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Commons Chamber

Volume 600: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2015

House of Commons

Wednesday 21 October 2015

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Electoral Register

Since June 2014, more than 11 million people have applied to register to vote, three quarters of whom used the ultra-convenient online system, which takes less time than boiling an egg. At the general election, there were 400,000 more entries on the register than before, and thanks to individual electoral registration, 96 out of every 100 have been confirmed as genuine. We are now focusing on the remaining four in every 100 and, by December, electoral registration officers will have attempted to contact each of them nine times over 18 months. Any who are genuine voters will be confirmed on the register, and the remaining inaccurate entries—people who have moved away, died or registered fraudulently—will be removed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to tackle electoral fraud to prevent further events such as those in Tower Hamlets, and that individual voter registration will play an integral part in that?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. The underlying point behind individual electoral registration is that it requires genuine proof of identity, which the old system did not. The need to provide information such as date of birth and national insurance number ensures that the opportunity for fraudulent registration is greatly reduced.

I am reassured to hear that 96 out of every 100 voters have been proved to be genuine since the roll-out of individual electoral registration, but will the Minister tell me what further action is being taken to target the four in every 100 who appear not to be genuine?

This is an important issue. We have made up to £3 million available to local authorities to pursue the remaining four in every 100. By the end of this year, all those people will have been contacted up to nine times, either by phone, email or letter, or by someone knocking on their door, in order to confirm that they are genuine voters with a pulse, in which case they will have been confirmed on the register. We want to ensure that we do not inadvertently disfranchise them. Anyone who is left over will almost certainly be a ghost voter—a ghost in the machine; a data error—and can therefore be safely removed.

13. Would the Minister acknowledge that a disproportionately high number of those falling off the electoral roll are young people such as the students attending the Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College and the University of West London in my constituency? Can he not see that this is the biggest electoral disfranchisement in our history? (901709)

No, I would not acknowledge that, because if they are genuine people on the register, we will find them and confirm them as genuine. No genuine voters will be disfranchised by this move. The hon. Lady is absolutely right, however, to say that there are significant groups of under-represented people who are not on the register at all and therefore cannot be disfranchised by being removed from it. This is a fundamental issue for the health of our democracy, and we must go out and find those people. We need to have proper registration drives to get them on to the register in the first place.

Will the Minister tell us whether there is a requirement for people to produce photographic ID as well as a utility bill when they register to vote?

At the moment, the proof of ID when registering includes information such as a date of birth and a national insurance number. Photographic ID is not required, although I believe that the situation in Northern Ireland might be slightly stricter and that there are tighter rules there, given the history of the Province. Of course, individual electoral registration was introduced in Northern Ireland many years ago and it has been extremely successful. There was no transitional period at all there; it all happened in one day and the system moved across to IER very swiftly.

The Electoral Commission’s advice is clear: do not bring forward the full transition to individual electoral registration. What is the point of Parliament setting up this body if Ministers are simply going to ignore its advice?

May I put right an inadvertent omission from a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday? I omitted to welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and I would like to do that now. She is absolutely right to say that the Electoral Commission made that recommendation. However, it is not impossible to disagree with its reasoning. Indeed, others including the Association of Electoral Administrators—the people who actually run the elections in our democracy—believe that this is the right thing to do.

Government Transparency

Over the past five years, we have opened up 20,000 Government data sets to the public and made expenditure data covering more than £188 billion of Government spending available for scrutiny. Through our leading role in the international Open Government Partnership, we will continue to be one of the most open and transparent Governments in the world.

The Minister has admitted to me in a written answer that his so-called freedom of information commission is not itself subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Now he has reported that it will not commit to publishing evidence or minutes and that it may meet in private, ban journalists from naming its press spokesperson and even refuse to consider enforcing the Act on privatised services. Is it not time to end this farce and start again?

No, the commission that is looking into how the Act has operated over the past 10 years is, rightly, independent, so it deals with the question of how it operates. Private organisations have not been subject to the Act, because it is about government information, so it is entirely appropriate for them to make the decisions.

How will transparency in government be improved by the alteration of the code of conduct for special advisers, which now says that they shall be entitled to give instructions to communications staff in Departments?

The transparency of Government information is absolutely aided by a combination of our open data and the use of press officers and communication teams to explain to the public what is going on. Making sure that that happens in an orderly and organised way, subject to Ministers’ wishes, is a very important part of it running effectively.

I make a genuine offer to the Minister: we would like to build on the progress of the past decade in opening up government to more scrutiny. But we are very concerned that the commission on freedom of information may roll back the FOI Act. It is not subject to the FOI Act and it has recently held a secret briefing to invited-only journalists, off the record. It is not very transparent, is it? Is there a reason for that?

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and congratulate him on his resounding victory in the deputy leadership election? On this question, I also welcome his tone. I am a great supporter of the Act, but 10 years after its introduction it is reasonable to see how it is operating and to make sure, as the Justice Committee said in the last Parliament, that there is a “safe space” for policymaking, so that people can be confident about giving frank advice to powerful people safe in the knowledge that that will remain private. It is about how this operates; it is not about the principle of having freedom of information in the first place.

How can we have transparency in government when I, as an MP, cannot get a straight answer to a simple question? Let me give an example of that. I submitted a question to the Secretary of State for Scotland asking how many meetings he had had with the Treasury on a specific subject. The answer I got was that there had been many meetings; I did not get a number. I therefore asked a supplementary question requesting the dates of the meetings, because I thought that would flesh it out, but the answer I got back was, “I have had many meetings”. That seems to be the opposite of transparency, and we need to start here with ministerial answers to MPs.

I am afraid I am going to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, because I do not know when those meetings were or how many there were—but I do know that by the sounds of it there were many meetings.

Shrewsbury 24 Campaign

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on releasing all Government papers relating to the Shrewsbury 24 campaign. (901699)

I have not had any discussions with the Justice Secretary, but, as I promised the House I would some months ago, I have now completed the review of the material held by the Cabinet Office, which has not yet been released.

I am grateful for that answer. It is 40 years since my constituents first faced the issues at Shrewsbury, 18 months since this House voted to release the papers and currently seven and a half years before they will be released. Could the Minister, having conducted that review, now come to this House to make a full statement releasing those papers?

No. I have no intention of authorising the release of those papers, which relate to the security services. When the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the Ministry of Justice he brought that matter to the then Justice Secretary and the papers were not released. Since then, we have made the decision to hold those materials. However, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman— this is the material point—that the Cabinet Secretary and I both reviewed them and both came to the firm conclusion that they do not relate in any way to the question of the safety of the conviction of the Shrewsbury 24 and, crucially, all of those papers have been released to and been reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, so that it can make that independent, impartial judgment on this very important question of justice.

Government Digital Service

The world leading Government Digital Service will continue its vital work to make public services simpler, clearer and faster for users.

The GDS are the crown jewels of digital transformation globally, but now we have headline resignations, with a fifth of all staff leaving. Is it not true that Ministers are cutting back on their ambition to impress the Chancellor ahead of the cuts in the spending review?

No, we increased the funding to the GDS in the latest Budget, and the rate of turnover in the GDS is lower than in the Cabinet Office as a whole. The GDS has been brilliant. It continues to be brilliant whether we are talking about the platforms for registering to vote, which now takes less time than boiling an egg, finding an apprenticeship, or even registering for Lloyds shares earlier this month.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that we have made appointments within Departments to embed the work of the GDS not just at the GDS but across government?

Yes, as well as building a digital service that is cutting edge, we now have more than 200 digital leaders across Whitehall to drive forward digital transformation. It would be good to have cross-party support for that rather than to hear sniping.

Given that the speed of technological change has been increasing over the past few years, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that compatibility and accessibility are increased as opposed to decreased as a result of what has happened over the past three years?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that compatibility and interoperability must be at the heart of everything we do. They are at the heart of the digital standards that we require to be adhered to right across Whitehall. For a citizen, it does not matter what the acronym is of the organisation that they are trying to deal with, they just want their Government service delivered quickly and easily.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is absolutely right that the levels of turnover in the Cabinet Office and the GDS are unacceptably high, and over the summer we saw the exodus of senior leadership amid concerns that the future of the service will be downgraded from a delivery service to a policy unit. We also note that businesses are losing on average 33 working days a year because of outdated Government digital services. Will the Minister reassure the House today that his Department is resisting cuts in the comprehensive spending review, as those cuts will seriously damage the prospect of thousands of businesses across the country?

I can repeat the facts that I gave the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) before the hon. Lady read out her question. The turnover in the GDS is lower than in the rest of the Cabinet Office. Furthermore, we put more money into digital services in the Budget. Perhaps she should look into the facts before asking questions.

Chilcot Inquiry

It certainly appears as if the budget has been limitless up to this point. Members of this House will be deeply concerned about the reports of a White House memo allegedly showing that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave his support for the shameful Iraq war a full year before this House voted on it, despite his claims to the contrary. For the first time, the cost of delay to the inquiry offers an opportunity. Will the Minister assure the House that Sir John Chilcot will include that memo in his final report?

I am afraid that I cannot give any such assurance. This is an independent inquiry, and rightly so. Were I to give such an assurance, I would rightly be criticised.

Will the Minister assure the House that he remains committed to the independence of the Chilcot inquiry and that he will provide any resources that the inquiry needs to complete its work without further delay?

Yes, we have offered extra resources to the Chilcot inquiry in case they are needed. We now have a timetable for a timetable for the release of the inquiry, and Sir John will write to the Prime Minister by 3 November to set out that timetable.

We all know that the inquiry is independent, and we are not asking that the Cabinet Office interfere in the processes of the inquiry, but the budget and the timetable are within the Secretary of State’s remit. Does he not accept that this never-ending budget and this completely indefinite timetable are beginning to undermine public confidence in the outcome of the inquiry? When he speaks to Sir John, will he ensure that there is a firm timetable for the report and a firm figure for the final budget of the inquiry?

We now have that commitment to a timetable by early November, but crucially we want to ensure that the inquiry is effective, is completed and can be published as soon as possible. We do not want resources to stand in the way of that happening.

Whitehall Estate

6. What plans his Department has to reduce the Whitehall estate as a result of further UK devolution. [R] (901702)

The Government have reduced the size of our central London estate quite radically from 185 holdings in 2010 to just 63 this year. The Government estate strategy, published in 2014, sets out a plan to continue this rationalisation further. Any reductions of staff numbers in London as a result of further UK devolution will help us deliver this change.

Radical devolution requires radical rationalisation. Does the Minister have a percentage target and does it include the highly desirable MI6 building?

The hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of devolution and of the northern powerhouse. This Government are more Chairman Mao than Joseph Stalin and we believe in letting a hundred flowers bloom when it comes to devolution. [Interruption.] We do not have a uniform approach and what works best for local communities will decide devolution powers. He will know that 22% of civil servants in the north-west are based in Liverpool and her Majesty’s Passport Office has a huge office in Liverpool with 650 staff—[Interruption.]

Carlisle has reasonably priced housing, relatively low commercial rents and spare capacity in both. Will the Minister consider relocating part of central Government to my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and he will be pleased to know that the Government have a target of moving 50% of Government buildings in London to outside London. As I said in answer to the previous question, a lot of progress has been made and the Government have saved £750 million cumulatively by moving out of 2,000 buildings, as well as raising £1.8 billion for the taxpayer.

Does this talk of moving MI5 not give a great opportunity to reduce the Whitehall estate by bringing those jobs to Scotland? After all, it is a well-known MI5 fact that it would rather be located in Scotland.

I would love to be of more help to the hon. Gentleman, but I think he knows that no Government would ever comment on intelligence matters.

UK Elections: Voting Prohibition

7. What steps his Department is taking to remove the prohibition on UK citizens voting in UK elections after they have been abroad for 15 years. (901703)

As my hon. Friend’s question suggests, British citizens living abroad lose the right to vote after 15 years. As British expatriates include people who have fought in our armed forces as well as people drawing British pensions or working for international companies around the world, we think that this limit is arbitrary and wrong. Removing it was in our election manifesto and I hope to lay proposals to make it happen before the House in due course.

Many of my Eastleigh constituents have taken the time and trouble to write to me on this issue and support our manifesto commitment to restore full voting rights to UK citizens abroad, no matter how long they have lived outside the UK. What progress has the Minister made towards making this manifesto commitment a reality?

The measure was in the Queen’s Speech for this Session. I can inform my hon. Friend that we are in detailed discussions on the substance of the policy and I hope to make concrete proposals shortly.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency, reforming government, transparency, civil society, digital technology and cyber-security and for delivering the Prime Minister’s agenda.

My constituency faces the issue of shale gas extraction—the issue runs across many Departments. What steps are being taken by the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate efficiency across the Government on this important matter?

There are many occasions when multiple Government Departments are involved in different parts of a single issue. I well remember visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency to discuss shale gas, and I would be delighted to meet him further to take these issues forward.

T5. Given that in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) the Minister seemed to suggest an endless budget for the Chilcot inquiry, how much does he think it is reasonable for the public to spend finally to get the answers they desire? (901691)

Until the end of the year 2014-15, the amount spent on the Chilcot inquiry was £10,375,000. We have said that budget is available to make sure that this inquiry can be brought to a swift conclusion.

T2. What steps is the Minister taking to improve access for our small and medium-sized enterprises to Government procurement, not least for our businesses in Mid Dorset and North Poole, such as Cobham in Wimborne and Tradewind in Wareham? (901688)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that a huge contribution can be made to Government procurement by small businesses. In the previous Parliament we hit our target of a quarter of Government procurement going to small business, and in this Parliament we have a new goal that a third of Government business should go to small and medium-sized enterprises.

T6. A council candidate who is also a parliamentary candidate on the same day has an unfair financial advantage over their council opponents because they have additional candidate spending in that ward. What is the Minister going to do about it? (901692)

This is the first time the issue has been raised with me. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I would be delighted to address it.

T3. The Public Services (Social Value) Act has been in place since 2012. Many organisations and communities have benefited from its principles. Will the Minister outline the further steps that the Cabinet Office is taking to encourage a greater number of local authorities and Government Departments to adopt the Act? (901689)

I thank my hon. Friend for being a vocal champion of the Act. The Public Services (Social Value) Act has helped achieve greater impact from public spending, resulting in better outcomes for individuals and communities. In line with Lord Young’s recommendations, I shall shortly announce a package of measures to support more public sector bodies to better utilise the Act.

T7. How is the Cabinet Office implementing the family test and monitoring its implementation across Government? (901693)

The family test is routinely applied and considered when all policy is developed. Government policy as a whole has to go through a series of checks, and one of the things we do to make sure that the family test is passed is to stick to the strong economy that our families in Britain depend on.

T8. Will the Minister please tell the House what protocols will be in place to ensure civil service neutrality during the EU referendum, with a view to avoiding another situation like that in the Scottish independence referendum, when impartiality was seriously compromised? (901694)

As the hon. Lady knows, the issues surrounding the running of the EU referendum have been clearly debated in this House. The decisions were then taken and passed through this House, and that is what we will stick to.

T9. The manifesto of Canada’s new Government said that they would scrap the purchase of F-35s. Given that the Cabinet Office was responsible for the consideration of the new F-35s, how does it expect unit cost to rise and will the contract be cancelled? (901695)

I am afraid I did not catch the whole of the question. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can repeat it. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The manifesto of Canada’s new Government said that they would scrap the purchase of F-35s. Given that the Cabinet Office is responsible for the strategic defence and security review, have the Government given consideration to the unit costs, which will increase, given that other nations such as Canada might cancel their orders for F-35s?

The hon. Gentleman asks a very important question about making sure that we can protect our national security long into the future. For a detailed answer he will wait for the SDSR to be published, but I can assure him that it will be published soon.

T4. Members on both sides of the House will be concerned about the steel crisis. Last Friday, at the steel summit, three taskforces were set up to help the steel industry. One of them is headed by the Paymaster General, so will he update the House on what progress has been made? (901690)

I very much look forward to meeting the working group on procurement for steel later this week. It is absolutely critical that we make use of the new EU rules, which are only in place because this Government brought them in, to ensure that we consider not only the financial cost, but the wider economic benefit of buying British steel for British projects, and that is exactly what we are going to do.

T10. Will the Minister explain how the Government intend to safeguard the right of elected Governments to run the national health service democratically as a public service in the light of the threat of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? (901696)

As the hon. Gentleman knows—he has long asked questions about this—there is no threat to the national health service from making sure that Britain has trade deals with the whole world which make us more prosperous, more secure and more economically forward-looking, and that is what we are going to make sure happens.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Following an extensive public consultation, the Government’s retail sector champion, Kevin Hawkins, described our current Sunday trading laws as

“a workable compromise. Most people seem to be satisfied with it most of the time.”

Does the Prime Minister agree?

I do not agree. I think that there is a strong case for change, but it is a change that we should allow local authorities to decide on, which is why we will be putting in front of the House, in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, the opportunity for that to happen. Let me give the hon. Lady and the House two examples of where I do not think the current situation works. First, there are these restrictions on opening hours for many stores—[Interruption.] Someone shouts, “What about families?” Well, there are many stores that families would like to shop in, but if they go to those stores they have to walk around for hours before they are actually allowed to buy anything. Secondly, people can already shop on Sunday—and anywhere they like—on the internet. I think that it is time to modernise our approach, give families more choice and help create jobs at the same time.

Q2. I have here a question from Iain of Enfield. He says:“This is an appeal to help those who no longer have any dignity and self-respect; the down and outs.”He calls for “a constructive attempt to tackle this growing urban problem.” Those words, which were spoken nearly 50 years ago by the late, great Conservative Member for Enfield West, Iain Macleod, resonate today, so will the Prime Minister’s all-out assault on poverty tackle and prevent homelessness? (901673)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Iain Macleod was indeed a great statesman, a great politician and someone who believed, as I do, that we should be as active in social reform as we are in economic reform. When it comes to tackling homelessness, we have the “No Second Night Out” initiative, which is working, particularly in London, to find people a home. Frankly, we have to do more, particularly with troubled families, as my hon. Friend has said, who need an intervention to help them, often in relation to mental health issues, and make sure that they get all the help they need to deal with their problems and ensure that they have not only a roof over their head, but a job and a livelihood too.

I know that the Prime Minister will absolutely welcome my first few questions, because they return to his favourite subject: tax credits. Yesterday, one of his Back Benchers said

“too many people will be adversely affected. Something must give. For those of us proud enough to call ourselves compassionate Conservatives, it must not be the backs of the working families we purport to serve.” —[Official Report, 20 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 876.]

Where was she wrong?

The tax credit changes are part of a package that includes a higher national living wage and tax reductions, and I think that is the right approach for our country. Let us make work pay, let us allow people to earn more, let us cut their taxes, and let us make welfare affordable. I am delighted that once again this measure passed the House of Commons last night with a big majority.

If the Prime Minister is keen on tax credits helping people into work, I have got a question for him from Lisette, who says:

“A lot of people are setting up their own businesses as self-employed especially in rural areas where job vacancies are limited and pay is often low; tax credits help them until their business becomes established.”

Cutting tax credits damages her life opportunities and the life opportunities of anyone she might employ. Does the Prime Minister not see the value of giving support to people trying to improve their lives rather than cutting their ability to survive properly?

Of course we want to help the self-employed on low incomes, and that is why the people on the lowest incomes will continue to receive the child tax credit at £2,730. But there are other things we are doing to help the self-employed. We are cutting income tax—that helps the self-employed. We are introducing the employment allowance to cut the national insurance budget for the self-employed—that helps. Above all what we are doing is creating an economy with 2 million more people in work—an economy that is growing, wages that are rising, and inflation that is at zero. All these questions on tax credits in a way come back to the same point, which is how you build a strong and secure economy. You do not do it on the back of a massive deficit and an ever-increasing debt, which is what Labour left us with.

This is all very strange, because the Prime Minister seems to have changed his mind on this subject in rather a large way. John emailed me to say:

“The Prime Minister solemnly declared on National television shortly before the last”—[Interruption]

yes, solemnly, and I am solemn as well—

“shortly before the last general election that tax credits would not be affected.”

Is there any reason why this change has come about or any reason why we should believe the Prime Minister on any assurances he gives in relation to tax credits?

What we said before the election is that we would reduce welfare by £12 billion as part of getting the deficit down, part of getting the economy growing, and part of creating 2 million jobs. That is what happened at the election, and we are keeping our promises by delivering that stronger economy. The hon. Gentleman talks about something strange happening. Something quite strange did happen last night: we had a vote on tax credits and the deputy leader of the Labour party did not turn up. Can he explain that strange outing?

If the Prime Minister cannot answer now on tax credits and the devastation that is causing—[Interruption.] Thank you—and the devastation that the cuts are causing to many people’s lives, can I ask him to deal with another subject, namely the steel industry? Does he appreciate the devastating effects that the Government’s non-intervention in the steel industry are having on so many people? I have got a question from a maintenance fitter at the Tata steelworks in Scunthorpe. He is helping to produce steel for Network Rail and many companies that were exporting it. He wants to know what the Prime Minister is going to do

“to support the steel industry and its workers facing redundancy.”

Is it not time to walk the walk rather than talk the talk about an industrial strategy?

We do want to help our steel industry, and we recognise—[Interruption.] Well, I will set out exactly how we will help the steel industry. It is in a very difficult situation. World prices have collapsed by more than half, and the surplus capacity in the world is more than 50 times the UK output, but our plan is to take action in four vital areas—in procurement, in energy costs, in unfair competition and dumping, and in tax and Government support. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are asking, “What have you done so far?” Well, let me take one example. We changed the procurement rules so that it was easier to source UK steel. That is why Crossrail—26 miles of tunnels, the biggest construction project anywhere in Europe—is being completed using almost exclusively British steel. That did not happen under the last Labour Government; it does happen now.

Is not the real problem that the Government do not actually have an industrial strategy to protect this country’s most important industries? If they had, they would not have had to be dragged kicking and screaming to this House three times in the last eight days. Thousands of jobs have already gone or are at risk in Redcar, Scunthorpe, Rotherham, Motherwell, Cambuslang, Wrexham and across the west midlands. Is it not time for concrete action today so that there is Government intervention and support for our steel industry and so that we have a viable steel industry for the long term, which this country desperately needs?

We do want a strong and viable steel industry, and that means taking action across all the areas that I mentioned. Let me mention another one: energy costs. We have already put £50 million into cutting energy costs, and our plans will mean hundreds of millions of pounds extra to cut them.

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the Prime Minister. Mr Blenkinsop, a statesman-like demeanour is what I would hope for from someone who has served with distinction in the Opposition Whips Office. Calm yourself or take a sedative.

On energy, we will save hundreds of millions of pounds. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that last week in the House of Lords the Labour party voted to add to energy bills by opposing the measures we are taking on wind power. So, yes, we do have a strategy; we do have a plan and we should be working across the parties to deliver it. I met the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and neighbouring MPs back in November last year to make sure we could take all the action necessary, and across each of these areas that is exactly what we will do.

Well, the Prime Minister met those Members to discuss the issue 11 months ago, but he has yet to go to the European Union to discuss how the British Government could intervene to protect our industry.

The final question I want to put to the Prime Minister comes from Louis. This is deeply embarrassing to all of us in this House and, indeed, to this country as a whole. He writes:

“The United Kingdom is currently being investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities because of allegations of ‘grave and systematic‘ violations of disabled people’s human rights.”

This is very sad news indeed, but it is even sadder that we need to be investigated because of violations that have occurred. Will the Prime Minister commit to co-operate fully with the inquiry and publish in full the Government’s response to it, so that we can ensure that people with disabilities are treated properly and legally and given full respect by and opportunities in our society?

First, let me take up the hon. Gentleman on the point he made about intervention in Europe. We have been doing this for months, making sure that there is proper action against dumping in the European Union. We have taken the cases to the European Commission and will continue to do so.

On the issue of helping disabled people in our country, tens of thousands more disabled people have got into work under this Government. Because of legislation passed by a previous Conservative Government, we have some of the strongest equality legislation anywhere in the world when it comes to disability. Of course I will look at any United Nations investigation, but sometimes when you look at these investigations you find that they are not necessarily all they are originally cracked up to be. There are many disabled people in our world who do not have any of the rights or any of the support that they get here in Britain, and I think we should be proud of what we do as we co-operate with this report.

Q5. Bruntcliffe school in my constituency was a struggling school, but it recently achieved its second best results in its history. The school reopened this September as part of the highly successful Gorse Academies Trust and continues to grow from strength to strength. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that all pupils have access to a great education and that no school is left behind? (901676)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We are always happy to hear positive news from Morley and Outwood—it was not always that way. She makes an important point, which is that in school after school in our country, and often in some quite challenging neighbourhoods, inspirational headteachers are using the new tools we have given them and driving up standards. Measuring the percentage of those children getting good GCSEs is a key way to measure progress. I have myself been to schools where I have seen a 10, 20 or sometimes even 30-point improvement. Often, schools in inner-city areas are doing better than many schools in rather more well-heeled suburban areas. That shows that, with the right teaching and the right leadership, we can have real social opportunity right through our country.

Information has recently been released showing that a coroner has found that a 60-year-old disabled father of two from north London, Mr Michael O’Sullivan, committed suicide following his work capability assessment. The coroner warned that there is a risk of further deaths. The Department for Work and Pensions has reportedly undertaken 60 investigations into suicides that occurred after benefits were withdrawn or reduced, but it has so far refused to publish what it has learned. Will the Prime Minister publish those findings?

I am aware of the case the hon. Gentleman raises, although I am sure he will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to discuss the specifics of the cases. Suicide is always a tragic and complex issue. We should take these matters incredibly seriously. I will look very carefully at the specific question he asks about publication. We have changed the work capability assessment to lead to significant improvements, following a number of independent reviews, to make sure that people get the support that they need, and I think that is vitally important.

Under the Prime Minister’s plans to cut tax credits, a couple with two children living in a council house who both earn just above the minimum wage stand to lose more than £2,000. That is the equivalent of their basic rate of income tax rising a staggering 90%. Does the Prime Minister have the faintest idea of the human cost of his plans?

The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is this: if the couple live in a council house, they are actually seeing a cut in their social rent, because of the plans set out in the Budget. If that couple have children, they will have support in terms of childcare. If that couple are working for a small business, they will have the opportunity of the enhanced employment allowance. If that couple are earning just above the minimum wage—if they are earning, for instance, £7 an hour and working a full-time working week—they will see a huge benefit as we increase the income tax allowance to £12,500. They will almost be paying no income tax at all. What we are doing is introducing higher pay and lower taxes, and that is the way to better family finances and a stronger economy.

Q6. Given the increasing violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, will my right hon. Friend wish the United Nations Secretary-General well on his visit to Jerusalem today? Does he agree with him when he says that“walls, checkpoints, harsh responses by the security forces and house demolitions”cannot achieve the peace that Israel desires? (901677)

I would agree that of course those things do not lead to peace, and what is required is a peace process to deliver a two-state solution. We will all have seen appalling murders on our television screens—knife stabbings of entirely innocent people in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel—and that is completely unacceptable. We need to make sure that this peace process gets going on a genuine basis of a two-state solution.

Q3. Food bank use has risen by 1,665% since the Prime Minister took office in 2010. In Cardiff Central I meet people every week who rely on food banks to feed their families. Does the Prime Minister know how many more families will be relying on food banks as a result of his Government’s cuts to tax credits, and does he care? (901674)

What is happening in the hon. Lady’s constituency is that the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is down 20% in the last year, the youth claimant count has fallen almost 20% in the last year and long-term youth unemployment has fallen in the last year by 38%. That is what is happening. Of course, I do not want anyone in our country to have to rely on food banks, but the right answer is a growing economy, creating jobs, higher wages, the national living wage and cutting taxes. That is what we are delivering and that is how to help Britain’s families.

Q12. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the key to getting higher wages and improving our export drive is actually tackling the productivity gap between ourselves and our European partners? Does he think that providing more skills for our manufacturing and engineering sectors is essential to that and will help us to deliver that mission? (901683)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Britain has had an excellent record over recent years on employment, with record numbers in work. We now need the productivity improvements that will make sure that we see real and sustained increases in living standards. Part of that is increasing the skills of our population. That is why the school reform, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) referred, is so important and why our target of 3 million apprentices for this Parliament is vital.

I represent a constituency of hard-working, decent people, yet in the forgotten communities of Milton, Possilpark, Springburn, Germiston, Garngad, Royston, Blackhill, Ruchazie and Haghill, child poverty lies at an astonishing 38.1%. I was going to ask whether the Prime Minister was at all touched by the waves of compassion coming even from his Back Benches in yesterday’s tax credit debate, but I think we have the answer to that, so I simply ask whether he can offer a personal guarantee that no child in my constituency will be worse off a year from now.

The point I would make to the hon. Lady is that those poverty figures come after 20 years of the great tax credit experiment. What we saw was an increase in the cost of tax credits and an increase in in-work poverty. We say that it is time for a new approach: higher pay, more jobs, lower taxes. In her constituency, the claimant count has come down by 10% in the last year. Compared with the time of the 2010 election, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit in her constituency is down 43%. I say let us give people the chance of a job, a salary, a decent wage and lower taxes.

Q13. Given Russia’s military expansion and North Korea’s development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile system that can strike the west, does the Prime Minister agree that this is no time to campaign for nuclear disarmament? (901684)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is right to maintain our independent nuclear deterrent. Anyone who has any doubts about that only has to look at the dangers and uncertainty in our world. Frankly, it is very disappointing for this country that after having a cross-party consensus for so long that the nuclear deterrent was right for Britain, we now have a Leader of the Opposition who is campaigning with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Today, we are celebrating that great film, “Back to the Future”. I am not surprised that many people sitting behind him say that he should get in his DeLorean, go back to 1985 and stay there.

Q7. This morning, I was contacted by John who is a junior doctor in Newcastle and Alex who is a junior doctor in my constituency of Gateshead. They asked me to ask the Prime Minister how much longer he will support the Secretary of State for Health, when virtually the entire health service has no confidence in him. (901678)

I support the Secretary of State, because he is doing the right thing by increasing the investment in our health service by £10 billion across this Parliament. Let me speak directly to the junior doctors, whom the hon. Gentleman rightly represents. The plans that we have are not for increasing junior doctor hours, they are not for cutting junior doctor pay, and they are not even for making savings in the overall amount that junior doctors receive. They are about making sure that the health service works better for doctors and, above all, for patients. They are part of delivering the seven-day NHS that should be the objective of every Member of Parliament and everyone in our country.

Q14. On Sunday, I met parents from the Gidea Park primary school in my constituency to talk about the huge increase in the birth rate and the need to expand schools in outer London. There is a crisis at the moment. Will the Government ensure that there are adequate resources for outer London boroughs such as Havering, and is the Prime Minister prepared to meet a delegation of parents and members of the local council to discuss how we can resolve this serious issue? (901685)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We spent £5 billion on new school places in the last Parliament and we will spend £7 billion in this Parliament. I will look carefully at what is happening in outer London, but there is no doubt that there are pressures in our system. He makes the good point that our birth rate is going up, which is replacing our population, whereas the birth rate in countries such as Germany is not. We therefore do not need the wide-scale immigration that we have had and need to make sure that the numbers are properly under control.

Q8. Will the Prime Minister tell the House what plans are in place to ensure that the interests of all devolved nations are taken into account in his forthcoming letter to the European President, Donald Tusk, on EU reforms? What plans are in place to ensure that the devolved nations are represented in renegotiation discussions before the EU summit in December? (901679)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary recently met the First Minister of Scotland to discuss Europe, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and the Edinburgh agreement said that we should respect the decision of the Scottish people. We had a United Kingdom general election, and we will have a United Kingdom referendum. On this of all days I was hoping he might raise the fact that, because of the Chinese state visit, Alexander Dennis, the bus maker in his constituency, is signing a £2 billion deal that will provide thousands of jobs. [Interruption.]

Order. Members of the Scottish National party must calm themselves. The hon. Lady is asking what I think is her first question to the Prime Minister, and that question will be heard in full.

I recently visited the British Army training unit in Suffield in Canada, and I met many of our brave men and women who are undergoing advanced combat training, including my constituent, Major Iain Wallace of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Many of them support the Government’s commitment to spending the NATO target of 2% of our GDP on protecting Britain’s interests. Will my right hon. Friend explain how that commitment will go towards investment in technology and equipment, and enable people such as Major Iain Wallace to do his job properly?

First, I thank Major Iain Wallace for his work. Crucially, that 2% of GDP will ensure that all those who join our splendid armed forces in the coming years know that they will have world-beating equipment and technology at their fingertips. That is a really important part of ensuring that we build strong morale in Britain’s excellent armed forces.

Q9. The operators of Hunterston coal terminal in my constituency, Peel Ports group, has announced significant redundancies. How will the Prime Minister work with Peel Ports to explore alternative uses for the terminal which is suitable for imports and exports of a wide range of bulk solids, liquid products, and offshore decommissioning? (901680)

The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue. The Government work closely with Peel Ports because of the enormous amount of key infrastructure and land that it owns. I will look carefully with the Secretary of State and the devolved authorities to see whether there is more that we can do in this instance.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, if the other place were to vote against changes to working tax credits, that would be a serious challenge to the privilege of this House—a privilege that was codified as long ago as 1678? Does he further share my concern that such a move would entitle him to review the decisions of Grey and Asquith on creating more peers, to ensure that the Government get their financial business through?

My hon. Friend makes an important point—his knowledge of history is clearly better than mine, because I thought the key date was the Parliament Act 1911. Under that Act, issues of finance are supposed to be decided in this House. This House has now decided twice in favour of the measure on tax credits—once when voting on the statutory instrument and again last night in a vote scheduled by the Opposition. The House of Lords should listen to that carefully and recognise that it is for this House to make financial decisions, and for the other House to revise other legislation.

Q10. My constituent, Esther Sebborn, is a working mother of one and she is worried. She earns above the so-called national living wage, but is set to lose about £1,700 per year if the Government’s changes to tax credits go ahead. What has the Prime Minister got to say to Esther? (901681)

What I would say to Esther is that we want to help by making sure we cut her taxes, so that her first £11,000 is entirely tax free. That comes into effect next April. If Esther has children, we want to help with the childcare, not just for the two, three and four-year-olds but with tax relief on childcare in future years. If Esther is running a small business, we are helping through the employment allowance. In all those ways, I would say to Esther and to everybody else, this is a package. We want to see higher pay, lower taxes and reformed welfare. The biggest damage to Esther and to all those in that situation would be to return to Labour’s high taxing, high spending and high borrowing wrecking our economy.

Extremism is one of the biggest social problems that we currently face in Britain. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to redouble our efforts, through the Government’s counter-extremism strategy, to address the scourge of extremism in Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we passed the Prevent duty and put that duty on every public body in our country—on schools, colleges and universities. The Home Secretary and I were in a school in Luton this week listening to teachers who said it has made a real difference and that referrals into the Channel programme are happening far more quickly because of the changes we have made. Fighting extremism and recognising that we have to attack it before it becomes violent extremism is going to be the struggle of our generation. We have to undermine the awful narrative of victimhood and grievance, which so many are using, that eventually leads to violence.

Q11. On 16 September, the Prime Minister told this House that he would do everything he could to keep steelmaking on Teesside. He failed. Now we learn that the £30 million support package that the Government promised for retraining and economic regeneration is not only going towards the statutory redundancies of those who lost their jobs: I have an email from the Minister with responsibility for the northern powerhouse to a constituent in Stockton South that says it will also be used to pay for the final salaries of those who have lost their jobs in the past month. This is an insult. How much more injustice does the Prime Minister think the people of Teesside can endure? (901682)

We will do everything we can to help, including the financial package that the hon. Lady set out—making sure we help people with retraining and new opportunities, and with bringing new industries to the area—but let me tell her what we cannot do. We cannot in this House set the world price of steel and we cannot overcome the fact that the SSI plant had lost £600 million in this Parliament. Those are the facts which, frankly, Opposition Members have to engage with.

In answer to my question yesterday about our EU renegotiations, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that there was little or no prospect of this Parliament alone being able to say no to any unwanted EU directive, tax or regulation. Can I ask the Prime Minister to try to put that right?

What we have said is that we want to see a system of red cards on new EU regulations. It is for national Parliaments to work together to deliver that, but that is only one of the things that we want to change in our relationship with Europe. For instance, getting Britain out of ever closer union is not simply a symbol; it will be taken into account in all future jurisprudence when the European Court of Justice is considering whether to go ahead with a measure. In the end, hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, will have to choose whether to stay in Europe on an amended basis or whether to leave. I am determined to deliver the strongest possible renegotiation that addresses the concerns of the British people, so that we have a proper choice.

Q15. Did the Prime Minister make clear to the Chinese President the urgent need to stop Chinese steel dumping? If so, what was the response? Will he meet once again with north Lincolnshire MPs to see what more can be done to support steelmaking in Scunthorpe? (901686)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman was at the summit on Friday. I met him back in November, and I am always happy to meet him and neighbouring MPs again. After this Question Time, I am going straight to No. 10 for several hours of talks with the Chinese President, and there will be every opportunity to talk about this issue. I began those discussions last night. I think the Chinese recognise that they have huge overcapacity in their steel industry, which they have to address as well, but I say again that I do not want to make promises I cannot keep—[Interruption.] We cannot set the steel price here in this—[Interruption.] We cannot set the steel price here in this House, and we cannot go beyond the sorts of steps I have talked about on procurement, energy and industrial support. Opposition Members might, however, like to remember their own record. Under Labour, steel production halved. Under Labour, employment in steel halved. Since I have been Prime Minister, steel production has gone up and steel employment has stayed the same. So before we get a self-righteous lecture from Labour, I would say to them, “Look at your own record!”

I suspect those cheers were for the Prime Minister, rather than me.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one reason some steel plants have suffered difficulties is that wholesale electricity prices in this country are twice the level in Germany, and that the many green taxes imposed by the former Labour party leader, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), under the last Labour Government are a significant reason for that?

Order. We do not need to waste time with this. It has nothing to do with Government policy. [Interruption.] Order. It has nothing to do with current Government policy.

Thousands of people who installed cavity wall insulation now have damp, mouldy houses because the system has failed and let in rainwater. Many people, misled into believing that it was a Government scheme, now find the industry guarantee difficult to access and insufficient. Will the Prime Minister take a personal interest in this scandal, to ensure that disabled people in particular are fully compensated and to avert further reputational damage to the Government’s energy conservation measures?

I will look carefully at the issue, because it touches on the larger point that the obligations we put on energy companies lead to higher prices—and that goes directly to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) was quite rightly trying to make. Even last week, the Labour party in the House of Lords voted to put up energy prices, which impacts on steel users. They ought to try doing the same thing in the House of Lords as in the House of Commons.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Generations of your predecessors defended the privileges of this House, and the greatest privilege of all is the principle of no taxation without representation. Indeed, we lost the American colonies in the 18th century because a previous Government forgot that. We had a lively debate yesterday on tax credits, and many of us would like to see some movement from the Government, but surely it is the elected representatives of the people who decide on tax and spending. In your discussions with the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords, will you make it clear that it is not for the unelected House of Lords to determine tax and spend?

I understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is saying. My own feeling from the Chair is that the other place can look after itself; but we also can and will look after ourselves. I think it would be much more dignified for the Chair not to become drawn into what might be a public spat between the two Houses. In the final analysis, each House knows what the factual constitutional position is, and that position is what it is of long standing.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thankfully, the Prime Minister is not driving an Alexander Dennis bus, because his Scottish geography is somewhat askew. The plant is in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally).

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his ingenuity and wit, but I have a hunch that he is trying to continue an argument that took place a few moments ago, and he would not expect me to join in. We will leave it there.

Bill Presented

Sugar in Food and Drinks (Targets, Labelling and Advertising) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Geraint Davies, supported by Jeremy Lefroy, Mr Mark Williams, Mrs Madeleine Moon, Dr Julian Lewis, Martyn Day, Helen Goodman and Angela Rayner, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set targets for sugar content in food and drinks; to provide that sugar content on food and drink labelling be represented in terms of the number of teaspoonfuls of sugar; to provide for standards of information provision in advertising of food and drinks; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 November, and to be printed (Bill 82)

Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to provide that opposite sex couples may enter a civil partnership; and for connected purposes.

The eagle-eyed among those remaining in the Chamber will have spotted that this Bill has form. It is identical to the Bill I brought before the House last year, and it mirrors the amendment I proposed during the report stage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in May 2013. My Bill therefore makes its hat-trick appearance today, unencumbered by any other legislation, in the hope that it will be third time lucky and will move into Committee.

Just as the House decided it was time for equal marriage then, it is surely time for equal civil partnerships now, particularly as they remain an unintended inequality created by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and they are backed by many supporters of that legislation, as well as by those, like me, who were less enthusiastic about it. Indeed, the Government’s original consultation, before the first Bill, showed 61% of respondents in favour of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Alas, for some inexplicable reason, it never made it into the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which would, I think, have made it a better Act. That is why change is still necessary today.

There are two main rationales for supporting the Bill. First, it will correct what I have mentioned as an unintended but glaring inequality resulting from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act whereby same-sex couples are still entitled to continue in a civil partnership, to take up a civil partnership or to enjoy the recent extension of marriage, while opposite-sex couples have only the option of conventional marriage, albeit by a larger range of religious institutions. That is not fair. It gives rise to an inequality in what was billed as an “Act to promote equalities”.

Secondly, a positive reason for pushing forward with this Bill is family stability. In 2010, an Office for National Statistics report said that there were some 2,893,000 cohabiting opposite-sex couples in this country—almost double the figure reported some 15 years earlier. Some 53% of all birth registrations are to married parents, but around a third are to unmarried parents who are living together. Indeed, cohabitation is the fastest-growing form of family in this country, and we need to recognise that our society is changing.

People choose not to get involved in the paraphernalia of formal marriage for a variety of reasons: it is too much of an establishment thing to do; it is identified as an innately religious institution for many, and even if done in a register office, it has religious connotations; some see it as having a patriarchal side, so it is seen as some form of social control. Those are not my own views, but are certainly the way many see it.

There are a whole lot of complex motives as to why many of our constituents do not go down the formal marriage route. They are mostly still in committed, loving relationships, but if they do not want to go for traditional marriage, they have no way of having that recognised in the eyes of the state. Particularly worrying is the common misconception that there is such a thing as a common law wife or husband, as a woman typically finds out abruptly on the death of a partner, when there is an inheritance tax bill on the estate, and potentially on the family home. If a woman has a child with her partner and the relationship breaks down, she is not entitled to any form of financial support if they are not married. There is no automatic entitlement to property, even if she had been paying into the mortgage.

Where one partner is much older than the other and there is a reasonable expectation that one will die some years before the other, the long-term survivor would not receive the same tax benefits as a married woman or those in a civil partnership, which would be discriminatory towards the couple’s children. Even a couple engaged to be married have more rights than a cohabiting couple.

The question is, why should not those who have made a conscious choice not to go for a traditional marriage have the opportunity to have the same rights, responsibilities and protections in the eyes of the law that we rightly, and not before time, extended to same-sex couples back in 2004?

However, there is a further major practical benefit in achieving equality of civil partnerships and opening them up to opposite-sex couples: family stability. The Centre for Social Justice has calculated that the cost to this country of family breakdown is some £48 billion, or some 2.5% of gross domestic product. That is a big problem, a growing problem, and a costly problem—costly, both financially and socially, to our society.

Fewer than one in 10 married parents have split up by the time a child reaches the age of five—compared with more than one in three of those who are cohabiting but not married—and 75% of family breakdowns involving children under five result from the separation of unmarried parents. The Centre for Social Justice has produced a raft of statistics showing that a child who is not in a two-parent family is much more likely to fall out of school and 70% more likely to be addicted to drugs, and is more likely to get into trouble with the law, to be homeless, and not to be in employment, education or training. That is not to be judgmental about parents who find themselves having to bring up a child alone through no fault of their own, but two partners make for greater stability.

We know that marriage works, but we also know that civil partnerships are beginning to show evidence of greater stability for same-sex couples, including those who have children, be it through adoption, surrogacy or whatever. There is a strong case for believing that extending civil partnerships would improve that stability for many more families in different ways. If just one in 10 cohabiting opposite-sex couples entered into a civil partnership, that would amount to some 300,000 couples and their children. It would offer the prospect of yet greater security, greater stability, less likelihood of family breakdown, better social outcomes and better financial outcomes. That, surely, is progress.

There is a further application. Many people who have strong religious beliefs—particularly Catholics who have ended up getting divorced, which is in conflict with certain religious teachings—may not be inclined to get married again if they meet a new partner, because their Church supposedly believes that they should be married for life. In many cases, however, they would be able to reconcile that position by entering into a new formal commitment through an opposite-sex civil partnership. So there are a number of practical, real-life scenarios in which civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples could achieve something very positive.

Opposite-sex civil partnerships are not something that has been cooked up in this country. In South Africa, the Civil Union Act 2006 gave same-sex and opposite-sex couples the option to register a civil union by way of a marriage or a civil partnership on the same basis. In France, the pacte civil de solidarité—or PACS, as it is known—was introduced in 1999 as a form of civil union between two adults of the same sex or the opposite sex, and now gay marriage has been added to that. Interestingly, one in 10 PACS has been dissolved in France, while one in three marriages ends in divorce. There is evidence that some of those civil partnerships have created greater stability, whether they are opposite-sex or same-sex partnerships.

No complications are involved in my proposal. I want opposite-sex civil partnerships to be offered on exactly the same basis as same-sex civil partnerships. It would not be possible for someone to become a civil partner with a close family member, or if that person was already in a union, and the partnership would need to be subject to the same termination criteria. It is a simple proposal, and surely the case is overwhelming. All that is required is a simple one-line amendment to the Civil Partnership Act 2004. It could all be done and dusted in Committee by teatime.

There is a growing tide of support for this measure, fuelled by a court case that is currently being considered by the High Court, and which I will not go into. Suffice it to say that the outcome of that case could have substantial implications for many other couples who simply want their families to be recognised in the eyes of the state. The issue began when the couple involved approached their local register office to register their opposite-sex partnership. As they put it—and I saw them only this morning—

“We wanted to formalise our relationship and celebrate it with friends and family but we're not able to do it for what seems like no apparent reason. We prefer the idea of a civil partnership because it reflects us as a couple—we want equality through our relationship and with a baby now we want the protections offered by formalising marriage.”

Many Members believe that the time has come to back equal civil partnerships, potentially to the benefit of many cohabiting couples and their children, and of the stability of our society as a whole. My Bill has widespread cross-party support inside and outside the House. This concise and simple but important measure could bring about equality for those who choose civil partnership, and I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.


That Tim Loughton, Mr Graham Brady, Andy Slaughter, Caroline Lucas, Greg Mulholland, Mr Geoffrey Robinson, Sir Roger Gale, Stephen Twigg, Mrs Anne Main, Keir Starmer, Pauline Latham and Mark Durkan present the Bill.

Tim Loughton accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January 2016 and to be printed (Bill 83).

Cities and Local Government Devolution [Lords] Bill

[1st Allocated Day]

Considered in Committee

[Natascha Engel in the Chair]

Clause 1

Devolution: annual report

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Clauses 1 and 2 stand part.

New clause 1—Competences of local government

‘(1) The Secretary of State must, after consultation with representatives from local government, publish a list of competences of local government.

(2) After the list has been published, the Secretary of State may not publish any amended list of competences of local government without first obtaining approval of the revised list consent from—

(a) the House of Commons, with two-thirds of its membership voting in favour of the amended list, and

(b) the Local Government Association.”

This new clause would define the independence of local government, and entrench it beyond easy repeal.

New clause 13—Double Devolution statements

‘(1) A Minister of the Crown who has introduced a Bill in either House of Parliament having the effect of devolving functions or powers of the United Kingdom Parliament or the Secretary of State to a combined authority must, before the second reading of the Bill, make a double devolution statement on the arrangements for further devolving those functions or powers to the most appropriate local level except where those powers can more effectively be exercised by central government or by a combined authority.

(2) The statement must be in writing and be published in such a manner as the Minister making it considers appropriate.”

The intention of this new clause is to make clear what double devolution to smaller councils and neighbourhoods will occur in the wake of big city deals being agreed by combined authorities when giving powers to cities and/or combined authorities.

New clause 18—Independent Review, Support and Governance

‘(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to lay before each House of Parliament each year a report about devolution within England and Wales pursuant to the provisions of this Act (an “annual report”).

(2) An annual report shall be laid before each House of Parliament as soon as practicable after 31 March each year.

(3) The Secretary of State may by order make provision for an Independent Commission or Advisory Board to undertake a review, challenge and advisory role in relation to:’

(a) reviewing orders and procedure arising from the Secretary of State’s decisions; and

(b) requests for orders received from combined or single local authorities.”

This new clause would ensure the Secretary of State has the necessary power to create an Independent Commission or Advisory Board to scrutinise the work of the Secretary of State relating to devolution, Annual Devolution Report and handle requests from local government about the decisions made by the Secretary of State.

New clause 22—Devolution in London

‘(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report on a greater devolution of powers in London, including on whether to make provision for the Secretary of State to—

(a) transfer a public authority function to a joint committee of London councils, and

(b) establish a joint board between London boroughs and the Mayor of London to support further devolution in London, and

(c) devolve responsibility on fiscal powers, including but not limited to, setting and revaluating local tax rates, banding and discounts.”

This new clause makes it a requirement for the Secretary of State to report on further devolution options for London, including fiscal devolution (e.g. council tax revaluation, etc) which has been called for by the Greater London Assembly and the Mayor of London.

New clause 23—Fair funding settlement: report

Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the impact on the functions of combined authorities of the fairness of the distribution of funding from central government to local authorities, particularly with regard to levels of deprivation.”

This new clause would require a report linking the impact of devolution with the level of funding.

New clause 25—Public authority functions

Within one month of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a list of public authority functions which may be the subject of a transfer of functions under the provision of this Act.”

This new clause would require the Government to be more specific about the functions which it intends to developed to mayors, combined authorities and other local authorities.

Government amendment 4.

Amendment 51, in clause 3, page 2, line 19, at end insert—

‘(2A) An order under subsection (1) may not be made unless the proposition that the combined authority have a mayor is approved by a referendum of the electorate in that combined authority.”

The intention of this amendment is that elected mayors will be introduced only if that proposal has been endorsed, in a referendum, by 50% of the population.

Amendment 43, in page 2, line 31, leave out subsection (8) and insert—

‘(8) An order under this section providing for there to be a mayor for the area of a combined authority may be revoked or amended by making a further order under this section; this does not prevent the making of an order under section 107 abolishing the authority (together with the office of mayor) or providing for a constituent part of the combined authority to leave the combined authority and to resume its existence as a separate local authority.

(8A) An order under this section providing for a constituent part of the combined authority to leave the combined authority and to resume its existence as a separate local authority must make fair provision for a reasonable and proportionate division of resources between the former combined authority and the seceding local authority.”

The intention of this amendment is that a constituent part of a combined authority can leave a combined authority without the combined authority being dissolved, with provision for “fair terms” for the leaving part (i.e. their resource is calculated on a per capita basis, or similar.)

Amendment 46, in page 2, line 38, at end insert—

‘(10) This section does not apply to the County of Somerset, as defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997.”

Amendment 39, in page 3, line 2, at end insert—

‘(1A) For an area of a Combined Authority where for any part of that area there exists both a County Council and District Council, no order may be made under section 107A unless either the Secretary of State or the existing combined authority has carried out a consultation with local government electors on replacing the existing County Council and District Councils with one or more unitary authorities.”

Amendment 44, in page 3, line 14, at end insert—

‘(4A) A constituent council may withdraw consent after the creation of a combined authority and a mayor for that authority.

(4B) Where one or more constituent councils have withdrawn their consent under subsection (4A), the Secretary of State must make an order either:

(a) abolishing the combined authority and the office of mayor, or

(b) reconstituting the combined authority without the non-consenting council or councils concerned”.

The intention of this amendment is that a constituent council may withdraw its consent to the creation of a combined authority, in which case the Secretary of State must either abolish the authority and mayor or re-constitute the authority without any non-consenting council.

Amendment 53, in page 3, line 27, at end insert—

‘(2A) The Secretary of State may make an order under section 107A in relation to a combined authority‘s area if a proposal for other appropriate governance and accountability structures for the authority’s area has been made to the Secretary of State by the constituent authorities.

(2B) The Secretary of State may set out accountability and governance tests in respect of other appropriate governance structures.

(2C) Orders may allow for a mayor or other appropriate governance structure to enter into collaborative working arrangements with more than one combined authority, or local partnership board covering for example rural areas.”

This amendment would allow for a mayor to work with more than one Combined Authority, or partnership board covering, for example, rural areas.

Clause 3 stand part.

Government amendments 18 to 22.

That schedule 1 be the First schedule to the Bill.

Amendment 57, in clause 4, page 3, line 33, at end insert—

‘(1A) Where the mayor for the area of a combined authority appoints a deputy, regard to gender balance must be given”

This amendment is intended to make sure that gender balance is taken into account in mayor/deputy teams

Clause 4 stand part.

New clause 21—Consultation with local community

The Secretary of State must make an order to determine the consultation processes which will be used with the local community.”

This amendment is intended to ensure that mayors are provided only where the local resident population has been properly consulted.

Amendment 56, in clause 6, page 6, line 24, at end insert

“which is not restricted to a specific governance structure”

This amendment will allow a council to choose any form of governance and would be defined as a local authority according to the 1992 Local Government Finance Act.

Amendment 42, in clause 8, page 10, line 12, at end insert—

‘(2) The Secretary of State must lay before each House of Parliament at least once in each calendar year a report on the exercise by the Secretary of State of powers which have been devolved to the mayor of a combined authority.”

The intention of this amendment is that the Government should publish every year publish a report that shows that it has not exercised a power that has been devolved to a combined authority mayor.

Amendment 59, in clause 11, page 11, line 27, at end insert—

‘(1) Within 12 months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the performance of the Localism Act 2011 and a review of the general power of competence provision.”

This amendment requires a review of the Localism Act and local authority innovation.

Government amendments 27 and 28.

As well as amendment 29, I will speak to Government amendments 4, 18 to 22, 27 and 28, and to the stand parts for clause 1, clause 2, clause 3, schedule 1, and clause 4. I will also comment, if time and the mood of the Committee permits, on new clauses 1, 13, 18, 22, 23 and 25, amendments 51, 43, 46, 39, 44, 53 and 57, and new clauses 21, 56, 42 and 59, which have been placed in the same group.

The range of interest that has been shown in this Bill speaks for itself. On Second Reading 76 colleagues made contributions, and there was a great deal of consensus. This Bill is of a consensual nature, and while there are issues that we will be discussing in Committee, it is important to put that on record. My intention and that of the Government today is to reflect on the debate that is now to take place and take that into account going forward. We hope this debate can continue in this consensual tone and that it will characterise the passage of this Bill.

Clauses 1 and 2 were inserted into the Bill in the other place. We have considered carefully the arguments in support of the clauses. We share the views of those who supported the clauses about the importance of the Government’s accountability to Parliament for the devolutionary measures and deals they pursue.

Clause 1 places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to provide annual reports to Parliament setting out information about devolution deals. We recognise that the effect of this clause will be to bring together in an annual report to Parliament details about the whole range of devolutionary activity. While some, if not most, of this information will have been made available to Parliament in the ordinary course of business, we accept that there can be value in such a comprehensive annual report, enhancing transparency and accountability. The Government therefore accept that clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.

Amendments that hon. Members have now tabled seek in various ways to extend the reporting requirements. We are not persuaded that these are needed to ensure the transparency and accountability that we all wish to see, but I will listen carefully to the debate and we will consider further expanding the reporting requirements on devolution in due course subject to the arguments hon. Members put forward.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen)—whom I may refer to occasionally throughout today’s discussion—has tabled new clause 18, which would require the Secretary of State annually to lay before Parliament a devolution report and enable the Secretary of State to establish an independent body to provide advice on devolution of powers. I think the reporting requirement he has in mind is already covered by clause 1, and while we accept the importance of reports, I do not believe a case can be made to establish some new independent body to provide advice. I fear that any such step would simply lead to additional costly bureaucracy.

The hon. Gentleman has also tabled new clause 13, which would require the publication of a report about how powers devolved to combined authorities are being further devolved. I know he takes great interest in that issue, in line with the devolution agenda more broadly, and wants that taken forward. The Government attach importance to such further devolution. In the Localism Act 2011 we have recognised the importance of neighbourhoods and of neighbourhood planning, and of communities being able to take ownership and management of community assets or take on the provision of local services. This is an important element of devolution and I can see the case for any comprehensive report about devolution covering these matters.

Amendment 42 was tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady), for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) and for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). It would require the Government to publish an annual report about powers that have been devolved to a combined authority mayor. This again is an important matter and there is a case for information about this to be included in any comprehensive annual report on devolution. The Government recognise that and want to find the right solution for the concerns hon. Members have.

The shadow Secretary of State and the hon. Members for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), for Croydon North (Mr Reed), for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) have tabled new clause 22 which would make it a requirement for the Secretary of State to report on further devolution options for London, including fiscal devolution which has been called for by the Greater London Authority and the Mayor of London. As we made clear in the other place, we are open to discussing with London plans for the devolution of wider powers. Indeed, the Mayor and London Councils have already sent in formal devolution proposals and the Government are engaged in discussions regarding these. We are committed to taking forward these discussions and I doubt whether there is a need for some further reporting requirement therefore to be included in this Bill.

Will the Minister confirm that these devolution powers from central Government apply to Manchester and to the interim authority and mayor after 2017, and that it is not the reverse—from local authorities up to a combined authority or mayor system—and that with spatial planning it will take the full agreement of the 10 leaders who make up the cabinet and a two-thirds majority for all other decisions? Will he confirm that to the Committee today?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are talking about powers that are being transferred from Whitehall and Westminster and from Ministers and public bodies to combined authorities —to the areas that are making these devolution deals. It is not about powers being taken up from local councils and authorities, unless they choose to so pool them. That option is on the table, but there is nothing in this Bill that would compel it. In Greater Manchester, as part of that deal and the accountability we want to build into the process, the combined authority has a two-thirds mechanism for holding the mayor to account. That is an important part of that deal and one that gives the reassurances people in Greater Manchester—the local authority leaders who reached that deal with us—and hon. Members will want to see as we take this process forward.

In theory devolution is fantastic, of course, and we all agree with it, but in this debate on Sunday trading will the Minister at least listen to religious people who feel the country is becoming increasingly secular and consumerist? Their concerns have to be handled very sensitively by the Government. That does not necessarily mean they cannot proceed, but those concerns have to be handled sensitively. Will he assure the Committee he will do that?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Government have consulted on, and made clear our intention to introduce as part of this Bill, Sunday trading devolution. We will have full opportunity to discuss that. This Bill is currently being discussed in Committee on the Floor of the House. There will be time for discussion and we will work with colleagues and listen to their concerns, and we will try to find a consensus, so if change is to be delivered it has the support of the House and of the broadest possible base of opinion in this country.

We accept the case for transparent and comprehensive reporting—indeed, we are advocates for it—but we are clear that the devolution statement that clause 2 requires to accompany any future Bill would be unnecessarily bureaucratic. For many Bills, such a devolution statement would be irrelevant, as the Bill would have no implications for functions that can be devolved. There is a real risk that, in practice, the production of such a statement would become a tick-box exercise, at best adding no real value and at worst becoming a distraction from driving forward real devolution, for which I think there is a broad consensus in favour among Members.

The Minister is making a rational and cogent argument. I would like to take him back to the question of double devolution, which has been raised with me by many, including the key cities—those that I would perhaps describe as the second-tier cities, rather than the core cities. They are concerned that power should not simply go from Whitehall to town hall, and that there should be an evolutionary process in which power continues to be devolved to neighbourhoods, parishes and other smaller bodies. If the Minister will not accept my amendment, will he give those cities some reassurance that there will be strong Government oversight to ensure that the devolution does not stop at the town hall?

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. Every devolution proposal will involve a deal between the Government and those local areas that want devolution. As part of those deals, we will look at what further steps can be taken. We recognise the principle, which he advocates, that decisions should be taken at the lowest level of government at which they can effectively be taken. If an area with which we were having discussions wanted that to be part of the deal, and if we could work with it to deliver it, it would be our intention to do that.

Returning to clause 2, it would be easy for some future Government to parade their devolutionary credentials because every one of their Bills had a devolution statement, while in reality they might have done little to continue to meet what I confidently predict will be a continually growing appetite for devolution across the country. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me about the existence of that appetite. Accordingly, the Government are opposed to clause 2 standing part of the Bill, and amendment 29 is consequential to the removal of the clause from the Bill, deleting the reference to that clause in clause 1.

The hon. Gentleman has tabled a number of amendments that would have constitutional implications. We will consider most of them later today, but new clause 1 is in this group. It would require the Secretary of State to publish a list of local government competences, having first agreed them with representatives from local government. Once published, the list could be amended only with the approval of two thirds of the membership of the House of Commons and the approval of the Local Government Association.

I understand the reason for new clause 1 but I cannot support it. When codification of the relationship between central and local government has been attempted in the past, it has failed, as was recognised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of this House. In their response to a report from the Committee in 2013, the Government commented that codification fails because it is about processes, rather than about policy intended to improve outcomes. Instead of liberating local leaders, a codified relationship could simply serve to focus energy on theoretical debate, rather than on shared endeavour, problem solving and action.

I will speak about this at greater length later, but may I make one specific point now? Historically, local government has felt uneasy about its relationship of subordination to central Government, and a means of reassuring local government of all political parties would be to entrench the settlement that the Minister is proposing and to find a way in which to reassure local government about its long-term sustainability and its independence from central Government. Will he undertake to have a think about this matter, so that he will be able to ensure even more co-operation from local government?

I will of course give the hon. Gentleman that undertaking, and I shall listen carefully to what he says later. I know that he has a great deal of expertise in this area, and I recognise some of his concerns. It is important that we find the right mechanism to address them as best we can in the Bill.

Amendment 59 and new clauses 23 and 25 have been tabled by the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), and his colleagues. Amendment 59 would require a report reviewing the Localism Act 2011. New clause 23 would require the Government to publish a report about the impact on combined authorities of the way in which resources had been distributed through the local government settlement. New clause 25 would require the Government to publish a list of the public authority functions which may be transferred.

We do not consider amendment 59 to be necessary. The Government are committed to a process of post-legislative scrutiny to review the effectiveness of legislation and to inform the development of future legislation. The lead Department submits a report to the Select Committee, usually within three to five years of the legislation receiving Royal Assent, with its preliminary assessment of how the Act has worked in practice in relation to its objectives and benchmarks, as identified during the passage of the Bill. This would inform the Select Committee’s view on whether to conduct a fuller post-legislative inquiry into the Act. The additional steps proposed in amendment 59 are therefore unnecessary.

When the Localism Act was passed, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—in a previous guise—produced an annual report on how each Department was doing in regard to devolution. Unfortunately, that practice was stopped, but the right hon. Gentleman came to the Select Committee and argued strongly that it should be continued. Does the Minister think his boss has changed his mind?

The hon. Gentleman shares my admiration for my Secretary of State and for the work that he has done in this area of policy over an extended period. It is of course open to my right hon. Friend to do that again, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will wish to prevail upon him and to repeat his argument on the value of considering that course of action. However, I do not think it necessary to include amendment 59 in the Bill.

We also consider new clause 23 to be unnecessary. It would not add anything to the information we already provide. By separating Government funding from the other sources of income available to local authorities, as the new clause proposes, and by isolating deprivation from other drivers of spend—for example, the impact of population sparsity in rural areas—the report required by the new clause would fail to present a properly rounded picture of the settlement. As hon. Members know, we already publish an annual assessment of the impact of the settlement on authorities’ wider spending power and an equalities statement on the settlement’s effect. Moreover, the settlement is subject to wide-ranging consultation and comes before Parliament for approval. I am not persuaded that anything further of this nature is needed in the Bill.

On new clause 25, I remind hon. Members that this Government’s devolution policy is a bottom-up one. We want to ensure that devolution opportunities are available to all parts of England, including rural and coastal areas, counties, towns and cities. On Second Reading, we discussed at some length the devolution deal that has been done with Cornwall, a non-city area that wants to be part of this process and that has got behind a plan that it believes can drive real change for the better. The enthusiasm from hon. Members from Cornwall who spoke in that debate was obvious and is commendable.

My hon. Friend makes the important point that rural areas should be protected. Will he give the House an undertaking that rural areas that are close to urban areas will be protected from being swallowed up by those neighbouring cities?

My hon. Friend raises a point that I know is close to his heart. He has tabled amendments to the Bill, which we shall discuss later. No area will be compelled to agree a devolution deal. The purpose of the Bill is to enable us to put such a deal on the table for any area that wants one, but it does not give us the power to compel any area to accept it. His comment is in line with the Government’s intentions in the legislation. We want to ensure that devolution and the benefits it can bring are there for everybody, but we will not compel areas to be part of it.

The Minister has talked about a bottom-up approach. From what I understand, Manchester is to be offered powers over policing. We had a bottom-up approach in Wales as a result of the Silk commission, which was sponsored by the UK Government, in which all parties agreed that policing powers should be devolved to Wales, just as they are in Northern Ireland and Scotland. However, the draft Wales Bill was published yesterday and the devolution of policing is missing from it. Can the Minister explain the ambiguity of the Government’s position?

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s diligence in raising his concern, particularly given that that is his area of expertise. Rather than my commenting on it in the debate on this Bill, however, I would gently suggest that it is a matter that should be discussed in a Welsh context in the debates on the Wales Bill.

The Minister has given the welcome assurance to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that no rural area neighbouring an urban or metropolitan area would be held to becoming a member of it. Will he also give the Committee an assurance that any rural area wishing to join a combined or mayoral authority will be able to do so?

That would be entirely a matter for the proposal put forward by the local area in question. We would certainly be open to whatever geography an area wished to present as the most logical for its economy and the most able to allow it to drive forward the changes and improvements we envisage being enabled by the Bill. So yes, that would be possible, but only by agreement and in line with the Government’s approach to devolution.

Can the Minister explain what first attracted the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the idea of extending the business rate relief zone to his constituency of Tatton, enabling it to be considered part of Greater Manchester?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to divert my attention from the amendments. The steps this Government are taking on business rates are generally welcomed by local government—that is my experience of the discussions I have had. They are another step towards giving local government the certainty, control and freedom it wants, and delivering on our agenda. They are broadly in line with the devolutionary approach that we are taking and is envisaged by the Bill.

The Minister mentioned that local areas can choose what area will bid for these devolved powers, based on their own local needs. What size of population or of economy would an area need to get this devolution? There has been some suggestion that the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire bid is not large enough.

It is up to local areas to make proposals, and we will look at the offers and deals. Thirty-eight proposals were submitted before the 4 September deadline by areas interested in being part of this process. We will seek to ensure that any proposal makes economic sense, and that the deal takes account of all interested parties and their views, but we are not going to prescribe in this Bill, nor set out centrally, the geography that devolution should follow, because to do so would go counter to the bottom-up process that we envisage driving forward long-lasting and successful devolution in this country. I recognise my hon. Friend’s important question, but flexibility is the intention and it is what the Bill contains. We want agreement and to work with areas to deliver on their objectives.

We are open to discussing devolution proposals from all places. We have been clear that our approach is for areas to come forward with proposals that address their specific issues and opportunities. The Bill is therefore enabling legislation that will provide the legislative framework to give effect to the different aspects of devolution deals. The Government have not specified a list of functions that may be devolved, and there is good reason for that approach. It means that we can consider any area, idea or proposal. Perhaps more significantly, if we started to specify lists of functions or kinds of areas, those whose ambitions fell outside these ideas might be reluctant to come forward. The reality is that, as decades past have shown, if the man in Whitehall is asked to specify what might be devolved, the list is going to be pretty cautious.

It would not be right to restrict our ambition by taking such an approach, so I hope Opposition Front Benchers will accept and understand the position the Government are taking. In short, specifying functions or kinds of areas is simply not consistent with a genuinely bottom-up approach. We will therefore not be supporting amendment 59, or new clauses 23 and 25, and I hope hon. Members will not press them to a vote. I also hope that, with my explanations and assurances, the Committee will be able to support clause 1 and reject clause 2, accepting the consequential amendment to clause 1.

Given what has been said by my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) about rural areas being swallowed up by urban areas and the Minister’s response thereto, does it all mean that the Minister would be minded to accept at least the thrust of amendment 43, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West and would give a predominantly rural area that has already been swallowed up the right to remove itself from the arrangement?

I have had discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, I recognise the comments that he makes and I will of course listen carefully to the further discussion today. I will set out the Government’s position on the issue in due course, but I wish to make it clear that the intention is to be consensual. We intend to listen to concerns that hon. Members might raise and try to find a way whereby we can agree across this House on what we want to deliver. I recognise the important point being made and I am sure we will discuss it further.

Amendment 4 is about mayors being a condition of devolution. We are seeking to remove the requirement that a mayor cannot be a precondition of transferring local authority or public authority functions to a combined authority, because it is wrong in principle, and it is at odds with our manifesto policy and manifesto commitment. In addition, if the requirement remained, it would mean that the deals we have made already with Greater Manchester and with Sheffield could be in jeopardy. The requirement is wrong in principle.

I welcome this movement, but can the Minister explain why the Secretary of State has always insisted in his discussions with the combined authority and the north-east council leaders that a prerequisite for any devolution is having a mayor?

I think the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood the direction of travel that I am setting out, but I am happy to clarify it and I hope to go on now to address his concerns.

The Minister has just said that the Sheffield deal could be put at risk, but at this stage it is not a done deal—it is a proposal. If Sheffield were to say, “We actually rather like the proposal, but without the mayor,” what would be wrong with that, as the Bill stands?

The hon. Gentleman might recognise that that would then not be the agreement that has been proposed. Where there is devolution on the ambition and scale of Greater Manchester, we could not ensure that the strong, clear accountability necessary to support such devolution and provide the leadership to drive forward that area’s economy would be in place without a metro mayor. That strong, clear accountability needs to be a single point of accountability that only an elected metro mayor can provide. Where major powers and budgets have been devolved, people need to know who is responsible for decisions that can have a radical impact on their day-to-day lives. Mayoral governance for cities is a proven model that works around the world—it is indeed the model of governance for world-class cities. None of that is to say that we are imposing mayors; mayors are not being imposed anywhere. If any area has a mayor, it will be because that area, through its democratically elected representatives, has chosen to have one. The Bill specifically provides for that.

The Minister is making the case that a mayor is required in order to have strong enough leadership and get things through, but in the proposed Sheffield deal only the transport functions go to the mayor—all the economic functions go to the combined authority. Is he therefore saying that there is not going to be strong leadership on these economic functions, because a mayor is not in charge of them?

Let me be absolutely clear about this: this Bill does not allow this Government or any future Government to impose mayors on anybody. But where we make a deal it is a two-way process, and it is the Government’s clearly stated intention for those metropolitan areas that the accountability a mayor brings is desirable and we want to see it as part of those deals.

Does the Minister accept that Greater Manchester is not just a single city? It is an area made up of a city—

Two cities, nowadays, and several very independently minded towns, which feel that they have been forced together into an artificial construct.

It is important to be clear about what the devolution we are talking about does. It takes powers that exist in Whitehall—powers that rest with public bodies—and transfers them to local decision makers. It does not affect the arrangements that are already in place for local government, which recognise differences and the communities within them. We will allow them, of course, to pool areas of policy if they wish to do so, but nothing in this legislation would allow us to compel them to do so.

In his Budget speech in July, the Chancellor was clear:

“The historic devolution that we have agreed with Greater Manchester in return for a directly elected Mayor is available to other cities that want to go down a similar path.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 329.]

All of that is reflected in our manifesto commitments to

“legislate to deliver the historic deal for Greater Manchester”

and to

“devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.”

I would like the Minister to clarify something. As he knows, the north-east combined authority area is not a metro area, because it covers a large rural area. He said that the agreement is between the combined authority and the relevant Minister, but the insistence so far from the Secretary of State has been that the only way the north-east combined authority will get devolution is if it has an elected mayor. Is the Minister now saying that there is an option for devolution without an elected mayor for the north-east?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise from the quote by the Chancellor that I just read out that where areas want significant devolution on the scale that Greater Manchester has and where they have metropolitan areas at their heart, the Government will ask for that requirement to be part of that deal process. However, nothing in this Bill will allow the Government to compel any area to have a mayor or to have devolution. This is an enabling piece of legislation. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that in the deal that we are discussing with the leadership in the north-east area—all of it from his party—there is that expectation and requirement, and it is a deal on which great progress is being made.

This point was covered very well on Second Reading. My hon. Friend may remember the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) about who is in charge. Many members of the public cannot answer the question about who is in charge of their area. If we are devolving significant powers, surely it is right and proper that we have one person who is accountable to the people in that area.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If we want to drive forward the opportunities that devolution presents, the best model to use in many areas is that of metro mayor. We will have an answer to the question: who do I ring when I want to speak to the north-east, to Tees Valley and to Manchester? We will have a person who can bring together those opportunities and drive the potential that this devolution agenda delivers.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for the reassurance that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that we in the west of England will not have a mayor forced on us. Does he not agree that having that clause taken out needs to be looked at on Report?

Perhaps I need to be clearer about the impact of this clause. This clause would put at risk some of those deals already done. It would leave them open to legal challenge and put in jeopardy the devolution packages that those areas expect, the deals they have made with Government and the commitments that we made in our manifesto. I am in danger of repeating myself excessively, but I will again point out that no area can have a mayor or devolution forced upon it. This is enabling legislation that allows us to deliver our devolution obligations.

Is the Minister saying that he has entered into draft deals for which he has no legal powers and for which the Bill as presented on Second Reading gives him no powers? Is he also saying that without driving this amendment through this afternoon, he would not have had the legal powers to enter into the deals that he has done so far?

What I am saying is that, if this amendment is not made, deals with areas including Greater Manchester and the Sheffield city region would potentially be at risk; they would be open to legal challenge. The whole point of this Bill is to enable us to deliver on the deals that we are making with areas. That is the whole reason why we need this legislation. If we were able to deliver those deals without it, we would not be here debating it in this Committee today. I do not think that the loss of those deals is an outcome that many would wish to see. I therefore commend to the Committee the amendments that we need to make to ensure that we can deliver on our manifesto commitments and on those deals that we have made.

I now wish to consider amendment 51, which was tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove and for Shipley (Philip Davies). It provides that a combined authority mayor can be established only after a referendum. Our manifesto commitment states that we will

“devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors.”

We are committed to cities making the choice for a mayor, but, as I have made clear, a mayor will not be imposed anywhere. This principle of choice is a principle which I am confident that my hon. Friends accept.

If the hon. Lady will let me make a little progress, I will give way to her soon. I know that she has been keen to get in.

In the traditions of our democracy—the traditions of a representative democracy that go back to the days of Edmund Burke if not before—it would be curious if that choice could not be made by those elected at the ballot box by the people of the city to represent them. That is the approach that is provided for in the Bill. The Bill specifically provides that each council in the area must consent to any order establishing a combined authority mayor. There is a good precedent for such an approach. A council can decide to establish a directly elected mayor for its area now. It was Liverpool City Council, which, in 2012, decided that Liverpool should have a directly elected mayor. If one council can decide to have an elected mayor, why cannot a group of councils decide to have a mayor over their combined area?

To require a referendum to be the only way for a combined authority to have a mayor would seem not fully to recognise the role that those democratically elected can legitimately have. The choice at root, as Greater Manchester has shown—

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is proceeding with great courtesy, erudition and charm in this debate. Just on that point of the referendum in Greater Manchester, there were constituent parts of Greater Manchester that had referendums in 2012 on whether to have directly mayors and they rejected them. In part, that is my motivation for the amendment.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He gives me the opportunity to clarify again the difference between the local authority mayors, of whom we have talked before, who took powers up and away from people, and the metro mayors who take powers down towards people and away from central Government and public bodies. It is an important distinction and one that is at the heart of the difference that explains the approach the Government are taking to my hon. Friend’s concerns.

As Greater Manchester has shown, the choice at root is whether or not to have wide-ranging devolution. If the choice is for devolution, it goes without saying that there must be accountability arrangements commensurately strong for the scale of powers being devolved. Holding a referendum on the narrow question of whether there should be a mayor risks not fully recognising the choice that is to be made. In short, our democratic traditions do not demand the approach provided for in amendment 51. Indeed, the approach we have in the Bill of the choice for a combined authority mayor being made by councils is exactly the same approach that is open to councils for choosing a local authority mayor—accepting the difference that I have already explained in my comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove about these powers coming down from central Government. Accordingly, I hope that this amendment will be withdrawn.

I wish to come back later to make some other points, but let me raise now this issue of two-way opportunity and choice for local people, which I very much welcome. Bristol does not have the opportunity to reverse the decision it made in 2012, which is a fundamental principle of democracy and accountability. I am interested to hear whether the Minister will support clause 21, which has come from the Lords.

I hear what the hon. Lady says and that issue will be given a great deal of consideration. I will comment on the matter later in the course of the Committee, but the message has been heard loud and clear by Government. As I said in my opening remarks, we are keen to find consensus where we can on this agenda. I hope that at this stage, subject to the debate that might take place, that will sufficiently reassure the hon. Lady so that she can await those discussions in due course.

I cannot give way to my hon. Friend, because I must make some progress. I apologise to him, but there will be opportunity throughout today to discuss this matter.

I doubt that it would be right to accept this amendment, but we shall of course listen carefully to the debate, both on this amendment and on the amendments of my hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove and for Shipley. We recognise the strength of feeling and we want to find a way to ensure the broadest possible support for this legislation. I have put on record the Government’s views and the concerns that we have to the proposed approach, but we will of course listen to what is said later on today.

Amendment 46, which is in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), seeks to prevent the ceremonial county of Somerset— the administrative county of Somerset and also the two unitary authorities of Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset—from adopting arrangements that include a mayor for the area of the combined authority. There are two difficulties with the amendment. I suspect that my hon. Friend will speak to the amendment later, and I will listen intently to the comments that he makes. The first is that it would single out Somerset, Bath and North East Somerset and North Somerset as some kind of special case.

Although those places are indeed special, the amendment is completely at odds with the generic, enabling provisions of the Bill. To recognise the unique character of an area is not to seek to exclude it from the enabling provisions. Rather, it is through those enabling provisions that we can recognise the particular character of Somerset along with the particular character of any other area. That is at the heart of the Government’s flexible approach—the bottom-up approach—of delivering devolution that is bespoke to the areas that want it.

Secondly, the amendment would rule out the Somerset authorities from having the option of adopting one of the models for strong and transparent governance that is available. Clause 3 enables an area to adopt the model of a combined authority mayor, but it will be for the councils themselves to decide whether they wish to move to this form of governance. We will not impose devolution on anyone, but it should be possible for everyone. I look to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset to withdraw his amendment, but I will listen with interest to the comments that he makes.

I also want to comment on amendments 53 and 56, which are tabled in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham North. Amendment 53 seeks to extend the Secretary of State’s powers under the new section 107A, so that in addition to providing by order for there to be a mayor for a combined authority area, provision could be made in certain circumstances, following a proposal from the constituent authorities, for some other governance and accountability structures for the combined authority area. Amendment 56 seeks to provide that, where such other governance structure has been provided, the combined authority would be a major precepting authority, as it would be if there were a mayor for the combined authority area.

In general, I have some sympathy with what might be seen as the underlying idea of those amendments, which is to introduce some greater flexibility, but in this case I am not persuaded that this is the right approach. The amendments risk being seen as an attempt to hold out the possibility of some governance arrangement that does not have that sharp single point of accountability. Although we have been clear that the Government wish to impose that accountability on no one, it will be a requirement for those deals that are similar in their scope and ambition to that with Greater Manchester.

The Minister is being very generous in giving way. May I take him back to the point made by the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) about making arrangements that can be flexible and allow evolution, particularly of the larger areas that will be devolved? I know that Core Cities are particularly interested in this concept. It could be the equivalent of a pre-nup agreement with a smaller authority before it comes into full membership, almost like with the EU where there is a trial period, to see whether people get on before taking it forward as consenting authorities.