House of Commons
Wednesday 18 November 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—
I would like to start by putting on record the enormous sense of solidarity felt by all people across Wales with the French nation. We stand with them shoulder to shoulder in these difficult and anxious days.
The steel industry in Europe is facing a perfect storm as a result of a glut of cheap imports, falling prices and high energy costs. With nearly half of the UK’s primary steel industry employed in Wales, we fully recognise the impact of these global challenges on Welsh steelworkers and their families. We are working closely with the industry and with the devolved Administrations to do everything possible to support the industry at this time.
We on the Labour Benches associate ourselves with the Secretary of State’s words about the people of Paris.
On 28 October, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills attended an extraordinary meeting of the Competitiveness Council on the steel industry. Following that EU meeting, plenty of warm words were issued in a written statement, but can the Secretary of State tell the House what practical measures were agreed to help the steel industry in this extremely difficult time?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. Before I answer it substantively, I should make the House aware that there has been an explosion in the past hour at the Celsa Steel plant in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Our thoughts are with the workers at this time and with the emergency services who are at the plant as we speak.
On the practical response to the global challenges facing the steel industry, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) will be aware of the specific practical working groups that we established following the national summit. Those engage the Welsh Government as well as the Scottish Administration, and action has been taken by the Business Secretary at a European level to get our European partners to focus much more seriously and more urgently on tackling dumping and bringing forward state aid clearance so that we can fully compensate our steel industry for the higher energy costs that it faces.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, as it gives me the opportunity to talk about one practical measure that we have taken in recent weeks: we have changed the guidelines for Departments on procuring steel for major projects, allowing for Government contracts to take into consideration wider economic and social impacts, which we hope will create more opportunities for UK steel manufacturers to win those bigger contracts. With this Government making a record investment in infrastructure, that creates future growth opportunities for the British steel industry.
Although we clearly need measures such as help with business rates and energy costs, does the Secretary of State agree that if we do not tackle Chinese dumping, all those other measures will count for nothing and that the future of the industry in this country is bleak?
I agree with the sentiment and the direction of the question. That is the backdrop to the global challenge, not just for the British steel industry, but for the steel industry in north America and all across Europe. With a glut of cheap Chinese steel coming on to the market, we are leading efforts at a European level to tackle dumping. We voted for the anti-dumping measures in one specific section of the steel industry and we are continuing with those discussions.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the answers that he has given so far, but what measures is he taking with the Wales Office to lobby other Government Departments to pre-order steel from Wales and other areas of the country for our infrastructure projects to ensure that there is a future for steel in Wales?
My hon. Friend is right. That taps into the point that I made a few moments ago about the changes that we have made in the procurement guidelines. The Crossrail project, for example, which has used 50,000 tonnes of high-quality steel from Celsa Steel, which I mentioned a few moments ago, is a great example of the UK Government investing in infrastructure and using the power of our procurement to create growth opportunities for British steel manufacturers.
The incident this morning at Celsa in my constituency to which the Secretary of State has referred is obviously deeply concerning news. Can he say anything more about the incident and ensure that there is full support from all in responding to and investigating it?
As I understand it, the incident happened in the past hour. Ambulances are at the scene. I am told by officials that there are three injuries at the site. That is all I know at this moment. As the hon. Gentleman says, our thoughts are very much with the workers, their families and the emergency services at the scene.
First, I echo the words of the Secretary of State in respect of the tragic events in Paris and the explosion at Celsa this morning.
The Secretary of State knows just how serious is the crisis facing the steel industry in Wales, and indeed the whole of the UK. Four years ago, the Chancellor promised a compensation package for energy-intensive industries. What reassurance can the Secretary of State now give to the thousands of workers in Wales whose jobs depend on the steel industry that his Government will deliver that package by the end of this month?
The point I would make first up is that we are in the process of delivering that compensation. We have already paid out about £50 million in compensation to British steel companies, not least to companies based in Wales, so the money is already getting to them. What we are talking about at the moment is getting state aid clearance for the final element of the compensation package. That is really important for the steel companies, and we are pressing hard to get it.
After four years, the Secretary of State’s Government have still not finished negotiating one package. That hardly bodes well for the promises the Prime Minister is making about EU reform.
The Government have made much of merely renewing existing anti-dumping measures, but with 94% of the Chinese steel that comes into the EU flooding the UK market, why is the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague in the EU Council of Ministers blocking the much needed reform of the trade defence instruments?
I am not sure that the hon. Lady is fully sighted on all the actions on steel that we are taking at a European level. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and his colleague, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, have been at the forefront in discussions and negotiations at a European level to get change, with real, practical, urgent action on anti-dumping and on state aid clearance for compensation for energy costs. We are leading the way in trying to get change at a European level to support and protect our British steel industry.
Access to Justice
It was of course a Conservative Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1993, which provided for the use of the Welsh language in the courts system. We are committed to remodelling our courts to make them more cost-effective and efficient, and these changes will give due consideration to the needs of Welsh speakers.
I take this opportunity to extend our sympathies to every nation that has suffered at the hands of IS in recent days, and to express concern at the news of the explosion in south Wales.
I understand that the Ministry of Justice has closed its consultation on the court and tribunal estate in England and Wales, which proposes the closure of 11 courts in Wales, including Dolgellau in my constituency, and that is without undertaking a Welsh language impact assessment, as required by law and under the Welsh language scheme. Will the Secretary of State ensure that a Wales-wide assessment is undertaken and that its recommendations are implemented before any decisions are reached on court closures?
I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that a full Welsh language impact assessment will be included in the Government’s response to the consultation. We are determined to protect the interests of Welsh language speakers, as demonstrated by the Department’s Welsh language scheme.
Over many decades, Conservative Governments have a strong record of supporting the Welsh language. Does my hon. Friend agree that every Department at Westminster, including the Ministry of Justice, should be committed to supporting the Welsh language and the modernisation of Government services, enabling us to give even more support to the language that we in Wales call the language of heaven?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Protecting and preserving our heritage is a core Conservative principle, and this Government, like previous Conservative Governments, have done a lot to secure that, as he rightly mentioned. The Government’s digital agenda provides an opportunity to bring about innovations to enhance the opportunities to use the Welsh language in the courts system and in other Government services.
Access to justice in both Welsh and English is important to my constituents in north-west Wales, but following court closures alternatives such as audio-visual facilities and paying fines over mobiles would not be possible in such areas, in English or in Welsh, because we simply do not have the infrastructure. Can we put court closures on hold until we get that infrastructure?
Estate reform of the Courts Service must continue, but that is allied to the digital transformation that the Government are bringing about. A total of £69 million has been invested in broadband services in Wales, in addition to European aid and Welsh Government money. We have also announced a consultation on a minimum service requirement for broadband distribution, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.
Almost exactly one year on from the UK investment summit in Newport, inward investment figures for Wales show the best performance for a quarter of a century. This is no coincidence. With the support and assistance of UK Trade & Investment and the UK Government, Wales continues to provide a world-class offer for foreign investors.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The economy in Wales is getting stronger, thanks partly to new inward investment. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of welcoming Israeli investors to south Wales, where they announced £3 million of new investment, creating almost 100 new jobs. We should all be encouraged by the fact that inward investment in Wales is back to the level of the days of the Welsh Development Agency before the Welsh Labour Government abolished it.
The important thing is to welcome the more effective partnership that now exists between the UK Government and the Welsh Government to deliver the inward investment. Of the new projects coming into Wales, 87% were secured on the basis of co-operation between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and I have no hesitation in congratulating both.
High-quality transport infrastructure is crucial to attracting inward investment. I was therefore delighted to see the Under-Secretary at the rail summit in Llandudno last week. Will my right hon. Friend convey to his colleagues in the Department for Transport the clear message that came out of that summit that north Wales regards itself as part of the northern powerhouse and demands an electrified railway line?
My right hon. Friend has been a powerful champion and advocate for investment in transport infrastructure in north Wales. The summit that happened last week was very important, and the Transport Secretary has received loud and clear the message about the importance of investing in transport in north Wales.
Welcome though the figures are, the Secretary of State will acknowledge the important contribution of higher education to inward investment. Is he satisfied that UKTI is fully aware of what is happening in Welsh universities? That would give it more ammunition to promote the very good story of Wales.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have some world-class higher education institutions in Wales that are at the cutting edge of innovation. It is a reminder to us to keep reminding UKTI of the importance of that, and how higher education links into business growth in Wales.
The single market offers enormous opportunities for Welsh business, accounting for 42% of Welsh exports. However, exports to non-EU countries account for 58% of our total exports and are worth more than £7 billion to the Welsh economy. That is why we are seeking EU reform to go further and faster on economic competitiveness, trade and deregulation, which will strengthen Welsh exports.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of Airbus in Wales and in the south-west, which has connections to my constituency, demonstrates the value of the single market, and that reforming it further to include the digital economy and energy will give those important sectors even more capacity to expand and grow?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, not least about the importance of investing in technology. If we are to drive up prosperity in Wales, we need more growth in higher technology. This afternoon, I am proud to be helping to launch a new compound semiconductor centre for IQE and Cardiff University. That is emblematic of the changes in the Welsh economy.
Twenty-five thousand jobs in Swansea bay city region rely on being in the single market. Swansea is, of course, in the convergence funding area. Will the Secretary of State support Swansea bay city region MPs’ bid to get the new tax centre for Wales in Swansea bay city region, given that it is an area of relative deprivation, and not Cardiff?
Exciting things are happening in Swansea and the Swansea bay city region. I am delighted that Swansea MPs are working together. If they have a proposal about future changes to the delivery of Government services, with opportunities for Swansea, I ask them please to send them through and we will consider them.
Does the Secretary of State agree that no one who believes we should leave the European Union is suggesting that we stop trading with our European neighbours, and the fact that they sell more to us than we do to them means that there is no chance of their wanting to stop trading with us?
The truth is that Wales’s future prosperity depends on whether we can transform the economy, improve productivity, invest in transport infrastructure and improve our skills and education. That is where Wales’s future prosperity and success lie, and the question of whether or not we remain in the European Union is therefore a secondary one.
The Secretary of State is just a little bit shy today. Why cannot he just recognise that 191,000 Welsh jobs are totally dependent on EU trade and that Wales is a net beneficiary of EU aid? Cannot he just say—we will protect him from the Tory “Little Britain” sketch on the Benches behind him—that Wales is better off in?
I am not often described as shy; I am interested that I have come across in that way to the hon. Lady this morning. I do not recognise the figure that she cites. The important point is that the single market creates a really strategic opportunity for Welsh business. That is what we need to defend and extend.
International Sporting Events
The rugby world cup demonstrated yet again how Wales punches well above its weight in the global sporting arena. It was the most successful rugby world cup in history, generating £316 million for the Welsh economy. There should be no limit to our ambition to build on these successes and to attract more tourism and inward investment to Wales.
What steps is the Minister taking to attract even more high-quality sporting events to Wales, such as the Commonwealth games, which would make my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) very happy, as well as people across our great country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making such a suggestion. It was on a Conservative motion back in 2006 that the Assembly voted unanimously to attract the Commonwealth games to Wales. The next opportunity is in 2026, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) is keen on that date and keen to ensure that Cardiff makes a leading bid. The Wales Office is standing ready and waiting to support any bid that comes forward from any part of Wales.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Immediately after those disruptions occurred, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke with the train operators, who have apologised to him and to the public. Of course, we are upgrading the great western main line, which will make a significant difference in the long term. We also call on the Welsh Government to bring forward their proposals for the M4 in order to improve the infrastructure for those coming to Wales by road as well as by rail.
Rebalancing the Economy
Our long-term plan is turning around the Welsh economy: since 2010, unemployment has fallen, manufacturing industry has created 12,000 jobs and the Welsh economy has grown faster than any other part of the United Kingdom.
Does the Secretary of State agree that key to rebalancing the economy is getting a proper grip of the public finances? Does he share my shock and horror at the recent TaxPayers Alliance report that exposes the enormous amount of waste in the public sector in Wales?
With his eagle and sharp eye on the care of the public finances, my hon. Friend makes a really important point. I was actually shocked by some of the examples from the TaxPayers Alliance that we have read. Clearly, the Welsh Government and the entire public sector in Wales need to get a much stronger grip on the disciplines of cost control and to get on top of managing the national finances.
Provisional results from the annual survey of hours and earnings by the Office for National Statistics show that Wales is at the bottom of the pay table and is the only part of the British state where earnings have gone down. Does that not indicate that the Welsh Government need to be empowered with a wide portfolio of fiscal powers—the Secretary of State has supported that for Scotland—as direct control from Westminster is clearly failing?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Welsh Government need more fiscal tools. They need the responsibility of income tax devolution to encourage them to be a more financially responsible Administration. The point that he makes about earnings is also important. That is why he should be giving full-throated support to the steps that we are taking to drive up wage levels and end the curse of low pay in Wales.
Draft Wales Bill
Last month, I published the draft Wales Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny and I continue to meet members of civil society, the judiciary and leading business organisations across Wales to take soundings and hear their views.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. There was a substantial deliberation on our country’s constitutional future, led by a distinguished former Officer of the House, Sir Paul Silk. However, the Secretary of State has so far chosen to include very few of the recommendations of the Silk commission in the draft Wales Bill. Will the final version of the Wales Bill give his final vision of our country’s constitutional future? Is this it for the foreseeable future?
A lot of the Silk recommendations do not require primary legislation and we have already delivered them. We are committed to delivering the Silk recommendations that we have agreed on, which we set out in the St David’s day announcement earlier this year.
When I raised this issue before the general election, a previous Secretary of State for Wales said that I was wrong. Will the present Welsh Secretary say that if the Welsh people would like a Welsh Parliament, rather than a Welsh Assembly, they will be able to have one?
To paraphrase the famous old man of Pencader, it will be the Welsh people ultimately who determine the direction and pace of Welsh devolution. The draft Wales Bill will give powers to the Welsh Assembly to call itself a Parliament and take on more law-making responsibilities.
Low pay has been a scourge on the Welsh economy for too long. Reforming tax credits is an important part of our plan to transform the whole of the UK to a low tax, low welfare, higher wage economy. The Chancellor will set out details of these reforms in his autumn statement.
What representations have the Minister and the Department made to the Chancellor about the impact on 44,600 people in north Wales and 200,000 people across Wales of the loss of £1,300 per year as a result of his changes? What has he said to the person who is sitting next to him?
The Wales Office is in regular dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the Treasury. The Chancellor will set out how we plan to achieve the goal of a lower tax, low welfare, higher wage economy in next week’s comprehensive spending review. The right hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that the tax credit changes are part of a wider reform that includes increases to the national living wage, changes to universal credit and help with childcare, on which we hope the Welsh Government will follow suit.
12. Will the Minister confirm that while the Government are, of course, listening carefully to any concerns about tax credits, the people of Wales stand to benefit enormously from the increase in the tax threshold, the increase in the minimum wage and the Government’s determination to stick to the long-term economic plan? (902196)
Small businesses are the lifeblood of the Welsh economy and are leading the way in creating new jobs and driving growth. There are now 22,000 more businesses in Wales than in 2010. Supporting these businesses to grow is a key part of the Government’s long-term plan for Wales and the UK.
Does the Secretary of State agree that infrastructure is critical to supporting small businesses and that the electrification of the Great Western railway, which serves my constituency too, will unlock social and economic opportunities for his constituents and mine?
May I associate myself with the comments about the explosion in Cardiff today and the sad situation at the Celsa steelworks, and thank the Secretary of State for making us aware of it?
The legal profession is a crucial part of the small business sector in my constituency. The Secretary of State will be aware that the First Minister now wants a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction, despite what he said 18 months ago. Will he assure me he is protecting our jurisdiction?
I am aware of the calls from the First Minister and Plaid Cymru for Wales to have a separate legal jurisdiction. One of the sources of Cardiff’s growth in recent years has been investment in legal and professional services, and I fear that moves to create a separate jurisdiction for Wales will lead to a flight of talent from the Welsh legal profession.
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I associate myself, and I hope the whole House, with what the Prime Minister and others in government have said about the attacks in Paris? No man or woman is an island. People from Blackpool were among those murdered on the Tunisian beach, and, like other places worldwide, our tower was lit in red, white and blue in remembrance of those killed by the terrorists in France. I raised concerns with the Prime Minister here two weeks ago about neighbourhood policing and security being threatened by the scale of the proposed cuts and about the Lancashire funding formula, which has now been admitted to be flawed. Will he reflect on the words: “When facts change, I change my mind”? Given that police local intelligence can be crucial against terrorists, perhaps this is not the time to jeopardise it with arbitrary Treasury targets for cuts.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about Paris and the importance of the whole House coming together. Perhaps the House would like a brief update: as I said yesterday, one British national, Nick Alexander, was killed at the Bataclan theatre; three other British nationals have now been released from hospital and returned to the UK; and the Foreign Office and Red Cross are providing support for trauma to at least another 15 British nationals. We will make sure we provide support to those injured and traumatised by the events that have happened. There has been progress this morning in France with the arrest of terrorists, but perhaps I can say more about that later.
On policing, we rightly protected counter-terrorism policing in the last Parliament, and we will protect it again in this Parliament. Otherwise on policing, we have seen an increase of 3,800 in the number of neighbourhood officers over the Parliament and a 31% cut in crime. I commend the police—not just counter-terrorism police, but all police—for the work they do, and we will announce our proposals on police spending next week.
Q2. As our hearts go out to the people of France, will the Prime Minister agree that the first duty of Her Majesty’s Government must be to protect British citizens from harm? So will he take immediate action to secure our UK borders against those who threaten our nation and, on security grounds alone, restore complete sovereignty over our British borders from the European Union? (902133)
My hon. Friend raises an important question. In answering, I want to explain an important point: because the UK is not in the Schengen area, we already retain full control over who enters our country and can check all entrants at the border, including EU and European economic area nationals. The House might be interested to know that, since 2010, we have refused entry to almost 6,000 EU nationals, more than 3,800 of whom were stopped at our juxtaposed border controls in Calais. Since 2010, we have denied entry to nearly 95,000 people. Of course, one of the principal reasons for not letting people in, be they EU or non-EU nationals, is national security concerns. We are in that situation already because we are not in Schengen.
Let me start by expressing the horror of all Opposition Members at the events in Paris on Friday evening, and our continued solidarity with the victims and all those affected by conflict and terrorism, whether in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Damascus or anywhere else in the world. Nothing can justify the targeting of innocent civilians by anyone.
We know that at least one British national has been killed, and many more injured. Many British people live and work in Paris, and millions visit Paris and France every year. Will the Prime Minister continue what he was saying in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) about the support given to British nationals affected by the attacks, and will he say what the Government’s latest advice is for those travelling to France, and speak about our need to show the best possible normality in our relations with the French people?
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his remarks, and it was a pleasure to be with him last night at the England-France football match where there was a tremendous display of solidarity. I am sure that they can sing the Marseillaise louder in the Stade de France, but I think we did a pretty good job yesterday, and I was proud to be there.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is never any justification for terrorism, and we should be clear about that right across the House and at all times. He asked specifically what more we can do to help British people who are caught up in these problems, and Peter Ricketts, our ambassador in France, has done a brilliant job with his staff. I have been keeping a close eye on the consular situation, and I think that everything that can be done is being done.
Our travel advice is all on the Foreign Office website, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the most important thing is for people to carry on with their lives. It is important that the Eurostar continues to function, that flights continue to go, and that people continue to travel and to enjoy London and Paris. We must continue going about our business. As we do so, yes, we need enhanced security, and that is happening in the way that the police are acting in the UK and elsewhere. One way to defeat terrorism, however, is to show the terrorists that we will not be cowed.
We know that, sadly, after atrocities such as those we have seen, intolerance such as Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism often increase. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that everyone in public life—particularly we as politicians—must be careful how we discuss these issues? Will he join me in making it clear that the dreadful terrorism in Paris has nothing in common whatsoever with the 2 million British Muslims in this country who are as appalled as anyone else by the events in Paris last Friday?
I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in that, and some of the strongest and best statements following the Paris attacks have been made by a series of British Muslims who have come together to say that these attacks are in no way carried out in their name. I do think—we talked about this yesterday—that this raises an important issue, because it cannot be said often enough that these butchers of ISIL are no reflection of the true religion of Islam, which is a religion of peace. At the same time, we must recognise that whether these terrorists are in Tunisia, Egypt, Paris or London, they spout the same bile that they claim comes from the religion of Islam. That is why we must take apart what they say and prove that that is not the case. It is not good enough to say that there is no connection between these terrorists and Islam; they are making a connection, and we need to prove that it is not right. As we do so, the support of Muslim communities and scholars is vital, and I commend them for their work.
Surely a crucial way to help defeat ISIL is to cut off its funding, its supply of arms, and its trade. May I press the Prime Minister to ensure that our allies in the region—indeed, all countries in the region—are doing all they can to clamp down on individuals and institutions in their countries who are providing ISIL with vital infrastructure? Will he, through the European Union and other forums if necessary, consider sanctions against those banks and companies, and if necessary countries, that turn a blind eye to financial dealings with ISIL that assist it in its work?
As I said yesterday, we play a leading role in ensuring that the supply of money, weapons and support is cut off. However, we should be clear about where ISIL got its money from originally. Because we did not have a Government in Iraq that effectively represented all their people, and because in Syria there is a leader who is butchering his own people, ISIL was able to get hold of oil, weapons, territory and banks, and they have used that to fund their hatred and their violence. We cannot dodge forever the question of how to degrade and destroy ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, and that is why I will be setting out my response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Yes, we should go after the money and the banks, and cut off supplies to ISIL, but we should not make that a substitute for the action that is required to beat those people where they are.
Next week the Chancellor will present his autumn statement to the House. Can the Prime Minister clarify something about the source of the necessary extra funding for the security services, which we support? Will it come at the expense of other areas, either within the Home Office budget or other areas of public spending, from the reserves, or from new funding? Does he want me to go on longer so that the Chancellor can explain the answer to him?
We will set out in full our decisions next week, but we have already said that we will fund an increase in the security services of 1,900 personnel. We will safeguard the counter-terrorism budget and we will see an increase in aviation security. All that is part of an overall spending settlement. At the same time as funding our security and increasing our defence spending, we have to make decisions that eradicate our budget deficit and keep our economy strong. We do not do that just for the current generation: we do it for our children and grandchildren, because none of these things—not even strong defence—is possible without a strong economy.
I am not absolutely sure where the money is coming from following the Prime Minister’s answer, but no doubt it will come.
London has been targeted by terrorists before, and this weekend’s events in Paris have focused attention not just on London but on other cities throughout the whole of Britain. Policing plays a vital role in community cohesion, gathering intelligence on those who might be about to be a risk to all of us, but that is surely undermined if we cut the number of police officers by 5,000. Does the Prime Minister agree with the commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who said:
“I genuinely worry about the safety of London”—
if the cuts go through on this scale?
The right hon. Gentleman asks where the money comes from. On this side of the House, we never forget that every penny we spend comes from taxpayers. Borrowed money is simply taxes that are deferred, and that is why it is so important to eradicate our deficit at the same time as making sure that we fund our security and intelligence services and police properly. As I have said, we are protecting the counter-terrorism budget. We saw a 3,800 increase in neighbourhood police officers in the last Parliament, at the same time as a 31% cut in crime. The shadow Home Secretary has said that a 10% efficiency target for the police is doable. Is the Leader of the Opposition saying that he does not agree with the shadow Home Secretary? There does seem to be a little bit of disagreement on the Opposition Front Bench today.
I have a question from a taxpayer, actually. His name is John and he says—[Interruption.] He says that at a time when we are experiencing the greatest threats from terrorism ever faced, our police office numbers and their resources are being cut and that
“Demands on the police have been increasing steadily as budgets are slashed, increasing stress on officers. Couple that with detrimental changes to their pay, terms, conditions and pensions, it’s no wonder that morale”
in the police force
“is so poor that 1 in 3 are considering leaving.”
Will the Prime Minister be able to tell us whether community policing and other police budgets will be protected or not in next week’s autumn statement?”
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman again: neighbourhood policing numbers have gone up by 3,800. In the capital city, we have seen a 500% increase in neighbourhood policing. Because we have cut bureaucracy, we have also put the equivalent of an extra 2,000 police on the streets. But I will tell him something: as well as wanting resources, the police want the appropriate powers. Has it not come to something when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is not sure what the police’s reaction should be when they are confronted by a Kalashnikov-waving terrorist?
Q3. The attacks on Paris were quite clearly an attack on all of us. Does the Prime Minister agree that our resolve must be unbreakable and that we should hunt down ISIL wherever it is operating, wherever it is planning, wherever it is plotting, and if that means “shoot to kill”, so be it, and if it means action in Syria, so be it? (902134)
I think my hon. Friend is right. What I have said is that in order to respond to this very severe threat that we face, we need to focus on counter-terrorism here in the United Kingdom, giving our intelligence agencies the laws they need and our police the powers they need and ensuring that we are vigilant. We need counter-extremism, as we discussed earlier, emphasising the importance of stopping the poisoning of these young minds, not least by radical preachers on the internet. We also need to stop the problems at their source. We know where much of this problem is coming from: it is ISIL not just in Iraq, but in Syria. I told the House yesterday that I will prepare a detailed response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report to demonstrate that we have a clear strategy of bringing in the neighbourhood powers and the regional powers, building a future for these countries and stability in the middle east. I believe that part of that is taking action against ISIL wherever it is.
In the wake of terrorist outrages and the ongoing civil war in Syria, it is very welcome that there is significant diplomatic progress in trying to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. The UK joined the US, France, Russia and Iran at talks in Vienna at the weekend, and all signed a communiqué committing to progress through the United Nations. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will support a UN Security Council resolution on this before seeking to intervene militarily in Syria?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for asking this question. The point is that Russia has different aims from us and has repeatedly threatened to veto any such resolution. Of course, it is always preferable in these circumstances to have the full backing of the UN Security Council, but what matters most of all is that any action we would take would be both legal and help protect our country and our people right here. As I said yesterday, we cannot outsource to a Russian veto the decisions we need to keep our country safe.
The first survey of UK public opinion on Syrian intervention since the Paris attacks, conducted by Survation, has shown that 52% believe that
“the UK should engage with all countries to co-ordinate an appropriate response, military or otherwise, backed by United Nations resolution”,
and only 15% believe that UK should independently launch air strikes. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to secure a UN Security Council resolution, which the UK agreed to and which Russia agreed to as well?
I could not be clearer with the right hon. Gentleman. Of course it is always preferable in whatever action we are taking—whether it be lifting people out of the Mediterranean, flying air patrolling missions over Baltic countries that feel a Russian threat or taking action in the middle east against ISIL—to have a UN Security Council resolution. However, if such resolutions are vetoed or threatened with a veto over and over again, my job as Prime Minister is, frankly, not to read a Survation opinion poll but to do the right thing to keep our country safe.
Q7. The French armed police who stormed the Bataclan and killed those vile, murderous scum are heroes, and so are the British armed police who protect our public spaces and the people. Will the Prime Minister send a note of unequivocal support today to those officers on patrol, and ensure that in next week’s review, they have the resources they need to keep us safe? (902138)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We ask the police every day to take risks on our behalf. Let me thank the police who policed so effectively the game at Wembley last night.
In terms of what the French police have done, I think the House would welcome an update. We have seen the news of a police operation in Paris this morning. Two terrorist suspects died, including a female suspect who blew herself up. Seven arrests are reported to have been made. This operation has now finished. As the French Interior Minister has said, we should all acknowledge the bravery of the French police in dealing with what is a very challenging situation.
I hope there can be consensus across the House—I mean right across the House—on this. If we are confronted with a situation like this, the British police should not be in any doubt. If you have a terrorist who is threatening to kill people, you can—indeed, you must—use lethal force.
Q4. In a recent Financial Times article, President Obama said:“I have emphasised the importance…of tax credits to help working families afford childcare and keep two-earner families in the workforce.”Does the Prime Minister agree with the importance the President of the United States has attached to tax credits? (902135)
I think it is important that we do the best we can to help low-paid people. That is why we are taking people out of income tax: 3 million of the lowest paid taken out of income tax since I became Prime Minister. We are going to be setting an £11,000 threshold before people have to start paying tax at all. We are helping working families with childcare. We are helping with a national living wage of £7.20 starting next year, something I suspect President Obama would love to introduce in the United States. We are doing it right here.
Q10. Integrating health and social care will be a great prize for devolved cities and regions, but without effective democratic and clinical oversight things can go badly wrong. Already, in Manchester a major hospital reorganisation is awaiting judicial review. May I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that proper safeguards are in place so that local authorities retain a last resort power to refer NHS changes for independent clinical review? (902141)
I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says, but I think this does go to a larger point, which is that we are currently changing the way our country is run. These big devolution deals, first to Greater Manchester but now, with the announcements yesterday, to Liverpool and to the west midlands, mean that we are going to have powerful metro mayors who are accountable to local people for the decisions they make. That is a very direct form of accountability and that is why we can be confident of devolving health and social care to those authorities. For too long, our country has been too centralised. The great cities of Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool—and soon Leeds, I hope—will benefit from these massive devolution deals, but if we devolve the power and we devolve the money, we have to devolve the trust and the accountability too.
Q5. Against the backdrop of a tidal wave of local job losses, the Teesside Collective for industrial carbon capture has the very real potential to secure a major step change in our industrial renaissance. Ahead of the Paris conference, will the Prime Minister meet me and the industrial leaders driving this project so that we can secure these immense climate change gains with the UK leading this new industrial revolution, and make this initiative a reality for Teesside and the UK? (902136)
I know how important it is that we all work on behalf of Teesside, not least because of the difficulties there have been in Redcar. That is why we have the taskforce and why the additional resources are going in. I am very happy to look at the project the hon. Gentleman talks about. It may be best for him to meet the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, because we have to make important decisions about all these technologies in the run-up to the Paris conference and beyond.
Q12. In my constituency, manufacturing is thriving thanks to innovative small businesses such as Powerkut and Naysmith Group, which are creating high quality local jobs and apprenticeships in the engineering sector. Given the challenges that these types of companies face in finding traditional bank and funding support, what assurances can the Prime Minister give that this Conservative Government understand the importance of our innovators and will continue to provide initiatives, such as the annual investment fund, to ensure British businesses continue to lead the way? (902143)
We want to rebalance the British economy not just in terms of the devolution of power I have just talked about, but to see a thriving manufacturing sector. Manufacturers have told us that they want continued investment in the catapult centres, which do a good job of making sure that technology is taken up. They want strong support for the apprenticeship programme, and we have set a target of 3 million apprentices during this Parliament. They also want to make the annual investment allowance permanent, and it will be permanent at £200,000 throughout this Parliament so that manufacturing companies and others that want to make investments know they can do so in a way that will be profitable for them.
Q6. My niece Ruby is safe and well after being caught up in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. She has been a student in Paris for three years, and she wants to know whether this country will be safe on her return. She has a question for the Prime Minister. She is worried about the cuts to the ambulance, police and fire services here, and whether those cuts will allow us to have the preparedness that was shown by the emergency services in Paris. I also want to know why we are not joining the Russians in calling for a UN mandate to remove ISIS from Syria. (902137)
First, let me say how glad I am to hear that the hon. Gentleman’s niece is safe after those terrible attacks. Let me answer her question very directly. We are doing everything we can to make sure that this country is safe. After receiving intelligence some years ago about the potential for a marauding firearms attack at multiple locations—perhaps in our capital city or elsewhere in our country—we have run exercises and we have done research. We have looked at everything we can do to make sure, for instance, that ambulances and their crews will be able to go into a so-called hot zone and recover casualties, that we have the right number of armed police in the different parts of our country, and that we can respond in ways that will include using other forces in all the ways that we can. We have looked carefully at what the French have done in surging troops on their streets and have made sure that that can now happen here, and that all the permissions are given.
There is never a 100% guarantee of safety in any country, but I would say to the hon. Gentleman’s niece that we are doing everything that we possibly can.
Q13. In that spirit, I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on the new funding that has been announced for special forces equipment, but may I draw his attention to the plight of David and Maria Summers, in my constituency, who have struggled to obtain permanent residency for Maria despite having been married for 45 years? May I ask the Prime Minister to encourage officials to look at the case again? (902144)
I shall be happy to look at the case again, but, given the constituency that my hon. Friend represents, his question gives me an opportunity to say something about a group of people we say very little about because we do not comment on the amazing work that they do. Hereford is a very important part of the nation’s security, both domestically and overseas. Very, very brave people work there, and we should all give credit to them.
Q8. A constituent of mine was a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is currently training to be a doctor in London. He tells me that with the proposed junior doctors’ contracts, morale in the NHS is lower now than it has been at any time during his time on the frontline. Does the Prime Minister agree that low morale among our junior doctors and nurses is a threat to patient safety? (902139)
I would say that the hon. Lady’s constituent and all junior doctors should please look very carefully at what the Government are offering before they decide to go on strike. What is on offer is not an increase in hours—indeed, for many doctors it will mean less long hours—and it is not a cut in the pay bill for junior doctors; it is actually an 11% basic pay increase. It will also mean better rostering of doctors, including at weekends, and more support for consultants.
I would say to the hon. Lady’s constituent, as I would say to others, “Look at the Department of Health’s website, look at the pay calculator, and see how you will be affected.” We have given a guarantee that anyone who is working legal hours will not be worse off under the new contract. It is good for the NHS, good for doctors, and good for patients. Even at this late hour, I hope that the British Medical Association will call off its damaging strike.
Q14. Fundamental to the success of the Good Friday agreement was a spirit of peace and reconciliation that saw dozens, or even hundreds, of convicted terrorists released from prison. Many had been found guilty of murder. Yet in the last week, we have heard the alarming news that a 66-year-old former paratrooper has been arrested in connection with events that took place in Londonderry 43 years ago. In a week when we are all having to once again contemplate sending our young men and women into harm’s way, with our security services and police are on high alert, what message does the Prime Minister feel that that sends to our armed forces, our police and our security services? (902145)
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and the feelings that many will have on seeing this news, but the truth is that one of the most important things about our country is that the Government do not decide who is prosecuted and who is not prosecuted. We have the rule of law; we have independent prosecuting authorities. This is something that people across the world cry out for and we have here, and we have to support them even when they take decisions that sometimes we would want to question.
In that context, let me make a broader point. Yesterday the principal parties in Northern Ireland came together and agreed a deal to make sure that the devolved institutions can continue to work. That deal involved people who have lost loved ones to terrorism, and who have been opposed to each other all of their lives, sitting down and working together to try to deliver good government for this part of our United Kingdom, It is that spirit we should look to for the future.
Q9. HMRC’s decision last week to close its offices in the Bradford district will mean the loss of over 2,000 high-skill, high-wage jobs, £1.2 million in business rates and almost £12 million of the district’s retail spending. This will have a devastating impact on Bradford’s families and economy, so will the Prime Minister give me assurances that HMRC will meet Bradford MPs to consider the clear economic and social case for keeping those offices in Bradford open? (902140)
First, I am happy to ask the Financial Secretary to meet the local MPs. Secondly, we will make sure that Jobcentre Plus and all the support is there for people who potentially are losing their jobs. The point I would make in Bradford more broadly is that the claimant count is down by 26% in the last year, so jobs are available. But let me also make this point, because it is a difficult and important point to make: everyone in this House wants to see HMRC raise more money and make sure that people and companies do not avoid their taxes. That does mean reform, and it means making sure that HMRC is even more effective in raising the taxes on which our public services depend.
In acknowledgement of the fact that sport can bring a nation together—and, for that matter, nations, as was demonstrated at Wembley last night—will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in addition to the welcome extra investment in the police and security services, investment in sports such as cricket will be maintained because they are a tool to help us face longer-term challenges in integrating communities?
I am sure that over the next week the spending requests will quicken as we get closer to the spending review. It is important that we have put in place the school sport premium for primary schools—it is making a real difference—but of course there is a role for the sporting bodies to play themselves. Many of them receive large amounts of money from the television contracts, and if more of them can use that money to invest in grassroots sports to make sure we are bringing on the young stars of tomorrow, that will be absolutely vital.
Q11. As the new leader of the anti-austerity movement in Oxfordshire, will the Prime Minister tell us how his campaign is going? (902142)
What I said to my local council is what I say to every council: “You’ve got to get more for less, not less for more.” As I said, on this side of the House we want to make sure that every penny raised in council tax is well spent, and if the hon. Gentleman’s council would like to come in and get the same advice, I will gladly oblige.
At a time when my right hon. Friend so rightly emphasises the need for our solidarity with France, will he see what he can do to ensure that the Franco-British Council, set up over 40 years ago by both nations’ Governments to promote civil society partnership, can continue to do its important work in fields as diverse as defence and community cohesion, because without a very small amount of funding from both Governments, it will not be able to do that?
I am very happy to look at that proposal. France and Britain have a lot to learn from each other, and we should enter into these discussions in that spirit. We have a lot to learn about how we try to integrate people in our country, how we have effective counter-terrorism policing, and how we share intelligence, and I am very committed to making sure that we pursue all those things with our French friends.
Q15. Wigan council has had a cut of over 40% in its funding over the past five years and lost a third of its staff. Does the Prime Minister advise that I should write to the leader of the council regarding the consequent reductions in services, or should I place the blame firmly where it belongs: in the hands of his Government? (902146)
If the hon. Lady is looking for someone to blame, she might want to blame the Labour party, which left this country with the biggest budget deficit anywhere in the western world. And as she does so, the advice I would give her about her local council is to look at its overall spending power—the combination of business rates, council tax and grant—and ask what money it has to provide good local services.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Parachute Regiment: Arrest
(Urgent Question): Further to the question to the Prime Minister from my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), may I ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if she will make a statement about the arrest of a former member of the Parachute Regiment who was on duty in Londonderry on 30 January 1972?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As part of an ongoing investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972, a former soldier was arrested for questioning on 10 November. He was subsequently released on bail. Criminal investigations and prosecutions are a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities, who act independently of Government. The Government cannot therefore comment on an individual case.
This Government are committed to the rule of law. Where there is evidence of wrongdoing, it is right that it should be investigated. We remain unstinting in our admiration and support for the men and women of the police and armed forces, whose sacrifice ensured that terrorism would never succeed in Northern Ireland and that Northern Ireland’s future would only ever be determined by democracy and consent. Whether the current investigations will lead to a criminal prosecution is a matter for the police and prosecuting authorities in Northern Ireland.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out in his statement on Lord Saville’s report, more than 250,000 people served in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner, which was the longest continuous operation in British military history and one in which I was proud to play a part. The overwhelming majority of those who served carried out their duties with courage, professionalism and integrity. The Government will never forget the debt of gratitude we owe them.
Thank you for allowing me to pose this question, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for his service in Northern Ireland.
When the Prime Minister made his memorable statement to the House in 2010 following the publication of the Saville report into the events of 30 January 1972—known elsewhere as Bloody Sunday—I and others hoped that a line would be drawn under that tragedy. We now find, however, that 43 years after the event and some three years after the PSNI started its further investigations, a soldier from the Parachute Regiment, known as Soldier J, who was in his early 20s at the time and is now in his late 60s, faces possible prosecution for murder. There is also a prospect of further arrests.
For two reasons, I submit that this is wrong. First, what national interest will be served in bringing these cases to court? The Saville inquiry found that there was no premeditation to murder in the minds of those young soldiers. One of those who was killed had four nail bombs in his pocket, and a witness said that Martin McGuinness was on the other side, probably armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Those soldiers of the Crown were not hired killers. They were seeking to do their duty to their country in a filthy civil war in which the enemy were dressed in civilian clothes and indistinguishable from the local population.
Secondly, as the Secretary of State said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on 1 May 2014,
“the royal prerogative of mercy…was granted in Northern Ireland 365 times between 1979 and 2002”.—[Official Report, 1 May 2014; Vol. 579, c. 762W.]
The Saville report cost £195 million and took 12 years to compile, but our servicemen, then based in Aldershot, some of whom remain my constituents, had to make snap decisions, the consequences of which have hung over them for the whole of their adult lives.
What happened that day was a tragedy, particularly for the families of those who lost their lives. However, they are not the only bereaved. What about the families of the 1,441 British soldiers who died in Northern Ireland in the service of their country? There was no Saville inquiry into how they were killed, often brutally. There was no Saville inquiry into the murder of six civilian cleaning ladies and one Roman Catholic padre in Aldershot the following month. I submit that it is immoral for the state to seek nearly half a century after the event to put these men on trial, while others who deployed their bombs and bullets in the shadows are now in government or have received royal pardons—an act of government, not of the courts. I urge the Minister to exercise the royal prerogative of mercy with immediate effect.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. He has been a doughty and outspoken champion of not only the Parachute Regiment and his constituents, but Britain’s armed forces. This is not easy for me either; I know what it is like to make those decisions under pressure. But we should not forget that the British Army is not above the law, and nor should it be. That is the difference between us and the terrorist; it is what makes ours a professional Army around the world, admired by many, and sets it apart from some of those more tin-pot armed forces elsewhere in the world.
The House will have heard what my hon. Friend said about the use of the royal prerogative of mercy. What I will say to that is: I cannot comment on these individual cases, as they are obviously a matter for an ongoing police inquiry. It is long way from following a line of inquiry to charging and conviction in a court. I am sure the House will reflect on his call, but the Government cannot comment on this current case, and the police must be allowed to do their job and uphold the rule of law—the rule of law that I went as a soldier to uphold in my time in Northern Ireland.
It is only right and proper at this time to pay tribute to our armed forces, who are at this very moment engaged in defending our freedoms and are in harm’s way. They operate to the very highest standards, and we should always remember the difficult circumstances in which they serve and have served. Does the Minister therefore agree with me that it is always difficult to criticise our armed forces if they fall below these high standards, but we cannot and must not fail to do so if evidence of wrongdoing should exist?
The Saville inquiry of 2010 was clear, and this is what the Prime Minister said:
“there is no doubt; there is nothing equivocal; there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.”—[Official Report, 15 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 739.]
He also apologised on behalf of the British Government. The whole report made very uncomfortable reading for all of us, and of course we must never forget the victims and families of those who were killed, both on Bloody Sunday and throughout Northern Ireland on so many other occasions. Can the Minister confirm, so we are all clear, that evidence given at the Saville inquiry is precluded from being used in any court proceedings against a particular individual? Can he confirm therefore that the arrest of Soldier J was based on evidence gathered by the PSNI since January 2014, which is when it announced a new investigation? The PSNI has said that there will be no further arrests until the results of a judicial review brought by other affected soldiers is concluded. When does he expect that will be? Will he also tell us what work the Northern Ireland Office has undertaken pending the outcome of that review?
Yesterday, we heard the welcome announcement of agreement on many important issues at Stormont, which came after weeks of exhaustive discussions. It was, however, not possible within that agreement for the parties to agree on how legacy issues and the past should be dealt with. Will the Minister outline what steps the Government intend to take to continue to pursue such an agreement? Does the case of Soldier J, and potentially others that we are discussing here today, not emphasise once again the need for a comprehensive process to deal with these issues and outstanding cases, however difficult this may be? The whole House will agree that the independence of the police and the judiciary is central to any democracy, but a process has to be sought and agreed, however difficult.
Northern Ireland is coming out of conflict. Huge progress has been made. The Northern Ireland of today is hugely different from that of yesterday. All of us who have visited it on a regular basis have seen that for ourselves. We have seen the desire to build for the future, and the hopes that everyone has for the new generation. When the Minister answers my questions about this difficult issue, will he also agree that the continuing and emerging issues from the past have to be dealt with as they cannot be denied? Let us also not forget how far we have come. All parties, all communities and the people of Northern Ireland deserve huge credit for that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. On the important issue of testimony, it was established during the Saville inquiry that the testimony of anyone giving evidence to that inquiry could not be used either as a basis for conviction or indeed to incriminate themselves. That was done so that we could find out as much as possible about what happened on that fateful day. That principle still stands, and the protection of a person’s evidence is still an issue. However, it does not preclude other evidence that is gathered later. I cannot comment on the current police investigation. It would be wrong for me to interfere with the PSNI, or indeed inquire too deeply, as it must be left to follow the course of its investigation.
On the issue of legacy, I wish to place on the record my admiration for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government who, over 150 meetings in the past nine-and-a-half weeks—75 bilateral meetings and more than 35 round table meetings—resolved the current impasse in Northern Ireland. They have decided that the best future is to move forward and not back. It is regrettable that that legacy has been left out of the final agreement in so far as legislation is concerned. However, the agreement signed yesterday continues to commit the parties to produce solutions to deal with the legacy; the victims of the Northern Ireland troubles will demand that. We, as the United Kingdom Government, have committed to provide the funding for that legacy inquiry to take place, and I hope that sooner rather than later, we get to a point where the policy we are examining in the Northern Ireland (Stormont House Agreement) Bill can be enacted so that, in the end, we can achieve not only justice for victims, but closure from the troubles.
The Minister—and indeed the Prime Minister a few minutes ago—was right to draw the House’s attention to the separation of powers. In order for people in Northern Ireland, and throughout the United Kingdom, to keep their faith in the peace process, is it not important that whoever is suspected of committing any crimes is fully investigated regardless of what roles they may be playing in Government now?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and it is why, not so long ago when a prominent member of Sinn Féin and former members of the provisional IRA were arrested, I said quite clearly at the Dispatch Box that we support the PSNI in pursuing the evidence that is presented to it to bring them to justice whether they are senior members of a political party or members of a terrorist organisation, but that is not to equate them with individuals who were in the British armed forces and who were doing their job to defend people who could not defend themselves.
We echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and we endorse what he has said. Is it not the case that we still have people in Northern Ireland who are prepared to go out and murder former members of the security forces? Is it really appropriate that, when a man offers to go to a police station for interview, three police cars arrive at his home to arrest him in full public view, given his background? If we are to do this, we need to find a more sensitive way. We should not be placing men and women who have served this country well, and their families, at risk and in danger simply, as appears to be the case, to appease some other people?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to express concern at the manner in which anyone is arrested, but, as I have said, I cannot comment on this individual case. If he has issues with how and in what manner that person was arrested, may I suggest that he takes it up with the Chief Constable?
I entirely endorse the comments of the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State about how the current circumstances in Northern Ireland could never have come about without the extraordinary bravery and discipline of all those in our security forces who allowed the peace process to take root. To pick up the shadow Secretary of State’s question, the Saville report is the most extraordinary compilation of detail. Will the Minister confirm that all the evidence given by soldiers who were questioned is absolutely untouchable and cannot be used on legal grounds to incriminate them, and that their anonymity is also legally protected?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. It is absolutely the case that the testimony given by a former soldier cannot be used against that former soldier in any future case. He or she is protected from incriminating him or herself, whoever gave that evidence. As for my right hon. Friend’s other point, I think the best thing is for me to get a proper, clear answer and to write to him on that matter.
As the MP for the constituency in which the events of Bloody Sunday took place, I know that I have to take care not to go so far in rebutting some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that it adds to any impression of political pressure or motive behind the current investigation, or indeed any arrest. Will the Minister confirm that one of the things that all the parties have agreed, in all the discussions on the legacy, is that amnesty is no basis for dealing with the past, and that the House should therefore avoid getting involved when there are particular investigations or arrests?
Will the Minister also qualify his last answer by saying that protection does not extend to perjury, that Lord Saville warned several witnesses and that the prosecuting authorities took the position that they would pursue perjury—which would happen in this jurisdiction, because that is where any possible perjury took place—only after what they called the substantive crime of possible murder was dealt with? Therefore, if people are looking to say that the investigation of possible murder should somehow be parked or abandoned, will he consult with colleagues to see whether the issues around perjury should be reconsidered by the prosecuting authorities?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the protection does not extend to the area of perjury of witnesses giving testimony at a public inquiry, and that would be the same for any witness on that day. On amnesty, I can confirm to him that, throughout the whole legacy discussions of the Stormont House Bill, as it was going to be, amnesty was never part of the process—not with the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval or, indeed, with the Historical Investigations Unit. That was not something that either Government or parties wanted to commit to.
May I pay tribute to George Hamilton and the Police Service of Northern Ireland? They are bound to follow the evidence, and we should support them in so doing, but does my hon. Friend accept that in following the evidence they are likely to follow the actions of members of the armed forces first and foremost, as the Provisional IRA, inconveniently, was not in the habit of laying down written evidence? The legacy investigation branch is therefore bound to give at least the impression of focusing on former members of the British armed forces. Does my hon. Friend understand that that serves the historical revisionist agenda of Sinn Féin, and will he comment on whether that is likely to be helpful or unhelpful to the peace process?
My hon. Friend knows all too well, having stood here at the Dispatch Box doing this job previously, that what serves the peace process is the reckoning of the past, closure for victims—but also justice for victims—the pursuit of former terrorists, if they have not been convicted, and the pursuit of anyone else. That is what serves peace. Recognising the huge sacrifices made by members of the security forces and the civilian population of Northern Ireland is what actually brought us to the negotiating table. It is what defeated the terrorists, and that is why we need to make sure that, when we move forward, we do so in a spirit that is measured and recognises where justice needs to be done, but also that we do not indulge people who would like to revise the past, as if it were some big conspiracy against people.
We often hear from the Prime Minister about the importance of having enshrined the military covenant in law in this country, and he is quite right to boast of that: it is a wonderful thing to have done. In that context, will the Minister guarantee that the Ministry of Defence will pay for all the legal costs—for legal advice and top legal representation—of any former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland who are charged in connection with any inquiry, such as Bloody Sunday, or any inquest, such as those announced for Ballymurphy?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The MOD recognises that we have a duty of care to all current and former members of the armed forces. As an essential part of that, we will pay for independent legal advice, so that they are able to defend themselves when they face legal proceedings or matters related to their former service, so the answer is yes.
I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the need to uphold the law. I entirely understand why any decisions about prosecutions must be independent and why he cannot comment on this particular case. However, without prejudging in any way any particular case, does he understand that we also need to uphold justice and that it would offend the natural sense of justice of many in this country that how the Army behaved on a certain day 40 years ago is being reopened, while so many on the IRA side who killed have been granted amnesty? Does he agree that, if we are to draw a line under past events for the sake of peace, it should be drawn on both sides?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I would just like to correct him: paramilitaries and terrorists who have not been convicted and were not part of the Good Friday agreement have not been granted any blanket amnesty. They are still subject to the full force of the law, and there are no doubt individuals who are still being looked for or cases being prepared. In that case, I am afraid there is no blanket amnesty, but my right hon. Friend is right that we should not let individual cases colour the very strong and successful work that our armed forces did. We went to Northern Ireland to protect those who could not defend themselves. That is a record we should be proud of, but that record can be besmirched—it has always been the same since the war, or any other time—if members of the armed forces think they are above the law. It is what makes us different from the terrorists we challenge.
There may be no blanket amnesty, but is it not the case that former terrorists have been granted immunity from prosecution? Does the Minister agree that no fair-minded person will understand why the same right is not extended to British soldiers?
I think I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. It is not my understanding that anyone has been granted amnesty from prosecution, and we should not confuse some of the recent events with that meaning—a blanket amnesty. No one has an amnesty available to call on to protect them from facing up to what they did, but he is right: I face, nearly every week, people sitting opposite me who I know killed my soldiers, but I can do that because I think it is about the future and about making peace to move forward for the people of Northern Ireland.
My constituent, himself a Northern Ireland veteran, has written to me expressing dismay about the arrest of this 66-year-old ex-soldier. Chillingly, he writes:
“You should be aware that there is a large and rapidly growing undercurrent of anger and resentment of these actions within the current military and more importantly amongst the many tens of thousands of veterans who like me, spent long months and years being stoned, bombed, fired upon, injured, intimidated and vilified”.
I understand the parameters within which the Minister is operating, but can he ensure that an explanation is brought forward rapidly and that matters are brought to a swift conclusion, to allay the anger reflected in that correspondence?
I am tempted to say to my right hon. Friend that I might have drafted part of that letter. I was stoned, vilified and abused over many years on those tours.
The anger is real. I feel the anger of many of my former colleagues and of my right hon. Friend’s constituent about making sure that this is not used as some political campaign. We in the Government are determined to make sure that it is about the rule of law—that the police have to gather the evidence, if there is any, and that it has to follow its course. We are a long way from that. We are in a position where I cannot comment on the current case, although we are currently talking about people being questioned—under caution and, obviously, arrested—but it is a long way to make the jump to this being some form of campaign against the British Army. What I will say is that we are listening to what people are saying. The Government know that this is about moving forward, and therefore we shall do everything in our power to make sure that, as the MOD is doing currently, we recognise and support our soldiers who face prosecution or, indeed, investigation, to make sure they are given the representation they deserve.
I am glad that the urgent question was granted. We recognise and support the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, but there is real anger among veterans. Will the Minister take steps to end the current inequality that allows for those in the armed services to be pursued with greater vigour and effort than the terrorists, and ensure that we move towards a level playing field in the future?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is an inequality in the process. I do not believe that some people are being pursued by the police and the Chief Constable with more verve than others. They will go where the evidence takes them and they will follow them. This is a process that I hope will help many soldiers and former Royal Ulster Constabulary members to clear their names. Having such a process is as important as not having a process that could allow people to make false allegations against them.
I entirely concur with the Minister’s point that no one is above the law, but the perception among many Members in this Chamber, and among people in the country, is that our British soldiers are hounded while those who murder and kill become politicians and are still allowed—I have personally faced them—to walk free. Will the Minister confirm that the identities of Soldier J and anybody else from before 1973, which I think is where the rule comes in, will be kept secret?
We must all challenge the perception that they are hounded. As I have said, 250,000 people served during those 25 years. No one is hounding them. The police must be allowed to follow a course of inquiry in order to help either to clear names or to achieve justice where there has been a breach of the law. That is very important. We have to distinguish: we are the people who follow the rule of law and it is the terrorist who does not. In answer to my hon. Friend’s second question, as I told my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I shall write to him about that detail.
Five years ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and tried to bring closure to the £200 million Saville report, and people across the House and in many sections of society expressed the view that the matter was at an end. I predicted in this place at that time that that would not be the end of the matter and, unfortunately, so it has proved. Does the Minister accept that he needs to meet the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to ensure that, irrespective of whether people were in or out of uniform, if they had machine guns or probably had sub-machine-guns, like Martin McGuinness, they should be subject to the law and questioned equally, in order to be brought before the courts?
The Chief Constable is absolutely adamant that, in all criminal inquiries, he will treat people the same. He will investigate and he will follow the course of action. It was not that long ago that we were hearing cries about Sinn Féin politicians being arrested and taken in for questioning. I have confidence that the Chief Constable, who is respected by Members on both sides of the House, will follow his professional training, pursue people based on evidence and treat them fairly in that process. I cannot get involved in investigations. I cannot go to see the Chief Constable to interfere. If I did and the result was the same and there was no evidence in a particular case, it would never be allowed to be gotten away with. People would accuse me of having interfered in a case and someone would be prevented from clearing their name.
I took a patrol out on the streets of Belfast a few moments after we had discovered that our battalion band had been blown up while entertaining Londoners in Regent’s Park. I will never forget the restraint shown by riflemen and other ranks under my command as they faced the taunts of the IRA and its supporters. That is just one example of thousands of similar occasions when the armed forces showed unbelievable restraint in the face of unbelievable provocation. My colleagues at that time, and many veterans like them, want to say, “What about Bloody Warrenpoint? What about Bloody Regent’s Park? What about Bloody Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday? These things were happening every day of the week.” The Minister is entirely right to say that this has to be dealt with properly, but does he agree that society wants a line to be drawn under it?
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I do not disagree with him. Like him, I have had personal experience of that restraint. We should not forget the tremendous pressure that soldiers and police were put under every day, including provocation. I remember soldiers being attacked and people parking their cars in front of ambulances so that they could not come to their rescue. There was inhumane treatment, murder and victimisation by parts of a society that we were there to try to protect. Like my hon. Friend, I have real passion for what our soldiers achieved. The United Kingdom Government recognise and support that. He will also recognise that those soldiers who showed restraint are the ones who make ours the best Army in the world. Their professionalism meant that they managed to carry on and try to achieve a better result for the people of Northern Ireland, who they were there to protect, and that restraint means that those people who have a chance to clear their name should be allowed to do so. It is those soldiers who follow the rule of law who are only ever let down by those very, very few soldiers who break the law.
I concur and agree wholeheartedly with the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). The diligence and zeal shown by the authorities in questioning and detaining Parachute Regiment soldiers cause concern when compared with the treatment of on-the-runs, who have committed horrible, brutal, evil crimes and are free today, some in elevated positions across the Province and in other parts of Ireland. Does the Minister appreciate the anger that many feel towards the double standards evidenced by what is happening today?
The hon. Gentleman is right and I understand his point. Indeed, I was on the Back Benches during the whole on-the-run process. I cannot comment much further on the on-the-runs, other than to say that it is my understanding, unless I am corrected, that the on-the-runs are not subject to any amnesty, and that means that they are not free from prosecution. I hope that the prosecuting authorities will hear what we say today and make sure that they continue, where they can, prosecutions of any of those individuals who have committed crimes against our armed forces and the people of Northern Ireland.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), I have been contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned about the appearance of double standards and of some kind of amnesty for terrorists. In the week that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly heard from the Chief Constable of the PSNI that his officers are still going about their business while dissident republicans aim to kill them as they work to protect their community, will the Minister assure us that there is no question of any amnesty for those who attack and maim our armed forces?
Not only can I assure my hon. Friend that there is no amnesty, but in the latest Northern Ireland agreement, which was reached yesterday, there is £160 million more money to fund our police forces and security services in Northern Ireland to pursue people who commit crimes, or who have done so in the past, against the innocent people of Northern Ireland. Yesterday’s agreement also included measures to monitor the paramilitary activity of former paramilitaries or organisations that should be inactive. We are determined not only to deal with the past, but to invest and give our police the support to make sure we bring to justice those terrorists who have been on the run and who have not yet been brought to justice, as well as those dissident republicans who are out there right now targeting colleagues and police officers who are going about their business in Northern Ireland every day.
The Minister has said that he does not think there is any inequality. How, then, does he explain that more than 20 PSNI officers are investigating Bloody Sunday soldiers, but not one police officer is investigating the 11 murders in Enniskillen on Remembrance Sunday in 1987?
I do not know the inner workings through which the Chief Constable and his senior officers decide to investigate each individual case, and nor should I. Suffice it to say that the Chief Constable is determined, as I understand it, to bring to justice any individual who has broken the law in the past. There are plenty of former and current terrorists who need to be brought to justice, and PSNI officers and Security Service officers are out there every day trying to catch the terrorist. It is not, in my view, all focused on former soldiers.
We have always been opposed to terrorism and to on-the-runs. It was my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) who steadfastly opposed that in the House some years ago. We also believed in accountability and sensitivity for all victims, irrespective of where they came from. Will the Minister redouble the efforts to ensure that the legacy of the past is fully pursued and that we obtain a final resolution that takes on board national security considerations, so that truth is made available for all?
The hon. Lady is right. The SDLP has a fine and long track record not only of pursuing justice but of using democratic methods to pursue its political agenda. We should not forget that throughout the troubles the SDLP took quite a lot of intimidation. Like the hon. Lady, I regret that the legacy did not make it through the agreement. Like her, I am determined to make sure that we deal with those issues from the past. That is why funding is still available to do that. Next week I will press Northern Ireland parties on what we will do to move on from the agreement, to ensure that we move forward on the investigations and the legacy issue so that families get more information and closure and that justice is served.
I congratulate the Minister on his professional response to upholding the rule of law, which, given his background, must be very hard for him. His response is exactly what we expect from our service people, and we do expect more from them. That is why it is right and proper, if the rule of law is being followed, that the people concerned get the chance to clear their name if that is possible. We have to remember that 13 people were left dead on the streets of Derry 43 years ago, and that must be sorted out. If people did not act properly, it is right and proper that they are brought to book.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I reiterate that what sets us apart is the rule of law and soldiers who show restraint and professionalism. That is how we get public and community support. If we are trying to deal with a terrorist threat and counter-terrorism, we need the population on our side. I know more than anyone that when populations felt that we were above the law or that we did not treat them as if they were part of society, the soldiers’ job was harder and more dangerous because no one helped us or gave us information, and our lives were put at greater risk.
Like other hon. Members in this place, I led soldiers and platoons in those troubled times in the 1980s. I pay tribute to the vast majority of soldiers who showed true professionalism, often in very hostile environments. I agree with the Minister that nobody should be above the rule of law, but may I make one plea to him? Will he use his offices to do what he can to expedite this matter? What we all want in this place, on all sides, is to draw a line under those troubled times so that we can move forward. That, together with good offices on all sides, will give peace and the peace process the best chance of succeeding for the longer term.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted that you called my hon. Friend. He is right—we need to put all this behind us. However, I cannot interfere in a police investigation or any of the processes. To do so would jeopardise the course of justice and may jeopardise someone’s ability to clear their name.
The Minister says that the Army is not above the rule of law, and that there is no blanket amnesty for those whom they were seeking to prevent from killing the people of Northern Ireland. However, the perception of the casual observer is that either because of political position or because of scandalous certificates handed out by the Labour Government, or by an action of the PSNI, there is a group of killers in Northern Ireland who are immune from prosecution. That stirs up animosity and puts police officers in fear while they are dealing with the current bunch of republican terrorists, that at some time in the future their families will also whinge for inquiries and those same police officers will stand in the dock. Can the Minister not see that some mechanism, such as that used in the past against IRA killers, must be used to ensure that Army personnel are not pursued in this way?
I can see the hon. Gentleman’s last point but I will not equate IRA killers with British forces. They are not the same, and I will not encourage an alternative mechanism that somehow equates them. My view and the Government’s view is that the police, and our forces, must follow the rule of law. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about perception, we must all do more to correct that perception. I shall do more to correct that perception, and next week when I meet the police and the security services, I shall certainly press on them again the need to pursue those people who are still at large and those terrorist crimes that have not been solved and for which people have not been brought to justice.
The double standards in this affair are palpable for all to see. We have hundreds of on-the-run letters signed off, clearing people of mass murder, and some of several mass murders. A dozen of them were signed off by the Minister’s colleague. Is it not a disgrace that people such as Rita O’Hare are freely available to meet with Prime Ministers and Presidents, yet the Minister tells us that there is no double standard? There is a double standard and it must be addressed. These soldiers cannot be held in the way that they are being held.
The hon. Gentleman reiterates the point that there is an unfair playing field and a double standard, but I do not believe that there is a double standard. I do believe that the police and the PSNI, in their professional manner, are pursuing the evidence that is presented to them. A line of questioning is a long way from conviction and court cases. Who knows where it will take us? But if politicians interfere with that course of justice, we will not solve the problems of Northern Ireland. We will just extend those problems, and people will continue to refer back by saying that all along this was a big fix and it was not really about making sure that justice is done. Everyone in Northern Ireland deserves justice. Everyone who served in Northern Ireland deserves justice. I want to know who killed my soldiers and I will continue to ask those questions, but I will not find out who killed my soldiers if we do not move Northern Ireland forward and give the police the money to do their job, and allow them to pursue people and achieve convictions where they are deserved.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate the latitude you have shown in calling me.
I am alarmed by the Minister’s apparent indication this afternoon that the pursuit of prosecutions is a good opportunity for ex-servicemen to clear their names. Surely, as a former serviceman, he can understand the anguish, the pain and the stress of people who stood by me, my family, my colleagues and my countrymen through all those hard days. He should reflect on whether the pursuit of such prosecutions is a worthy or noble way for people to clear their name.
I did not actually say “the pursuit of prosecutions”; I said that the pursuing of a line of inquiry is important to allow people to clear their name. It is also important because when, or if, the PSNI says on a number of occasions that there is no evidence to answer, the public will have full confidence that the police have done all they can to establish whether that is the case. If the police—or the Director of Public Prosecutions or anyone else—rule out charging someone, the public have to believe that that is because there is no evidence. They cannot do it on the basis that a politician, a Minister or anyone else interfered with the process, because that would be a subjective matter, and it would undermine justice, not strengthen it.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 14 March this year, the Communities and Local Government Committee produced a report on litter and fly-tipping. The convention is that Government Departments will respond to such reports within eight weeks. Sometimes there is a reason for a delay, and obviously the general election intervened, but it is now eight months since the report was produced. Despite repeated requests at ministerial and official level on a regular basis, we are still no nearer to getting a response. That shows disrespect not merely to the Select Committee but to the House as a whole. Will you use your good offices to ensure that the report is responded to in a proper manner?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me notice of this point of order. Clearly, it is important to the effectiveness of Select Committees that Government Departments respond promptly to their reports. The Government’s own guidance makes it clear that Departments should aim to respond to Committee reports within two months, and states:
“Only in exceptional circumstances should a response be deferred for more than six months after the Report’s publication.”
I trust that the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman, who is, after all, the Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, have been noted by those on the Treasury Bench and that the Government’s response will follow shortly. For the avoidance of doubt, and so that this is well recalled both in the House and beyond, I reiterate what he said. This important report was entitled “Litter and fly-tipping in England”, and it was published on 14 March 2015. It is hard to see why the Government have not been able to get round to determining and publishing a response, and they should now do so.
Speed Limits on Roads (Devolved Powers)
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 Part VI of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, and the Local Authorities’ Traffic Orders (Procedure) (England and Wales) Regulations 1996, to make provision about the powers and duties of parish and town councils in relation to applying for speed limit orders; to provide for the conduct of local referendums to determine whether such applications should be made; and for connected purposes.
This Bill accomplishes two main objectives: first, it encourages safer environments for motorists and pedestrians; and secondly, it empowers local communities. The Bill will give town and parish councils the ability to hold a referendum to change their speed limits. This gives power to local people. Local people know best whether the limits on their roads are too fast or too slow, and they know it better than an officer of the council who might reside some miles away from the place. They live there, so they know the environment of the roads and the motorists and pedestrians who use them.
I have been an hon. Member of this House for only six months, yet in that time I have had a coherent message communicated to me from constituents, parish councils and schools that the roads in their communities are becoming dangerous. I shall name some examples. In a small village called Stratton, near Bude, we have a primary school situated on a very nasty junction that sees very large lorries, tractors and cars speeding past. When I visited the site, I met parents and children who showed me how they cross the road via a tiny traffic island. As both sides of the road are busy, the traffic must pass within inches of the pavement. It is clearly evident that this road is too dangerous for children to use to get to school. People have resorted to driving as an option, and that is clearly not sustainable in the long term.
Not far from that road is a small village called Werrington, where recently a car crashed into the local school’s boundary wall because of excessive speed. Locals and schools have campaigned for a 20 mph speed limit to ensure the safety of children, pedestrians, and fellow motorists. I have received several handwritten letters from the children at Werrington school asking for something to be done to make the road safer. In St Teath, another village in my constituency, we see speeding cars passing schools and homes near very narrow pavements where people walk. These cannot be widened, and it would cost far too much for the road to be redesigned, but a lower speed limit could help. In nearby St Kew Highway, members of the parish council met me to talk about cars speeding up the A39, where they reach excessive speeds of over 60 mph, which is far too fast for some local people.
Those are just four examples of communities in north Cornwall that have specific issues, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber will have very similar issues in their areas. This Bill gives them the power to do something about it.
I have looked at some statistics on this matter, and they are truly amazing. According to data published in 2012 by the House of Commons Library, there were nearly 196,000 reported casualties on roads in Great Britain, including 1,754 fatalities and 23,000 serious casualties. On 30 mph roads, there were 582 fatal accidents; on 20 mph roads, there were nine. Two thirds of accidents happened in a 30 mph limit zone, whereas only 1.5% were on 20 mph roads. This is quite staggering, and it illustrates why people in some areas want to campaign for a lower speed limit.
The implementation of a 20 mph limit is particularly vital outside schools, which often face hurdles when they ask for speed-lowering or traffic-calming measures. I do not see as many school crossing patrols as I used to; they are undoubtedly in decline. I have parents in my constituency who rely on a mere crossing island to aid their passage to school. I went to a primary school to meet concerned parents who face the daily challenge of getting their children to school safely. If parents in my constituency want the limit on the road outside their school lowered because they fear for their children’s safety, their voices must be heard.
Of course, referendums are not cheap, and they do need planning, so I do not propose that they be held spontaneously at any time. If there is a will among the people for a speed limit to be lowered from 30 mph to 20 mph, then their voices must be heard, and it is at the ballot box that they can make them heard. Referendums should be held in line with other local elections, national elections, by-elections, police and crime commissioner elections, and town and parish council elections. This will save the taxpayer considerable cost. The desire for a referendum would also need to be present. Town and parish councils should be able to judge whether they feel that an issue on a road needs addressing.
The purpose of the Bill is to alter speed limits, not just to lower them. If a town or village wants to a raise a speed limit, it will have the option to do that as well, if local people want to vote for it. If representation is strong from within the community, and no strategy is being put forward by the local authority to address the issue, then a vote should be put to the people. If the community votes yes, then the local authority must begin work to implement the speed limit. To avoid the holding of referendums on one road after another, councils could list a number of roads in their area at the same time, or put forward a proposal for a whole area, such as a town centre. That would apply a blanket change, rather than some roads changing and some not.
In these times of increasing car journeys, I truly believe it is vital that we keep people safe. There is huge housing growth in some areas, and as houses are built, more parents and children are walking to school, there are more public transport movements and more heavy goods vehicles—the list goes on. This Government are passionate about giving more power to the people. We have seen the devolution packages agreed thus far, such as the devolution of business rates, the recent and historic Cornish devolution deal, and giving people the power to reject wind turbine applications.
I believe that the Bill will indirectly get more people interested in politics and create more understanding of the political process. If a majority want the speed limit changed, let them stand and put their names to doing so. They can then say that, by putting an X in the box, they changed their local community. Ultimately, I believe the Bill will empower people and help to address the issues that directly affect them on the roads.
Question put and agreed to.
That Scott Mann, Steve Double, Heidi Allen, Caroline Nokes, Rebecca Pow, Derek Thomas, Alex Chalk and Maggie Throup present the Bill.
Scott Mann accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February 2016, and to be printed (Bill 98).
[10th Allotted Day]
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government has failed to deliver on its commitment to stand up for working people; notes that the Government’s existing plans to cut tax credits will cost more than three million working families an average of £1,300 a year from next April; further notes that 4.1 million children now live in absolute poverty, an increase of 500,000 since 2009-10; notes that in 2014 the UK’s current account deficit reached the highest level ever recorded, at 5.1 per cent; notes that 85 per cent of the money saved from tax and benefit changes in the last Parliament came from women; further believes that the Government has failed to deliver the more sustainable economy the country needs; notes that, rather than investing in building new homes to cut housing benefit costs, housing investment has been slashed and housing benefit has risen by over £2 billion a year in real terms; notes that the gap between UK productivity per hour worked and the rest of the G7 grew to 20 percentage points in 2014, the widest productivity gap since 1991; believes that further deep cuts to the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills could damage the Government’s ability to boost innovation and productivity and could restrict opportunities for British businesses and workers to succeed in the global economy; calls on the Government to reverse fully and fairly its plans to cut tax credits from next April; and further calls for the Government to invest in growing a more productive economy with a focus on science, technology and green jobs to equip Britain for the future and share more fairly the proceeds of growth.
We have chosen to devote a section of today’s Opposition day to set the scene for next week’s autumn statement and comprehensive spending review. This will be the last chance many MPs from across the House will have to put their case to the Chancellor before he comes to his final conclusions on his spending plans and economic strategy for the coming period.
The Chancellor is not in the Chamber today. Naturally, we are disappointed, but I spoke to him before this debate. He is working hard on the comprehensive spending review, so I think we will forgive him if he gets his sums right and comes to the right conclusions.
The Chancellor’s decisions next week will have serious consequences for every constituency in the country. What we all need from the Chancellor is wise judgment and fairness. Our country faces serious challenges and risks ahead, which we should not underestimate.
Let me first deal with one issue that overrides all others. It has been heart breaking to watch the tragic events in Paris at the weekend unfold into the suffering of families coming to the realisation of their loss. I sent a message of condolence and solidarity to our counterpart Michel Sapin, the French Finance Minister, at the weekend. It is true that the first duty of a state is to protect its citizens, so may I therefore assure the Chancellor that he and the Prime Minister have our full support for the enhanced expenditure to strengthen our security services that they have announced this week?
May I also say that we share the view of the Metropolitan police commissioner and other police chiefs that the first line of gaining intelligence on potential hazards and threats to our safety, preventing terrorist attacks and responding to them is often the police officer in the community and on the street? There has been a great deal of speculation in the media about the scale of potential cuts to the policing service, prompting severe warnings from police authorities—on a cross-party basis—about the consequences for the safety of the public if this scale of cuts goes ahead. May I therefore assure the Chancellor that we would also support an urgent review of the policing budget proposals to avert this risk to the service, and that we would support any enhanced expenditure plans being placed outside the parameters of the fiscal constraints of the charter for budget responsibility?
We are all fearful of the risk that exists, but we place our confidence in our intelligence and policing services. To be frank, when our community is under such a heightened physical threat, now is not the time to be dogmatic. When it comes to national security and keeping the public safe, I say to the Chancellor and the Government that they will always have the support of the Labour party.
Let me turn to an issue of fairness—tax credits—which I hope Ministers can reassure us today that the Chancellor has now sorted out once and for all. It came as a shock to Members on both sides of the House when he brought forward the proposals to cut tax credits without fully understanding, or calculating the consequences of, his actions. Plainly, it was an error of judgment. I want to thank all the Members of this House from all parties and our colleagues in the other place who found that they could not support the Chancellor’s proposals and hence forced him to think again. What convinced many people was exactly what Gordon Brown, our former Prime Minister, summed up so eloquently last week—that this is an attack on children. The prospect of 200,000 more children being pushed into poverty pushed many MPs and Members of the other place over the edge to oppose the proposals.
There has been a lot of speculation in the press about how the Chancellor has been trying to resolve the tax credits question, with much talk of cuts to universal credit and threatened Cabinet resignations, but I am pleased that the quiet man may have had to raise his voice and has won the day. However, the threat seems to have moved on to housing support and other matters. I do not expect Ministers to reveal to us today the detail of the Chancellor’s proposals to resolve this matter, but for the 3 million families who face a cut of £1,300 a year, may I ask them at least to assure us and those families that they will withdraw the tax credits cuts in full and that no existing or new claimant will lose out?
May I give my hon. Friend another reason for tackling this issue head-on? In the 10 constituencies across north Wales, £58 million will be taken out of the local economy next year if the proposals go ahead. That money would be spent in local shops, local businesses and local communities. If that is taken out, not only will families and children suffer, but local business will suffer.
The whole point of this debate is about political choices. To be frank, we have said to the Chancellor on a cross-party basis in debate after debate that this was the wrong political choice and that he should therefore look elsewhere. I am not asking for the detail of how he is resolving it—we will wait to hear that next week—but I am urging Ministers at least to give us the assurance that nobody will lose out. Families want that assurance now, because of the insecurity that they face.
With my constituency of Selly Oak now in the top 13% in the country for unemployment, with more than 20% of those in work not earning the living wage and more than 60% of families dependent on tax credits, is it not clear that five years of the long-term economic plan has not worked for Selly Oak? What we need next week is not a rethink, but a step change in the approach to working families.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned children twice so far. The Greek Government overspent, leaving tens of thousands of children unschooled in Greece in September. Does he not accept that a country that does not look after its finances does not look after its children?
Of course that is true, but there are false economies. On a cross-party basis, we came to the conclusion that cutting tax credits to working families would be a false economy because it would remove an incentive to work—one of the principles on which many of our budgetary proposals are founded.
I will press on with my speech, because Mr Speaker has warned me that a large number of Members want to speak. I will come back to the hon. Lady.
It would be helpful to have an assurance today that no one will lose out. I have said repeatedly that if the Chancellor withdraws the tax credit cuts in full and fairly, he will have our support. On fairness, will Ministers also assure us that if the Chancellor does scrap his tax credit cuts, it will not be paid for by cutting the benefits and support for families elsewhere? I seek that assurance because, unfortunately, the Chancellor has a bit of a reputation for giving with one hand and taking with the other.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s wish for cross-party support in reducing the deficit. I take it from his stance that his party wants to control the deficit, so where does he suggest the cuts should be made? Should they be made in the health service, schools, local government or defence? Will he give some suggestions as to how he would reduce the deficit?
We have raised this matter time and again. I think that Members on both sides of the House found it incongruous that, at the same time as the Chancellor was seeking to cut working families’ tax credits, he was reducing inheritance tax for the wealthiest families in our country. People saw that as being basically unfair.
There is much that we hope the Chancellor will address in next week’s statement. We agree that we must continuously bear down on the deficit and debt, but that has to be done with realistic good judgment and fairness. I say that the judgment must be realistic because it will undermine confidence in government if we go through another comprehensive spending review like the one in 2010, when the Chancellor announced that he would eliminate the cyclically adjusted current deficit in the five-year period—that is, by this year—whereas he has cleared only half of it. In the last financial year, the current budget deficit stood at a massive £44 billion. I also remember the Chancellor saying in 2010 that he would reduce the debt to 69% of GDP. It now stands at over 80%.
The mistakes of the last CSR should not be repeated in this one. Our fiscal rules must be realistic, achievable and fair. The Chancellor’s rules, for all the revisions in recent weeks, have been none of those things.
I would be happy to have that co-operation at any stage. What we said to the Chancellor five years ago was that he was going too fast and that he should have been investing in growth, which would have enabled us to reduce the deficit. He promised to reduce the deficit and debt in five years, but he is going to do it in 10. That is a doubling of the target.
Will my hon. Friend remind the House at what rate the Chancellor has accrued debt over the past five years? Has he not accrued approximately the same amount of debt over the past five years as the last Labour Government accrued in 13 years?
Yes. Let me press on because time is limited in this debate.
We need to be realistic in recognising that our economy faces severe challenges. I warned in September that many of the factors that contributed to the last economic crisis are re-emerging. This is the slowest recovery in living memory. It is based on rising house prices and unsecured consumer lending rising at record rates. The Government’s own forecasters expect household debt shortly to surpass even the level reached before the crash. We have an increasingly unbalanced economy, based more than ever on insecure jobs in the service sector and an over-reliance on the finance sector.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will press on because time is limited. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman if I have time.
Regrettably, all the predictions are that manufacturing is likely to go into recession next month. The UK’s current account deficit on the balance of payments was at an all-time high last year. That deficit is driven by a slump in British investors earning abroad, while those in the rest of the world continue to profit from the assets that we sell and the loans that we take out.
There are warning signs in the rest of the world, yet the Chancellor is bequeathing us an economy even more poorly prepared than it was on entering the storm in 2008. Back then, we had room to manoeuvre. The Bank of England was able to cut interest rates to rock bottom, sustaining the economy as the global recession hit. It hit us hardest of all because our financial system was appallingly over-exposed to risks that it did not or, in some instances, would not understand. At least at that time, the Government could take action. They slashed interest rates and introduced quantitative easing. Seven years on, the Bank of England base rate remains jammed at the lowest level in history. The room for manoeuvre in conventional monetary policy is essentially zero.
Of course we welcome any increase in employment or reduction in unemployment. The problem is that the economy is unsustainable because it is based on rising house prices, borrowing and debt. My fear is that the jobs that have been gained in the past year may be lost in the forthcoming crisis, if we do not take avoidance action.
Andrew Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, has warned that the third wave of the financial crisis, which is breaking out in the emerging markets, centred on China, could have an impact on Britain. Why? Because Britain is the country with the largest exposure to Chinese debt, at $500 billion. Any upset in the rest of the world will, thanks to our extraordinarily large financial system, rapidly make its way here. That is exactly how the last crisis happened, when failures to repay mis-sold mortgages by some people in American society turned into the failure of the entire banking system in this country.
We cannot know what will happen over the next few years. The Chancellor has warned repeatedly of trouble ahead, but surely these challenges are better faced if we have a more balanced and resilient economy that provides real security for all of us. Instead, we have a single-minded fixation on a single target: the 2020 surplus, which no credible economist supports. By clinging on to that so tenaciously, it appears that the Chancellor is putting the needs of his political career ahead of the prosperity of the country.