment before any such decision is made, and to make a statement to the House? A decision that could cause as many as a third of rural community councils to shut up shop and a further third to restrict their activities should not be made behind closed doors.
There are extraordinary pressures on A and E departments in Stoke and the north midlands, although the excellent staff at Stafford County and Royal Stoke University hospitals are working hard to deal with them. Furthermore, a speedy return to 24/7 A and E services in Stafford is essential owing to the long-term acute pressures that will result from the doubling of the number of people aged over 85 in south Staffordshire and Stafford by 2030. May we have a debate on regional A and E provision, in the light of the increased number of complex medical emergencies?
There has already been a good deal of discussion in the House about A and E services—indeed, the Health Secretary spoke about them in the House last week—and my hon. Friend will be aware of all the action that the Government are taking to try to relieve pressure on those services, nationally and in his own region. However, he is right to refer to local pressures, and I shall ensure that the Health Secretary is aware of the point that he has raised.
May I return the Leader of the House to the subject of the Infrastructure Bill? In an earlier answer, he mentioned that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was in Aberdeen today, talking to representatives of the oil and gas industry. What he will hear from them is that the implementation of the Wood review and the establishment of the new Oil and Gas Authority, which has the support of all parties, including the Scottish National party, should be seen as a matter of priority, given the urgency of the situation in the North sea. That is one of a number of issues raised by the Bill.
As several Labour Members have pointed out, there is a real risk that the authority will not be up and running when it should be, which would have a material effect on that industry. May I reinforce their pleas for a two-day debate on this important Bill on Report, given the range of issues that it covers?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the industry, that the Government are determined to ensure that the Infrastructure Bill is passed into law before our Session comes to an end in just over two months’ time, so I do not think there should be alarm in the industry about that. On the time for the debate, I made my point earlier and I do not want to add anything further to that at the moment.
Chiswick school in my constituency has done some excellent work in linking up students with local businesses, which is of course incredibly important in encouraging aspiration in the next generation, but there is often inconsistency in establishing such links in London and across the country. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Education to look at the progress being made in careers advice in schools and also to see how many schools have a business champion on their governing bodies?
These are important issues, and the Government’s focus is on preparing young people for the world of work more effectively and ensuring that businesses are engaged with schools in meaningful ways. Governors have a very strong role to play in that. As my hon. Friend knows, on 10 December last year the Education Secretary announced the establishment of a new employer-led careers and enterprise company with a specific remit to build up all this work. The Education Secretary also gave evidence on this to the Select Committee on Education recently, and I am sure that there will be other opportunities to raise these matters in the House.
My constituent Julie Hambleton and her family, along with the families of all the victims of the 1974 pub bombings in Birmingham, have been suffering for 40 years and continue to suffer as the perpetrators of that heinous act have not been brought to justice. They have tried to make an appointment to see the Prime Minister but that has not been possible. May we have a debate in this House so that the Home Secretary can directly address this issue, to at least give them some comfort?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue for his constituents and he will have opportunities to raise this, such as with the Home Secretary at the next Home Office questions. I will of course make sure that the Home Office is aware of his concerns. I know my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister take these matters very seriously, so I will make sure they are aware of the point the hon. Gentleman has made today.
Perhaps because I am a vexillologist MP, I have been approached by the office of the majority leader in the US House of Representatives to see whether it might be possible to facilitate an exchange of the Union flag flying over the Victoria Tower and the flag flying over the US Capitol to mark the long historical and friendship links between the United Kingdom and the United States. I would be grateful for the advice of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—and indeed you, Mr Speaker—as to how that might be facilitated.
Personally, I am a great enthusiast for reinforcing and commemorating the intimate links between the United States and the United Kingdom. The US is our most important bilateral relationship and our greatest ally in the world, so we must take this request seriously. I will have to discuss—no doubt with you, Mr Speaker, and others in the House—how we go about facilitating and deciding on any such flag exchange, so I will come back to my hon. Friend on this point.
May I congratulate the Leader of the House on his decision to move to Wales when he leaves the House? I hope he and Ffion are very happy at Cyfronydd hall.
May we have a debate on improving Members’ knowledge of “Erskine May”, because the right hon. Gentleman will know—as will you, Mr Speaker—that on 19 March 1872 the Speaker condemned the imitation of the crowing of cocks and other barnyard noises in the House? If hon. Members knew their “Erskine May” better, would they not be less likely to greet the Prime Minister with a chorus of chicken noises for ducking the leadership debates?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his personal good wishes. My wife and I are looking forward to spending a good deal of time in Wales after the general election, and I thank him for his welcome. I am also grateful to him for pointing out the importance of “Erskine May”. There were some farmyard noises in the House yesterday, and I am sure that when the Labour party has stopped being chicken about debating with the Green party, there will be less need for such things in the House.