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Commons Chamber

Volume 600: debated on Thursday 15 October 2015

House of Commons

Thursday 15 October 2015

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Transport for London Bill [Lords]

Motion made,

That the promoters of the Transport for London Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2010–12 on 24 January 2011, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Human Rights Act 1998

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998. (901576)

2. What steps he plans to take to ensure that proposals for reform of the Human Rights Act 1998 meet the UK’s domestic and international human rights obligations. (901577)

The Justice Secretary and I meet regularly to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. I am not, as the House knows, able to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether the Law Officers have given advice or not is not disclosed outside government.

The public need to be aware that withdrawing from the Human Rights Act does not mean that we will withdraw from human rights, because people will still be able to have those rights. It is just that rather than get them in British courts they will have to traipse off to Strasbourg to get them. The British public need to be made aware of the situation. The issue, of course, is about the convention. Are the Government proposing to withdraw from the European convention on human rights, a move that would remove human rights in this country, rather than just from the Human Rights Act?

The hon. Gentleman is right to a certain extent, but of course he will have to wait for the proposals that the Justice Secretary will make on human rights reform. The other point for the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind is that it is not just the Court in Strasbourg that protects the human rights of British citizens. The British courts do, too, and I believe we can rely on the robustness and good sense of British judges to protect those rights.

Because so many people in my constituency had written to me expressing their concerns about the Government’s plans on this issue, I organised a meeting during the recess. The dozens of people who came along had one simple question, which I hope the Attorney General will be able to answer: which of the rights currently contained within the Human Rights Act would he and the Government wish to see excluded from a British Bill of Rights?

Again, as the hon. Gentleman has heard me say, he will have to wait for the precise proposals we are going to make. It is worth pointing out that the rights he is talking about are found not in the Human Rights Act, but in the European convention on human rights. The Government have made it clear, as I have on previous occasions, that we do not object to the content of the convention—we object to the way it is interpreted.

One important issue in terms of the credibility of the European Court of Human Rights is the quality of the judges. We are shortly to appoint a new British judge, so can the Attorney General assure us that we will ensure that we have a judge of the very highest quality appointed? Unfortunately, the quality some of the appointments from other jurisdictions, not ours, have in the past caused concerns to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the quality of the judiciary matters hugely, in Strasbourg and elsewhere. As he has heard me say, we share confidence in the quality of the British judiciary, and I hope very much that one of those excellent judges will be prepared to serve in Strasbourg so that our point of view can be clearly represented.

Does the Attorney General agree that the most convincing argument as to why this Government must press ahead with this move as quickly as possible is set out on page 60 of the Conservative party manifesto? It states:

“The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights.”

Some 11.3 million people voted for that and they will expect it to be carried out quickly.

My hon. Friend will know that I share his enthusiasm for this reform, and I stood on that manifesto, too, and believe in it. But it is important also to make sure that we get this reform right and that we have the details worked out before we announce what we wish to do. There will of course also be an opportunity for all Members of this House to comment on what is proposed, because I know that the Justice Secretary intends to consult on the matter.

The proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act and the potential withdrawal from the ECHR has serious constitutional implications for Scotland. Has the Attorney General seen the proposals and will he be delivering legal advice before they are published in the public domain?

As the hon. Gentleman has heard me say to the Select Committee, I would certainly expect to see the proposals before they are published. He is right, of course, that the devolution consequences of any changes that might be made are significant or potentially significant, depending on what is done. I am afraid that, until we see what is proposed, it is difficult to assess exactly what those consequences might be.

When my constituents say, “Philip, we voted Conservative because we wanted to get rid of the Human Rights Act, when is it going to happen?” what should I tell them?

My hon. Friend can tell his constituents, as we should all tell our constituents, that manifesto promises matter, and this Government intend to honour their manifesto. Of course, a manifesto does not all have to be delivered in the first six months of government. We will seek to do so as soon as possible. I know that the Justice Secretary and his colleagues are working very hard on bringing forward proposals.

Does the Attorney General accept that the continuing uncertainty about whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR is itself damaging? Given that the proposal for a British Bill of Rights has been around in the Conservative party for a considerable time, why cannot the Attorney General be certain and tell us whether the UK will remain a signatory to the ECHR or not?

I do not accept that that uncertainty is damaging. What is happening is that we are seeking a better settlement on the arrangements at Strasbourg. We believe that, on issues such as prisoner voting, it is important that this House, not the Court in Strasbourg, should make the decision. That requires a discussion with the Council of Europe. That discussion will take place. It is important that we on the Conservative Benches at least say that the status quo is unacceptable and that we need to do something about it. If the Opposition believe that the status quo is acceptable, they should make that clear.

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is something of a veteran at chuntering from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the Government Front-Bench team’s position, but he will have his opportunity, on his feet, in due course.

Rape and Domestic Violence

4. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the last two years. (901579)

8. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence in the last two years. (901584)

This year, more cases of violence against women and girls have been referred from the police, charged, prosecuted and convicted than ever before. The work undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service and the police on rape and domestic abuse culminated in the highest volumes ever of prosecutions and convictions in 2014-15.

In the West Mercia region, in which my constituency is located, we have seen the rape crisis go up this year to 700 from 400 cases. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that we are doing everything we can to make sure that these people are prosecuted?

CPS West Midlands has a specialist rape and serious sexual offences unit in recognition of the increasing volume of rape and serious sexual offences reported. CPS West Midlands has increased the size of the unit and the team continues to work very closely with the police, victims groups and the independent Bar to ensure that strong cases are built and witnesses looked after.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his original answer. Has he brought forward any specific steps to support an increase in convictions where men are the victims of rape or domestic abuse?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and let me assure him that when it comes to the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences, it applies equally to men as to women. Boys, of course, can also sadly be the victims of sexual abuse. Sentencing guidelines, of course, draw no distinction of gender, and neither should the investigation or prosecution of offences.

Despite claims of the highest number of convictions ever, the fact is that in the last year the number of convictions for rape, domestic abuse and other serious sexual offences has fallen. What is the Solicitor General going to do to turn those worrying figures around?

I think the hon. Gentleman means that the rate has fallen slightly. I think it important to continue to prosecute more and more of these cases. For too long, many victims have found that their cases have not even been brought to court. Looking at the analysis of rape convictions, I am encouraged to see that the number of convictions that have not been brought because of a prosecution failure is reducing, so drilling down and looking at the reasons for the non-convictions is very important. We have to continue progress in that direction.

Successfully prosecuting rape and domestic violence cases clearly requires a properly resourced CPS, yet the budget has been slashed by 25% since 2010 and the rate of ineffective and cracked trials owing to prosecution issues is at a five-year high. With senior respected personnel leaving and expressing grave concerns, do the Solicitor General and the Attorney General really believe that the CPS can sustain more cuts on the same scale and still deliver justice?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is in error when she suggests that the number of ineffective trials is at an all-time high. As I have said, the number of cases being prosecuted continues to increase, and there is no question of prosecutions not being brought because of a lack of resources. Rape and serious sexual offences units are well resourced, and they will continue to be resourced by the CPS.

Vulnerable Witnesses

5. What steps he plans to take to protect child witnesses in sex abuse and other cases from intimidation during cross- examination. (901580)

11. What recent steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to improve its engagement with and support for vulnerable witnesses. (901587)

The defence case has to be put to all prosecution witnesses, but in order to ensure effective cross-examination, a mandatory advocacy course for all defence advocates is being developed and will include the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses. Pre-recorded cross-examination has already been piloted successfully, and we are committed to a national roll-out.

In 2011, at Stafford Crown court, a victim of child abuse was cross-examined in a vicious and intimidatory way for 12 days by a team of seven barristers, during a session in which the judge was generally thought to have lost control of the courtroom. Such cross-examination is a massive disincentive for others to come forward. Four years later, may I ask what steps have been taken to prevent it from happening again?

I well remember that case. The good news is that in the retrial matters were handled very differently, and the outcome was successful. However, intimidatory cross-examination should not happen. Judges have a duty to ensure that young witnesses are not cross-examined inappropriately. As I have said, a new advocacy course is being developed to ensure that that sort of abuse does not happen again.

Will the Solicitor General tell us what the CPS is doing to help vulnerable witnesses, such as victims of human trafficking, to give evidence in courts?

Recently, the CPS drew up new guidelines for the care of witnesses in court. Those guidelines are currently being piloted and will be rolled out nationally in the new year. They will go a long way towards supporting witnesses, while avoiding the dangers of coaching witnesses in the giving of evidence, which, of course, would not be desirable.

In the last few years, it has become clear that a great many young people have been sexually abused over a number of years and are traumatised by that abuse. Can the Solicitor General assure the House that the necessary resources are available so that the young people in all those cases can be looked after?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. As I have said many times before, when it comes to the protection of vulnerable witnesses and complainants in criminal cases, the CPS is always working to improve its processes so that the experience can be as smooth as possible. What we do not want is a repeat, in effect, of the abuse that those people originally suffered when they come to court and give evidence.

14. Operation Bullfinch, in Oxford, introduced a number of radically different procedures for coping with vulnerable witnesses. What lessons have been learnt from that? (901590)

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in improving the processes as a result of that case, which helped to revolutionise the way in which the investigatory authorities all work together. There have been a number of other successful investigations in his own police area, which are helping to improve national practice, and there is a much greater understanding across the country of the way in which such cases can be effectively prosecuted.


The role of the Law Officers in relation to military action overseas is to advise as necessary on legal questions, not to authorise the action. The use of drones in military action overseas does not of itself necessarily give rise to legal questions. The deployment of one form of equipment or another rarely does, in and of itself. Whether legal questions arise will depend on the operational context in which any form of military deployment was undertaken, and the reason for it.

Technological development can undermine legislation under all Governments, but particularly under this Government, who seem to have no strategy for it. We need to know that, while the strikes may be made by drones, the decision makers are still accountable to the House. When will the Attorney General establish a clear legislative and ethical framework in relation to future drone strikes?

Again, that is not my role within government, but the hon. Lady knows that the Prime Minister was extremely eager to come to Parliament and explain the basis of the decision to take the drone strike of 21 August, and he did so on the first available opportunity.

In terms of setting frameworks, it is important of course to treat every case on its merits. In relation to the legal position, as in relation to a political decision making process, each instance will be different and each must be considered on its own facts.

The recent drone strike in Syria was described by the Prime Minister as a “new departure” and a first in modern times. The Prime Minister said he is

“happy to look at what other ways there may be of making sure these sorts of acts are scrutinised”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2015; Vol. 599, c. 31.]

Given that any action must be necessary and proportionate to meet the key legal tests, will the Attorney General update us on the discussions between the Government and the Intelligence and Security Committee on reviewing the action and any framework that will be put in place to ensure proper scrutiny in future?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities and wish her well in them. I have no doubt that the new Chairman of the ISC will be discussing with the Government what inquiries they wish to take forward. On my engagement in the process, as the hon. Lady understands, the Law Officers convention makes it clear that legal advice is not disclosed outside government, nor in the generality of cases is even the fact of legal advice disclosed, but she knows, too, that in relation to this incident I thought it was right and proper that the fact of legal advice having been given should be disclosed, and it was. I hope she will understand how difficult it is to go any further than that without undermining the good reasons that I believe lie behind the LOC.

Court Time

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that court time is not wasted. (901582)

The listing of court cases is a judicial function and a responsibility of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, but when cases are listed the CPS takes steps to make sure the prosecution case is properly prepared and ready for an effective court hearing so the time set aside is fully utilised.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but during a visit to Corby magistrates court I was shocked to hear about how much court time is wasted owing to the CPS not having its case together in time for when it is scheduled. Does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable for cases that are not complete to be brought to court? We really do need to get away from this; it is unacceptable and it wastes not only time but money.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know he works very hard with his local courts service. A lot of innovation with regard to transforming summary justice and the increasing use of digital processes is leading to quicker timescales, much more effective first hearings and a more efficient use of court time, so I think he has reasons to be optimistic.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

A constituent of mine who is a very competent manager recently did jury service. He said the court system was medieval and it was about time someone came in and organised it better, managed it better and gave a real return to the taxpayer, with better justice delivered quickly.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. After many years in the courts system myself, I understand his constituent’s concerns. The good news is that a lot of work is being done to digitise the paperwork so that time can be saved. Already there is a new proposed roll-out next year, which will co-ordinate the way in which the courts work with the CPS and other agencies so the sort of delays that irritated his constituent can be reduced and removed.

Human Trafficking Offences: Forced Labour

9. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase the number of successful prosecutions for human trafficking offences involving forced labour. (901585)

In advance of the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 the CPS delivered joint training with the police and issued guidance to strengthen prosecutions. In forced labour cases the CPS also encourages prosecution for other offences such as trafficking for forced labour, money laundering, benefit and mortgage fraud, tax evasion and Gangmasters (Licensing) Act offences.

Given the sheer number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, taking action against human traffickers is of the utmost importance in protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people. What steps is my hon. and learned Friend taking to improve the confiscation of the proceeds of exploiting migrant workers into modern-day slavery?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this issue. The Crown Prosecution Service is helping to improve the situation by building capacity and capability in other countries, because this is an international problem. This is being done by better linking the work of the regional asset recovery teams with that of the human trafficking investigators, so that financial investigation can become sharper and more efficient.

13. My hon. and learned Friend has outlined what is being done on an international basis. Will he go further and confirm that the Immigration Bill, which had its Second Reading this week, will help to tackle this disgraceful problem at a domestic level? (901589)

The Minister for Immigration and I have the duty of taking that Bill through its stages in this House, and I can assure my hon. Friend that its provisions will dovetail well to improve the range of tools that the authorities have to protect victims of trafficking and prosecute perpetrators.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Women and Girls in Sport

1. What steps the Government are taking to increase the participation of women and girls in sport. (901556)

9. What steps the Government are taking to increase the participation of women and girls in sport. (901564)

First, I would like to welcome the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) to their new positions. I should also like to thank the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) for her commitment to promoting equality.

The Government are determined to tackle this important issue. The award-winning This Girl Can campaign is a fantastic example of the work we have been doing to encourage women into sport. It features real women of all different shapes, sizes and abilities taking part in sport and, most importantly, having fun. We know that 75% of women want to be more active, and this campaign, which has been viewed by more than 13 million people, offers them the inspiration to do just that.

The Pendle sports awards, which took place just two weeks ago, recognised the achievements of sportswomen across Pendle, including Bethany Widdup, who is now a member of the British ski team, and many others who have excelled thanks to grass-roots sports clubs across Pendle. What more can my hon. Friend do to give our local sports clubs the help they need to get even more women and girls involved?

First, I should like to add my own congratulations to Bethany. Awards such as those in Pendle provide a fantastic way of recognising the enormous effort that goes into grass-roots sport across the country, almost always involving incredible volunteers. Schemes such as satellite clubs, supported by Sport England, are helping to link schools and colleges to grass-roots sports clubs across the country, giving a better sporting experience to children and young people.

This week I watched the excellent film “Suffragette”, which illustrated just how far we have progressed in creating a fair and equal society over the past 100 years. Does the Minister agree that sport is a very effective way of continuing to make such progress? Will she join me in congratulating the media on the much greater coverage that is now being given to the participation of women in sport?

I absolutely agree. We have further to go, but—without wishing to rub salt into the wounds of our English gentlemen—I must mention the fact that the brilliant performance of our women’s teams in the recent football, rugby and netball world cups has showcased some fantastic role models and demonstrated character and success. That is exactly why they deserve all the media coverage they are getting—and, indeed, much more.

If we are to build a healthier society, our children will need to engage in sport from a very young age. This applies especially to girls, who, sadly, opt out all too frequently. Some excellent youth programmes for boys and girls are running in Taunton Deane, including the centre for cricketing excellence, Taunton Vale hockey club, Taunton rugby club and Taunton football club. Will the Minister expand a little further on what the Government are doing, especially for young schoolchildren’s participation in sport?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The good news is that, in Taunton, 4,700 more women are regularly playing sport today than in 2005. Research published by the Government Equalities Office shows that year 3 is the critical stage at which to keep girls motivated to play sport. That is the last academic year before the difference between girls and boys—in terms of confidence, body image and sporting participation—starts to grow. That is why investment in schools sports, such as the £150 million a year for primary PE, is so vital for helping girls to develop this very healthy habit for life.

I commend Manchester City football club for its women and girls programme, which provides 12 weekly sessions free of charge to girls and women between the ages of 14 and 25 to increase their participation in football. Do we not need to see other such examples spread right across football in the country?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fantastic point. It is an incredibly successful girls’ football team, and I know that the sports Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), is a huge champion of women’s football and not a bad football player herself.

There are great opportunities for girls to participate in sport, especially in rugby and football, at schools and universities. What has been done to provide that same provision at clubs after university?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We want to encourage that participation through school, university and out into life afterwards. That is why the This Girl Can campaign, which shows real women taking part in sport that is fun and not just competitive, has been such a fantastic way of encouraging them to get out there and lead a healthy lifestyle.

15. As the chairman of the all-party group for running and the father of a young daughter, I am very keen to encourage more girls to take up running, particularly through the excellent parkrun scheme. Mr Speaker, those runs are a great way to start a Saturday morning for those who, like yourself, have a young family. I recommend three miles around your local park. What is the impact of the Government’s investment in the school sports premium particularly on the take-up of sport by girls? (901570)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he is no mean marathon runner himself. Running is a fantastic form of exercise and parkrun has been particularly effective at encouraging inactive people and those from all age groups to get involved in sport. In recognition of that, Sport England is investing £400,000 in parkrun to support its work. The primary PE and sports premium has been really effective in allowing schools to tailor this offer to pupils, giving them suitable opportunities to target particular groups, especially girls.

Gender Pay Gap

2. What steps she is taking to tackle the causes of the gender pay gap (a) in general and (b) in STEM careers. (901557)

I echo my hon. Friend’s welcome to the new shadow Ministers and I look forward to debates on these important issues.

The gender pay gap has fallen to its lowest ever level, but any gap at all is unacceptable, which is why the Prime Minister has pledged to eliminate the gap in a generation. Transparency is an important step in tackling the matter, which is why, within 100 days of the election, the Government have taken steps to fulfil their manifesto commitment by launching a consultation on legislation that will require companies to publish details of their gender pay gap. We must also tackle the causes themselves, by encouraging girls to consider a wide range of careers, including those in the science, technology, engineering and maths fields, and by transforming our workplaces.

I thank the Minister for her answer. The overall pay gap of 2014 stands at 19.1%. Does she agree that more needs to be done to help full-time carers and full-time parents who decide to re-enter the workplace so that we can reduce the pay gap?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, the gender pay gap in her own constituency is 14.3%, which is below the national average. Of course we must help more parents to get back into the workplace. I am very clear that childcare is not just a women’s issue, but a parents’ issue, which is why we are introducing flexible working, shared parental leave and more free childcare. We are also tackling the barriers that affect carers, which is why we launched nine pilots across England to test different approaches to supporting female carers to remain in work.

The Minister knows well that girls who give up STEM subjects early on do not get into good management jobs later on. Is it not important to measure how many women are getting into senior positions, particularly in the private sector?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is why transparency is so important and why the regulations that we propose will cover the private sector. He is right in what he says. Women form 47% of the workforce, but make up only 34% of managers, directors and senior officials. This must be the time to make the change.

I applaud the Minister and the Government for their commitment to eliminate the gender pay gap. This generation of women over 50 working full time earn just two thirds of what men of the same age earn. What specific policies do this Government have to address that particular enduring pay gap?

I thank the Chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee for her question. She will know from her time in government that one of the Women’s Business Council’s key strands of work involves helping older workers to stay in work. This is, of course, also about helping women to stay in work for a longer period and to get as high up in their careers as possible before they take time out for caring responsibilities. I have also mentioned the carers pilots because, sadly, even in the 21st century, the burden of caring for older relatives still often falls on women. We have to change that.

A recent report by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that when parents were asked what type of job they want their child to pursue when they finish education there was a clear gender bias, with parents wanting for their son a career in engineering and for their daughter a career in nursing. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that we break down those barriers?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is good to see, for example, that maths is now the most popular A-level, and we have more girls studying STEM subjects at both GCSE and A-level. Women are concentrated in the less well-paid occupations, making up 92% of secretaries and 94% of childcare assistants but only 7% of engineers and 20% of architects. Again, that has to change.

Caste Discrimination

3. If she will bring forward legislative proposals to repeal the provisions relating to caste discrimination in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. (901558)

The Government completely oppose caste discrimination and the judgments in the Tirkey v. Chandhok case suggest that legal protection against such discrimination already exists under the Equality Act 2010. We are considering the legislative position in the light of those judgments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. She will be aware that the case was brought under the Equality Act 2010, not the ill-thought-out and unnecessary amendment made in the other place to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act. This unnecessary and divisive legislation has caused consternation in the Hindu community. Will she undertake not only not to trigger that legislation but to repeal it so that the Hindu community will know where it stands legally?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I know that he feels passionately about this matter. There are, of course, strong opinions on both sides of the debate. It is important, given the case that I have just mentioned, to remember that the law as it stands has changed because of that judgment. A litigant could now seek to bring a case of caste discrimination in an employment tribunal using the ethnic origin provisions in the Equality Act, which is why we should take time to look at the judgment before making further decisions.

New Businesses (Government Support)

4. What steps the Government are taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901559)

5. What steps the Government are taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901560)

14. What steps the Government are taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901569)

I am delighted that the UK is considered the best place in Europe for women to start a business, but we are not resting on our laurels. That is why we have launched the women in broadband fund and are running meet a mentor roadshows across the country, giving women the support, advice and skills they need.

If the Minister has the opportunity to speak to the Secretary of State for Education, will she encourage her to ensure that girls consider topics such as economics and business studies so that we can get more young women to start their own business?

Well, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State is nodding furiously at me so I will take that as a yes. We have been celebrating and showcasing women in business as a great way of inspiring the next generation and, of course, we have set up the new business and enterprise company as a great way of showing girls the fantastic careers available to them in both business and enterprise.

I thank the Minister for her original answer. Women entrepreneurs such as Jodie Sheppard from my Havant constituency, who has launched a business helping to improve children’s fitness, are excellent local role models. Does the Minister agree that organisations such as the Women’s Business Council offer excellent support for our women business leaders, and will the Government continue to work hard to help women who want to start their own business?

Jodie Sheppard, who founded Active8 Minds in Havant, is an excellent example of a capable woman running her own business and will, I am sure, be delighted with the fantastic plug her MP has given her business today. I certainly agree that the Women’s Business Council has a vital role in supporting women to reach their potential. We know that if women started their own businesses at the same rate as men do, we would have an extra 1 million women involved and an extra 1 million businesses in the UK.

Cheltenham is home to thousands of talented female entrepreneurs, but broadband and superfast broadband are key to unlocking that potential. How are the Government helping more women in Cheltenham to grow their businesses online?

The fund has been extended for a second year, with an additional £1.1 million to support more women to take their businesses online, enabling them to develop the skills they need to become competitive in a growing digital economy. One example of which my hon. Friend might be aware is the Faster Women project, which is supporting women in Herefordshire and Gloucestershire to develop digital skills. Today, a workshop is taking place in his very own Cheltenham to help women take the first steps to putting their businesses online.

Pregnancy and Maternity Discrimination

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is unlawful and completely unacceptable. The Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission are working together on the largest independent research project of its kind in Great Britain to better understand the problem. The detail of the final report is due to be published later this year and will inform the Government’s response.

Many women across Salford and Eccles have returned to work after maternity leave with a very uneasy feeling about whether they have a job. The report to which the right hon. Lady refers has found that women returning from maternity leave are even more likely to face discrimination in the workplace than they were a decade ago. What assurances can she offer people in Salford and Eccles that this will not be the case in generations to come?

It is true that when the interim report was published in July this year, we were all disappointed to see that around one in eight women reported that they felt they had to leave work as a result of their pregnancy or maternity leave, but it also shows that the vast majority of employers believe it is important to support pregnant women and women on maternity leave, so we have to build on that. That is why the report will be so helpful in working out exactly what our response should be to make sure that we change this, as the hon. Lady says, not in decades but in a few years ahead.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the work done by Joeli Brearley of Pregnant then Screwed, a Greater Manchester-based organisation campaigning to raise awareness of the appalling examples of discrimination in the workplace? More importantly, will the Minister pledge to work with organisations such as Pregnant then Screwed to help tackle this inequality in the workplace?

I look forward to hearing more about the work that Joeli Brearley has been doing. As I mentioned earlier, we expect the report this year to tell us the types of issues that women face, the perceived discrimination where it is occurring, who is most at risk and which employers in terms of size and sectors are most likely to get complaints. I will then be open to working with all organisations to tackle that discrimination. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with further details about her constituency organisation, I would be delighted to see them.

Unlawful maternity and pregnancy discrimination is now more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before. One in nine women are forced out of their jobs as a result of discrimination in the workplace. In July 2013 the UK Government introduced employment tribunal fees of up to £1,200, amounting to a barrier for women and a charter for rogue employers. What action is the Minister taking to tackle this issue?

Before answering the hon. Lady’s question, may I congratulate her? I understand that she was the winner of the Icon politician of the year award last week for her work. In relation to the fees for employment tribunals, on 11 June this year we announced a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees for employment tribunals. The review is being led by the Ministry of Justice. It is well under way and is due to report later this year. I think we should await the outcome of that review to determine whether current fees or the remission scheme need to be adjusted.

According to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, one in nine mothers have lost their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination, yet since the introduction of employment tribunal fees nearly seven in 10 cases that could have gone before tribunals are not going ahead, according to Citizens Advice. Why are the Government giving the green light to employers to discriminate against women?

As I said, I welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the shadow Front Bench, but I disagree with her, which will not surprise her. We are not giving any form of encouragement to employers to discriminate. I mentioned the post-implementation review of the introduction of fees, and I should point out that in order to protect the most vulnerable in society, there is already a system of fee remissions under which fees can be waived in part or in full for those who qualify. It is right to try to divert people away from potentially acrimonious proceedings through a conciliation scheme operated by ACAS, but we should also see where the review leads and what it tells us about fees and their impact.

Working Families Tax Credit

8. What comparative assessment she has made of the potential effect on women and men of proposed changes to working families tax credit; and if she will make a statement. (901563)

The Government want to move from a low-wage, high-tax, low-welfare—I mean, high-welfare—society to a high-tax—[Laughter.] This was always going to happen one day; I apologise profusely. We want to move to a high-wage, lower tax, lower welfare society, and this includes some changes to tax credits to help put benefit spending on a more sustainable path. The impact of those changes on different groups with protected characteristics, including gender, has been considered by Treasury Ministers as part of the overall summer Budget package.

The Minister says that it has been considered, but it has not been acted upon. We know that benefits such as child tax credit are twice as big a proportion of women’s income as they are of men’s. He will recall that in August 2014 the Prime Minister said that

“every single domestic policy that government comes up with will be examined for its impact on the family.”

What was the examination in relation to child tax credit, and what has he done about it?

We are in the process of delivering on our deficit reduction imperative, which the House had an opportunity to debate last night. The reductions in tax credits are an important part of that, but they form part of a package, along with measures such as the national living wage, childcare and changes in the personal allowances for income tax. As a result of the income tax change, 660,000 individuals will be lifted out of income tax, 60% of whom will be women. We believe that about two thirds of the beneficiaries of the national living wage will also be women.

Gender Pay Gap

10. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the responses received to the Government Equalities Office’s recent consultation on closing the gender pay gap. (901565)

As I have said, the Government are absolutely committed to eliminating the gender pay gap for good. Our consultation closed on 6 September. We received nearly 700 responses, including from 200 employers and business organisations, including the CBI. The responses from employers have been extremely positive, recognising that we all have a stake in the issue. We will consider the responses and bring forward new regulations shortly.

As my right hon. Friend knows, this subject is of great importance to me, but it leads to a broader question: what are the Government doing to ensure that the pipeline to senior management and director level for women is encouraged, because we still have a 32% earnings differential between women and men in large organisations, which is considerably larger than the 19% alluded to earlier?

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that the gender pay gap in her constituency is 18.2%, which is just below the national average. I agree that this is an important issue. We have more women on FTSE 100 boards than ever before. In fact, we now have no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. Women now make up more than 25% of those boards. However, there is much more to do. She is absolutely right to talk about the executive pipeline. We have to get more women into management and executive positions, and we are currently looking at that issue.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to introducing regulations on compulsory reporting. There is clearly a way to go when the UK’s gender pay gap is 19.1%, which significantly exceeds the European Union average of 16.4%. But does she agree that publishing alone will not be enough? If the information is to be useful, it needs to be consistent, standardised and readily available to workers and their representatives.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her position on the Front Bench. I entirely agree that transparency is important, but the next thing will be what employers, organisations and others do with that information, and how it drives change so that the gender pay gap is eliminated. Also, as we heard from one of her colleagues earlier, it is about how we ensure that women are represented in greater numbers throughout all our workforces.

I am glad that the Minister agrees that the information should be accessible and meaningful, and companies must know that the Government treat this matter with the utmost seriousness. Will she therefore explain why, in the very week that the Prime Minister was proclaiming his support for action at the Conservative party conference, Conservative MEPs were voting against a recommendation that companies should disclose their gender pay gap? Is she not worried about the message that that sends out?

I cannot remember another occasion when a Prime Minister has turned up to something like a CBI conference and chosen the issue of the gender pay gap to highlight. I think that sends the greatest signal. With regard to our MEPs, the view that was taken was that this is a matter for member states, and we could not have a stronger signal from the top of this Government downward that, in this member state, this Government and this Prime Minister intend to tackle the gender pay gap and eliminate it.

Will the Minister organise a meeting in her office to which she can invite the chief executives of the largest employers with the largest gender pay gap and the chief executives of the largest employers with the smallest gender pay gap so that one group can learn from the other?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very practical suggestion. I am sure that my officials have taken a careful note of it, so we will go away and see how and when we can make it happen.

Science, Engineering and Maths

11. What steps she is taking to increase the number of girls studying science, engineering and maths at school and university.


In the week in which we celebrate Ada Lovelace day, let us be clear that we cannot allow any girl to grow up thinking that some careers are off limits because of their gender or background. It is almost exactly one year since we launched the fantastic Your Life campaign, which is encouraging more and more girls to consider careers in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—related fields. As I have said previously in this House, the UK needs 83,000 engineers a year over the next 10 years, and, to be frank, they cannot all be men.

I am pleased that record numbers of girls are studying STEM subjects at school and university. I recently crossed the border into my neighbouring constituency of Gosport—that of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and Family Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage)—to visit the defence technology company QinetiQ, of which she is an enthusiastic supporter, to support its powerboat challenge, in which it engaged directly with local schools to encourage their pupils to study STEM subjects. What more can local businesses like QinetiQ do to engage directly with business so that young people, particularly girls, take up these subjects?

The excellent work that QinetiQ is doing demonstrates how girls’ aspirations can be broadened by engaging with local businesses. Its managing director and its apprentice of the year are both female, which is a good start. We are working with British Chambers of Commerce to explore different approaches to school and business partnerships. Last year I announced that we would fund a careers and enterprise company to strengthen links between employers and young people so that they can act in a broad range of careers and so that, at a young enough age, they are inspired by the careers opportunities that are open to them and nobody says that any doors are shut to them.

Diversity Reporting

Of course, companies work better when their workforce reflect Britain’s diversity. It is more important than ever that we make the most of everyone’s skills and talents to maximise our economic growth. That is why we are requiring larger companies, including those in the technology sector, to publish their gender pay gap so that they have the incentive and the information they need to improve fairness for women.

I welcome the Minister’s warm words on women in technology, but she will know that the British Computer Society’s recent IT scorecard showed a lamentable lack of progress in increasing the proportion of women in tech jobs. She will also know that I have long campaigned on this subject. Companies that hide on this key issue for our economic future are betraying the next generation of engineers and technologists. What will she do to ensure that companies and her Government publish information on tech diversity?

The hon. Lady is an incredible champion for the whole of the STEM world, but particularly for women in engineering. Diversity is wider than just gender, of course; it extends to race and social background. Evidence shows that educational attainment is the single biggest predictor of the future life chances of children. We are requiring businesses to publish their gender information. Driving change through transparency works, as we know from the results of the work that Lord Davies has done. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. We want to continue this work, particularly in Ada Lovelace week. In an international week celebrating women in STEM industries, there is no better time to be publishing this information, holding businesses to account, and encouraging women to do the very best they can in the fields of engineering.

Setting Up Businesses

16. What steps the Government is taking to support more women in setting up their own businesses. (901571)

The Government are committed to supporting women to start and grow their own business. Last year 5.7% of women in the UK were involved in starting or running a new business, and we would of course like that number to grow. The start-up loan scheme provides mentoring and financial support to entrepreneurs. It has now made over 28,000 loans worth over £150 million, with 38% of those going to women-led businesses.

Does the Minister agree that by extending the provision of free childcare we are helping more women into work and enabling more women to start their own business? Women in my constituency certainly agree that that would be a big help in doing so.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I wholeheartedly agree. I am delighted that tax-free childcare could provide about 1.8 million families across the UK with up to £2,000 of childcare support per child per year. This will be rolled out from early 2017. I welcome the fact that for the first time self-employed women will be able to benefit from this vital childcare support.

Harassment Online

17. What support the Government provides for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who receive abuse or harassment online. (901572)

The Government are absolutely clear that abusive and threatening behaviour online, whoever the target, is unacceptable. What is illegal offline is also illegal online. My Department has funded the development of a new website—Stop Online Abuse—which launched on 17 June. It provides advice on action that individuals, particularly LGBT people, can take against offensive, damaging or threatening content online and in other media.

As part of my casework I have been contacted by a teenager who is fearful of telling friends and relatives that he is gay. Such young people may be at particular risk of bullying. What particular help is the Minister offering schools to support such cases?

No young person should ever feel that they are not able to be honest about themselves and their sexuality for fear of bullying. Tackling all forms of bullying is a priority. We have awarded £2 million to charities and community sector organisations, to help schools tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. I have also had the privilege of visiting some schools that are tackling the issue head on, such as Eastbourne academy and Caludon Castle school in Coventry, which are both Stonewall champion schools.

One quarter of LGBT students at school say that they suffer online abuse. Is the Minister working with the Department for Education to provide proper advice to schools, and is she working with the National LGBT Hate Crime Partnership’s excellent Speak Up campaign to tackle this particular form of bullying and hate crime?

I am open to working with all organisations in order to stamp out this hate crime. I am lucky enough to hold two Government jobs and am able to bring them together on this particular issue and provide £2 million of funding to pilot projects across the country to work with schools in order to stamp out unacceptable homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. The secret seems to be to take a whole-school approach, with everybody from the head to the teachers and pupils knowing exactly that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable.

Women’s Refuges

We are committed to making sure that no victim of domestic abuse is turned away from the support they need. In July the Chancellor announced an additional £3.2 million to increase specialist accommodation support for victims, including refuges, and to provide more help for victims to access that support.

During my annual community consultation over the recent recess, lots of women constituents raised concerns about the future of refuges, recognising that local authority funding was being stretched to breaking point, particularly in big cities such as Sheffield. The Government’s recent £10 million cash injection is a sticking plaster that will only delay closures. Will the Minister use the forthcoming spending review to put in place a long-term funding solution for the national network of refuges?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that our goal is to ensure that no victim of domestic abuse is turned away from the support they need. We have recently carried out, along with the Home Office, a review of domestic abuse services, and its emerging conclusions will feed into the spending review and the updated Home Office strategy on tackling violence against women and girls. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, all future funding will be dealt with in the forthcoming spending review.

20. . As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has just pointed out, funding for refuges is under great pressure. A recent report by Women’s Aid said:“The current model for funding specialist domestic and sexual violence services is not fit for purpose. Many services are under huge financial pressure”and are being “forced to close” or to use reserves just to survive. What is the Minister going to do about that? (901575)

As I have said, this is subject to the spending review, but Women’s Aid has warmly welcomed the funding recently announced by the Chancellor. It is important for local authorities to provide such services, and it is also important to note that these services are still being provided up and down the country. We should not talk them down, as Labour Members are doing, because the fact is that if we talk down services and people think they are not available, many women may not come forward and access the important services they need.

Child Poverty

19. What recent assessment she has made of the effect on equality of the Government’s policies on child poverty. (901574)

The Government are committed to governing as a one nation Government and achieving true social justice, which is why we want to tackle the root causes of poverty and improve the life chances of all children. Our proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill introduce new measures of worklessness and of educational attainment, which will make the biggest difference to disadvantaged children now and in the future.

Does the Minister agree that the Government’s rebranding of the child poverty commission as a social mobility commission represents a damaging shift in emphasis? The most vulnerable children will be disadvantaged by this change in tack and by a lack of focus on the equality of outcomes for children living in poverty.

No, I do not agree with the hon. Lady because this Government’s approach is working. The number of children on relative low incomes has fallen by 300,000 since 2010, and the number of children who grow up in workless households is also at a record low. If she wants to focus on outcomes, I encourage her to focus—as we do, particularly in education—on the outcomes of all children. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged has narrowed since 2010.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to reduce child poverty is to get into work families that do not have a breadwinner? Is that not exactly what this Government have been doing so successfully?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that work is absolutely the best way out of poverty. Of course, yesterday’s employment numbers showed strong employment growth, including the fact that there are now over 920,000 more women in work in this country than in 2010.

Redcar Steelworks

Before I take the urgent question, may I underline to the House that its narrow terms should be adhered to? This must not simply be a re-run of exchanges that took place the other day. That is the first point.

The second point that it might be helpful for the House to know is that I am keen to move on to business questions at approximately—but very close to—10.50 am, so this will be a pithy exchange.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills if he will make a statement on the Government’s £80 million released to help former employees of the SSI steelworks in Redcar.

I may break your rule, Mr Speaker, because I actually have quite a lot to say over and above what was said on Tuesday.

We know and accept, and everybody understands, that this is a deeply dreadful time for all concerned in Redcar. That is why, on 2 October, the Secretary of State and I went to Redcar—I had been there since the previous Wednesday—and announced a package worth up to £80 million to help both the workers directly affected and the supply chain and the local economy more broadly. We briefed the local taskforce, including the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), that day on the contents of the package.

As Members will know, some elements of that package have already been rolled out and are delivering support. In terms of helping individuals, only yesterday the Jobcentre Plus service co-ordinated a very large and very successful jobs fair to help people affected to move into jobs as quickly as possible. Initial reports are that about 1,500 people attended the event, along with 50 employers offering 1,000 vacancies. That is on top of the individual support sessions that Jobcentre Plus has already been offering locally.

The redundancy payments service has established a dedicated team to process the redundancy pay, holiday pay, arrears of wages and other elements that are due to SSI employees. That is of course subject to statutory limits, but will be done as quickly as possible. I also note that the Government’s business support helpline is prioritising calls from businesses directly affected by the SSI closure, businesses in the local area with the potential to grow and take on former SSI employees, and former SSI employees who are looking for advice on starting a business. That is up and running, and it is working well. Callers will be fast-tracked to an expert adviser, who will provide advice on the issues they are facing, provide information on the local support package and refer them on to any other forms of support they need. That is a good start, but we know we need to do more.

As Members will be aware, we established a local taskforce to help to shape the support to be provided. Right from the start, our intention was not to impose solutions from Whitehall, but to ask the local taskforce for solutions on how best to target money and support. It is meeting right now, but I can understand why both Members who are part of the taskforce—the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley)—are in the Chamber and not at that meeting. We have now received some initial proposals from the taskforce about supporting workers impacted by the closure of SSI, mitigating the impact on other companies directly affected by the proposal and supporting the growth of the wider economy. As hon. Members might imagine, we are assessing those projects urgently.

I know that the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has asked about further education colleges. The full cost of retraining former SSI workers and others made redundant in the supply chain will be met. Local colleges will therefore be able to claim full funding for education and training provided to any learner who was employed at the SSI Redcar plant at any time during 2015, or to a learner made redundant in the supply chain as a result of the plant closure, to support them to gain employment or start their own business. Eligibility will be confirmed by a referral from a Department for Work and Pensions work coach or a National Careers Service adviser who is working with affected individuals. That will enable local colleges to provide wide-ranging support to learners for short programmes of training that enable immediate entry into the labour market or for study that leads to full qualifications such as A-levels or their equivalents. Colleges that meet the quality criteria will receive additional funding to cover the costs incurred because of the additional flexibilities.

I will continue to work closely with the local taskforce, as I hope will the hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and for Redcar, on how we can best support the workers of SSI, the affected supply chain and the local economy. I pledge that no worker will be left behind.

The official receiver has indicated that the Government have released no further funds to buy coke. The last shift at Redcar coke ovens pushed the final bed this morning. One hundred and seventy years of steelmaking have come to a terrible, shuddering halt in only four weeks.

Since the liquidation announcement, we have learned that the original figure of £80 million was a public relations gimmick. There is no new money. Why has the Secretary of State continued to ignore calls to provide at least £30 million of new money, when it has been demonstrated that that money is guaranteed under statute for any worker who undergoes redundancy? Why have no colleges or training providers dealing with SSI workers, contractors and downstream workers received any additional funding on top of their existing budgets? What are the estimated clean-up costs of the Teesside Cast Products site in Redcar? How will security and funding be guaranteed for the Redcar bulk terminal and beam mill, which are still in operation? Why are arguably the best coke ovens and the largest blast furnace in Britain, which are on one of the handful of sites in the EU where production costs are lower than 90% of other EU sites, being allowed to close, while less efficient sites continue during this global steel price downturn?

That was a large number of questions and time precludes me from answering them all. I undertake to ensure that any questions that are not answered in what I say receive a written response.

It is not true that there is no new money. There is an £80-million package, £30 million of which is an estimated figure. We discussed all that during the urgent question on Tuesday. Indeed, the hon. Member for Redcar said that the estimate was between £20 million and £30 million. In any event, there is at least £50 million of new money. I have answered the question on FE colleges. That £50 million of new money is there to support the workers and the supply chain, so that there is reskilling, retraining and—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but I cannot hear what the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is saying. If he wants to ask a question, he is more than capable of doing so, and I will answer it.

The reason why we are in this situation in Redcar is that, unfortunately, month on month, year after year, SSI lost money. It never made money at the Redcar steelworks. The coke ovens, as I said on Tuesday, were losing £2 million month on month. That is the harsh reality. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland knows the situation. Of course he feels huge passion about it because he has put a long-seated investment of his own life and skills into the plant. He knows the devastating effect that its closure will have on the local community, but the Government have done all they can and now we have to look to the future.

They absolutely have. The hon. Gentleman who shouts at me from a sedentary position knows what Government officials and I have done on numerous occasions in the face of the most peculiar and appalling practices from the Thai owners. He knows that on one occasion, for example, the employers liability insurance had not been paid. We found out at 4.20 in the afternoon. I was making calls at 9 o’clock at night to make sure that the workers still had their insurance cover at least up to Monday. We literally scrabbled around looking for money. We made sure that the workers were paid their wages. He knows that that was done on the specific direction of myself and the Secretary of State, who said, “Get the money together to make sure the workers are paid.” Those are the sorts of things that the Secretary of State and I have done.

Now we have to look to the future to ensure that there is a future for the workers, their children and their grandchildren. That is what this package delivers.

I thought the hon. Gentleman was standing—I had been so advised. Never mind; it is a rarity that he does not wish to contribute. I call Mr Alan Mak.

Will the Minister confirm that although strict EU state aid rules have prevented the Government from directly intervening in the steel industry, the £80 million package that they have announced represents strong and practical intervention in a difficult situation?

That is the case. It is not good enough for Labour Members, who know the confines of the state aid rules, to shout “rubbish”. Let me put SSI’s losses on the record: 2012, £275 million; 2013, £193.5 million; 2014, £81 million. Until the end of June 2015, there were losses at Redcar of £92.5 million. That represents more than £0.5 billion of losses in little more than three years. That is indeed heartbreaking, but it is the harsh financial reality of the situation at Redcar.

One has to ask what moral universe Ministers inhabit if they think that it is acceptable to spin about the financial package for workers at Redcar. We have just heard an admission from the Minister that the figure is not £80 million, which is the figure that the Government have used and widely publicised. She now claims that there is £50 million of new money, but we need to look more closely at that. How much of that money is from the Work programme? How much is money that Ministers have put aside from the Government’s resources as new money to help the workers at Redcar, and how much is just recycled spin? That is what we have been getting from the Minister.

There are still questions to answer—I will not go on for too long because of what you said earlier, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] The Minister said “Oh good”. I bet she did. She has not said anything to answer questions about the clean-up of the site, which she was asked earlier this week and today. This country needs an industrial strategy. We are losing an irreplaceable strategic national asset without a fight from our country’s Government, and that is an unforgiveable betrayal.

I will accept some criticisms, but to say that I have not fought for Redcar is outrageous because it is not true. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials and I worked—I have an email trail that proves it—until midnight last night—[Interruption.] There is no point shouting as it does not achieve anything. I was on the phone on that Friday night until 9 o’clock in the evening, and along with the Secretary of State and my officials, I was literally going around looking for sums and pots of money to help. The harsh reality is £0.5 billion of losses over five years.

On the clean-up operation, if the hon. Gentleman had taken time to find out from the taskforce and the meeting that I attended on 2 October—[Interruption.] I was there; he was not. I am trying to tell him, but he is sitting there pointing his finger and heckling. It does not get us anywhere.

Yes, well I’m entitled to under the circumstances. I answered this question on Tuesday, but I am happy to answer it again. In truth, the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency had been engaged with my officials for some considerable time leading up to 2 October because we feared that that day would come. The hon. Gentleman should know—this is my experience having gone to Redcar—that some of the people with the most responsible realistic assessments of the situation were the leaders of the unions, and particularly the Community trade union leadership. Because they were working there, they knew the awful, harsh financial reality of a plant that was losing £0.5 billion over five years.

The Minister will be aware that we had a similar experience in Sherwood with the collapse of UK Coal. Will she assure the House that Government support and taxpayers’ money will go into the pockets of workers to help them to get new careers, and not into the pockets of receivers, accountants, consultants and a failing company?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I pay tribute to him for the work he has done for the workers at Thoresby. May I put on record that this sum of money, which is new money, represents £44,000 and more of investment per worker—it is investment in them as individuals—so that they can get the skills and training they need to get new jobs?

The Minister is overseeing the death of 170 years of steelmaking on Teesside. It does not have to be the end—the site is still viable. You’ve thrown the towel in. I have literally just got off the phone to people on the site. German companies are willing to buy foundry coke that we can produce in the coke ovens. That sells at £520 a tonne, compared to £190 for ordinary coke. The site is viable. We have companies willing to invest. We have companies willing to come in and supply the coke ovens to keep the plant running and to do the mothballing. You are not giving us time. You are just throwing the towel in. The official receiver has not done proper diligence. We can find buyers, we just need three months. Please, keep the plant alive. You hide behind the excuse that it is the Thai banks, the Swiss banks, the American banks, the British banks—this is British industry.

Order. We have the point. Can people please remember that I haven’t done anything in this matter?

And neither have I, apparently, Mr Speaker. But I have and I think the hon. Lady knows that. The hon. Lady is fighting for her constituents. She does so with passion and she is right so to do. She is putting on record that this is the end of steel production. It is a tragedy. But what I would say to the hon. Lady is this: I have an email trail that she knows I am more than happy to share with her and the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. I do not know all the detail, because some of it is apparently commercially sensitive, but she needs to know this. The official receiver specifically said to those people who were interested, “Put the money in to buy the coal to keep the coke ovens going” and they refused. That is the harsh reality.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in these circumstances it is right and proper that the Government do all they can—which they are doing—to support the workers in Redcar and in the communities around Redcar?

My hon. Friend is right. What happened on 1 October, when we were looking at ways of support, is that we suddenly discovered—literally on a website, on a tweet—that the parent company in Thailand had effectively gone into administration and had registered so in Thailand. That changed things completely. The Secretary of State and I sat in Redcar at 9 o’clock that morning and we knew and understood that any money we put in would go straight into Thailand and into the pockets of three Thai banks. There are no procedures and no devices in those circumstances to ensure that the money would, in any event, have gone to Redcar—never mind the state aid rules.

Why is the Minister not listening to the two consortia that have come forward with bids at the last minute? They should be given the opportunity to formulate those bids and the Government should be keeping it going. It is no good doing the Pontius Pilate act and just washing your hands of the responsibility. Why are Ministers privately supporting mothballing, yet not getting that support from the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister? If you can’t answer this, what are you there for? What’s your purpose if you don’t step up?

The hon. Gentleman is right, but I am afraid he is, in this instance, absolutely wrong. The situation is that, yes, there have been expressions—[Interruption.] No, let me answer. He is right that there have been expressions of interest very late in the day, after the official receiver said on Monday that no deals had been forthcoming that were workable. The official receiver then went back to those consortia and said, in effect, “Put your money where your mouth is,” and they refused—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr McDonald, I absolutely understand and empathise with your incredibly strong feeling on this subject—and I mean that—but we cannot have a situation in which people yell at a Minister who is giving an answer. You might not like the answer, but, forgive me, the answer must be heard. The Minister is capable of looking after herself, but the answer must be heard. Please. I will always give people a chance, but the Minister must be heard.

The hon. Gentleman can sit there and say, “You can”, until he is blue and red in the face, but the state aid rules are incredibly clear.

The hon. Gentleman forgets that the last time Redcar was mothballed, it was mothballed by Tata, and it did so because those were the state aid rules. If there was a viable offer and anyone looked, as they have, at the situation at Redcar, they would say, “Those ovens are losing £2 million month on month”. The steel was losing half a billion pounds. In reality—and the official receiver has said the same—who will want to invest in something that was losing money hand over fist?

I wish to convey my sympathies to the community in Redcar following this devastating news, but I would mention that the steel price has almost halved in the last year, China now produces 50% of steel, whereas in 2000 that figure was 15%, and the number of jobs has reduced under successive Governments. Is not the key thing now, on a cross-party basis, to deliver this retraining and bring more jobs to the north-east?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The harsh reality is that all the steel industries in this country are losing huge amounts of money. Some companies are regularly losing £700 million per year. That is the reality, but we are determined not to lose the steel industry in this country, so we now have to find the solutions to save it.

I do not question the Minister’s efforts, but she has clearly been hung out to dry by the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary. Many small companies in the north-east are affected by this closure. Has the Department drawn up a register of where they are, and what measures will she put in place to help those small companies that are creditors?

I always give a straight answer to a question. I honestly do not know the answer, but I will make inquiries and write to the hon. Gentleman and everybody else who is concerned. I must make it clear, however, that I, the Business Secretary and the Prime Minister are as one on this.

Clearly, we are all concerned about the loss of jobs at Redcar and the impact on individuals and families, but would the Minister agree that the only way to create new jobs and businesses is to invest properly in infrastructure and skills, and will she make this a priority for Redcar?

Yes, absolutely, and that is why we have put this package together, which, as I say, is worth about £44,000 to each worker.

It is important and proper that resources and support be given to mitigate the impact of the closure of SSI Redcar, particularly for those staff who will lose their jobs, but it is reactionary, and it seems that little has been learned with the benefit of hindsight. In how many other constituencies will the Government need to repeat this process? What will they do to support the steel industry in my constituency at Clydebridge and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows)—

Order. I am sorry, but we must focus narrowly on this particular situation, rather than on wider issues. I think we can leave it there.

Just to say, we are holding a steel summit tomorrow. All these matters will be raised, and I am sure we will share all the outcomes with the hon. Lady.

I recognise the difficulty of the situation in Redcar, especially as I represent a seat in the west midlands with a long and proud history of steelmaking, but will the Minister agree that her and the Government’s focus should be on taking all the practical action necessary to provide alternative job opportunities and reskilling for the people affected in Redcar?

I absolutely agree and embrace everything that has been said, and would add that the task now is to ensure we do everything we can to support this vital industry, as the Prime Minister said.

This is not the first time the north-east has suffered the closure of steelworks under a Conservative Government. As well as being devastating for those communities, it can take a long time for people to move into alternative employment. The Minister mentioned short-term training, but will she stay with those workers for the longer term to ensure they find new employment?

There is a side of me that cannot be bothered to play party politics because this issue transcends it, but it needs to be said that the last time the Redcar plant closed was under a Labour Government. In other words, it is all completely meaningless. What the hon. Lady suggests is vital and she makes a good point. One thing we do know is that a large number of the people who were laid off last time did not return when the plant reopened, and it is newer and younger workers who are now, unfortunately, being made redundant at SSI.

As the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has said, the livelihoods of thousands of self-employed people and workers in small enterprises will now be at stake as a result of the collapse of SSI. Can the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will deal sympathetically with those small businesses, which may now be unable to meet their liabilities as a result of the collapse of this company?

The coke ovens and the blast furnace are national assets, and this Government should do everything, even at this eleventh hour, to secure them so that they are not lost and are instead retained in order to allow the future to be bright again.

That is exactly what we will do: we will do everything we can, within the law, and bearing in mind the harsh economic realities that face Britain’s steel industry.

Teesside without steel is almost unthinkable, and I hear nothing from the Government on how they are going to replace these 2,200 jobs. The Minister has talked about small business, but it is simply not realistic to expect people to do what she has suggested without help with living costs. Will she therefore confirm that there will be help with living costs within start-up allowances?

What I can confirm is a £50 million package that will mean that, in effect, there is an investment of £44,000 in each and every worker to help them find alternative work.

It was the Tory Lord Heseltine, as he now is, who said that to help British business he would

“intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner. And…get up next morning to start again.”

Might the Minister not regret the fact that she did not save steelmaking on Teesside, which would have been far better for our national economy than the package that she has announced today?

Obviously, the hon. Gentleman will not have access to all the television interviews that I did at the time. If I had a magic wand, the simple answer would be, “Absolutely, yes”, but the harsh reality is that we have slab falling by half its price, overproduction, under-consumption and a steel plant losing half a billion in five years. That is the harsh reality, and it would not be fair on his constituents if we were to try to bail out Britain’s steel industry, which would probably cost £1 billion a year.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 19 October will be as follows:

Monday 19 October—Second Reading of the Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords]. I also expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.

Tuesday 20 October—Opposition day (7th allotted day). There will be a debate on tax credits on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 21 October—Consideration in Committee of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [Lords] (day 1).

Thursday 22 October—A motion to approve standing orders relating to English votes for English laws.

Friday 23 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 October will include:

Monday 26 October—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

I should also like to inform the House about some debates to be held in Westminster Hall.

Monday 19 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to immigration.

Tuesday 20 October—Debate on the availability of cancer drugs.

Thursday 22 October—General debate on the conflict in Yemen, followed by a debate on fire safety measures in school buildings.

Monday 26 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to term-time leave from school for holidays.

As you heard, Mr Speaker, I announced that next Thursday we will be debating and voting on the Government’s proposals to allow for English votes for English laws. I should just inform right hon. and hon. Members that I have this morning published updated proposals for changes to the Standing Orders, reflecting the discussions and feedback I have had since July, as well as the letter I received from the Procedure Committee in September, which is published on its website. The revisions are clearly indicated in the new document. I have published these proposals today to give the House further time to consider them before the debate. I am also conscious that the Procedure Committee is due to report on Monday, and I will not be tabling the final proposed Standing Order changes until I have read that report and been able to make any final changes before we table them, probably on Monday night.

We should first pay tribute to two great men who have died since the last business questions: Denis Healey, the greatest Prime Minister this country never had, a man who showed that politicians need never be automata; and Geoffrey Howe, a man I had the great honour to know closely because of all the campaigning work we did together to keep Britain at the heart of Europe. As Robin Cook once quipped, because Geoffrey had been knighted and made a peer, and his lovely wife Elspeth had been made a Baroness, she was “once, twice, three times a lady”. That is a tribute to Robin Cook, too.

Deep in the bowels of the parliamentary estate lies a small, sweaty airless room where people go to spin. It is in the gym, and it is called the John Bercow spin studio! I have never seen the Leader of the House in the gym—I do not suppose anybody has—but it seems clear that his colleagues have been spending a great deal of time in the spin studio.

When the Prime Minister was asked yesterday when exactly he knew about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status, he started spinning away like a top, stuck his fingers in his ears and simply refused to answer. It got even worse later in the day when his official spokesman was asked precisely the same question 11 times—yes, 11 times—but answer came there none. Silence; tumbleweed. Can the Leader of the House therefore tell us when precisely the Prime Minister learned about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status? Was it as the Prime Minister declared in this House, or was it as Lord Ashcroft declared in his book? I know that the Leader of the House does not like books—for prisoners or anybody else—but there we are.

One might have thought that it was perfectly reasonable to ask the British Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees how many Syrian refugees had come to Britain. One might have thought that it was the one thing that that Minister would know, but when he was asked this simple question seven times—yes, seven times—by the Home Affairs Select Committee, he refused to answer point blank. He even maintained that he knew the answer, but just did not want to tell anyone—like an eight-year-old hiding his homework from his older sister. So can the Leader of the House now tell us how many Syrian refugees have come to Britain?

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when we will have a proper debate on Syria? The country, to be honest, is crying out for leadership on this issue. The Prime Minister seems to think that a consensus will miraculously develop on what the UK’s response should be. We have heard press briefing after press briefing, but millions of people have been displaced, thousands have lost their lives—thanks to Putin, Assad and ISIL—and all the while, the UK’s diplomatic, humanitarian and military policy on Syria remains a blank page. So when will the Government come to the House with a proper plan of action on Syria?

Mr Speaker, it is clear that the Government’s

“changes to tax credits have been somewhat under-scrutinised. The changes are both eye-wateringly painful to those affected, but also reverse a key policy platform of the last five years—namely, making work pay.”

Those are not my words, but those of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), a Conservative Member, and he is absolutely right. Millions of working people are terrified of what will happen to their family finances next year. About 3.2 million families will be hit. A two-parent family with one adult working full time and the other doing 20 hours a week on the minimum wage will get a £1,100 annual pay rise, but even after that, will be £1,800 worse off and out of pocket. We all know that the Government are going to back down in the end on this issue, so will they just get a move on? Will the Leader of the House be the champion of this House and fight for a change on the tax credits cuts.

Yesterday, the Government were quite exceptionally defeated in the Lords on a motion condemning the mandatory court charges that were introduced by the right hon. Gentleman when he was the Injustice—sorry, Justice Secretary. One magistrate has written to me to say that because of these mandatory charges, many innocent people are pleading guilty. He says that he recently had to impose—he had to, because it is mandatory on the magistrates—the court charge of £150 on a homeless man who had stolen a £1.90 sandwich from Sainsbury’s. That is not the rule of law; it is cruel injustice.

The new Justice Secretary has already overturned the Leader of the House’s ban on books for prisoners. He has put a halt on the right hon. Gentleman’s plan to build Saudi Arabia’s jails and execution centres, and we read in the press today that the new Justice Secretary is now going to beat a retreat on these cruel mandatory court charges. Just in case the Leader of the House is to be completely airbrushed from history, can we have a debate on his legacy as former Justice Secretary? It need not be a very long debate.

The Leader of the House has announced that we will debate his EVEL—English votes for English laws—proposals next Thursday. I still believe that they are a dog’s breakfast. However, during the last session of business questions I asked the Leader of the House whether he had any intention of replying to the Lords message asking for a Joint Committee to be set up before the measures were voted on. It is exceptional for the House of Commons not to reply to such a message from their lordships. The Leader of the House chose not to reply, either to me in the House or to their lordships subsequently.

I know the right hon. Gentleman’s old school, the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, extremely well. When I was curate of the parish church I used to prepare the boys for confirmation at that school, so I know that they are taught good manners. Is it not time that the Leader of the House remembered his old RGS High Wycombe school lessons, and gave the Members of the House of Lords a proper response? Should he not reply, “Yes, we will not implement these changes until a Joint Committee of both Houses has been set up”?

Let me say finally that I am sure the whole House—every single Member—will want to wish Wales, Scotland and Ireland well in the rugby world cup this weekend, but especially Wales.

Let me begin by echoing the hon. Gentleman’s words about Denis Healey and Geoffrey Howe. They were two towering figures in the House, and they made a massive contribution to the national life of the country. They will be sorely missed by their families, their former colleagues, and all parliamentarians.

Let me also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. Last week, he was responsible for ensuring that three new plaques were placed on the wall of the Chamber for three Members who died in the first world war. It is absolutely appropriate that we remember parliamentarians who have given their lives in the interests of this country, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for doing that.

I hope the House will also remember that a service is being held in the chapel today, and I hope that, straight after business questions, you and I will go down there together, Mr Speaker. The service is being held to celebrate the life of Ian Gow, who, rightly, has a shield at the end of the Chamber—another man who gave his life in the service of this country. We remember him today as well.

The hon. Gentleman could perhaps be described as a beacon of stability in his party this week, and I commend him for that. He is a ship that is sailing steadily forward in a party that otherwise seems to be slightly on the chaotic side. Yesterday the shadow Chancellor announced five times his embarrassment at the U-turn that we had experienced. Moreover, during an interview on Channel 4 News—I do not know whether you saw it, Mr Speaker—the shadow City Minister first admitted that he had no idea what the deficit was, and then, after prolonged questioning, said that he had no idea when, or indeed whether, he had been able to go to the City. In fact, he had not been there at all.

The hon. Gentleman talked about spin, and about the John Bercow spin studio. I am afraid that, actually, the spin lessons in the House of Commons came from the Labour party when it was in government. The present Government have set out a clear plan, and this week we are implementing it. The hon. Gentleman talked about English votes for English laws. English votes for English laws was a manifesto commitment which we are implementing. Yesterday we debated devolution measures for England and Wales, a manifesto commitment which we are implementing. On Tuesday we debated the Immigration Bill, a manifesto commitment which we are implementing. So I will take no lessons from the Labour party about spin. This is a Government who are delivering what they promised.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Syria. We all take the situation in Syria enormously seriously. It is tragic and distressing beyond belief to see a country in such a state of chaos and ruins, and to see the human cost. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that we debated the subject for several days in September, and we will undoubtedly return to it when we need to. It is a matter that will be constantly in the minds of Ministers and the House, and we will continue to debate and discuss it at the appropriate moments.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the availability of time for a debate on tax credits. Again, I remind him that we had five days of debate on the subject following the summer Budget in July. He asked about English votes and the Lords message. He will have to wait for the debate next week, when I shall set out exactly how we plan to respond to all the issues that have been raised during the last few weeks and months.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about my legacy as Justice Secretary. I remind him that when the Labour party was in power—for 13 long years—if you had been in prison for less than 12 months, when you left you walked out of the door of that prison with £46 in your pocket and nothing else: no support, no guidance, nothing. It was shocking, it was a disgrace, and in all the years when the Labour Government had the money to do something about it, they did not. Well, as of last February, following the “Transforming rehabilitation” reforms, every single prisoner who leaves our jails will receive, for a minimum of a year, support, supervision and guidance. That is a massive change. It is a change I am proud of. It is a change that did not happen under the previous Government. It is a legacy that will be part of the social change that I think will mark the future view of this Government and what they achieved.

Finally, I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the rugby world cup. In particular I offer my good wishes to Wales. May they do to Australia what unfortunately England were unable to do.

May I first thank the Leader of the House for his open and straightforward dealings with me as Chairman of the Procedure Committee? May I urge him, at this late stage, when he receives an embargoed copy of the Procedure Committee report tomorrow to seriously consider all our recommendations? They are not made lightly and I believe they will significantly improve the proposals in relation to English votes for English laws.

First, I thank my hon. Friend and all the members of the Procedure Committee. What I sought to do after the debates in the summer was respond to the requests of the House. We provided additional debating time and time for the Committee to look at these issues. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the collaborative way in which he has worked with me. He is bringing forward new ideas challenging the proposals, but it has been a productive discussion. I can tell the House today that I have already taken on board some of the recommendations to me in the letter that came from the Committee in September, and I shall be reading the report very carefully when it arrives on my desk tomorrow.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. May I too pay tribute to Geoffrey Howe and Denis Healey? I grew up in the 1970s when they were the absolute giants of this House, and many of us of that generation will remember them very fondly. I also thank the shadow Leader of the House for the three magnificent plaques we now have in the House. They are a fantastic addition.

We are back here after what is called the “conference recess”, but the third party of the United Kingdom is starting its conference today, which makes a mockery of the concept of the conference recess. Mr Speaker, I think that you, the Leader of the House and other interested parties should look long and hard at how we are organising the recesses over the summer period. That would find great support throughout the House.

Of course, we found out several things of course during the conference recess, some of them almost bizarre and utterly unmentionable, including the fact that the Leader of the House, probably in what is not a bizarre intervention, may possibly be seeking the leadership of the Conservative party. Apparently he will be the unity candidate for the Eurosceptics. I wish him good luck in that endeavour.

Next week we conclude the sorry saga of English votes for English laws. Over the past few months the Leader of the House has managed to convince absolutely no one, outwith the ranks of the Conservative party. The idea is opposed by every party in this House. It is opposed by every single legislative Assembly and Parliament in the whole of the UK. It is even opposed by the unelected cronies and donors from down the corridor, and the Leader of the House knows very well the views of Scottish MPs on this. I just wish he would have a quiet word with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson. Support for the Scottish Conservatives stands at about 12% in the opinion polls at present, and once they make Scottish MPs second-class MPs we can expect it to fall still further.

Yesterday, in points of order following Prime Minister’s questions, some very disturbing points were made on the ruling of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal on the Wilson doctrine. Several of us were incredulous at what was said: that it has no legal force and is nothing other than an ambiguous political statement, directly contradicting what the Prime Minister said on this issue only a few weeks ago. We absolutely require an urgent debate on this issue. I hope the Leader of the House will support any such initiative so that this is brought to the Floor of the House and we can hear from the Prime Minister exactly what he meant when he made that statement a few short weeks ago. We must approach this in a spirit of honesty, openness and transparency. I hope the whole House will support any initiative to ensure we get a debate on the Wilson doctrine and the worrying allegations that MPs are being spied on.

Lastly, the Government got their fiscal charter through last night. Congratulations to the Conservatives for once again, through their measures, picking on the poorest and most marginal and vulnerable in our community. Last night we saw three positions: the Conservatives’ position, backing the fiscal charter; the SNP position, opposing it with most of the Labour party supporting us; and there was a rebellious abstention, which I have never heard of in this House. I say to the Leader of the House and the Labour party that they will find those on the SNP Benches resolute in the objective of opposing the Tories. We hope the Labour party will unite and join us in that mission.