House of Commons
Wednesday 25 February 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions with colleagues on issues affecting the energy sector in Scotland, including with the Scottish Government on energy supply issues.
People in north Yorkshire have noted with great interest that the Scottish Government have banned fracking for the moment. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress towards a debate on energy supply not only for Scotland, but for the whole of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend’s key words were “for the moment”. The Scottish Government have come forward with a moratorium, and I am sure that we shall all watch the debate with keen interest. I remind her and the House that we removed the Scottish provisions from the Infrastructure Bill, and that the power to license onshore exploration for oil and gas will be devolved under the Scotland Act that will come after the next election.
When the Secretary of State meets the First Minister, will he get information—this is not in the public arena—on how much compensation is being paid to wind farms in Scotland from his and my electricity bills as a consequence of the fact that they are, in my view, inefficient?
I am sure that the Secretary of State, as a highlands and islands MP, will share the sense of anger and injustice at SSE’s 2p surcharge on electricity costs, given that it made a profit of £1.5 billion last year. Will he do everything possible at the UK level to ameliorate this state of affairs, not least by endorsing the excellent campaign by The Press and Journal?
I rarely have any difficulty in endorsing a campaign run by The Press and Journal. The question of the price being paid by electricity consumers across the highlands and islands is complex, but I know that we all benefit from being part of the wider UK energy market.
Scottish generators, including Longannet, provide 12% of the electricity going into the British network, but pay 35% of the transmission charges. The Secretary of State has been in government for five years. What has he done to end that discrimination?
The hon. Gentleman is well aware that transmission charging is the responsibility of Ofgem, the energy market regulator. He will also be aware of the work that Ofgem has been doing with other parts of the energy industry in relation to Project TransmiT.
Last week, the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister about this very subject, asking
“the UK Government to initiate a dedicated capacity assessment for Scotland, informed by stakeholder views, and take steps to transfer to the Scottish Parliament the authority to set our own national reliability standard for electricity.”
Having failed to end the discriminatory transmission charges, will the UK Government agree to those reasonable suggestions?
The hon. Gentleman and the First Minister must both be aware that National Grid has a constant process of reviewing energy supply. The system operators in Scotland have stress-tested 140 scenarios in which Longannet and other Scottish fossil fuel generators were closed, and National Grid has the tools to keep the lights on in every one of those scenarios, including by being resilient against one-in-600-year risks. Those are the facts, and they are preferable to the sort of scaremongering that we hear from the nationalists.
I have raised many times the devastation caused by abandoned coal mines in my constituency. The Secretary of State will be aware of the proposal for an exemption from carbon price support, which would greatly help their restoration and create 1,000 jobs. Can we expect good news on this in the Budget, and does he agree that the Scottish Government should step up to the plate with some of their £500 million surplus to help the restoration?
First, I am happy to pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been a doughty fighter for her constituents’ interests in this regard. As for what will be in the Budget, I am afraid that, like the rest of us, she will have to wait and see, although I can assure her that my Department remains engaged on this issue. We continue to work closely with the Scottish Government on their joint taskforce, which will next meet in March. My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will represent the UK Government on that occasion.
As a result of the clear no vote in the referendum, there remain no barriers to trade across the whole of the UK. Nothing in the draft clauses changes that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all political parties need to come together to ensure that airports such as Newcastle in the north-east have air passenger duty support so that they are not unfairly disadvantaged by the proposals of the Smith commission?
I assure my hon. Friend that the basic principle of the Smith commission proposals is that there should be no detriment to any part of the UK—that was very much what the people of Scotland voted for on 18 September. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen to levels of APD, once it is devolved, but he should take comfort from the fact that the principle is already well established that variable rates within the UK are possible, and he would be well advised to speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in that regard.
Had the Smith commission been faithful to the famous vow and had the Better Together parties not watered down the tepid Smith commission, does the Secretary of State think that the benefits to the north of England, as well as to Scotland, would have been greater?
I know that it hurts the hon. Gentleman and causes him genuine pain, but the truth of the matter—he will have to accept this sooner or later, so he might as well get on and accept it now—is that the Smith commission has delivered on the vow. That was why his party signed up to it, even if, having done so, the Scottish National party could not run away from its commitments fast enough.
The single market of the United Kingdom is vital to the fish processors and agricultural producers of Berwickshire, the coat hanger manufacturers of Jedburgh and the world-class knitwear manufacturers of Hawick, among others, so does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the major achievements of the Smith commission was to bring more powers to Scotland, but preserve that single market?
Yes, absolutely. I particularly enjoyed joining my right hon. Friend recently in his constituency and learning from him about not only the challenges but the opportunities facing the knitwear industry. I know that that industry is of great importance to the economy in his area, and he has been a remarkable champion of it over the years.
There is obvious eagerness within local authorities in the south of Scotland to have closer trade links with their counterparts in the north of England, as evidence from the work of the Scottish Affairs Committee suggests. Does the Secretary of State intend to engage with the Scottish Government to ensure that the borderland areas are able to exploit their full potential?
Indeed. I am well aware of the work of the borderlands initiative and am more than happy to engage with it in any way it considers would be helpful. That has been very much the approach that I have taken in dealing with Scotland’s island communities—the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland—on their “Our Islands Our Future” campaign. I suggest that this Government’s willingness to hand power back to communities in Scotland bears very favourable contrast with the SNP Government in Edinburgh, who seem determined to centralise everything.
3. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on practical steps to encourage employers to pay the living wage. (907629)
I have regular discussions with the Scottish Government on a range of employment issues. The UK Government support businesses that choose to pay the living wage, where that is affordable and does not cost jobs.
I thank the Minister for that response, which seems somewhat aspirational rather than ambitious. He will be aware that the Scottish Government at Holyrood refused to support the call for a living wage that was put forward by Labour in Scotland. Will he follow the example set by my local Labour-controlled Renfrewshire council, which has not only introduced a living wage, but used the procurement process to encourage its suppliers to pay the living wage?
There are excellent examples of local authorities taking forward initiatives with the living wage, and South Lanarkshire council is one. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman heard the speech that my colleague, Ruth Davidson, made to the Scottish Conservative conference on Friday in which she called for help and support for businesses that promoted the living wage. I hope Scottish Labour and the Scottish Government will support her in that regard.
A Labour Government will ban the use of exploitative zero-hours contracts, which leave people not only not making the living wage, but unable to make a living on the minimum wage. Why will this Government not do the same?
Since this Government came to power, 107 jobs a day have been created in Scotland. I am afraid that the hon. Lady has had a memory lapse, because she cannot remember the position on employment when this Government came to power and she cannot accept the good news of the creation of new jobs.
What I do remember is that the Labour Government implemented the minimum wage in the face of opposition from the Conservative party. According to new research from the House of Commons Library, 82% of these new jobs are in the low-paying sectors. That news comes days after the TUC revealed that one in five workers in Scotland is paid below the minimum wage. Just this morning, the Office for National Statistics revealed that 28% of workers are on zero-hours contracts. This Government stand up for the wrong people: they help out their friends who have been avoiding their taxes, yet they do not help those who work hard and play by the rules, but do not even get a decent wage in return. Will the Minister take any action in what remains of the last days of this Government to help ordinary working people to get a decent wage, or is the only hope is that in 71 days’ time, we get rid of this out of touch Government and get a Labour Government who will put working people first?
The hon. Lady could start by endorsing Ruth Davidson’s proposal to incentivise the paying of the minimum wage, and that is actually a fact, not rhetoric. As I have told the hon. Lady on numerous occasions, if she has evidence of people not being paid the minimum wage, she should bring that forward. Yesterday, the Government did something the Labour Government never did: we named and shamed 70 companies, including some in Scotland, that do not pay the minimum wage. What she should be celebrating is the fact that this Government have delivered 107 jobs a day in Scotland, 1,645 of which are in her constituency, as can be seen from the drop in jobseeker’s allowance claimants.
As part of the Scotland Act 2012 implementation process, UK Government Ministers have been in contact with Scottish Government Ministers to discuss devolved taxes, including property taxes, since the beginning of this year.
The right hon. Lady will understand my hesitation when I say that we have to take the Scottish Government at their word. They assure us that they are ready and we have done everything within our power to assist them. If it should transpire that there are further difficulties that have not yet been foreseen or disclosed, we will do everything that we can to ensure that the system operates.
I think that is quite remarkable. The whole point of devolution is to allow the Scottish Government to do things differently. We devolved stamp duty land tax under the 2012 Act. They came forward with something that was different until this Government introduced a new system, when before we knew it they had changed to follow what was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Work Programme (Job Outcome Payments)
Work programme participants are some of the hardest to help and can experience multiple barriers to finding work. There are two providers in Scotland: Ingeus has supported 21.2% of all claimants into a job outcome; and Working Links has supported 20.4% of claimants into a job outcome.
The Work programme has performed worse in Scotland than in any English region. In the meantime, successful local projects such as the Engine Shed in my constituency have had to close. Does the Minister agree that powers over this should be devolved as quickly as possible—and not just to the Scottish Parliament, but to local authorities?
I certainly agree that the Engine Shed was a great project. I have made it clear to the Deputy First Minister that if proposals are brought forward after the election for the devolution of the Work programme, separate from other items to be devolved, I would have an open mind about that.
Thanks to this Government, those helped into employment though the Work programme do not have to pay income tax on the first £10,000 they earn. Does the Minister agree that that represents progress towards economic growth in Scotland and opportunities for its young people?
By any measure the Work programme has been a failure. It has wasted public money and let down the people depending on it. When will the Government listen to not only the Smith commission, but the dozens of civil society organisations in Scotland that have called for employment support to be devolved so that we can develop an integrated system in Scotland that actually works?
I do not think that the 32,620 people who have found work through the Work programme would agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. It is now time for her party to come forward with its proposals for an alternative to the Work programme, rather than just criticising the Government and calling for more powers. This Government have given a commitment to effect a transition to such a programme, but first we need to know what it will be.
I fully acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a fervent campaigner on this issue—and, indeed, on employment—in his constituency, but I am sure that he welcomes the fact that over the past five years, under this Government, the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in his constituency has gone down by 842—some 27%.
I absolutely dispute the claim that the Work programme has failed them. The Work programme looks to help the most vulnerable people into work, and people have moved into work over the past five years in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, where the JSA claimant count has come down by 1,403—some 39%. I am sure that even he welcomes that.
The Scotland Office is holding a series of events across Scotland to enable stakeholders to provide feedback on the draft clauses and how the new powers might be used. I can announce to the House today that the Government will now begin a public information campaign to enable people in Scotland to learn more about the devolution settlement and how it is changing. [Interruption.] This campaign will use social media, local media and an information booklet for every house in Scotland. [Interruption.]
The nation would be interested to know that draft clause 1 has been widely condemned as legally vacuous. What is the Secretary of State going to do to ensure that the people of Scotland realise that it is legally vacuous and that if they support it, they will be supporting a meaningless constitutional proposal?
13. Has the Secretary of State specifically discussed the question of varying tax bands under the Smith agreement, which seems a marvellous opportunity for Scotland to decide how it treats people with differing levels of income? It might be different from the way they are treated in the rest of the UK. (907639)
The hon. Gentleman is right and he takes the debate in a direction in which it has to go. Surely the time has come when we should no longer be discussing where powers lie, but discussing what can be done with the substantial powers that the third most powerful devolved legislature anywhere in the world will have as a result of these proposals.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The out of touch House of Lords Constitution Committee has said that not enough thought has been given to the impact of giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. I hope the Government will reject this recommendation and give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to have their say on who represents them in the Scottish Parliament.
I confess that I always hold their lordships’ views in very high regard, but they would not normally be the first port of call that I would make when I was looking for advice either on democratic elections or on young people. The order will be before their lordships’ House tomorrow night. I am confident that it will be passed, as it was passed in this House, without Division.
Given the powers that the Scottish Government already have, has the Secretary of State ever received an apology from them for their failure to spend £34 million on disabled children and their families and instead using it for the gimmick of keeping council tax static?
There are many, many things for which the Scottish Government should apologise and I suspect that in the event that these apologies ever start coming, the right hon. Gentleman and I will not be at the top of the list to receive them. He is right, though, to point out that the freeze on council tax has caused real difficulties for many local authorities in Scotland, which will be outraged to see the size of the Scottish Government’s underspend this year.
The provision of road transport in Scotland is a devolved matter. Department for Transport Ministers did, however, offer to work with Transport Scotland on a joint feasibility study on dualling the A1. The Scottish Government chose not to take up that offer.
Now that this coalition Government have committed £290 million to dualling the A1 on the English side of the border, should not the SNP Government in Scotland bring forward plans to dual remaining single carriageway sections on the Scottish side of the border?
As we await the dualling of the A1, has the Minister heard of the success of the average speed cameras on the A9? Accidents have been cut by 97%, speeding is down by 90% and the road experience has been totally transformed. Will he now get his right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to abandon his reckless and irresponsible campaign to take those cameras down and put my constituents at risk once again?
English Votes for English Laws
There is clear consensus that change is needed to address the anomalies in our constitutional arrangements, but no consensus on what form this change should take. The solution must be fair to all parts of the United Kingdom and strengthen the links between our family of nations so recently reaffirmed in the referendum in Scotland.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that most Scots, unlike Labour Members, recognise the unfairness of their MPs at Westminster intervening to affect English schools, English health and English councils now that those matters have been devolved from England to Scotland?
The Prime Minister was asked—
British support in Ukraine is welcome, but combined efforts against President Putin’s naked aggression have been woefully lacking. When the Prime Minister leaves office in 70 days, is he content for his place in history to be the Prime Minister whose weakness left Britain mired in years of conflict?
At the end of this Parliament, I believe that Government Members can be proud of the fact that we closed the massive black hole in our defence budget left by Labour. We can be proud of the fact that we see Voyager airplanes flying out of Brize Norton. We can be proud of the fact that we are building two aircraft carriers. We can be proud of the fact that we have got the Type 45 destroyers. We can be proud of the fact that submarines are rolling out of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and into the seas of the Atlantic to keep our country safe.
Last year my right hon. Friend strongly supported my Bill, which became the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, to protect women and girls from female genital mutilation and similar abominations. My amendment on Report to the Serious Crime Bill to protect young girls and women at risk from FGM in this country gained 272 votes. There were many deliberate abstentions, but it was defeated by a three-line coalition Whip. Following a letter from the Minister before the Report stage, several matters remained unresolved. I tried to intervene but I was not allowed to do so. Will my right hon. Friend write to me to explain how these young girls and women will be fully protected under the guidelines under the Act and otherwise?
I commend my hon. Friend for his Bill and for the campaign that he has waged in favour of that Bill and of equality in how we deliver aid and in this vital area. On the specific issue of the piece of legislation that he is referring to, my understanding is that we believe that the law as drafted covers the point that he is concerned about. I will of course write to him. But let me be absolutely clear: I think the work that we are doing, supported right across the House, in terms of combating FGM and forced marriage, and making sure that there are real rights for women in our country and across the world, is of vital importance.
The reputation of every Member of this House is damaged when we see revelations such as those that we have in the past couple of days. Can I take it from the Government’s amendment today on second jobs that the Prime Minister is proposing no change to the current system?
Let me start by agreeing very much with the right hon. Gentleman that the allegations made against two very senior Members of this House of Commons are extremely serious; they need to be properly investigated. I believe that both Members have done the right thing by referring themselves to the House of Commons standards commissioner, and in having the Whip withdrawn and, indeed, retiring from this House. I think that is vitally important.
I certainly do not rule out further changes, but the most important thing we can do is to make sure we apply the rules: paid lobbying—banned; non-declaration of interests—banned; and making sure wrongdoing is investigated and punished. We are not making no change; we have just passed a lobbying Act, and we have also passed a recall Act so that people can sack their MP.
The right hon. Gentleman says we should look at the specifics. The difficulty with his specific proposal is that it would allow, for instance, someone to be a paid trade union official, but it would not allow someone to run a family business or a family shop. Like many of his proposals, it is not thought through; it is whipped up very quickly. If he thought it was such a good idea, why did he not put it in place four years ago?
That is not the only problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal. Let me take another problem with the proposal—his cap on earnings. Let me take a specific example—[Interruption.] I have got as long as it takes.
Let me take a very specific example. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who is Labour’s education spokesman, would have last year earned over a 10% cap from being a college lecturer. I happen to think that is a very good thing: he brings to this House some outside experience, and he tops up that experience. I have to say it is a pity it does not show up in his education policy, but none the less, it is a good thing.
Fundamentally, there is a disagreement between the right hon. Gentleman and me. I think Parliament is stronger when we have people with different experiences coming to our House, but we must impose strict rules and punish people when they get it wrong.
We can definitely make progress. Let us agree to the principle of a cap, and we can consult on the level of the cap. The motion today is very specific about being a paid director or a paid consultant, and I have said from the Dispatch Box that we will also ban people who are a paid trade union official, the point the Prime Minister made to me. I repeat the offer to him: let us get it done, let us agree this to restore the reputation of the House—yes or no?
The problem is that the proposal in front of us allows for paid trade union officials, but does not allow for someone who runs a family business. I have to say that the problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal is not just the nature of the proposal; there is also a problem with the timing of his proposal. He first put it forward two years ago. In the previous year—I have done some work—the person with the highest outside earnings on the Labour side was David Miliband. The right hon. Gentleman has not thought it through, he has not worked it out, it is totally inconsistent: it is like almost every other policy he comes up with.
So the Prime Minister is worried about the precise text of the motion. I am very happy by whatever means we can, perhaps by a manuscript amendment, to insert paid trade union officials. He and all his right hon. and hon. Friends will have the chance in the Lobbies tonight—this is a very big test—to vote for two jobs or for one. I will be voting for one job. What will he be voting for?
Where the Leader of the Opposition is absolutely right—he put this in his letter to me this week—is that
“the British people need to know that when they vote they are electing someone who will…not be swayed by what they may owe to the interests of others.”
The biggest problem we have on that front is that the trade union movement owns the Labour party lock, stock and barrel. So I make an offer to him: if there is no more support from trade unions for the Labour party, then we have got a deal.
If the Prime Minister wants to talk about party funding, let us talk about a party bought and sold by the hedge funds and a man who appointed a self-declared tax avoider as his treasurer—that is the Conservative party. He has one more chance. He talked big in opposition about change. He will be judged on the way he votes tonight. He should vote for one job, not two. Last chance: yes or no?
The problem with Members of Parliament being swayed by outside interests is best seen in this one example. This is the first Parliament in the history of Britain to pass an Act on lobbying. The Labour party has been lobbied by the trade unions to get rid of that Act. What have they agreed? They have agreed to scrap the lobbying Act. That is what they have done. They are owned lock, stock and block vote by the trade unions.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank hon. Members for their welcome.
I have harangued the Prime Minister on many occasions to do more on nuisance calls, so it is right today that I thank the Government for the announcement that was made on the subject by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport this morning. Of course, vulnerable consumers will still be targeted today and tomorrow by vicious scammers, who will pay no heed to the announcement. I therefore ask him politely to do all he can to help me set up a national call blocking scheme to protect vulnerable consumers in his constituency and in mine.
I will certainly look at the specific suggestion that the hon. Gentleman makes. I can announce today that we are changing the law to make it easier to hit companies with fines of up to £500,000 if they pursue nuisance calls. That will be welcomed up and down the country. I am sure that parties from all parts of the House will be doing a little light telephone canvassing and will be talking to people, but such things should never be done by nagging people or being a nuisance, which is what can happen. Proper punishments are being brought in today.
Q2. It costs 40% more to train a teacher in Northern Ireland than in England. Does the Prime Minister share my concern that, despite commitments to tackle the costs of division in the Stormont House agreement, other parties have blocked Alliance attempts to desegregate teacher training in a way that would save money? Does that suggest to him, as it does to me, that their commitments to a shared future are not worth the paper they are written on? (907693)
I say to the hon. Lady—I think we are in absolute agreement on this—that we have to break down the barriers between communities. That is what the shared future agenda is all about. The Stormont House agreement should make that move faster. We are beginning to see shared campuses for education institutions in Northern Ireland, but we now need to see the sorts of things that she is talking about, such as shared approaches on teacher training, that can reduce costs and deliver a better service. That is what the agreement should be about.
Q3. Last Friday, I held my fourth Pendle jobs and apprenticeships fair, which was attended by more than 30 local companies and more than 700 jobseekers. Will the Prime Minister congratulate all those who have got jobs or started apprenticeships in Pendle since 2010? Unemployment in Pendle has fallen by 36% in just the last year, showing that our long-term economic plan is working. (907694)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who works tirelessly to support his constituents. I think these job fairs that many Members of Parliament have taken part in and run can do a huge amount in making sure that local people can see the opportunities that are being opened up by a successful and growing economy. In Pendle, the claimant count has fallen by 54% since the election, with the long-term youth claimant count falling by 50% in the last year alone. That shows that, as the OECD itself said yesterday, Britain has a long-term economic plan, it is working, and we should stick to it.
As we have heard, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition agree that the reputation of politics needs improving, but would the Prime Minister agree that the latest format put forward by the broadcasters for TV election debates will not contribute to that? The broadcasters need to realise that these debates are for the benefit of voters as well as themselves, and that the unfair, irrational and legally implausible exclusion of the people of Northern Ireland from those debates—particularly the DUP, which has more votes and more seats than some parties that are included—cannot be justified. So will the Prime Minister agree to go back to the broadcasters and demand a rethink on the basis of justice and fairness, so that they come forward with proposals that he and the rest of us can agree to?
I have a lot of sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says. My argument was that you could not include one minor party without another—obviously I was referring specifically to the Greens on that occasion, but now, with it having been decided to include Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, there does seem to be a difficulty in not addressing the question of the DUP. Certainly my party stands in every part of the United Kingdom, so I do think that is important, but I am sure his case will be taken seriously.
Q4. Following the Chancellor’s significant commitment to London last week to create half a million jobs, build 100,000 new homes and invest £10 billion in transport infrastructure, does the Prime Minister agree that this is not just a long-term economic plan for London but, in stark contrast to other parties, which only offer London a mansion tax, is a commitment to make London the greatest capital city on earth? (907695)
My right hon. Friend is correct, because this plan for London is about being incredibly ambitious and trying to outpace the growth of New York, adding £6.4 billion to the London economy by 2030. That is what we are trying to do to see a higher growth rate. We have created something like half a million extra jobs in London since the election, and we need to keep on with that progress. As the OECD said yesterday:
“The UK is an actual textbook case, or is fast becoming, of best practice of how good labour market and of how good product market reform can support growth and job creation…my main message to you today is well done. Well done so far…But finish the job.”
It said, “You have a long-term economic plan, but you need to stick with it.” That is the view of the OECD, and that, I believe, should be backed by everyone in our country.
Last week, three young women from my constituency left their homes, travelled to Turkey and are now thought to have been smuggled into Syria. Their families are devastated. I know that the Prime Minister is making every effort to find them and encourage their return. Will he set up an urgent inquiry into these events to ensure that families, schools, mosques, youth clubs, internet companies and all agencies are guided on how they can better protect our young people?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this heartbreaking case, which we also discussed in the House on Monday. Clearly, anyone who saw the parents on the television talking about their children could not help but be moved by their plight.
What I have done is asked the Home Secretary to look urgently, with the Transport Secretary, at all the protocols we have in place about young people and travelling, and at what airlines do and what we can do. My understanding is that the police did respond relatively quickly in informing the Turkish authorities, and that what the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister has said about a three-day delay is not accurate, but there are always lessons to learn. On this occasion, I suspect the lessons will be not just that we can tighten arrangements on aeroplanes and at our borders, but that we all have a responsibility—schools, parents, families, communities, universities, colleges—to fight this poisonous radicalisation of young people’s minds.
Q5. Tomorrow, the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities will be in Cheshire to sign our local growth deal. It is a deal that will deliver two bridges for Warrington—infrastructure that has been much needed for the past 30 years. Does the Prime Minister agree that the fact we are finally addressing such infrastructure needs demonstrates a commitment to the north-west that was completely lacking under the previous Government? (907696)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has campaigned consistently on this issue. When I visited his constituency, he showed me the difference that those announcements will make to Warrington South. As a result of implementing the Cheshire and Warrington local growth deal, we expect to proceed with the construction of a high-level bridge crossing the Manchester ship canal. A new high-level crossing from the A56 Chester road will open up a substantial area of land for development immediately south of Warrington town centre. That will provide traffic relief, resilience, jobs, homes and livelihoods, which is what our long-term plan is all about.
Why did the Prime Minister deem it appropriate to outsource his response to one of my concerned constituents to a political correspondence manager housed in No. 10 Downing street, on paper bearing a Conservative party logo and with contents that referred to a Conservative manifesto and a Conservative Government’s legislation? It concluded in the hope that they—the Conservative party, I presume—could rely on my constituent’s support for many years to come. No Member of the House is permitted to use our parliamentary offices or revenues for political party campaigning. No. 10 Downing street does not become the property of its incumbent’s political party, so will the Prime Minister apologise not only to my constituent, but to the country for this gross misuse of national property and revenue?
If a letter was sent from the hon. Lady to me to be answered—such letters should always be answered by the Prime Minister to other Members of Parliament, and I will look into what happened in that case. Let me put on record how hard the correspondence unit works because it gets thousands of letters, including from Members of Parliament, every week of the year. I will look into that and ensure that she gets a proper reply from me. I say to all those living in Hampstead and Kilburn that they will be getting lots of letters from me in the coming weeks.
Q6. Last week my right hon. Friend launched the franchise competition for rail services in East Anglia, including a demand for state-of-the-art rolling stock. He may be aware that some Members of the House want a long review of franchise competitions, leading possibly to a renationalisation of the railways. Does he understand the delays and misery that that would cause to commuters and travellers in Ipswich, Norwich, Colchester and up and down the Great Eastern main line if that were ever to happen? (907697)
First, I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he and other MPs from East Anglia have done to press for better rail services. We have a clear view, which is that we want to achieve journey times to Ipswich in 60 minutes and Norwich in 90 minutes, and that is what the reforms are all about.
On this day, it is worth saying happy birthday to the shadow Chancellor, given that he always makes quite a lot of noise on the Opposition Benches. Part of the aim of this programme, when the right hon. Gentleman has plenty of time after the election, is that he will be able to get to see Norwich City in just 90 minutes. I think that is only fair—he gives me a birthday present every week, so I thought I would give him one today.
If the cap is such a good idea, why are we not voting on it in the House of Commons tonight? If we want evidence that Labour’s policy has been written on the back of a fag packet, that tells us all we need to know. Obviously, with plain paper packaging we will be helping, Labour Members to have more room to write their policies on.
May I assure my right hon. Friend that I am not a paid trade union official but I fear that if Members of the House are not allowed a second job, membership of it will soon be largely confined to the inheritors of substantial fortunes or to those with rich spouses, or to obsessive crackpots or those who are unemployable anywhere else?
I want to be clear that the Father of the House does not fit into any of those categories. He makes an important point: Parliament is stronger because we have people with different experience. When we look around this Parliament, we see we have actually got practising doctors, practising dentists, people who served our country in Afghanistan or Iraq, and people who run family businesses or have other interests. What we want is a Parliament where people can come and share their experience and make some points, instead of just having a whole lot of trade union sponsored ciphers.
At the moment I am both the Member of Parliament for west Oxfordshire and I am the Prime Minister. To be honest, I do do constituency work every day, but I would mislead the House if I said that I spent more time on my constituency work than being Prime Minister. That is worth while reflecting on.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The plan is about skills, infrastructure, jobs and cutting taxes, but above all it is about people’s livelihoods—securing jobs and livelihoods for people across our country. The fact that Labour Members cannot talk about the economy any week when they come to this House is because we have created a thousand jobs every day this Government have been in office. They are keen to talk about second jobs because they do not want to talk about the jobs revolution in our country. They do not want to talk about the apprenticeships. They do not want to talk about business creation, and they do not want to talk about the OECD and the fact that our economy grew faster last year than any other major economy in the west. They cannot talk about the economy because they have got nothing to say about it.
Q9. Is the Prime Minister aware that as a result of a 40% cut in the disabled students allowance many disabled students say that they might have to drop out of the courses they are on? Will he undertake to have an urgent review of that problem, because obviously I am sure that he does not want that to be the case? (907700)
I have looked specifically at this issue and had a constituency case connected to it. I will go back and look over it again, and perhaps write to the right hon. Gentleman, but it is important to recognise that—with the reform of disability living allowance going into personal independence payments—more of the most disabled people will be paid at the higher rate.
Q10. I know the Prime Minister shares my enthusiastic support for organ donation and my joy at the 63% increase in what is the most wonderful gift that anyone can give since the organ donation task force reported in 2008—[Interruption.] (907702)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen a very substantial increase in organ donation. That has been done without moving to a system of presumed consent, which I know the House discussed and voted on previously. I was not in favour of that, but I am in favour of doing more to lead by example and making sure that hospitals are pursuing the best practice. There has been a remarkable increase, and if there is anything I can do to help with his campaign, I would be delighted to do so.
Q11. The lobbying Act, which the Prime Minister mentioned earlier, did absolutely nothing to affect those who are lobbying specifically for commercial gain. Will he now introduce a register of professional lobbyists; not to stop it, but so we all know what they are up to? (907703)
First, before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, may I congratulate him on being appointed as the new chair of the parliamentary Labour party? I hope that in 70 days’ time he will be able to conduct a root and branch inquest into what went wrong.
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman’s question specifically. If he supports the lobbying Act, can he explain why trade unions in Britain have lobbied the Labour party to get rid of the Act? If we want an example of what is wrong with British politics, it is the massive money that goes from the unions to the Labour party that buys their candidates and buys their policies. The only reason their leader is sitting there is because a bunch of trade union barons thought he was more left-wing than his brother. That is what is wrong with British politics and that is what needs fixing.
When the Prime Minister wrote to my local newspapers heralding the work done to bring superfast broadband to Somerset, was he aware that, according to the Government’s own figures, Somerset has 41% coverage at the moment? BT’s monopoly means that it will be the only organisation able to bid for the next phase of connections. That offers very little hope for the residents and business people in my area who do not have access to superfast broadband. What is he going to do about that?
What we are going to do is continue spending record sums on broadband roll-out. We have seen across the country that it is almost double from the 40% we inherited. There is more to do in the most rural areas, including the hon. Lady’s constituency. All local councils now have searchable websites so people can see when they expect broadband to get to their area. We need to look at creative solutions to make sure we get to the last 5%. It is a very important part of our long-term economic plan. That can only be secured by a Conservative majority Government.
Q12. I welcome the fact that the Government have been forced to accept our demands for people to be protected when buying tickets in the secondary ticketing market. If the Government had listened to us last year, thousands of rugby world cup and Ashes cricket fans would have been saved from having to pay more than face value for tickets. Why are the Government always on the side of people like bankers, tax dodgers and the organised gangs behind ticket touting in the secondary ticketing market, and never on the side of ordinary people in the street? (907704)
This is something that has happened after four and a half years of a Conservative Prime Minister that never happened after 13 years of a Labour Prime Minister. I will tell the hon. Gentleman whose side we are on: we are on the side of working people, because we are getting them jobs, we are cutting their taxes, and we are helping with child care. We sit opposite a party that is the party of Len McCluskey and the trade unions.
Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, hot on the heels of devolving powers on transport and housing, the welcome announcement that Manchester will take control of its £6 billion NHS budget shows the coalition’s commitment to local decision-making for Manchester, in stark contrast to the Labour Government that oversaw the closure of Withington hospital from Whitehall? (907705)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is an important breakthrough. It has been made possible by our reforms. It will help to bring the NHS and social care together. The shadow Health Secretary, who presumably knew absolutely nothing about this, does not understand that eight Labour authorities in Greater Manchester have been talking to us and working with us about how to make this a reality. What a contrast: people working together to improve the NHS, instead of trying to weaponise it across the Dispatch Box.
Last year, more than 3,000 desperate migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. Several hundred have already died this year trying to reach a place of safety. Many people, in absolute desperation, turn to traffickers to try to escape the crisis in Libya and in many other places. They are victims of war and oppression. The European Union is closing down Mare Nostrum, which has saved a very large number of lives, and is instead instituting something that will only protect Europe’s borders, not search for and rescue people. Will the Prime Minister go back and ensure that Europe adopts a humanitarian approach of saving these desperate people and supporting these desperate migrants who are trying to survive—that is all, survive—in Libya?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, but I am afraid that the statistics do not necessarily back up the case he is making. Mare Nostrum was a genuine attempt by the Italians to deal with this problem, but I think I am right in saying that more people died during the operation of that policy than when it was brought to an end. There are some answers. We need to make sure we press ahead with the Modern Slavery Bill, an historic piece of legislation taken through by this Government, that is doing a huge amount to deal with the problem of people trafficking. Yes, we need to do more to stabilise countries such as Libya and others on the Mediterranean, from which many of the problems derive. That serves to underline the important work done by our development budget.
Service Personnel (Ukraine)
The Government’s position from the outset has been that we deplore Russian aggression in Ukraine. We do not believe that there is a military solution. There needs to be a diplomatic solution, which can be enabled through sanctions, pressure and the economic weight of Europe and America. Obviously, however, as the Prime Minister has said, where we can help a friend with non-lethal equipment, we should do so.
The second Minsk agreement of 12 February provided a framework for stabilising the situation in eastern Ukraine. We want it to succeed and we urge all sides to take the necessary steps to implement it. In the light of continued Russian-backed aggression in eastern Europe, the UK is committed to providing additional non-lethal support to the Ukrainian Government to help their forces deal with the pressures they are facing. As the Prime Minister confirmed in Parliament yesterday, we are providing additional non-lethal support by sending advisory and short-term training teams. This support, provided at the request of the Ukrainian Government, will help their armed forces develop and maintain the capacity and resilience they need, and help reduce fatalities and casualties.
Support to the Ukrainian armed forces is not new; we have been providing it for some time. This includes support on anti-corruption, on defence reform and on strategic communications and procurement. Over the last year, we have also provided personal protective equipment, winter fuel, medical kits and winter clothing for the Ukrainian armed forces.
As part of the wider Government effort to support Ukraine and ensure a robust international response to Russia’s aggression, UK personnel will now provide to the Ukrainian armed forces medical, logistics, infantry, and intelligence capacity-building training from mid-March. Most of the advisory and training support will take place in Ukraine, but well away from the areas affected by the conflict in the east of the country. The number of service personnel involved will be around 75.
In respect of medical support, we will provide combat life-support training through a “train the trainer package” to multiply the numbers trained. The logistics team will identify and help improve deficiencies within Ukraine’s logistics distribution system. The infantry training package will focus on protective measures to improve survivability, and the intelligence capacity building team will provide tactical-level analysis training. We are considering further requests from the Ukrainian Government for support and assistance, and we will work closely with key allies through the Ukraine-US-UK-Canada joint commission. In the meantime, Russia must abide by its commitments at Minsk. That means making the separatists withdraw their heavy weapons, stopping continued separatist attacks so that an effective ceasefire can hold, and allowing effective monitoring to take place.
Let me begin by apologising to the Secretary of State and the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). As the Secretary of State knows, my hon. Friend is currently making a scheduled visit to our armed forces who are involved in Operation TOSCA.
Members on both sides of the House are rightly concerned about the serious and ongoing situation in eastern Ukraine, and about the question of an imminent ceasefire. Labour Members have made it clear that the international community must be ready to increase diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin should Russia fail to implement the ceasefire and change course. We support these non-lethal steps to improve the capacity of the Ukraine armed forces, but the public will want not only to know what strategic rationale lies behind the announcement, but to ask questions about the operation itself.
If this deployment is to succeed, it must form part of a broader NATO strategy. How does the Secretary of State’s announcement fit into the broader NATO strategy on Ukraine, and what discussions has he had with our NATO partners about the deployment? What is the overall strategic objective of the deployment, and how long has it been in the planning? How does it fit into the wider ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current crisis?
Let me now ask some specific questions about the operation itself. What force protection arrangements will there be for the UK service personnel who are involved in this operation, and how long does he expect the deployment to continue? What will be the legal status of the UK forces while they are in Ukraine?
As I have said, we support these non-lethal steps to reinforce the Ukrainian forces’ logistical, medical and intelligence capabilities. We also pay tribute to, and recognise the professionalism of, those of our armed forces who will take part in this vital operation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said.
Let me make it clear at the outset that Ukraine has the right to defend herself, and to defend her sovereign territory. The hon. Gentleman asked what was our strategic objective. It is to help Ukraine in that task: to help it to build up the capacity and resilience of its armed forces, and above all, when we can, to help to reduce the number of fatalities and casualties that are occurring.
The hon. Gentleman asked about NATO. This is not a NATO deployment; it follows a decision by the United Kingdom Government. Obviously we consult our allies very closely—I hope to do that in Washington very shortly—and NATO has set up a couple of trust funds, to which we have contributed, as part of its partnership with Ukraine. Nevertheless, this is not a NATO operation A number of our allies are considering providing non-lethal assistance, and the United States is already doing so.
As for how the deployment fits in with other efforts, it accompanies our continuing diplomatic efforts. I should emphasise that this country has been at the forefront of the efforts to impose sanctions on Russia. I should also emphasise that it is leading the efforts to ensure that those sanctions are renewed, and to make Moscow understand that unless its aggression ceases, it will face further sanctions and additional international isolation.
The hon. Gentleman asked about force protection. The training will be carried out either around Kiev itself or in the west of the country, an area that we know well and where exercises and training take place. Obviously, however, we will continue to assess what force protection is required for each specific mission. The hon. Gentleman asked about the status of our trainers. I want to make it very clear that we are providing this training capacity at the request of the Ukraine Government. Each of these things has been asked for by Ukraine; we are answering Kiev’s call.
The trouble with sending advisers is that, as the Americans found in Vietnam, and as many other nations have found since, mission creep eventually results in the sending of combat troops. Given that Ukraine is an area the size of France, where whole German armies of tens of thousands of men were enveloped and destroyed in the second world war, is there not a real danger of that? We must rule out sending ground troops, and we should concentrate our efforts on promoting peace, self-determination in the east within Ukraine’s borders, and solving what the Foreign Secretary described as a “sink of corruption” in Kiev. We should send advisers to help to sort out corruption, not wage war.
We already provide advice and support on how to tackle corruption inside the Ukrainian Government. We have done so over the past few months and, indeed, I think even before then. As for mission creep, may I make it absolutely clear that we are not deploying combat troops to Ukraine, and we will not do so? We are providing non-lethal assistance that has been requested by the Ukrainian Government to enhance the capability of their armed forces and to attempt to reduce the number of fatalities and casualties that they have suffered.
Of course everyone wants a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but are the Government not at risk of showing naivety in the face of a calculating thug in President Putin? Every time that the right hon. Gentleman stands at the Dispatch Box and rules out a military solution from the UK and its allies he makes such a military catastrophe more likely by emboldening Putin.
I do not accept that. We have to make it clear to Russia that it has to cease its aggression and its encouragement of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The best way to do that, as we are already doing, is through sanctions and political pressure on Russia. Equally, it would not be right to refuse the call that we have received from Kiev—from the Ukrainian Government—to help with some of the basic training, support and equipment that they need.
The whole House will recognise that there is a risk here, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is in our interests to check President Putin’s aggression? Does he also agree that that is entirely consistent with our obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement, signed by Boris Yeltsin, John Major and Bill Clinton?
I agree with my hon. Friend, who has experience of serving in the Ministry of Defence. He is right about the aggression that Putin has shown. We need to stand up to that, but there are a number of routes to that. They are political and diplomatic: we do not think that there is a military solution to the conflict. However, where we have been asked to help, we should do so. We are a friend of Ukraine, and we should come to the help of a friend in need.
Like the Defence Secretary, I abhor the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, and I support the EU sanctions approach. Has he had the opportunity to review the Ukrainian media? The Kyev Post writes:
“The United Kingdom stunned officials across Europe with a unilateral announcement that it would send 75 troops to Ukraine…EU officials in Brussels first learned of the decision when contacted by the Kyiv Post for comment, and were unable to provide one.”
Why do our allies seem to be so badly informed, and why did the Government not come to the House and make a proactive statement to Parliament?
On the latter point, I announced in Defence questions on Monday that we were preparing such a package, and the Prime Minister gave details of the package to the Liaison Committee yesterday. One thing we cannot be accused of is not keeping Parliament informed: we are keeping Parliament informed. As for consultation with allies, of course we talk to them. I meet my fellow Defence Ministers in NATO all the time, and I shall meet another one later this afternoon. I saw High Representative Federica Mogherini yesterday. This is a decision for the UK Government; this is not a NATO deployment. It is a decision by the UK Government to respond to a request from the Ukrainian Government.
I welcome the Government’s initiative, particularly if it is alongside our allies in the United States. The Ukrainians need the ability to defend their homeland against a much more powerful aggressor and they require equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and targeting. They require anti-tank capability and encrypted communications. Is not the argument that we cannot give defensive equipment to a country under threat because it might provoke a further reaction from Russia simply a bully’s charter that is already discredited by history?
I agree with my predecessor but one as Secretary of State. We are supplying defensive equipment. It might not be lethal, but it does help the Ukrainian armed forces better defend themselves. As I said in my initial statement, in addition to the secondment of 75 trainers we are considering a further request from the Ukrainian Government for additional equipment and support. That is non-lethal, but we reserve the right ultimately to keep it under review.
The Secretary of State said that the 75 trainers would “mostly” be in Ukraine. Where else will they be operating from? If any Ukrainians are coming to the UK for training, can we have an absolute assurance for the citizens of the UK that we will not face another incident such as those in Bassingbourn, where we were training Libyans and members of the Cambridge community were assaulted? Can we have an assurance about how many are coming to the UK and where else they will be trained?
It is slightly unfortunate that the hon. Lady has compared the general purpose force we were attempting to train—a very raw force of recruits from Libya—with the Ukrainian armed forces. She asked me a straightforward and quite reasonable question about where else the training might be. There will be, and has already been, some training in the UK, but there can also be training in countries alongside Ukraine. We are looking at where the training can best be provided, but it is likely that most of it will be provided in Ukraine, in the Kiev area or elsewhere in the west of Ukraine, areas that are very familiar to the British military as we have been on exercise there in the past.
It is of course very important that there should be non-lethal support and training, but in a parallel situation in north-east Iraq, where we are training the peshmerga in Kurdistan, we have discovered that the Americans and other EU allies are training on the front line and they find that much more effective than the kind of training we have been providing about 100 miles behind the front line. Is there not an argument that, although that support is non-lethal, we might find a way to move the troops forward so that they can advise the Ukrainians where they are doing the fighting?
I do not think it is right for other countries to get involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. On the contrary, Russia should now be withdrawing its heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine and be putting pressure on the separatists to lay down their arms. On the location of the training, we are not putting combat troops anywhere near the front line. The training we have been providing to the peshmerga in northern Iraq has, as my hon. Friend says, been well away from the front line. We have trained more than 1,000 peshmerga as well as supplying them with machine guns and ammunition.
We know for a fact that the Russians are supplying lethal weapons to the rebels. NATO’s response has been pretty woeful, but may I ask a specific question about what the Secretary of State said? I am sure that he mentioned that he was considering what else can be done about further requests, so will he enlighten the House on what more might be being considered to be put in place in the future?
We have had a series of requests from the Ukrainian Government, including lists of equipment of all kinds. I do not want to give too many details, but we are looking at these shortfalls in their capacity and at what further training we might be able to provide in addition to the infantry training, logistics and medical and intelligence capacity-building training I described.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. These are proportionate and sensibly judged measures for us to take. We are good at this sort of thing and as we have been asked to help it is only right that we should do so. Let us not exaggerate the scale of what we are doing, however. The idea that 75 trainers will lead to creep into a mission in an area the size of France is clearly far-fetched, but we should be willing to respond to anything more of a similar kind and we should do so on a pan-governmental basis to help the Ukrainian Government build up their capacity more widely.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend, another former Minister in the Ministry of Defence. He has got it exactly right. We should respond to requests. Ukraine is our friend, it is in need and we should respond to requests, whether they are for equipment or additional training. I want to assure the House that that is exactly what we will continue to do.
Is the Secretary of State aware that mission creep knows no boundaries? That has happened so many times, as evidenced by the point made much earlier by one of his hon. Friends. In Vietnam, it started with only a little request. On Libya, not so long ago in this House I asked about mission creep and did not get a satisfactory answer. I never could and now I know the result: ISIL roaming over large areas of Libya. That is what mission creep did. As sure as night follows day, Ukraine will now realise that the United Kingdom is a participant in the battle and will ask for more. What is he going to do then?
It was a mission to help the Libyan people get rid of a dictator and give them the chance of choosing a better future. Obviously, we would want to see the situation in Libya improve.
This is a closely defined training mission. We think it is right to respond to the call for help. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should shun such a call, I cannot agree with him.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that last week Prime Minister Yatsenyuk told me that he regarded Britain, alongside America, as Ukraine’s strongest allies, and his statement this afternoon confirms that? Is my right hon. Friend aware that we have a special responsibility as a signatory of the Budapest memorandum to help Ukraine? Specifically, will he consider the requests made by the Ukrainian Government for defensive weapons such as counter-battery radar, electronic jamming equipment and anti-tank weaponry?
My hon. Friend is probably as knowledgeable as anybody about the affairs of Ukraine, as he chairs the all-party group. It is very clear to us that the Ukrainian armed forces are in desperate need of further equipment and they have supplied lists of equipment they would like. We are focusing, as I have said, on the non-lethal equipment we can supply and are considering the additional requests.
At the very least, the House is entitled to know what equipment the Secretary of State is considering supplying to Ukrainians. So far, the Secretary of State has been very unwilling to detail any of those requests. We are entitled to know what is under consideration. Will he now give us some more detail on the nature of the equipment he is actively considering, as he outlined in his response?
Like many people, I take an increasingly bleak view of the situation when we examine the psychology of this aggressor. What measures has my right hon. Friend taken with colleagues across Government to look at the possibility of this happening in other areas on the western boundary of Russia? What work should we be doing now to prepare for requests similar to that that he has received from the Ukrainian Government from countries such as Moldova or, God forbid, a NATO country, as we would be required to respond differently to an attack on one of those countries?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee yesterday, we can now see a pattern of behaviour around the borders of Russia. We have seen it in Georgia and elsewhere. The first thing that we had to do about that was to stiffen up NATO to ensure that we had a rapid reaction force worthy of the name. That was agreed at the NATO summit last September, and we have now agreed our contribution to it. We will be a framework nation in 2017 and we will be seconding staff to the two divisional headquarters, in Poland and Romania. We will also be seconding staff to all six of the forward integration units. We are encouraging other NATO members to make similar commitments in order to reassure the members on NATO’s eastern flank that we are ready to stand by our commitments under article 5.
There is a well-established convention that if we were engaged in offensive military operations in a country we would of course come to the House, as we did last September when we obtained the authority of the House to carry out air strikes in Iraq. This, however, is not a military operation. We are providing trainers and advisers to help the armed forces of Ukraine better to defend themselves and to help to reduce the very high number of fatalities and casualties that they are suffering.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lesson of the cold war is that we secure peace through strength? I very much welcome this intervention, but we in the west must decide whether we are going to indicate our resolve to deter Russian aggression or not. Will he remind our American allies, whom I very much welcome as part of this initiative, that it was the sailing of their sixth fleet into the Black sea that stopped the invasion of Georgia in its tracks? When are the Americans going to come to this initiative with force?
I am looking forward to discussing this with the new American Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, whose appointment I hope the whole House will welcome. I say to my hon. Friend that we cannot simply leave the defence of our continent to the Americans. They are involved in the joint commission with Ukraine, alongside Canada and ourselves, but it is also important for NATO to have the resolve to defend its own borders. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the commitments made at the NATO summit, which we now need to follow through.
I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Defence how far the Government have really thought this thing through. Does he acknowledge that 75 trainers will be followed by 150 trainers, and that they will be followed by more and more? The gifting of weapons is being talked about, and we are now moving into a situation in which we are going to be in the conflict in Ukraine. NATO wants Ukraine as a member, contrary to everything that was agreed following the break-up of the Soviet Union on the non-alignment and independence of that country. Instead of upping the military ante, why will not the Government put huge efforts into trying to demilitarise Russian militarism and NATO expansionism, in order to bring about a longer-term sustainable peace in that area? The danger of getting involved in a hot war in central Europe has got a bit closer as a result of the Secretary of State’s statement today.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are not supplying weapons and we are not attempting to escalate the conflict in any way. As I have said, we believe that in the end the answer has to be diplomatic and political, and the pressure therefore continues to be applied, through sanctions and so on. He invites us to help to demilitarise eastern Ukraine, but I think he ought to ask himself who has militarised the area and who has supplied weapons, tanks and heavy artillery across the border. It is now up to President Putin to withdraw his heavy weaponry, as was agreed at Minsk, and to implement the agreement that he has signed up to.
As a follow-up to what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said about the 1994 agreement between Russia, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and the United States, under which the sovereignty of Ukraine was guaranteed in return for getting rid of the one third of the Russian nuclear arsenal that it had on its soil, may I suggest that there is an oblique lesson for us now as we think about whether we should replace the independent nuclear deterrent and whether we need to keep it?
So far as the 1994 agreement is concerned, it is for all parties to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but that has not happened in this Russian-backed aggression and the movement of heavy weapons and artillery from Russia across the border into eastern Ukraine. So far as the nuclear deterrent is concerned, the House debated the matter a few weeks ago and recorded one of the largest majorities in recent years in favour of building the successor submarines.
It is clearly correct to support the effectiveness of the Ukrainian army and its capacity to protect the country from Russian aggression, but back in 2013 when we undertook the training of the Libyan troops, the Libyan Government paid for that training. Will the Secretary of State tell us who is to bear the cost of the proposed training in Ukraine, and whether there is any financial limit on the UK’s assistance to that country?
At the moment, we are bearing the cost of the training, and the costs involved in gifting any non-lethal equipment will be borne by my budget. So far as the Libyan training is concerned, I am afraid that I have to tell my right hon. Friend that although the Libyan Government had committed to pay for it, they have not quite paid for it all yet.
We must all be concerned by the expansionist tendencies of the Putin regime, and it is therefore important to provide a robust response to the situation in Ukraine, but if we are going to train troops there, would not the logical step be to give them the wherewithal to use that training? Why are we not in a position to consider making equipment available to them as well?
We have not taken that decision. The equipment that we have supplied is non-lethal; essentially it is to help the Ukrainian armed forces to protect themselves better and to reduce the number of casualties. We do, however, reserve the right to keep that position under review.
The Ukrainian military has identified a whole series of equipment shortfalls that it would like to fill—a lot of its equipment is east European; it is old Soviet equipment that does not fit naturally with ours—but our decision at the moment is not to supply lethal aid.
Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, regardless of any force protection measures taking place before deployment, our people will be legally authorised under any future rules of engagement to pick up weapons and defend themselves if they need to?
We will assess the force protection that is required for each of the different training teams. As I have told the House, we expect the training to be carried out in areas well away from the fighting, right over in the west of Ukraine or around Kiev, where our troops have exercised before and are used to exercising. I will of course keep my hon. Friend’s point under review.
As a Member who has taken parliamentary delegations to Ukraine, spoken in the Ukrainian Parliament and believes himself to be a supporter of Ukraine, I say to my right hon. Friend that I am worried about this decision. All along, we have underestimated Russian sensitivities about Ukraine, and the Lords report said that we have sleepwalked into this mess. I fear that the thought of NATO troops, from us, in Ukraine will further destabilise things in the long term and will be used, possibly in March, by the Russians for further intervention. I do not think we have got the measure of Russia’s concerns about what it sees as a country that is very much part of its immediate diaspora.
There are, of course, Russian concerns, but above all there are Ukrainian concerns. It is eastern Ukraine that has been destabilised by Russia; this is a country whose sovereign territory has now been invaded by personnel from the Russian armed forces. As for my hon. Friend’s fear about NATO troops, let me emphasise again that these are not and will not be NATO troops—this is not a NATO mission. This is the British Government deciding to respond to a request for help by our friends in Kiev. It is right that we should answer that call and provide the training capacity, in which our armed forces excel, to help reduce fatalities and casualties.
I welcome the Government’s announcement, and my right hon. Friend’s robust stance against Russian aggression and this threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. Can he tell us what engagement his Department or the Government more widely have had with the newly elected Moldovan Government, given the great uncertainty and concern about Trans-Dniester on the border between Ukraine and Moldova?
Indeed there is exactly that concern. As I have said, this seems to fit a pattern of Russian interference right along its southern and western border, and we need to be mindful of that. I have not yet had the opportunity to meet or talk to my Moldovan counterpart, but I look forward to doing so in due course.
Employment of People with Disabilities (Reporting)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require listed companies, public bodies and voluntary agencies to report annually on the number and percentage of people they employ who have disabilities; and for connected purposes.
In the UK today, more than 11 million people are living with a disability, impairment or limiting long-term illness, and nearly 7 million of them are of working age. That is nearly one in five of the working population. People with disabilities continue to face many barriers in accessing work, whether they have a visible or invisible disability or illness. The barriers may be physical but they are also cultural. That is the situation despite the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Equality Act 2010, which provided a legal platform to challenge discrimination based on disability. Even before that, the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 and the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958 prohibited employment-related discrimination against disabled people. Although some progress has been made, only 47% of working age disabled people are in employment, compared with nearly 80% of non-disabled people, and the figures vary considerably for different disabilities. So there is a disability employment gap of more than 30%, and it has widened slightly in recent years.
Although 4 million people with disabilities are working, another 1.3 million are available to and want to work but are currently unemployed. The vast majority of disabled people used to work, so this is such a waste of their skills, experience and talent. Attitudes, perceptions and judgments can get in the way of identifying someone’s talent or skills, and for people with disabilities that can be magnified, particularly in a job interview or at work.
A man in his 40s from Oldham told me that after an operation to remove a benign tumour left him disabled, he applied for hundreds of jobs but kept being knocked back. His experience was ignored and instead he was made to feel like a liability. He said:
“I’m ex-army, disciplined and driven to work like millions of other disabled people. I just need a chance.”
Adrian, from Saddleworth, who is in his 50s, left work in 2013, suffering from severe depression as a result of bullying. Now fully recovered, he is desperate to get back to work. He said:
“I think many employers look at mental health issues in your medical records and see it as a weakness.”
Working-age disabled people are twice as likely to be living in persistent poverty as non-disabled people, and that has implications for disabled people’s families, too. Families with one disabled member make up one third of all the families living in poverty. With the recent changes to social security support introduced by this Government, including nearly £24 billion to be cut from 3.7 million disabled people by 2018, the poverty and inequality experienced by disabled people are set to get worse. There are also implications for the economy and society as a whole; research from the Social Market Foundation has estimated that halving the disability employment gap and supporting 1 million more disabled people into work would boost the economy by £13 billion a year.
There are many reasons for the disability employment gap, including a lack of information and advice for employers. Discrimination against disabled workers is still prevalent. A recent survey showed that 15% of disabled people felt they had been discriminated against when applying for a job, and one in five felt that they had been discriminated against while in work. Information is not enough to address this—leadership is needed.
Governments set the tone for the culture of society explicitly, through their policies and laws, and more subtly, through the language they use and what they imply, which collectively tells us who they think are “worthy”—or not. This Government have made their views abundantly clear, from their swingeing cuts to social security support for disabled people to their overhaul of the work capability assessment process, which managed to be both dehumanising and ineffective. Their new sanctions policy has targeted the most vulnerable, bringing people to the brink, and people have died under it. We must also not forget their closure of Remploy factories for disabled people and their replacing them with—well, nothing. The chaos and inadequacy of the specialist employment support programme, Access to Work, which last year supported only 35,000 disabled people into work and at work, and the jobcentres’ disability employment service, with one adviser providing support to 600 disabled people, again reveal this Government’s priorities.
But what I, and many others, find so deeply offensive is the pejorative language that has been used by this Government, as they refer to people receiving social security as “shirkers” and “scroungers”—and that includes people with disabilities and limiting illnesses. The Government and anyone else who wilfully misrepresent the facts should be ashamed of themselves.
My Bill is a very modest step to help address that prevailing culture. People with disabilities should be able to access the same opportunities that everyone else can, including being able to use their talent and skills to the best of their ability. No one should feel they are unable to reach their full potential or that their hopes and dreams do not matter. By requiring employers with more than 250 employees to report the number and proportion of people with disabilities they employ, my Bill seeks to raise their awareness of the disability employment gap in their own organisation, prompting them to consider this information and what they may do about it. As we know, what is not measured or reported is rarely acted on. This is not about red tape; it is about what sort of society we want.
On its own, reporting will do little to address the disability employment gap. In addition to leadership from Government, we need leadership from organisations to shift attitudes to disability in the workplace. Training for employers, and more widely, can help develop empathy and change attitudes and behaviour. We also need practical measures to support disabled people at work, enabling them to thrive and protecting them from prematurely leaving the labour market. Some disability charities have recommended more flexible leave arrangements, as well as extending the Access to Work programme, which currently supports only a tiny minority of disabled people.
Although a number of employers do exceptional work in recruiting and retaining disabled employees, how does this apply to their procurement policies and supply chains? Of course more also needs to be done to help disabled people into work. As has been reported in recent Select Committee on Work and Pensions inquiries, the work capability assessment needs replacing with a more holistic, whole-person assessment. Instead of the increasingly punitive sanctions system, more appropriate support needs to be provided. One employment adviser helping 600 disabled people will just not cut it.
It is more than 70 years since legislation was first introduced to prohibit employment-related discrimination against disabled people. Sadly, we are still fighting to address this discrimination and the inequality in employment that people with disabilities still face. Changing attitudes and behaviour needs cultural change—it needs leadership. My Bill takes another step along this path for fairness.
Question put and agreed to.
That Debbie Abrahams, Dame Anne Begg, Sheila Gilmore, Glenda Jackson, Teresa Pearce, Alex Cunningham, Mr Peter Hain, Mike Kane, Caroline Lucas, Alison McGovern and Grahame M. Morris present the Bill.
Debbie Abrahams accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 178).
[18th Allotted Day]
Bankers’ Bonuses and the Banking Industry
I beg to move,
That this House believes bonuses should be rewards for exceptional performance and that, following the banking scandals that have emerged in the last few months, this year’s bank bonus round should reflect this principle; further believes that a tax on bank bonuses should be levied in order to fund a guaranteed paid starter job for young people who have been out of work for over a year, and that this tax should cover allowances paid by banks which attempt to get round the EU bonus cap; calls on the Government to reform the rules on bankers’ bonuses by extending clawback of bank bonuses that have already been paid in cases of inappropriate behaviour to at least 10 years and by also extending the deferral period for senior managers to 10 years, in line with the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards; and further calls on the Government to implement wider reform of the banking industry to increase competition and boost net lending to small and medium-sized businesses.
As we enter this year’s bank bonus season, I am reminded that seasons used to be for football and fashion, but it now seems that we have a season for bank bonuses as well. I am delighted to have this opportunity to set out everything that a Labour Government would do to reform the banking sector in this country, and to highlight the areas where the current Government have failed to make the necessary reforms.
Earlier this month, in our Opposition day debate on tax avoidance, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), with whom I have traded places today, explained how the tax system is underpinned by the principles of fairness, trust and transparency. Those principles are equally applicable to the banking sector. Just as a Labour Government will restore those principles to the tax system, ensuring that tax loopholes are closed, tax dodgers are caught, and everyone pays their fair share, so we will restore them to the banking sector. In doing so, we will be acting in the best interests of businesses, consumers, the wider economy and the banks themselves.
Having sat on the Bill Committee for that piece of legislation, I remember well the considerable discussion that there was. If the hon. Gentleman has read our paper on banking reform, he will know that we support the reference to the Competition and Markets Authority to ensure that we get new challenger banks in the system. That will be an important feature of our reforms in government.
Our programme of reform, as stated in our recent paper on banking, is designed to undo the reputational damage that has been inflicted by the financial crisis and the subsequent scandals. Our approach will help to restore the trust and confidence of savers, businesses and investors, and to ensure that fair dealing, integrity, prudence and probity are once again the pillars on which Britain’s banks are founded. In a global industry, an international reputation for good practice can only be a competitive advantage.
Does the hon. Lady believe that the tripartite system, which was brought in by the previous Prime Minister and the shadow Chancellor, was one reason why our banking system was left so much more vulnerable in the difficult time that we had? Does she accept that the Labour party should take responsibility for that?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we did have a global financial crisis. The Labour party has accepted that perhaps the regulation could and should have been tighter; we have said that on numerous occasions. I was not in this place at the time of the financial crisis, but I do not recall many on the Conservative Benches making the case for tougher regulation. Indeed, the opposite is true; they were actually looking for light-touch regulation. I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but perhaps he should look at his own party’s record on this matter as well.
Clearly, regulation is needed, but it is only because we have relaxed some parts of the regulations that we have been able to allow up to 20 new challenger banks to be established since 2010. Does the hon. Lady think that her proposals will encourage or discourage challenger banks? The evidence thus far is that Labour has voted against every single measure that would create greater competition in banking.
I am now becoming a bit confused about what Conservative Members are arguing for here. Do they want more or less regulation? [Interruption.] Did I hear someone say both? The important issue here is to ensure that regulation is fit for purpose, and that we do not simply have more of the same when we talk about new entrants into the banking system.
Let me help to clarify the matter for the hon. Lady. The point that she was trying to make is that having an enormous amount of regulation can be ineffective and bureaucratic, but, equally, having too little regulation will not work. What we need is effective regulation. One of the most effective aspects of regulation, when it comes to changing behaviour, is the potential for criminal prosecution of those who do wrong. That is not mentioned in her motion. Will she address that during her speech?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving some clarity. He is absolutely right that regulation is part of the process, but we also need a culture change and an attitudinal change. He is correct to identify the lack of prosecutions. Although that is not mentioned specifically in the motion, I recommend that he reads Labour’s document, which takes account of that point. Our agenda is not entirely punitive, because it is driven by economic imperatives. We all know that the performance of the banking sector is vital to the health of Britain’s economy. It employs more than 1 million people, each of whom has an important role to play in advising businesses and consumers, and helping them to manage their money, invest wisely and plan for the future. Without the banks, consumers would be unable to save and borrow. Businesses would not have access to the patient finance that they need if they are to grow and to create high-quality, well-paid jobs.
Too often in recent years, many banks have fallen short of the very high standards that we expect of them; that is a view shared across the House. In many instances, they have not acted with trust and they have not acted fairly. At times, they have acted recklessly and unethically. Instead of helping their customers, they have exploited them.
Banks and their employees operate in a high-skilled environment, dealing with sophisticated financial instruments that are often beyond the ken of the average consumer and small business owner. Rather than using that knowledge to guide and advise consumers, they have, in some instances, abused that knowledge to exploit them. In investment, consumer and business banking, banks have betrayed the trust of customers and undermined the integrity of the industry. In doing so, they have totted up some truly colossal sums in fines.
Indeed, 2014 was a record year for fines in the City of London, culminating in the £1.1 billion fine levied by the Financial Conduct Authority on five banks, including HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland, for their part in the forex fixing scandal. In recent times, four UK banks—Barclays, HSBC, RBS and Lloyds—have also paid £1.5 billion in compensation for mis-selling interest rate hedging products. Other recent scandals include LIBOR fixing and the mis-selling of payment protection insurance.