House of Commons
Tuesday 1 December 2015
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Support for Business
This Government know there cannot be a successful economy without support for business and enterprise. That is why we are cutting corporation tax, increasing the employment allowance and setting a permanently higher investment allowance. It is also why last week we increased our support for industrial policy, including a boost for science, and announced that we had doubled small business rate relief again next year, helping 600,000 small businesses.
How will my right hon. Friend help small businesses compete with the de facto subsidy that businesses with complex overseas tax structures get, which result in their paying no, or very low, tax in the UK, particularly given that Small Business Saturday is coming up this weekend?
Small Business Saturday is an incredibly important initiative that everyone in this House should, and I am sure will, support on Saturday. My hon. Friend makes a good point about the international tax rules. The good news is that they have started to change. We have an agreement in the OECD, and Britain is among the countries implementing those changes first. The best example of that is the diverted profits tax, which is already raising revenue and tackling the big multinationals that do not pay their fair share of tax in the UK. At the same time we are cutting taxes for small businesses, for example by increasing the employment allowance.
Thanks to the Government’s long-term economic plans, we have seen a record number of company registrations in my constituency, with 202 companies registered in Gillingham in the first quarter. One company, MEMS, which the Chancellor visited with me, has asked me to ask him to clarify the Government’s position on the annual investment allowance for businesses. Will the Chancellor do that?
It is fantastic to hear the good news coming from Gillingham, and to hear about the new companies being registered and the jobs being created there thanks to the strong economy, the long-term economic plan that my hon. Friend refers to, and a strong Member of Parliament making sure that the infrastructure comes to that part of Kent. The annual investment allowance will now be set at £200,000, a permanent rate much higher than the one we inherited from the last Government. It will help companies like the fantastic MEMS business, which I visited with my hon. Friend, to continue to grow and expand.
The Chancellor announced some significant tax rises for business in his spending review, and also cut quite a lot of business grants through his spending settlement for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but will he give an explanation of table 3.7 of the Office for Budget Responsibility Blue Book? It downgrades productivity for the UK economy—productivity per hour is due to fall from the OBR’s previous forecast for 2016 and 2017 and 2018. What is the reason for that?
The OBR has made its assessment, but what it shows is that productivity growth picks up through this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and I have had many discussions about this, and I think we are actually in agreement that productivity is a long-term challenge for the UK and has been a challenge for many decades. We are trying to solve that by measures like the apprenticeship levy which will be one of those so-called taxes he describes. It is not a tax in that people get their money back if they have enough apprentices, so it is a levy, and it is the kind of thing we need to try to deal with the productivity challenges in the UK.
I am very happy to give consideration to that. We are operating within the maximum flexibility that we believe the European Union rules allows us on this. Any postcode that possibly qualified we put forward for the scheme we introduced in the last Parliament, but I am happy to look at specific cases in Northern Ireland to see if they qualify, too.
The Chancellor said the apprenticeship levy is a levy, but of course what many businesses see is a 0.5% tax on employment collected through PAYE. Does the Chancellor think that is compatible with the tax lock? While he is answering that question, will he also say what estimate he has made of the cost of the apprenticeship levy to the public sector, which I cannot find anywhere in the Red Book?
The fact that the apprenticeships levy is set up in such a way that a large company employing high-quality apprentices will be able to receive back from the Government more than it puts in sets it aside from classic payroll taxes. Indeed, it has been broadly welcomed by the business community, even though it accepts the additional burden it represents. That is going to be very important. We made the calculations for the impact on the public sector in our public finance projections, and I am happy to write to my right hon. Friend with the precise numbers.
Will the Chancellor confirm that in addition to the 17% cut to the funding of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the autumn statement did, as other Members have said, add £11 billion to the tax bill of businesses, in the area of business growth and skills, and mainly driven by the apprenticeship levy?
I would have thought and hoped that the Scottish National party supported an apprenticeships levy whereby we use the money to create 3 million apprenticeships in this part of the United Kingdom and make sure that there are arrangements to pass the money to the Scottish Government so that they can improve skills in Scotland. But of course if one looks closely at the record of the SNP Government, one sees that they have been cutting further education places in Scotland. As usual, the SNP says one thing here and does something different in Scotland.
The question was of course about the £11 billion extra tax cost for business and the cut to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—something the Chancellor does not want to talk about. Given that there was no increase in retail sales in the last quarter, that the CBI industrial trends survey is down, that consumer confidence is down, that the deficit in the trade in goods is a colossal £134 billion and that manufacturing output is down, why does this political Chancellor think that cutting BIS by 17% and adding £11 billion to business costs over the spending review period is even remotely sensible?
Because we do not equate the health of the business sector with the size of the Business Department. We have increased the money going into innovation by raising the budget for the catapult centres, and we have boosted the budget for science, one of the great UK strengths, which would be undermined if Scotland became independent. I would make a further point. The hon. Gentleman asked about economic projections, but in the independent OBR forecast growth is up, jobs are up, living standards are up and wages are up. That is all part of a successful economic plan which is delivering the goods for the whole United Kingdom.
16. As my right hon. Friend will know, the tech economy in the west of England is one of the fastest-growing anywhere in the UK, and start-up businesses such as Claritize in my constituency have been set up because of the Government’s investment. Does he agree that such businesses will help to lead our economic recovery, creating jobs and increasing our productivity in the west of England? (902459)
I certainly pay tribute to the very successful and thriving tech businesses in Bath and across the west country. There is an opportunity now, with the investment in cyber-security at GCHQ, not too far from Bath, in Cheltenham, to help create a culture of small start-up businesses and make sure that on the back of our national security we have commercial success and commercially successful companies building those sorts of businesses in the west country.
What did we actually get from this Chancellor last week? The £1 billion to develop carbon capture and storage was cut; feed-in tariff subsidies for solar panels were cut by 87%; we heard not a mention of national projects such as the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon; and we had Britain at the bottom of the European league for renewables. Does he agree with companies such as Tesco, IKEA, Vodafone and Unilever that his renewable energy cutbacks now pose a risk to UK businesses and undermine confidence in investment?
We should all be proud of the fact that in this country jobs are being created and the economy is growing yet our carbon emissions fell by 8% in the past year. We are doubling our investment in renewable energy and at the same time putting investment into things such as low-carbon nuclear power and small modular reactors, which will be of real benefit to South Yorkshire and the north-west of England. My broader point is that we do not believe that the way to help save the Earth is by piling costs on people’s electricity bills, so we have also taken action to ensure that our home efficiency scheme is more efficient, so people’s household energy bills will go down by £30 as well.
HMRC Regional Hub
HMRC announced the planned locations of its future regional centres based on a number of key principles that will enable it to deliver more for less. In addition to cost, HMRC has taken account of the quality of local transport links, the local labour market and future workforce supply and the need to retain the staff and skills it needs to continue its transformation. The changes will reduce HMRC’s estates costs by around £100 million a year by 2025.
Does the Minister accept that basing the HMRC regional hub in Bradford would be cheaper for the taxpayer, that there is a suitable location available in Bradford but not in Leeds, and that an effective northern powerhouse does not mean basing everything in West Yorkshire, in Leeds? Will he think again about that matter?
My hon. Friend is, as ever, a doughty advocate for the interests of his constituents. The point I would make to him is that this is a regional centre for the whole of the Yorkshire and Humber area. To retain as many members of staff as possible and reduce redundancy costs, HMRC’s assessment is that Leeds is a better location for those working in York, Sheffield and Hull from where there is a direct train service to Leeds.
The Government have announced a radical reshaping of the state. By the end of the Parliament, local government will retain 100% of business rates to fund local services. The Government will shortly begin consultation on those reforms.
My local authority, Kirklees, estimates that it will lose in excess of £30 million a year as a result of this policy and the changes to the local government grant. By comparison, Westminster Council’s income will increase tenfold. When will the Government provide clarity for councils such as mine on the redistributive element that will mean it will be able to plug that very significant shortfall in funding?
The devolution of business rates will retain the system of top-ups and tariffs that currently exist, so there will be no immediate loss to any local authority as a consequence of devolution. The point is that it devolves power to local authorities so that they have stronger incentives to boost growth. Local authorities that grasp that opportunity will see their business rates revenue increase.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the point about last week’s announcement was that it was a defining moment for local authorities? Those local authorities that accept the principle of devolution of business rates can incentivise strong local business growth, and secure a local economy that is strong and that has jobs for its constituents. That is the key point.
What consideration has been given to doing something about business rates to support the steel industry in line with the outcomes agreed at the steel summit, which was chaired by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that the business rates review, which we have been undertaking in recent months, will be completed next year. Obviously, we are looking at all the representations that we receive in the context of that review.
National Living Wage
The national living wage will mean that a full-time minimum wage worker will earn more than £4,700 more by 2020—a 40% pay rise. Additionally, owing to the ripple effect of higher wages, up to a quarter of workers will see some benefit. Economy-wide wages are expected to be, on average, 0.4% higher in 2020.
There has been a widespread welcome for the Chancellor’s national minimum wage announcement. Inevitably, the minimum wage has a major effect on traditionally low-wage sectors, especially social and residential care. Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government and local councils must be mindful of the fact that fees will need to be adjusted to ensure the viability of these hugely important services?
My hon. Friend is right that many of the 900,000 workers in the social care sector will benefit from the new national living wage, including many working in residential care. That is why last week in the autumn statement we made an announcement that councils will have the power over the course of this Parliament to access money that they may need to increase the amount that they pay for social and residential care, with new revenue streams for social care worth up to £3.5 billion by 2020.
As the Minister will be aware, the national living wage does not apply to people who are self-employed, whose wages have been stagnating and whose pension contributions have fallen every year for the past five years. Why were self-employed people not mentioned once in the productivity plan, and what does she intend to do to tackle low pay and conditions among the self-employed?
The hon. Gentleman speaks powerfully of the importance of the self-employed to our economy. We pay tribute to the excellent work that so many self-employed people, including many in my family, do to generate economic growth in this country. He is right that, as wages across the economy grow and as we put more spending power into budgets for social and residential care, we expect that to be passed on to those who are self-employed.
Disabilities Employment Gap
5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on public finances of halving the disabilities employment gap. (902447)
The Government are committed to halving the disability employment gap, which on current figures would mean helping about 1 million extra people to find work. The impact of meeting that on the public finances depends on factors that we cannot predict, such as what people are likely to be paid. However, this is about more than the fiscal impact. The Government want to help disabled people benefit from the security of employment, which is why we have announced a real-terms funding increase to help people with disabilities and health conditions to find work.
I am pleased to say that a delegation of young people with autism is visiting Parliament today to discuss how we can improve the transition from school to work for people with autism. Does the Chief Secretary agree that improving the routes into work for young people with autism and other disabilities will be a great thing for our national finances but also for the young people themselves, allowing them to participate in the workforce and lead the independent lives that they want?
I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming so many disabled people to Parliament today, and I agree with him about the importance of doing more to help disabled people into work. That is why we extended the access to work scheme and launched the Disability Confident scheme, to ensure that employers better understand the benefits of recruiting and retaining disabled workers, the specialist employability support and the Work and Health programme, which we launched this year.
My hon. Friend is right. This is one of the most important aspects of the Government’s work. He is correct to say that disability employment is now up to 3.2 million, which is an increase of 340,000 since 2013, up 74% on the year. We are increasing real-terms spending on disability employment by around 15% by the end of this Parliament.
Local Government Funding
Total local government spending will be higher in cash terms in 2019-20 than it is this year. The Government are also devolving 100% of business rates, meaning that, for the first time since 1990, local areas will see the full benefits of local business rate growth in their budgets. When it comes to local economies, I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the fact that unemployment has fallen by more than 25% in the past year in her constituency.
Hull City Council has lost a third of its budget from Government funding since 2010, while wealthier areas have increased their budgets in some areas. The business rate proposal the Government are putting forward will again benefit wealthier areas, so can the Chief Secretary say to my constituents how taking tens of millions of pounds out of the local economy will assist the Chancellor’s plan for the northern powerhouse for cities like Hull?
To be precise, local government funding is being protected in cash terms. The £6.1 billion reduction in central Government grants is more than offset by a £6.3 billion increase in other sources of income. The hon. Lady mentions the northern powerhouse. The Chancellor announced yesterday the appointment of John Cridland as chairman of Transport for the North. We have also announced £200 million for Transport for the North over this Parliament to transform transport connectivity in the region, to introduce Oyster-style ticketing and to make sure the northern powerhouse becomes a reality.
I very much welcome the measures announced last week by the Chancellor to allow local government to keep receipts from business rates. My local authority, North Devon council, is one of the smaller ones so the receipts, actual and potential, will always be slightly less. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that smaller local authorities such as mine will see the benefit from this measure?
Yes. A consultation on changes to the local government finance system will be launched shortly, to be implemented in financial year 2016-17. We ought to be clear that the 2% increase in the precept to fund adult social care will be across the board, including rural areas, for councils that are meeting social care pressures.
The Prime Minister eloquently set out the difficulties facing public services as a result of the Chancellor’s cuts with reference to his own local authority. In the light of the lucky Chancellor’s £27 billion windfall, why is he still pursuing £12 billion in social security cuts and a 5% cut to the Scottish Government’s budget?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Scottish Government budget, which I am not sure is entirely within the scope of the question, but I will try to answer. The Scottish Government budget has done relatively well. There is a 14% real-terms increase in capital spending over the course of this Parliament, and the reduction in resource spending is only in real terms and is far less than that of a lot of UK Government Departments.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that local economies such as mine in Somerset have an exceptional opportunity to benefit from the devolution of business rates and all the infrastructure spending that this Government are going to conduct there?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why it is so important that local authorities are able to keep the proceeds of growing their local business rates, if that is what they are capable of doing. I am sure my hon. Friend will play his full part in attracting more business to his constituency.
Commenting on the Chancellor’s proposal to allow local authorities to raise council tax by up to 2% in order to fund social care, the Conservative vice-chair of the Local Government Association referred to the creation of a “postcode lottery”, stating:
“If you are in one of those areas with a very low council tax base, what you are likely to be saying is that, unless you are someone who physically cannot get out of bed . . . you are not going to get any help at all.”
What equalisation measures will the Chancellor take to ensure that there is no disparity between local authorities in the funding they receive and the resultant quality of service they can provide?
One of the other announcements that the hon. Lady might have missed was the extra £1.5 billion going into an improved better care fund, thanks to this Government. She quotes the vice-chair of the LGA, but she could have quoted the LGA chairman, also a Conservative, who said:
“The LGA has long called for further flexibility in the setting of council tax and it is right that Greg Clark and Greg Hands have listened to the concerns set out by local government.”
Savings and Home Ownership
This Government back saving and home ownership. That support is exemplified by the Help to Buy ISA that becomes available today. This new ISA provides direct Government support to anyone saving for the deposit on their first home. For every £200 they save in the ISA, the Government will help them with another £50. Add it up and the Government will give them up to £3,000 towards their first home—all part of a plan to help working people in this country.
One of the best ways to help people build up their savings so that they can get a Help to Buy ISA and buy their own home is to make sure that they have good jobs with good wages. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to drive employment in my constituency, which has historically low unemployment, and across the midlands engine?
I was in the west midlands yesterday seeing the fantastic investment that Jaguar Land Rover is making there, with Government help. Alongside that we are investing in the west midlands infrastructure. We have just signed an agreement with the authorities of the west midlands, across the political parties, to put more than £1 billion into the region over the next couple of decades. There is a long-term commitment to the midlands engine and the jobs in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
It was reported in one of my local papers last month that some areas in Cornwall have seen a 15% rise in house prices over the past year. Will my right hon. Friend outline what additional action is being taken to assist first-time buyers in beautiful parts of the country, such as Cornwall, that are popular with second-home owners? What difference will the increase in stamp duty make?
My hon. Friend always speaks passionately on behalf of her constituents—in this case, those seeking to buy their first home. The Help to Buy ISA is, of course, available in Cornwall and will help her constituents buy their first home. The new stamp duty charge on second homes and buy-to-lets will raise money, and a portion of that will be given to local authorities and areas such as Cornwall, where there are quite a lot of second homes.
Low interest rates have meant that many people have had to look at other savings vehicles such as buy-to-let. Measures in the Budget will deeply affect the buy-to-let market, as the Chancellor will be aware. What measures is he taking to help elderly people looking for better savings returns?
There is general agreement across the House that there should be a level playing field, so that people trying to buy their first home are not disadvantaged by people trying to buy a second home or a buy-to-let property. The changes that we have introduced help to do that. Alongside that, we have made the ISA more generous and have created new pension flexibility, so that people can get the most out of their pension savings. The low interest rates, decided independently by our central bank, are part of the vital support for our economy going forward.
20. I acknowledge the work that the Chancellor has done on tackling the bias towards buy-to-let in the housing market, but would he consider extending that by cutting further the tax relief on buy-to-let properties? We simply have to widen the space for first-time buyers so that they can get into the market, particularly in London. (902463)
I welcome the support that the hon. Lady gives; of course, the problems of getting on to the housing ladder are particularly acute for first-time buyers in London. In the summer Budget, we announced changes to mortgage tax relief for the buy-to-let market so that those on higher rates of tax, with larger incomes, will see that relief scaled back over the coming years. What we have set out now, with the extra stamp duty and the changes in the summer Budget, represents a fair and balanced package for homeowners—those buying a buy-to-let property, but above all those buying their first home.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has read the document. Part of what we are doing is making sure that mortgage fees are more transparent. Alongside that, we are ensuring that utility bills are more competitive for families and cutting the electricity tariffs that we talked about earlier. We are also making sure that people can get a better deal from their water company. This is all part of driving down costs for families and helping the working people of Britain.
What will really support people with home ownership is massively increasing the supply of new homes—not, as the autumn statement does, simply subsidising people to bid up the prices of existing homes. After five and a half years in office, it is time that the Chancellor took some responsibility. He has a woeful record on house building, exacerbating the market failure that has led to restricted supply and consequently high prices. When will the Government increase supply very markedly by starting a real programme of mass house building—of homes for rent as well as to buy?
Over the course of this decade we will have built more social homes than in the entire period when the Labour party was in office. Affordable housing should also be housing that people can afford to buy, as well as rent, and we are doubling the housing budget and undertaking the biggest house building programme since the 1970s. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman was not with me in Wolverhampton yesterday seeing the new jobs being created at the Jaguar Land Rover engine plant as we make sure that we build homes for the people working at that plant.
Pension Age Qualification (Women)
As we remove gender inequality, women born between 1953 and 1955 will receive their state pension at the same age as men, or earlier. The Government have written to all those affected by increases to the state pension age and have acted to ease the timetable, at the cost of £1 billion, ensuring that 81% of all women affected see a rise of a year or less under the Pensions Act 2011. As the Chancellor announced last week, the basic state pension will rise next year by £3.35 to £119.30 a week—the largest real-terms increase for 15 years.
It is very good to see the pension going up. However, research by the Pensions Policy Institute and Age UK shows that a third of women in work are ineligible for automatic enrolment into a workplace pension, leaving them at risk of not having a decent income later in life. What research has the Minister or the Department for Work and Pensions carried out in order to understand what difficulties they will have in future?
This continues a process that has been going on since the mid-’90s to equalise the state pension age and the process begun in 2011 to increase the state pension to make sure that it can be more affordable overall in terms of its ability to meet our commitments under the triple lock and the big increase I mentioned earlier. I did not hear all of the hon. Gentleman’s question precisely, but I think he mentioned Age UK. The charity director of Age UK said that this big concession is
“a significant financial commitment from the Government at a difficult time. This will give a much needed 6 month respite to all the women who would have had to work an extra two years.”
Long-term Economic Plan
The long-term economic plan is securing the UK’s recovery. We were the fastest growing G7 country in 2014 and 2013 and we are joint fastest this year. The deficit has more than halved and the national debt as a share of GDP is set to fall this year. However, the job is not yet done, and the Government will continue working through the plan to ensure Britain’s long-term economic security.
In the autumn statement last week, it was great to hear the Chancellor talk about rehabilitating our prisoners. Does the Minister agree that the sale of old Victorian prisons is a prime example of how economic and social reform can go hand in hand, bringing sales to the Exchequer, working positively with prisoners in these prisons, and creating new places for homes in our cities?
I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned consistently on these issues since 2010. The justice reforms are an exemplary element of the long-term economic plan, combining savings with social reform and delivering economic dividends from improved employability to sites for 3,000 new homes. It is because of the strength of the economy, thanks to the long-term plan, that we can invest £1 billion to build nine modern prisons and close the old ones.
Last night I launched the all-party group on adult education in recognition of the fact that at a time when we are all living longer, having many different jobs and even careers, and whole industries are being allowed to die, our long-term economic security depends on investing in adult education. The Chancellor was persuaded not to slash the further education budget. Will he now acknowledge that investing in further education is vital for the future?
The hon. Lady rightly identifies the importance of continuing in further education and the fact that in the modern economy more and more people will have multiple careers through their lives, which means that the availability of retraining is very important. That is why I welcome the protection of this budget and the availability of loans, for example, for part-time students.
The Government’s economic plan rightly prioritises infrastructure, and I welcome yesterday’s announcement of a new chairman for Transport for the North. Does my hon. Friend agree that continued investment in Yorkshire and the north is vital to rebalancing our national economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, that is at the heart of the enterprise zones in the north, the city deals and the whole concept of the northern powerhouse—making sure that the cities of the north add up to something that is more than the sum of their parts—and Transport for the North, which he mentioned, is a vital part of that.
What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on the long-term economic plan to grow the economy of the promises made and the policies put forward at the green junket in Paris this week in the mistaken belief that piling pounds on to power bills can somehow change the world’s climate?
We of course recognise the challenges that come with energy costs, but it is true that the green sector supports a number of jobs in this country. It is very important that we seek to lead on research and development, and the autumn statement was another important step towards that.
The Government are committed to raising the income tax personal allowance from £10,600 to £12,500 by the end of this Parliament. This is alongside our commitment to raise the higher rate threshold to £50,000. More than 30 million individuals will benefit from these changes. The summer Budget 2015 confirmed that the personal allowance will increase to £11,000 in 2016-17, and to £11,200 in 2017-18.
In the light of what my hon. Friend has said, will he reassure me that, as the economy continues to recover and grow, the Government will follow the sound Conservative principle of allowing people to keep more of the money they earn to spend as they wish?
With an employment level of 31.2 million, there are more people in work than ever before. Over the past year, employment growth has been driven by full-time employees and by high and medium-skill occupations, showing that we are now moving into the next phase of our recovery, with high-quality employment helping to boost productivity and raise living standards across the country.
Against the backdrop of redundancies and potential redundancies in the mining and power sector in my constituency, will the Minister tell the House what support is available to businesses of all sizes in Selby and Ainsty to ensure that the trend of rising employment since 2010 continues?
I commend my hon. Friend for his personal endeavours, including the annual Selby district jobs fair. He mentioned energy-intensive industries. We of course recognise the particular challenges that some businesses in those sectors face. We cannot change world price levels, but we will bring forward compensation and legislate to exempt EIIs from renewables policy costs, helping with cash flow and providing greater business certainty. Businesses will of course also benefit from the further cuts to corporation tax and the higher permanent level of the investment allowance.
I have been approached by constituents excited to get their first 15 hours a week job, hoping that it will lead to full-time employment. In retail in particular, however, the trend more than two years later is for more part-time employees to be recruited, but no full-time jobs to be given to those in post. Will the Minister look into this matter, and make sure that there are no perverse incentives for employers to create lots of small, part-time jobs without the opportunity for such people to progress?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. In fact, full-time workers account for almost three quarters of the employment growth since 2010. The crucial reform in the welfare and social security system is of course universal credit, which specifically seeks to get over the spikes found in the hours scale so that it always pays to move from being out of work into work and, crucially, to move up the hours scale.
Since the financial crisis, households’ financial positions have improved. Household debt as a proportion of income has fallen to 144% in the second quarter of 2015, down from a peak of 168% in the first quarter of 2008.
I thank the Minister for her response, but a large number of my constituents have been alarmed that mistaken overpayments of working tax credits made by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have been recovered, without warning, from their child tax credit entitlements. Is the Department’s policy now to push people into poverty and debt by punishing them for HMRC’s mistakes?
The hon. Lady might remember the terrible roll-out of working tax credits that occurred when the Labour Government were in power. I can assure her that we will continue to improve the administration of tax credits. When her party was in power, people could have a £25,000 change in their income without it affecting their tax credits. We have brought the figure down to £2,500.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Household debt will be kept low, thanks to the Government’s support for savers, including the Help to Buy ISA that was launched today. Will the Minister join me in encouraging first-time buyers and young savers to take advantage of this new Government support, which is part of the Government’s long-term economic plan?
I am delighted that, on behalf of his constituents in Havant, my hon. Friend has noticed that the Help to Buy ISA scheme launches today. Fourteen financial institutions are already offering this exciting new opportunity to save for a home, and I hope that many of his constituents will take advantage of it.
22. Citizens Advice has noted that household bills are now the chief source of the problem debt that people are seeking its help with. What will the Government do to ensure that guarantor and logbook loans are properly regulated, so that they do not simply replace payday loans as a source of poorly regulated credit that exploits the low-paid and the vulnerable? (902465)
I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that, in the last Parliament, we took steps to bring credit under the regulation of the Financial Conduct Authority. As a result of that, payday lending has dropped sharply. We are also backing credit unions in many different ways in this country, and we want to ensure that people have an opportunity to save through their workplace credit union. If she will work with me, I can assure her that we will continue to ensure that households that have the lowest proportion of debt at the moment in their repayments will continue to see their financial positions—
The Government have committed to raise the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher-rate threshold to £50,000 by the end of this Parliament. In the summer Budget, the Government took the first steps towards meeting those commitments by increasing the personal allowance to £11,000 and raising the higher-rate threshold to £43,000. In 2016-17, 29 million people will pay less tax after those changes, and 570,000 will be taken out of income tax altogether.
Since 2015-16, married couples and civil partners have been able to transfer 10% of their personal allowance to their spouse. The Government expect this to benefit up to 4 million couples by up to £212. This will increase in proportion to any increases in the personal allowance, which the Government have committed to raise to £12,500.
Given that the ratio of savings to household debt has gone down from 11.8% in the first quarter of 2010 to less than 5% today, and that the downward trend appears likely to continue, why are the Government not taking steps to reverse that trend?
The Government are delivering one of the biggest increases in living standards that we have seen for many years. We have record levels of employment, we are providing economic security and we are one of the strongest growing economies in the G7. That is helping household finances up and down the country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. From September 2017, the Government are doubling the free childcare entitlement from 15 hours to 30 hours a week for working families with three and four-year-olds. That will be worth up to £5,000 per child. From early 2017, tax-free childcare will also be introduced, providing support worth up to £2,000 a year per child for working parents.
The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the UK economy. Today I can tell the House that the date of the Budget next year will be Wednesday 16 March.
My right hon. Friend has announced that the closure of the compensation scheme for Equitable Life policyholders will be at the end of this month. We will then know exactly how many claimants there are. Has he any plans to extend the amount of money that is being given to the victims of this scam?
I am, of course, always happy to listen to representations from my hon. Friend and others, but we have put a substantial sum of taxpayers’ money into compensating the people who lost out through Equitable Life. We have also ensured, through our payment system, that those payments have been made. That is why the scheme is coming to a close.
The Chancellor bowed to Labour pressure last week and made a U-turn on tax credits. Although tax credits will not be cut in the new year, as planned, the cuts to universal credit are going ahead in full, so he has not reversed his cuts to family incomes, but just delayed them. I am sure that he has looked at the impact of the changes in detail, so will he tell the House how much a single parent with one child who works part time on the so-called national living wage will lose as a result of his planned changes to universal credit?
First, let me say that I did not feel a huge amount of Labour pressure last week, but I am happy to see the hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box. With universal credit, we are introducing a fundamental improvement to our benefits system. Anyone on tax credits, including in the case that he refers to, who is moved on to universal credit by the Department for Work and Pensions from next year will have their cash awards protected.
Let me explain to the Chancellor exactly what a single parent with one child who works part time on the national living wage will lose. They will lose an average of £2,800 a year as a result of the cuts to universal credit. This was not an autumn statement that supported families, but one that punished them because 2.6 million families will still be worse off by £1,600 on average.
Let me offer the Chancellor another way out. If he reversed the tax giveaways to the wealthy that he announced in his summer Budget, he could reverse fully these cuts to family incomes, while still achieving his fiscal mandate. Will he now address the threat to these families?
Universal credit is a new benefit where it will always pay to work and it will always pay to expand the number of hours that are worked. It will get rid of a complex series of benefits. That will help working families. Let me make this point, since the gang of four on the other side of the House are chuntering away. The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who is a shadow Treasury Minister, has not bothered to turn up today because he is marching on the Labour party’s headquarters on a Stop the War march. The truth is that until the shadow Treasury team get their act together in this Chamber, their cases will not be listened to seriously.
T2. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the 60% reduction in unemployment in my constituency since 2010, the 100% rise in house building since 2014 and the fact that Helmsley won best market town in yesterday’s— (902434)
My apologies, Mr Speaker. The A64 is still a bottleneck to investment and a traffic blackspot. Will the Chancellor look again at further investment in that important route, which would unlock further investment and economic progress for the northern powerhouse?
We certainly want to hear the good news about what is going on in Yorkshire. On the A64, we have committed billions of pounds to improvements to the road network of Yorkshire and, specifically, we have created a £475 million pot for local major roads. This is the sort of bid that should be put in.
T5. As the Chancellor was on his feet last week, the Department of Energy and Climate Change quietly issued a statement to the stock exchange on the removal of £1 billion of funding for carbon capture and storage. That was a breach not only of the Tory party manifesto, which is not surprising, I suppose, but of a promise to the people of Scotland during the referendum campaign. How can he justify that decision, which jeopardises 600 jobs in Peterhead? (902437)
We are doubling investment in renewable electricity and energy, and much of that is going into Scotland. We also increased the capital budget for the Scottish Government, so instead of lobbying us for capital projects, they now have the resources to pay for such things themselves.
T3. I recently attended the skills show in Birmingham, which was an incredible example of the opportunities on offer in Britain for young people, including jobs, training and apprenticeships. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the levy he announced in the autumn statement is an excellent further step to ensure that young people in the UK are earning and learning— or preferably both—as that is the route towards a more productive workforce that is ready for jobs in the 21st century? (902435)
I was very excited, Mr Speaker, to hear about the skills show in Birmingham. My hon. Friend is right: by investing in apprenticeships and creating 3 million apprentices we address one of the great weaknesses of the British economy that has emerged over many decades, which is the low skill base.
T8. The Chancellor is a leading member of the Cabinet’s economic Sub-Committee that is considering airport expansion. The outcomes of that Committee are vital to growth in the north, and we were promised a response to it by Christmas. When can we expect that response? (902440)
T4. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this autumn statement, which continues to make science a clear priority. Does he agree that the new Cheshire science corridor enterprise zone will play an invaluable role not only in the local economy, but nationally as well, and particularly for the northern powerhouse? (902436)
My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is right. Support for Cheshire science goes across the county, and it particularly supports the brilliant work being done in Macclesfield and Alderley Park not just by AstraZeneca but by many new companies that have come to that estate. It is something that I know he champions.
I thank my hon. Friend and near neighbour for that question, and Crossrail 2 is also scheduled to go through my constituency. She will know that the Government have already committed money to feasibility studies in this Parliament. The National Infrastructure Commission has been tasked with reviewing further investment in London, and it will report back to the Government before the 2016 Budget.
What recent assessment has the Chancellor made of the performance of the UK Guarantees scheme? When it was launched, the Treasury said in a press release that it would
“dramatically accelerate major infrastructure investment”.
The only thing that has dramatically accelerated since then is the national debt under a Tory Chancellor who has missed every target that he set himself. Will he please acknowledge at least one of his failures?
The UK Guarantees scheme has already been approved for eight projects, including the Mersey Gateway bridge, the northern line extension, and Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. It has not always been necessary, and a further 18 projects worth almost £9 billion have been supported without the need for a guarantee.
T7. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women and enterprise, I welcome the fact that more women than ever are working in Britain today. One of the barriers to forming a cohesive forward strategy for creating more female business owners is a lack of reliable data on how many there currently are. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss that issue and consider possible solutions such as the collection of data on HMRC returns? (902439)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the APPG, and I look forward to working closely with him to provide the data that he seeks.
T9. I welcome the Chancellor’s spending review last week, boosting the science budget and supporting silicon fen. Does he agree that the only way to continue to attract international investment to the region is good infrastructure, and now is the time to upgrade the A10 from Cambridge to Ely? (902441)
We have put a huge amount of investment into Cambridge, including of course the renovation of the famous Cavendish Laboratory, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the strong start she has made in recent months in championing her constituency. That has been continued today with a big bid for the A10, which I will take a close look at.
The Chancellor promised twice—at the Scottish referendum and in his manifesto—to have carbon capture and storage at Peterhead. Why has he broken that promise?
As I have said, investment in renewables will double over the next five years, and much of that investment will go into Scotland—[Interruption.] Look, the Scottish nationalists have a choice now. They have got some extra money and increased capital spending, and if they want to invest in carbon capture and storage in Scotland they can do so. It is called devolution.
By some mistake, there does not seem to be any question on the deficit on the Order Paper—[Interruption]—apart from the very interesting question we have just had. Can I ask the Chancellor the question he would not answer in response to the autumn statement: does he believe that by the time he leaves the Treasury for the last time, he will have finally dealt with our country’s deficit?
The Rushden Lakes development at Skew Bridge and Primark’s new warehouse at Islip are bringing thousands of new jobs to east Northamptonshire. Is not the added bonus that under the new business rates regime the local authority will be able to keep the windfall that will arise?
Given the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and given that the Chancellor has not met a single one of his own targets on economic performance, is he intending to go on and on, to the delight of the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London?
We promised to turn the British economy around and that is exactly what we have done. I know that the hon. Gentleman is out of sorts with the cultural revolution that is taking place on his Front Bench at the moment, but I just hope that in the modern Labour party they
“let a hundred flowers bloom”.
Entrepreneurs’ relief is a costly relief—and the Chancellor was right to reform it earlier this year—but it is an important way to incentivise our entrepreneurs to invest in businesses and to create jobs. Can he reassure our entrepreneurs that he remains committed to that relief and will take it forward in the years to come?
Of course we want entrepreneurs’ relief to be directed at entrepreneurs, and that is why we made the changes earlier this year, but during our time in office Conservative members of the Treasury team have doubled and redoubled that relief. We very much support that help for our enterprise economy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
British pubs currently have 0.5% of British turnover, but pay 2.8% of business rates. Will the Chancellor meet me and officers of the save the pub APPG to discuss how we can better support pubs in the taxation system?
Of course, the pub industry has been supported by the reduction in beer duty, the increase in employment allowance, which is of huge benefit to many pubs, and the extension of small business rates relief, which we announced last week. I am happy to see what more we can do to support the great British pub industry, and I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman’s ideas.
Business of the House
Mr Speaker, with your permission, I should like to make a short business statement about tomorrow’s business. The main business for tomorrow will now be a debate on a motion relating to ISIL in Syria and United Nations Security Council resolution 2249. The business for Thursday remains as previously announced: Second Reading of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill [Lords].
Members will wish to know that, subject to the House’s agreement later today, oral questions to the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister will not be taken tomorrow. The oral questions rota will be republished, and Cabinet Office questions will take place on Wednesday 9 December. The results of the ballots for both Question Times will be retained, and Members will not need to resubmit their questions. I will make my usual business statement on Thursday.
Last week, I warmly commended the Prime Minister for the way he had treated the House thus far on Syria, and I only wish I could say the same today. The truth is that the Government never really intended to proceed tomorrow with the business announced last Thursday. They always intended to make an emergency business statement today, to abandon tomorrow’s Opposition day and to hold the vote tomorrow. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), the Prime Minister’s apprenticeship adviser, blurted it out in yesterday’s debate. Why did the Leader of the House not come clean last Thursday, as I suggested?
Would it not have been better form to give MPs proper notice of the debate? Would it not be better form for the Government to abandon their own business, rather than Opposition business? Would it not have been better form to have told the House first? I confess that when I heard yesterday that the Prime Minister was going to make a statement on Syria, I innocently presumed he would make it to the House of Commons. “Oh no”, I was told by a Government Whip, “He’s in Paris. He can’t.” No he was not, Mr Speaker. At 8 pm last night, he announced, not to the House but on television, that the debate would be tomorrow, and he was not in Paris; he was all of 300 yards away, in the Cabinet room in Downing Street. He should have come here. His own ministerial code says that the most important announcements of Government policy must be made to the Commons first. The proper course of action would have been a supplementary business statement at 10 pm last night, and if he could not make it, the Leader of the House should have done so, and insisted on doing so, as the servant of this House, not just of the Government.
There is another problem. I gather that the motion has only just been tabled, meaning it will not be on the Order Paper until tomorrow. Yet again, that means the House will have to consider manuscript amendments. So on one of the most important issues we face—the security of our country, the safety of the people of Syria and our own armed forces—we are expected to frame our opinion on a motion we have not even seen yet. We asked for a two-day debate. I did so two weeks ago, and the Leader of the Opposition repeated that call yesterday. I recognise that the Government have tabled motions to allow a longer day than usual tomorrow, but what is the hurry?
Last week, 103 Members took part in the statement on Syria, and most will want to take part in tomorrow’s debate. Many of the 182 new Members will also want to lay out their reasons for supporting or not supporting the Government on a matter that is highly contested, and many will want to press the Prime Minister on his claims about the 70,000 Free Syria Army troops he says are standing ready to move into Raqqa. My own position on the substantive motion is on the record—I think we have to degrade and defeat ISIL—but I also said last week that the House would not take kindly to being bounced into the vote.
The Prime Minister himself said last week:
“I want us to consider this and to think it through. I do not want anyone to feel that a good process has not been followed, so that if people agree with the case being put, they can in all conscience vote to support it.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1503.]
We will all be exercising our consciences tomorrow, but this is not a good process. We now have to abandon Cabinet Office and Prime Minister’s questions and an Opposition day on mental health and the effect of the autumn statement on women. We will consider a motion that will appear on the Order Paper only on the day that we are debating it and we may have to consider manuscript amendments.
All in all, surely to heavens, this is no way to treat the House, our voters or, indeed, our armed forces. Far from inspiring confidence in the Government’s judgment, shenanigans of this nature seriously undermine it.
I have to say that I cannot agree with the shadow Leader of the House’s analysis. Let us take this in turn.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister announced tomorrow’s debate on TV yesterday. What I would say to the House is that the Cabinet discussed the matter this morning. What the Prime Minister said last night was that he would ask the Cabinet to consider a proposition. The Cabinet considered and discussed this matter this morning and reached a decision, and therefore brought the matter to the House as quickly as possible after the conclusion of that Cabinet decision.
The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that it is not true. I can only say to him again that, in a Government that believe in Cabinet Government, it is right and proper that a decision of this magnitude should be taken and discussed around the Cabinet table, and that is what took place this morning.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the moving of the Opposition day. I absolutely accept the importance of the issue of mental health. We will, of course, re-provide that Opposition day at an early opportunity and the Opposition will be able to bring that important subject to the House, but I am sure he would not disagree that the matters tomorrow morning are of the utmost importance to this country and should be brought before this House at an early opportunity.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the opportunity for debate and discussion. I would simply say to him that, over the past week, we had a two-hour statement from the Prime Minister last Monday, a two-and-a-half-hour statement from the Prime Minister last Thursday— 78 people spoke in the first; 103 spoke in the second—and a Back-Bench debate yesterday for five hours, with 41 speeches. Tomorrow’s debate is the equivalent of two normal days’ debate in terms of length. As for the idea that we have been bounced into the vote, in total this matter will have been discussed in the House for 20 hours since last Monday.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the timing of the motion. We have taken care to ensure that in tabling the motion we have listened to views in all parts of the House. I make no apology for taking time to listen and consider those views and coming up with a motion that I believe reflects the views of the majority of Members of this House and that will, I believe and hope, command the support of the House tomorrow. I am absolutely confident that we are doing not only the right thing procedurally, but also, if we vote that way tomorrow, the right thing for this country.
Over the weekend the Foreign Secretary said that this was a very important matter and a matter of conscience, and he therefore called on the Labour party to provide a free vote. I take it we will not be having a free vote on this side of the House—I am not even going to press the Leader of the House on that, because I know the answer will be no—but he must know that it is not only on the Opposition Benches that people are agonising about this. There are many Conservative Members of Parliament who have very serious questions that they want to put tomorrow and, depending on the answers, they will not necessarily vote for the motion tomorrow. Could we therefore not extend the debate even further? Do we have to have the vote at seven? Could we not have it at 10?
If the answer is yes, I will be very happy with that, but how will manuscript amendments to the motion be published? If, say, a Back Bencher such as myself wanted to table a manuscript amendment on the basis of a proportionate response, how will it be published and debated, if at all?
The motion was tabled a few minutes ago; it is available in the Table Office now.
What I would say to my hon. Friend is that we are providing time to go beyond 7 o’clock tomorrow, to 10 o’clock. We have sought to provide what is the equivalent of two days of debate. A 10-and-a-half-hour debate tomorrow is effectively equivalent to the time we would have if we held the debate over a two-day period, so I hope he will sense that we have given an adequate amount of time for this debate.
My hon. Friend has concerns, but he should realise that this is a matter of concern to every single Member of the House, and that a decision such as this is never taken lightly by any Member of Parliament. If he has concerns and wants further information, he can talk to me and colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence afterwards—we would be happy to discuss the issue further.
There must be few, if any, Members who will not be agonising over how to vote, so it would be useful if everyone had a free vote. Does the Leader of the House recognise that unlike his Cabinet colleagues, he has a special responsibility to Members of this House? On such a crucial issue and however we vote on it, I imagine it must be difficult for people outside to understand why we are confining debate to one day, albeit with extended time. Why is it impossible for the House of Commons to provide at least two full days of debate? We could end up with a situation in which Members are desperate to speak, and a good number might not be able to express a view on behalf of themselves and their constituents. Those who are called in the final stages might be limited to three minutes. It is simply wrong to undertake debate in this way on such a crucial issue of war and peace.
I absolutely accept—the hon. Gentleman is right to say it—that this is a crucial issue of conscience for many Members. However, the timing of tomorrow’s debate is effectively the equivalent of the amount of time that would have been available if we had held a debate across Wednesday and Thursday on normal business days for this House. It provides one extended debate on a single day, which I think makes for a more coherent debate over that extended period. It will start earlier than normal and finish much later than normal. I hope that will give Members of all parties the opportunity to contribute.
Of course, all votes in the House of Commons are free, and Members will make up their own minds on this issue. I do not think a single Member will vote on the basis of what the Whips tell them.
The shadow Leader of the House has a point about the motion. We have not seen it, so how can anyone decide whether to vote for or against it. It is a shame that we are voting at a time so close to the publication of the motion. As I argued at business questions, we can have a compromise position between the Leader of the House who wants one day and the shadow Leader of the House who wants two days by having the debate tomorrow without putting on any time limit. Anyone should be able to speak for as long as they like and if that means having the vote at 2 o’clock in the morning, so be it. People out there would realise that we were taking this matter seriously. Will my right hon. Friend consider this point again?
On the issue of the motion, let me repeat to my hon. Friend that we have taken the time to consult Members on all sides to try to ensure that we have a motion to vote upon tomorrow that reflects the concerns that Members have raised. If we have done so and taken the time to deliver the right motion, I make no apology for that. On the matter of the length of tomorrow’s debate, I simply think that 10 and a half hours, combined with all the opportunities we have had over the last 10 days, is sufficient to get the decision taken and the vote done. If the decision of the country is to do what the Government recommend, we will give our armed forces the support they need to deliver that mandate.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the short business statement this morning. We remain profoundly disappointed about the way in which the Government have progressed the matter of tomorrow’s business. It would have been so easy for the Leader of the House to announce last Thursday when this debate would happen in order to give us plenty of opportunity to consider a motion and have proper amendments put into it. The motion could have been debated, assessed and considered before we went into such an important vote tomorrow. This is not the Chancellor’s potholes; this is the country going to war and inflicting air strikes on another country. It is really important to get the opportunity to consider the issue properly.
I have a copy of the Government’s motion, which has just been presented, but it is not even in the Vote Office, so it is not available for Members to have a proper look at. This means that there will be no real opportunity to table amendments. Only manuscript amendments from right hon. and hon. Members will be possible. I see the Chief Whip shaking his head, but it is not in the Vote Office, so we cannot properly consider it.
I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wanted to table serious and considered amendments to the motion, but now they will only have the opportunity to table manuscript amendments. It is so disappointing that, once again, we do not have two days in which to discuss the issue properly—two days for which we have been asking for the past few weeks. We are trying to shoehorn two days into one, and abandoning Prime Minister’s questions so that the Leader of the House can do this. I ask him once more—please—to reconsider.
The motion on the Order Paper refers to “ISIL in Syria”, although this has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. When will people get it into the Government’s head that we should use the word “Daesh” when referring to what is going on in Syria?
We in the Scottish National party will constitute an effective opposition to what the Government are to propose tomorrow. In view of that, will the Leader of the House be sure to keep us up to date and informed of any developments that take place in the next 24 hours?
Let me begin by setting out clearly what the Government propose that we should do. I must first take up the hon. Gentleman’s point about going to war. Britain has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq, with a mandate from the House, for a considerable time, and the motion simply allows us to extend that work so that we can degrade ISIL in the areas of Syria in which it is operating.
The motion was tabled in the Table Office after the opening of business today, in the normal way. As I said earlier, it was tabled today because we had taken time to consult Members, to listen to the concerns that were expressed in different parts of the House, and to ensure that we reflected those concerns in the final version of the motion.
The hon. Gentleman asked why I had not come to the House last Thursday. The answer is, very simply, that no decision had been made last Thursday. No final decision was made until the Cabinet met this morning. He also talked about the time that had been allocated. I repeat that we have allocated to one day, rather than two, the equivalent of the time that would have been available if we had operated normal days on Wednesday and Thursday. I believe that that has created a more sensible, single structure for a debate that can run consistently from end to end.
My right hon. Friend has said twice that the motion was tabled today in the ordinary way, but a few minutes ago the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said that it was not available. I think that I just saw him handing someone’s iPad back. I note that, at 12.33, the editor of PoliticsHome tweeted an image of a motion that appears to be “the motion”. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be crystal clear? At what time was the motion tabled, and might it not have been better if the hon. Member for Rhondda had been provided with a copy before the statement?
It is clear that many Members in all parts of the House will want to participate in the debate, and it is clear that, given the importance of the matter, it will be a travesty if Members are limited to very short speeches lasting three or four minutes. May I appeal to the Leader of the House—and, indeed, to the Government in general—to ensure that the Front-Bench speeches do not take an inordinately long time, as they sometimes do, especially in the light of the fact that the speech from the Opposition Front Bench will actually be an expression of personal views?
I think that we may hear two different sets of views from the Opposition Benches. However, the right hon. Gentleman has made a sensible point, and I will certainly communicate it to my colleagues. I do want Members to have an opportunity to contribute. Many will, of course, seek to do so by means of interventions, but I will convey the right hon. Gentleman’s point to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that we had a long and considered debate on the middle east yesterday, during which many Members on both sides of the House were able to make strong contributions on issues in Syria, but which was not very well attended by a certain section of the Opposition Benches?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. As I said earlier, by the end of tomorrow we shall have considered these matters for 20 hours since Monday last week, so I do not think that anyone viewing the House from outside could say that they have not been raised and discussed. The Prime Minister himself has taken questions for four and half hours during that period, and that is in addition to the contribution that he will make tomorrow. I think that Members have had plenty of opportunities to scrutinise the challenge that we face.
The Leader of the House rose at 12.35 pm today. As we heard from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), the editor of PoliticsHome, having been briefed, issued the motion on Twitter at 12.33 pm. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the process—and I am still to make up my mind—does that not show that the House has not been given a full opportunity to consider this matter in detail, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) should have had sight of the motion before he came to the House?
I do not accept that. I made a point of ensuring that no public statement was made by the Government, and no provision of the motion was made to the media, before the motion was tabled in the House, and I think that that was the right and proper thing to do.
I managed to get hold of a copy of the motion—for which I commend the Government—with no difficulty. If it is possible to get hold of it so easily, it surely ought to be possible for others, including the shadow Leader of the House.
The Leader of the House needs to think about this issue again. Bringing issues of war and peace to the House for debate is a relatively recent innovation. In this instance, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the second largest Opposition party and, I suspect, the leaders of other parties have asked for a two-day debate. The issue of the two days is not just about the amount of time that is provided for debate, but about the amount of time that is provided for proper consideration of motions. If the Leader of the House does not concede that, he is creating a dangerous precedent, and a very unfortunate one.
There must be a reason for this. Is it the fact that the Prime Minister is more interested in dividing the Labour party than in uniting the country, or is there some other specific reason for his not wishing to be in the House on Thursday? Will the Leader of the House now answer that question honestly?
I know of no specific reason why the Prime Minister would not wish to be in the House on Thursday, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. I have—sadly—sat through a number of debates on issues like this during my 15 years as a Member of Parliament, and I believe that the amount of time we are providing for this debate is absolutely in line with existing practice. In fact, it is more generous than the amount of time that was allowed when these matters were last debated in the House.
We have sought to create a single, coherent debate, started by the Prime Minister and finished by the Foreign Secretary, over an extended period which is, as I have said, equivalent to the amount of time that would have been available had we debated these matters over a normal Wednesday and Thursday. I think that we are providing an appropriate amount of time for the debate.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and those on the Front Bench on the motion. I had no difficulty in getting hold of a copy of it a few minutes ago, and I suspect that the House will have little difficult in supporting it tomorrow.
On the subject of the allocation of time, does my right hon. Friend recall—as I certainly do—the events of 2003, when there was a very similar debate about the time that was available for a matter that was, of course, of far greater significance? That debate was about actually making war, whereas this is simply about extending to Syria the action that we are currently undertaking in Iraq.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember that occasion as well. Let me also make the point that, in the last few days, the Prime Minister, my colleagues in the Government and officials have gone out of their way to provide briefings, to have discussions, to listen to the views expressed by Members in all parts of the House, and to try to come up with a motion that would reflect the concerns that they have raised. As I said at the outset, we are publishing the motion today not least because we have only just made the decision. We have tried to take time to listen to those concerns, to table a motion that encompasses the worries that have been expressed in different parts of the House, and to set out a strategy that encompasses not simply military action but developments, political solutions to the situation in Syria, and the rest. We are trying to do the right thing in an holistic way.
The debate that took place in the House yesterday was about the United Kingdom’s role in the middle east, and it included lengthy speeches about countries such as Yemen, Israel and Palestine, and Iran. I think it unfair to say that Members were able to talk at length, and ask questions at length, about the extension of the bombing of ISIL. I listened to the whole of that debate from the Opposition Front Bench and, at 6.35 pm yesterday evening, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) referred to the debate that would take place on Wednesday this week.
I ask the Leader of the House to listen carefully to what Members in all parts of the House are saying—as they did in yesterday’s debate—about wanting opportunities to express their views, ask questions and speak in debates. I do not understand why the Government have set their face against a two-day debate. This is not normal business, and we ought to have the opportunity to take as long as we require to reach the right decision.
The hon. Lady is right that yesterday’s debate focused on more than simply the situation in Syria, but one of the reasons why we need to act against ISIL in Syria is the growing challenge we face from it around the middle east and in north Africa, and those issues were undoubtedly reflected in yesterday’s debate.
On the two-day debate issue, I simply repeat that we are providing an extended debate that is the equivalent of the amount of time that would have been available on a normal day’s business on Wednesday and Thursday, but we are doing it on one day over a very extended period to create a coherent single debate.
If the Government genuinely want to build as broad a consensus as possible on what might be the most momentous decision of this Parliament, how are the public supposed to understand a time-limited debate on their specific motion to escalate bombing where fewer than perhaps a fifth of Members are able to take part?
What I would say to the public is that we in Parliament will have discussed these issues over a 20-hour period since Monday of last week. The Prime Minister has taken two extended sets of questions, has considered very carefully the issues raised by Members on both sides of the House, has produced a motion that in our view reflects those concerns and takes many of them into account, and then has provided a length of time for debate that is longer than any that has been provided for a similar decision in recent years. I think that is treating this House, and the public and their concern, in exactly the right way.
We certainly do not have any agreement on the wisdom of bombing Syria, and now we do not have any agreement on the process by which that decision should be arrived at through Parliament. That is because the Government are bouncing Parliament. Why are they doing that? We have heard from my colleagues that the motion has not been published properly—it is not available in the Vote Office, but the press have it. This speaks again of the decision to go to war during the Blair spin times—a dash to war. Why are we doing this? Already 10 nations are bombing in Syria; what difference is adding two UK planes going to make? We also have, I think, the unprecedented step of Prime Minister’s questions being abandoned. The Government are doing this wrongly now. Why are they doing it wrongly? Why do they not even get this part of the process right?
I will say again that I really do not think we can be accused of bouncing anyone into a decision after what will have been 20 hours of debate, discussion and questions over a nine-day period. We tabled the motion this morning, before midday, and before it went to anybody in the media. It came to this House first, as is right and proper, but it came to this House after an extended period of discussion with Members on both sides of the House to try to make sure that the motion reflects the concerns raised by Members across this House, with a view to building as much consensus as possible. I accept that there will not be consensus across the whole House—we will not carry the support of every Member of this House—but it is in our national interest that we seek to bring forward a motion that will command as much support as possible from across this House.
The Leader of the House’s position seems to be that as his Government have spent some time considering their motion, it does not matter that MPs will have so little time to consider it. But what about amendments? I will not be voting for air strikes, but there are many things I would like to vote for, such as building a comprehensive UN consensus or cutting off Daesh’s oil supplies. How are we supposed to vote for an alternative approach if amendments are only to be available on the day?
Those elements of the hon. Lady’s concern are already reflected in the motion. As I have said, in the motion we have sought to reflect the concerns in all parts of this House. I can only reiterate that this motion was tabled shortly after the opening of business today and all Members of this House can manage to access it—and indeed my hon. Friends behind me have already managed to do so.
It appears that a real shambles is developing here. The Leader of the House is telling us that we are having 20 hours of debate, but that is not correct, because we are being given 10 hours to debate the motion. That is a substantive point. As Members have said, it is a motion that this House needs to reflect on and put down amendments to. Is it not the case that our constituents are very concerned about the consequences of this motion, and surely we should be having two days for debate so that Members can debate this properly? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not call the Prime Minister back from whatever engagements he may have on Thursday? Let us do this properly and treat the country with respect.
I can only say again that we discussed these matters for two hours last Monday, two and a half hours last Thursday, and five hours-plus in the debate yesterday, and we have a 10-and-a-half-hour debate tomorrow, and the debate tomorrow is for the equivalent amount of time as would have been available if we had run normal days on Wednesday and Thursday. I happen to think it is more coherent and logical for us to do this in one go, with one extended debate opened by the Prime Minister and wound up by the Foreign Secretary, and we will have had in total 20 hours to consider these matters since Monday of last week.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am not in the habit of raising needless points of order, but we have just heard many Members raise their concerns and what seems clear about the motion for tomorrow is that it was in the hands of the journalists before it was in our hands, as the Prime Minister made his statement to the BBC rather than to this House last night. We have heard what the Leader of the House has to say, Mr Speaker, and I would now like your view on what possible reform we can bring to change that approach.
I say in response to the hon. Lady that I am not sure that this is an occasion for pronouncing on a reform to the process, as she puts it. It is difficult for the Chair to give a ruling without certain knowledge of the facts, but what I would say at this stage is as follows—and I would welcome any clarification the Leader of the House can provide. The first point is that, as I understand it, it is the Government’s firm intention to ensure that the text of the motion is widely available today. Members can apparently consult it—I cannot say this for certain—now in the Table Office.
Nods of assent from the Government Chief Whip and the Leader of the House suggest that that is so. [Interruption.] Order; I am trying to help the House. If that is so, that is welcome.
On the subject of amendments, perhaps I can say to the House that if amendments are tabled today, presumably by Members who have seen the text of the motion, those amendments will be on the Order Paper tomorrow. Therefore, they will not be manuscript amendments. However, it is within the discretion of the Chair to consider manuscript amendments. Colleagues who have been in this House for any length of time will know that this Speaker has regularly done so, and if necessary I will be ready to do so again.
It is obviously desirable, not least in the light of what the Leader of the House said about having undertaken widespread consultation with a view to trying to put together a motion that would command widespread agreement, that the motion itself, when decided upon and its text finalised, should have been formally given at the very least to the official Opposition. I assume that was done. [Interruption.] Well, may I say that I think that it would be desirable for that to be done, and it would be entirely consistent with the words the Leader of the House uttered about widespread consultation? If it has not happened, may I say that it would now be desirable for it to happen?
Beyond that, all I can really say is this. The Leader of the House made the point that the one-day debate stretching over 10 and a half hours would represent a time allocation broadly equivalent to two full days on Wednesday and Thursday. I know some people like to be very precise about these matters, and my mental arithmetic tells me that if we have a full day’s debate on a Wednesday and a full day’s debate on a Thursday, and bearing in mind that we have business questions on a Thursday, that would amount to an allocation of time of I think 12 hours—10 and a half is being allocated—and that if it were a Monday and a Tuesday and there were two full days’ debate without interruption by urgent questions or statements, that would amount to 13 hours of debate. So to be absolutely correct about this, it is not two full days’ debate in one—that is not true—but it is considerably more than one and a half. It is also perfectly reasonable—this is a political point for the Leader of the House to make; it is not a matter for the Chair—to say that the time allocation is somewhat greater than has been the case in the past.
I am trying to be completely fair-minded about this. I respect what the Leader of the House has said, and there is some considerable agreement with what he has said, but I recognise that there is some unhappiness. I think the best thing at this stage on matters of procedure—we have the rest of the day available—is to try to maximise buy-in to the procedure and to minimise dissent. Let me try to look at it from the vantage point of members of the public. I think that is what responsible members of the public would expect responsible Members of Parliament to do. I hope that is helpful.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You have been extremely reasonable, and we have to look at this from the point of view of members of the public. I know that you have no ability to extend debates, but let us suppose that by 7 o’clock this evening 100 people have put in to speak. I do not know whether we will be bound by a procedure motion at 11.30. Perhaps discussions could take place between your office and the Leader of the House’s office. There is no reason why the Government should not extend the debate until 11.30 tomorrow, for instance, which would enable perhaps a further 30 people to get in. I am sure we can look at this in a holistic and creative way.
The hon. Gentleman is ever helpful, and that is appreciated. It is not really a matter for my office to engage or collaborate with the Government on the subject of the allocation of time—that is something for the Government to come to a view about and for the House either to agree to or not, as the case may be. However, I heard what he said about the likely level of interest in contributing and I can say that my door is always open, as is that of the outer office in the Speaker’s Office, as colleagues will know. There is no secret about the number of people putting in to speak. As colleagues will know, the Leader of the House and I speak regularly, as do the Government Chief Whip and I, and the same is true for the shadow Leader of the House and the Opposition Chief Whip. Of course I am happy to keep them informed, along with any Member who asks me how many people have put in to speak.
The shadow Leader of the House said that the Leader of the House was a servant of the House. I am a servant of the House, too, and I intend to be in the Chair tomorrow, very fully, to chair the debate. I would be happy, if the House willed it, to sit up all night in the Chair to hear colleagues—it is a pleasure and it is my responsibility—but how much time is allocated is not a matter for me. The Leader of the House will have heard that there is some interest in having the maximum possible time allocated for this important purpose.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Item 6 on today’s Order Paper relates to the sitting of the House on 2 December, and we can talk all night on it, if necessary, in order to reach a conclusion. What I cannot find on the Order Paper is the extension of the moment of interruption, which has been referred to as and almost assumed to be 10 pm tomorrow. I assume the Leader of the House will table a motion tomorrow morning dealing with when the moment of interruption will occur. If that is the process, the Leader of the House has until tomorrow morning to make up his mind whether it is until 10 pm or 11.30 pm. Alternatively, does the motion have to be tabled tonight and, if so, could you advise the House as to whether it is amendable?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. First, for your information, let me say that the fleet-of-foot Scottish National party is already tabling an amendment to the motion. I have two points about order that I hope you can help me with. First, have Prime Minister’s questions been cancelled at such short notice before? Secondly, does such a step need the consent of the House?
The short answer to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil)—I am advised by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) that I have pronounced that correctly, and I would not dare argue with him on that matter—is that, yes, such a proposition