House of Commons
Monday 23 March 2015
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Uncontrolled mass immigration increases pressure on public services and can drive down wages for people on low incomes. That is why we are committed to reducing net migration. Where we can control immigration, our policies are working; we have reduced non-EU immigration, raised the standards required to come here and clamped down on abuse. Without our efforts, met migration would have been far higher.
But net migration is much higher now than it was when the Conservatives came to power—54,000 higher. It now stands at more than 300,000, which is more than double their target. Is the Home Secretary trying to take the public for fools by suggesting that her party will repeat its broken promise to cut migration drastically?
I have been very clear that of course we have not met the net migration target we set, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that this Government have clamped down on abuse—860 bogus colleges can no longer bring in overseas students—and tightened every route into the UK from outside the EU, and we have set out clear plans for what a Conservative Government would do to deal with free movement. We on the Government Benches will take no lessons from a Labour party that allowed uncontrolled mass immigration.
Contrary to that reply, is not the reality that the Home Secretary is leaving office with net migration higher than when she arrived, because it now stands at 298,000? She claims she has cut migration from outside the EU, and that is true: it is down from 196,000 to 190,000. Rather than all this waffle, why will she not finally admit that her record at the Home Office is one of complete failure in that area and a series of broken promises?
As I said in response to the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), I fully accept that we have not met the net migration target that we set, but we have tightened every route into the United Kingdom from outside the European Union, and we have said clearly what a Conservative Government would do to deal with free movement from the European Union. I say once again that it ill behoves the Labour party to make such comments, because in government it presided over uncontrolled mass immigration that had the impact of keeping incomes at the lower end of the scale down and was identified by its own policy guru as a 21st century wages and incomes policy.
The public certainly want immigration to be properly controlled, and far better controlled than it is at the moment, but they also want some honestly about immigration. Is not the fact of the matter that while we remain in the EU with free movement of people we cannot guarantee how many people will come to this country, so we should not be making promises that we are in no position to keep? Is not the fact of the matter that we cannot control the number of people coming to this country while we remain in the EU?
My hon. Friend is right to identify the significant increase in the number of people coming to this country from inside the European Union as the key reason we have failed to meet our net migration target. However, crucially, not only has the coalition already taken steps to tighten up on movement from inside the European Union—for example, by reducing access to benefits—but the Conservative party has clearly set out what we would do in government after the election to deal with free movement and tighten up further to reduce migration from inside the European Union.
Does the Home Secretary recognise the sense of grievance felt by citizens of Commonwealth countries who for years have abided by the rules when trying to get into this country as immigrants, only to see EU citizens being able simply to walk in and out of the country at will?
My hon. Friend makes a point about Commonwealth citizens, many of whom have come to the United Kingdom and contributed greatly. We are clear that we want to tighten the rules on people coming from inside the European Union, particularly in relation to the ability to claim benefits, which I believe will have an impact on the number of people coming here, but in order to do that we need a Conservative Government to be elected on 7 May.
Could the Home Secretary bring herself to say the words, “Net migration is 54,000 higher than when Labour left office”? Could she stand at the Dispatch Box and say that today—not tens of thousands, as she promised—and could she say to the House with no ifs and no buts that she has broken her promise made at the election?
The right hon. Gentleman’s question is the third that I am answering from Labour Members. In response to the first two, I said clearly that the Government have not met their net migration target. I am not trying to claim that we have; I am very clear about the fact that we have not met our net migration target, but this Government have recognised the significance of immigration as an issue, and the impact that it has on public services and wages at the lower end of the income scale, and it is this Government who are doing something about it.
Our law enforcement and intelligence agencies continue to face a decline in their ability to obtain the communications data they need. This is caused by the use of modern technology and changes in the way in which people communicate. We believe that further changes to the law are needed to maintain capabilities. We cannot let cyberspace become a haven for terrorists and criminals.
It is very clear that although this Government have taken some steps to close the gap, significant gaps remain. The Joint Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill identified that, but we have not been able to bring those measures through in this Parliament. We need to remedy that. Given that about 95% of serious crime cases involve the use of communications data, those measures are an essential tool in fighting crime, and we are determined to take further action to close the gap and make sure that our police and security agencies have the powers they need.
On issues of national security, there are reserved powers. We therefore retain that focus on ensuring that security is assured. Clearly, communications data and other measures play an important part. I am sure that discussions with others, including devolved Administrations, will take place in future, but ultimately this is a matter for the UK Government.
The Minister and his boss must be aware that our police, under-resourced as they now are, are still in a mode of fighting traditional crime. Cybercrime, as we all know, has been the great challenge. Throughout the country we are unequipped to deal with it, and it is what most citizens will face in the form of fraud and other criminal activity.
This Government have invested heavily in capabilities to deal with cybercrime through the establishment of the new cybercrime unit in the National Crime Agency and the work of police forces throughout the country to ensure that we have the digital forensics—the digital information to fight the new crime types. The hon. Gentleman clearly does not recognise the important achievements of this Government in cutting crime, at a time of having to save money to deal with the deficit that we inherited from Labour.
We continually monitor and evaluate the Channel programme to ensure its effectiveness. Through the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 we have placed the programme on a statutory basis. The duty aims to secure local co-operation and delivery in all areas and we, of course, work closely with international partners to make sure that we are sharing expertise and best practice in tackling extremism and radicalisation. I have today published the latest annual report on our counter-terrorism strategy, Contest, alongside the annual report on the serious and organised crime strategy, and copies of both reports will be made available in the Vote Office.
More than 2,000 people have gone through Channel since it was rolled out nationally in 2012, and hundreds have been offered support. This is dealt with case by case. It is not appropriate for everybody to be put into the Channel programme, but it has been effective and we are seeing significant numbers of people referred to it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend bringing clarity about what is and what is not acceptable in the context of radicalisation and extremism. In an environment where our press and media are prone to hysterics and have the capacity to achieve the objectives of the enemies of our society by sowing fear and anxiety where none need exist, will she continue to proceed calmly and on the basis of the evidence?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about proceeding on the basis of the evidence. I am grateful for his comments about remarks that I made earlier today about the necessity for us to develop a wider partnership to counter extremism across its broadest spectrum so that we can deal with the hateful beliefs that the extremists are propagating.
I too welcome the Home Secretary’s comments in her speech this morning. Only by working with communities are we able to tackle this problem. I also commend the Metropolitan police and Turkish authorities for bringing back to London the three young men from Brent. It is sad that we missed the opportunity of doing this with the four young girls from Bethnal Green. What is the message to families to get them to report areas of concern so that they do not feel stigmatised if they do so?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about my speech. He is right. As I made clear in that speech, Government cannot deal with this alone; we need to work with families, communities and civil society. The message that the Government have given to families consistently in relation to those who might be travelling to Syria to get involved in terrorist-related activity, or to be with terrorist groups, is that the sooner they can give information to the authorities, the easier it is to work with them to ensure that their young people are not put into that danger.
In the all-party group on Islamophobia we have heard countless times of the need to offer more support to the mothers of young Muslims who fear that their children might be in danger of being radicalised. What specific efforts are being made to support the mothers who are tackling this issue?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am pleased to have been involved with two civil society organisations that have been working with families—particularly, in one case, with women. FAST—Families Against Stress and Trauma—is giving support to families whose young people may have travelled and helping them to prevent young people from travelling. Inspire’s “Making A Stand” programme is about Muslim women up and down this country saying that radicalisation is not taking place in their name, and working together as Muslim women to ensure that their young people are not radicalised.
The Home Secretary said this morning, and has just reiterated, that she wants a new partnership on Prevent between communities, individuals, civil society and Government. When she came into government, she inherited 93 Prevent areas, which she cut to 23 and then put up to 30. She now says she wants 50, and they might go up to 90, so we are going back to where we started five years ago. Why the rollercoaster in such an important area for this country?
No, we are not going back to where we started. First, the hon. Lady has made a fundamental mistake in her question in saying that my speech this morning related to Prevent. It did not; it related to the new counter-extremism strategy that the Government are introducing. Secondly, when we came into government we found that the Labour Government were funding extremist organisations, and members of the Labour party were standing on platforms embracing extremist hate preachers. Government Members take a very different view.
Domestic Abuse: Police Response
Domestic abuse is an appalling crime, and this Government are determined that the police response is the best it can be. The Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to review the response to domestic abuse across police forces in England and Wales. We are driving change through a national oversight group. All 43 forces have action plans on domestic abuse. In November, HMIC highlighted the commitment of forces to improving their response.
This Government have a truly terrible record on tackling domestic abuse, whether it is closing specialist courts, restricting legal aid, or failing to prosecute. There is a rising number of offences, but since they came into office there have been 4,000 fewer prosecutions. What are they going to do about that?
I totally refute the hon. Gentleman’s assertions. This Government have a record to be proud of in the work we have done on domestic abuse, not just the ring-fencing of stable funding of £40 million but the introduction of new laws, protection orders, and measures on stalking abuses. We have done more in the five years we have been here than the Labour Government before us did in all their 13 years. What is more, I seem to recall that Labour Members are not proposing to reverse any of the legal aid cuts, and we have preserved legal aid for cases in which domestic abuse plays a part.
On legal aid for victims of domestic violence, I and other colleagues have come across women who are victims but who have had to fork out from their own pockets, and some have just given in after spending too much, moving too often and finding that the system does not work. Surely the Minister must acknowledge that there is a problem. What is she going to do about it?
I reiterate that the £2 billion annual cost of legal aid, combined with the economic circumstances left by Labour, meant that hard choices had to be made. Labour was also committed to reducing legal aid. We have retained legal aid in key areas impacting on women, particularly with regard to injunctions to protect victims from domestic abuse and in private family law cases where domestic abuse is a feature.
Today I delivered a speech on the challenge of extremism in which I set out the need to develop a better understanding of the threat from extremism; to promote more assertively our values and the proposition that everybody living in this country is equal and free to lead their lives as they see fit; to ensure an effective response from the state; and to build up the capacity of civil society to identify, challenge and defeat extremism. I made it clear that the challenge to the extremists must be centred on a new partnership consisting of every single person and organisation in our country that wants to defeat extremism.
In the light of recent incidents, including that of the three young London girls who travelled to Syria, does the Secretary of State have any plans to set up a hotline for parents concerned about extremism, so that they can seek professional advice if they believe their children could be at risk, as is the case in Australia?
There are a number of opportunities available to families to report concern, including the anti-terrorist hotline. The Metropolitan police also made a further call to families last week to encourage them to report as early as possible, and organisations such as Families Against Stress and Trauma are actively working in communities to help people understand what they need to do when they are concerned about their children.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have looked at addressing the issue of those people and groups who act in a way that does not meet the current proscription threshold, and we will, indeed, introduce extremist banning orders and extremist disruption offers, which will do exactly what my hon. Friend says.
In her response to the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the Home Secretary referred to the three girls from Bethnal Green academy. When the first girl left in December, what specific assistance was given to the school by the Home Office?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The approach to recording hate crime has developed over the past five years and I am pleased that we are now able to see much more clearly what is happening. I was very clear in my speech today that this is an issue for a future Government, but a future Conservative Government would require the police to record anti-Muslim incidents as well as anti-Semitic incidents.
The Government are committed to tackling the threat of serious and organised crime. In 2013 we launched a comprehensive new strategy and a powerful new crime-fighting organisation—the National Crime Agency—which are already making a difference. We continue to strengthen our response through the Serious Crime Act 2015, the Modern Slavery Bill and strategy, and the anti-corruption plan. We have also forged new collaborative relationships with the private sector to tackle money laundering and to combat online child sexual exploitation.
The National Crime Agency has clearly had a good start, with 300 convictions in just the first six months. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Serious Crime Act 2015 will ensure that the National Crime Agency continues to have the resources and powers to address serious and organised crime?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is right that the National Crime Agency has made a good start. We have looked carefully at where powers are needed to increase the weapons that it has in its arsenal, and the Serious Crime Act really assists the National Crime Agency and other police forces in making sure that they can tackle particularly criminal finances to stop the Mr Bigs keeping hold of their money.
One of the most serious forms of organised crime is child sexual exploitation. The National Crime Agency was given information over a year ago about 20,000 people who had downloaded abusive images of children. Twelve months later, only 2% have been fully investigated or charged. What has happened to the other 98%? With that kind of backlog of CSE cases, does the Home Secretary really think that this is the right time to cut thousands more police?
The hon. Lady disappoints me. We have had this conversation on several occasions. The fact of the matter is that the National Crime Agency, through Operation Notarise and others, has protected more children from abuse than any other agency, and it is ensuring that children at risk of abuse are looked after and protected in a way that has never happened before.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the signal successes of the NCA is that it has made more than 600 arrests in dealing with online child sexual exploitation through the operation that she has just mentioned? Will she assure the House that this will continue to be a high priority, not just for the NCA but for each individual local force?
My right hon. Friend, who has considerable experience in this area, will know full well that the National Crime Agency and local police take this issue incredibly seriously. Bringing the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre into the National Crime Agency, as a command within it, has increased both capability and capacity to consider such crime and to make sure that we find those criminals who want to hurt our children and prevent them from doing so.
Police reform is working, and crime is down by more than a fifth under this Government, according to the crime survey for England and Wales. We are taking decisive action to cut crime and protect the public, including through working with the National Crime Agency. We are tackling the drivers of crime, including through our drug and alcohol strategies, and we have intensified our focus on issues such as violence against women and girls, gangs and sexual exploitation.
I thank the Minister for that answer. While police funding has been cut by about a fifth, police-recorded crime has fallen by 14%, and by 28% across Elmbridge in my constituency. Will she join me in commending front-line officers in Surrey and across the country for the great job they are doing? Does that fall not demonstrate how vital reform is, and that public services cannot be judged only by the amount of money going in?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in commending front-line officers in Surrey, and I congratulate all police forces that, with their police and crime commissioners, are rising to the challenge of driving efficiency and cutting crime. Effective policing plays a key part in reducing crime, and PCCs are ensuring that forces focus on the issues that matter most to local people. My hon. Friend is right that money is not the only thing that we need in order to cut crime; dedicated officers are our greatest resource.
There is no doubt that the huge increase in the use of so-called legal highs has an impact on crime rates. I have seen that in my constituency. The Government have agreed to ban legal highs, but have not yet acted to do so. Will the Government take action in this Parliament, and if not, why not?
Given that this Government have actually banned and outlawed 500 legal highs, I do not think it is accurate to say that we have taken no action. We obviously want to move to a general ban on legal highs—lethal highs, as I call them—and that is on the shelf, ready for the new Government.
There is a glaring difference between the Government’s complacency and the City of London police commissioner’s view that online crime is growing exponentially. Does the Minister agree with the Office for National Statistics that if all bank and credit card fraud were included, the statistics would show that overall crime was up by 50%?
I am having a lot of disagreements with the Labour party today. The ONS is working to incorporate measures of cybercrime in the main crime survey. It looked at this issue specifically and said, when it published the latest crime figures, that it had found that although there may have been some movement by criminals into fraud and cybercrime, it certainly had not been enough to offset the substantial falls in traditional crimes, such as burglary and vehicle theft, over the past 20 years. Action Fraud’s reporting is up. That is a specialist reporting agency. We are acting on fraud.
Early Intervention Programmes
As part of the work of the Home Office crime prevention panel, the Early Intervention Foundation and the College of Policing recently launched new guidance to help front-line police support early intervention. The police and crime commissioners from Dorset, Lancashire and Staffordshire were involved in the development of the guidance.
May I ask the Minister to do something very practical? We are grateful that she launched the report, but will she ensure that every single police and crime commissioner and every single chief constable gets a copy of it so that they can not only reduce crime by cutting down dysfunction in the population early on in life, but save the taxpayer a lot of money through not having to invest money late on through late intervention?
The early intervention guidance for police will provide invaluable support in stopping potential criminals before they commit crimes, which will save the police a great deal of work in the long term. The guidance is already available online. We encourage all police officers, police community support officers, chief constables and PCCs to read it. I am happy to take up his suggestion if I have time, because the more officers have access to it, the better. I am sure that we can get it done before Thursday.
The Home Secretary and I hold regular bilateral meetings with police work force representatives. I have said since day one as the police Minister that my door is always open to those representatives.
The Minister will know, then, what pressure front-line policing is under. The Government promised to protect and even increase front-line policing numbers, yet 8,000 front-line jobs have gone. Why will the Home Office not look at alternative ways of saving money, such as introducing better procurement practices or scrapping police and crime commissioners, rather than pursuing plans to axe yet another 20,000 officers?
I would have thought that the hon. Lady would have praised the work that is being done by Avon and Somerset police, rather than following the party line. In her constituency there has actually been a 5% increase in front-line officers, who are not doing back-room work, and a 21% cut in crime.
Avon and Somerset police have indeed done very well. However, an understandable operational response to difficult budgets is to withdraw policing from rural areas, which empirically have a lower level of crime. That is understandable, but wrong. Will the Minister reassure me that he will tell all police forces that they have a duty to people who live in rural areas? Those people must not think that they are being exposed to crime or abandoned by the forces of law and order.
I assure my right hon. Friend that each time I go into any force I say to anybody who listens to me not only that it is their duty to address rural crime—my constituency has large rural areas—but that all crime, no matter where it is, needs to be detected and prosecuted.
Visas: Income Threshold
The minimum income threshold of £18,600 for sponsoring a partner under the family immigration rules ensures that couples who wish to establish their family life in the UK can stand on their own feet financially. The requirement prevents burdens on the taxpayer and promotes integration. It has been upheld by the Court of Appeal and is helping to restore public confidence in the immigration system.
The Minister has just asserted that the purpose of the minimum income threshold is to ensure that a spouse from overseas who comes to live here is not a burden on the taxpayer. However, at £18,600, the threshold is more than £3,000 higher than the living wage. Does he not think that it should be reviewed to ensure that the original purpose of the minimum income threshold is what counts and that it does not discriminate against those on the living wage or below, or against people who happen to live in the wrong part of the country?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the income threshold was set on the basis of advice given to the Government by the Migration Advisory Committee, which considered this issue in great detail to assess the appropriate level. Perhaps he will find interesting the fact that the 2014 annual survey of hours and earnings for the Office for National Statistics showed that median earnings of those in full-time employment were appreciably higher than £18,600 in all parts of the UK.
In practice, the length of time in which a sponsor is required to demonstrate that they have met the minimum income threshold is driving families apart. Would it be sufficient for a sponsor to demonstrate that they have secured permanent employment on such a salary, and not have a situation where several months have to pass with someone providing bank statements to show their income, during which time their partner is separated from them?
Migrant partners with an appropriate job offer can apply to come to the UK under tier 2 of the points-based system, and those using the family route to come to the UK must be capable of being independently supported by their sponsor, their joint savings, or non-employment income. We have considered the issue in an appropriate way to ensure that people are not a burden on the taxpayer, and I underline again that the system has been tested and upheld in the courts.
The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that the minimum age for spouse visa applicants and sponsors was increased to 21 in 2008, and the Government defended that position. The Supreme Court found in 2011 that although the Secretary of State was pursuing a legitimate and rational aim in seeking to address the problem of forced marriages —the hon. Gentleman will know that such issues exist—increasing the minimum marriage visa age from 18 to 21 disproportionately interfered with the right to a family life under article 8 of the European convention of human rights. We keep such issues under close review, but they are complex.
Will the Minister think again about this whole policy? It is cruel on children who are denied the right to live with their parents, contrary to the principles of the conventions on human rights, and really not necessary. Its only effect is that of hurting the very people who should not be hurt because of it.
While ensuring sufficient resources so that those arriving are supported at reasonable levels, the minimum income threshold is also intended to ensure that family migrants can participate sufficiently in every-day life to facilitate their integration into British society. That is one of the fundamental purposes of the policy, and I think that is right.
Post-study Work Visas
13. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the potential introduction of a scheme to allow international students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland to work for a defined period of time. (908240)
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary meets colleagues regularly for discussions on a range of issues, including how we can continue to attract the brightest and best to study here while bearing down on abuse.
The recommendation comes as part of the Smith agreement. It recognises that the higher education sector is a multi-billion pound industry, and Edinburgh university is one of the most successful participants in that. More than 10,000 foreign students are now studying at Edinburgh, generating some of the highest quality research in the UK. Does the Minister agree that keeping more of those excellent students in the UK while their research is commercialised would be of enormous benefit, not just to the Scottish economy but to the UK as a whole?
My hon. Friend will know that the Russell Group of universities, of which Edinburgh is a member, has seen a 30% increase in the number of applications from overseas students since 2010, showing that studying in the United Kingdom is an attractive offer to students. There is no cap on the number of students who can stay in the UK after completing their degree, provided they have a graduate-level job, get an internship or become a graduate entrepreneur.
The Minister will have seen the Scottish Government’s post-study work working group, which recommends that a post-work study visa is reinstated for a wide range of people, including businesses, education and student representatives. Will the Minister consider that or will she ignore it again? What can the Scottish people do to progress that agenda and ensure that our economy and higher education institutions benefit?
The Minister will be aware of the reduction in the number of students from the Indian subcontinent. One of the major reasons for that is that they are unable to remain in the United Kingdom for a few years to work and to pay off their fees. This policy, therefore, discriminates against those who come from poorer nations, rather than those from richer families.
I repeat that since 2010 there has been an increase in the number of visa applications from overseas students. It is difficult to say what the drivers are for our seeing more students from some countries and fewer from others. For example, we are seeing a significant increase in the number of students from China, which indicates that it is not the reforms that are stopping people coming.
Police Forces: Finance
The Home Secretary and I have made it clear that there is no question but that the police will have the resources to do their important work. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has reported that forces up and down the country are reducing crime and protecting communities, while balancing their books.
Since 2010, Lancashire police has lost 700 posts and 11 police stations have been closed due to £60 million-worth of cuts, with more to come. Offences such as burglary, theft and violence are all on the rise. The Lancashire Police Federation says that the police are at breaking point. Will the Minister please apologise to the people of West Lancashire for failing to honour his promise to protect front-line policing?
On Friday night, I went out with the very impressive section 136 team at Worthing police. The initiative, under which community psychiatric nurses go out on patrol with the police, is being piloted in Sussex. Given that up to two thirds of police call-outs are estimated to relate to mental health and substance abuse problems, this has the potential to free up a lot of police time and save a lot of money. These pilots really work, so will they be rolled out across the whole country?
That pilot and other pilots around the country are working. I have seen them myself. It is our intention to continue to roll them out. We are working enormously closely in particular with the mental health team in the Department of Health. I have seen dramatic changes not only in my constituency but around the country. There are people who should not be in cells and should not be arrested. They should be in a place of care, where they need to be. That is what we expect to happen.
My Greater Manchester police force has had to make savings of £145 million in the five years to 2015, and has lost more than 1,300 police officers as a result. Across the country, the picture is pretty similar. Will the Minister say whether, as a result of the changes to police forces, response times have improved or got worse on his watch?
Police Numbers: Lancashire
Crime has fallen by a fifth across the country and by 9% in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. That is because we have proved that more can be done with less. We should be very proud of police forces across the country, particularly in Lancashire.
Unlike the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper), I want to praise the work of the Lancashire constabulary in my county, where crime has gone down by 19% since 2011. Antisocial behaviour is down by 35.8% and robbery in the past 12 months is down by 47%, which is a remarkable figure. Will the Minister assure the House that the Lancashire constabulary will, under a Conservative Government, have sufficient resources to carry on doing its great work in the next five years?
Not only will we guarantee that, we will continue to roll out the specialist equipment that is helping the police day in, day out, especially body-worn cameras. They are ensuring that more people in the community are protected, the officers are protected and we get more convictions, something I expect to see in Lancashire, as well as in the rest of the country.
This month, the Government introduced a new scheme to tackle sham marriages and sham civil partnerships allowing the Home Office to investigate suspected sham cases under an extended 70-day notice period. Since April 2014, we have intervened in more than 2,000 suspected sham marriages, and last year 30 organised crime groups involved in arranging sham marriages were disrupted, with many receiving long custodial sentences.
This has been a priority for me since I took on the immigration responsibilities last year. We will take strong action, including prosecution and seizure of assets. As for an update, this financial year we have undertaken more than 2,000 operations, resulting in 1,200 arrests and more than 430 removals, which compares with 327 sham marriage operations, resulting in 67 arrests in 2010, showing that, unlike the last Government, this Government are committed to this issue.
Police reform is working and crime is down by more than one fifth under this Government, according to the independent crime survey for England and Wales. According to the latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics, police recorded crime in Northamptonshire fell by 18% between June 2010 and September 2014.
We are blessed in Northamptonshire with excellent and hard-working policemen and women, and it is marvellous that crime has fallen. Given that we were told by Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition that crime would rise because of the police budget cuts, why does my right hon. Friend think it has actually come down?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work as a police special constable. He rightly says that the Opposition doubted our ability to bring down crime. However, our police forces have proved that where there is a will there is a way, and they have cut crime by more than 20% this Parliament, according to the crime survey. We should be very proud of them.
For too long, thousands of people have been on bail for months or even years, with no independent oversight of the police’s investigation. To put a stop to this, I announced to the House in December that I was consulting on the introduction of statutory time limits for pre-charge bail. That consultation closed on 8 February, and I am grateful to the 300 individuals and organisations that responded. I have today placed in the Library of the House and on the gov.uk website a summary of the consultation responses and the Government’s response.
On the key point of independent review, it is apparent from the consultation that the model where all extensions of bail past 28 days would be done in court would not be viable, as there is unlikely to be sufficient capacity in the magistrates courts. I have therefore decided to adopt the model endorsed by the consultation under which pre-charge bail is initially limited to 28 days. In complex cases, an extension of up to three months could be authorised by a senior police officer, and in exceptional circumstances, the police will have to apply to the courts for an extension beyond three months to be approved by a magistrate. This will introduce judicial oversight of the pre-charge bail process for the first time, increasing accountability and scrutiny in a way that is manageable for the courts.
I recently visited Hampshire’s cybercrime unit and spoke to officers detecting online crime, particularly child abuse. I am sure the Home Secretary will want to join me in commending those officers for their dedication. Does she agree that we need to do everything we can to help police in this work and, in particular, to ensure that social media and other websites verify the identity of UK residents using their sites?
First, may I take up the point that my right hon. Friend made about the work of police officers in police forces, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the National Crime Agency more widely in dealing with child abuse cases? These are not easy issues, and they do a very valuable job. Over the period of this Government, we have invested £86 million in dealing with cybercrime, and the creation of the national cyber crime unit at the NCA is, I believe, an important element in dealing with cybercrime. We expect social media companies to make it easy for users to choose not to receive anonymous posts, to have simple mechanisms for reporting abuse and to take action promptly when abuse is reported.
The Office for Budget Responsibility says that the Chancellor is planning cuts that are much more severe than anything we have seen over the last five years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the cuts will be twice the size of any year’s cuts over this Parliament. That means a real-terms cut for the Home Office under the right hon. Lady’s plans over the next few years alone of 23% and the loss of 20,000 more police officers on top of those who have already gone. When the terror threat is growing, when more child abuse cases are coming forward, when recorded violent crime is up and when chief constables say that neighbourhood policing cannot be sustained, is she really saying to communities across the country that she and the Tories are prepared to cut 20,000 more police officers?
The right hon. Lady knows full well that the funding for counter-terrorism policing has been protected and that this Government are putting more money into dealing with child sexual exploitation. When she comes to deal with this issue, perhaps she could remind people why it is that this Government have had to deal with budget cuts across the public sector: it is because the last Labour Government left us with the worst budget deficit in our peacetime history.
But the right hon. Lady has not managed even to meet her deficit plan, and we have already seen the police cut across the country. Her plans mean going further in the scale of police cuts, with 20,000 further police officers going across the country at a time when recorded rapes are up 30%, but fewer rapists are being arrested; when recorded violent crime is up 16%, but fewer violent criminals are being convicted; when online fraud is through the roof, yet fewer fraud proceedings are going ahead; and when recorded child abuse is up 33%, yet 13% fewer paedophiles are being prosecuted. On her watch, 999 waits are up, the police cannot keep up with extremists on the streets and more criminals are walking free. Is she really saying she is going to go around the country, campaigning with all her Back Benchers, saying she is content for 20,000 more police officers to go—because we’re not, and we won’t?
The right hon. Lady mentioned that reports of child sexual abuse have increased, and yes they have. In a sense, that is to be welcomed, because more people feel that they can now come forward and report their abuse, which means that those issues can be investigated and the cases looked into. She talked about the figures for rape and domestic abuse, but I have to say that the volume of domestic abuse referrals from the police rose in 2013-14 to the highest level ever: 70% of those referrals were charged, which was the highest volume and proportion ever; there has been a rise in charged defendants from 2012-13; and conviction rates have risen since 2010-11. The figures on which she bases her rant show once again, I am afraid, that she is not paying attention to what is actually happening. What is happening is the exact opposite of what she and her colleagues said five years ago. She said crime would go up, but crime has gone down under this Government.
T3. My right hon. Friend will be aware that we in Harlow have had more than 109 illegal and unauthorised encampments over the past 15 months, and there is now a town-wide injunction banning anyone from setting up unauthorised or illegal encampments. Will my right hon. Friend look at how we can strengthen the law, possibly following the Irish example of making trespass a criminal rather than a civil offence? (908219)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the campaigning and work he has done on behalf of his constituents whose lives have been blighted by these illegal camps. When we are back in government after the election, we will look at the law—I can assure you of that, Mr Speaker—but we must also make sure that the police use the powers they have and are not frightened of using them, as appears to have happened in certain parts of the country, including in my hon. Friend’s part of Essex.
T7. I am concerned about a recommendation in a recent Home Affairs Committee report that those arrested on sexual offences charges should be given anonymity. Does the Home Secretary agree that in these circumstances, these prosecutions are extraordinarily difficult, and that the decision should be made carefully by the police? Will she ask the independent panel inquiry also to look at this issue? (908223)
The hon. Lady raises an important issue. As she will be aware, there was a significant debate about this very thing early on in this Parliament. The Government have not yet responded to the Home Affairs Committee report—for understandable reasons, given that it has only just come out—but I was asked about the matter when I was in front of the Home Affairs Committee last week. This issue has to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I think that an assumption of anonymity on arrest is right in general, but there will be cases when it is right for the police to ensure that the name is put out so that other people can come forward to report crimes by the same perpetrator.
T4. The use of legal highs is a significant problem all over the country, and it is certainly a problem in Harrogate and Knaresborough. Such drugs can have devastating consequences. The papers covering my area, the Harrogate Advertiser and The Knaresborough Post, have run a very good campaign highlighting the scale of the local problem. What progress has been made in tackling these dangerous drugs? (908220)
It is very helpful when the local media join the campaign against what I term “lethal highs”. As I said earlier, the Government are drawing up proposals for a general ban on the supply of new psychoactive substances throughout the United Kingdom, with a view to introducing legislation at the earliest opportunity. Obviously there is not enough time left for us to legislate in the current Parliament. However, we have already banned more than 500 new drugs, created a forensic early warning system to identify new psychoactive substances in the UK, and supported law enforcement with the latest intelligence on new substances, and we are taking a number of actions in relation to health, prevention and treatment.
T8. The Minister told me a moment ago that there were more front-line police officers in Avon and Somerset. However, a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary tells me that the number is down by 10%, from 2,937 in March 2010 to 2,651 in March 2015. In what way is that “more”? (908224)
I apologise if I misled the hon. Lady, but I am sure I said that we were taking staff out of the back rooms and putting more on the front line. There are more officers serving on the front line today than there were when the Labour Government left office.
T5. I understand that the Home Secretary has asked officials to carry out a detailed piece of work on the future requirements of the immigration detention estate, in conjunction with her decision to halt the expansion of Campsfield. What is the remit for that work, what is the timetable for it, and will it be made public? Will the Home Secretary direct the officials to look at the international evidence that was presented in our cross-party report on the immigration detention system, which suggests that we could substantially reduce our need for detention places? (908221)
Let me take this opportunity to wish the hon. Lady well for the future, as that was probably the last Home Office question she will ask before she leaves the House.
We will certainly look at the all-party parliamentary group report, and I intend to write to the hon. Lady about it before the House rises on Thursday. We are examining the issue of the detention estate internally, but our work will be informed by Stephen Shaw’s review of the welfare aspects. It is important to ensure that we are providing a humane environment for people who are being detained.
Crime rose by 6% in Greater Manchester last year. Will the Minister update us on her improvement plan with Action Fraud, and can she assure me that the defrauding of my constituents will be investigated and they will be kept up to date with the progress of that investigation?
The hon. Lady and I have had several discussions about Action Fraud. Let me bring her up to date with the latest figures from the organisation. As we have established in earlier discussions, fraud is historically an under-reported crime. The number of recorded offences has almost trebled, from 72,000 before the introduction of Action Fraud’s centralised reporting system to 211,000 now. As the hon. Lady knows, Action Fraud is also embarking on an improvement plan. It has resulted in a reduction in the number of complaints, which should be welcomed, but we are still keen to ensure that local police forces in particular treat and correspond with victims in a way that enables them to understand the action that is being taken to deal with these crimes.
T6. Yesterday huge crowds turned out in our most multicultural city, Leicester, to celebrate English history. Did not that celebration of monarchy and continuity provide a fine example of British values, and should we not learn from that example of history that it is not a good idea to get on politically by bumping off one’s close relations? (908222)
We could have an interesting debate about my hon. Friend’s last comment, and I am grateful to him for not suggesting that the princes in the tower is an historic case that the police should take up today. The point he made about those in Leicester coming together yesterday from all parts of the community and celebrating British values is an important one. It is exactly what I was speaking about this morning, when I said that we need a partnership of individuals, communities, families and Government, going across Government and including other agencies, to promote our British values and what it is to live here in the United Kingdom and to be part of our British society.
The Home Secretary will know that one of her former Cabinet colleagues and a former chief inspector of prisons were among those of us from all parties and both Houses on the recent inquiry into immigration detention which recommended that the Government learn from best practice abroad where alternatives to detention not only allow individuals to live in the community, but are more effective in securing compliance, and at a much lower cost to the public purse. Will she respond positively to our recommendations?
I have already indicated that we are examining the points made in the recent all-party parliamentary group report, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a need for detention in managing immigration and ensuring that we can remove people safely and appropriately. It is also worth underlining that we cannot detain people indefinitely. This is about the perspective of ensuring that there is the ability to remove, and that is the way in which the Government operate the rules.
T9. Does the Home Secretary agree that until such time as front-line resources and targets are set for rural crime, these crimes will not be taken seriously in rural constituencies? Will she give an edict from the Dispatch Box today that Travellers who are on rural land illegally will be removed forthwith? (908225)
The police already have powers. As I indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) earlier, the police often have the powers in respect of illegal Traveller sites. Crime in rural areas is a very serious issue and we should all take it seriously. While crime is down 16% in the part of the world of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), any crime is bad.
Yesterday I spoke to community leaders at one of my mosques about the young men who had been educated at schools in Brent North and who have now been returned from Syria. They expressed to me their deep concern about the lack of community facilities for some of the community groups and the way in which this was tending to lead to radicalisation of the young men. Does the Home Secretary regret the cuts to the Prevent programme?
The changes we made to the Prevent programme are very simple. We did two things when we came into office: we said Prevent should look at non-violent extremism as well as violent extremism, but we also said that the part of the Prevent programme that was about the integration of communities came better under the Department for Communities and Local Government than under the Home Office, because people were looking at this as people effectively spying on them rather than a proper integration of communities. What we are doing now is standing back and recognising that we need to deal with extremism across a broader spectrum, because Prevent has always been cast in terms of counter-terrorism. That is why in my speech today I talked about the broader partnership with Government, other agencies, communities, families and individuals to deal with extremism and give a very clear message to the extremists that they will not divide us.
I have a short statement to make. Under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the Select Committee on the Governance of the House of Commons recommended, and the House agreed on 22 January, that the roles of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive should henceforth be split. It invited the House of Commons Commission to make arrangements to select a new Clerk and thereafter to begin to recruit for a separate role of Director General of the House of Commons. Accordingly, a trawl for the vacant post of Clerk of the House of Commons was held. Four applicants were interviewed by a panel chaired by me and also including the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee and Liz McMeikan, an independent assessor. The unanimous recommendation of the panel was that Mr David Natzler, at present acting Clerk of the House, should be recommended for appointment. I am glad to be able to tell the House that Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appointment. I am sure that the House will join me in warmly congratulating David.
I have further to report to the House that the deadline for applications for the separate position of Director General of the House of Commons has passed and that the selection process is under way. In keeping with the recommendation of the Straw Committee, it is expected that this recruitment process will be completed very early in the next Parliament.
I know that the whole House will join me in welcoming David Natzler as the new Clerk of the House. Mr Speaker, you went to the ends of the earth in search of the best candidate, but I am glad that we found the right answer right here in Britain.
Before turning to the main focus of the Council, which was the situation in the eurozone, let me say a word about the discussions on Tunisia and Libya, on the situation in Ukraine and on the nuclear talks with Iran. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and family of Sally Adey, a British holidaymaker who was among at least 20 tourists and two Tunisians brutally murdered in the terrorist attack at the Bardo museum last week. I have written to President Essebsi to assure him that Britain will stand with the people of Tunisia as they seek to defeat the terrorists and build a peaceful and prosperous future. The EU has agreed to offer practical assistance, and Britain will play its part, deploying SO15 and military counter-terrorism experts and continuing to provide assistance in aviation security and tourist resort protection.
The suggestion that some of the terrorists involved had been trained in Libya is the latest evidence of the very difficult situation in that country. The Council agreed on the need for a political solution, supporting UN-led efforts to bring the different parties in Libya together to agree a national unity Government. Britain has provided Libya with aid and military training, and we will continue to do all that we can to assist. I know that some people are looking at this situation and asking whether Britain, France and America were right to act to stop Colonel Gaddafi when we did. We should be clear that the answer is yes. Gaddafi was on the brink of massacring his own people in Benghazi, and we prevented what would have been a wide-scale, brutal, murderous assault. It was the right thing to do, and we should be very proud of the British servicemen and women who carried out that vital task.
Turning to the situation in eastern Ukraine, the Council welcomed the significant reduction in fighting and the progress on the withdrawal of heavy weapons. But as President Obama, President Hollande, Chancellor Merkel and I agreed earlier this month, it is essential to send a clear signal that sanctions will not be eased until Russia delivers on its promises and the Minsk agreements are fully implemented. The European Council did exactly that. The conclusions say that
“the duration of the restrictive measures...should be clearly linked to the complete implementation of the Minsk Agreements.”
The conclusions also underline our readiness to take further measures if required.
One of the best things we can do to help Russia’s neighbours is to help them to fight corruption and strengthen their democracies. Just as the Know-How fund, set up by Margaret Thatcher, did a great job of helping eastern European countries after the fall of the Berlin wall, so we need the same approach today. At the Council, I announced a good governance fund with an initial £20 million to support reforms in countries in the eastern neighbourhood and the western Balkans. This will complement support from other donors, accelerating efforts to fight corruption, strengthening the rule of law, reforming the police and justice systems and supporting free markets by liberalising key sectors such as energy and banking. The fund will be up and running by the summer. As well as covering Ukraine, it will initially cover Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Turning to Iran, I met Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande in the margins of the Council to discuss progress in the vital talks on Iran’s nuclear programme. We are absolutely clear and united in our purpose. Iran must never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. But there is a peaceful path to civil nuclear energy, and we believe that a comprehensive, durable and verifiable deal is possible, but only if Iran shows greater flexibility and takes some tough decisions during the talks this week. We also discussed proposals for co-ordinating Europe’s energy policy, ensuring transparency of gas supply agreements and that Europe’s energy policies are consistent with reaching the vital deal at the climate change summit in Paris this December.
Turning to the eurozone, the Council welcomed the agreement between Greece and the euro area to extend their programme. Let me say again—this is the last of these statements in this Parliament and I have probably uttered this sentence 11 times: Britain is not in the eurozone and we are not going to join the eurozone. But we do need the eurozone to work properly. A disorderly Greek exit from the euro remains a major threat to Europe’s economic stability and it could be very damaging to the British economy. Protecting our economy from these wider risks in the eurozone means sticking to this Government’s long-term economic plan. Five years ago, Britain’s economy was close to the edge. We had the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history. We had a deficit that was forecast to be bigger than that of Greece or of any other developed country on the planet. Five years on, the deficit has been halved and our national debt is falling as a share of GDP; we have the fastest growth of any major western economy; we have 1.89 million more people in work; and we have more jobs created in Yorkshire than in the whole of France, and more jobs created in the UK than in the rest of the European Union put together. We need to stay on this path, not abandon it just as it is leading our country to prosperity.
Just as we are acting in our national interest at home, so we have acted to protect our national interest in Europe, too: we have cut the EU budget for the first time in its history; we got Britain out of the euro bail-out schemes; we vetoed a treaty that was not in our national interest; we stopped attempts to discriminate against EU countries outside the eurozone, not least with our successful legal challenge last month; we have made vital progress on cutting red tape and completing the single market; at our G8 in Lough Erne, we kick-started the talks on what will be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, between the EU and the US; we have put power back in the hands of our fishermen so they can sell what they catch; we have negotiated a new single European patent that will reduce cost for entrepreneurs, and part of that patent court will be based right here in London; we have ensured new safeguards to protect our vital financial services industry; we have returned over 100 powers from Brussels to Britain, giving us more control over our borders, policing and security; we have clamped down on benefit tourism; and in foreign policy, we have worked with our European partners to get things done and keep our people safe, on matters ranging from sanctions on Russia and Iran, and practical assistance to help countries in north Africa fight terrorism, to international action to help those in desperate need around the world, including in west Africa, where British aid workers are risking their lives, helping to stop the spread of Ebola.
In the coming two years, we have the opportunity to reform the EU and fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with it. We have the opportunity to build a European Union that is more competitive, more flexible and more accountable to the people, where powers flow back to member states, not just away from them, and where freedom of movement is no longer an unqualified right. And for the first time in 40 years, we have the opportunity to give the British people their say on Britain’s place in Europe with an in-out referendum. If I am Prime Minister, that is what I will do. Those who would refuse to give the British people their say should explain themselves to this House and to the country. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his statement? He is obviously getting in his preparations for opposition now. Let me also join him in congratulating David Natzler on his very well-deserved appointment.
I also wish to join the Prime Minister in condemning the appalling terrorist attack in Tunisia last week. Our thoughts go out to the family and friends of Sally Adey and all the victims who were involved in the attacks. This despicable act of terrorism once again reinforces our determination to stand united across Europe.
Before turning to other matters, I also want to note that since the last European Council we have had the Israeli elections, although they do not appear to have been discussed at the European Council. Let me say that there is now one overriding priority, which is restarting negotiations towards a two-state solution: a secure Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state. Can the Prime Minister, when he replies, say whether he agrees that we must put pressure on both sides now to restart negotiations? In the light of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments in the run-up to the election, has our Prime Minister sought reassurances about his continuing commitment to a two-state solution?
On Iran, we support the talks. We cannot allow an Iran with nuclear weapons. It is vital that we secure a successful outcome and we will support the EU in seeking to bring that about. Let me also echo the Prime Minister’s words on Libya. We supported the military action—it was the right thing to do—and we support the call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. However, the Prime Minister needs to tell the country why things have gone so wrong in Libya. Are people not entitled to conclude that the international community did not adequately plan for the aftermath of the conflict, and what does he realistically believe can be done now?
On Greece, rather than recycling his failing election slogans, can the Prime Minister tell us what the prospects are for a long-term agreement with Greece? That agreement is in the interests of Greece, the eurozone, and the United Kingdom.
Turning to the situation in Ukraine, it is vital that the international community stands united in ensuring that the Minsk agreement is implemented in full. We welcome the commitment, which the Prime Minister reiterated, that EU sanctions on Russia should be eased only in the event of the full implementation of that agreement. Given that the current situation on the ground is not showing signs of getting better, will the Prime Minister tell us whether discussions took place during the summit about increasing further the pressure on Russia, particularly on the so-called tier 3 sanctions on specific sectors?
It is clear that the security dimension of the EU is becoming more and more important. That has been particularly apparent over the past year. It demands common action, resolve and a clear commitment to our continuing place in the European Union—a commitment that the Prime Minister is incapable of delivering. As this is his 29th and last European statement, I had hoped that he might do what he has failed to do in the past 28 and spell out his negotiating strategy. All we had was the same empty rhetoric. Perhaps he can now specifically tell us what the non-negotiable reforms are that he is seeking in Europe. Is he seeking treaty change? Would he countenance voting for “out” in a referendum—[Interruption] Oh, the Minister for Europe says no from a sedentary position; he would not countenance supporting “out”. Perhaps, when the Prime Minister replies, he can confirm that the Minister for Europe said from a sedentary position that, under no circumstances, would he countenance an out vote in a referendum—the Minister knows that the national interest lies in staying in. Those are the questions to which the country deserves answers.
Was the Prime Minister disappointed last week when the President of the European Council, who is supposedly an ally of Britain, described his position as “mission impossible”? With the typical modesty that we have come to expect from the Prime Minister, he then compared himself to Tom Cruise. [Interruption.] I am coming to that; he will enjoy it. To be fair, he did admit to one crucial difference. He said, “He’s a little bit smaller than me.” I have to say to the Prime Minister that I am not sure that that is the main difference that comes to mind. One has a consistent and relatively coherent approach to international affairs and the other is the Prime Minister of Britain.
The Prime Minister mentioned his achievements. Let us remind ourselves of them. He talked about his veto of the treaty, but the treaty went ahead. He did not mention the stand he took against President Juncker; he lost that 26 votes to two. He did not mention either the £1.7 billion bill from Brussels. His attitude to that was: can’t pay, won’t pay, oh, all right, we will pay. But let me relay my personal favourite over the past five years. Who can forget his phrase that in this town, you need to
“lock and load and have one up the spout.”
Up the spout is exactly where his European policy is—not so much Tom Cruise, more David Brent. He cannot tell us what he is negotiating for—
No, I have not quite finished. The Prime Minister cannot tell us what he is negotiating for; he has no strategy for achieving change—[Interruption.] I thought that Government Members wanted to talk about Europe—not any more. He cannot tell us what he is negotiating for. He has no strategy for achieving change and he cannot even tell us whether he will vote yes or no in a referendum. A Prime Minister who cannot tell us whether he wants to be in Europe or out of Europe is a weak Prime Minister. He cannot provide the leadership that our country needs. For that, Britain needs a Labour Government.
I had not been counting, but I think that reporting back to the House 29 times is quite an impressive record—too many. The right hon. Gentleman does have one thing in common with Tom Cruise: every policy he touches self-destructs in five seconds—tuition fees, spending, the deficit, taxes; it is all the same.
Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman’s questions. On the very important matter of the Israeli elections, I am sure that we will all want to congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu on his election victory. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that we must put pressure on both sides to ensure that talks on a two-state solution get going. I will be talking with Prime Minister Netanyahu this evening, and I will make it very clear that I support a two-state solution. I think that is in the long-term interests of not only the Palestinians, but the Israelis, and Britain’s policy on that will not change.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said in support of the Government’s position on Iran and on Libya. He asked why we have seen the difficulties after the fall of Gaddafi. One of the things that we have to be clear about is that the Libyan people and the Libyan Government did not want some occupying force; they did not want to be remotely controlled by others. They were given opportunities to opt for a more unified future, but so far they have not taken them, so we have to do everything we can to keep putting those options on the table, not least through a national unity Government.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Greece and the prospects for a long-term agreement. I still think that the prospects are quite worrying, because on one hand we have the creditor nations that want to see Greece fulfil its programme, and on the other hand we have a Greek Government who do not seem at the moment to be coming up with reforms that give their creditors confidence. One of the lessons that needs to be learned—the right hon. Gentleman needs to learn this—is that government involves difficult decisions, and the Greeks still have to make difficult decisions. [Interruption.] Yes, he was in government. I remember, because he completely crashed the economy, as a member of the Government who left this country in hopeless amounts of debt.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a very specific question on the Minsk agreement: will there be more sanctions if there is more destabilisation? The answer is yes. We should be prepared to consider more sanctions if the situation deteriorates. The key point about the Minsk agreement is that the difficult decisions for Russia will come at the end of the process, which is why it is so important to keep the sanctions right to the end.
The right hon. Gentleman wants to know why we want to renegotiate in Europe, and I will tell him why: we want to get out of ever-closer union; we do not want that to apply to Britain; we want control of our welfare system; we want safeguards for the single market; we want powers to flow back to Britain. Let me ask him this: if those are the things that we want, what is it that he wants? The answer, when it comes to Europe, is absolutely nothing. He told us that he does not think that Brussels has too much power. He refuses to rule out joining the euro because, as he said, “It depends how long I’m Prime Minister for”, so that is a hopeful message. He has made it clear that he will never give the British people a say in a referendum.
Frankly, I will compare my record on Europe with his party’s every day of the week. They gave away £7 billion of the rebate; we have protected the rebate. They gave away our ability to veto what is not in our national interest; we vetoed a treaty that was not in our national interest. They signed Britain up to being in the euro bail-out fund; we got Britain out of the euro bail-out fund. The truth is that we on the Government side of the House stand up for Britain in Europe and the Labour party just sells us out.
I commend my right hon. Friend for what he has just said, and for stating unequivocally in his Bloomberg speech that it is our national Parliament that is the root of our democracy, for which people fought and died, but in what specific respects will he repatriate the powers of the British people to govern themselves and return the powers of sovereignty to this Parliament so that we can govern this country as we wish?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have already returned a power to Britain by getting out of the bail-out fund. We have returned 100 specific powers as a result of the opt-out on justice and home affairs. I have been very specific that when it comes to the free movement of people, and particularly its interaction with our welfare system, we need powers to be returned to this country. Specifically, I have said that people coming from European Union countries to Britain should not be allowed to claim unemployment benefit, that they should have to leave after six months if they do not have a job, that they should have to pay in for four years before getting anything out of the tax credits system and that they should not be able to send child benefit or other child tax payments to families back home. Those things require serious change in Europe, including treaty change, and that is what we will secure, and what a contrast with the Labour party, which will do absolutely zip.
May I add my own congratulations to Mr Natzler as Clerk, and say how pleased I am personally that the cross-party process of the Governance Committee has led to one of many important decisions that have been made following it?
When the Prime Minister speaks to Mr Netanyahu this evening, will he underline two things—first, that in respect of the negotiations with Iran, a deal which is acceptable and honourable on both sides is more likely to help guarantee Israel’s security, as well as that of others, than no deal at all? Secondly, will he emphasise to Mr Netanyahu that what his party and Government have been involved in is trying to change the reality on the ground through settlement building, so that if it goes on, it will be impossible for there to be a separate state of Palestine, and that if he carries on like this, the patience of this House and of Europe will run out?
First, just in case it is the last time I look at the right hon. Gentleman across the Floor of the House of Commons and he does not catch the Speaker’s eye at the last Prime Minister’s questions on Wednesday, may I pay tribute to him for all the work that he has done in government and in opposition, including in some very senior roles at some very difficult times for this country? The one pledge I make him is that if he continues to live where he does, his constituency MP will always stand up for him in this House of Commons and make sure that he receives a premium service.
The two points that the right hon. Gentleman makes about Israel are right and they are points that I will be happy to make. They are linked: if there is no two-state solution, the situation ends up moving towards a one-state solution, which I think will be disastrous for the Jewish people in Israel, so I really do believe in the two-state solution. We are very much opposed to the settlement building that has taken place. We have been very clear about that and will continue to be clear about that. It makes a two-state solution more difficult and that, in turn, will make Israel less stable, rather than more stable.
In his Bloomberg speech the Prime Minister set out five core principles for a 21st-century EU. If he has had a chance to look at the current European Commission work programme, he will have seen that, contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition has just said, there has now been significant movement towards these principles, particularly on migration and the single market. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we do not have to demand a renegotiation before a referendum? Europe is already offering us one.
My right hon. Friend is right. It is because we have been clear about the things that need to change that the European Commission is already looking at the sorts of changes that could be made. This is an organisation that responds not simply to pressure, but to political realities, so we have to make sure that the political reality after the next election is someone walking into the Berlaymont building or the European Council building and demanding change, rather than someone wandering in and just saying, “Relax—there’s nothing you need to do. We don’t have to have a referendum. We don’t need a renegotiation. One day we’ll join the single currency.” All the pressure would be off and, yes, some in Brussels would breathe a sigh of relief, because it would be business as usual with Labour and probably the Scottish National party too.
I endorse the Prime Minister’s welcome to our excellent new chief Clerk. I also welcome the fact, Mr Speaker, that you are proceeding speedily to the appointment of the post that will carry out the chief executive duties, the director general. That is very important.
On Greece, may I suggest to the Prime Minister that simply repeating the same dose of austerity on the Greek people and their Government will not achieve the objective any more than the last dose did? National debt went up in Greece as a result of the austerity programme. Of course, the Greek Government have to reform to collect their taxes and to get rid of corruption, and the Government have volunteered to do that, but going down the same austerity road is not going to revive the Greek economy or enable it to repay its debts. Those must be rescheduled and the reforms around that must ensure that Greece is capable of repaying its debts, not being strangled with austerity.
I do not entirely disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The problem is, though, that the people who have lent the money to Greece want their money back, and they believe that Greece should carry out a series of reforms before they give it any more money. He or I can take a different view and argue as I would, although he would not, that Greece should never have joined the eurozone in the first place. That is not the right hon. Gentleman’s view because he is a fanatic about the eurozone. None the less, as we have not lent money to Greece, we are not in that position. If he had been at the European Council he would have heard, whether from the Germans, the Dutch and the Scandinavian countries, or from the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Irish, who have all been through these painful processes, that there is very little appetite to cut Greece a lot of slack.
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I echo the Prime Minister’s congratulations to Mr Natzler. I welcome the Prime Minister’s remarks on Tunisia and Libya, where we must all still hope that the promise of the Arab awakening will be fulfilled and sympathise about the fact that uniting the Tory party on Europe really is “mission impossible”? On the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, does he agree that the UK should never ratify a treaty that would undermine the NHS?
Of course. But I do believe that all of us in this House who support free trade and want to see Britain as a success story in international markets should really get behind TTIP rather than listening to some non-governmental organisations that are raising entirely false fears about it. There is no way that TTIP can in any way undermine our NHS. Our NHS is determined by the policies we pass here in this House. One of the things that was so striking about the European Council was countries worrying about the so-called investor protection mechanisms, even though Britain has 94 of these things and we have never lost a case. There is an awful lot of scaremongering about TTIP. Any of us who want to see a successful British economy should get behind what could be a real jobs boost for our country.
If the Prime Minister is so certain that TTIP will not undermine the NHS, does he have assurances in the treaty that specifically mention the NHS and therefore make it absolutely clear that what some of us fear might happen will not happen?
There is this very powerful quote, which I think I have read out in the House of Commons before, where the previous Trade Commissioner said:
“Public services are always exempted—there is no problem about exemption. The argument is abused in your country for political reasons but it has no grounds.”
The point I would make, though, is that it is local NHS commissioners who make decisions about who delivers services. One of the things that is being done with TTIP is that people or countries who want to raise concerns, like over the investor protection mechanisms, are asking for more things to be put in the treaty, which in the end we will have to pay a price for; and if they are not necessary and there is not a problem, why are we creating one? With the investor protection mechanisms, the country that was raising this problem was Austria, which has 60 of these agreements and has never, ever lost a case. Of course let us have the robust negotiation and seek any safeguards we might need, but let us not raise problems that do not really exist.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that in contradistinction to the views expressed by the Leader of the Opposition, there are millions of ordinary voters in this country who want their say on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union—a say that is long overdue? Is it not absolutely crystal clear that they will get that say only if my right hon. Friend continues to occupy Downing street after the election and is in a position to deliver on that promise?
I think there are millions of people in our country who want to have that say. We have not had a referendum since 1975. We cannot remain in these organisations without the full-hearted consent of the British people behind us. So it is time to have the referendum, but let us have it on the basis of a renegotiation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there is only one way to get that referendum, and that is to make sure that there is a Conservative majority and a Conservative Prime Minister after the next election.
The crisis in Libya is having catastrophic consequences. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said that of the 170,000 people who entered Italy illegally last year, 92% did so from Libya, and the figures for this year show a 64% increase. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is not enough to give more resources to Frontex—we also have to deal with the source countries to help them stop migrants putting their lives at risk or being profited from by traffickers?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We will not solve the problem simply by more sea patrols—nor, indeed, by returning to the Mare Nostrum policy, which sounded humanitarianly sound, but deaths at sea during the period of its operation increased fourfold. So there is no alternative to trying to stabilise these countries and deal with the problem at source. We are able to use our aid and other budgets, with European partners, to do that, and we should certainly do so.
A few weeks ago I went to No. 10, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and Tom Pursglove, the excellent Eurosceptic Conservative candidate for Corby, to deliver the results of the north Northamptonshire referendum, in which 81% of the people of north Northamptonshire voted to come out of the EU. Unfortunately, when we knocked, the Prime Minister was not in, but he kindly wrote to me stating, rather importantly, that, if it was at all possible, he would be delighted to bring forward the EU referendum. I think there is a misunderstanding that it has to be held at the end of 2017, so will the Prime Minister confirm that it could take place earlier?
First, may I apologise for not being in? It is not that I have an adverse reaction when I see the men in grey suits approaching Downing street, but I obviously was not there on the right day and I am very sorry about that. What I have said is that the referendum must take place by the end of 2017, but if it is possible to complete the renegotiation and hold it earlier, no one would be more delighted than me. I think it would be—[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition complains from a sedentary position, but there would be no referendum or choice with Labour. They would literally just turn up in Brussels and say, “Tell me how much to spend. Where do I sign? No renegotiation or referendum.” It is absolutely clear that there is only one way to give the British people a choice, and that is to make sure I am at this Dispatch Box after the next election.
Does the Prime Minister accept that thousands of small and medium-sized businesses and companies throughout the United Kingdom would love, and are desperate to see, a different relationship with the European Union? Does he accept that promising a referendum is a better way of getting that ultimate change?
I agree with the hon. Lady and wish she could talk some sense into her Front-Bench colleagues. She is absolutely right. By holding a —[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition says that the hon. Lady does not agree with me, but she just stood up and made the case for a referendum rather better than I did. I will take careful note of what she said. The point is that, by having this pledge and renegotiation, we can get things done for businesses large and small.
We are all being a bit unfair on the Labour party. After all, 40 years ago it was the Labour party that gave us a referendum and, to be fair to the Liberals, they promised one in the last Parliament, although I do not understand why they have gone wobbly on trusting the people. Perhaps it is because the people may give the wrong answer. Is not the answer to the Leader of the Opposition that every single person in this country, no matter how important they are—whether they are the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition—gets one vote? Will my right hon. Friend therefore give a categorical assurance that any Government of which he is Prime Minister will deliver this choice to the British people?
I have been absolutely clear: I will not be Prime Minister in a Government that do not hold a referendum. I could not be more clear about it. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I remember Tony Blair standing at this Dispatch Box as Prime Minister —I was sitting somewhere on the Opposition Benches—and saying with respect to the European constitution, “Let battle be joined”, and making a great pledge. He could have held a referendum, but he did not. That is one of the things that has poisoned the well in this country and that makes a referendum even more important today.
We have spent about £800 million helping refugees in Syria, which makes us the second largest bilateral donor to the programme. We have taken 140 people under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, and it is right that we have done that, but we have to be frank with ourselves and with the public. In a refugee crisis of this scale, which runs into millions of people, the idea that even a small part of the solution is for our country to take in hundreds or thousands is completely wrong.
Does the Prime Minister agree that inward investment from the European Union, including Sartorius Stedim investing in my constituency, is a sign that Europeans believe in a reformed European Union and that we have a large number of allies in Europe who want to reform the EU in a constructive way, ready for a referendum?
My hon. Friend makes the important point that Britain is a magnet for inward investment. In fact, we are getting 50% more inward investment than either France or Germany, the next two biggest recipients of such investment. The interesting point is that, since I made my Bloomberg speech and that referendum commitment, there has been no sign of change in the inward investment from countries in the rest of the world coming into the United Kingdom, because they know that it is right to hold that renegotiation and that referendum.
We can all wish for a political solution and a national unity Government in Libya, but the reality is that it is not happening and an al-Qaeda or ISIL-linked state is being established on parts of the coast, which is a serious threat to our country and the rest of Europe. What are we going to do about the situation in Libya, rather than just wishing for a change?
It is not a question of simply wishing for a change; we are working with our allies to help to bring one about. The aim so far has been to produce a national unity Government by bringing together the different parties that there are in Libya. We have not taken the approach that some in the region have taken of trying to pick sides and creating conflict between the various parties. I accept, however, that as we see the growth of ISIL in Libya, we are going to have to challenge all those who could take part in a national unity Government to oppose ISIL and any formation it is able to achieve in Libya. That will be an important part of the stability that we seek not just for the sake of the Libyan people, but for that of our own.
In my last week as a Member of Parliament, may I commend my right hon. Friend not just for his statement, but for his work over the past five years in re-establishing the United Kingdom as a serious and respected player in international affairs?
Turning specifically to the good governance fund that he mentioned with regard to Ukraine and eastern Europe, will the Prime Minister look at the money that has been transferred to this country, particularly from Russia? Oligarchs and others seem to have thought that here and western Europe were good places to put their money, most of which was looted from the good people of Russia. Part of the reason why there is a problem in Russia is that money has been taken out of Russia and placed here.
First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for the valuable work that he has done for his constituents in this House, but also as part of the Government both in Northern Ireland and at the Ministry of Defence? He has played an absolutely crucial role, and he will be missed.
On the issue of Russian money, we have some of the toughest controls anywhere in the world in terms of money laundering and other such issues. I would make the point that Britain has very much been in the vanguard of arguing for sanctions on Russia and Russian individuals, even though it could be argued that this might in some way disadvantage investment coming into the United Kingdom. We have put the interests of Europe and the interests of the Ukrainian people first.
Is the Prime Minister aware that many of us on the Labour Benches who are pro-European want what our allies want, which is a strong Britain in a strong Europe? Yes, we want a reformed Europe—all of us are in favour of reform in Europe—but we are not in favour of weakness and vacillation, which manufacturers and exporters in my constituency say will damage this country over the next three years while we wait for a referendum.
The hon. Gentleman says that he is in favour of reform, but I have not heard one single proposal from the Labour party about anything it wants to reform. He is presumably standing on his leader’s ticket, but I do not know whether he has his picture on his leaflets. When I met my Labour opponent in Chipping Norton market square this week, I had a look at his leaflet, and there was not a dicky-bird when it came to the Leader of the Opposition. It could have been from a totally different party. There are plenty of pictures of me. The Leader of the Opposition has said:
“I don’t think Brussels has got too much power”.
That is the official position of the Labour party: it is not for reform, but for the status quo.
As the only major party leader to trust the British people with an in/out referendum on EU membership, my right hon. Friend has certainly reassured the patriotic British electorate. Will he now go the whole way by reassuring them that throughout the next Parliament, when he is Prime Minister, Britain will not fall below the NATO recommended minimum of 2% of GDP on defence?
I would say to my hon. Friend, who I know cares passionately about this issue, as I do, that we are one of the few countries in Europe to meet 2%. We have met it through this Parliament, and we are meeting it this year and next year. He has very specific guarantees about a full replacement for Trident, a £160 billion equipment programme that will go up in real terms each year and no further reductions in regular personnel in our armed forces. I think those are bankable assurances, which will resonate on the doorsteps as he goes house to house.
Even at this late stage, I think that the Prime Minister might thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) for keeping us out of the euro. As he knows, the euro has been sinking like a stone in recent weeks and there are terrible stresses inside the eurozone, arising from the rigidities of the euro. Is not the only serious solution to dissolve the euro and recreate national currencies? Is he not in a strong position to say that?
I believe strongly in maintaining our national currency, but it is not a realistic option to tell all other countries in Europe which currency they should use. Many of them are hugely enthusiastic about the euro. However misguided I feel that is, arguing that they should all break up their currency is not a viable option. Obviously, being in the euro and not being able to devalue have damaged Greece’s ability to respond to the problems, but we cannot lay all the problems with the Greek economy at the door of the euro. Greece has a long history of not making structural reforms, having ludicrously early retirement ages—[Interruption.]—having problems with its working practices and all the rest of it. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) asks what is wrong with ludicrously early retirement ages. He has enjoyed making such comments from a sedentary position for many, many years and I am sure that he will do so for many years to come. There is a slight irony there.
Did my right hon. Friend have any discussions at the European Council about the jobs miracle in this country, in that there are more people employed here than at any time in our islands’ history? Did he ask members of the European Council to come and see that miracle at first hand in Harlow, where unemployment has halved, youth unemployment is down by nearly 60% and apprenticeships are up by 116%?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We discussed the employment situation across Europe and I was able to give a very strong report on what is happening in Britain: the 1,000 jobs that are being created every day and the plummeting levels of unemployment and youth unemployment. I said that that is evidence of the combination of long-term structural changes and economic recovery. There are European countries with very high structural rates of unemployment that need to take action to deal with that.
My party heartily congratulates David Natzler on his appointment. There could be no one more suitable and appropriate for this role in the House of Commons.
On the Tory European referendum, what will happen if the UK votes to leave the European Union, but Scotland votes to remain within it? Should the Scottish people just put up with being yanked out of Europe against their will? Would it not be better if all the siblings in the Prime Minister’s family of nations agreed individually before they were taken out of Europe?
What I want to know is, where are the rest of the Scot nats? They are preparing for power and writing Labour’s Budget. They are obviously very busy. What I would say about referendums is that the hon. Gentleman lost the first one and he will lose the next one.
You will have noticed, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) no longer talks about his wife, but about the excellent Conservative parliamentary candidate in Corby, Thomas Pursglove. I believe that that is because Mrs Bone is going to become a councillor in my constituency and so has been talking to me. She regrets the fact that the Liberal Democrats have not allowed the Government to negotiate formally on a renegotiation in Europe, but she wonders whether the Prime Minister has taken advantage of his meetings on the sidelines of the European Council to talk about our renegotiation with our European partners.
I must say, I did not know that those sorts of things happened in Northamptonshire. They are obviously very exciting events. I congratulate Mrs Bone on trying to become a councillor. I am sure that she will make a great contribution, as she did to the film about this place. Of course I have had discussions with our European partners about what Britain wants to see renegotiated and I will continue to do so.
Although my hon. Friend and I do not always see eye to eye on issues European, he is making a strong point. We have not seen much of a boost to the British economy from the eurozone because it has been relatively stagnant. We have had to achieve economic recovery by selling to other parts of the world and getting our own economy moving. If we do see a recovery in the eurozone—which we hope to—that will obviously be very good news for Britain.
If we ask a group of lawyers their opinion on whether TTIP would apply to the NHS, we will get as many answers as there are lawyers. The Prime Minister cannot get away with saying that it will not apply, because by opening up the NHS to market tendering and market forces in the way he did with the Health and Social Care Act 2012, he has opened the door to treaties such as TTIP applying to the national health service. That is the problem he needs to protect the NHS against.
I am baffled by Labour’s position on this as I thought it was a party that believed in free trade and backing Britain’s exporters. There are so many areas where we are disadvantaged in our trade with America and where we could be creating jobs and growth, but instead Labour Members want to read out a script handed to them by the trade unions to oppose the trade deal. It makes you weep for the time when the Labour party was in favour of progress and trade.
At the Council did anyone raise the treatment of journalists? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the witch hunt that has seen several journalists from The Sun, for example, put through three years of hell and cases that juries keep throwing out is un-British, in that the Crown Prosecution Service is seeking to neuter the abilities of journalists to obtain information in the public interest? Should there be a rethink of CPS policies for similar prosecutions, because that reflects across the whole of Europe?
That issue was not raised with me or at the press conference. Obviously, the CPS is independent in our country, as it should be, but my hon. Friend is right to say that justice delayed is justice denied and these things should always be resolved as speedily as possible.
Many jobs in my constituency depend on continued investment by leading manufacturing companies that also have companies on mainland Europe. Labour Members can say that a Labour Government would give them a categorical reassurance that the UK will remain in the EU. What would the Prime Minister say to those companies if his shilly-shallying over Europe about some sort of referendum were to drive them to invest elsewhere?
Interestingly, the conference of the British Chambers of Commerce—probably the biggest business trade body in Britain—supported my approach of a renegotiation and referendum, and did not support the alternative of just meekly going along with whatever the European Union is doing today. Business is on the side of the changes I am putting forward.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we look at what happened in Greece with the economic difficulties it has had, we see that it had to make sweeping cuts to its national health service because it was in so much economic trouble. That underlines the point that we will make every day from now and for the next 45 days, which is that if we want a strong NHS, schools and policing, we must have a strong economy.
In his statement the Prime Minister said that he wanted a European Union where freedom of movement was not an unqualified right. If he does not secure an exemption from freedom of movement by the time of the referendum in 2017, will he be voting no?
I am very confident that we will get the changes we need, not least on the operation of our welfare system. Back in European history, there was a time when freedom of movement was about accepting a job that had been offered, rather than simply the freedom to move to look for work. I have been clear, and we will be clear on the doorsteps, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency: no unemployment benefit for visiting EU migrants; after six months if someone has no job they have to go home; someone must work for four years before they get in-work benefits; and no sending home of child benefit. Those are things that I suspect each and every one of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents wants put in place.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear deal, may I urge great caution on the part of the Prime Minister and, indeed, other members of Europe? The road between a civil nuclear energy Iran and a military nuclear Iran is a very short one. Contrary to what at least one of my right hon. Friend’s constituents has said, it would be better for the middle east to have no deal than a bad deal.
I absolutely understand and share the concerns that people right across the world, including in Israel, have about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. The deal should keep Iran away from having a nuclear weapon, with proper inspection and verification so that if there were any changes to those circumstances, they could be seen. Obviously, we should not do a deal at any price, but the alternatives to doing a deal are not attractive. Frankly, they are not attractive for Iran. The sanctions we put in place—Britain led the charge in Europe—have done such damage in Iran that it is in its interests to conclude a deal.
Earlier this month, I met a group of talented young people at John Fisher and Thomas More Roman Catholic high school in Colne, who, through CAFOD, are helping to raise the profile of climate change. They have all made their own climate change pledges, which they presented to me. Will the Prime Minister say more about his discussions on energy policy and the prospects of our reaching a long-term agreement in Paris this December?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I think the prospects are good, because of the deal Britain helped to broker at the previous EU Council. It shows that the European Union will be making a very serious contribution to reducing carbon emissions. We obviously had to allow some countries, such as Poland, some flexibility, but the overall numbers for Europe are impressive. Now what we need to do, with the movement by the Americans and the Chinese, is discuss the matter with all the countries which might, if we are not careful, put a spoke in the wheel of progress, so that, with others, we will help to ensure that the sort of mitigation that they will need in their countries goes ahead.
In his statement, the Prime Minister spoke about opportunity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that people will have an opportunity to reform the EU and have an in/out referendum on this country’s membership of the EU only by voting Conservative, and that voting for any other party will kill that opportunity?
My hon. Friend is right. Voting for another party is really opening the back door to a Labour Government, who would not renegotiate or have a referendum. It would just lead to a sigh of relief in the corridors of Brussels that none of those changes was necessary. If people are serious about wanting reform and a referendum, there is only one box they can put their cross in.
On foreign policy, did the European Council look at the coup in Yemen against the legitimate Government of President Hadi? Taking into account the words of the Yemeni Foreign Minister in today asking for Gulf Co-operation Council countries to send in their forces to avoid civil war, the Saudis have asked their ambassador to operate from Aden to show support for the legitimate Government. Will we be doing the same?
We did not discuss Yemen specifically at the Council because we were very focused on Tunisia, Libya, Ukraine, energy union and the eurozone crisis, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that what is happening in Yemen is deeply worrying. It is extremely unstable. We still, obviously, support and believe that President Hadi is the legitimate power. Frankly, what is needed in that country is what is needed in so many other troubled countries in the middle east, which is inclusive government that includes representatives of all the people of that country, so there can be some sort of progress.
Despite yet another eurozone crisis, the UK economy continues to grow strongly, creating more jobs than the rest of Europe added together. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would have been a huge error of judgment, especially by someone who aspired to be Prime Minister, to have backed Francois Hollande’s failed socialist policies when he should have been backing our long-term economic plan?
We all remember what the Leader of the Opposition said. He stood on the steps of the Élysée and said he wanted Britain to follow the French course. If we had done that, unemployment would be twice as high as it is and growth would be one seventh of what we have achieved, so I am sure that when it comes to the choice at the election, people will recognise that we should follow not the French course but the British course, which means voting Conservative.
Before I call the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General to make his statement to the House, it might be helpful to colleagues to know that the final day’s debate on the Budget is very heavily subscribed, with no fewer than 38 colleagues seeking to catch the eye of the Chair. As a consequence, it will be important to be very pithy in the statement now, both from the Back Benches and the Front Bench. We will then proceed with the main business of the day.
Government Efficiency and Reform
With permission, I would like to make a statement on Government savings from efficiency and reform.
Since May 2010, my Department has led a cross-Government programme, working closely with the Treasury, to ensure that taxpayers’ money is focused on front-line services. With rising public expectations for high-quality services, coupled with the huge budget deficit we inherited in 2010, the coalition faced a huge challenge to do more—and better—for less. Over this Parliament, we have secured unprecedented levels of savings, delivering for successive years £3.75 billion, £5.5 billion, and £10 billion, compared with spending in Labour’s last year. For 2013-14, we saved £14.3 billion, against a 2009-10 baseline.
That is testament to the hard work of civil servants across Whitehall and the strong support of my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary and other Treasury colleagues. Last July, the Comptroller and Auditor General recognised the pace and priority we had injected into the efficiency agenda. We started this with the introduction of tight spending controls just days after we entered government, and these controls have delivered the largest share of savings. Since 2010, we have negotiated billions of pounds off expensive legacy contracts and cut central Government spending on consultants and interim workers by over half. Like for like, the civil service is 21% smaller. I publish today our annual “State of the Estate” report, which shows that we have exited in aggregate more than one building every day since May 2010, reducing the total size of our estate by 20%.
As part of our long-term economic plan, our aim was to save £20 billion from central Government efficiency and reform for the last year of this Parliament, including by reducing losses to the public purse through fraud, error and uncollected debt. I can tell the House that we are on course to meet and indeed exceed this target. Up to January 2015, we have already identified £11 billion of efficiency and reform savings—over a third up on the same point last year—with the largest savings coming in the final quarter every year so far. With fraud, error and debt benefits still to be counted, we are well on the way to the £20 billion target. The full year’s savings will need to be confirmed by independent audit, and, as in previous years, we will invite the National Audit Office to undertake this.
We have made significant progress in transforming government and cutting costs, but this is only the beginning. At the autumn statement, we published, with the Treasury, a document entitled “Efficiency and reform in the next Parliament”, which set out our intention to save a further £10 billion for 2017-18 and £15 billion to £20 billion for 2019-20 compared with the current year. We now set out our next steps. We will implement a new approach to land and property, based on central ownership and management of assets and Departments paying market-level rents. This will provide greater incentives for Departments to rationalise space, as well as releasing land and property for productive use—for example, for up to 150,000 homes. To do this successfully will mean working even more closely with local government, including through our One Public Estate programme, which now operates across 32 local authorities.
The UK is now a world leader in digital government, and we will work with local government to take this transformative approach into the wider public sector. Digital services improve the citizen experience, while being significantly cheaper to provide. We will continue to reduce the cost of technology in government, as extravagantly expensive legacy IT contracts fall in over the coming years. To that end, I have signed an innovative deal to create a joint venture for data hosting that will save up to £100 million.
All of this work has been driven by an increasingly strong corporate centre, supporting and challenging Departments to work together to maximise efficiencies and improve services. We are strengthening central leadership across 10 key cross- departmental functions, including commercial, digital and technology, project management, legal and human resources. Later this week, we will publish our functional leadership model.
The chief executive of the civil service will lead the build-out of this strengthened model, under which the Treasury and the Cabinet Office will work together as the corporate centre to support Departments to continue their programme of reform and to deliver future spending consolidations. Spending controls will remain in place and evolve in time to strong functional standards, while Departments will need to own more of the transformation agenda. As part of this, we are recruiting 25 commercial directors across government and launching a new project leadership programme at Cranfield university. This programme will help to build project management skills in parallel to our successful major projects leadership academy.
I am grateful for the collaborative way in which the shadow Cabinet Office Minister has approached this important programme, which continues that of her predecessor, the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), and also for the support of the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and its members, who have seen the point of what we are seeking to do and given significant support to it.
We have made substantial and long-overdue improvements to the way government operates, but much more lies ahead. We have shown that we can drive down the cost of government while improving the quality of services. We have shown that we can get more and better for less, and that we have a long-term plan to deliver it. I commend the statement to the House.