House of Commons
Wednesday 28 October 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are doing climate-smart development. Through the international climate fund, the UK has helped over 15 million people cope with the effects of climate change and given 2.6 million people access to clean energy. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced that over the next five years the UK’s climate funding will increase by at least 50%.
In 2015 we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make progress on both international development and climate change. In countries such as Bangladesh and in regions of Africa, the connection between climate change and child marriage is stark. Desperate families faced with failing crops, flooding and extreme weather impacting on their livelihoods and homes are deciding to see their daughters married earlier and earlier, in the hope that they will at least have a roof over their heads and food to eat. Too often that gamble is leaving girls at risk—
The hon. Lady is right to point out that climate change has a number of different impacts that go well beyond the environment. She will know that last year we held the Girl summit, because it is all about increasing momentum to tackle child marriage worldwide. The UK now has a flagship programme in place to do just that.
Some 660 million Africans currently have no access to power. Will my right hon. Friend explain what she is doing to ensure that global goal 7 is met, while at the same time being careful and cautious about climate change?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that last week the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), announced a brand-new programme that the UK will be heading called Energy Africa, which is supported by Kofi Annan. It will mean that we can get energy to the people who are least likely to be able to afford it, but— this is critical—we are doing that in a renewable way, which we think will have a huge impact in the coming years.
Is the right hon. Lady in any way concerned about the signals that the Department of Energy and Climate Chance might be sending out through its lack of support for renewable energy and the change in that regime, and what lessons other countries might draw from that?
There are two aspects to tackling climate change. The first, of course, is mitigation, and many developed countries such as the UK have significant plans in place to transition to low carbon economies. The second is adaptation, which is the challenge for many developing countries. It is about how they can ensure that they not only adapt to climate change, which often hits them first, but grow sustainably and develop nevertheless.
I congratulate the Department on the excellent work it has done with the Nepali Government over many years on the community forestry programme, which has seen forestation increase in Nepal. Are there lessons to learn from that programme for other areas in which the Department operates?
Yes, I think that the key is to work with the grain of human nature and put in place programmes that allow livelihoods to be more successful and profitable, and that can go hand in hand with protecting and preserving the environment. The programme to which my hon. Friend refers is one of a number that the Department has put in place to ensure that reforestation happens.
Refugee Camps: Winter
We are supporting 11 partners with £221 million to respond to the onset of winter. Vulnerable refugees will receive warm clothes, thermal blankets, fuel and cash.
The Minister will be aware that in Lebanon around 190,000 refugee families do not live in formal camps, because those who cannot afford to rent accommodation are often forced to live in informal tented settlements in rural areas, such as the Bekaa valley, or in unfurnished buildings in urban areas. What steps is the Department taking to support those who live outside the refugee camps?
As the hon. Gentleman observes, there are no refugee camps in Lebanon—I have visited the settlements in the Bekaa valley—and it is precisely for that reason that we support UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to make the provisions that we are paying for.
13. Refugee children in Europe also face a tough winter. Last week the UNHCR expressed concern that unaccompanied children moving within Europe are at a heightened risk of violence and abuse, especially in overcrowded reception centres, while Save the Children operations in Italy and Greece have identified that these children are suffering a high level of psychological distress. Does the Minister agree that just because these children have arrived in Europe, it does not mean they are safe? Will he have a word in the Prime Minister’s ear to remind him that I wrote to him on 11 September and am still awaiting an answer?
The United Kingdom is rightly, in my view, taking 20,000 refugees. There are eight categories of profiles of resettlement under the UNHCR guidelines. Will the Government be using those guidelines or will we introduce our own guidelines given that those eight categories do not include widows and orphans?
I welcome the new Labour Front-Bench team and look forward to working with them on these important matters.
Does not the onset of winter and the challenges it brings highlight the importance of the UK playing a diplomatic role in resolving the crisis in Syria? Does the Minister agree that as winter sets in and families start to freeze, this is a situation where the Government should be prioritising bairns, not bombs?
There are terrible reports of the conditions in the Syrian refugee camps on Greek islands such as Lesbos, with no dry clothes, no shelter, no food, and children sleeping in bin bags, and conditions can only get worse as winter approaches. Are the Government really prepared to turn their back on people like these?
I, too, take this opportunity to welcome the shadow Front-Bench team to their roles. I look forward not only to debating but, I hope, to constructively working with them in common cause on this agenda.
The root causes of migration are diverse. They include conflict and lack of security, but also a lack of opportunity and jobs. That is why we provide help and security for refugees affected by the Syria crisis. Doubling our work on jobs and growth, as we are, is not only good for people in the countries we are supporting but in our national interest.
Two things. In short, we are working to create jobs, and we have doubled our economic development work across the Department, but we are also helping African countries to cope with the refugees and displaced people that they themselves have—for example, in Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya.
10. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many women and girls come to our shores to escape evil and barbaric oppression abroad. Will the Minister update me on what the Department is doing through our aid programme to fight the practice of female genital mutilation around the world? (901846)
The UK has a flagship programme—the largest of its kind in the world—which is supporting the African-led movement to end FGM in 17 of the most affected countries. Our Girl summit last year galvanised a global movement on ending FGM and child marriage, and next month the African Union will host the African Girl’s summit to maintain momentum, which I hope to join.
This is a disappointing Whips’ question. The root cause of migration by Brits to Spain is the fact that they prefer the weather. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the Conservative Whip’s Office, and colleagues, to stop them conflating the refugee crisis with economic migration?
I was not expecting a question on UK pensioners and migration, but the hon. Gentleman has made his point. DFID’s focus is to help people who have been caught up in crises such as that in Syria, through no fault of their own, and to ensure that they get support, shelter, medical treatment, and that their children receive the education they deserve.
Refugees (Registration of Children)
4. What steps her Department is taking to support the legal registration of children born to refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. (901840)
Registration is essential to enable refugees to obtain humanitarian services and protection under international law. To date we have provided the UNHCR with £44 million in Jordan and Lebanon, which includes support for registration and issuing birth certificates.
I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful answer. As he said, registration can be vital to prevent statelessness, yet some estimates suggest that nearly 30,000 Syrian refugee children born in Lebanon could fall into that category, with long-term consequences for their education and a vulnerability to violence and exploitation; it could even affect their ability to return home should the conflict come to an end. Does the Minister recognise that that situation requires a response from the Governments of the host countries and grass-roots legal advice organisations on the ground, and will he commit to working at all levels to support access to registration—
I cannot confirm the figures. If people are not registered they are difficult to count, but the hon. Gentleman is right, and it is essential that we continue to work with the UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has particular expertise in securing rights for refugees, and that we continue to lobby the host Government.
Given the complexity of the situation that the Minister has mentioned, how meticulous and precise are the processes to ensure that those children who are most at risk are prioritised when trying to deliver a more acceptable outcome?
I have visited registration centres in Lebanon, and I assure the hon. Gentleman about the extraordinary efforts that are being made by a remarkable staff. Undoubtedly, the situation has become challenging since May, although it has improved recently. We are on the case.
I thank the Minister for his answer about the £44 million, but what action will the Government take on the specific issue of the complexity and cost of registering stateless children? We do not want anyone to be left behind. Will he come back to the House with a more specific answer to the question?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. It is important to put our money where our mouth is, and £44 million to the UNHCR is an important part of the answer. It is vital to work with the UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and to lobby the host Government. Unfortunately I do not rule Lebanon.
Occupied Palestinian Territories
Some 2.3 million people in Gaza and the west bank have insecure access to food, and 1.4 million are in need of water, sanitation and hygiene. This month 58 Palestinians and eight Israelis have been killed, and 7,042 Palestinians and 70 Israelis have been injured.
I have a related question on Gaza, if I may. What assessment has been made of the destruction of UK-funded facilities in Gaza by the bombing of the Israeli air force? It seems that we provide facilities, either directly or through the UN, but then those facilities get bombed and we have to provide them again. What can be done to stop that tragic merry-go-round, and will the Minister work with colleagues to try to persuade the Israeli Government to have a more proportionate response in Gaza and to stop hindering the relief effort?
12. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Israeli Government on the increase in illegal building on the west bank and the impact that that has had on current levels of violence? (901848)
What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to the provision of a desalination plant for Gaza, as proposed by the Israeli Government, which would supply all the water needs for Gaza and satisfy the humanitarian grounds we want to see?
My hon. Friend draws attention to a very important issue. UN studies predict that Gaza will become uninhabitable, as a consequence of the water problem, by 2020. A peace process is vital, so that the level of investment required to drive such developments becomes available.
Foreign National Offenders
This summer, in my capacity as a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, I visited Tower Street prison, Jamaica, where we have negotiated a prison build and transfer arrangement to return foreign national offenders, as reported by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Given that we spend £300 million a year on incarcerating foreign national offenders in this country, it makes sense to use the DFID budget to build prisons in other countries so that they can be returned. Would the Minister be kind enough to consider Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam for future projects?
Where does building prisons fit into the UK’s stated spending priorities for foreign aid? Does the Minister understand concerns about aid money perhaps increasingly being siphoned off for other purposes?
Last month, I was at the UN for its historic adoption of the 17 global goals. The UK played a key role in creating goals that are universal, inclusive and have a commitment to leave no one behind. At the World Bank annual meetings and with EU Ministers, the UK pressed for more support for Syrian refugees. Finally, at a Rotary event in Parliament last week, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), we recognised that for the first time there have been no polio cases in Africa for over a year, and just 51 cases of polio globally this year to date. That is incredible progress and we will finish off that job.
I have been very keen to deliver value for money for the taxpayer. In fact, smarter procurement has saved DFID more than £400 million over the past four years alone. We are now looking at how we can make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to work with DFID and at how we can get better value for money from our work with non-governmental organisations and UN agencies.
T2. As a result of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, 21 million people now are in desperate need of aid. What is the Secretary of State doing to secure action by the UN Security Council to ensure the constructive engagement in peace talks by all parties to the conflict, to end the de facto blockade and to provide humanitarian access? (901853)
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this forgotten crisis. At the UN in September, I held a discussion with a range of stakeholders, including UN agencies, about how we can do a better job of reaching people in need, but that fundamentally requires a dialogue on how to achieve peace.
T5. Given that the Government of Somalia have now taken control of several towns and areas previously occupied by al-Shabaab, does the Secretary of State agree that it is crucial that effective local government services be put in place to win the support of local communities? What further support will DFID provide to support communities in this troubled area? (901856)
My hon. Friend is right that, as we hopefully achieve growing political stability in Somalia, we back that up by allowing a more federal approach to government. Indeed, DFID is pulling together programmes that will enable us to support local government to provide the basic services people depend on.
T3. Speaking about the situation in Palestine at the World Zionist Congress last week, the Israeli Prime Minister declared that Israel would have “to control all of the territory for the foreseeable future.” If Israel has no intention of allowing the creation of two states and prevents Palestinians from having equal rights in one state, what is left but apartheid, and what implications does that have for UK development policy? (901854)
It is vital that we get the peace process back on track, and I hope that the agreement at the weekend over Temple Mount and al-Aqsa will at least be the start of that process. However, the only way to address the issue the hon. Gentleman raises is to pursue a two-state solution.
We have chosen to focus more work on helping fragile and failing states, tackling instability and helping people affected by conflict. It is not just the right thing to do for those people and their countries; it is also a way of keeping our own country safe, secure and prosperous.
T4. On 15 October, Human Rights Watch published a report on the deteriorating situation in Nepal. It documents more than 45 deaths in recent months and in particular criticises the Nepali police. Given that the Department is funding the Nepali police, will Ministers read the report and give a considered response to its findings? (901855)
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. Our work alongside the Nepali police has been important in providing the conditions for us to ensure that humanitarian support can get to people affected by the earthquake, but he is right to raise concerns, and we will of course respond to them.
T10. Hampshire fire and rescue played a critical role in the immediate recovery efforts after the earthquake in Nepal. What steps have now been taken to ensure economic recovery in that country? (901861)
My hon. Friend is right that beyond providing initial emergency humanitarian aid, we now need to consider how we can help Nepal recover, and that includes investment in infrastructure, in particular, but also broader investment in energy and access to it and improving the business environment so that we can get investment into the country.
Much of our work is aimed at engendering stability in countries, but in the end, many of the issues that hon. Members raise need to be dealt with at a political level and require long-term political leadership to ensure that communities can live side by side. When that is in place, we have the best prospect for development.
First, we are encouraging UN agencies to improve on value for money. Secondly, we are looking ahead to the world humanitarian summit in Istanbul next May, making sure that the international community and UN agencies have a better response to protracted crises, such as the one in Syria, where children are left with no education and people are left with no jobs. Those are the root causes of why migration is now taking place from that region.
T8. It has been more than a month since the sustainable development goals were agreed at the UN. When will the UK Government publish their plans for the implementation of the goals? What role will DFID play in co-ordination across Whitehall and the devolved Administrations? (901859)
First, we can be proud of the work the UK did in shaping those goals—it was very much led by the Prime Minister and his participation in the high level panel, which was set up by the UN Secretary-General. The UK meets many of the goals, but we, too, wanted those goals to be universal. We will now work on them domestically.
I put improving the prospects for women and girls at the heart of everything that DFID does. It is vital that women have voice, choice and control in their lives. That is at the centre of DFID’s development programmes and what we do in our humanitarian support, and it will continue to be so.
I welcome DFID’s recent announcement of increased support to the urgently needed humanitarian relief operations in Yemen. Will the Secretary of State comment on the effectiveness of this aid, given that the UK Government are simultaneously supporting the coalition that is currently carrying out indiscriminate bombings in civilian areas, including on a Médecins sans Frontières-run facility on Monday night?
The long-term solution to helping people in Yemen will be a political process that delivers peace. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the dire humanitarian situation, which leaves 80% of people in Yemen in need. I assure her that we are working on not only improving access for aid getting into the country, but on ensuring that when it does get there it can get around the country to communities in need—that is particularly the case for fuel, which is desperately needed.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28 October. (901822)
Before I answer my hon. Friend, I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Michael Meacher. He died suddenly last week, and we send our condolences to his family and friends. Michael dedicated his life to public service, diligently representing his Oldham constituents in this place for a staggering 45 years. He was a passionate advocate of the causes he believed in, which included the environment, and he was able to put these into practice as a Minister between 1997 and 2003. This House and our politics are a poorer place without him, and I know that colleagues from all parts of this Chamber will remember him with affection and will miss him greatly.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meeting later today.
May I associate myself with the sympathies expressed by the Prime Minister?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the fact that one in 10 of the world’s tractors are built in Basildon, that not an Airbus A380 flies without a part built in Basildon and that Thurrock is not only home to the largest inward investment in the south-east, but is attracting investment from world-renowned organisations such as the Royal Opera House? All that is leading to job creation and opportunity, so will he do all he can to ensure that Britain remains a great place to do business and prosper in?
Basildon has a special place in my heart—I did not know all those statistics, so it now has an even more special place. I can tell my hon. Friend that the long-term youth claimant count in his constituency is down by 42% in the past year. He spoke about what a good place Britain is to do business in, and I am pleased to say that we are now sixth in the world rankings for the best place to set up and to run a business. I know that the Leader of the Opposition, not least because his new spokesman is, apparently, a great admirer of the Soviet Union. will be very pleased to start the day with tractor statistics.
I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about Michael Meacher. On behalf of the Labour party, his constituents and a much wider community, I express our condolences to his family. I spoke to them last night and asked them how they would like Michael to be remembered. They thought about it and sent me a very nice message, which I would like to read out, if I may, Mr Speaker. It is quite brief, but very poignant. As “Memories of Michael”, they provided this statement:
“When I was young…one of the things he frequently said to me was that people went into politics because they had principles and wanted to change things to make the world better, but that in order to get into power they would often compromise on their principles and that this could happen again and again until, if they eventually did get into power, they would have become so compromised that they would do nothing with it.”
Those of us who knew Michael knew him as a decent, hard-working, passionate and profound man. He represented his constituency with diligence and distinction for 45 years. He was a brilliant Environment Minister, as the Prime Minister pointed out, and he was totally committed to parliamentary democracy and to this Parliament holding Governments—all Governments—to account. He was also a lifelong campaigner against injustice and poverty. We remember Michael for all of those things. We express our condolences and we express our sympathies to his family at this very difficult time. His will be a hard act to follow, but we will do our best.
Following the events in the other place on Monday evening and the rather belated acceptance by the Prime Minister of the result there, can he now guarantee to the House and to the wider country that nobody will be worse off next year as a result of cuts to working tax credits?
What I can guarantee is that we remain committed to the vision of a high pay, low tax, lower welfare economy. We believe that the way to make sure that everyone is better off is to keep growing our economy, keep inflation low, keep cutting people’s taxes and introduce the national living wage. As for our changes, the Chancellor will set them out in the autumn statement.
What we want is for people to be better off because we are cutting their taxes and increasing their pay, but the hon. Gentleman is going to have to be a little patient, because although these changes passed the House of Commons five times with ever-enlarging majorities, we will set out our new proposals in the autumn statement and he will be able to study them.
This is the time when we ask questions to the Prime Minister on behalf of the people of this country—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, if I may continue. People are very worried about what is going to happen to them next April, so what exactly does the Prime Minister mean? He is considering it and there is an autumn statement coming up, but we thought he was committed to not cutting tax credits. Is he going to cut them or not? Are people going to be worse off or not in April next year? He must know the answer.
It is an important point because every penny we do not save on welfare means savings we have to find in the education budget, the policing budget or the health budget. My second point is that because of what has happened in the other place, we should of course have a debate about how to reform welfare and how to reduce its cost. I am happy to have that debate, but it is difficult to have it with the hon. Gentleman because he has opposed every single welfare change that has been made. He does not support the welfare cap; he does not support the cap on housing benefit; he does not think that any change to welfare is worth while. I have to say that if we want a strong economy, if we want growth and if we want to get rid of our deficit and secure our country, we need to reform welfare.
What we are talking about are tax credits for people in work. The Prime Minister knows that; he understands that. He has lost the support of many people in this country who are actually quite sympathetic to his political project, and some of the newspapers that support him have now come out against him on this. He did commit himself to cuts of £12 billion in the welfare budget, but repeatedly refused to say whether tax credits would be part of that. In fact, he said that they would not be. Will he now give us the answer that we are trying to get today?
The answer will be in the autumn statement, when we set out our proposals, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that it has come to quite a strange set of events when the House of Commons votes for something five times, when there is absolutely no rebellion among Conservative Members of Parliament or, indeed, among Conservative peers, and when the Labour party is left defending and depending on unelected peers in the House of Lords. We have a new alliance in British politics: the unelected and the unelectable.
It is very interesting that the Prime Minister still refuses to answer the fundamental question. This is not a constitutional crisis; it is a crisis for 3 million families in this country who are very worried about what is going to happen next April.
Just before the last election, when asked on the BBC’s “World at One” whether he was going to cut tax credits, the former Chief Whip, now the Justice Secretary, said:
“we are not going to cut them.”
Why did he say that?
What I said at the election was that the basic level of child tax credits would stay the same, and, at £2,780 per child, it has stayed exactly the same. However, the point is this: if we want to get our deficit down, if we want to secure our economy, if we want to keep on with secure growth, we need to make savings in welfare. Presumably, even with his deficit-denying, borrow-for-ever plan, the hon. Gentleman has to make some savings in public spending. If you do not save any money on welfare, you end up cutting the NHS, and you end up cutting police budgets even more deeply. Those are the truths. When is the hon. Gentleman going to stop his deficit denial, get off the fence, and tell us what he would do?
I have asked the Prime Minister five times whether or not people will be worse off next April if they receive working tax credits. He has still not been able to answer me, or, indeed, many others. May I put to him a question that I was sent by—[Interruption.] It may seem very amusing to Conservative Members.
I was sent this question by Karen. She wrote:
“Why is the Prime Minister punishing working families—I work full time and earn the ‘living wage’ within the public sector. The tax credit cuts will push me and my family into hardship.”
Can the Prime Minister give a cast-iron guarantee to Karen, and all the other families who are very worried about what will happen to their incomes next April? They are worried about how they will be able to make ends meet? He could give them the answer today, and I hope that he will. I ask him for the sixth time: please give us an answer to a very straightforward, very simple question.
What I would say to Karen is this: if she is on the living wage working in the public sector, next year, in April, she will benefit from being able to earn £11,000 before she pays any income tax at all—it was around £6,000 when I became Prime Minister. If she has children, she will benefit from 30 hours of childcare every week. That is something that has happened under this Government. But above all she will benefit because we have a growing economy, we have zero inflation, we have got 2 million more people in work, and we will train 3 million apprentices in this Parliament. That is the fact. The reason the Labour party lost the last election is that it was completely untrusted on the deficit, on debt and on a stable economy. Since then the deficit deniers have taken over the Labour party. That is what happened. When we look at their plans—borrowing forever, printing money, hiking up taxes—we see that it is working people like Karen who would pay the price.
Q2. In my constituency, unemployment has fallen by 30% since 2010. This Government have delivered the M6 link road—after 60 years—which will create even more jobs in my area when it is completed. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that the Conservatives are ensuring that Morecambe is back open for business? (901823)
I well remember visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency and looking at the very important road works that are going to open up the port, and that are going to help when we bring in the new nuclear power station and all the other steps he wants to see. The long-term youth claimant count in his constituency has fallen by 30% in the last year, so those young people are now able to work, and able to benefit from our growing economy.
Scottish National party Members associate ourselves with the condolences expressed by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about Michael Meacher.
Last week I asked the Prime Minister about the tragic circumstances of Michael O’Sullivan, a disabled man from north London who took his own life after an assessment by the Department for Work and Pensions. We know that at least 60 investigations have taken place into suicides following the cancellation of benefits, but their findings have not been published. The Prime Minister said to me last week that he would look carefully at the specific question about publication. Will he confirm when those findings will be published?
I will write to the right hon. Gentleman about this, but from memory we cannot publish the report because it contains personal and medical data that would not be appropriate for publication. If I have got that wrong, I will write to him, but that is my clear memory of looking into his question after last week.
Tim Salter from Stourbridge in the west midlands was 53 when he took his life. The coroner ruled:
“A major factor in his death was that his state benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute.”
Tim’s sister said:
“It’s the vulnerable people who are going to be affected the worst. The DWP need to publish these reviews.”
The Prime Minister says that he is confused about the views of the families involved. The families say the findings should be published. Will he publish them? Three million families are going to have their child tax credits cancelled. We need the answers to these questions.
First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on that last point. Under the proposals we put forward, those on the lowest levels of pay were protected because of the national living wage, and those on the lowest incomes were protected because we were protecting the basic award of the child tax credit at £2,780. I have already answered the other part of the question: I will send him a letter if I have got this wrong, but my understanding is that there were too many personal and medical details for the report to be published. That is an important consideration in deciding whether to publish something.
Q4. I would like to ask the Prime Minister about Ruby, one of my youngest constituents. She is just one month old. Why should Ruby face the prospect of spending her entire working life paying off the debt built up by this generation? (901825)
I think it is absolutely right to care about Ruby. When we became the Government £1 in every £4 spent by the Government was borrowed money. We had one of the biggest budget deficits anywhere in the world. It is always easy for people to say, “Put off the difficult decisions; don’t make any spending reductions,” but what they are doing is burdening future generations with debt. What I would say to the Labour Front Bench is that that is not generosity; that is actually selfishness.
Q3. We all know about the Prime Minister’s broken promise on tax credits, but would not the final nail in the coffin of compassionate conservatism be hammered home if he were to scrap universal infant free school meals in the spending review, taking hot healthy meals out of the mouths of innocent, blameless infant children? Will he now guarantee not to scrap universal infant free school meals, so that he does not go down in history as Dave the Dinner Snatcher? (901824)
I am immensely proud that it was a Government I led that introduced that policy. In 13 years of a Labour Government, did they ever do that? [Hon. Members: “No!”] Do we remember an infant free school meals Bill from the Labour party? [Hon. Members: “No!”] No. I am proud of what we have done, and we will be keeping it.
Q6. My right hon. Friend has demonstrated considerable leadership in ensuring that Britain is the second largest bilateral aid donor in Syria, but there is another crisis going on, which the world has largely forgotten about. In Yemen, there is an ongoing war, as a result of which 1.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes, 3 million are facing starvation and at least 500,000 children are at risk from life-threatening malnutrition. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross has said that Yemen is in the same position after five months as Syria is after five years. Please can we do more? (901827)
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We have been involved in trying to help in this situation right from the start. As in Syria, we are a major contributor in terms of humanitarian aid, and we have made it very clear that all Yemeni parties should engage in peace talks, without preconditions and in good faith, to allow Yemen to move towards a sustainable peace. That peace needs to be based on the fact that all people in Yemen need proper representation by their Government. There are similarities with Syria in that regard, in that having a Government on behalf of one part of the country is never going to be a sustainable solution.
Q5. How dare anyone in this House earning £74,000 a year tell families that a combined income of £25,000 is too much and that they need to give some of it back to balance the economy? Did the Prime Minister refuse to put this in his manifesto because he knew that, if he did, he would not be elected? (901826)
Let me remind the hon. Lady about the situation we inherited. When I became Prime Minister, nine out of 10 families were getting tax credits, including Members of Parliament. That is how crazy the system we inherited was. We reduced that to six out of 10 families during the last Parliament, although we were of course opposed by Labour and the SNP. Our proposals will now take that down to five out of 10 families. But these proposals are not on their own: they are accompanied by a national living wage for the first time. They are also accompanied by allowing people to earn £11,000 before paying tax, for the first time. Those sorts of measures will help the sort of families she talks about.
Q7. The Prime Minister spoke movingly at conference about the plight of young people in the care system. Will he tell me what the Government are actually going to do to improve the life chances of those young disadvantaged children and to give them opportunities as they move forward in their lives? (901828)
The most important thing we can do is to speed up the adoption system so that more children get adopted. We have seen an increase in adoptions since I have been Prime Minister, but because of one or two judgments, that has slipped backwards a bit, and we need to work very hard to make sure more children get adopted. For those who cannot be adopted, we need to make sure that our residential care homes are doing the best possible job. That is why I can announce today that I have asked the former chief executive of Barnardo’s, Sir Martin Narey—an excellent public servant who I worked with when he was at the Home Office—to conduct an independent review of children’s residential care, reporting to the Education Secretary and me, so that we can take every possible step to give those children the best start in life.
Q11. Redundant steelworkers such as those at Caparo Wire in Wrexham pay national insurance contributions and play by the rules. Why then are this Government limiting mortgage interest support for them in the future, and making them pay twice—once through national insurance and once through paying back the loan? Is that not the type of action that a responsible Government should not pursue, and is it not an example of compassionate Conservatism dying? (901832)
The hon. Gentleman refers to a temporary recession measure on mortgage payments that was continued for five years. He gives me the opportunity to update the House, as I promised that I would last night, on what we are doing to help the steel industry, which I know is so important to his constituency. On energy costs, I can announce today that we will refund the energy-intensive industries with the full amount of the policy cost they face as soon as we get the state aid judgment from Brussels. I can confirm that that payment will be made immediately, and that it will be made throughout this Parliament, which is far more generous than the Opposition proposal.
Q8. I have had hundreds of emails from constituents regarding the northern powerhouse, and I have chosen just one. John from Weaver Vale emailed me to tell me not to listen to the Leader of the Opposition with his strategy of higher spending, higher borrowing and more debt, but instead to stick to our long-term economic plan for a higher-wage, lower-welfare and low-tax society. Does the Prime Minister agree with John from Weaver Vale? (901829)
I do agree. John from Weaver Vale has demonstrated more sense in his email than the Leader of the Opposition did in at least six of his questions. The point is that not only have we seen an economy that is growing—2 million more people in work—inflation that is low and living standards that are rising, but there are 680,000 fewer workless households and 480,000 fewer children in workless households. If we want to measure the real difference that the growth in our economy is making, think of those children, those households and the dignity of work.
Q12. Last weekend was the first anniversary of the death from cervical cancer of Derry girl Sorcha Glenn, aged 23. In June 2013, she had been concerned enough to ask for an early smear test, but was refused because she was under 25. As Team Sorcha, which highlights other cases, her family has now written an open letter to the Prime Minister. May I ask him not to offer here a reflex repeat of the rationale for current screening age policy, but to reflect on the questions raised about how that translates into refusing smear tests to young women such as Sorcha, and to consider the age-related data since the screening age was increased in 2004? (901833)
The hon. Gentleman raises an absolutely tragic case, and our thoughts go out to the family and friends involved. He raises an important case, because the UK National Screening Committee set the age at 25. My understanding is that that was not a resources-based decision. The reason was to do with the potential perverse medical consequences of carrying out screening routinely below that age. It is felt that there could potentially be a number of false positives because of the anatomical changes that go on at that age. As he says though, the matter is worth considering, as there are people who fear that they have family history and who ask for a test. I will certainly write to him on that specific issue.
Like my hon. Friend, I think that it is vital that we enable parents to have that protection for their children from this material on the internet. Probably like her, I spluttered over my cornflakes when I read the Daily Mail this morning, because we have worked so hard to put in place those filters. I can reassure her on this matter, because we secured an opt-out yesterday so that we can keep our family-friendly filters to protect children. I can tell the House that we will legislate to put our agreement with internet companies on this issue into the law of the land so that our children will be protected.
May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s earlier remarks about the late Michael Meacher, who was a decent man, a good constituency MP and an extremely effective Environment Minister?
Yesterday I visited the refugee camps on Lesbos, and there I met families that were inspirational and desperate. Alongside the British charity workers I found there, I am frankly ashamed that we will not offer a home to a single one of those refugee families. Will the Prime Minister agree to Save the Children’s plea that we as a country should take 3,000 vulnerable unaccompanied children in Europe, some of whom are as young as six?
Let me again welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, and it is good to see such a high turnout from his MPs.
Let me answer him directly. We have taken the decision as a country to take 20,000 refugees and we think that it is better to take them from the camps instead of from inside Europe. I repeat today that we will achieve 1,000 refugees brought to Britain and housed, clothed and fed before Christmas. On his specific question about the 3,000 children and the proposal made by Save the Children, I have looked at the issue very carefully and other NGOs and experts point to the real danger of separating children from their broader families. That is why to date we have not taken that decision.
Q10. As he begins his negotiations on our reformed relationship with the European Union in earnest, will my right hon. Friend confirm to our partners and the British people that no option is off the table and that all British options will be considered, including the option of a relationship such as that of Norway if it is negotiable and in our interest? (901831)
I can certainly confirm to my hon. Friend that no options are off the table. As I have made clear, if we do not get what we need in our renegotiation I rule absolutely nothing out. I think that it is important that as we have this debate as a nation we are very clear about the facts and figures and about the alternatives. Some people arguing for Britain to leave the European Union, although not all of them, have pointed out a position like that of Norway as a good outcome. I would guard strongly against that. Norway pays as much per head to the EU as we do and takes twice as many migrants per head as we do in this country, but has no seat at the table and no ability to negotiate. I am not arguing that all those who want to leave the EU say that they want to follow the Norwegian path, but some do and it is very important that we are clear in this debate about the consequences of these different actions.
Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my 17-year-old constituent, Jessy McCabe, on her 3,800 name e-petition, which has managed to get the exam board Edexcel to accept women composers on the syllabus for the first time ever? While he is at it, will he tell us whether he is a feminist?
If feminism means that we should treat people equally, yes, absolutely. I am proud that women make up a third of the people I have sitting around the Cabinet table, which we promised and we delivered. I congratulate the hon. Lady on this e-petition, which sounds thoroughly worthwhile. Her constituent and her have done a good job.
Q13. NHS England knows that the Isle of Wight clinical commissioning group is a significant outlier in relation to its allocation targets. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that progress is being made to identify the factors affecting the island? Will we benefit from amendments to the new CCG formula? (901834)
It is right that decisions on allocations are made independently of Government and not by Government. That is how the formula is reached. I can also tell my hon. Friend that there is an independent review of the funding formula under way. We expect to see its recommendations later this year, but these things should be done in a fair and transparent way.
The Prime Minister will remember meeting my constituents, Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood. Nine years ago this week, Neil took their two children, Christi aged 7 and Bobby aged 6, on holiday to Corfu. The children tragically died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The family’s dearest wish is that no other family suffers the heartbreak and tragedy they endured. Tomorrow in the European Parliament there will be a vote on the recommendation that the Commission brings forward legislation to improve carbon monoxide safety and fire safety for tourism premises in the EU. Will the Prime Minister’s MEPs support it and, if the motion falls, will he consider instigating legislation in this country?
I well remember the meeting that we had and the great bravery of the parents, after their terrible loss, in wanting to go on and campaign to ensure that others did not lose children in the same way. I will look carefully at what the hon. Lady is saying about the European Parliament. As for legislation in this country, we have strict legislation on the use of fire-resistant materials, but I will look carefully at that too.
West Midlands Combined Authority
Q14. If he will have discussions with the Secretaries of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and for Communities and Local Government to determine the progress of the Midlands Engine initiative and the proposed West Midlands combined authority. (901835)
The Chancellor and I set out an ambitious long-term plan for the midlands, making it a future engine for growth for the whole of the UK. Across Government, we are actively working with business leaders and local authorities to progress this ambition.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. The northern powerhouse will help millions, but it is the west midlands that is the only region in the UK that has a trade balance surplus with China, and it is Greater Birmingham that has the fastest rate of private sector job creation in the UK since 2010. So will the Prime Minister now ensure, in the national interest, that the west midlands secures the best devolution deal possible?
I think we have huge potential here to secure massive devolution to the west midlands. First, I would say to everyone in the west midlands who is concerned that somehow they will be left out by the northern powerhouse that the west midlands is in the perfect place to benefit both from the success and growth of London and, of course, a rebalancing of our economy towards the north of England. We look forward to the West Midlands combined authority coming forward with its plans. I would say to all of these areas contemplating devolution and devolution deals that the more they can put on the table, the bolder they can be with their vision, and the bolder the response they will get from Government.
May I tell the Prime Minister and the Chancellor that there is strong support from all the parties, the local enterprise partnerships, business and local authorities right across the west midlands for a properly funded and significant devolution deal to strengthen the economy, to boost productivity, to get the brownfield sites redeveloped and to tackle congestion, so that we can transform the west midlands, with more jobs, better skills, quicker transport links and new homes?
I am glad to hear from the hon. Gentleman what an opportunity there is in the west midlands to work across party, to get the best deal across all these authorities. As I said, the more we can get the local authorities to come together and work together and put their ambition and vision on the table, the better the response they will get from the Government.
Given that my right hon. Friend has been called for Prime Minister’s questions at 12.38, I would have thought any hint of bullying was clearly over in this House in any conceivable way. He suffers no disadvantage and I think that is a very good thing. But I must not make light of the subject—bullying in the workplace is a problem. I think we do need to make sure it is stamped out and dealt with wherever it occurs, and that should apply in Parliament, as elsewhere.
Commons Financial Privilege
On Monday, the House of Lords rejected a financial measure that had been approved three times by the elected House of Commons. We are clear that that raises constitutional issues that need to be examined carefully. We need to ensure—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Leader of the House. This is a very serious matter and it would be seemly if colleagues who are leaving the Chamber did so quickly and quietly and if others inclined to conduct private conversations decided to do so outside the Chamber. There is a very important matter being treated of by the Leader of the House in response to the urgent question.
We need to ensure that we have arrangements in place that protect the ability of elected Governments to secure business that has the support of the elected House.
Yesterday the Government announced that we are in the process of setting up a review to examine how to protect the ability of elected Governments to secure their business in Parliament. The review will consider in particular how to secure the decisive role of the elected House of Commons in relation to its primacy on financial matters and on secondary legislation. The review will be led by Lord Strathclyde, supported by a small panel of experts.
The relationship between the Commons and the Lords is extremely important. When conventions that govern that relationship are put in doubt, it is right that we review that. Clearly, the House will be fully updated when more details of the review have been agreed.
It is clear that the Government intend to give the House of Lords a kicking, but they should remember, as they fashion this pretend constitutional crisis, that the vast majority of people in this country applauded the Lords on Monday, because the measure was not in the Government’s manifesto. Does the Leader of the House see no irony at all in getting a Member of the House of Lords—and, for that matter, a hereditary peer—to review the financial privilege of the House of Commons? Is this the right person for the task? After all, in 1999, Lord Strathclyde said of the convention that the House of Lords did not strike down statutory instruments:
“I declare this convention dead.”
That same day, he and the Lords voted down two Labour Government statutory instruments. Now he thinks that it is an utter disgrace to do so. Is there one rule for Tory regulations and another for Labour ones? Is he now a convert or frankly just a hypocrite?
Order. [Interruption.] I am perfectly capable of dealing with these matters. I certainly do not require any sedentary chuntering, however well-intentioned, from hon. Members. Their interventions are superfluous. The shadow Leader of the House should withdraw that term.
I withdraw that term unreservedly, Mr Speaker; I presume that he is a convert.
Why are there no representatives of other parties or of the House of Commons on the review panel? Would it not be better for this House to conduct its own inquiry into the operation of secondary legislation? Could not the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, whose admirable Chairman is in the Chamber now, do the job far better?
Is there not a far simpler means of guaranteeing the financial privilege of the Commons? The Government should stop relying on secondary legislation and introduce properly scrutinised primary legislation as money Bills that are covered by the Parliament Act instead. In all honesty, is it not a disgrace that measures affecting 3.2 million people should be decided in a 90-minute debate with no opportunity for amendment? There is a very simple principle here: money Bills do not receive scrutiny in the Lords, so they get extra time in the House of Commons; secondary legislation does not get much time in the Commons, so it does receive consideration in the Lords.
Does the Leader of the House not realise that the Lords had the power they did on Monday only because the Government tried to sidestep scrutiny by using secondary legislation dependent on the Tax Credits Act 2002, section 66 of which specifies that changes to tax credit rates must be approved by both Houses of Parliament? As things stand, the Government rely on hundreds of Acts that have the same provision. Does the Leader of the House intend to make retrospective amendments to each and every one of those Acts, and will he use the Parliament Act to drive that through?
We have very few checks to Executive power in this country. If we do not protect our constitution, it is not worth the paper it is not written on. There is a real danger that if Parliament as a whole lets the Government of the day dismantle every check and balance, they will no longer be governing by consent—and that really would be a constitutional crisis.
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman’s experience as a parliamentarian, but he will not be surprised to learn that I tend not to anticipate the outcomes of reviews before they have even started. I said a moment ago that we would publish full details of the terms of reference and the full review panel in due course, so he will have to wait to see the full detail when we bring it to this House. There is no restraint on any Committee of this House from carrying out any inquiry that it wishes to conduct, within its remit. Lastly, on primary legislation, it is a simple fact that tax credits are classified as a benefit. They cannot be included in a money Bill. You, Mr Speaker, would not certify a Bill containing a reference to tax credits as a money Bill, so I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that the 2002 Act was produced by Gordon Brown precisely to keep tax credits out of a Finance Bill so that he could alter them by statutory instrument and raise them before elections without proper scrutiny? Will he confirm that the Labour and Liberal peers, having discovered that they have a large party political majority in the upper House, are using it with increasing frequency and that they have cast a vote that is totally contrary to every sensible understanding of the constitutional position for the past 100 years? Indeed, the situation is an exact replica of the Conservative peers foolishly voting against Lloyd George’s Budget.
The Lords does not vote against Budget measures. So although I welcome the advice of my noble Friend Lord Strathclyde, for whom I have enormous respect, will my right hon. Friend not delay too long before bringing forward legislation that sets out clearly what convention has previously established? If the Lords keep repeating these party political votes, it will be almost impossible to have stable government taking firm and difficult decisions for the remainder of this Parliament, when presumably they will start misbehaving with ever more frequency.
I share my right hon. and learned Friend’s concerns. He makes his point with his usual wisdom, and I hope very much that Lord Strathclyde will address the issues to which he refers. It is essential that these matters are dealt with. It is worth remembering that in 13 years of Labour government, the Labour party did not have a majority in the House of Lords, yet Conservative peers and others respected the conventions. It is a great shame that Labour and the Liberal Democrats clearly have no intention of respecting the conventions and will cast them out of the window, which will fundamentally change the relationship between the two Houses.
I am sure the British public are amazed and bewildered by that ermine-handbags-at-dawn spat between the Tories and the unelected Lords in this great battle of the nobles. We on the Scottish National party Benches are hoping it is a double knock-out blow.
Is it the case that the way democracy now works in the UK is that if the Government do not like what one part of the legislature does, they simply emasculate it or re-appoint it? Is this the sort of democracy we are living in? The emergence of the cronies and donors as some sort of ermined tribunes of the people is a ridiculous concept. We have great concerns about Lord Strathclyde. An unelected Tory peer—[Interruption.] Indeed, a hereditary peer is to handle this inquiry. The only comfort we take from this case is the fact that he reviewed and reported on the Scottish Tories and set recommendations in place for their progress in future. They are now at 14% in the polls.
I know very straightforwardly what the hon. Gentleman’s submissions will be to any review of the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. He can surely take comfort also from the fact that Lord Strathclyde is a Scot and therefore brings to this job great wisdom.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the announcement made yesterday and assure him that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee requires no instructions from the Government about what inquiries we will carry out, and nor does it require any prompting from the Opposition.
At our meeting yesterday, we started to cross-examine witnesses about events on Monday, and we will be looking at what Lord Strathclyde is likely to consider, but there is a simple point to make. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Parliament Act 1911 established the principle of financial privilege at a time when there was very little secondary legislation? Now that so much is done by secondary legislation, it should not be too complicated to make sure that that principle in the 1911 Act is extended to secondary legislation, to avoid such misunderstandings in the future.
I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and his Committee will look closely at those issues. I am not in the least bit surprised to learn that they have made a start. Most Members of the House realise that this week has marked a significant change or potential change in the relationship between the two Houses. We need to establish a firm foundation for the future. My hon. Friend and his Committee will play an active role in that. When change is necessary, I want to bring it forward as quickly and sensibly as possible, but we need to take the time to get it right and ensure that we deal with the issues for the foreseeable future.
Will the Leader of the House ensure that the review includes whether the House of Lords has the right to vote down measures introduced by a Government who said that they would not take such measures? Secondly, will the members of the review panel be paid a daily rate? If so, will it be higher than the minimum wage?
As I have said, we will bring forward full details of the review panel and the terms of reference in due course. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that nobody can be in any doubt that the Government won a general election in May saying that we would have to take tough decisions and cut welfare. That is what we are doing.
Many of us in the House believe, as a point of principle, that those who make the law should be accountable to those who live under the law. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is absolutely impossible as long as we have an appointed Chamber? How does he feel about the fact that, nowadays, only Britain and Iran have unelected clerics in our legislatures?
As we have learned from debates over the past few years, there are strong opinions in the House about the need for reform. Up to now, the House has chosen not to pursue the avenue of reform of the House of Lords, but it is difficult to see how, in the wake of these events, there can be no change at all to the relationship between the two Houses.
The Lords were right and entitled to table the fatal motion and it has not created a constitutional crisis. That is a smokescreen to distract attention from the pain that would have been inflicted by tax credit cuts on 3 million working families on low incomes. If the Leader of the House wants to reform the House of Lords, I recommend that he dusts down all the hard work done in the coalition on House of Lords reform. This time, he should get the Conservative party to support those reforms rather than scupper them.
I am not sure how the Liberal Democrats advance their case for reform by throwing out conventions and behaving in a way that is contrary to all the workings of Parliament over the past few decades. They can by all means make the case for reform, but they should not behave in a way that is simply designed to wreck the manifesto of an elected Government.
The House knows only too well that knee-jerk reactions leading to rapidly made legislation often result in poor law. What assurances can the Leader of the House give that such a hastily convened commission will be given reasonable time to carry out its work, and that no pressure will be brought to bear on it on the timetable? We do not want results produced in haste that we regret at our leisure.
One thing I said clearly yesterday was that I do not think we should do change on the hoof and rush headlong into change. Equally, we must accept that there appears to be a strategy in the House of Lords—an alliance between Labour and Liberal Democrat peers—to demolish the Government’s platform on which we were elected in May. This cannot therefore wait forever, but I accept my right hon. Friend’s point that we must do it carefully and properly.
My friends on the Scottish National party Front Bench want me to mention that, from 1407—the beginning of the 15th century—the Commons was given primacy over financial matters. That was confirmed in our motion of 1678, when all matters of taxation and expenditure were to be the preserve of this House. In 1839, the Speaker of the House of Commons insisted that an amendment from the House of Lords on a financial matter must be rejected. At that date, the House of Commons would not even consider the change of a trustee of a turnpike trust if it was suggested by the House of Lords, so jealous were we of the privilege that the democratic House must have control of taxation and expenditure.
May I urge my right hon. Friend to send the clearest message to the House of Lords that, if their lordships do not obey the conventions that have governed this country for centuries, they will be forced to do so by legislation?
My hon. Friend speaks with enormous wisdom and knowledge on these matters. He will not be surprised to remember that history was downplayed in our curriculum under the Labour Government. Parliamentary history does not appear to be top of the knowledge of Members of the other place. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have traditions and ways of working in this country that date back decades and centuries. They have been cast away this week entirely inappropriately. It would be a huge mistake for us to allow them to slip away. It is a shame that the Opposition parties appear not to respect them.
As we all carefully reflect on the 15th-century precedent, could we also carefully reflect on the modern world? A Government elected on 37% of the vote and 14% in Scotland might not be expected to win every single Division in the legislature. Should the Government not accept that their position seems to be based on a sense of entitlement as opposed to an attachment to the democratic ballot box?
The issue has nothing to do with entitlement and no Government should ever take either House for granted, but it is not unreasonable that, when precedents and conventions have existed for handling financial matters for decades and decades, they should be respected.
From talking to colleagues around the building, I know that House of Lords reform has returned very much to the centre stage, but we face big challenges in this country and have important legislation to get through. I want to deal first with challenges in health, education, environmental matters, enterprise and the economy, but there is no doubt that reform will now be discussed much more widely in the House.
The Leader of the House has explained why the measures were not in a Finance Bill. He seems to be confused: he seems to believe that the big bill attached to tax credits makes them a finance measure. If we follow his logic, no Bill that involves spending could go to the other place, be it on legal aid or HS2.
Let us be clear to the House—this is a very simple matter—that tax credits are officially categorised as a benefits matter and not a tax matter. If one puts a change to tax credits into a Finance Bill, that Bill will not necessarily be certified as a money Bill. That is the state of play and the reality of what we are dealing with. That is why the tax credits measures were not in a Finance Bill.
Has not the Leader of the House just said why the Lords were entitled to amend the statutory instrument? They did not reject it but delayed it because it clearly was not a tax measure. If it had been a tax measure, we would have put it in the Finance Bill. We are seeing a knee-jerk reaction to the House of Lords doing what it is supposed to do. I am all for a review, but let us have a proper review and take our time over it. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on that and announce more than just Lord Strathclyde heading a review?
It is absolutely essential that we do not rush this. We have said that there will be a panel of people working with Lord Strathclyde. Their names will be announced in due course, but I remind my hon. Friend that a statutory instrument has been rejected by the House of Lords in that way only five times in the past century. This is the first time that it has happened to a specifically budgetary measure. That is the important change.
Before we all join the Lords resistance army in a synthetic constitutional crisis, will the Leader of the House not acknowledge that the real issue is not the procedural powers of respective Houses in this Parliament, but the spending powers of hard-pressed and hard-working households in this country? In any review, will he ensure that our first priority is to get this House in order, not another?
I frequently take schoolchildren and visitors from other democratic countries on tours of this building, and I always feel slightly awkward when explaining that the House of Lords is appointed. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) suggested, is it not time we had a fully elected second Chamber?
Does the Leader of the House not accept that the other place has a constitutional role to provide pause to this House when it feels that we have taken a decision that is wrong and out of sync with the feelings of the country? Why should we take seriously his views on the powers of the other place, and indeed the views of Government Members, given that he is continuing to pack that House with 50-odd new peers at the same time as slashing the number of elected Members of this House by 50?
The simple reality is that this House has now voted for these changes five times—prior to Monday it was three times. Ultimately, it must be the elected House of Commons that has the final say on these matters, which is why the actions of the House of Lords were, in my view, unacceptable.
I welcome the Strathclyde review and the Leader of the House’s reiteration of the primacy of the elected House of Commons. The shadow Leader of the House alluded to our unwritten constitution, which is a constitution of convention. Is it not the case that the House of Lords has breached that convention and therefore, by definition, is acting in a very unconstitutional manner?
My hon. Friend sets out one of the great subjects of debate: if we replace the House of Lords with something else, should it be elected? As he knows, that has been debated several times since he and I were first elected in 2001, and I suspect that it will now be debated again. The important thing, from my point of view, is to deal in the coming months with the apparent wrecking strategy that Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords appear to be taking to the platform of the elected Government, so we have to resolve these matters quickly.
The Conservative Government keep trying to play politics with this but keep finding themselves in a hole. For a start, they did not put the tax credits policy in their manifesto, which has allowed the Lords to vote against it. Then they introduced it in a statutory instrument, which also allowed the Lords to vote against it. Now they have appointed a hereditary peer to conduct a review into the unelected House of Lords. Mr Speaker, when will the Government stop digging?
Yesterday the Chancellor said that the House of Lords has no mandate for tinkering with his tax credit changes, but, with 14% of the vote, it is his Government who have no mandate to introduce their vicious welfare reforms up in Scotland. After all the constitutional tinkering we have already had to introduce English votes for English laws, would not the solution to both constitutional conundrums be to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an English Parliament?
The Scottish nationalists keep making that argument. Over the past few weeks, I have listened to them express fury about the introduction of EVEL because it gives them less say over matters that they say affect Scotland. But an English Parliament would give them no say, so their argument simply does not stack up.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the House has pointedly refused to answer any questions about the terms of reference of the panel of experts, its members and whether they will be paid, or whether they will be able to take evidence. He said that he would make those details available in the fullness of time. He has chosen not to make a written ministerial statement or an oral statement to the House, so we cannot presume that he will make the details available to the House before he makes them available to the rest of the country. I wonder whether he might now like to leap to his feet to point out that he will make all the details available in the Library.
The Leader of the House is entitled to rise to his feet, but he is not obliged to do so. I think that it would be fair to say that these matters, as far as I can discern, are under consideration. Conclusions have not been reached. The detail is not yet known. It will be decided in due course. The request is that the House be informed first. I think that it would be a reasonable supposition that if an important part of the subject matter is the prerogatives of the House of Commons, it will occur to the Leader of the House first to notify the House of Commons of the particulars.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I think that I can make a judgment about the handling of matters. [Interruption.] Order. It is certainly open to the Leader of the House to come to the Dispatch Box, but he is not obliged to do so. I think that it is clear that we will get the details and that they will be communicated first to the House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Prime Minister’s questions today the Prime Minister said that the previous Labour Government failed to act on introducing free school meals. That is not correct. Having been Schools Minister in that Government, I know that we introduced three pilots for free schools meals for all primary school pupils in Durham, Wolverhampton and Newham, and the plan had been to roll them out in September 2010. When the coalition Government came into office, however, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats cancelled the scheme. Is it possible to have the record corrected, Mr Speaker?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In recent days I have received two parliamentary written answers from two different Departments on exactly the same vital question for Wales of Barnett consequentials for HS2. The reply from the Department for Transport provided a straight answer to a straight question and was very informative. Regrettably, the reply from the Treasury was not as useful, offering only a generic response that could be used to answer any question. What can be done to encourage the Treasury to follow the best practice of the Department for Transport when it comes to answering parliamentary questions?
I suspect that a representative of the Treasury will shortly hear of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. Meanwhile, it has been heard by, among others, the Leader of the House. It has been a long-standing practice, and one from which I certainly do not think for one moment that the current Leader of the House intends to depart, that the Leader of the House chases Ministers on the importance of timely and substantive replies. The hon. Gentleman is adding into the mix the incentive of wanting to compete favourably with another Government Department. The idea that the Treasury would want to be outclassed by any other Department strikes me as improbable. We will leave the matter there for today.
Regulation of Enforcement Agents (Collection of Council Tax Arrears)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the use of bailiffs and other enforcement agents by local authorities to collect council tax arrears; to establish a code of practice for enforcement agents; to create an independent bailiffs ombudsman to administer the code and to investigate and adjudicate complaints; and for connected purposes.
This Bill deals with two interrelated problems which, taken together, are pushing too many people into a debt trap by forcing them to borrow more to pay council tax arrears and unaffordable bailiff fees. The first problem is that local councils are too ready to call in the bailiffs when people fall into arrears on their council tax bill. This is despite guidance that is meant to encourage local authorities to look towards establishing affordable repayment plans in such situations and thus avoid the bailiffs. The Bill gives people a stronger right to challenge councils to offer an affordable repayment option before instructing the bailiffs.
The second problem is that bailiffs, despite recent reforms, continue to use unreasonable methods such as aggressive behaviour and intimidation. They charge unreasonable fees and misrepresent their powers in order to gain entry to collect goods. The Bill would ensure that when bailiffs are instructed they conduct collection activities in a reasonable and fair way. Crucially, for the first time, it will give people access to an independent ombudsman to secure redress when the bailiffs fail in their duty. At present, there are extremely limited circumstances where a complaint can be made to an existing ombudsman or where action can be taken through complicated court processes, leaving many people who feel they have been treated unfairly completely unsatisfied.
The number of people contacting debt advice charities for help with council tax debt has increased rapidly in recent years. More than 63,000 people sought help from StepChange Debt Charity in 2014—a staggering 372% increase since 2010. Council tax arrears are the fastest-growing problem debt dealt with by National Debtline, and 24% of clients had this type of debt in 2014, up from 14% in 2007. It is the debt issue most commonly seen by local citizens advice bureaux. Too many cases are sent to the bailiffs, and sent too quickly, as the default option for many councils. A recent StepChange review found that half the clients who sought help from their council were instead referred to bailiffs—twice as many as were offered an affordable payment plan. Research by the Money Advice Trust in 2013 found that councils had referred debts to bailiffs on 1.8 million occasions in the course of a single year— a figure that rose to 2.1 million last year.
Sending in the bailiffs often makes a bad situation worse, tipping people much deeper into problem debt. Many bailiffs still fail to comply with the national standards for enforcement agents. The high fees mean that six in 10 StepChange clients paid at least £310 extra for bailiff collections, and 15% have paid more than £420. Most people fell behind on other bills—naturally—or borrowed money, often from payday lenders or friends and family, in order to pay these fees. The lack of help means that people are more likely to fall into debt. They are more than three times as likely to take out a payday loan, twice as likely to borrow money from friends and family, and 50% more likely to fall into debt on other bills to pay the council tax demand.
The previous Government committed to clamping down on aggressive bailiff behaviour, and last year a series of changes to their procedures was introduced. Those changes are a move in the right direction, but the light-touch approach does not seem to have had much effect. Recent Citizens Advice data showed that in the year since the regulations came into force there has been an extremely significant increase in the number of problems caused by bailiffs. Last year, Citizens Advice helped with 77,000 problems caused by bailiffs—an increase on the previous year’s figure of 45,000.
The evidence from Citizens Advice also shows that people are continually intimidated by bailiffs. For example, one of its clients was told that he was “looking at a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks” if he did not pay his debt in full by the end of the day. Another bailiff told a client that he was going to come round with a “gang of lads” if the debt was not paid—and that threat was made within 24 hours of the enforcement notice being issued. Evidence from StepChange echoes this. A bailiff called at one of its client’s houses—a single parent—to collect unpaid council tax. She was threatened with prison unless she allowed the bailiff into the house. The bailiff said, in front of the child, “Do you want your two-year-old son to be taken away from you when you go to prison?”
The ways in which bailiffs apply fees and charges cause huge numbers of problems for people facing bailiff action. One client had been paying a magistrates court fine of £600 via a deduction from her benefits while she was looking for work. When she found work, the deduction stopped. She had been paying for a considerable period, and she believed that she had paid off the fine. She received notice from a bailiff regarding an outstanding fine of £60. This was inflated to £370 by compliance and enforcement fees. The original documents asking for repayment had been given to her teenage daughter, who did not live at the property. The bailiff contacted the client by phone threatening to come round that day with a locksmith and a removal van if she could not pay in full. She offered £170 that day and £200 on the day she was paid, which was the following week, and the bailiff refused to accept that offer.
Another common issue is bailiffs misrepresenting their powers to force entry into people’s homes. The forcing of entry is restricted to certain debts, but last year 67% of Citizens Advice advisers saw cases where bailiffs had misrepresented their powers by saying that they could break in, use force, and take the goods.
This Bill will not solve everything, but it will help. It will put good practice guidance for councils and bailiffs issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Ministry of Justice on to a statutory footing, and introduce an ombudsman scheme for bailiffs. Together, those measu