House of Commons
Wednesday 14 October 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What estimate she has made of the number of people killed by the IRA. 
The authoritative chronicle of troubles deaths, “Lost Lives”, estimates the number of people killed by the IRA between 1966 and 2006 at 1,768.
May I remember Garda Anthony Golden and Kevin McGuigan, both murdered in recent weeks by the IRA, and, of course, my former hon. Friend Ian Gow, who was murdered 25 years ago this week?
We are now told that the IRA has ceased operations. Regardless of whether the IRA exists, does my hon. Friend agree that there is no place in a democratic society for those who undertake criminal or terrorist activities?
There has never been a place in United Kingdom politics for terrorism, and nor is there a place in UK politics for people who refuse to condemn terrorism.
The IRA terrorist campaign led to the deaths of 3,750 people. The IRA has stated that it has not gone away, its guns have not gone away, and over the last three months its murderous ways have not gone away, either. Will the Minister confirm the commitment by the Government of the Irish Republic to reduce IRA activity and to catch IRA members involved in murders and criminal activity in that jurisdiction in the past and today?
I again place on the record my condolences and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to the family of Garda Golden, who was brutally murdered last week. I was in Dublin only a few weeks ago, and it is absolutely the Irish Government’s intention to pursue men of violence and terrorists on their side of the border and to assist the UK Government on our side of the border.
What comfort can the Minister give the House that the police have sufficient resources to fully investigate these most serious of crimes?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has secured extra funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland over the last few years, and the Chief Constable is confident that should evidence present itself murders will be pursued to the correct outcome, such as bringing people to justice.
I think the House would like to hear from the Minister what pressure the Government are putting on the Libyan authorities to secure compensation for all those hurt and maimed and for the families of people murdered by Libyan-sponsored IRA violence. It is the morally right thing to do. Will he confirm that the Government will seek compensation as soon as there is a Libyan regime to negotiate with?
The Prime Minister has indicated that he is keen to seek further compensation for victims, but of course it is hard to negotiate with a Libyan Government that are not functioning or in existence. I know that a Select Committee of the House is looking at the arrangements made between Tony Blair’s Government and the then Libyan Government.
Northern Ireland Executive: Financial Position
2. What steps she is taking to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive’s financial position is sustainable. 
It is for the Executive to deliver a balanced Budget and sustainable finances. The Stormont House agreement provides a package of measures to help them achieve this. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, it is not extra money that will sort out this crisis; the local parties need to resolve welfare reform disagreements, deal with budgetary pressures and deliver public sector reform.
Does my hon. Friend accept that in principle it is not acceptable for any of the devolved Administrations simply to breach spending limits agreed with Her Majesty’s Government?
It is not acceptable for any devolved institution, or indeed any Whitehall Department, to breach spending limits agreed with the Treasury. For that reason, I urge the Northern Ireland parties to resolve their differences, implement the Stormont House agreement and take advantage of the economic package we put together last December to ensure that Northern Ireland goes from strength to strength.
Many areas of Northern Ireland have a particular problem with unemployment, partly as a result of the troubles and their aftermath. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Chancellor that there is a strong case to be made for welfare reform to be far slower in Northern Ireland than elsewhere and that additional support for job creation should be provided?
That case has been made. That is why in the Stormont House agreement we allow flexibilities within Stormont to take measures appropriate to ensure that the troubles are recognised and their impact on the people of Northern Ireland mitigated. However, that is a matter for the Stormont House Government. The powers are there; it is time they got on with it.
Does the Minister agree that any Government that cannot set a budget cannot really govern properly? Are not the parties that are preventing the setting of the budget risking the collapse of the whole institutions?
I agree with my hon. Friend that unless this impasse is solved, public services will start to be hit as the money runs out. Let us not forget that the people of Northern Ireland deserve that this solution be put in place. We are already seeing the impact on the health service in Northern Ireland—and no doubt on other services, too. There is very little time left before the people of Northern Ireland realise that a non-functioning Stormont will take Northern Ireland backwards, not forwards.
Have the parties that rejected the Stormont House proposals from last December put forward any credible proposals to resolve the financial issues?
May I refer the hon. Gentleman to his party leader, who has been in the talks over the last few weeks? He may be able to refresh his memory about what proposals have been put forward. The talks are ongoing; they are intense and we hope collectively to come to a resolution.
3. What assessment she has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland since the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr in August 2015. 
5. What recent assessment she has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland. 
9. What recent assessment she has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland. 
11. What recent assessment she has made of the political situation in Northern Ireland. 
I would first like to associate myself with the tributes paid to Garda Officer Golden. His death was a tragedy, and my condolences go to his family, friends and police colleagues.
It is essential that the cross-party talks deliver a way to implement the Stormont House agreement and also a means to address the continuing impact of paramilitary organisations. The Northern Ireland parties are engaging intensively, but time is short and a resolution is urgently needed.
What progress has been made in the cross-party talks convened by the British and Irish Governments to overcome the current impasse? In particular, what work is being done to rebuild trust between the parties?
We cannot yet say whether we will have a successful outcome, but my feeling is that all five parties participating in the talks want the institutions to work, so they recognise that they have to fix these problems. It is essential, however, that that includes implementing welfare reform. Without it, there will be no sustainable public finances in Northern Ireland—and without that, as the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has said, we cannot really have a functioning and effective Government.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the plight of the thousands of families that suffered at the hands of terrorists is not forgotten? Will she also insist that measures in the Stormont House agreement that deal with the past are implemented without further delay?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the needs of victims and survivors of the troubles will always be at the forefront of this Government’s approach to the troubles and the Stormont House agreement Bill. That is why absolutely no provision is made in the Bill for an amnesty, which would be completely unacceptable to victims and survivors, just as it is unacceptable to this House. We will press ahead with measures to implement the bodies on the past in the Stormont House agreement.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be helpful to have cross-party agreement in this place on our stance against terrorism in order to show our support for the Northern Ireland Executive?
That is important. For the most part, that view is shared across the House. It is obviously of grave concern that the leader of the Labour party, when asked as recently as this August to condemn IRA terrorism, said that he condemned the actions of the British Army in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will be aware that a lot of Northern Ireland businesses are rapidly expanding. For example, Almac in Craigavon is taking on 300 new people, and Moy Valley is looking to take on another 600 employees across the Six Counties. Does my right hon. Friend agree that businesses expect the political process to be put on track to underpin this wealth creation?
I do agree. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working, and it is reflected in economic recovery in Northern Ireland. One of the reasons why we need a successful outcome of the cross-party talks and implementation of the Stormont House agreement is to open the way for devolution of corporation tax, which will mean even more jobs and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about there being no amnesty in relation to past terrorist crimes. That is absolutely right, in the view of our party and the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure us that there will be no question of the past being rewritten or revised, or of a different narrative emerging from the discussions of the past that are currently taking place as part of the political process?
I can give the right hon. Gentleman assurances on both those points. As he well knows, the Stormont House agreement makes it very clear that there is no amnesty, and that an amnesty would not be justified. I also believe that it would be completely unacceptable to set up any bodies that would seek to rewrite the history of the troubles. There can never be any equivalence between the police officers who defended the rule of law and the terrorists who sought to destroy it.
I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State is saying, and we will work with her to ensure that that objective is achieved in the current talks process. Does she agree that, just as there was never any justification for the terrorists in the past, there can be no justification for their continued existence in the future, and that all their criminality, racketeering, fuel laundering and the rest of it must be addressed by the establishment of a dedicated resource to rid the people of these terrorist godfathers and their criminality?
The British Government will continue to be unrelenting in their action to support those who are fighting terrorism in Northern Ireland, and, indeed, in the rest of the United Kingdom. Sadly, we have seen republican terrorism manifest itself on a number of occasions in recent months, with devices being left in public areas in Lurgan, Belfast, Strabane and Londonderry. The PSNI is doing an excellent job with its security partners in preventing such attacks from causing harm, but it is of course essential that we also do everything we can to crack down on criminality on the part of paramilitary groups.
13. I welcome the publication of the Government’s policy paper setting out proposals for the Northern Ireland Bill which is to be presented in a few weeks, but does the Secretary of State share my concern that Sinn Féin has described the paper as “unacceptable and a clear breach of the Stormont House Agreement”? 
I am concerned about that. It simply does not reflect the contents of that summary of the Bill, which is faithful to the Stormont House agreement.
Discussions continue on the technical details of the Bill. Naturally the agreement does not cover every detail that is needed to produce legislation, and the parties continue to engage intensively in preparation for the presentation of the Bill to Parliament.
The Secretary of State will agree that the aftermath of a deplorable murder is not just a test inviting the political parties to demonstrate their own resolve, but a collective challenge to us to prove the resilience of the democratic process. Does she also agree that we can do that best by adopting a whole community approach to eradicating paramilitarism, guaranteeing the stability of the political institutions and standing by the integrity of the new beginning to policing, especially in circumstances in which dissidents are yet again threatening the policing arrangements and those who may be recruited?
I agree that we need a whole community approach to tackling paramilitary organisations and moving to a time when they will disband. I also agree that we need a whole community approach to supporting the policing settlement. I do think, though, that supporting the devolved institutions involves another crucial factor, namely sustainable public finances. I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues to find a way to ensure that the agreement is implemented, including the welfare provisions.
May I begin by associating myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about Garda Tony Golden, and sending our condolences to his widow and three children?
Let me say at the outset that there is and can be no place for paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. The primacy of the rule of law is fundamental, and there can be no compromise on that principle. Does the Secretary of State agree that, at a time when this and other matters are being discussed in the current talks, it is vital for the House to say loudly and clearly that we have every confidence in the ability of the political leadership in Northern Ireland to secure a successful outcome to the current negotiations, and that we, along with the Irish Government, will play our part in supporting them?
I completely agree that it is not acceptable for paramilitary organisations to exist in a democratic society. They were never justified, they are not justified today, and they should disband. I also share the hon. Gentleman’s confidence in the leadership of Northern Ireland. They have demonstrated many times over the last 20 years that they can achieve phenomenal results and can solve seemingly intractable problems, and I urge them all to repeat that over the coming days. [Interruption.]
Order. There is a growing hubbub of quite noisy private conversations. We are discussing exceptionally serious matters appertaining to Northern Ireland, so I appeal to Opposition Members to give a courteous, perhaps even reverential, reception to the shadow Secretary of State, Mr Vernon Coaker.
The Secretary of State knows that many of the most difficult issues arising from the past are also being addressed within the current negotiations. In order to take that forward, the support of the political parties, the community and, crucially, victims and their families is required. Will she therefore tell the House what agreement there is on the measures announced so far being included in the forthcoming Stormont House agreement Bill?
I do not think it would be wise for me to give a running commentary on every detail of the negotiations, but there is a considerable amount of consensus on the content of the Bill. There remain difficult issues to resolve and there is no doubt that the provisions relating to national security will always be sensitive, but this Government are determined that they will defend their national security interests, because if we were to neglect that duty, that could have a price in lives. We believe that it is very important to ensure that all disclosure provisions are consistent with our article 2 duties and our duty to protect national security.
4. What steps the Government are taking to strengthen and rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. 
The Government’s long-term economic plan has laid the foundation for a stronger Northern Ireland economy. Economic activity continues to grow: there are 33,000 more people in employment today than in 2010, and the growth in jobs is being driven by the private sector.
Ulster University’s economic policy centre has found that there has been more than one new start-up a day in the knowledge economy sector in the past year. Does this not go to show that the public and private sectors can rebalance together with very effective results?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and what she says is right. Given the right stimulation, it is certainly possible for Northern Ireland’s private sector to grow strongly. That is why I was delighted to see that foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland has created 4,700 jobs—the number is comparably higher than that for the rest of the UK.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that in order to strengthen the economy in Northern Ireland it is imperative that the talks taking place in Belfast are successful, with welfare reform implemented, so that we can get our corporation tax and other financial incentives. If they are not, companies will start to get nervous about investing in Northern Ireland.
I could not agree more, and the prize is great. By completing the Stormont House agreement and unlocking the economic pact, Northern Ireland can deliver an enterprise zone and a city deal for its people. Those two things, added to the UK Government’s economic policy, will deliver continued economic growth for Northern Ireland.
The success in growing the Northern Ireland economy is much to be welcomed, but public expenditure per head of population is still significantly more in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK. Will one of the indicators of the improvement in the economy be the narrowing of that public expenditure gap, so that it comes towards the national average?
My hon. Friend is right: we are on the right path and going in the right direction. The number of private sector jobs is growing, unemployment is falling and Northern Ireland, by being part of the UK, taking advantage of the recognition it gets because of the troubles, can go from strength to the strength and make sure it strives to succeed on a world stage, as well as a United Kingdom stage.
There is good news as well in Northern Ireland, and one area we are very proud of is the highly skilled small and medium-sized enterprise sector—the beating heart of the Northern Irish economy. What specifically is being done to address the concerns expressed by the SME sector about the impact of the Chancellor’s so-called living wage on small businesses in Northern Ireland?
I am quite surprised—I thought the Labour party’s policy was to support a living wage, but in this 24-hour period perhaps it does not support a living wage. Conservative Members believe that highly skilled people and people doing a hard day’s work deserve to be paid the living wage, which is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has brought it forward to make sure that work pays.
As part of the discussions at Stormont and in view of the need to develop our economy on a geographical basis, will the Minister spell out what further proposals the Government have in mind for the development of enterprise zones?
The hon. Lady recognises the importance of enterprise zones, which have been successful all over England and Wales. That is why the Stormont Executive were given that ability in the economic package that accompanied the Stormont House agreement, and why it is even more important that we resolve the issues and allow Stormont to be back and functioning so that it can deliver an economic zone and a city deal.
6. What discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. 
8. What discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland on the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. 
The terrorist threat from dissident republican groupings continues to be “severe”. It is being suppressed through the hard work of PSNI, MI5 and their security partners, but the need for total vigilance remains.
Although there is a need to remain vigilant about the threat of terrorism, does my right hon. Friend agree that it should not overshadow the great progress that has been made?
I agree. Life in Northern Ireland has been transformed over recent years. The security situation has been transformed. There is still a lethal terrorist threat, but it is far smaller in scale than it was during the days of the troubles.
There is growing concern about terrorist organisations becoming drug-dealing organisations. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the authorities in Northern Ireland are well supported with funding to combat this?
It is important that all forms of criminality are combated in Northern Ireland. There is serious public concern about the involvement of some members of paramilitary groups in organised crime, drug dealing and paramilitary activities. This Government are determined to work towards a day when paramilitary organisations disband, and we support the law enforcement agencies in combating all forms of criminality. [Interruption.]
Order. It is a considerable discourtesy to the Secretary of State for her not to be heard when she is answering questions. The answers must be heard and the questions should be heard. Let us have a bit of order.
12. Last week a police recruitment event that was due to take place at the Waterfoot hotel was cancelled because of a bomb being discovered in the grounds. What work is under way to ensure that the PSNI receives the appropriate support to tackle any potential threat? 
Over the past two spending reviews we have provided an additional £231 million to support the PSNI in its efforts to tackle dissident republican-related terrorism. That has provided vital support in a campaign against those terrorists and it is one of the reasons why, thankfully, the vast majority of the attacks do not succeed. I know that the PSNI will work hard to find alternative venues so that its recruitment event can go ahead.
7. When she next plans to meet representatives of Northern Ireland’s political parties to discuss the political situation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. 
I continue to chair the talks process and will return to Stormont this afternoon to resume that role. A successful outcome to the talks on both the issues on the agenda is crucial if the Executive are going to function effectively.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that of all the options in front of Members from Northern Ireland, direct rule is the worst and should be avoided at all costs?
I agree that we need to do everything we can to try to avoid suspension and a return to direct rule. Devolved government has been approved in two referendums in Northern Ireland. That is why we are working to make the institutions work, but there is a real danger now that those who are taking a hard-line stance against welfare reform could end up collapsing the institutions as collateral damage. No institution can function effectively without a workable budget. That is why in these talks a solution to implementing the Stormont House agreement is vital.
Does the Secretary of State accept that it is not just about balancing the economy and fixing the financial arrangements for the Treasury, because there is a need to rebalance our economic development and create regional balance in Northern Ireland? In other words, we need a prosperity process to go along with other reforms.
I agree that it is vital that we do everything possible to deliver prosperity in Northern Ireland. Our long-term economic plan is helping to do that. The economic pact agreed with Northern Ireland is helping to do that, but we are always open to more ideas about how we work together to spread prosperity in Northern Ireland throughout the whole of Northern Ireland and all its areas.
When the Secretary of State has her conversations with political parties and the Irish Government, mindful of the fact that a European arrest warrant for bombing offences in Germany was invoked last week in Dublin for James Corry, will she remind them that it does not matter how supportive individuals are of the peace process, it should never frustrate due process and justice for victims?
Of course I can do that. It is essential that the law takes its course without fear or favour, and if there is evidence to justify arrest and prosecution, that is exactly what must happen.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 October. 
I know the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott of 32 Squadron and Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts of 230 Squadron. Both men died along with three other coalition personnel when their Puma helicopter crashed on Sunday in Kabul, Afghanistan. They gave their lives serving our country and making our world more secure, and our deepest sympathies are with their families and friends at this very difficult time.
I also wish to pay tribute to Police Constable David Phillips, who was killed in the line of duty last week. His death is a stark reminder of the very real dangers our police officers face daily and my thoughts—and, I know, the thoughts of the whole House—are with his family and friends during these tragic circumstances.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
The British Medical Association has raised concerns about what it calls the chronic undermanning of Defence Medical Services. We cannot have sufficient medical and mental health provision for the armed forces without properly resourced services. Will the Prime Minister address this issue urgently, prioritise the treatment of our armed forces and lend support to my Adjournment debate this evening highlighting these concerns?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing that Adjournment debate and raising this very important issue. Defence Medical Services do an outstanding job. I was just speaking about Afghanistan, and I have seen in Afghanistan year after year what an amazing service they provide. At times it was almost the equivalent of a district general hospital accident and emergency on the back of a Chinook helicopter; it is extraordinary. There is an opportunity for us to look at this whole area in our strategic defence and security review, and we will approach that review with a rising defence budget during this Parliament.
Q3. Today we have seen the claimant count in Lincoln fall by 20% on last year’s figures, with a 44% drop in those claiming since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend believe this is down to having local job fairs and a clear long-term economic plan to secure our national recovery, and that it would be put in jeopardy by the shambles that is the party led by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)? 
Let me congratulate businesses in Lincoln on their record in providing people with jobs. The unemployment figures out today are extremely good. We see 140,000 more people in work, we see the employment rate at a record level since records began, unemployment has come down, vacancies have gone up, and youth unemployment and long-term unemployment have both come down. In all of this, yes, the job fairs are important and the apprenticeships are important, but above all what matters is having a long-term economic plan that is about a strong and secure economy and getting the deficit down and running a surplus. That is what we should be focused on, but I am sure the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) will welcome today’s fall in unemployment.
I echo the Prime Minister’s tributes to the two RAF airmen killed in Afghanistan, Flight Lieutenant Geraint Roberts and Flight Lieutenant Alan Scott, and also the sadness at the death of David Phillips in the line of duty, as many police officers do face danger. I absolutely concur with the Prime Minister’s remarks about that.
I am sure the Prime Minister and the whole House would also join me in expressing sympathies and sadness at the more than 100 people who died in a bomb blast in Ankara last Sunday, attending a peace rally of all things, and our sympathies must go to all of them.
I want to ask the Prime Minister a question about tax credits. I have had 2,000 people email me in the last three days offering a question to the Prime Minister on tax credits. I will choose just one. Kelly writes:
“I’m a single mum to a disabled child, I work 40.5 hours each week in a job that I trained for, I get paid £7.20 per hour! So in April the Prime Minister is not putting my wage up but will be taking tax credits off me!”
So my question is: can the Prime Minister tell us how much worse off Kelly will be next year?
First, let me welcome what the hon. Gentleman has said and join him in what he said about the terrible bomb in Ankara, where over 100 people were killed. Our thoughts should be with the families of those who suffered and with that country as it struggles against this terrorism. Let me answer him directly on the question of tax credits. What we are doing is bringing in the national living wage, which will be a £20 a week pay rise for people next year. Obviously, Kelly will benefit as that national living wage rises to £9—[Interruption.] Sorry, what happened to the new approach? I thought questions were going to be asked so that they could be responded to. Right, so there is the introduction of the national living wage, which will reach £9 by the end of the Parliament. This will benefit Kelly. In April next year, we will raise to £11,000 the amount that you can earn before you start paying taxes. If Kelly has children, she will benefit from the 30 hours of childcare that we are bringing in. I do not know all Kelly’s circumstances, but in addition, if she is a council house or housing association tenant, we are cutting her rent. All those things are important, as is the increase in employment and the increase in wages taking place today.
I thank the Prime Minister for that. I can tell him, in case he is not aware of it, that Kelly is going to be £1,800 a year worse off next April, that there are another 3 million families in this country who will also be worse off next April, and that after housing costs, 500,000 more children are now in poverty compared with five years ago, in 2010. On top of that, his new tax credit policy will put another 200,000 children into poverty. Is not the truth of the matter that this Government are taking away the opportunities and limiting the life chances of hundreds of thousands of children from poorer or middle income families in our society? Should he not be aware of that when he makes these decisions?
The fact is that since I became Prime Minister there are 480,000 fewer children in households where nobody works. There are 2 million more people in work and almost 1 million more women in work. There are 250,000 more young people in work. The best route out of poverty is to help people get a job. Even though the unemployment figures came out today and we can see 140,000 more people in work, the hon. Gentleman still has not welcomed that fall in unemployment. The point he needs to focus on is this: all these people benefit from a growing economy where wages are rising and inflation is falling, and where we are getting rid of our deficit to create economic stability. It is that stability that we will be voting on in the Lobby tonight.
The Prime Minister is doing his best, and I admire that, but will he acknowledge that people in work often rely on tax credits to make ends meet? He and his party have put forward a Budget that cuts tax credits and gives tax breaks to the very wealthiest in our society, so that inequality is getting worse, not better. Should he not think for a moment about the choices that he is making, and the reality that results for the very poorest people in our society?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the reform of tax credits; let me tell him why that is necessary. Between 1998 and 2010, the bill for tax credits went from £6 billion to £30 billion, yet at the same time in-work poverty went up by 20%. The system of taking money away from people and giving it back to them in tax credits was not working. We say it is better to let people earn more and then take less from them in taxes. In this country, we now have 2 million more people in work. The figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes for inequality are simply wrong. There are 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty than in 2010, and there are 300,000 fewer children in relative poverty since 2010. If he wants to know why, it is because we took difficult decisions to get our deficit down, to get our economy growing and to deliver the strongest growth anywhere in the western world. Tonight, Labour Members have a choice. A week ago, they were committed to getting the deficit down and running a surplus, just like us, but for some reason—I know not why—they have decided to do a 180°-turn and vote for more borrowing for ever. Is that now the position of the Labour party?
The reality is that 3 million low and middle-income families will be worse off as a result of the tax credit changes. If the Prime Minister wants to change his mind on tax credits, he is very welcome to do so. He will have an opportunity at next week’s Opposition day debate, which is on this very subject. I am sure that he will want to take part in that debate and explain why it is such a good idea to make so many people so much worse off.
I have had 3,500 questions on housing in the past few days. I have a question from Matthew. [Interruption.] This might be funny to some Members, but it is not funny to Matthew or to many others. Matthew says:
“I live in a private rented house in London with three other people. Despite earning a salary well over the median wage, buying even the cheapest of properties will be well beyond my reach for years.”
Does the Prime Minister really believe that £450,000 is an affordable price for a new home for someone on an average income to try to aspire to?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of housing, particularly the affordability of housing in London. I say to Matthew that we are doing everything we can to get councils to build more houses, particularly affordable houses that he can buy. The hon. Gentleman quotes the figure of £450,000, but what we are saying is that that should be the upper limit for a starter home in London. We want to see starter homes in London built at £150,000 and £200,000, so that people like Matthew can stop renting and start buying. What have we done for people like Matthew? We have introduced Help to Buy, so for the first time we are helping people to get their deposit together so that they can buy a new home. We are also giving people like Matthew the right to buy their housing association home. [Interruption.] That is interesting. We hear groans from the Labour party, but the entire housing association movement is now backing our plan and telling people that they will be able to buy their home. I say to the hon. Gentleman: let us work together and get London building to get prices down so that people like Matthew can afford to buy a home of their own.
May I bring the Prime Minister back to reality? The past five years have seen a low level of house building—fewer than half the new buildings that are needed have been built—rapidly rising rents; rising homelessness; and a higher housing benefit bill. Even his friends at the CBI say we need to build at least 240,000 homes per year. Will he now address the problem that local authorities face in accessing funds to undertake the necessary and essential building of council housing? The Government appear to have a growing obsession with selling off publicly owned properties rather than building homes for people who desperately need them so that children can grow up in a safe and secure environment, which is what we all want for all of our children.
Let me deal with all the hon. Gentleman’s points in turn. First, now that the housing association movement is backing the Right to Buy scheme, there will be up to a million extra homeowners, with the money going back into building more homes. Secondly, over the past five years that I have been Prime Minister, we have built more council homes than the previous Labour Government built in 13 years. [Interruption.] That is a bit of reality that the hon. Gentleman might want to digest. The most important point is that if we want to build homes, we need a strong and stable economy. We will not have a strong and stable economy if we adopt the new Labour position, which is borrowing money for ever. I urge Opposition Members who believe in a strong economy, paying down our deficit, and ensuring that we deliver for working people to join us in the Lobby tonight.
It would be very nice if the Prime Minister actually answered the question I asked. [Interruption.]
Order. These proceedings should be conducted in a seemly way, and chuntering from a sedentary position, from either Front Bench, is not helpful. Members must remain calm. Be as good as you can be.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am totally calm, I assure you, and I do not intend to engage in any chuntering.
The question I put to the Prime Minister was this: what is he doing to allow local authorities to build the homes that are necessary for people who have no opportunity to buy and who cannot afford to remain in the private rented sector? I realise that this might be complicated, so I would be very happy for him to write to me about it. We could then share the letter with others.
I want to turn my attention to another subject in my final question. I realise that the Prime Minister might not be able to give me a full answer today, but he might like to write to me about it. As I am sure he is aware, yesterday was secondary breast cancer awareness day. In Brighton last month I met two women who are suffering from terminal breast cancer, Frances and Emma. Apparently the Prime Minister met their organisation in 2010. They raised with him a serious problem with the collection of data in all hospitals across the country on the incidence of secondary breast cancer, its treatment and the success rates, or otherwise, of that treatment. As I understand it, that information is not being collected as efficiently as it might be or centralised sufficiently.
I would be grateful if the Prime Minister could follow up on the promise he made to those women in 2010 to ensure that the data are collected and centralised in order to help every woman going through the trauma of not only breast cancer, but secondary breast cancer, knowing that it is terminal, but also knowing that there might be some treatment that could alleviate the pain and possibly extend their lives. Will he undertake to do that and reply to me as soon as possible?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this matter. At my party conference I met the same campaigners whom he met at his, and I had a good discussion with them. We all know people who have had the tragedy of having breast cancer, and one can only imagine what it must be like to survive primary breast cancer and recover, only to find out that one has a secondary cancer, and often one that is completely incurable. The campaigners are asking for better information, not least because they want to ensure that we spread best practice to every hospital so that we really do treat people as quickly as possible. I had a conversation with them and relayed it to the Health Secretary. I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman about it. Making sure that people get the right diagnosis quickly and that we then use the information to tackle secondary breast cancer is absolutely essential for our country.
Q4. The Prime Minister recently spoke movingly and shockingly about the life of despair that still lies ahead for too many of our looked-after children. Notwithstanding the vital work that has been done in recent years, will he expand on the reforms that he proposes for these, our most vulnerable citizens? 
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about this from the work he did in London when working for the Mayor. I think that there are two areas we need to look at most of all. First, we need to speed up adoption processes. We should be reducing the number of children in care by ensuring that they can find loving family homes. We have made some progress, but frankly we have had set-backs, not least because of some of the judgments in our courts, so we need to get the level of adoption back up again. Secondly, we need to take some of the knowledge from our education reforms and use it to reform social services. For example, we need to see the best graduates going into social work. Frankly, those social services that are failing need to be taken over far more quickly.
We on the SNP Benches associate ourselves with the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
The UK has been involved in three major military interventions in recent years, and in all cases there have been very severe unintended consequences: sadly, the Taliban control much of Afghanistan again; in Iraq the fanatics of Daesh terrorise about half the country; and in Libya there has been total anarchy and chaos. What assurances can the Prime Minister give that he has learnt the lessons from past mistakes and will not repeat them?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I would make two points to him. One is that, of course, intervention has consequences, but frankly non-intervention can have consequences too, as we see from the vast numbers of Syrians fleeing the appalling situation in that country, not least the barrel bomb chemical weapons attacks by Bashar Assad. It is worth making that point.
In terms of the lessons learned, I cannot wait for the Iraq inquiry to come out so that further lessons can be learned, but we have already learned a number of lessons: for instance, setting up the National Security Council, which is working well; making sure that we act on the basis of clear legal advice and the Attorney General attends all the important meetings; and working with allies and local partners. So while what is happening in both Iraq and Syria is frustrating, one of the lessons is to work with local partners. In Iraq, it is Iraqi troops that are the boots on the ground, and that is why we should give them all the support that they need in the war they are fighting against ISIL.
More than 450 UK service personnel have died in Afghanistan, but sadly the Taliban are back. The UK spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than on rebuilding the country, and there has been anarchy. The US has just dropped a $500 million programme to support the Syrian opposition, Russia is bombing Syria, and the UK has no plan to help refugees from Syria who are now in—[Interruption.] The UK has no plan to help Syrian refugees who have made it—[Interruption.]
Order. I think the right hon. Gentleman is reaching the conclusion of his question, but he must be allowed to do so.
It is a shame that Members on the Government Benches do not acknowledge that the UK has no policy to help Syrian refugees who have made it to Europe. There is no surprise that there is growing scepticism about the drumbeat towards war. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that he has learned the lessons of Iraq, of Afghanistan and of Libya, and that he will never repeat them?
I would say a couple of things to the right hon. Gentleman. I cannot remember a question with so many errors in it: first of all, there is the idea that Britain is not helping Syrian refugees when we are the second largest bilateral donor to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, in Lebanon and in Turkey, and that is because we are spending 0.7% of our gross national income on aid. We have done more than almost any other country in the world to help Syrian refugees. Frankly, I do not recognise the picture he paints of Afghanistan. The fact is that we have supported an Afghan national army and police force and an Afghan Government who are in control of that country.
The final point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is all very well standing on his high horse and lecturing about the past, but would he be happier with an Afghanistan that had a Taliban regime, and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan? Would he be happier with Gaddafi running Libya? Would he be happier with that situation? So, as I said, the consequences of non-intervention are also worth considering.
Q5. My midlands constituency is already benefiting from infrastructure investment such as the significant improvements to the M5 motorway. Does the Prime Minister agree that the recently announced and independent National Infrastructure Commission will play a key role in improving and securing our nation’s long-term economic prosperity? 
I am delighted that we are establishing the National Infrastructure Commission. I hope that it can put some of these questions about infrastructure beyond party politics; I think that would be a thoroughly good thing. I am delighted that Lord Adonis, who made a great contribution in government, will be running it. I know that my hon. Friend and I will want to make sure that the Cotswold line is looked at very carefully by the infrastructure commission as it does its work. [Interruption.] Someone is shouting out “Labour policy.” Where we find a good Labour policy, we implement it. Funnily enough, do you know what we are doing tonight? We are implementing what was, a week ago, a Labour policy—
I call Callum McCaig.
Hang on a second.
No, we are grateful.
Order. The Prime Minister had finished his answer, for which we are extremely grateful, but progress has been very slow and I want to get Back Benchers in—and I will do so.
Q2. The Scottish Government have estimated that the apprenticeship levy introduced by the Chancellor in the July Budget will raise £391 million from Scotland, with £146 million of that coming from the public sector. As yet, there has been no confirmation that a single penny of that will come to Scotland to fund our distinct modern apprenticeship programme. Will the Prime Minister confirm today that Scotland will receive our fair share of this funding, or are we seeing another pig in a poke from this supposed one nation Government? 
We have not yet set the rate of the apprenticeship levy or, indeed, set what size a business has to be before it starts paying it. The guarantee I can give the hon. Gentleman is that Scotland will be treated fairly and will get its full and fair share of any apprenticeship levy, but, as ever with SNP Members, they invent a grievance before it even exists.
Q6. Work has started on site at the Rushden Lakes development at Skew Bridge, which will bring 1,900 new jobs, new shops—such as Marks & Spencer—and new leisure facilities to east Northamptonshire. Does the Prime Minister agree that we simply do not get £50 million of investment without economic confidence, and would he like to join us at the opening in due course? 
I have already made a visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency to see one of his excellent academy schools, but I look forward to coming back. This does look like a very exciting development. I would make the point that, yes, of course we need a strong and stable economy to make sure we get this investment and housing going, but we also need councils to complete their local plans and put them in place, because in that way we can deliver extra housing.
Q8. During the general election campaign, the Prime Minister came to my constituency and promised to keep Calderdale Royal’s A and E department open and sort out the financial mess that our hospital was in. Since then, the Government have backtracked on both promises, saying that these are matters for the local NHS trust and for the clinical commissioning group. Will the Prime Minister show that he is a man of his word by meeting me to discuss ways in which he can honour his election promises? 
We certainly have not backtracked on what we promised. We said we would put more money into the NHS. We talked then about £8 billion; we are actually delivering £10 billion more. We believe that these decisions should be made locally. The Calderdale hospital is an absolutely vital service.
Q7. Bicester is blossoming into a garden town that welcomes sustainable growth. Does my right hon. Friend, who knows our area well, agree that the promised funding for infrastructure must be provided in step with development? 
Let me welcome my hon. Friend to the House. She replaces a very good friend, my former neighbour Tony Baldry, who worked so hard for the people of Banbury and Bicester. When people say there are not councils in the south of England that want to build houses and new developments, they should look at Bicester and see the thousands of houses, new schools and new infrastructure being put in place. Of course, investment and infrastructure have to go together, but I think Bicester shows that we can build, and build sensitively, and provide the homes that young people want to live in.
Q9. Can the Prime Minister help to clear up something for the House and the country? It concerns the recent biography of him by Isabel Oakeshott. In it, Lord Ashcroft says that he told the Prime Minister about his non-dom tax status in 2009; yet, in 2010, the Prime Minister said that he did not know the detail of Lord Ashcroft’s tax status. Clearly, someone is telling porkies. Is it him, or Lord Ashcroft? 
I can think of many better uses of the hon. Gentleman’s time than reading that book. I managed to procure a free copy, and in order not to give anyone royalties, I will gladly lend him a copy, if that is what he would like. I think he will remember that, in this House, Labour and the Conservatives agreed to legislate so that non-doms could not sit in either House—legislation I fully supported, indeed suggested, at the time.
Q12. I am delighted to tell the House that Burton has set a new record: unemployment is at its lowest since records began. Does the Prime Minister agree that a return to the bad old days of more borrowing, more spending and higher taxes would not only put those important jobs at risk, but be a complete and utter shambles? 
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are 2 million more jobs and almost 1 million more women in work in our country. Youth unemployment is down and long-term unemployment is down. That is because British businesses are taking people on. They are doing that in the context of a strong and stable economy. Tonight we will vote on whether, after eight or nine years of strong economic growth, we should have a surplus rather than a deficit. If the Labour party does not believe in having a surplus then, when will it fix the roof when the sun is shining? I say to Labour Members who believe in a strong and stable Government and a strong and stable economy: come and join us in the Lobby this evening.
Q10. Whatever happened to the Government’s proposals for a highly skilled economy? If one looks at further education in Coventry, for example, there will be a 24% cut in the skills budget. The maintenance grant has been abolished and now the Government are even talking about abolishing the disablement grant for students. What will the Prime Minister do about that? 
What I will do is deliver on the promise of 2 million apprentices in the last Parliament and 3 million in this Parliament. What one can see, because of the changes that we made in respect of skills and higher education, is a record number of students going to our universities, including a record number from low-income backgrounds. We will build on that record in this Parliament as we uncap student numbers and encourage people to study and make the most of their talents.
Q13. My right hon. Friend will remember meeting my amazing 10-year-old constituent, Archie Hill, who has a devastating condition, Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Archie has campaigned tirelessly to get access through the NHS to a new drug, Translarna, which could help him and about 50 other children with Duchenne. The drug has recently been prescribed in Scotland. With the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence due to make its decision on Friday, will my right hon. Friend assure me that children in England will receive the drug and that Archie’s fantastic campaigning has not been in vain? 
I well remember meeting Archie, with his incredible spirit and his way of campaigning. As my right hon. Friend says, a decision will be made by NICE on Friday. As well as making sure that such decisions are made by clinicians, rather than politicians, we need to talk to the drug companies about getting the cost of these drugs down. This drug and others like it can cost over £400,000 per patient per year. The cancer drugs fund has helped to reduce the costs that the companies charge. We need to see that in other areas, too.
Q11. For many years, pensioners and disabled people in Fleetwood have enjoyed free access to the local tram service that connects the town to Blackpool. That free travel has been withdrawn due to funding cuts. Will the Prime Minister consider extending the national concessionary travel scheme to not just buses, but trams, which are often easier for older and disabled travellers to use? 
I will look carefully at the point that the hon. Lady raises. We are very proud to have kept all our promises to pensioners, not least the triple lock promise. With such low inflation—the figures out yesterday put it at less than 0%—the triple lock will be vital in giving pensioners a better standard of living. I will look carefully at what she says, but I suspect that it is a decision by Lancashire County Council, rather than a decision for me.
The brutal murder of Telford teenager Georgia Williams led to a serious case review that was published today. The review makes it clear that there was a catalogue of failings by numerous agencies, including social services, schools and the probation service. We can see from the report that Georgia’s horrific death need not have happened. Will the Prime Minister join me in offering heartfelt condolences to Lynette and Steve Williams, Georgia’s parents, and in asking all the agencies involved to ensure that they learn from this tragic case?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. I send my condolences to the Williams family for the appalling loss and tragedy that they have suffered. What matters now is that the police and the other agencies study the report and learn the lessons so that these mistakes are not made again.
Q14. Trade union members in Heywood and Middleton and across the country, including school cooks, shop workers and carers, cannot currently cast their votes in a trade union election either at their place of work or electronically. If the Trade Union Bill is passed, will they be able to do that? 
First, what matters is that we have proper ballots and do not have strikes unless a proper percentage of people support them. I notice that Len McCluskey now supports our position. The problem with electronic voting, which the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy looked into, is that it is not yet clear that we can guarantee a very safe and secure ballot. I do not think it is too much to ask people who are potentially going to go on strike to fill out a ballot paper.
Recently, I received a letter from Transport for London, informing me that in the last year it has spent more than £1.4 million with suppliers in Erewash, including Progress Rail Services, which is fantastic news for our local economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that by investing in Britain’s infrastructure, this Government have re-energised manufacturing and engineering, safeguarding our economic security?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Big infrastructure decisions, wherever they are made, can benefit every part of the country with jobs and manufacturing. Obviously, in the past five years London has seen huge investment because of Crossrail—the biggest infrastructure project anywhere in Europe—but I think we will see a better balance in the coming years, not least with the massive electrification and other programmes around the country. That is vital, but we cannot have infrastructure investment without a secure and strong economy, and that is what we will be delivering.
Q15. Recently I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are facing real hardship as a consequence of the current payment of child support. It is not compulsory for parents to declare changes that may impact on the amount that they should pay, and if it is found that a parent did not make their altered financial circumstances known, there are no penalties and no requirement to make backdated payments. What action will the Prime Minister take to close these loopholes, which have a detrimental effect on vulnerable families in Motherwell and Wishaw and beyond? 
We are extremely grateful to the hon. Lady, but questions and answers must be somewhat briefer. We are making much slower progress than in the last Parliament.
The hon. Lady raises something that we have all seen in our constituency surgeries and the problems with the system, and we know that the old system with the Child Support Agency also had many imperfections. We have tried to introduce more voluntary arrangements and to encourage parents to seek ways to ensure that fair payments are made, but I will look closely at her question and perhaps I can write to her about it.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Today the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled in a case brought by myself and Baroness Jones that the Wilson doctrine has no legal force and is just an ambiguous political statement. That appears to contradict what the Prime Minister told the House last month. Can you advise us, Mr Speaker, on the best way of ensuring that the Prime Minister comes to this House and makes a statement about what he knew, and—crucially—that he brings forward legislation to ensure that the communications of MPs who are undertaking their parliamentary duties are not spied on without independent judicial approval?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me advance notice of her intention to raise a point of order and of its substance, but I fear that she flatters me and somewhat decries herself. It is not for the Chair to proffer advice on this issue, but I will attend, in terms, to the specifics of the matter she has raised. I am, of course, conscious that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal today released its judgment in the case brought by the hon. Lady, and others, on the Wilson doctrine. She will understand and appreciate that at this point I have not read it—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) will patiently await my reply and we will hear his oratory in a moment. In any case, I do not believe that it falls to me as Speaker to respond to such a judgment, or to provide commentary on it.
I am also conscious of the concerns of devolved legislatures that have been conveyed to me by colleagues from the Chairs of those bodies, but it would not be right for me to comment on the Floor of the House from this Chair on such matters. The hon. Lady asks how she can seek advance or clarification on the matter, but she bobs up regularly from her place on those Benches in seeking to question Ministers—even the most senior—and I will be looking out for her, and others.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We do like to ask for your advice, because it is based on great experience. You will be aware that a number of your predecessors have taken a close interest in whether the Wilson doctrine applies and protects Members of Parliament.
The Government’s Queen’s Counsel—the lawyer paid by the Government—appears to have said before the tribunal that ministerial statements are characterised by
“ambiguities, at best, whether deliberate or otherwise”.
First, is it not in order, Mr Speaker, to ask, as a newish Member of the House, how we can get an unambiguous answer from Ministers on whether the notice and protection, which used to, up until last year, apply to Members of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament, is still in force?
Secondly, what would the impact be if there was a will across the parties—this is, if anything is, a cross-party matter—to pass an unambiguous substantive motion reasserting an essential democratic protection that has been with us for 50 years and more?
Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman, in response to his twofold inquiry, two things. First, if the right hon. Gentleman wants—I respect this—an unambiguous answer, he should pose an unambiguous question and not rest content until he has an unambiguous answer. If the right hon. Gentleman were to raise his eyebrow and quizzically inquire, either explicitly or implicitly, whether that means he should engage in repetition, I would say yes. The House is no stranger to repetition. It is not a novel innovation in the practice of this place, nor, if I may very politely say so, in the practice of the right hon. Gentleman. That is the first point.
The second point is on the question of a motion. That is not a matter for me, but could a motion, including a cross-party motion, be tabled on this matter and a vote be forced upon it—the right hon. Gentleman knows that it could; just looking around the House, no names, no pack drill—I have a feeling there would be a number of takers.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You are, of course, quite right in what you said at the beginning. This is principally a matter for the Government, but it is also a matter that addresses directly parliamentary privilege. This morning’s judgment ruled, first, that the Wilson doctrine, as we interpret it in its narrowest sense, has no legal basis, but beyond that it has no basis whatever if we are communicating with whistleblowers, campaigners, lawyers, journalists or each other. It seems to me that the original aim of the Wilson doctrine was to protect all those things and to protect Members of this House either from intimidation or from oversight by the Government. Therefore, there is a role for the House. I look to you, Mr Speaker, for guidance on what that might be.
I note what the right hon. Gentleman says and I do not demur from it. It is an extremely important matter and he is perfectly properly concerned with the rights of Members. If he wants to know, at this time, my own view on the matter, he can of course consult paragraph 21 of the judgment, which reflects my own view based on expert legal advice. If the right hon. Gentleman feels, as I suspect the right hon. Member for Gordon does, that there is still real ambiguity about this matter, they must use their parliamentary wiles to draw Ministers on the matter. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who celebrates this year, I think, 28 years’ uninterrupted service in the House, is very well familiar with all the options open to him. There are Adjournment debates, opportunities for urgent questions and Opposition days. There is a miscellany of ways in which he can pursue this matter, and I have a hunch that he and others will do so.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I could be wrong, but I believe I was in the House when the Wilson doctrine was set out, and I would be very disappointed indeed if the absolute integrity set out by the then Prime Minister were to be changed in any way. I hope you understand the strength of feeling on this issue. We should not be spied on in any circumstances. This is also not just about us, but about recognising our responsibilities as elected representatives. I hope that you yourself, Mr Speaker, can make an input to ensure that the Wilson doctrine is not thrown out, because that would be a grave disservice to Parliament.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Of course, I am conscious that he was here at the time of its formulation. He entered the House in 1966 and he and I have often discussed this matter, so he does speak from some considerable personal experience. The fact that I am concerned about the issue is reflected in my letter and submission to the tribunal, so although I am making the point that it would not be right for the Chair to engage in a debate in this Chamber on the substance of the issue, I do have views. I am protective of the rights of Members and any potential threat thereto, and I do communicate as necessary on the matter. I am very open to hearing the thoughts of colleagues, privately as well as in this Chamber, about the issue.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that I asked the Home Secretary about this very issue and got a complete non-answer yet again. Members across the House have repeatedly tried to get to the bottom of whether MPs’ communications are being intercepted by the state, and I have to say that I think we have exhausted everything we can do. We look to you, Mr Speaker, and ask whether you could reflect on whether there is anything in your powers that would allow us to get to the bottom of what is a wholly unsatisfactory situation.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman and take his concerns very seriously. I was here when he asked his question and noted his evident dissatisfaction with the response. The point I would very gently make is that it was, of course, one question and one response. Sometimes, if there is a fuller opportunity to explore such matters—the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the arsenal of weapons available to Members trying to secure a fuller and more thorough interrogation on an issue—some light emerges. If the hon. Gentleman gets the drift of that advice, he may, with other colleagues, wish to follow that course.
He may even receive some encouragement in it from the shadow Leader of the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am glad that you told the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) that he should be indefatigable and keep on going, because there are other means whereby we can make sure that this clear ambiguity, which cannot possibly be in the interests of any Member of this House, should be dealt with. The freedom of Members to be able to speak without fear or favour, and without fear of being spied on by the Government or any other agency, is a vital part of our being able to do our job as representatives, and it strikes at the heart of our liberties. It would, of course, be possible for the Leader of the House to make a statement as a matter of urgency. Obviously, he is present, so I wonder whether he might like to leap to his feet and say that he would be happy to do that tomorrow and clear up all the ambiguity.
I am very grateful to the shadow Leader of the House. The Leader of the House is sitting impassively: he does not intend to take to his feet at this stage. He may do so subsequently—I do not know—but I simply repeat the thrust of the theme I was developing in response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) by saying this: if Members feel that this matter has now acquired an urgent character, or even that it might warrant consideration as an emergency, there are parliamentary methods open to them. I do not think I could be accused of being over-subtle or delphic.
You’ve never been accused of that!
I have never been accused of that—that is true!
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It has come to my attention following the liquidation of SSI UK that the Government’s supposed £80 million, a vast majority of it new money, now transpires to be £30 million of existing funds, to which the workforce are entitled anyway as statutory redundancy payments. I now have further information that suggests that further education colleges and training providers in the area have had no further moneys above their existing budgets to provide re-education and economic regeneration programmes for the affected workers and families. We also know that Ministers have informed Teesside Members that they wish that they had mothballed the blast furnace at Redcar. At the very least, there should be a written statement to this House informing the people of Teesside of the Government’s real intentions and of what moneys they are putting aside for those people.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is certainly a most indefatigable representative of the people of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. I simply say to him that this matter was at least partly treated of yesterday, although clearly not to his satisfaction in the light of his comments about what he has heard. If I may politely say so to the House, this is an issue that will inevitably run over a period and it is open to Ministers to make statements and for others, if such statements are not volunteered, to seek to extract them. The hon. Gentleman is a most versatile and dexterous contributor in the House and he will know the options open to him. The Chair wants important matters to be debated. Frankly, if we had not taken so long at Prime Minister’s questions it would have been possible to have questions on the matter but, unfortunately, initial questions and answers were somewhat longer than was the case in the last Parliament.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you saying that the people on Teesside should be putting in for a Standing Order No. 24 debate?
I was not as explicit as that. I say to the hon. Gentleman, who has now been in the House for 45 years without interruption, that a Member could make an SO 24 application, or an application for an urgent question is another device that could be used. Those options are open, and the Speaker does not commit in advance as they have to be considered on merit, but they do exist. I think that the hon. Gentleman will testify that they have been used more frequently in recent years. I would not want colleagues to think that there is no chance for these matters to be considered. There is, if they take it. Perhaps we can leave the matter there for now.
Perinatal Mental Illness (NHS Family Services)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the appropriate level of access to NHS services and accommodation for mothers with perinatal mental illness; and for connected purposes.
The Bill is in addition to my other Bill on the need for accountability and transparency in the commissioning of mental health services. I thank the Minister for Community and Social Care for meeting me and the team from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, led by the president, Professor Simon Wessely. The royal college fully supports the Bills.
We have come a long way in improving attitudes to mental illness over the past few years and I pay tribute to the work of the current Government and the coalition Government for their efforts to improve the quality and provision of care for people with mental ill health. Nowhere is improvement needed more than for women with perinatal mental illness. Perinatal mental illnesses are those that start or are already present during pregnancy and the initial year after birth, which is a time when the risk of mental illness is heightened. Approximately 10% to 20% of women will experience a mental illness in the year after childbirth. In fact, a woman is 33 times more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric ward after giving birth than at any other time in her life. That means tens of thousands of women in England every year.
The consequences of not intervening adequately can be severe. These women might be catatonic or delusional, experiencing hallucinations or suicidal thoughts, and they might be unable to recognise their family or even their baby. Not only is this a traumatic experience for them, but, unsurprisingly, the child’s development can be severely impaired. Tragically, suicide is a leading cause of maternal death associated with approximately 15% of overall deaths in the perinatal period. Although such cases are rarer, some women will kill the child as a result of their illness. Recently, we will all have seen in the media the coroner’s report on the tragic case of Charlotte Bevan, who committed suicide along with her baby. Her parents call for extra perinatal units, and the coroner has called for better services.
Aside from the tremendous human cost, there is an economic cost that far outweighs the cost of providing adequate treatment. A comprehensive economic evaluation conducted last year by the London School of Economics and the Centre for Mental Health calculated that the annual cost of perinatal mental illness to the NHS is £1.2 billion and that the total cost to society is £8.1 billion. Although many cases of perinatal mental illness can be managed by services based in the community, specialised care is required in thousands of cases each year and the mother will have to be admitted to hospital. In such circumstances, typical adult psychiatric wards are inadequate as they are not equipped to allow the baby and mother to remain together and bond. Specialised mother and baby units, which are the subject of the Bill, are designed with that in mind, and research shows that women with serious perinatal mental illness will have better outcomes and better relationships with their infants if cared for in these specialised units.
Guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence accordingly recommends that mothers who require in-patient treatment for any mental health problem in the perinatal period should be admitted to such a unit with their child. Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing the fantastic work that the specialist units do first hand when I visited the Margaret Oates mother and baby unit in east London. The Scottish NHS is some years ahead of ours when it comes to providing such vital services. Since 2003, the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act, which was the inspiration for this Bill, has stipulated that commissioners must provide enough mother and baby unit services so that women with depression who require in-patient admission and their infants can be accommodated together.
There is no similar provision in English law and both NHS England and NICE have acknowledged that there is a significant national shortfall in the provision and distribution of mother and baby units of approximately 60 to 80 beds. As a result, women with serious mental illness are forced either to be admitted without their babies to general adult psychiatric wards or to travel hundreds of miles out of their area to a specialist mother and baby unit. Both have damaging consequences for the mother and baby. Dr Liz McDonald, one of the country’s leading perinatal psychiatrists, calls this
“the bleakest of all postcode lotteries”.
I agree, and the Bill seeks to correct that.
It is important to note that the number of beds needed is not the only consideration. Thought must also be given to where they are located. I recently met Dr Giles Berrisford, a senior perinatal psychiatrist who runs an excellent mother and baby unit in Birmingham. He told me that he has received patients from as far away as Cornwall and that new motherhood, the onset of mental illness and having to travel huge distances for care, being separated from families, friends and communities, are a toxic combination. That is why the Bill will make it a requirement that 95% of the women who need such services should be able to access them within 75 miles. Those figures were recommended to me by experts at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who strongly support the Bill.
The distance element is innovative. I appreciate it might raise an eyebrow or two in the Chamber, but it is just a different way of conceptualising the rights that already exist. For years, patients have had the legal right to access NHS treatment for physical illnesses within a maximum period of 18 weeks. Unfortunately, this 18-week target would not be relevant to acute perinatal mental illnesses, whereas, as I have explained, the problem is with both the shortage and the location of these services. That is why the Bill thinks slightly differently and uses distance, rather than time, as a basis. This is novel for the NHS, but innovation is not a bad thing.
If we can enshrine a time-based right in law, with no ill effects, why not a distance-based one? It is not unheard of. In the United States, Kentucky, Illinois and Minnesota have laws about the maximum distance patients have to travel for care. Moreover, the financial implications of the Bill are actually positive. An evaluation by the London School of Economics and the Centre for Mental Health estimates the cost of providing the 60 to 80 beds that NHS England and NICE say are needed to be approximately £7 million. I am pleased that the Government have already earmarked extra funding for perinatal mental services more generally. In the March 2015 Budget, a pledge was made to spend £75 million over five years on improving perinatal mental illness services, but no detail has been forthcoming about what it means in practice.
The Bill complements existing Government spending plans, but importantly would serve to compel NHS England to act and focus its attention on these much-needed mother and baby units. When I have spoken to colleagues about the Bill, some have cautioned that it might lead to legal action being taken if these services are meant to be available but are not. I am pleased to say that these concerns are unfounded. The Royal College of Psychiatrists informs me that it is not aware of the similar Scottish law having led to any such cases.
I have also been asked why these services are a special case, deserving of their own Bill. There is a particularly strong argument for action in this case. As we know, the Government have set the laudable objective of giving mental health parity of esteem with physical health, reflecting the fact that unfortunately mental healthcare has lagged behind physical healthcare for so long, and perinatal mental healthcare has lagged behind other areas of mental healthcare and so has been doubly disadvantaged in many ways. This and the consequences of not getting this care right for mothers and babies justify the Bill and the novel approach it takes. As for whether the Bill will set a precedent, that, as right hon. and hon. colleagues will know, is ultimately within Parliament’s control.
In summary, the Bill reflects current NICE guidance and will result in better outcomes for the mothers and infants concerned—
Order. I am extremely grateful.
We have a moral duty to make sure the Bill is fully considered and taken on board by the Government.
Order. We have got the thrust of it. I am afraid that people will have to rediscover the habit of staying to time. The hon. Gentleman did so in the last Parliament, but he will need to brush up a little bit. None the less, we are grateful to him.
Question put and agreed to.
That Rehman Chishti, Norman Lamb, Frank Field, Tim Loughton, Fiona Bruce, Tom Brake, Jim Shannon, Valerie Vaz, James Berry, Jeremy Lefroy and Kelly Tolhurst present the Bill.
Mr Rehman Chishti accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 November 2015, and to be printed (Bill 78).
Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Communities and Local Government Committee on 12 October 2015, and written evidence to the Committee, reported to the House on 7 and 15 September and 12 October 2015, on the Government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, HC 369, the Committee’s First Report of Session 2014-15, Devolution in England, the case for local government, HC 503, and theGovernment’s response, Cm 8998.]
I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. [Interruption.] I understand the disappointment of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), but his amendment is on the Order Paper for inspection by colleagues, and will be there for some time to come, and he can show it to his family.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I guess we have to get used to rival Opposition amendments these days, but I look forward to hearing the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen).
The Conservative party promised that if elected it would begin a bold new era of devolution. We made that promise because, as hon. Members on both sides of the House would recognise, over the course of the best part of a century, this country became one of the most centralised in the free world. Our cities, towns and counties became progressively more dominated by Westminster; local leaders had their undoubted dynamism and energy curbed and were made to conform to what Whitehall required; and our economy became unbalanced, its local strengths undermined by over a century of central direction from London.
People who know and love their communities have seen their good ideas frustrated, and the public’s enthusiasm for local democracy has unsurprisingly withered. The damage caused by over-centralisation is not only political; as Members know, seven of the eight largest cities outside London have for some time had a GDP per head below the national average. That stands in contrast to the experience of other European countries, where the major regional centres of their economies power the national economy ahead. If they can do it, we can do it, and we are determined so to do.
Crucial to devolution is who controls the money. We are currently negotiating the new Scottish settlement, which must mean a new settlement for England, and I hope that England will have a strong and sensible voice in that. We will now have a new determination on business rates and councils, so will the Secretary of State explain how the money might work under the new regime?
I will. The idea that business rates raised locally can be retained by local government, rather than being sent to the Treasury, is a major step forward that colleagues in local government agreed and for which many have campaigned over many years. Having made that commitment, it was right to announce it so that our colleagues in local government could help us with the important work of putting in place arrangements to protect authorities that do not collect enough in business rates at the moment to pay for their services. It is right that that be done collaboratively, and the Chancellor announced the arrangements in order to initiate that conversation.
My right hon. Friend talks about a long campaign and the trend towards devolution, as shown not least in our manifesto and reflected in the Bill, which commands support certainly among Government Members. I caution him, however, that if Sunday trading deregulation is tacked on quickly to the Bill at a later stage, a significant cross-party group of hon. Members will vigorously oppose it on behalf of businesses, families and workers.
I understand the comments of my hon. Friend, who has been a clear and long-standing campaigner on this issue. As all Members know, there has been a consultation on whether to devolve to local authorities the power to set Sunday trading hours. That consultation has closed and we are considering the results, but I say to him and other Members that I and my colleagues are happy to meet them to discuss their concerns before the Government respond to the consultation.
Further to that intervention, will the Secretary of State confirm for the record that hon. Members would have an opportunity to debate the matter in a Committee of the whole House, should the Sunday trading hours extension be introduced into the Bill? I, on behalf of the Church of England, and others would want to place on the record our opposition to the extension.
I can certainly give that commitment. Hon. Members will have seen that the programme motion has the Committee stage being taken on the Floor of the House, as is appropriate.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on bringing forward this Bill and on the hard work he has done over many years in bringing devolution to our cities. Will he accept from me that bringing devolution down from Whitehall to town hall is not enough in itself? Will he look a little further at what we call “double devolution”, or taking devolution down to the communities and neighbourhoods, as we are trying to do in Nottingham at this very moment?
I will indeed, and I would like to reciprocate the hon. Gentleman’s compliment. Both in his role as Select Committee Chair in the last Parliament and through his personal work in Nottingham, driving the regeneration of what he terms the outer estates in his city, the hon. Gentleman brings and personifies a degree of local knowledge of the problems and of the people, many of whom he has introduced me to on my visits to his city, which it would be impossible to replicate in Whitehall. That provides a good example of why we need to devolve in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman said.
Let me take the right hon. Gentleman back to the subject raised by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood)—the issue of where the money comes from to finance devolution. The Secretary of State will be aware of the work of the current Mayor championing full fiscal devolution for London—not just of business rates, but of a series of other local property taxes. Why has the Chancellor resisted devolving control of those additional property taxes?
I think the hon. Gentleman is being a bit churlish. Part of the Mayor’s campaign was to have 100% retention of business rates. That has been secured, and the mayor was appropriately generous in his praise for the Chancellor for doing so. We are rightly responding to a long-standing campaign to make this devolution work, which is a very important step forward.
The right hon. Gentleman is aware of the feeling of many Members about the Sunday trading liberalisation amendments that could be in the Bill. He will also be aware of the meeting of MPs and constituents over how the obligation to work will affect people’s Sundays. Before any of that happens, we are seeking the opportunity, as others have said, to debate that matter in this House. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance—a cast-iron assurance—that that will happen?
I would say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the consultation has not yet been responded to, and the Government will need to take a view on the responses to it. My colleagues and I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any other Member who wants to influence what happens on this issue. Secondly, if such provisions were to become part of the Bill, it would of course be essential to debate them on the Floor of the House so that the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues have a chance to express their views and influence the debate.
Several hon. Members rose—
Let me make some progress; I will of course take further interventions a little later.
The Bill’s purpose is to give power to the cities, counties and towns of our country and to free them from some of the Whitehall rule. This has been promised in the past by successive Governments of different colours, but often never realised. It is worth asking why well-intentioned Governments have never succeeded before in making a real difference to our country’s devolution settlement. One reason why previous efforts failed is as a result of an approach whereby everything had to change in a uniform way across the country. By contrast, the fundamental approach of this Bill is to enable the Government to give expression to proposals—they may be different proposals from different places—with no requirement that the same arrangements should apply to all parts of the country simultaneously. It is a fundamental tenet of this Bill, in contrast to other reforms debated over many years, that it does not give me or any of my ministerial colleagues the power to impose any arrangement on any local authority. All it gives is the ability to give expression to a proposal, if I may put it that way.
I know that the Secretary of State is fully committed to the Bill. He referred to it not imposing anything in a uniform manner on local authorities or combined authorities. Does that mean that he is not going to impose a mayor on a combined authority?
The Bill does not include the ability to impose any particular form, whether it be a combined authority, a different combination of authorities or a mayor. It provides for the ability to give expression to an agreement made between authorities, which I think is the right approach.
Does the Secretary of State agree that any proposal for devolution needs to be ambitious and bold, both to realise the economic potential and to capture the public’s imagination? A good example might be the Greater Yorkshire devolution bid.
I commend my hon. Friend’s ingenuity in seeking to elicit an endorsement of that particular proposal. What I certainly can do is to endorse the great efforts and imagination that have gone into a very attractive bid. A number of alternatives for Yorkshire have been put forward to the Government, and I will meet Yorkshire authorities to see whether a consensus can be reached. As my hon. Friend knows, a consensus is required for these arrangements to come into force.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the model of elected mayor and combined authority has profound implications for public engagement and public involvement. If this is devolution purely from Whitehall to town hall, and does not actually empower communities, that would be a major problem. This also has profound implications for the role of back-bench councillors who feel potentially marginalised by this model and for the role of Members of Parliament in holding public services to account. What is the Government’s position on the public, back-bench councillors and Members of Parliament in the light of the profound impact of the proposals?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is important that both back-bench councillors and Members of Parliament have the opportunity to exercise scrutiny of any elected officials, whether they be chairs of combined authorities or members of the cabinets put together by combined authorities or boroughs.
Let me finish answering the question from the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis).
Having a prominent and identifiable figure can, I think, help that scrutiny. Both the recent Mayors in London have been prominent individuals, and I dare say that they would both say that they feel pretty well scrutinised by Members of Parliament, elected members and indeed by public opinion. Under the Bill, it is open to different authorities to put arrangements together. In the case of Greater Manchester, strong powers exist for the constituent authorities, which have a long track record of working very well together to exercise scrutiny over the elected mayor. Members of those councils, of course, are linked in through that. Different arrangements are possible in different places.
I give way to the newly right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart).
I agree with the Secretary of State’s notion that the devolution process will be asymmetric, so that combinations will have to form themselves. In the case of Birmingham, some components are obvious, but where does the right hon. Gentleman take control to ensure that some parts around it—whether it be Warwickshire, Stratford or whatever—are not left out of the process and can be brought together into some greater framework?
The right hon. Lady reflects exactly why we need a bespoke approach rather than a single template—because every place is different. As we know, her city of Birmingham is the largest local authority in Europe, and it is very different from other authorities. Greater Manchester is divided into 10 separate authorities, for example. It would be completely wrong to seek to impose a Manchester arrangement on Birmingham and its neighbours. As I have said, and as is reflected in the Bill, arrangements can come forward only if there is a consensus between the local authorities that might want to be partners. That has to be forged locally. I do not have the ability either now or subsequently through the Bill to impose an arrangement on any authority, however much people might desire it.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman. I must make some progress, but of course I will give way to Members as I do so.
In the north-east of England, it seems that you are imposing a mayor on the leaders, and the feeling in the north-east is that they do not want a Geordie Boris. If this is all about democracy and sharing democracy, why are you imposing a mayor on us?
Order. I am not imposing anything. The hon. Gentleman must not attribute to me what he is accusing the Government of doing, or failing to do.
You are on the other side of the game, aren’t you?
I am on the side of adherence to the rules, a concept that I am sure the hon. Gentleman, in his better moments, robustly supports.
If the hon. Gentleman studies the Bill, he will see that there is no ability for me to impose a mayor on the authorities of the north-east. They are having discussions about the issue, and they are entirely at liberty not to accept that form of governance if they do not want it.
I gather that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) has been trying to catch my eye, but because he is sitting behind me, I missed him. I will give way to him before I make some more progress.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I wonder whether I can draw him out a little more. In the west of England, four local authorities—Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset—work closely together as a functional unit. Can he confirm that nothing in the Bill would allow any future Secretary of State to apply a structural arrangement to what is currently a very well-operating unit?
I am glad that my right hon. Friend has made that point, because it illustrates something that I was saying before I took interventions. Previous approaches involving a template that was imposed on places by Whitehall, including the creation of Avon, were widely resisted—correctly, as I am sure my right hon. Friend would say. They never enjoyed any public identification, affection or support. We have learnt from that experience, and the Bill is the opposite of those previous reforms of local government. All the powers that it contains are geared to allow me to implement the expression of local opinion and not to impose any arrangement in any way, and that certainly includes the authorities mentioned by my right hon. Friend.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make some progress, but after I have done so, I will of course give way to Members who wish to intervene.
That is partly why we have decided to develop bespoke arrangements, but we also respect the fact that every place is very different. Greater Manchester, for instance, is a very different place from Liverpool. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Indeed, the difference is to be celebrated. Vive la différence! They are both proud cities in their own right.
One of my regrets about the periods during which those two great cities, and others, were subsumed into the region called the north-west, which I do not think enjoyed a fraction of the identity, recognition, affection and, indeed, power they had enjoyed, is that they were sublimated, and our approach gives expression to that regret. I have been delighted, but not surprised, by the response of civic and business leaders across the country, and not just in our cities. They have demonstrated their enthusiasm for investing in a greater prominence for cities, towns and counties that can boost the economic prospects of the whole country.
I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), who has been patient, and then to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey).
May I return the Secretary of State to the issue of identity? People will obviously not identify with the new office of mayor and the combined authority unless they feel that they have some buy-in. The Local Government Act 2000, which introduced the cabinet system to local government, provided for two important functions. One was the call-in procedure, and the other was the provision that key cabinet decisions must be made public and must be publicly scrutinised. Does the Secretary of State expect the same powers to apply to the office of the mayor and the combined authority?
Yes, I do. I think that the arrangements we require should have the potential to be equally transparent, although they may not need to be identical. We must consider them, debate them and ensure that they achieve the purpose that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
I will now give way to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State.
Yesterday, after nearly two decades of leadership in the city of Birmingham, Sir Albert Bore stood down. In the city of Chamberlain, he was one of its greatest leaders. A man of immense personal integrity, he led the city through tough times, and indeed, working with the Secretary of State and others, he has been a pioneer of the new devolution settlement for England. As Albert stands down, will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to a remarkable man who has made a difference throughout his life to the city that he has served and loved?
I will do that with all my heart. Sir Albert Bore has given distinguished and devoted service for many years to a city that he loves. He has led the city through some difficult periods, and he has always done so with a calmness, authority and pragmatism that have made it possible for him and me to work very well together, despite our being in different political parties. I think the fact that, under these arrangements, Birmingham is poised to be able to advance and recover some of the civic possibility that was exemplified under the mayoralty of Chamberlain was very much in Albert Bore’s mind, and he will leave a very positive legacy to the city. His stepping aside at this point to allow a new leader to take Birmingham to the next stage is a tribute to his first concern for the city, and I am sure that all Members will wish to join us in paying that tribute.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about proud cities, but I know that he will not forget proud counties such as Hampshire, which want to embrace devolution. As he will know, my part of Hampshire has a strong local enterprise partnership, the Enterprise M3 LEP, which has secured significant investment and infrastructure. Will he ensure that any plans for devolution do not diminish that strong role for LEPs, which have such an important part to play in the country’s economic recovery?
I will indeed. The Enterprise M3 LEP has been particularly successful in attracting high-tech businesses, and creating jobs well into the future. It is very important for businesses to be part of this.
I will give way to my hon. Friend and then to the hon. Lady, but after that I must make some progress.
As a former councillor and, indeed, ward colleague of my right hon. Friend, may I express my violent enthusiasm for the Bill? So enthusiastic are councils across the country that I am sure my right hon. Friend will be carried shoulder high into the next Local Government Association conference that he attends. [Laughter.] Does he agree, however, that many of the worries he will hear expressed here today, and in other places, stand in the way of what could be a golden age for municipal and county government? Does he agree that one of the critical things we must all realise is that councillors are not second-class politicians, that they can be trusted to make large and significant decisions about their areas and communities, and that too often in the House we look down our nose a little at councillors and feel that we should retain a little too much power because they cannot be trusted?
Order. The jocularity of the hon. Gentleman’s intervention was equalled only by its length. May I gently say to Members that interventions must be brief? We do need to make some progress. The Secretary of State is always generous in giving way, but Members should not abuse that.
In view of the proposed violence of my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm, I am glad that he is sitting over there rather than closer to me. He was my friend and mentor in local government, and we did a lot together on the basis of our knowledge, as councillors, of our local area. I think that is very much reflected in what we are doing now. For all the discussions we will have, today, in Committee and on Report, this is, for all of us, a big opportunity to do what many of our predecessors sometimes hoped but failed to do: give capable leaders across the country the ability to make a difference to their communities. It is right that my hon. Friend pays tribute to the potential of local leaders.
I hope the Secretary of State will not regret giving way, because I am going to intrude on the somewhat rosy view he is developing about Greater Manchester. There was a sense of shock there about the health devolution and the imposition of an elected mayor. Manchester is not a city; the unit we are talking about is 10 separate places. I represent Salford and I have been a councillor in Trafford, and I know that feelings run high about that imposition. The real concern is about health and the role of MPs once this health devolution goes ahead. The British Medical Association is very concerned that doctors were not consulted before that decision, and neither were MPs in Greater Manchester. We find ourselves too far outside the loop, and there are real concerns about the role of an MP in expressing their constituents’ concerns on health matters in the future. This is not at all clear.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention. All I would say is that the proposals on health devolution came from the Greater Manchester authorities—they were not proposed by the Government—and reflected their feeling that their local knowledge and experience could make a material difference in improving health outcomes for people in Manchester. This is important. Of course, the national health service will always continue to be accountable through the Health Secretary, the Prime Minister and Ministers to Members here, and I encourage all authorities and Members to take the opportunity to work together and not only scrutinise but influence these arrangements. I hope they will do that.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make some more progress and then take further interventions later—I think I have been generous in the interventions I have taken.
Clearly there is much to discuss, but I regret the reasoned amendment—it may be a reasoned amendment but it is not a very reasonable amendment from the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). I am surprised by that because he is a genial chap normally. He says that the Bill does not offer meaningful devolution, but most civic leaders, of all parties, across the country recognise that this is an important Bill that gives them the ability to take powers that previously have not been made available to them. His approach is rather like St Augustine’s, in that he is saying, “Let us have more devolution, Lord, but not just now.” I hope that in the weeks ahead the conversations that will take place between the Opposition Front Benchers and their civic leaders in local government, who very much welcome these deals and powers, will moderate shadow Ministers’ views on that. I say to him and other hon. Members that it is important to proceed as consensually as we can on this, and if he has suggestions that we can reflect in our arrangements, they are as valid coming from him as from any other Member. He will find that I am open to them, as my colleagues are.
The point is that we need good devolution and devolution that works. Let me take the Secretary of State back to the health issue because there are real concerns, expressed by the Royal College of Nursing and the NHS Confederation, about fragmenting services and the fact that devolution will not solve the significant financial crisis that our health service and social care service face. Therefore, real safeguards are needed to avoid unintended consequences and to protect the patient.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about that. Far from fragmenting health services, one of the most important things that we need to do, in the interests of all our constituents, is bring together, in closer co-operation, health and social services, because where they are not well aligned and well integrated, patients—our constituents—can fall through the cracks in the system. That is what is behind the Greater Manchester proposals.
Several hon. Members rose—
I am going to make some progress. I have spoken for half an hour and a lot of Members want to speak.
The Bill is intended to honour our pledge to bring prosperity and opportunity to every part of the country. We must address the problem of recent years of how to prevent the strength of London—valuable and desirable though it is—from overshadowing the opportunity for other parts of the country to achieve their potential. It is very important that no one and no place shall be left behind. Talking of one nation, as Disraeli said,
“the greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”
Our local communities are aware of their riches and they want the opportunity to show them, to make use of them and to burnish them in a way that they have been prevented from doing in the past.
Let me say a few words about the progress that was made in the last Parliament.
I want to make some progress and I will perhaps give way a little later.
During the last Parliament, the Government introduced the concept of city deals, pioneering the approach of having a conversation with cities, in the first instance, to see whether there was any common ground—something that might be in the local interest and the national interest, and where agreement could be reached. That was followed by 39 growth deals. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) foresaw my being carried shoulder high at LGA conferences, but my experience at those, having negotiated the city deals, was that the leaders of our districts and counties did not so much carry me shoulder high as pursue me down corridors demanding that they should be able to be part of this devolution, and they were right to do so. That is why we extended our devolution arrangements to the 39 growth deals. It is important that we now take this to the next level and be able to devolve powers that Ministers and public bodies have to local authorities, be they individual authorities, combined authorities or mayoral authorities.
The important point to recognise is that the Bill gives no ability to strip any powers from any existing authority. All their powers continue and all the Bill’s proposals are directed at allowing this House, if it gives its approval, to take powers from Ministers and from national bodies and vest them in local government and local leaders. All the devolution is one way; no change is made to the powers and responsibilities of the constituent councils.
I want to contribute later, but I wish to say something about the principle of devolvement. The Trade Union Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to determine whether or not a trade union convenor has more or less time off in Carlisle, 200 miles away. That is not decentralisation. May we have a commitment that that sort of measure in that Bill may be devolved back to local authorities?
I am fully occupied with the Bill before us, and I am sure my colleagues will debate the hon. Gentleman’s proposals during the scrutiny of that other legislation.
I warmly welcome this Bill, and I hope to speak today in support of it and further devolution for Hampshire. The Minister has mentioned no impositions in this Bill, and we hope it will work positively with the Localism Act 2011. Where authorities have not used their powers to deliver on local plans and neighbourhood plans, as is the case in my constituency, where there is a vacuum of localism, how does he see this Bill working with the Localism Act?
That goes to the point about double devolution made by the hon. Member for Nottingham North. My hon. Friend is right in what she says, and the Housing and Planning Bill contains provisions to strengthen the ability of neighbourhoods to insist on the development of a neighbourhood plan. I hope she will find that welcome.
I am going to make some progress, but I will give way to the Chairman of the Select Committee and others before I finish.
The Bill has been warmly welcomed by local government, business leaders and local leaders of every hue. Lord Peter Smith, the leader of Wigan Council, said the deal with Manchester was “a momentous moment” for Greater Manchester because
“it gives greater control over our own destiny.”
But the Bill is, as we have been discussing, relevant to rural areas, none more so than the great county of Cornwall, where a group of Members of Parliament—it is a good example to Members on all sides—engaged with their local authorities in developing the proposals. The agreement with Cornwall was described by the leader of Cornwall Council as “brilliant news” and “the first stage”—which it is—“of a longer journey” towards further devolution for Cornwall.
In Sheffield—the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), so it is perhaps a good point to give way to him—James Newman, whom he knows well, the chairman of the local enterprise partnership, said that Sheffield’s agreement put it “at the front of the pack” and would strengthen the position of Sheffield as a “world-class centre for modern manufacturing and engineering”, which it undoubtedly is.
I will not demur in any way from what the Secretary of State has just said. I congratulate him on his efforts over the years to bring about the change that we have seen in the approach to devolution. In a written statement the other day, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the full retention of business rates and the fact that that will mean more resources for local government, but it will require a process of further devolution of powers to take account of the extra expenditure that local authorities will control. Will he say how that will be done? How will local authorities and this House be consulted on the measures to be devolved as part of that arrangement?
That is a very good question, and I am sure we shall have other opportunities to discuss it. Devolving 100% of business rates is more than the grant that goes to local authorities, so it is an opportunity to devolve more powers with the funding to local government. Again, the point of the transfer announcement at this stage is so that we can have a sensible conversation with our colleagues in local government as to what might be the appropriate activities and responsibilities to devolve. I dare say the hon. Gentleman personally and his Committee might have some suggestions to make on that.
I will give way to my former colleague.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on the Bill. On the point about further powers that might be devolved, will he in the course of his speech or during the progress of the Bill give us some more substance about how that would interact with some of the specific grants—for example, the police grant, the better care fund, and the operation of the public health grant?
That is probably for another occasion, but of course these things need to be discussed and debated.
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), then I will conclude my remarks, not immediately, but shortly.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. He will know that the biggest challenge facing healthcare in the years ahead will be funding. The models for funding in local government and in the NHS are radically different. How will he reconcile that in a way that will not promote fragmentation in healthcare delivery? Notwithstanding the comments about differences in need in different areas, the big public health challenges are pretty much the same everywhere.
My hon. Friend has great experience in matters medical. This needs to be done by agreement. There is an opportunity to align these funds, but it should be done only if we can be satisfied that it will improve services for our constituents.
Several hon. Members rose—
Let me make some progress. I will not give way. I want to let other Members contribute, including the hon. Member for Hemsworth
No one can doubt this Government’s commitment to devolution or the incredible enthusiasm that we have met across the country, where local leaders and communities want to take control of their affairs. We have had applications from 38 places across the country—cities, towns and counties making proposals of their own. I look forward to discussing their proposals with them to see if it is possible to make use of the powers in the Bill to their advantage and to the nation’s advantage. I look forward to being in Hampshire next week to do precisely that for the Hampshire authorities.
The very process of these negotiations has been positive. They have brought together neighbouring authorities which, on occasion, have not had the most cordial of relationships, but that is changing. The involvement of business through the local enterprise partnerships, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) said, has been very important too. It will be crucial that agreements we make should involve the support of business if we are to make the progress that we seek.
We have briefly discussed the further opportunities. Not everything to do with devolution is contained in this Bill. I do not want to overclaim its powers as a panacea for 100 years of centralisation. The arrangements for business rate retention will no doubt come through other means, whether through the local government financial settlement or through future spending reviews, but it seems to me that this is a very important part of a suite of measures that will allow us to make the progress that is needed.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will not give way to colleagues who have intervened before. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith).
I am extremely grateful. My right hon. Friend rightly talks of engaging people throughout the country and I welcome what the Bill does. It provides an important opportunity for engaging young people in politics. He will know that the Lords inserted clause 20 in the Bill. Can he assure me that he shares my view that we ought to look at the franchise in the round? Although I support votes at 16, we ought to consider that in the round.
I entirely agree. There is a debate to be had about the voting age. That should be considered on its merits in an appropriate piece of legislation, not as an afterthought in a Bill that is about existing institutions, rather than about voting in particular.
I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), then I will conclude.
I warmly support the Bill, which my right hon. Friend and others have long championed. I refer to London in particular. My right hon. Friend has referred to the great cities in the north and in the midlands, but how will the Bill relate to London? He will be aware that London has asked for full fiscal responsibility and devolution. Will the Bill enable that? Also, will he clarify the position in relation to the setting up of the Greater London Authority, which was done through an Act of Parliament, and how that will interrelate with the Bill?
My hon. Friend has great expertise in these matters and he will know that the London arrangements through successive Acts of Parliament are set up in statute in a different way from the rest of the country, so for that reason many of the provisions do not apply to London. He mentions fiscal devolution, and of course the business rates retention, which is not in the Bill but is a complementary reform, will be part of that. I hope it is clear to Members on both sides of the House that this is very much the direction in which the Government are proceeding, and there will be other measures complementary to that.
During our discussions I am sure the Government will want to reflect on points that have been made. Some changes have been made in the House of Lords—for example, to make it clear that in respect of the national health service, the responsibility for health arrangements will be that of the Health Secretary. We intend that the Bill will also allow for the creation of subnational transport bodies, Transport for the North being one, so we will want to reflect the powers to enable such bodies to be established.
In the past—in Victorian times—the world looked admiringly at Britain’s model of strong civic governance and the results that it delivered for our economy and our society right across the country. During the century that has passed since those times, that strength has been diminished by the appetite of this House to centralise power in London. Every Act that made that change left our local democracy less potent and the economy less balanced. We now need to restore local power and do it with enthusiasm. This is not an approach rooted in nostalgia or romantic sentiment; it is one of hard-headed judgment.
If we want to succeed to our maximum extent, every part of the country must contribute according to the best of its talents and its abilities. That requires strengthening the powers our cities, towns and counties have. We want to see a renaissance of local power that has the potential not only to benefit our cities and regions, but to transform the prospects of the entire country—to create one nation where energy and creativity are unleashed in every part of the country; one nation where ideas and ambition are rewarded; one nation where the rewards and benefits of success are available to all. That is the purpose of the Bill, and I warmly commend it to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [Lords], notwithstanding the need for devolution to local communities, because the Bill does not offer meaningful devolution to England and would leave behind England’s town, county and shire regions, ignores the will of the people by imposing mayors as a condition of devolution, threatens the financial stability of local government by not offering a fair funding settlement, and fails to reshape central Government for a long-term commitment to devolution.
This is an important Bill and it arises at an important moment in our country’s political arrangements. The Secretary of State was at his charming best. He has a reputation for being a very charming individual, and he did his best to charm the House, but I am not sure he convinced the House, and I will explain why in a minute. I am afraid, although I do like to create consensus, coming from Yorkshire I feel I ought to add a little Yorkshire grit.
The Secretary of State has convinced me that he means well and he believes in devolution, and so do we, but unlike him we would do it from the bottom up, rather than have a top-down model of imposition. We would also search for a more comprehensive model, rather than a piecemeal one, as in this Bill. Finally, we would be much bolder, because particularly in England there is a huge democratic deficit and we need to understand better this English problem. Rather than tackling it piecemeal, as the Government are trying to do, we would take a wholesale approach. That is the model we are going to set out.
Can the hon. Gentleman explain how we can have both a comprehensive solution and only do it bottom-up on the basis of the wishes of people?
It is easy: we will launch, hopefully with other parties, a constitutional convention that will try to reach out into every village, church hall, town hall, city hall and every part of the country to test the arguments about a new settlement for Britain, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will join us and others in looking again at the political arrangements of the country.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will take two or three interventions and will then move on, because we have to give Back Benchers an opportunity to make their contributions.
Can I take it from what the hon. Gentleman has said that under no circumstances will any future Labour Government seek to reintroduce imposed regional assemblies, imposed regional planning or imposed tough binding targets for housing or any other matter on any English local authority, or any form of capping?
We will engage in a national debate from the bottom up, using the constitutional convention, which has been used in other countries, to try to create a new framework for Britain.
May I take my hon. Friend back to an issue that was raised with the Secretary of State: Sunday trading? I should say that I speak as a proud member of USDAW, the shop workers union. It is very concerned about the possibility that the Government will tack on to the end of this Bill at a later stage a change to the Sunday Trading Act 1994 that will benefit nobody, does not create jobs and harms millions of shop workers and damages our community day off—Sunday. Will my hon. Friend commit that he will resist that and will ensure that if that happens we will have a full and proper debate?
Order. Before the shadow Minister continues, may I say that interventions must be very short? Members are expecting to be called to speak. There will shortly be a six-minute limit; the way we are going, we will have to drop it to three minutes. I do not want to do that; I want to get everybody in. So we want fewer interventions, and speedy replies may help as well.
I do give that commitment to my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan).
Several hon. Members rose—
I will also try to make some progress before giving way again, because I have only got to the second paragraph of my speech so far.
When I first opened the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, I did so with a momentary tremor of excitement. I asked myself whether this Bill was going to give the great English cities, but equally the market towns, the villages, the country areas and shire districts, a real settlement and real power over their futures. I wondered whether this would be an ambitious Bill that would deliver for England, in all its complexity, the devolution a Labour Government enacted for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. I wondered whether this would be a Bill that gave people up and down the land, from 16 years of age and upwards, the chance to have a real say in how they are governed.
I read the Bill carefully, and with all due respect I have to ask: may I offer the Secretary of State some private advice, just between the two of us? He should recall the old political truth that hubris is always followed by nemesis. We English, certainly in Yorkshire, have a different way of capturing the same idea: we say “pride comes before a fall.” In this Bill, the Government are displaying a breath-taking level of highhanded treatment of our council colleagues.
In a democracy, we who hold power at the centre should never forget that authority flows up from below, rather than being imposed from above. The sad truth is the Bill offers a pretence at devolution. I will give five reasons why.
Let me come straight to the first and most central point. The Secretary of State did not reveal the whole picture in his answer on metro mayors. The truth is that metro mayors in local areas are a precondition of devolution, and that is simply wrong. It is doubly wrong when that imposition is applied even to areas where the local population voted only recently in a referendum to reject the idea of being governed by a mayor. The people of the great cities of Sheffield, Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham, Coventry, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Nottingham voted against metro mayors, yet the leaders of those cities tell me that as a condition of devolution they are now being required to accept something their own electorate rejected. That is triply wrong when the Government continue to impose this single model of governance even though they do not have the legal powers to do so.
In the other place a crucial amendment was passed that decoupled the imposition of mayors in urban areas from devolution deals. I was disappointed that the Secretary of State did not in his speech have the grace to say that the Government will now accept this amendment, which was backed by peers of all parties, including many distinguished Conservative peers.
Furthermore, in a powerful article in today’s The Daily Telegraph—essential reading for the Labour party—the Conservative hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), who is in his seat now, puts it well, and perhaps better than I could:
“Devolving power but telling people how to exercise it, jars: if the deal is as good as we are being told, why not put it to a vote?”
Perhaps some cross-party consensus could break out here, because I feel sure that if we had had a vote in Greater Manchester, which has always rejected the idea of a metro mayor across the whole of Greater Manchester, it would not have gone through, because every constituent part, with the recent exception of Salford, has voted against that.
I agree, and my hon. Friend makes the point I am making.
I have received strong representations in recent weeks from those who advocate that where a devolution deal includes an elected mayor, it is only right that a local referendum of voters takes place and it decides in favour of it. What we have at the moment is mayors being imposed where the referendum voted against. In the vast majority of the devolution deals that have been done since 1997, referendums were held to endorse constitutional settlements—in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London. Why should there not be a referendum for the northern powerhouse? There is merit in such an argument, and we will make sure that we test it in Committee.
Where there are to be mayors, the House must carefully consider appropriate systems of accountability and scrutiny, as Members on both sides have said. In the other place, Labour supported amendments to improve the audit of mayors. In Committee here, there will be much more to discuss. In London, the Mayor is directly accountable to a directly elected Assembly. Should not that model apply elsewhere?
Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is my party’s position that we massively believe in the transfer of power from Whitehall and Westminster to local authorities and communities? Will he pay tribute to the leadership of the many Labour councils, particularly those in Greater Manchester but also in other areas, that have innovated and pioneered devolution to provide higher-quality public services more effectively?
Of course; I said at the beginning of my speech that we are a pro-devolution party, but we want a comprehensive settlement. The people who must not be excluded from any new settlement are the citizens. The citizens of Greater Manchester should be part of any settlement. Indeed, where possible, power should be passed down to those citizens through what the former Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), has described as double devolution.
The programme motion allocates only two and a half hours in Committee—albeit on the Floor of the House—to debate all the amendments on the powers, functions and reporting mechanisms of any mayor who happens to be elected. That is clearly inadequate for such discussions.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the provisions relating to elected mayors in clause 3? Subsection (2) states:
“An order under subsection (1) shall not be used as a condition for agreeing to the transfer of local authority or public authority functions.”
Subsection (3) goes on:
“A mayor for the area of a combined authority is to be elected by the local government electors for that area”.
Does not that provide sufficient cover for what the hon. Gentleman is asking for?
Every one of the leaders I have spoken to—they have been negotiating with the Treasury, by the way, rather than with the Department for Communities and Local Government—has told me that, despite their objections, they have been told that they cannot have devolution unless they agree to a new form of governance, namely a metro mayor. That may or may not be what is on the face of the Bill, and we will see what the Government do in Committee and what amendments are tabled, but the truth is that this is a fait accompli. A single model has been imposed from on high. I invite Conservative Members to reflect on whether the only possible model for city and town governance involves a directly elected mayor with no accountability to a wider assembly. That is a presidential, not a parliamentary, model of governance, and it is anathema to the British constitution.
Charming as the Secretary of State might be, he nevertheless gave wind to the prejudice that lurks in one or two minds outside London that the capital has all the power and all the wealth. I know that my hon. Friend is bigger than that. Will he therefore acknowledge that, in the face of an acute housing crisis, Londoners recognise that more devolution needs to be given to the Mayor and the London Assembly so that we can properly tackle that crisis? For example, might my hon. Friend support an amendment to the Bill that would give London the same opportunities to control housing legislation that Scotland and Wales currently have?
We would look carefully at any amendment that was presented to us. The point I want to make is that the old days of a Westminster-based elite cooking up deals and imposing them on cities and other areas are over. It is time we consulted the people and engaged in a wider conversation, but that is precisely what the Government are avoiding.
I have a lot of sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend is making about the imposition of elected mayors. Recognising that we will eventually need to move to a wider settlement, perhaps through a constitutional convention, does he accept that in the meantime it is not our party’s position to stand in the way of devolution deals to our colleagues in local government, particularly in major cities including Sheffield and Manchester?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that local government leaders should not be directed by those on the Front Bench. If they feel that something can be done in a deal with the Government that will be beneficial to the community, they should do it. Equally, it is our duty to express opposition to the way in which this is being imposed on local government. I have spoken to council leaders in south Yorkshire, where my hon. Friend is a distinguished Member of Parliament, and they have told me that this deal is being imposed on them.
The second reason that the Bill is a pretence at devolution involves the wider context of local government finance. In a comprehensive Bill, there should surely be clauses regarding the way in which local government can be funded to make it more autonomous and less dependent on the centre, but the reverse is the case here. There should also be clauses regarding fair funding, as the cuts in recent years have been concentrated on the urban areas. We know that the Chancellor manipulated the formula for the benefit of certain areas in a way that was politically beneficial to the interests of the governing party.
The truth is that the Secretary of State is not devolving financial power, or any power. He is delegating Treasury cuts. What the Government give in pennies, they take back in pounds. Since 2010, local government in England and Wales has lost 40% of its funding. Now every children’s centre, every fire station, every care home, every nursery, every pensioner waiting for a bus, every youngster looking forward to attending a youth club on a Friday night and everybody of any age whose horizons are widened by public libraries—they and many others are anxiously waiting not for this Bill but for 25 November, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer will announce his spending review.
The Tory-led Local Government Association is expecting further cuts to local authorities of up to an additional 40%. That is on top of the cuts that have already taken place. Cuts on that scale make a mockery of the Secretary of State offering further devolution. This is the delegation of cuts, not the devolution of powers.
I have already referred to the wise words of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West in that excellent journal, The Daily Telegraph. It has to be said that that paper has been on a roll this week. Yesterday, a report by its political editor stated:
“As many as four Cabinet ministers, including Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, and Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary”,—
and two others, unnamed—
“have so far refused to submit to the Treasury plans to cut their departments by as much as 40 per cent.”
I put it to the House that the anti-austerity case that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has been pursuing has now extended to members of the Conservative Cabinet. It seems to have wider cross-party support than was first feared. But wait a minute! That same article reports that the Business Secretary and the Justice Secretary are “enthusiastically” preparing for massive cuts to their Departments. The House is entitled to ask what side of this dividing line our Secretary of State stands on. There is no mention of him in the article. Is he fighting the corner for those fire stations, libraries, care homes, students and nurseries? Or is he, like the Business Secretary and the Justice Secretary, “enthusiastically” anticipating cuts on a historically unprecedented scale?
In giving way to the hon. Gentleman, I invite him to tell us whether he supports the cuts that have already taken place in his local authority, as well as those that are going to take place in the next three years. I am sure that his local paper would be interested to hear this views on that.
My question is quite simple. At what point is the hon. Gentleman going to start referring to the Bill, rather than to The Daily Telegraph?
I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not answer my question.
The Bill ought to include reference to proper financial autonomy and to fresh financial arrangements for local government. Anything that pretends to offer devolution with one hand while retaining the power to control finances with the other is nothing more than an iron fist in a velvet glove.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about local government finance. Certainly, the two councils in my constituency are suffering very badly from the reductions in funding. Does he also recognise that, with the devolution of powers such as health, there is a complex situation starting to develop in which health budgets are ring-fenced, except public health, which has been top sliced, and adult social care, which has been decimated? There is still an overall budget deficit in the health and care system.
That emphasises my point. As much as the Bill may offer a form of devolution, the truth is that whenever financial decisions are made by the Treasury, true devolution will not be achieved. That is what should be in the Bill, and that is why the point I am making is so important.
My third reason for why the Bill is not satisfactory refers to something that is happening at No.11. It was announced at conference that business rates are to change, which must be a good thing, but, as always, the devil is in the detail. No clear announcement was made about how the redistribution between richer and poorer councils would take place. Some £26 billion is collected in business rates, £2 billion of which goes to Westminster council. We need more information in the Bill about how such a scheme will work. Let me say to Members, many of whom represent suburban areas in London, seaside towns, rural communities, shire districts, market towns and all the wonderful places that make up England, that they should be seeking answers to these questions. The Bill is silent on all these matters.
Fourthly, the Bill threatens to do a great disservice to the very backbone of England and English democracy. It is a puzzle to me why a Tory Secretary of State should ignore this. The market towns, the county villages, the shire counties, the county towns, the suburbs and some of the smaller freestanding cities are the backbone of England—the great cities are wonderful, but they are not the backbone—and they have been offered a second-class form of devolution. Why should that be? I was once privileged to lead the great city of Leeds, which is one of the most powerful economic and cultural engines in the north, and even in England. Indeed, the renaissance of English cities, mostly under Labour control, has been one of the great successes of the past 20 years—I have always thought that this should be added to the checklist of the enduring achievements of Labour in government—but this Bill risks neglecting all the areas that are not in those great urban centres. The potential for growth and enterprise lies elsewhere in England, which is a rich, diverse country that we all love. The Bill is almost silent on the matter. The Chancellor’s ambassadors who were running around the country did not bother to call in to the market towns and the shire towns of the country; they went to the big cities.
The bottom line for me is that the same powers should be on offer to both urban and rural areas of England. For example, whatever powers are available to metro mayors to raise business rates—by the way, it will not be possible to raise business rates unless an area has a metro mayor—should also be available to the smaller towns and the rest of England, too.
The hon. Gentleman should be aware of the recent Cornwall deal, which deals with the very heart of the rural communities; it is not all about the big cities. The Prime Minister himself delivered that deal to the very rural area of Cornwall.
As everybody in local government knows, the truth is that the Treasury deals with the big cities. The big cities are where the glamour is and where the general direction of this Bill is. Other areas have been left to the lesser actors within the Government. It may be that, in some areas, the best way to promote connectivity and economic growth and to establish devolved institutions that reflect the identities and culture of the locality is to have a combined authority. Let me take Yorkshire and Humber as an example. My own view—I am not going to impose anything because we do not believe in imposition—is that Yorkshire has the strongest identity and is the most obvious economic unit. It is a great shame that the Government’s consultation process did not allow ordinary citizens of the county to be engaged in a debate about the county’s own future.
As with other proposals in the Bill, the only people excluded from having a view are the electorate themselves. That brings me to the final weakness in the Government’s proposals, which is their complete failure to consult the public, businesses and the wider civic society. What happened to the big society? Leaders of councils from all parties have basically had to enter negotiations with the Treasury, and we all know that it is the Treasury and not the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that is conducting these negotiations. The leaders have all entered into the negotiations with a gun held to their head. They either do devolution Whitehall’s way or it will not happen at all.
Council leaders have had to do the best they can for their areas, but it is noticeable that they and others are beginning to become more vocal in their concerns about this whole top-down process. For example, the great newspapers of the north-west, including the Manchester Evening News, The Bolton News, the Wigan Evening Post and the Oldham Evening Chronicle, have taken an unprecedented united stance in campaigning for a fair devolution deal. They are asking not only for the necessary funds to make devolution a reality, but for no more closed-door decision making. A basic flaw of the Bill is that there is no list of the powers that central Government seek to devolve. That is because, in reality, the whole agenda is being driven by Downing Street.
Let me briefly return to my opening remarks about hubris. It sounds like we all believe in devolution, but Labour are determined to make it happen. We will seek to work with those of other parties and those of no party who share the same objective. The past few weeks—I have spoken to leaders about what has happened over the past few weeks—have seen the demeaning process of the Chancellor’s emissaries dashing round the country meeting leaders in private, attempting to strong arm local councillors into so-called devolution deals for which there is as yet no statutory basis. I am sorry to say this but the Secretary of State, as charming as he is, has been little more than a passive observer. He was not even in the room. I fully understand why councillors will engage in these negotiations, and indeed some progress has been made—it is right that I should acknowledge that. However, we are not convinced that the Bill incorporates all the necessary safeguards to be supported in its present form, and that it is sufficiently bold or radical in resolving the English problems.
It is noteworthy that national organisations, such as the British Medical Association and the Nuffield Trust, are very concerned about the health proposals, and the Minister should take that on board. They have expressed concerns about how health powers and resources will be devolved. The matter is not clear. This is an area where there are already variations in funding, in standards of care and in the way NHS funding is used. This is a question for the Minister. What will national pledges and targets mean in future when there are shared budgets? It was forced on Greater Manchester, which is why none of it is clear.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is why we need a comprehensive settlement to the constitutional and political problems facing our country. Clearly, there is a role for a central, active Government, but not for a bureaucratic top-down Government. Some decisions do need to be made nationally to ensure that there is no postcode lottery, especially in the health service and other areas. On the other hand, decisions should be made as close as possible by the people themselves.
Let me finish on the following point. Rather than remaking the shape of our democracy, the Bill is more about remaking the image of the Chancellor as he prepares to become the Tory party leader. In their present form, the deals that are being made will prove to be no more than a short-term fix. Most of them will not endure in the longer term. We will seek to amend the Bill, but would it not be preferable, even at this late stage, for the Secretary of State to agree to put aside the Bill for a period of time and join with us and others in the hard but necessary task of rebuilding our constitution and our political culture on a consensual basis from the bottom up? This Bill is a top-down imposition on local democracy.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution so early in this important debate. Let me begin by saying how warmly I welcome the principle that lies behind the Bill. The intention of bringing real power and decision making closer to the people we represent is one that I think almost all of us in this House share. From a Greater Manchester perspective, we must also acknowledge the great prize that lies ahead if we can achieve the proper integration of health and social care, but I emphasise the importance of getting the detail right in the implementation.
I would also like to thank the Secretary of State for the courteous and constructive engagement he has already offered to colleagues who are interested in the Bill, which gives me considerable confidence that we will be able to move forward in a way that delivers the objectives while overcoming the concerns that some of us have. He has also indicated that the Bill will be considered in Committee of the whole House, which is clearly the right thing to do.
I have four broad concerns. The first—the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) spoke about this at some length—relates to the imposition of the model of governance, which I think is unfortunate. We need to ensure not only that the public generally buy into the principle of devolution and feel that they own the new arrangements, but that the new arrangements bring genuine accountability to governance.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) mentioned some of the concerns about the devolution of healthcare. We already have a worrying straw in the wind in Greater Manchester, with the initial reorganisation of hospital services coming before all of this. It has been handled in a deeply regrettable fashion and raised considerable concerns. Certainly, I am deeply concerned about the apparent lack of accountability in the process. Given that some of these issues are already arising, it is timely that we are now looking at them as we legislate and trying to ensure that accountability is in place.
It is good that a consensus is being built across Greater Manchester. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue, and I know that Wythenshawe hospital is very concerned about being left out of the equation in that regard, so how these decisions will be made and consulted on in future is very worrying. But there are other concerns as well. Salford was a leader in the integration of health and social care, and my fear is that that will now be set back by having to work across Greater Manchester.
I agree with the hon. Lady. It would be regrettable if, in seeking to devolve power, we ended up taking some decisions further away from people and making it harder for their voices to be heard.
My second concern is about the distribution of powers. I hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s assurance that this can only be about bringing powers from central Government, but I do not think that is really clear in the Bill, so I would welcome much more clarity as we proceed in Committee. Clauses 8 and 9 make provision for the exercise of statutory functions in relation to an area to be transferred to a combined authority. Clause 5 makes it possible by order for any function of a mayoral combined authority to be a function exercisable only by the mayor. Therefore, I do not think that it is as clear in the Bill that power can move only in one direction as many of us would want to see. We might return to that at a later stage.
My third concern, which was raised with me by my local authority, relates to the possibility that this deal amounts to a one-way commitment. It relates to those local authorities that have made a commitment to the combined authority. The Greater Manchester agreement will place obligations on the local authorities, and certain expectations are being placed on the Government, but there is no mechanism by which the local authorities can hold this Government, or indeed any future Government, to account to ensure that they meet their obligations as part of the deal. I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider whether we might find a way to tighten the provisions and make it clearer that the Government’s obligations will be observed.
My fourth and final concern—in a way, this could provide a solution to all the other concerns—is about what happens if the arrangements do not work. What happens if a local authority reaches the point at which it regards the agreement as a mistake and thinks that the powers have been vested in the wrong place? It is the question of final resort. What are the terms under which a local authority could choose to walk away from a deal? What happens if it says, “This clearly isn’t what we bought into”— possibly a microcosm of a bigger debate that we might have by the end of 2017? It is about a local authority being able to leave a combined authority without penalty.
A deal that transfers spending from central Government to the local level is very welcome, but the mechanism set out in the Bill for allowing local authorities to leave a combined authority is very messy. Rather than the local authority simply deciding to opt out, the combined authority must decide to dissolve itself and then reform with the other authorities that wish to remain. The mechanism makes no provision for ensuring that a local authority can leave on fair terms and without penalty.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about how one might unpick the constitutional arrangements of a combined authority. One example is the pooling and sharing of business rates. For instance, if Trafford decided to leave the combined authority, it would be very difficult to unpick that. Another example is the health devolution arrangements.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. These matters will need to be made clearer during the passage of the Bill.
In conclusion, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, I think that the principle behind the Bill—the Government’s evident desire to transfer spending and decision making closer to the people—has very wide support, and I think that few Members of the House would differ from it. I will certainly vote enthusiastically for that principle today, although I anticipate having interesting debates and discussions in Committee. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the assistance and engagement that he has already offered in that regard.
I do not intend to spend a great deal of time speaking on the Bill, as clearly it affects only England and Wales, not Scotland. However, I would like to offer a few observations and questions that I hope will be of value.
First, I ask the House to consider the journey that Scotland has been on. The people of Scotland have been seeking devolution in some form or other for many decades. The experiences of the no vote in the 1979 referendum, the yes vote in the 1997 referendum and the recent independence referendum have all shaped public views on what devolution means and how it should operate. We arrived at this situation through public and civil society demanding change in a way that I am not quite convinced is yet the case for England’s cities and regions. Devolution should not be done in haste, and great consideration should be given to its purpose and the means by which local people will be involved.
Scotland is a hub of expertise on the devolution process, and we feel that public engagement is critical. We recognised the hunger for local community power by passing the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 in the Scottish Parliament and introducing the “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities” consultation, in which the islands have demanded more powers from the Scottish Government. We support more efforts to deliver devolution for local authorities, but the process must be transparent and consider the views of local communities.
In the past two years there has been great consideration by organisations such as Common Weal and the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, as well as by other civic groups and individuals, such as Lesley Riddoch, whose book, “Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish”, looks at what shape democracy should take and how local people can be more involved in the process. I recommend that Members have a look at Lesley’s book to see how the bottom-up approach can be taken. I have asked the Library if it could seek a copy for their information. I also direct Members to the Electoral Reform Society Scotland’s Democracy Max project, which looked at the idea of “mini publics” as a means of engaging the public in shaping their own democracy. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) that double devolution must go through local communities as well, and cannot stop at the mayoral level.
My reading of this Bill is that it is, sadly, very top down. Powers are being given rather than demanded, and there is still the same level of control from the centre. I agree with the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) about that. An example is the imposition of mayors against the will of local people, particularly those who rejected such a principle in local referendums. Transferring powers from a centralised Westminster system to an all-powerful mayor is not really, in practice, local participatory democracy. People do not have a say, and that reflects on the legitimacy that the mayor will then have. If people are to have faith in the process, a good deal more work needs to be done to establish what they want their local democracy to look like and what powers it should have.
Londoners are broadly comfortable with the originally established system of devolution in London, but one thing they look enviously at in Scotland is the power to control and shape housing policy. Would the SNP look sympathetically on an amendment from London Back Benchers seeking to give that power to London?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on the ability to control housing policy. While the SNP is not necessarily going to vote on this because it is an England and Wales-only Bill, we strongly agree with the principle that housing should be in the control of London, and other local authorities as well, because if people are unable to control the housing stock or to make decisions about construction, funding and everything else, they are hamstrung in their ability to influence local housing supply.
I seek to establish the Government’s true purpose in devolution to cities and to local government. Members may remember that Scottish devolution was supposed to have killed the SNP stone dead, but if that were its purpose, it has demonstrably failed, despite the fact that our Members are not in the Chamber today. If devolution to cities and local government in England and Wales is based on the general principle of the importance of local decision making and democracy, that is a worthy ideal that I absolutely support, but if, as suggested by a lot of the rhetoric, it is simply about economics and growth rather than democracy, I am less convinced. Tying the deals to economic indicators puts a great deal of pressure on the new set-up, and I fear that it could then be a hostage to economic fortune. Should it not meet those economic targets and goals, it could be seen by the Government and by local people not to have achieved the objectives that were put on it.
I also seek an assurance that devolution is not being used as a cover for cuts. A lot of people involved in the NHS, in particular, are concerned about this. Like other Members, no doubt, I have had lots of representations from various organisations. This should not be a cover for regionalisation of the NHS by the back door. That is fine if Scotland has control over the NHS, which is a great thing, but it should be debated on its own as a case that can stand or fall on its own merits. To cut funding and blame the new authority would make the position of that authority absolutely untenable.
In this place, decision making feels very far away from ordinary people, whether they be in Wick, Glasgow, Manchester or Cornwall. I hope that this Bill will create and engage a groundswell of support for local democracy in England, and that powers and money are returned from Westminster to local people, as they should be. I urge the Government to consider how best to embed the principle of subsidiarity within the Bill, and to seek and listen to the views of local people on what they are seeking from their democracy.
I am delighted to speak in this important debate, as aside from the economy, devolution is one of the great domestic issues of our time. We have seen changes in Scotland and Wales driven by a devolutionary agenda, and now England too will be part of this overdue reform. The Bill presents this country with a huge opportunity to rebalance the relationship between local and central Government and, indeed, to improve it, but it is also an opportunity to rebalance our country, not just politically but economically. I therefore fully support the Bill’s Second Reading.
In many ways, this Bill is a clever one—an enabling Bill that allows for a great deal of flexibility and permits room for innovation. Both those freedoms are very welcome as we create an environment for bespoke deals that will give responsibilities and powers to different parts of our country and, most importantly, provide the opportunity for different cities, counties and districts to develop and grow in their own way and on their own terms.
One of the Bill’s central themes is the concept of elected mayors, of which I have been a long-standing supporter. In my perfect world, I would like to see them as a default setting for all councils. They are a modern, more accountable and more transparent form of local government. They provide visible leadership and responsibility, and a vehicle for real change in our cities and counties. One need only look at London to see the benefits that this visibility and leadership can bring to a place. I therefore continue to support the Minister in his endeavours towards the advancement of elected mayors, an idea that I hope will be of particular benefit to the north of the country.
I understand the Government’s view that the Bill will bring about evolution not revolution, and that central Government will not be imposing their will on local government. I do not fully agree with that. I do accept, though, that it is vital that the Bill works with the grain of the people.
I take issue with the Government on three parts of the Bill, the most important of which is clause 16(3), which, in effect, gives any council, however bloody-minded, parochial or underperforming, a full veto on what could otherwise be a well-supported and essential proposal for reform. It gives the few—small-minded politicians—the power to prevent progress for the many.
I take Cumbria as an example. It is a county with just under half a million people, but with seven separate councils and over 380 councillors. In Cumbria, it is accepted across the political parties and by the business community, the LEP, the health sector and, most importantly, the wider public that the current structure is not working and is holding our county back. Cumbria, it is recognised by all, needs fewer councils and fewer councillors. It needs unitary governance and everyone in Cumbria knows it. However, under the Bill as drafted, just one of those seven councils can veto proposals for change and the entire process, against the will of the majority, would be scuppered. I therefore ask Ministers to review that clause, not with the intention of allowing central Government to impose themselves, but to ensure that where there is overwhelming support for reform among local communities they cannot be held to ransom by a minority.
My other concerns are clauses 20 and 21. On clause 20, it is understandable to consider a reduction in the age required to vote, but this must be a policy for all elections or for none. In addition, thought must be given as to whether it would also mean that 16 and 17-year-olds could stand for election. I therefore ask the Government to give the clause further consideration.
During the debates on the European Union Referendum Bill, much was said about the voting age and when young people should get involved. Lots of people said then that that was not the time—why is now not the time?
I am not making a comment as to the merits of the case. I am merely suggesting that if it is to be introduced, it should be consistent across all elections. I ask the Government to consider that further.
As for clause 21, I would be very reluctant to see such a change removing the moratorium on areas that have chosen directly elected mayors. As I intimated earlier, I would like the position of elected mayor to be encouraged and expanded further. Indeed, I encourage the Government to consider making it easier for local communities to trigger a referendum to have an elected mayor by reducing the threshold required for a petition from 5% to 1%. That would clearly demonstrate the Government’s commitment to elected mayors and to the principle of allowing local areas to determine their own future.
I remain fully supportive of the Bill and its intentions, and I applaud Ministers for bringing about this long-overdue legislation. However, I hope that these small changes are considered in Committee or on Report to ensure that local communities, particularly the people of Cumbria and Carlisle whom I represent, are able to take full advantage of this important policy.
I have over the years had disagreements with the Secretary of State about the pace of change of devolution: I probably wanted to go faster than he and the Government have gone. I have had disagreements with him about the amount of devolution: I probably wanted to go further than the Government have gone. I have had some disagreements with him on the detail. The important thing, however, is that we are actually talking about devolution. Devolution is a key element of Government policy and it is happening. It is important to have regard to such matters.
Although my disagreements may be about the pace and extent of devolution, the direction of travel is absolutely clear. I think that credit, on a cross-party basis, should be given to the Government and to the Secretary of State—both in his current job and his past roles—for driving forward this agenda, which deserves support.
Thinking about it, there probably never was a realistic chance of getting a big bang, with complete devolution across the board of everything that I would eventually like to be devolved. After years of centralisation, it was probably always going to be the case that incremental change would be the successful way forward—convincing the Treasury that economic growth would be improved and that value for money in public services would be increased. Indeed, we must watch to make sure that those things actually happen, and that proper impact assessments are made over the years to show that the change has brought such benefits.
Having different solutions in different areas was likely to be the way forward to achieve devolution on a realistic basis, and that is also completely consistent with the localist approach, which is that things should be done differently in different areas. However, I have one serious disagreement with the Secretary of State, which the Local Government Association has also raised. The disagreement is that one size does not fit all in terms of the powers that will be devolved and how those powers should be administered. We therefore come back to the imposition of elected mayors.
Why is such imposition necessary? If the rest of the approach is about agreement, with local areas coming forward with their views on what needs to be devolved in their area, why cannot we trust them to come forward with ideas about how powers should be administered in their area? The Government must provide an answer on that challenge, because that is the one inconsistency in their whole approach.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government already seem to have conceded that point in relation to Cornwall, which does not have a mayor?
Yes, I think so. Ministers will have to explain that. I think their answer would be that Cornwall has elected councillors for one county, which is slightly different from the situation in combined authorities. I do not accept that, because I think we can come up with arrangements in combined authorities. Indeed, to come back to the Sheffield model, I understand that some of the economic items to be delegated, such as those on skills, will be devolved to the combined authority, not to the mayor, but that transport items will be devolved to the mayor. That means there will be a two-party approach: on some items, the elected leaders of the various constituent councils, acting as a combined authority, will have the powers, but other powers will go to the mayor. I think that will be more confusing than ever to the public, who will not know where powers rest under the new approach.
The Government must give thought to one or two things, as should local government. The deals being done—I understand how they are now being done to move forward a very centrist agenda on a more devolved basis—still give a bit of an impression that ideas are being cooked up in back rooms by councillors, and that deals are then done in back rooms with Ministers. We must try to move to having a more open debate. Ideas for devolution should be brought forward by councils and there should be a more open debate on the Government agreeing to such deals. We must find ways of involving the public more in the whole approach if we are to take them with us. In the end, one of the key issues of devolution should be greater public engagement, with the public feeling that they have more control over the decisions that affect their daily lives. That has to be a key element of devolution, but there is a problem at present.
I agree that we will eventually have to get an overall framework for devolution, including a list of powers that councils can have as of right. Ultimately, there must be a move from devolution by patronage—Ministers agreeing that certain things can be done in a certain way—to councils having the right to have such matters devolved to them. We are a step away from that situation at present, but we must move in that direction. As I said to my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), let us look at wider devolution—ultimately, we may want a constitutional convention—but in the meantime we must not stop the progress that is being made. Let us make sure that the devolution deals can go ahead and take us in the right direction of travel. Perhaps that is something on which we can get consensus.
I want to raise a couple of problems. In Sheffield, there is still a problem about the non-metropolitan districts that are part of the city region. It is unique as a city region because it crosses more than one region—it does away with the old regional boundaries—but the non-metropolitan areas cannot join the transport deal because transport is a county function. The elected mayor will cover only the south Yorkshire districts, not other districts in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, but it cannot be right that a devolved authority’s travel-to-work area is not covered by the new mayor who has responsibility for transport. That is a challenge and a problem.
I do not share the concerns that colleagues have expressed about health, although one of my concerns is that we do not really have standardised treatment and service levels throughout the national health service anyway. However, we must avoid the dead hand of centralism in the Department of Health stopping innovation at local level in joining up health and social care in a way that will be allowed under devolution deals, whether in a combined authority such as Manchester or in an individual authority such as Sheffield.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State has become a convert to fiscal devolution. In the end, real devolution is not just about allowing local authorities greater freedom to spend the money they are given by central Government; it has to be about more freedoms for councils to raise money. The Chancellor’s statement on the full localisation of the business rate is a step forward. In the last Parliament, the Communities and Local Government Committee produced a report on “Devolution in England: the case for local government”. I hope that the Government will look at the proposals for further fiscal devolution. Business rates and how full localisation is done are obviously important issues. As I said to the Secretary of State earlier, there is an opportunity, with the extra money retained in local government through full localisation, to allow more devolution right across the board. That will be a very big conversation during this Parliament, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State is committed to a full consultation on that both in Parliament and with local government as a whole.
I am glad to have caught your eye in this very important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am delighted to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). His experience clearly showed through during his speech, and I largely agree with everything he said.
I am delighted to join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his enthusiasm for this concept, which is one of the largest devolutions of powers to local government since the 1970s. We have to be careful how we do it, because we want to get it right, but I have no doubt that, for example, in Gloucestershire, to which more than £1 billion of public spending may be devolved, there is considerable scope for innovation to deliver better services on behalf of the people of Gloucestershire.
In Gloucestershire, the county council, six district councils, the local enterprise partnership, the clinical commissioning group and the police and crime commissioner have worked hard during the summer to produce a very credible, 75-page document, “We are Gloucestershire”, in which they set out their bid for devolution to Gloucestershire. On Monday, six of Gloucestershire’s MPs met to discuss the document. I must tell my right hon. Friend that there was a large measure of agreement, although we have some concerns, which I shall elucidate in my short speech.
Approximately £3 billion of public money is spent in Gloucestershire. However, taking out the Department for Work and Pensions budget for pensions and benefits and certain parts of the education budget, we estimate that about £1 billion of spending is likely to be devolved. As my right hon. Friend knows, Gloucestershire has the considerable advantage that all the institutions I have mentioned are coterminous with the county boundary, which makes our bid considerably easier. However, the document that has been produced is very light on governance. On this I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson). The devil is in the detail: how is this thing going to be managed? A delivery board will be needed, and all the partner institutions involved must be part of it.
We already have several joint structures in Gloucestershire: the £200 million business rate pool is one, and the joint working of Cotswold—my own council—West Oxfordshire, Forest of Dean and Cheltenham Councils is another. However, the really big prize in Gloucestershire would be the devolution of health and social services. That would be much easier under one authority, and it would stop the gaps that are currently emerging between different authorities.
There are two areas of concern: planning and elected mayors. Gloucestershire’s devolution bid states:
“We will integrate leadership and direction of the planning workforce across all agencies and appoint a Strategic Planning Commissioner to lead this work for Gloucestershire.”
That makes me uneasy. The district councils have local democratic accountability for planning. In my area, 80% of which is an area of outstanding natural beauty, planning is an extremely difficult and controversial matter. I would therefore be very uneasy to see it merged into one Gloucestershire-wide planning authority.
The second area of concern, on which I made a rather impish intervention on the Opposition spokesman, is elected mayors. I read out what the Bill says on the matter, so I will not do so again. The Government did make some concessions in the House of Lords by putting that clause in the Bill. However, I say to the Secretary of State that my feeling, from speaking to the authorities, is that if an elected mayor is imposed on Gloucestershire, this bid will not fly. At the moment, we want the leader of the county council to be in charge of the organisation. That is not to say that we will not move to an elected mayor in the future.
I think that having an elected mayor would have two consequences for Gloucestershire. First, we would have to move rapidly towards having a unitary authority, otherwise Gloucestershire would have too many democratic tiers. Secondly—I am not averse to this, I must say—we would have to lose our police and crime commissioner, because there would be no point in having another elected police body.
I want to raise one really important point with the Secretary of State that has not been aired in this debate, and that is the business of administrative savings. Whether the budget is £1 billion or more, there are currently a lot of Government mandarins administering it. When those people no longer have to administer the budget, I would like some of the savings to go to Gloucestershire. After all, Gloucestershire will have to employ extra people to administer it. It is only fair that some of the savings that the Treasury makes be devolved to Gloucestershire.
Finally and importantly, I point out to the Secretary of State that this excellent document was produced largely without consultation with Gloucestershire’s Members of Parliament. By their nature, Members of Parliament know better than almost anyone else what is going on on their patch and what their patch needs. It is therefore incumbent on any devolved organisation to have the closest possible co-operation with its Members of Parliament. I would like it written into any bid that Gloucestershire makes that the devolved organisations have to consult Members of Parliament on a regular basis. That must be meaningful consultation that they have to take notice of.
I warmly welcome the Bill. There are some difficulties with it and, inevitably, the devil is in the detail. However, it is a great concept that up and down this great nation of ours could unleash the potential of local enthusiasm and generate once again the Victorian idea of competition between local authorities to deliver better services on behalf of our people. That is surely what all of us here are all about.
I strongly welcome the Bill. It is an enabling Bill that will allow negotiations to take place between local authorities and central Government. Not before time, it brings the beginning of the end of centralisation in this country.
The Secretary of State gave one reason why this country has been so centralised: the drive for uniformity across the country. That was what was wrong with the reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s. It has been a sin of omission by the Labour party over the years to fail to devolve, because it has always looked for a perfect solution. The Conservatives committed more of a sin of commission in the rows between central and local government in the 1980s.
I refer right hon. and hon. Members to Lord Heseltine’s speech on Second Reading in the House of Lords. It was a mea culpa for his early career as a junior Minister in the Department of the Environment. He said that he was ashamed of some of his responses to local government at that time. However, Lord Heseltine and Lord Adonis have made a terrific contribution to the Bill and to devolution generally. I urge people to read Lord Heseltine’s speech.
I cannot support the Opposition amendment. To put it simply, if it were passed, all the work that has been done by local government leaders in Greater Manchester, west Yorkshire, south Yorkshire, Merseyside and elsewhere would be wasted. This is not a perfect Bill, but it is a good Bill in that it devolves power. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench have talked about consultation. I spoke to the leader of one of my councils this morning, and before the amendment was tabled by Labour Front Benchers there was no consultation on our position. That is a great shame.
One could make a very long speech about this Bill, but I just want to talk about a few matters. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) that it does not deal with the disparity in the distribution of money in this country, but it does deal with the disparity in the distribution of power and may well lead to better economic growth in the areas that have devolution. We do need to deal with that issue.
One item that has not been mentioned much in this debate and which I ask the Minister to mention in his winding-up speech is the re-regulation of buses, which is one of the really attractive parts of this devolution. Control of the bus network will come under the elected mayors. That proposal is not covered in the Bill, so when will it be brought forward? My worry is that although this Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are enthusiastic, I am less convinced that the Secretaries of State for Health and for Transport are quite so enthusiastic.
The area of greatest controversy is what has been called the imposition of an elected mayor. Really, it is a negotiation. I say to those who are opposed to it that many more powers and a lot more resources are being offered. Whether there is a referendum or whatever, there has to be an answer to the question of who will be elected to look after the extra resources and money. If it is not to be an elected mayor, we would have to recreate the old Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire County Councils or have a Greater London Authority-type structure. It seems to me that the best structure is an elected mayor, so that people know who they are voting for and who will have responsibility for the services. The core of democracy is the ability to throw people out of office. That cannot be done if there is secondary representation by elected leaders. An answer is needed to that fundamental question.
The hon. Gentleman has posed the most significant question in respect of elected mayors. Surely it should be the responsibility of combined authorities to make the decision. If they want an elected mayor, so be it, but if they want a GLA-type set up, surely that is their choice.
Traditionally, it has been the responsibility of the Government to determine the structure of local government and then for people to elect it. I am not saying that people should necessarily be excluded; I am just saying that people who do not like elected mayors have to come up with an alternative. I do not think that a combined authority is an alternative, which makes consulting people rather difficult. Given that we have waited so long for devolution, I do not want any barriers put in its way. It is better to have an imperfect system than to wait even longer for the perfect answer.
My hon. Friend is making a typically robust speech from his massive experience as a local government leader. Does he agree that we have to be careful that the mayoral issue does not divert us from the big picture of devolving powers and finance and making things work in the locality? If we are not careful, the mayoral question will become the Labour version of English votes for English laws, which has led the Conservatives to focus on just one aspect, to the detriment of the big picture.
I agree that that issue could become a road block to achieving what most people in this Chamber, and certainly in the other place—I have read the debates—want to achieve.
A number of people have raised concerns about health, and I think there are some misunderstandings about that. Health issues in Greater Manchester concern an agreement for the combined authority to exercise powers that have already been given to local government in a more effective way. I hope that in future more power will be given to local authorities to deal with health because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) says, our health service is not evenly spread out, and there will always be differences. The key issue here—as in the entire devolution debate—concerns whether key decisions on health are taken by elected people, or by non-elected people in Whitehall and elsewhere. I support such decisions being taken by elected people.
The power of devolution is that there are always tough decisions to be made, whether in times of cuts or times of growth, and being an elected politician is a tough business. Let us consider the most difficult decision that a politician, whether the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister or a local councillor, has to take: the closure of a hospital. Is it better for that decision to be taken by the Secretary of State in central Government with advice from civil servants in Whitehall, or would that decision—however difficult—be better taken locally? I come to the conclusion that such decisions are always better taken by local people.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who spoke more common sense in six minutes than, sadly, we heard from those on the Opposition Front Bench in 30 minutes.
I welcome this Bill because it moves forward work that was undertaken in the previous Parliament to replace the old centralised model or regional policy, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, with a genuine ambition to empower local people. For me, the big prize economically is the re-emergence of our great industrial cities—the Manchesters, Birminghams, Leeds, Nottinghams and, to keep my Committee Chair happy, I should add the Sheffields. It is vital to empower those city regions so that they regain and renew their wealth, power and competitiveness. This enabling Bill gives Ministers powers within a framework, and I ask them to continue with their ambitious approach to devolution because small incremental steps will not be sufficient. I know that will always be the ambition of the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues, but let us keep the pace going because that ambition exists across the House.
In the 4.8 minutes that I have left I wish to touch on three issues: business rates, city governance and metro mayors. Last week we heard from the Chancellor about an excellent fiscal devolution, which will keep my Committee Chair happy. That is a big policy change; it is £26 billion and a major shift in policy and resource. I encourage Ministers not to be inveigled by their civil servants into trying to ring-fence the extra money that will come when metro mayors are able to raise the basic rate. Ministers no doubt already have plans for the fine details on that issue, but they should not be tempted to ring-fence and instead should rely on local accountability. Those who run local businesses are the best people to judge whether a proposed scheme in their locality is right—after all, they are being asked to fund it. Following the business improvement district model, let us try not to over-define things at the centre. We should use local judgment and let the payers decide.
My second point is about what I consider to be the most important principle underpinning this Bill: the principle of collaboration. For too long the old silo mentality has persisted in the public sector with single issue Departments fighting over what they see as “their” budgets, and councillors squabbling between neighbouring authorities. That needs to change. For devolution to succeed, local governance needs to become more holistic and to deliver public services in the round, not within narrow bureaucratic silos. It should be about outcomes for people, not incomes for different Departments. To achieve that, other changes will be needed. First, city regions will need to embrace emerging smart technologies, which places such as Milton Keynes and Bristol are already adopting. The opportunity to transform the design and delivery of public services across an area is within our grasp, but that means ensuring that we embrace the principles of open data, connecting different Departments, agencies, and national quangos in that area, and for local leaders to be willing to share power and budgets, and focus on solving problems rather than running fiefdoms.
Thirdly, the Bill seeks to usher in a new form of mayor—the metro mayor—which I welcome. I accept that outside our larger cities that may not be the only or best form of governance, but for my money I think that the establishment of metro mayors is the best way forward for our cities. Our emerging city regions need strong leadership; they need people who have a vision that reaches beyond their ward boundaries and who have real world experience. The direct election of a city region mayor is the best way to achieve that as it will attract the calibre of people that we need and that our cities deserve. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) pointed out, a mayor will provide a visible figurehead who is accountable to the people they serve.
What we have in London is what happens in most major cities across the world, and it is frankly time that our cities caught up. Our cities need a new model of governance that attracts the brightest and best, and provides real answers and direct accountability to their citizens. It is a model under which—dare I say it?—our political parties will have less control. For me that is a good thing.
In many ways I would like the Bill to be more ambitious, but I am well aware, as the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, that we must be practical. The idea of a revolution overnight would not work. This evolutionary process is making real progress on the ground, and people are starting to notice it. We should recognise that more and more people live in our cities, and that the shift in demographics is inexorable—that is the future. When I look at cities such as Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield or Birmingham, I see a genuine sense of growing pride and prosperity, and that is the prize within the Bill. There will be problems with the details, but if we keep our eye on that prize, we can make real progress for the next generation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). Like them, I strongly support the move towards more devolution, but we should not get misty-eyed about metro mayors or local government in general. We are now—rightly, perhaps—sceptical about centralised decision-making from Whitehall, and in that spirit I think that the provocative scepticism of those on the Opposition Front Bench is right.
I am entirely comfortable with the thrust of the Bill, although I think there are some omissions, the biggest of which relates to London. London is different from the rest of England in terms of the scale of appetite and need for further devolution. I say that not to minimise the argument for further devolution in the north, Cornwall or elsewhere, but rather to underline the scale of the challenges currently facing London.
London’s population is bigger than that of Scotland or Wales, yet it does not have power to tackle the—at times breathtaking—levels of poverty and inequality. London is growing by more than 100,000 people a year, and it is expected to do so for at least the next decade, bringing with it range of additional challenges that are not replicated to the same degree elsewhere in England.
The housing crisis in London is bad now, but it is only likely to get worse without substantial extra devolution. Many in the House will be familiar with the development of London’s infrastructure, which has too often been characterised, particularly on the big projects, by lengthy delays. In part, that has been driven by the number of players involved in decision making, not least in central Government.
London should be given the tools in full to tackle our housing crisis in particular. Through the Mayor and the London Assembly, it should be given the right to legislate on London housing matters. Legislative power over housing was devolved to Scotland in 1998 and to Wales in 2011. I simply ask the House why London, where the crisis is so acute, should not have the same powers: judgment on control of rents, on whether right to buy should be extended, on levels of property tax, and on funding for new affordable housing. Targets for percentages of new-build schemes given over to sheltered housing or social rent ought to sit in one place, enabling one body or one figure to develop a clear, holistic strategy for housing in London. At the moment, the Mayor has his hand on some of the levers, but for too many others it is to Whitehall that he has to go, and not just to one Whitehall Department but to a number of Departments. I gently suggest that that needs to change. I hope to table a probing amendment to test the appetite of the House on devolving legislative power on housing to the London Assembly.
In Wales, we suffer from referendum fatigue. Whenever significant powers are to be devolved to Wales, there is always a referendum. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there should be a referendum before legislative powers are handed down to the London Assembly?
There is a justification for having a referendum in London to consider the extension of powers: we had one when we set up the Mayor and the Assembly. If there is to be further substantial devolution then there is certainly a case to be made for a referendum to cement mayoral and Assembly authority over those additional powers.
Another area for London ought to be full fiscal devolution. I welcome the announcement on business rates, but I am afraid that does not go far enough. All property taxes should be devolved. The all-party consensus of the mayoral London Finance Commission report published in 2013 was for a pound-for-pound reduction in revenue support grant as the quid pro quo that London offers back. It remains opaque at best on why the Treasury will not agree not just to business rates but to additional property taxes to London.
I am enjoying very much my hon. Friend’s review of where we are on local government finance in London. Does he not accept that we have broken the precedent with the Treasury by having income tax assignment for Scotland? The law was passed three or four years ago, before the devolution referendum. It now, very properly, has a system of income tax devolution. Is not the long-term answer to have a proper baseline budget, rather than little slices, so that London, Nottingham and every other part of the country can look after its own affairs?
My hon. Friend is, as ever, ahead of me. I share his view that in time—particularly if there are substantial additional public services responsibilities devolved to London, not least the extra powers, alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), relating to healthcare—there would be a case for more control à la Scotland, certainly the ability in the current settlement to vary levels of income tax. Why should London or Nottingham not be able to impose new additional levies—for example, a tourist levy that many other big world cities, such as New York, can impose? It is striking that in London business has strongly supported the devolution to local control of all property taxes, not just business rates. They see it as essential to speed up infrastructure development. I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to use their influence with the Chancellor to encourage him to go even further down the line of fiscal devolution.
There is also a question about the living wage. Why does that need to be controlled by the Treasury? Why should the decision not be set, after consultation with business, by local people? There could perhaps be a local minimum set by national Government, with the actual rate determined by at regional level by local decision makers. I again draw the attention of the House to London, where a living wage and a living income would be very different from that in other parts of the UK.
If there is to be a further devolution of powers to London—I hope there will be—we need to consider stronger scrutiny powers for the London Assembly. The Assembly ought to be able to scrutinise the heads of major public utilities—such as water, electricity, gas, National Rail and broadband providers—on their London work programmes and on how Londoners will be affected by their decisions, in the same way that the Assembly is able to scrutinise other crucial services, such as policing and transport. I commend the case for further devolution to London and hope to probe this issue with the Government in due course.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this very important debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Listening to the contributions we have had so far, it is clear that devolution means different things to different parts of the country. That is why giving powers back to local communities is so important, as different regions can champion their strengths while taking steps to address the challenges they face. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and the Minister for all their work to bring the Bill forward, and for their readiness to meet interested parties.
Speaking as a proud Yorkshireman, and looking at what devolution might bring to our great county, it is essential that the whole of Yorkshire benefits from the devolved powers on offer. Nowhere should be left behind. This is not just about our cities; this is about empowering our rural hinterland. Manchester and Sheffield have now secured settlements, and the precedent for countywide devolution has been set by Cornwall. However, the question of devolving powers to the rest of Yorkshire remains to be answered.
Of the four competing bids the Treasury received, it is my sincere hope that the Chancellor will recognise the unique strengths of the Greater Yorkshire bid. Sadly, there are some who would prefer to see our great county carved up. Doing so could, sadly, only serve to marginalise our rural and coastal communities, which are as much a part of Yorkshire as the metropolitan centres of Leeds and Bradford.
As a fellow Yorkshire MP, I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says. Does he think that, because of the very rushed nature of the bids—they had to be in very quickly—the debate we really should have had in Yorkshire about that Greater Yorkshire model has not taken place? We have ended up, as he says, with several bids going in, dividing up Yorkshire in an unhelpful way.
I have a lot of sympathy for what the hon. Lady says. In horseracing terms, the Greater Yorkshire bid was slow out of the stalls, but is gathering pace and coming up fast on the rails. I sincerely hope it will end up winning the day.
Tearing the three ridings apart, as the hon. Lady mentioned, would undermine the strong bonds of culture, identity and friendship—Yorkshire is a very friendly place, as I am sure you would agree, Mr Deputy Speaker—and weaken what we could achieve. The devolution project is about scale, with communities coming together to be greater than the sum of their parts. Bringing many parts of Yorkshire together under a Greater Yorkshire bid would allow us to use the Yorkshire brand to unleash our true potential. It is clear that people want to see us put old rivalries aside, and devolution should not be used as just a power-grabbing exercise. The public have placed their trust in us to devolve the powers they need to succeed, and it would be a betrayal to put petty party politics first.
That gives rise to the question, though, of why such deals, which should be owned and led by local businesses and communities, are instead being negotiated, to some degree, behind closed doors. Negotiations cannot be completely open—I accept that—but there has to be an opportunity to scrutinise the devolution deals on offer before they are accepted by local authorities. The greatest danger in politics, and the downfall of many Governments, is to stop listening to the people, thinking that we in this place know best.
That brings me to one area of devolution about which I am yet to be completely convinced. People have told us time and again that they do not want elected mayors. In 2004, plans for regional assemblies were abandoned after the north-east gave a resounding no to such a proposal. Of the 10 referendums held in our largest cities in 2012, nine gave another resounding no to elected mayors. True devolution can succeed only when we listen to what people tell us.
Where are we heading on this devolution journey and what is the ultimate end-game? As Scotland has shown, does devolution satisfy the need for local decision making, or does it ultimately lead to division and even greater demands for more power? Once Pandora’s box has been opened, can it ever be closed again?
Although I very much support the principle of devolution and what the Government are trying to achieve, we must be aware that this is not going to be a smooth journey. We need clarity on where devolution is going to take us. We must move with caution and get the right deals for the right reasons. Do we have to have elected mayors—another layer of politics—to deliver that? I am not convinced as yet.
The ultimate aim of devolution must be to close the historic north-south divide, not by dragging London down, but by learning from its example and raising our game to compete with the best in the world. A Greater Yorkshire deal—a Yorkshire brand—could compete with anywhere in the world. You will probably agree with that as well, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Closing the north-south divide can be achieved only if devolution is allowed to percolate right through our great county. Like the Tour de Yorkshire, it must run from Settle to Scarborough, from Whitby to Wensleydale, taking in all the country’s market towns, coastal resorts and ancient cities—in short, the very best that Yorkshire has to offer. We must not rush this once-in-a-generation opportunity for greater powers. Let us get the right deal for our regions and the right deal for a Greater Yorkshire.
Before I came to this House in May, I had spent 18 years as a city councillor in Manchester, and I am very proud of what we achieved for our city in that time. We have shown how good civic leadership can help transform a city and create partnerships that really help to improve the lives of our citizens. We led the way not just in leading the demands for devolved powers, but in demonstrating that local government has the capacity and the vision to use them.
Local people know their communities best and how best to deliver for them, so I welcome the principle of devolution of powers in the Bill. Indeed, I welcome the deal that has been agreed for Greater Manchester. Devolution is a Labour value, giving power to people and communities who know what is best for them.
I have two concerns about the Government’s plans. First, funding needs to follow powers, and that is in the interests of not just local government, but national Government as well. I spent three difficult years as executive member for finance on Manchester City Council having to make incredibly tough decisions on cuts to services as a result of the unfair funding cuts imposed by the coalition Government. We had to take £250 million out of our budget over the course of the last Parliament. If Members consider that that reduction took our budget down to about £550 million, they will understand the scale of the problems we faced.
We dealt with that very effectively through improving efficiencies and revolutionising the way in which we deliver services, and devolution of powers will allow us greater freedom to do that. That level of cuts, however, is not sustainable, and local government, as many are aware, faces a struggle to keep non-statutory services going if those cuts continue. Even worse, some local authorities face the real possibility of becoming financially unviable. Local government could become unviable as a result not of its own actions, but of the actions of the Government in starving deprived areas of funding. If the Government carry on with that level of cuts, it is their own devolution project that will be at risk. Devolution simply will not work without proper funding. We cannot devolve responsibilities without the resources to fulfil them.
Secondly, the one-size-fits-all approach is not the way forward. A few years ago the people of Manchester decisively rejected the idea of an elected mayor. I believe that was because they did not see the need for it. Good civic leadership can come in many different forms, and Manchester—under the excellent leadership of Sir Richard Leese and, before that, of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), as well as that of the Greater Manchester combined authority—has shown that we have not just a successful council, but a model for the use of devolved powers across Greater Manchester that has been developed by Greater Manchester.
The citizens of Manchester were not given the option of a metro mayor; the proposal they rejected was, in effect, to directly elect the council leader. Some of the critics of the metro mayor model clearly do not understand the difference between an elected council leader and what is now being offered for the conur