House of Commons
Thursday 14 January 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Attorney General was asked—
Crown Prosecution Service legal guidance on domestic abuse was updated ahead of the introduction of the new offence of coercive or controlling behaviour in intimate and familial relationships. To support the introduction of that guidance, training has been developed and made available to prosecutors.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Women’s groups in Worcester and national campaigns such as Women’s Aid have warmly welcomed the new law of coercive control as a real step forward in the protection of victims. Does he anticipate a further rise in the number of domestic abuse cases coming to court as a result of that change in legislation?
I pay tribute to all those groups that do so much to support male and female victims of domestic abuse. Yes, I think we can expect a rise in prosecutions. There has been a similar precedent in the case of stalking and harassment offences, which were introduced several years ago, and I was proud to be the Minister who took the coercive control provisions through this House.
Given that conviction rates for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual offences have fallen in the past year, what reassurances can the Solicitor General give to the House that further budget cuts will not damage attempts to secure justice for the victims of those crimes?
The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point. Conviction rates for domestic violence remain broadly flat, but the volume of convictions continues to increase, which is good news for every single victim. For example, rape convictions now exceed 2,500 a year, whereas there were only 2,000 some five years ago. I assure him that the CPS, in the light of the comprehensive spending review settlement, is placing continued priority on rape and serious sexual offence units, and no prosecution will be prevented as a result of any budget problem.
The strength of the victim’s evidence in a domestic violence trial can often depend on recalling recollections as close in time to the incident as possible. Does the Solicitor General agree that we should consider allowing victims to record evidence remotely, perhaps via an app on their phones, rather than having to flog off to a police station?
Like my hon. Friend, I am always enthusiastic about the sensible use of new technology. Police in London are already piloting body-worn cameras, which capture the immediacy of events of domestic abuse. That sort of technology needs to be very much part of the tools available to police officers when investigating such cases.
I thank the Solicitor General for his responses so far. Domestic violence accounts for about a fifth of all crime in Northern Ireland, with police officers attending 60 domestic incidents a day. That is massive, but we still have problems with people failing to come forward, particularly men. Is the CPS considering taking steps to work alongside police forces to encourage people to report all domestic incidents?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of male victims. About 15% of domestic abuse victims are, indeed, men, and proper emphasis is being placed on the need to encourage men to come forward. It is not a badge of shame for someone to admit that they are a male victim of domestic abuse, and that message needs to be heard loud and clear throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom.
I regularly meet ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, to discuss issues of common interest, including EU law matters, but I am not able to talk about the legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether Law Officers have given advice is not disclosed outside Government.
Of course, I cannot discuss the legal ramifications of an agreement that has not yet been reached. When the agreement is reached, the House will, of course, be able to see it and form its own judgment, including on its legal aspects, on which we will be able to say more. The hon. Gentleman will recognise, however, that the final say on the matter will come from the British public, who will have a referendum to determine their verdict—a referendum that a Labour Government would not have given them.
Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty states that, on announcing its intention to withdraw from the European Union, the withdrawing state will automatically be excluded from all meetings of the European Council and, if agreement is not reached within two years, the withdrawing state will be automatically excluded from the negotiated terms. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that a withdrawing state is therefore liable to suffer what would amount to a punishment beating to dissuade others from withdrawing, and that therefore there is no such thing as a soft Brexit?
These matters will be discussed in the course of the referendum campaign. The hon. Gentleman is several stages ahead of where we are now. The first thing that needs to happen is a renegotiation. Conservative Members believe that the renegotiation is necessary, and we wish the Prime Minister all success in achieving it. When he has, there will be a referendum to determine whether or not the British public believe it is a good enough deal. Both the renegotiation and the referendum were opposed by the hon. Gentleman’s party. We believe that they are the right things to do.
The plan appears to be to have an agreement as a first stage, which would later be confirmed in a treaty change. As the voters in Denmark and Ireland have shown in the past, the outcome of national referendums cannot be taken for granted. How can the Government be certain that any proposed treaty change in the future would actually be approved by each of the other 27 EU states?
My hon. Friend, too, will recognise that these matters will be debated fully in the course of the referendum campaign. I know he will play a full part in that campaign. Of course, in relation to both Ireland and Denmark, international agreements were reached and subsequently enacted. The Government and the public will of course wish to consider that, if that is the outcome of the renegotiation.
Were this country to vote to leave the European Union, would the Attorney General’s advice to Her Majesty’s Government be that the article 50 direction ought to be tabled straightaway so that the negotiations for our exit, which the British people would have so willed, could begin straightaway?
My hon. Friend will recognise that we are some way away from that. I know he will also recognise that, as I said in my initial answer, I cannot discuss in the Chamber or elsewhere legal advice that I may or may not give to the Prime Minister. I hope my hon. Friend will therefore forgive me for not doing so now.
One of the risks of leaving the EU is that the UK will no longer be able to rely on crucial EU criminal justice measures to fight serious and organised crime and terrorism. Has the Attorney General given any advice on that risk, and if so, to which Departments?
I am afraid that I am going to sound like a broken record. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman, like most Members of the House, understands full well that I cannot discuss in the Chamber the advice that I may or may not have given to the Government, and I am not going to do so.
In my view, the legal position surrounding the so-called renegotiation is confused at best. It appears to me that this confusion may be delaying potential withdrawal from the European convention on human rights. Do the Government intend to hold the EU referendum before addressing the UK’s membership of the ECHR?
I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the position being confused. As I have already said, I cannot comment on the legal status of an agreement that has not yet been negotiated. In relation to the ECHR, he will know that my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are working very hard on the Government’s proposals, and he will hear them in due course.
What assessment has my hon. and learned Friend made of the CPS’s action plan to improve the investigation and prosecution of rape and sexual assault? Does he agree that the publication of the action plan demonstrates the willingness of this Government and of the CPS to increase the number of prosecutions in those areas?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The publication of the plan shows a very clear line of intent. That is reflected in the increased volumes of prosecutions, and in the careful consideration given to any withdrawal of prosecution cases before a jury has properly considered them.
As I have mentioned, the long-standing convention adopted my predecessors in Governments of all hues is that neither the fact nor the content of Law Officers’ advice is normally disclosed outside the Government. In this case, the Government’s legal position in relation to taking military action against Daesh in Syria is reflected in the Prime Minister’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee. The hon. Lady can take it that I am in agreement with that position.
I appreciate the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s advice to the Government is privileged, and rightly so, but will you do Parliament the courtesy of sharing your view on the legality of the current military action in Syria either now or in a statement?
Well, Mr Speaker, I do have a view on the matter. My view is that these were legal actions. As I have said, the Government’s legal position on these matters has been set out, I believe with clarity, so the House is aware of it. I do not intend to set out the specific advice that I have given, either on the individual drone strike in Syria or on military action against Daesh, but, as I have said, in both cases the Government’s legal position is set out and I fully agree with it.
5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Director of Public Prosecutions on the role of the national wildlife crime unit in increasing conviction rates for wildlife crime. (903028)
The Crown Prosecution Service’s senior wildlife champion and the head of the national wildlife crime unit work together closely and regularly discuss policy and casework issues. Both parties sit on the partnership for action against wildlife crime, which is chaired by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Does the Solicitor General agree that if conviction rates for wildlife crime continue to increase, it is crucial that the Government commit to funding the national wildlife crime unit not just for a year or two, but as part of a much longer-term wildlife crime strategy?
In the year from July 2014 to June last year, the overall conviction rate was 71%, which compares favourably with other types of crime. There were 605 defendants prosecuted, with 349 entering guilty pleas. The decision on the funding of the wildlife crime unit will be made very shortly.
In my constituency and in the wider south-west, the wildlife crime unit plays a crucial role, particularly in cracking down on poaching, but also in protecting hares, other precious creatures and birds’ eggs. If the unit were disbanded, there would be no one else to step into its shoes, so I urge the Solicitor General to think carefully before withdrawing what does not amount to very much funding for so much valuable work.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, as I am sure do DEFRA Ministers. With about £1.7 million of funding since 2010, the unit has indeed played an important role in the prosecution of these serious offences. As I said, a decision on funding will be made very soon.
Britain has led the world in legislation that criminalises acts of cruelty against wildlife and that relates to the protection of wildlife. While the relevant laws are in place, they will be properly enforced and prosecutions will be applied using the tests that prosecutors have to use, following the evidence wherever it leads them.
Crown Prosecution Service
The Director of Public Prosecutions and I have regular discussions about Crown Prosecution Service operations. We both believe that the spending review settlement enables the CPS to respond effectively to a changing case load and an increase in complex and sensitive cases. We also continue to discuss how the CPS can be more efficient and effective in the work that it does.
Does the Attorney General agree with the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, that as the CPS is forced to shed thousands of jobs, a potentially dangerous situation could develop in which the CPS no longer has the necessary expertise to do its important job of delivering justice to the people of this country?
No, I do not agree, and, more to the point, neither does the current Director of Public Prosecutions. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to two things in the settlement and what they have led to. The CPS can almost double in size its counter-terrorism unit, which has a growing case load, as she will appreciate. It can also recruit 100 more prosecutors to conduct work on serious sexual cases. In both those areas, the number of cases that the CPS has to deal with is growing substantially, and it is now in a position to do so.
Will the Attorney General confirm that his response is entirely consistent with the evidence that the Director of Public Prosecutions has given recently to the Select Committee on Justice? The willingness of the Crown Prosecution Service to look innovatively at the ways in which it organises itself is being reinforced by its co-operation with the chief inspector’s proposal to carry out thematic reviews of its financing at a corporate level, which will drive further efficiencies.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is important that the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate takes that role. As I have indicated, it is keen to ensure that its work is conducted as efficiently as possible, and it will need to do that in continuing difficult economic times. It is not right to suggest that the CPS does not have the resources that it needs to do its job well.
This time last year the Director of Public Prosecutions asked the Attorney General for an extra £50 million to prosecute complex cases properly, but the spending review revealed a real-terms cut of 2.1% to the Law Officers Department. Given that the vast majority of the budget is taken up by the CPS, will the Attorney General confirm that the DPP is saying that she no longer needs the extra £50 million for which she was pleading just 12 months ago?
May I start by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on his well deserved promotion? I point out, however, that I think four people have done his job in the time that I have been doing mine, so I wish him at least a comparatively long career in opposition.
As he knows—we have discussed this issue across the Dispatch Box previously—it is important to listen to what the CPS is saying now, not what it said a year ago, and what it is saying now is what I read to him in my initial answer. At the time, the CPS comment, with which the DPP fully agrees, was:
“This settlement will allow the CPS to respond to a changing caseload and the significant increase in complex and sensitive cases, such as terrorism, rape and serious sexual assaults and child sex abuse.”
That is what the DPP believes. She says that this is a good settlement, and I agree with her.
The CPS has taken a number of steps to improve the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence abuse cases, including refocusing resources to strengthen the rape and serious sexual offences unit’s extensive training on rape cases for prosecutors, an update of domestic abuse legal guidance, and closer working with the police.
That is all very well, and I am grateful for the Minister’s reply, but it will not hide the fact that the conviction rate for rape has fallen by 5.6% in the last four years, and is now just over 56%. The conviction rate for domestic abuse has also fallen. Clearly, something is happening, and I would welcome the Minister’s view of what that might be, and a clear indication of what action he will take to increase conviction rates, particularly for rape.
The right hon. Gentleman has taken a long interest in this matters, and he is right to raise those issues. I remind him that the volumes of outcomes continue to increase to their highest ever levels. I have mentioned rape, but domestic violence outcomes have also increased dramatically to their highest ever levels, which means justice for thousands more victims. It is incumbent on the CPS to examine the reasons why prosecutions do not succeed, and the key for the Attorney General and me is to ensure that the prosecution does not bring charges and then drop them without good reason. It should allow such cases to go to a jury, so that juries and magistrates can make decisions.
May I take a slightly contrary view? As we all know, about a year ago a colleague of ours was found innocent of rape, and more recently a young student was also found innocent of rape. It is important that the Crown Prosecution Service does not prosecute people lightly, and if it thinks that a person is innocent, it should ensure that they are not prosecuted.
I assure my hon. Friend that in every case the prosecution must apply the test of a reasonable prospect of conviction, and of whether that prosecution is in the public interest. That should apply to everybody, whether they are in this House or any other part of the country. There must be equality before the law, and the evidence must be followed wherever it leads.
Despite what the Solicitor General has said, conviction rates for rape, other sexual offences and domestic abuse have all fallen, and the Government need to do far more to reduce the incidence of those offences, as well as more to support victims. Last year the Labour party made a manifesto commitment to legislate with a violence against women and girls Bill, just as the groundbreaking Welsh Labour Government have done. The Bill would include provisions to appoint a commissioner to set minimum standards to tackle domestic and sexual violence. Will the Government do the same?
First, may I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her position? It is a pleasure to see her. Indeed, we worked together for many years in the south Wales legal fraternity.
The Government are absolutely committed to funding the combating of violence against women and girls. A cross-ministerial group, of which I am a member, meets regularly, and we have introduced new legislation to criminalise coercive control. We have enhanced the tools the police and the prosecution have at their disposal, which is why the number of prosecutions for domestic abuse and rape continues to rise.
For the purposes of clarity, Mr Speaker, I am not a member of the Welsh legal fraternity either.
In the aftermath of the tragic events in Paris last month, the Prime Minister asked for a review into the legal framework and investigatory processes relating to incidents involving police use of firearms. I will play my part in that review, which will conclude later this year.
My name may suggest otherwise, but Wales is not my home.
Last week I met the chief constable of Sussex police. We agreed that our firearms officers do a job that is difficult and often dangerous, and that they are more likely than ever to be called on to protect the public. They fully understand, quite rightly, that they will need to account for their actions if they use lethal force. Is the Attorney General comfortable that our investigating authorities support this difficult balance?
I agree with my hon. Friend. As he says, it is important that incidents are properly investigated, but it is also important we recognise the need to treat police officers fairly. If, as we do, we need to recruit more police officers to do the difficult work of using firearms, and we need to retain experienced officers who already do that work, then they need to feel as though the system will treat them fairly. That is, I hope, what the review will do.
14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the effect of the Supreme Court ruling of 13 May 2015 on local authorities’ ability to meet their legal duties towards people facing homelessness. (903038)
I have to observe the proprieties of the Law Officers’ convention, but the Government welcome the clarity the judgment provided. It explains that any assessment of vulnerability must be made in the round, looking at all aspects of a person’s situation.
A rough sleeper is likely die by the age of 47. Homeless people are inherently vulnerable. Can the Solicitor General assure me that, as the law currently stands, a safety net is provided for vulnerable and homeless people who are unintentionally homeless?
I commend my hon. Friend for the considerable work he has done on this issue, both in the capital and generally. The Government intervened in that case precisely because they were concerned that the test would disproportionately affect vulnerable homeless people. I am glad the Supreme Court has rebalanced the law in what I think is a fair way.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Before I begin, may I, on behalf of the whole House, welcome the new female First Minister in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, to her role and wish her all the very best? I am sure the whole House will also want to offer its support to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who made his personal statement yesterday.
The Government have not changed the definition of child poverty. As the Prime Minister set out on Monday, we are committed to attacking the root causes of poverty and improving children’s life chances. In the spring, we will publish a comprehensive life chances strategy. Our proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill introduce new measures on worklessness and educational attainment.
I thank the Secretary of State for her comments. Those of us on the Scottish National party Benches agree with what she said about the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and the First Minister for Northern Ireland.
If we are only talking about additional measures to tackle poverty, I agree that they would be useful. However, it is clear that the Welfare Reform and Work Bill abandons the poverty reduction targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010. Given that 64% of children living in poverty are in working families, does the Minister agree with the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, the End Child Poverty Coalition, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Resolution Foundation that income assessment must be retained? Otherwise, the new measures will remove children from poverty in statistics only and not in reality. That is a cynical manoeuvre.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s last remarks. We remain absolutely committed to tackling child poverty and making sure that as many children as possible do not grow up affected by the blight by poverty. Since 2010, the number of children growing up in workless families has fallen by 480,000 to a record low. As I said, we want to tackle the root causes of poverty, and worklessness and educational attainment, both of which we are measuring, make a critical difference to whether a child grows up in poverty and continues to live in poverty throughout their life.
Since 2010 I have seen more people destitute, homeless and dependent on food banks in my constituency. Do the Government understand that changing internationally agreed definitions of poverty will seem like a cynical attempt to mask the true condition of Britain?
I also suspect that the hon. Gentleman sees more people in work and being helped into work in his constituency. As I said, we remain absolutely committed to tackling the root causes of poverty—worklessness and low educational attainment—and to making sure that children do not grow up affected by the blight of poverty. He will probably agree that an arbitrary consideration of whether somebody is over or under a financial income line by a matter of pounds does not change lives. What changes lives is tackling the issues set out by the Prime Minister in his speech on Monday.
16. The Secretary of State insists that the Government are not changing the definition of child poverty, so will they accept the findings of several respected organisations, including, most recently, the Resolution Foundation, which has indicated that, as a direct result of the summer Budget alone, between 300,000 and 600,000 children and 3.7 million and 3.9 million people on these islands will move into poverty by 2020? What discussions has she had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the likely impact of the changes on poor children on these islands? (903021)
Some 11.8% of children live in workless households, which is down by 4.4 percentage points since 2010. If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the impact of Budgets on people in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, he might like to know that 176,000 women in Scotland have been taken out of income tax since 2010 because of UK Budgets. Those sorts of measures have a direct impact on children’s life chances and families’ prospects.
State Pension Age
Ministers regularly discuss matters of policy spanning their responsibilities, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that this issue was debated very recently.
That is correct. Last week’s Back-Bench business debate resulted in a unanimous decision, with Members on both sides of the House calling on the Government to correct the unfairness in the rules. Is it not time for the Government to lay down a strategy for introducing transitional arrangements to help the women most affected by these rules?
I gently refer the hon. Gentleman to the direction given by the Deputy Speaker following that debate in response to a point of order, when she made it absolutely clear that the Government were not bound by any vote or decision taken in a Back-Bench business debate.
It is estimated that, with the new threshold to qualify for auto-enrolment set at £10,000, 1.28 million people will miss out on accessing their pension. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s pensions policy negatively impacts women, and will he support the establishment of an independent pensions commission to look at all pensions issues, including investigating the inequalities facing women in the current system?
I was disappointed with the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). The Minister is correct that last week’s Back-Bench business debate is not binding on the Government, but will he admit that the Government have absolutely lost the argument on this case? Will he commit to justice for those women born between 1953 and ’56, who now face a huge pensions pay gap after they led the fight for my generation on the pay gap in the workplace?
This issue was not in the manifesto of either the Labour party or the Scottish National party. That is not surprising, given that undoing the 2011 measures would cost over £30 billion. If the hon. Lady persists in pursuing this policy from the Labour Front Bench, it is important for her to outline from where it would get that £30 billion.
3. If she will discuss with the Home Secretary the treatment of pregnant women detained for immigration purposes. (903006)
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes these matters very seriously. Last year, she commissioned Stephen Shaw, CBE, former prisons and probation ombudsman, to carry out a review of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention. Mr Shaw’s report will be published today, and the Government will take appropriate action in response to his recommendations.
I am grateful for that answer, and we look forward to hearing what Stephen Shaw has to say, albeit that we are slightly sceptical about the remit that he was operating under. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that Government policy of detaining only in exceptional circumstances is, at the very least, put into practice and is not fiction? It would be even better if she ensured that the detention of pregnant women came entirely to an end.
It is Government policy that pregnant women should be detained only in exceptional circumstances. In normal circumstances, they should not be detained. Where a matter affecting a pregnant woman being detained comes to light, it is looked at with the utmost urgency.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the all-party parliamentary group’s report of 2014 on immigration detention, which dealt with the issue of women in detention centres more widely. Many women had been subject to quite horrific violence, including sexual violence. What steps is she taking to ensure that detained women, whether pregnant or not, are safe? Does she agree with me that these centres should not be detaining women at all and that detention should very much be a last resort?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that detention should be a very last resort. It is regrettable in many ways that we have to have detention, but as part of an immigration system that is fair to all, detention is needed in those exceptional circumstances where people refuse to leave the country when they have been ordered to do so. Women are treated with the utmost dignity, and it is important to treat all people in detention with dignity.
Strong body confidence is obviously really important for both physical and mental health wellbeing. That is why the Government are working with partners on projects such as media literacy that equip young people to be resilient and realistic about body images that they see in print and on our screens.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that photographs in glossy magazines have been retouched by Photoshop, with little wrinkles smoothed out and little bulges slimmed in—in my case, of course, you see what you get—[Interruption.] Well, part of what you see is what you get, but we will not go into that. Does my hon. Friend agree that schools have a role to play in educating children in having realistic ideas about what is possible and what is not?
I entirely agree with you, Mr Speaker: there is almost nothing we could do to enhance the appearance of my hon. Friend—in my book, anyway.
My hon. Friend is right and his interest in this important issue is commendable. We want all young people to be informed and resilient. That is why we aim to improve media literacy. Our PSHE Association guidance on body image helps teachers to approach this topic sensitively and points them to the best quality-assured material. We also produce media-smart literacy resources for parents and teachers of primary school children to help them better to promote understanding of the images that young people see in the media.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the cost of eating disorders to society is about £15 billion a year. What extra measures are the Government introducing, not only for prevention purposes but to support those who are currently experiencing eating disorders, in order to ensure that the problem is tackled adequately?
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, absolutely right: this is a key issue. We know that anorexia kills more than any other mental illness. On Monday, the Prime Minister set out our commitment to investing in mental health services. We will invest nearly £1 billion in a revolution in mental health treatment throughout the country, which will include the first-ever waiting time target for teenagers with eating disorders. They will be able to obtain help within a month of being referred, or within a week in urgent cases.
Young trans people can struggle greatly with their body confidence. Will the Minister, and her colleagues throughout the Government, undertake to look at the first report of the Women and Equalities Committee? It is published today, and it makes specific recommendations on how to improve the lives of young trans people.
Absolutely. I warmly welcome that report, and I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee—and, indeed, the whole Committee—for the valuable work that they have done. The report follows the Committee’s first inquiry, and it sends a clear signal about the importance of this issue. I look forward greatly to working through the report carefully and thoughtfully with those in other Departments, and looking closely at every one of my right hon. Friend’s recommendations.
As I have said before, the Government are absolutely clear about the fact that what is illegal offline is illegal online. We have criminalised this abhorrent act, and the revenge porn helpline has supported more than 3,000 callers since its launch last February. It is there to support anyone who is affected, regardless of gender, sexuality, race or age. No one should have to suffer as a result of this repulsive crime, and we will ensure that we continue to support those who are affected by it.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously it is important for victims to receive the right support, but we want to go further and make it clear, through education and awareness, that this is a crime and that it will not be tolerated. The internet can be a huge force for good, but it can also be a platform for abuse and intimidation. Staff monitor the helpline and provide support, but they have also been very successful in ensuring that content is quickly removed from the internet, and they work directly with social media and website providers.
I thank the Minister for her earlier comments about the elevation of Arlene Foster to the position of First Minister. The Stormont fresh start agreement already looks brighter with her in charge.
My question relates to the ever-increasing digital society. The press is still full of stories about revenge porn incidents. Does the Minister recognise the need to raise awareness of people’s rights, and of the new offence in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which is intended to tackle the increasing amount of online revenge porn?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is an offence of which people are more aware, but, sadly, that means that there are more cases of it, which is why we have criminalised it and established a helpline to offer support. However, we must go further and make it clear that this is not an acceptable way for people to behave. We must also give guidance to potential victims, advising them to think very carefully about images that they share and how they could then be abused.
Sanitary Products: VAT
I have written to the European Commission and to other member states setting out our strong view that member states should have full discretion over what rate of VAT they can apply to sanitary products, and that the matter should be considered in the context of the Commission’s action plan on VAT, which is now expected to be published in March
I am sure that the letter is very good, but I think the Minister should do more than that: I think that he should pursue the issue. When he does so, and when he succeeds—as I am sure he will—will he ensure that the money that he is currently providing from this unfair tax to finance domestic violence services is raised from general taxation? As a man, I think that it should be, so that the whole of society owns this problem.
In terms of the action the Government are taking, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that VAT rules currently do not allow us to reduce the rate below 5%, which is why when the previous Labour Government reduced it, they reduced it to 5% not zero. But we are making the case to other member states and the European Commission, and the right hon. Gentleman highlights the fact that, as the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, for the first time we are using the funds collected from VAT on sanitary products to provide support specifically to women’s charities. We will, of course, review that in the event that we are able to reduce it to a zero rate.
The Minister will know that I voted with the Opposition on this issue. He is a good man and I am sure he is doing his very best to battle away on this issue, but is it not the case that those who want a zero rate on sanitary products at the earliest possible opportunity should find the easiest way of doing that, which is by voting to leave the European Union, and then we would be able to do it straight away?
My hon. Friend’s answer to this question does not entirely surprise me; it is in fact his answer to quite a lot of questions. The Government are engaging constructively with other member states and the European Commission. It is the case that EU rules prevent us from lowering the rate below 5%, but we are engaged in negotiating with other member states.
While any action is better than nothing, it does not appear that the issue has been placed alongside the Prime Minister’s other demands in the EU membership renegotiation, so we may not even have a report back prior to the referendum. Can the Minister reassure the House today that women’s rights are not a second-class issue on this Government’s European agenda by making those commitments, and will the Prime Minister or Chancellor come before the House to make a statement on this, as they have done on other EU issues?
The Chancellor of the Exchequer addressed this issue in his autumn statement, when he announced the additional funding for women’s charities, reflecting the sums that are raised from VAT on sanitary products. The Government are taking this issue seriously; previous Governments have done so too, but we are doing everything we can, and we are, I think, the first Government who have gone to the European Commission and to other member states and made the case for flexibility.
Will my hon. Friend explain why this is not part of the Government’s renegotiation strategy? Surely this country and this Parliament should be able to decide levels of VAT not just on sanitary products, but on fuel, defibrillators and so on—on all of which I think it would be better if there were no VAT?
We are engaged in a wide-ranging renegotiation addressing issues about economic competitiveness and the roles of Parliament and so on. This is not explicitly part of that renegotiation, but we are, as a Government, going out making the case to other member states, and we will have the report from the Commission in March and we have made our position very clear.
The funding the Government are putting into services for women fleeing sexual and domestic violence has been described as like filling a bath with the plug pulled out. End Violence Against Women says the tampon tax cannot possibly fill the gap, while across the country refuges and specialist services are closing. Will the Minister commit to a full review of the effect of the Government’s fiscal policies on the availability of services and to publishing the information?
We have already announced £40 million in funding for domestic abuse services between 2016 and 2020, as well as a £2 million grant to Women’s Aid and SafeLives to support early intervention. The hon. Lady raised a very broad point, and, in reply I would say the best future for the entire country is to ensure we have strong public finances, a credible economic policy and a long-term economic plan that delivers jobs and growth. That is what this Government are doing.
I am afraid that the Government’s economic policies are not protecting women from violence. Research published yesterday by Professor Sylvia Walby of the University of Lancaster shows that violent crime against women has been under-reported and has in fact been rising since 2009. That is a result of cuts to services, cuts in the police, a lack of housing to move into, financial pressures on relationships and difficulties accessing justice. Does the Minister not recognise that the holistic effect of the Government’s policies has been to place women in danger? Will the Government take urgent action to address this?
The hon. Lady makes the point that domestic violence is under-reported, and we accept that that is a problem, although reporting has increased. Indeed, the number of convictions has increased. She also made the point that there had been cuts in police services. The Chancellor made it clear in his autumn statement, however, that because the economy was performing better than had been the case before, we could afford not to cut police funding over the course of this Parliament. Again, I make the point that Labour can oppose every single cut and every single change that we make to try to bring the public finances under control, but if we do not take those decisions, I am afraid that we will run into a crisis. That was what the 2015 general election was fought on, and the result was very clear.
Misogynist Bullying: Social Media
Bullying of any kind, whether online or offline, is absolutely unacceptable. There is also no place for misogyny or trolling in our society. My Department has set up the Stop Online Abuse website to provide women and LGBT adults with practical advice on how to recognise abuse, including on social media. I also want to echo the welcome for the report from the Women and Equalities Select Committee on transgender equality, which was published today. It makes specific recommendations for addressing online safety and the treatment of transgender people, which we will take very seriously.
I and other Ministers, including my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy speak to social media providers all the time about these issues. I welcome the recent statement from a Twitter director saying that it thought it was doing better on dealing with trolls, but I think it recognised that it needed to do more.
I hope that the hon. Lady will also recognise that there are issues closer to home. She will remember the statement made by her own party leader at her party’s conference last autumn, when he had to appeal to activists. He said:
“I say to all activists, whether Labour or not, cut out the personal attacks, the cyber bullying and especially the misogynistic abuse online”.
I hope that the hon. Lady will tackle her own party in regard to this issue.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what evidence there is of improved data collection to give us the true scale of this abuse? What evidence is there that police officers up and down the country are receiving appropriate training to enable them to identify and deal with the perpetrators of the abuse?
I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the question of data collection, which I am happy to do. I suspect that some organisations are better than others. I mentioned the revenge porn helpline earlier, which clearly is monitoring and keeping data. We want to evaluate such data one year on, in February or March of this year. I have already said that what is illegal offline is also illegal online, and that has been made very clear to all police forces up and down the country. We continue to make that case to them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course it is much better to educate young people against any of this in the first place, to ensure that they are robust and resilient if they come across unwanted images or cyber-bullying. She is also absolutely right to mention parents and carers. There is a range of websites and organisations to help parents to understand how to discuss these issues with children, and the Government Equalities Office and the Home Office have invested £3.85 million in a new phase of our This is Abuse campaign, which tackles abuse within teenage relationships and will be launched later this year.
Following on from the earlier response to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), will the Secretary of State recognise the huge amount of online bullying that is being directed towards the trans community, leading to high levels of mental ill health and suicide within that community? Will she ensure that it is tackled when she reviews the trans inquiry?
My hon. Friend is a member of the Select Committee and I warmly welcome the landmark report that has been published today. It has highlighted lots of actions that are needed to be taken across government. He is absolutely right to mention the issue of social media and online bullying, which I have already mentioned, and the effects that that has on mental health, and the ability of members of the transgender community to take part in life, the workplace and elsewhere. We take such issues very seriously. We need to look at all the action we have taken on online abuse, and work out how we can ensure that it is also accessible to members of the trans community.
Gender Pay Gap
I am delighted that our consultation on closing the gender pay gap has had such a positive reaction, receiving around 700 responses, including more than 200 from employers and business organisations. We will publish the Government’s response to the consultation shortly.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Excellent work has been done on tackling the gender pay gap, but regional differences remain. In my constituency of Telford, women in full-time work earn 16% less than men in full-time work. What further action can be taken to address that kind of discrepancy?
The gender pay gap regulations, when published and put into practice, will help, because they will get employers to start thinking about these issues, and reporting on them. I encourage my hon. Friend to host an event in her own constituency. As a proactive and new Member of Parliament, she can highlight best practice and show the advantages of narrowing the gap. She might also like to think about the breakdown of the businesses within her constituency and work out how we can get more women and girls to participate in sectors such as manufacturing and financial services.
The north-east has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the country owing in part to the disproportionate numbers in the public sector, which has been cut, and in the sort of low-paid jobs that the Prime Minister yesterday called “menial”. Does the Secretary of State agree that failure to publish a response to a consultation six months after its publication is disrespectful to the many organisations and individuals who responded to it in the hope of doing something about the situation?
I am really sorry to hear the hon. Lady make those points, because they are not worthy of her. First, on the north-east, she is wrong. The gender pay gap in the north-east fell by 0.4 percentage points between 2014 and 2015. People want us to get the Government response right and to ensure that we have thought through the regulations and their impact. I have said that we will publish the response shortly, and that is exactly what we will do.
I hope that the Secretary of State, and indeed the whole House, will welcome the establishment of the all-party group on women and work, of which I am vice-chair. I know that she sent a member of staff to it the other day. Will she resolve to work with the all-party group to look at the challenges faced by women returning to work after having children or caring responsibilities, the impact of which is often seen in the gaps in their income, their progression and their career?
I thank the hon. Lady very much indeed. I warmly welcome the all-party group. Another group has also been set up on women and enterprise. I really welcome the fact that parliamentarians are setting up these groups, which will work on a cross-party basis. Of course Ministers and I will work with all of them. She is absolutely right. Evidence was given to the Select Committee which showed that, if women take more than a year’s maternity leave, it becomes much, much harder to get back into the workplace; we must change that.
Unpaid carers are the unsung heroes of our society, which is why the Care Act 2014 gave carers new rights, focusing on their wellbeing, which includes their employment. In 2015, the Government extended the right to request flexible working arrangements, and we are also investing £1.6 million in nine pilot sites, exploring ways to support people who are combining work and caring responsibilities.
I thank the Minister for her response. According to a recent report from the Department of Health, the cost to the Exchequer of carers being unable to continue working has been estimated at £1.3 billion a year. Will the Minister confirm what incentives are in place for employers to support carers in the workplace?
The report my hon. Friend refers to was a landmark one in demonstrating the business case for investing in carer-friendly policies. The Government have been working to raise awareness among employers of the issue and of the cost of leaving it unaddressed. Our £1.6 million project will be invaluable in helping us to establish the most effective forms of support for carers. We are also backing the Employers for Carers network run by Carers UK, which provides resources to implement carer-friendly policies.
The Government have already announced £40 million of funding for domestic abuse services between 2016 and 2020, as well as a £2 million grant to Women’s Aid and SafeLives to support early intervention. We will shortly publish a refreshed cross-Government violence against women and girls strategy setting out how we will do still more to secure long-term funding for domestic violence services and support for all victims.
Domestic violence is an enduring stain on our society, and while Government funding is welcome, a long-term sustainable approach is needed. What discussions has the Minister had with service providers, including Rape Crisis, about the long-term solutions, and what does she consider to be long term in this context?
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his questions. I must admit, I am used to seeing him on the Front Bench, but it is nice to see him anyway. As part of refreshing our violence against women and girls strategy, I have taken part in a number of round tables with service providers, commissioners and others to make sure that we understand the issues facing them and to look at that long-term solution, because he is absolutely right: service providers need to know that their funding is on a sustainable footing, so that they can continue to deliver services and focus on victims, as we all want them to do.
FTSE Boards: Gender Balance
We appointed Lord Davies in 2010 and have fully supported his work ever since, which has achieved an unprecedented increase in the number of women on boards. We welcomed his final report and back his new recommendations for a business-led 33% target for FTSE 350 boards. We are also in the process of establishing a new review focusing on the all-important executive layer.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: companies with more diverse boards benefit from better decision making and better corporate governance; they are more responsive to the market and they can access the wider talent pool. It is a no-brainer: diversity is better for business. We have seen real progress with our business-led Government-supported approach, but we are not complacent by any means. We will continue to engage with businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to push this work forward.
There are gender differences across a range of health outcomes. Women live longer than men, but that gap is closing. The Government are tackling health inequalities by addressing the social causes of ill health and promoting healthier lifestyles, all now underpinned by legal duties. Action is led locally to ensure that there are solutions to local gender and other health inequalities.
Over the past 30 years, female suicide rates have declined from 11 per 1,000 to five per 1,000, but male suicide rates have remained stubbornly high, at 19 to 20 per 1,000, and in that period 130,000 men have committed suicide. What will the Minister do, together with the Department of Health, to tackle that very serious problem?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), was keen to be here today, but she is at an LGBT conference. Suicide is the largest cause of death of men under 50, so this is a really important issue. That is why the Prime Minister’s commitment earlier this week to investing in mental health services will be so important in this space.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 18 January—Second Reading of the Energy Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 19 January—Opposition day (16th allotted day). There will be a debate on the cost of public transport, followed by a debate on prisons and probation. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 20 January—Remaining stages of the Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords], followed by a motion to approve statutory instruments relating to the proceeds of crime.
Thursday 21 January—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 22 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 25 January will include:
Monday 25 January—Remaining stages of the Childcare Bill [Lords], followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 26 January—Motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Charities (Social Investment and Protection) Bill [Lords], followed by remaining stages of the Charities (Social Investment and Protection) Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 27 January—Opposition day (17th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 28 January—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 29 January—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Monday 25 January and Monday 1 February will be:
Monday 25 January—Debate on e-petition 115895 relating to tax reporting for small businesses and the self-employed.
Monday 1 February—Debate on e-petition 110776 relating to transitional state pension arrangements for women born in the 1950s.
May I start by warmly congratulating the Secretary of State for Scotland on joining the ranks of out gay MPs yesterday? His announcement was made with considerable charm, I thought. He said he hoped that he would not be treated any differently because of his sexuality. May I assure him that being gay does not necessarily make you any better as a politician? [Laughter.] Oh, I did not think that was very funny.
It seems particularly appropriate that we should be having a debate this afternoon on space, especially following the death of David Bowie, the ultimate Starman.
I asked for a debate on the English language last week. May we have a debate on the use of the word “menial”? The Prime Minister used it yesterday with quite a sneer on his face, but is that not where he gets it wrong? Those are the people who really graft in our society and he does not demean them by using such language; he demeans himself. There are no menial jobs, only menial attitudes.
May we have a debate on a series of mysterious disappearances that have happened over the past week? It is a bit like Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” First, there was the mystery of the missing Health Secretary. They sought him here, they sought him there, but oh no, even when the first strike by doctors for decades was happening, he was nowhere to be found, not even in a television studio, which he normally loves. Surely he should be here, explaining how he has completely lost the respect and trust of the whole medical profession.
Then there was the disappearance of the Government’s consultation on the future of the BBC. I know the Tories all hate the BBC, but the closing date for the consultation was 99 days ago today and it is still nowhere to be seen. The charter runs out in less than a year, so when will the Government publish the consultation and the new draft charter?
It is not just consultations that have disappeared, though. On Tuesday afternoon a whole Committee disappeared—European Committee A, which was meant to meet at 2.30 pm in Committee Room 10 to consider the Ports Authority regulations, something I am sure all hon. Members think is very important. Members of the public turned up from far and wide in their droves to hear what the Minister had to say, but the Government had pulled the meeting. Why? This is an important matter that affects 47 UK ports. Port workers are very concerned about it. The European Scrutiny Committee has said that it remains
“deeply concerned that the Government continues to refuse to have a floor debate on this issue”.
How can the Leader of the House portray himself as a serious Eurosceptic when he will not even allow the House to debate EU measures?
That is not the only debate to disappear. Do you remember, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House’s promise of a debate on abolishing student grants, which he made here on 10 December? Yes, that is what he said, is it not? I know he is doing his huffy-puffy “I’m going to get very angry about this later” face, but he should admit it. His precise words were:
“On student finance regulations, the hon. Gentleman is well aware that if he wants a debate on a regulation in this House all he has to do is pray against it. I am not aware of any recent precedent where a prayer made by the Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Cabinet colleagues has not led to a debate in this House.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 1154.]
We took the Leader of the House at his word. Early-day motion 829 is on the Order Paper praying against the statutory instrument.
[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1951), dated 29 November 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2 December 2015, be annulled.]
Therefore, according to the Leader of the House’s own promise to this House, we should be having a debate in this Chamber. But that is not what is happening, is it? Instead, he has arranged for the only debate to be held not in this House, but in a Committee at 11.30 this morning. Because it is in a Committee, even if every single member of that Committee voted against the motion, it would still pass into law. That is not democracy; that is government by diktat.
Let me be absolutely clear that this should not be introduced by secondary legislation. This is a major change that will deprive around half a million of England’s poorest students of maintenance grants, forcing them to graduate with debt—[Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House is talking a whole load of guff. If she does not know the rules of this House, she should go and get another job. Those students will be forced to graduate with debts of up to £53,000 for a three-year course, rather than £40,500 at present. Therefore, as a man of his word, will the Leader of the House now ensure that there is a proper debate and vote in this House before 23 January?
That brings me to the curious case of the missing ministerial backbone. I thought that Ministers were men of integrity and principle, and that when they believed in something, they would fight for it. Last week I suggested that it was time the Leader of the House came out as an outer. There is a vacancy, because the outers want a leader. Surely the time has come—“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” Come on down, Leader of the House, the new leader of the Out campaign. Mr Speaker, you heard it here first.
I am delighted that the Leader of the House has started to take my advice. He has even written a piece for The Daily Telegraph about it. I was hoping for a proper, full-throated, Eurosceptic, intellectual argument from him. But oh no; it is the most mealy-mouthed, myth-peddling, facing-both-ways piece of pedestrian journalism that has ever come from his pen. What is the phrase from the Bible? It is,
“because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”
I know that the Leader of the House was born on 1 April, but he cannot treat all of us like fools. I know that he is desperate to keep his place in the Cabinet, and even—God bless us!—become leader of the Tory party, but this is becoming a farce. He is pretending to support the Prime Minister’s renegotiation strategy, when really he is desperate to burst out of his pink shirt and mount the barricades with the banner of English nationalism. Apparently the Business Secretary is going to pretend that he is in favour of leaving the EU in order to bolster the prospects of his favourite candidate for leader, the Chancellor.
But this really is not a game. It is not about the leadership prospects of one or other Tory Minister; it is about our constituents’ jobs and our standing as a nation. It is the most important decision that this country will make in this generation. The Leader of the House says that it would be disastrous for us to stay in the EU. I say that it would be disastrous for us to leave. It would abandon our historic destiny at the heart of Europe, it would leave our economy on the sidelines of the largest market in the world, and it would undermine the battle against environmental degradation, international crime and terrorism. You leave; I’m staying.
First, may I endorse the shadow Leader of the House’s words about the Scottish Secretary? As a colleague of his, I am very proud of the statement he made yesterday. I also send the good wishes of this House to the people of Indonesia, after this morning’s dreadful terrorist attack. I also wish you, Mr Speaker, a happy birthday for next week.
I also wish to thank you, Mr Speaker, and all the Clerks for the work you all did to ensure that the first England and Welsh Grand Committee, held under the new Standing Orders, passed smoothly on Tuesday. In our manifesto we committed to introducing English votes for English laws, and we have now delivered that. Those of us on the Government side of the House thought—I suspect that you did, too, Mr Speaker—that it was a tad ironic that the longest contribution we heard in that debate was from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). His claim that he was being excluded from the debate seemed a little on the hollow side.
I remind hon. Members that the Joint Committee considering the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster is currently consulting Members and staff who work in the Palace, with a closing date of 26 January. There will also be consultation with members of the Committee and Members and staff in both Houses. I encourage any Member with an interest in the project to take part in the consultation.
Let me now turn to the shadow Leader of the House. Today we have heard another seven-minute rhetorical flourish from the hon. Gentleman, with his usual wit and repartee. But what on earth does he think he is doing? He represents Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Last week, on the day that Kim Jong-un announced that he had developed a hydrogen bomb, the hon. Gentleman was joined at the shadow Cabinet table by a shadow Defence Secretary who believes that we should unilaterally disarm our nuclear defences. He sits alongside a shadow Chancellor who attended an event with the organisation, CAGE, which has claimed that Jihadi John was a “kind and beautiful young man”.
The hon. Gentleman works for a man who sacked the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) for having the effrontery to criticise terrorists. Over the past week, we have seen several more junior members of his Front Bench have the courage to stand up to a situation that most people in this House regard as utterly distasteful and wrong. They gave up their places on the Front Bench while the hon. Gentleman and more senior people clung on to their jobs. So it is all very well his coming here on a Thursday morning and cracking a few jokes, but I have a simple question for him: given the disgraceful turn of events in the Labour party, what on earth is he still doing here?
May I call on the Leader of the House to hold an urgent debate in Government time on the recommendations that have been made today by the Women and Equalities Committee in our first report on trans rights and the real problems that trans people face in Britain today? The Government need to take swift action on these problems, and a debate on the Floor of the House would demonstrate the commitment of the whole House to resolving them.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work she is doing. I am proud to be a part of a Government who are leading the way in addressing equalities issues, and she reflects the best of this House in also doing so. Of course, the Government will consider very carefully the report that she has brought forward this morning. I commend her and the Committee for this work. I have no doubt that she may also look to the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that there is an opportunity for the House to debate her report.
I, too, thank the leader of the Eurosceptics and putative leader of the “Britain out” campaign for announcing the business for next week.
It is like the proverbial bus, Mr Speaker—you wait decades for a nasty, brutal, inter-party civil war to come along, and two come at once. I listened very carefully to the Leader of the House’s mild-mannered right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) lambasting him today for his Euroscepticism. This is serious for us in Scotland. It is quite likely that our nation may be pulled out of Europe against its will. We need to hear a statement from the Leader of the House to say that he will respect the views of Scotland on this issue. Meantime, it is popcorn time here for me and my hon. Friends as we watch both the UK parties not only knock lumps out of each other but knock lumps out of themselves.
Earlier this week, I felt pretty much like an international observer as the first meeting of the English Parliament got right down to business. It was quite a remarkable event—the first time a quasi-English Parliament has met since the 18th century. We had to make sure it was done properly, and what did the Government do? They put signs in the Lobbies saying “England and Wales”. We looked in vain for the “No dogs and no Scots” signs, but thankfully they were not there. Suspending the House’s business while you, Mr Speaker, had to go and seek out the Clerks to see if something needed to be re-certified is no way for one of the great Parliaments of the world to conduct its business. [Hon. Members: “Once great.”] Indeed, a once-great Parliament, as my hon. Friends say. It was a sad day for any notion or idea of a unitary Parliament of the United Kingdom being a place where all Members are equal. I am sure that the Scottish people were observing these events where their Members of Parliament, who they had so recently elected, became second-class and diminished in this nation. There is real anger in Scotland; a Union-saving exercise this is not.
There was a written statement from the Secretary of State for Scotland—who I, too, congratulate on the dignified way in which he announced his sexuality this week—that ruled out a post-study work scheme for Scotland. Now, let us forget about the fact that a post-study work scheme is wanted by all the higher education institutions in Scotland, all the business organisations, all the employer organisations and even the Scottish Conservatives; the Scottish Affairs Committee, which I chair, is currently undertaking an inquiry, with a report, on post-study work schemes. That report is made practically irrelevant because of that written statement. What do we have to do in Select Committees now? Should we seek a statement from the relevant Department before we undertake such inquiries? That written statement was a gross discourtesy and showed gross disrespect to a Select Committee of this House, so I am interested to hear the Leader of House’s view on these things.
This has been a week when the real Opposition—the new Opposition—have established themselves in this House. It was us who led the opposition to EVEL, as the Leader of the House noted, it was us who had the debate on trade and the economy and it will be us leading the two important debates today, including the one on space. You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker, and I was devastated at the news of the death of David Bowie this week. I saw him several times. We have lost an absolute musical icon in this country. One of the things that thrilled me—and, I am sure, thrilled my hon. Friends on the Benches behind me—was an endorsement from Sulu from “Star Trek” for our space debate today. That shows that when Labour and the Conservatives are ripping themselves apart, it is the Scottish National party that is boldly going where no party has gone before.
The hon. Gentleman’s party was of course previously led by one of this House’s foremost Trekkies, so there is probably a juxtaposition there.
I have to say, as I always do on these occasions, that I have the greatest regard for the hon. Gentleman, but he does talk an awful lot of nonsense at times. The first thing to say is that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and I have been friends for more than 25 years and we will carry on being friends. The difference between those of us on the Conservative Benches and those on the Labour Benches is that when we have a debate, we do it with good grace. When Labour Members do it, it is because they hate each other—and they really do hate each other, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the real Opposition, and it still baffles me how those who purport to be sensible figures in the shambles that is the Labour party today can hold their heads high and still sit on the Opposition Front Bench representing a leadership that I regard as being utterly beyond the pale and something we should keep completely away from ever having the chance to run this country.
Let me return to the hon. Gentleman’s propensity to exaggerate just a little bit. I have to say that his comments about the debate on Tuesday did not really ring true. The idea that he is excluded from the debate—a debate in which, if I remember rightly, he spoke for the best part of half an hour, to the great enjoyment of my hon. Friends, who enjoyed his rhetorical flourishes enormously —is, I am afraid, stretching the point just a little bit. I remind him that every poll that has been conducted in Scotland says that the Scottish people support a fair devolution settlement for Scotland and for England, and that is what we are delivering.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the Scottish Secretary. I would also like to extend the thanks of myself and my colleagues to the Scottish First Minister and other leading figures in his party, who also made some very gracious statements about the Scottish Secretary yesterday. We all very much appreciated that.
On the post-study work scheme, it is right and proper that we have a managed immigration system. People can come to this country to do a graduate-level job, but it is also right and proper that we have appropriate safeguards in place. That is what our electors expect, it is what we will deliver and have delivered in government, and it is what electors across the United Kingdom—of which, happily, we are all still part—all want us to do.
I am glad that the European Scrutiny Committee, with all-party support, forced the Government to cancel the European Standing Committee on the ports regulation, which may yet continue to damage 350,000 jobs in the United Kingdom. This is a vital national interest. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the issue must be debated on the Floor of the House and voted on? Furthermore, does he accept that, because of the European Union arrangements, the Government are effectively in a position where they can only wring their hands or accept either a majority vote or a seedy compromise, and that this is a perfect example of why so many people in this country want to leave the European Union?
Raising an issue in business questions can be effective and I hope that my hon. Friend will take comfort from the fact that his raising this issue last week has led to the changes he suggested. The Chief Whip and I have been talking about how to address what are issues for many hon. Members. We will, of course, revert to them shortly and I thank my hon. Friend for the work he has done in raising this and other issues.
My constituents have been suffering all week from cancelled trains because of a landslide on our local rail line. Can we have a statement from the Transport Secretary, because the knock-on effect is complete chaos on all lines? People have received no information from Southeastern about when the service is likely to be reinstated and they are suffering trying to get to and from work. Businesses are also suffering, so we really need someone to get a grip of the situation.
I absolutely understand the problems that such events cause the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and, indeed, others. Other parts of the network have also suffered in recent weeks because of extreme weather. I will make sure that his concerns are drawn to the attention of the Transport Secretary this morning. The Transport Secretary will be here in 10 days’ time, but the issue is clearly urgent so I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns are passed on immediately.
My accent states my interest, although I believe a declaration is not necessarily required. Will my right hon. Friend persuade the Government to have a debate on the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth, particularly the old Commonwealth? I have just returned from visiting New Zealand. It is definitely there and I am very conscious that, in our drive to reduce immigration, the UK is losing out on highly educated English-speaking people, generally graduates, who have very much to offer this nation in health, education, agriculture, banking, research, the armed forces and—dare I say it?—even rugby. There are kith and kin issues with such nations. They have stood with us—and they continue to stand with us today—in major and less major wars. We need to recognise that.
My hon. Friend has family roots in and originates from New Zealand, so he has a particular understanding of the issue. Of course, we try to maintain a sensible balance in our immigration system. It is necessary, right and proper to have controls. At the same time, we have routes for experienced people to come to this country and work. Many from Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Commonwealth have done so over many years. I am sure that Home Office Ministers will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments and that they will do their best to take as pragmatic an approach as they can, but he will understand that there have to be limitations—our electors expect it.
Given that the abolition of student grants will hit 500,000 university students from the poorest backgrounds, can the Leader of the House explain why it will not be debated on the Floor of the House? People in my constituency certainly did not vote for those on the Government Benches, and their democracy is under assault.
The statutory instrument will follow the usual route. If it is prayed against, it will not pass without a vote of the whole House, and it will be debated again in this House, which is more than just this Chamber. The Labour party, as I have just announced, has a number of Opposition days coming up. If this is a significant enough issue, I suggest to the hon. Lady that she encourage her Front-Bench colleagues to bring it to the Floor of the House.
The Minsk agreement is supposed to settle the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Part of the agreement says that all illegally held persons should be released or exchanged. Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate and join me in calling for the release of Nadiya Savchenko, who is a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament and of the Council of Europe?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I hope that due consideration will be given to it by those involved in the detention, and I am sure that my Foreign Office colleagues are aware of and are pursuing the issue. Clearly, we want a peaceful situation between Russia and Ukraine and for all areas of dispute to be resolved quickly.
Last October, the Government hosted a steel summit at which the UK steel industry laid out the urgent actions it needed them to take to protect it in extremely challenging times. Can we have an update from Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers on how fast the Government are acting? Although there has been some movement on energy costs, many areas still need Government action and the situation is critical.
Obviously, this is an ongoing concern for Members, and not just those with steel concerns in their constituencies. I will certainly ask for an update from my colleagues in the Business Department. They are not due back in this House soon, so I will ask them if they will write to the hon. Lady with an update. There was due to be a Westminster Hall debate on steel this afternoon, but I believe that the Member who secured it has withdrawn it, which is a shame. I have no doubt there will be other opportunities to debate the issue shortly.
In the light of my right hon. Friend’s important article in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, will he organise an early debate in Government time on the issue of ever closer union and on how to ensure legally that the European Court of Justice and EU majority voting rules cannot prevent this sovereign Parliament from being able to exercise its sovereignty in future?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. That is one of the things that the Prime Minister has put at the heart of his renegotiation. When he returns from the Council in February, or whenever the negotiation reaches a conclusion, he will undoubtedly include it in the package he will put forward. The people of this country can then judge whether the package is sufficient for their future to be in the European Union or to leave it. I suspect that there will be a lively debate.
There are many reports in the media today that a mini-beast has spoken on the subject of Brexit. Has the Leader of the House considered making time available for his own mini-personal statement to update the House on the views of his constituents who work in the EU, whose children aspire to study or work in the EU, who have homes in the EU, who want to retire to EU countries or who are EU citizens about the impact of Brexit on their ambitions and opportunities?
Following my right hon. Friend’s important contribution to the EU debate today, may we have a wider debate in the House on the merits of leaving or of remaining in the European Union? In such a debate, we would be able to see that the only arguments of those who want to remain in are scaremongering arguments. We would also be able to see that those most enthusiastic about our membership of the EU are exactly the same people who were most enthusiastic for this country to join the euro. They include the shadow Leader of the House, who, despite loving the sound of his own voice, seems to be very reticent about his past enthusiasm for joining the euro.
Oh, it is.
My hon. Friend makes his point with his customarily articulate and strong views. He is right about the debate that lies ahead. There will undoubtedly be extensive discussions in the House and around the country as, over the coming months, both politicians and, more importantly, the public as a whole decide where the future of this country lies.
When can we debate what the Daily Mirror has described as the “gravy train” of 25 former Ministers in the previous Government who are enjoying lucrative jobs in areas that they once regulated, and of the five former Select Committee Chairs who have jobs in firms on which they once adjudicated? Is that gravy train not bringing this House into disrepute, because of the feeling that people are hawking their insider knowledge to the highest bidder? Last week, the right hon. Gentleman said that he was happy with the situation and that all is fine. Previous holders of his office have led in making reforms in the House. When will he, as Leader of the House, start to lead?
In response to the issues raised in the Daily Mirror article, there is of course one simple two-word answer: Tony Blair. As I said to the hon. Gentleman last week, there are plenty of opportunities for him to raise his concerns with the relevant Committees of this House. I suggested last week that he should do so. I am sure that he will make his point and seek the changes to the rules for which he is asking.
Drum Hill in my constituency has served scouting and other uniformed organisations and community groups for 90 years. A 45-year-old wooden building, which is collapsing, is to be demolished, which will leave the organisations with the problem of raising funds to replace it. Will my right hon. Friend facilitate a debate in which we can explore how such big society organisations that serve the wider community are able to access funding to replace much-loved facilities?
I pay tribute to the volunteers in my hon. Friend’s constituency, who are clearly doing a fantastic job of working with and providing opportunities for young people. Every one of us as constituency MPs has a story to tell about voluntary sector groups, whether the scouts or other groups, doing fantastic work to help our young people. One thing that I hope the Backbench Business Committee will do with the time available to it is hold one or two annual debates, such as one to celebrate our voluntary sector. I think that would be in tune with the wishes of this House and it would provide precisely the opportunity that my hon. Friend has just asked for.
With more job losses announced in Aberdeen this week, the UK Government need to take action to ensure that a drive for increased productivity in the North sea does not come at the expense of health and safety on the rigs. When can we hear a ministerial statement on this matter?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The North sea oil industry remains very important to the United Kingdom. It is, of course, under great pressure because of the fall in the oil price. We do not wish to see safety standards in the North sea compromised as a result. We will debate the Energy Bill next week, which contains measures that we believe will bring costs down for the energy industry. All of us should work together to do everything we can to help that industry through what is clearly a difficult time.
I pay tribute to Sir Albert McQuarrie, a great parliamentarian who died yesterday.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the impact of the c2c timetable changes on Southend commuters? There are health and safety issues such as overcrowding, lack of seats and the slow delivery of passengers to Fenchurch Street. I shall be joining passengers in a non-violent demonstration tonight at Fenchurch Street at 5.30.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his continuing work on behalf of his constituents. The questions that we have had about Eltham and his line to Southend show that there is work to be done by our train companies in ensuring that they deliver the best possible service. The Secretary of State for Transport will be here in 10 days’ time to take questions. I am sure that my hon. Friend will take advantage of that opportunity to raise this issue again. As I said to the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of the concerns he has raised today.
As a Greater Manchester constituency MP, I am really concerned that Greater Manchester fire and rescue service has been treated disproportionately once again, when compared with other fire and rescue services across the country. The £16 million of cuts equates to the removal of 16 fire engines from action on the streets of Greater Manchester. These are the very engines and community heroes who responded to the recent floods in our city region. Will the Minister grant Government time to debate the cuts that are being imposed on Greater Manchester fire and rescue service following the comprehensive spending review?
Of course, it is our hope and belief that as we unify many of the aspects of the workings of our emergency services, including the sharing of political leadership through police and crime commissioners, that will provide an opportunity to deliver savings while ensuring that we protect front-line services. That is the approach that we are taking. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office will work to try to ensure that that happens. There is no option but to take tough decisions to address our financial challenges. We are doing so in a way that we believe will make efficiencies without affecting services.
May we have a debate on the activities of Network Rail in landscape-sensitive areas, such as the area of outstanding natural beauty in which the Goring gap sits? Nobody wants to hold up electrification, but sensitivity in such areas over the installations that are used to carry the electrification wires would be very much appreciated.
I am aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. Indeed, I walked through the Goring gap recently and saw the work that is taking place on the line. The electrification of the Great Western main line is great news for people in his constituency and, indeed, in south Wales, so it will be of benefit to the constituents of the shadow Leader of the House. It is long overdue. When Labour was in power, only 10 miles of railway were electrified. We are now doing the job properly. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that Network Rail needs to be careful and thoughtful in areas of outstanding natural beauty to ensure that this essential work does not damage the landscape.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), in the wake of recent floods there have been calls for flooding to be made a statutory responsibility of fire authorities. The answer from the Government seems to be that if there is an emergency such as flooding and the fire brigade are called, it will attend—which, of course, it will. However, fire brigades attended fires for many years before it was considered a good idea to make it a statutory responsibility for them to do so. Is the Department for Communities and Local Government likely to make a statement to determine whether it is examining that issue, because at some point in future flooding ought to be a statutory responsibility of the fire service?
I have high regard for the hon. Gentleman and his work in this House, but I am afraid that we simply disagree on this issue. The idea that we need to pass a law to tell the emergency services to respond to emergencies would be a waste of Parliament’s time, utterly unnecessary, and frankly insulting to a group of professionals who work hard on our behalf, day in, day out, and week in, week out.
A record 10.2 million passengers passed through Birmingham international airport in 2015. With all the attention currently on Heathrow, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the positive economic contribution of the UK’s regional airports, and how the Government could further support them?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Birmingham airport is an essential part of the midlands economy. It has been particularly encouraging to see the development of routes between Birmingham and far-off parts of the world where there are strong business links, such as the Indian subcontinent and the middle east. That has been helped by the work of local Members of Parliament, who have argued in support of the economic development of the area. My colleagues in the Department for Transport regard this issue as immensely important, and they will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has said. I know they will continue to work alongside him and other midlands MPs in an attempt to continue the successful development of that airport.
What message does the Leader of the House believe he is sending to young people watching our proceedings today, when a Government elected with a majority of just 12 on a minority share of the vote, and with no manifesto commitment, in a Committee that most of our constituents will never have heard of, abolish student grants, which will hit the poorest students the hardest?
The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is unfortunately indisposed; we send him our best wishes for a speedy recovery. On behalf of him and the Committee, may I invite Members to apply for the opportunity to secure a Backbench Business Committee debate, as the Leader of the House has just set out? We currently do not have a huge amount of requests for debates. Through your good offices, Mr Speaker, may I ask Members to complete the forms thoroughly, and to follow the guidelines so that the process is speeded up?
One current concern is that the transport unions are threatening three further strikes on the London underground, which will bring misery to commuters across London. May we have an urgent statement on what is to be done to prevent that action from inconveniencing commuters and disrupting the business of London?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he and his colleagues on the Backbench Business Committee are doing, and I echo his call to Members. We are making a lot of time available to that Committee; there are sections of time during the parliamentary week, and over the next couple of weeks a day and a half or even two days are available for debates such as that on the rail sector which has just been raised. I hope that Members who are raising issues to be debated, as my hon. Friend has just done, will look on the Backbench Business Committee as a vehicle to bring those matters to the attention of Ministers and before the House in order to address them.
In my written question No. 20725 I asked the Chancellor
“what discussions his Department had with financial institutions prior to the introduction of new rules for Tier 1 Entrepreneur visas in January 2013.”
The subsequent response said simply that the Government have met financial institutions many times since 2013, which is completely inadequate. Can the Leader of the House assist me in getting a more substantial written response?
If that had been raised as a point of order, you would offer advice to be persistent, Mr Speaker, and to keep asking questions that are more specifically targeted on individual groups, people, institutions or meetings. The City Minister, or those Ministers involved in migration matters, have regular meetings with representative groups and will discuss such issues on a regular basis. The hon. Lady should not think that such matters are not discussed, because they are.
A recent report on UK consumer spending found that 2015 was the second strongest year since 2008. Such figures are encouraging and are reflected in my constituency. May we have a debate on the steps that need to be taken to ensure that this positive trend continues?
My hon. Friend’s question speaks for itself as a sign of continued economic progress. It is encouraging that we are seeing that economic progress in the midlands and in the north, where the economy has been growing faster than the economy in the south. There is a lot of work still to do. We have a lot of ground still to cover, but we are making good progress. The country is moving in the right direction. All I can say is thank goodness that it is we who are steering the country at a difficult time, rather than the Labour party with a set of economic policies that would be disastrous.
Despite the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ stating, in response to my question on 5 November, that she would be happy to discuss the future of the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and despite a number of emails chasing a response, the matter remains unresolved. Given that Members across the House showed support for the unit at an event last week, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the issue in the near future?
This is a matter of concern and I understand the issues. Wildlife crimes in this country are not just those that take place within the United Kingdom. We all wish to see the smuggling of rare species, bush meat and products from endangered species stamped out. I will follow up the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he has not received a response, I will seek to ensure he receives one quickly after today’s debate.
EU membership is particularly unpopular in my constituency because of the damaging impact of the common fisheries policy. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to reassure my constituents that reform of the CFP is taking place during the renegotiations?
I absolutely understand the concerns my hon. Friend raises. The fishing industry is enormously important to his constituency, as it is to the constituency of the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). It is a long-standing and important part of the economy in their part of the world. There have been many calls over the years for more responsibility for the fishing sector to be taken at a local level. The Prime Minister has set the principle of subsidiarity at the heart of his renegotiation. Whatever the outcome of the renegotiation and the referendum, I think we can all agree that decisions should not be taken at a level above that which is necessary.
Yesterday, I and colleagues from the Energy and Climate Change Committee met the Vice-President of the EU Commission, Maroš Šefcovic, and I asked him about the European Union’s position on Chinese market economy status. He said that that debate had to happen and that the decision would be taken in autumn. Energy-intensive industries such as steel, chemical processing and manufacturing are really relying on that decision. Why is it still the case, and may we have a statement on why it is still the case that the Government, irrespective of whether we will be a member of the EU or not, are backing Chinese market economy status without any clarification or qualification?
It is clear that China is one of the largest economies in the world. It is a country with which we have historical links. It is right and proper that we engage with China economically. China has also, as we saw at the recent Paris summit, now recognised the imperative of addressing environmental issues. Thanks to the work of several international figures, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the outcome of the summit has started the world on a path going in the right direction.
MidKent College in my constituency is doing a phenomenal amount of work to encourage and promote apprenticeships. It informs me that its greatest challenge is to ensure that young people and their parents see apprenticeships as a good and viable alternative to university. May we have an urgent statement on the Floor of the House on what the Government are doing to assist colleges such as MidKent to promote apprenticeships as an equally valuable career option?