House of Commons
Wednesday 20 January 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Last week, the Secretary of State and I met the Executive parties to review the implementation of the Stormont House and fresh start agreements, and the economic pact. Commitments include devolving corporation tax and rate-setting powers, if sustainable Executive finances are secured. This has the potential to have a truly transformational impact on the local economy.
I congratulate the ministerial team and the Department on their success in the creation of the economic pact, which has such a direct impact on Northern Ireland. What further steps can be taken to ensure that the Executive remain focused on how they can deliver those objectives?
The best thing we can do is to celebrate the fact that, under the recent spending review, the Chancellor put in place measures to see a 12% rise in real-terms funding for capital projects by 2021. That will mean over £600 million more will be available than if we had frozen funding at 2015-16 levels. That is good news for Northern Ireland infrastructure. Hopefully, it will mean the A5 and the A6 will start to progress and we can open up Northern Ireland for more foreign investment.
9. Does the Minister agree with the CBI and the trade union movement that the UK’s exit from the European Union would be damaging to economic development in Northern Ireland? Will he encourage his colleague the Secretary of State to argue for a yes vote? (903083)
There is a temptation in front of me. What I would say is that to date membership of the European Union has been good for Northern Ireland. I support the Prime Minister’s efforts to achieve reform. A reformed EU is where the United Kingdom wants to be: an EU that works for the benefit of everyone in the United Kingdom. If we can achieve that, we can take advantage of being neighbours of Ireland, one of Northern Ireland’s biggest economic partners, to make sure that the economy goes from strength to strength.
Later this week I will have the pleasure of visiting Royal Portrush golf course in Northern Ireland, which has been awarded the 2019 Open golf championship for the first time since 1951. Does the Minister agree that this is a tremendous achievement and opportunity for Northern Ireland? Will he work closely with the Executive and the golf club to ensure that it is a success similar to that in Scotland last year, which brought £140 million into the economy?
I am struck by how much effort Northern Ireland has made in trying to secure becoming the new home of golf. The marketing and promotion of golf courses in Northern Ireland is a real strength. [Interruption.] I know Scottish nationalists are so insecure about everything that they may take issue with that, but what is good for Northern Ireland and golf is also good for golf in Scotland. It will go from strength to strength. Major sporting events, whether horse-racing or golf, bring in real money in today’s economy.
I am sure we all look forward to visiting the Open in 2019.
Further to the Minister’s answer on infrastructure, will he undertake to speak to the National Infrastructure Commission and Treasury colleagues about transport links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? This is an important issue. Infrastructure spending is vital for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. This would be a very good way to ensure that more investment came to Northern Ireland.
I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are determined to maintain air links. For example, when British Airways purchased Aer Lingus, we both had conversations with it over the past few months to ensure there was no degrading of the service provided to people at both main airports in Northern Ireland. We will work very hard, in partnership with the Executive, to maintain it. We should also point out that today’s economic figures for Northern Ireland are tremendously successful. It is the eighth successive month of growth, according to the Ulster bank purchase managers’ index. Over the year, the claimant count is down by 11,000 in Northern Ireland, a fall of 22.1%, outstripping the rest of the United Kingdom.
I join the Minister in welcoming that news, and I certainly pay tribute to colleagues on the Northern Ireland Executive for their excellent work on the economy and the new First Minister’s commitment to making economic growth her first priority.
At the last Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State undertook to speak to the Chancellor about linking Northern Ireland to the northern powerhouse. This is a very important initiative, and I would welcome any news of progress on that front. Will the Minister update the House?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has spoken to the Chancellor, who I think is considering the matter as we speak. I fully support the initiative. As a Lancashire MP, I certainly know the importance of our links with the west, including the Isle of Man and Belfast, via the ferry at Heysham, for example. I think we can both work to our mutual advantage on the northern powerhouse.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) about EU membership, would the Minister care to comment on a study by an Irish think-tank last year that said:
“Estimates…suggest that a Brexit could reduce bilateral trade flows between Ireland and the UK by 20 per cent.”
“the expected impact of Brexit is likely to be more significant for Northern Irish exporters to Ireland”?
The Minister will know that there is very real concern in Northern Ireland about the impact of withdrawal from the EU on trade, investment and funding for various projects, as other Members have already mentioned. An Economic and Social Research Institute report at the end of 2015 said that a Brexit would have “very serious consequences” for the Northern Ireland economy. Has he discussed this matter with the Northern Ireland Executive?
Obviously I have regular discussions with Ministers in the Executive and the south of Ireland. Of course, an economic free zone in the EU, which we are part of, is important to our trade, not only for England but in Northern Ireland. The ability of the 34,000 businesses in Northern Ireland to trade without barriers across the border to the south is very important to its economy. That is why the Prime Minister wants Britain to remain in a reformed EU. The first thing we can do is wait to see what those reforms are.
Notwithstanding that, the Minister will know there are very serious concerns in Northern Ireland about a possible Brexit, particularly because it is the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU country. Will he reassure the Executive and the people of Northern Ireland on this matter, in view of the mixed messages on Brexit emanating from the ministerial team? In particular, I am talking about his views, as opposed to the Secretary of State’s.
There is no mixed message. Both I and my right hon. Friend are keen for the EU to produce some reforms, as is the Prime Minister in his strategy. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman knows—perhaps he has a special hotline—what reforms the EU will agree. When those reforms are presented to the House, we will be able to make a decision. For my part, I believe that in the past membership of the EU has been good for Northern Ireland.
The cross-party talks in 2014 and 2015 have brought us closer than ever to a consensus on the best way to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. I will work with the Northern Ireland parties, representatives of victims and survivors and the Irish Government to try to build the support needed to enable legislation to be brought forward to establish the bodies envisaged in the Stormont House agreement.
Former Eastbourne MP Ian Gow, who was murdered by the Provisional IRA, was remembered last year at a public speaking competition organised in my constituency to remember and celebrate his life and legacy, his courage and his conviction. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with schools in Northern Ireland to deal with the legacy of the past and bring about change in community relations?
My hon. Friend’s predecessor was a great parliamentarian, and I am sure the whole House will join her in thinking sadly of the atrocity that led to his death. The UK Government strongly support the programmes in Northern Ireland designed to build a shared society, many of which impact on schools and colleges. As a way of addressing the remaining difficulties, it is vital that we do all we can to break down past divisions so that sectarianism becomes entirely a thing of the past in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State will be aware that, sadly, there was no agreement on how to move the legacy issue forward, but money has been set aside, particularly for the proposed historical investigations unit. We have 3,000 unsolved murders in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State at least make some of that extra resource available to the PSNI’s legacy unit to enable it to re-examine some of the pressing cases? People are getting older and they deserve justice.
As the right hon. Gentleman points out, the UK Government have committed significant sums to support dealing with the legacy of the past as we have in relation to shared society projects, to which I referred earlier. Our starting point is that the £150 million for bodies to deal with the past is intended for new bodies such as the historical investigations unit or the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, but we remain open to a dialogue with the Executive on whether it would be possible to use any of those moneys in advance of those new bodies being set up. It is vital that they are set up.
Will my right hon. Friend update us on what is happening to Soldier J and other former soldiers who were involved in the events in Londonderry on 30 January 1972, and tell us whether they continue to face prosecution? Let me impress it on my right hon. Friend that this is not simply a matter for the judicial authorities; it is a matter for her, and it is a matter of public policy for it is contrary to the interests of natural justice that men who have served their country should still, 44 years on, be facing possible prosecution.
I fully appreciate my hon. Friend’s grave concerns about this case. He will appreciate, however, that matters relating to police investigations and prosecutions are taken independently of Government and independently of politicians. My understanding is that that investigation continues.
Referring to the Secretary of State’s earlier answer, I have to say that it is all very well—I do not for a minute doubt her good intentions; nor would any other Member—but when will we actually hear some dates and some details? When will the legislation she mentions be brought to the Floor of the House, particularly in respect of those aspects of fresh start where there is agreement? How long must the victims continue to wait?
We hope to bring forward legislation fairly soon on those aspects of the fresh start and Stormont House agreements that have been agreed. The timing is less certain in respect of the legacy bodies because we were not able to build the consensus necessary for legislation. We did, however, close the gap on many issues. A key issue still to resolve is how the veto relating to national security will operate. I am determined to work with all sides to find a way forward. We have to protect our national security interests, but we will do all we can to ensure that that veto is exercised fairly in all circumstances.
As well as asking the Secretary of State to recalibrate her fixation on the national security issues, may I also ask her to consider using the current delay at least to allow for qualitative pre-legislative scrutiny of what will be sensitive legislation when it comes forward?
It is important to use this period constructively to engage with victims groups in particular. I had very useful discussions with the Victims’ Commissioner and with the Victims and Survivors Forum. We will consider in due course whether publication of documentation is appropriate. It is vital that we press ahead and build consensus to get these bodies set up and running.
The fresh start agreement reaffirmed the Government’s support for devolution of corporation tax powers, so long as the Executive are able to demonstrate that their finances are on a long-term sustainable footing.
I fully agree that the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland provides huge opportunities to attract new business and inward investment and to boost the economy. My hon. Friend is right, however, that it needs to be accompanied by broader economic reform, such as a focus on skills, universities and infrastructure.
While the devolution of corporation tax will be important in growing the Northern Ireland economy, does the Secretary of State agree that a vote to leave the EU would help the Northern Ireland economy insofar as it would release £18 billion every year for expenditure on public services, enable us to enter a trade agreement with growing parts of the world and release us from the stifling bureaucracies of Europe?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is tempting me to engage in arguments which will rightly be a matter for everyone in the country when they have an opportunity to vote in the referendum. We promised a referendum in our manifesto, and that is what we are going to deliver.
Does the Secretary of State agree that existing cuts in university funding, followed by further cuts, and a consequent significant reduction in the number of graduates who are suitably qualified to become employees of the inward investment companies that we are trying to attract, will frustrate much of the benefit that is expected from the reduction in corporation tax?
There is no doubt that the Northern Ireland Executive face difficult decisions, as do all Governments at a time when budgets are constrained. I believe it is important to focus on crucial economic areas such as skills, university and infrastructure. Perhaps there is a debate to be had about the way in which higher education is funded in Northern Ireland, but that, of course, is a devolved matter for devolved representatives.
4. What steps the Government are taking to reduce cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. (903078)
Along with the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, the United Kingdom Government recently announced the creation of a joint agency taskforce to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime. It will enhance law enforcement co-operation in relation to, for instance, crime linked to paramilitaries.
It does. The fresh start agreement allocates £25 million for tackling paramilitary-related crime and £3 million for a new monitoring body, but it provides substantial additional funds for more widely based shared society initiatives, which are also crucial to ending the influence of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland once and for all.
We all know that, unfortunately, many organised crime groups on the island take advantage of the land border and commit the classic cross-border crimes of smuggling and excise evasion. The proceeds of those activities often go towards funding dissident groups. What efforts are my right hon. Friend and her ministerial team making to introduce preventive measures to eradicate such activities?
In Northern Ireland, huge efforts are being made by the PSNI to prevent the border from being exploited by criminals, and those efforts will be enhanced by the new joint agency taskforce, building on the excellent work already done by the police services both north and south of the border in recent years.
Obviously, everyone would like to see more convictions. A crucial aspect of the fresh start agreement is the Executive’s commitment to measures that will reduce the time that it takes to bring people to trial, because convictions are more likely to be secured if trials take place in a timely manner. I am sure the Executive will take the implementation of that crucial part of the agreement very seriously.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The Secretary of State will know that the Treasury has already announced the closure of a number of HMRC offices throughout Northern Ireland. Given that HMRC does a very valiant job in tackling cross-border crime, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give the people of Northern Ireland that those efforts will not be reduced if the offices are closed?
I am entirely confident that the changes relating to HMRC offices will not affect HMRC’s ability to tackle cross-border crime. Indeed, we will see an enhanced effort, not least because, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), the proceeds of that kind of crime can end up in the hands of terrorists.
VAT: Tourism and Hospitality
The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Treasury Ministers, including the Chancellor. The Government have concluded that a VAT cut for the tourism and hospitality sectors could not produce sufficient economic growth to outweigh the revenue shortfall. It would need to be funded either by additional borrowing or by the raising of other taxes, both of which are likely to have a negative effect on the economy.
The case was successfully made for corporation tax, and rightly so, to attract investment into Northern Ireland. Surely a case could be made, for tourism and hospitality in Northern Ireland, to reduce VAT, especially in respect of the golf clubs, where there is an anomaly across the board?
I do not think there are many Members who would not like to see a reduction of the tax burden. Because of our long-term economic plan and the lifting of burdens on businesses elsewhere—the small business rate relief that is also available in Northern Ireland, the corporation tax cut, the freezing of national insurance contributions and employer contributions—we hope that, at least for tourism businesses and the hospitality sector, the cost of employing people and the other burdens can be lifted. That would help businesses to make their prices more competitive to encourage more people to take up the great offering of tourism in Northern Ireland.
We will try again, Mr Speaker; thank you. I have heard what the Minister said about the rate of VAT. Does he agree that it might be worth having discussions about the thresholds, which may help smaller businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector in Northern Ireland and across the rest of the UK?
Sexual Health and Family Planning
Northern Ireland Office Ministers have had no discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive on the adequacy of women’s access to sexual health and family planning services. However, Department of Health officials discuss sexual health matters with their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Departments as appropriate. Sexual health advice and services in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter.
The Minister will be aware that women in Northern Ireland can, and do, travel to England for abortions on the NHS. However, they cannot access NHS abortions; they have to pay to go privately. Does he agree that this is an inequality issue between women in Northern Ireland and women who live in, say, England?
The hon. Lady points out an interesting anomaly, and in advance of today I have asked my officials to provide clarity. I do know that there is a court case pending—or before the courts—in Northern Ireland on that very issue. It is important that we get to the bottom of the differences between living in one part of the UK and another and what NHS services are available.
In the 11 years since 2004 Northern Ireland has seen a 47% increase in new cases of HIV while on the mainland it has fallen by 20%. The same situation applies to other sexually transmitted diseases. What discussions has the Minister had—or what discussions will he have—with Health Ministers here on the mainland and in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is an overall regional strategy to address this?
I am very happy to have discussions with UK Ministers on that subject and certainly will write to my counterpart in the Executive to make sure that both we and the Executive are doing our fair share to make sure that we prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
The Government continue to work with the Executive towards rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, including through collaboration on increasing exports and trade co-operation. Northern Ireland exports were valued at £1.62 billion in the third quarter of 2015, the highest quarterly value since 2008.
We will certainly do that. Our long-term economic plan is working to boost trade within and outside the UK, as illustrated by the fact that the claimant count is down again in Northern Ireland in figures announced today. In total, since February 2013 there has been a fall of 40.2% in the claimant count in Northern Ireland.
This morning the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister in Northern Ireland announced over 50 jobs in my constituency, which is a start in an area of high unemployment. Will the Secretary of State use her influence in the Cabinet to ensure that, when there are overseas development and trade visits, Northern Ireland companies are included, to bring inward investment to Northern Ireland?
I can certainly do that. It is vital that UK Trade & Investment, in its work overseas to bring investment to the UK, champions the benefits of investing in Northern Ireland. It is a great place in which to invest, it has a tremendous record on inward investment and the UK Government are determined to see that continue.
Battle of the Somme: Commemoration
The Government’s events to mark the centenary of the battle of the Somme will be held in Thiepval, France and in Manchester on 1 July 2016. Other regional events, including in Northern Ireland, are a matter for the local authorities and local communities. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. In 1916, men from the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division displayed great courage at the Somme, despite suffering huge casualties, with almost 2,000 men killed in the first hours of 1 July. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to liaise with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to commemorate the sacrifice made by those from both sides of the border?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is committed, along with the Taoiseach, to commemorating our past with mutual respect and understanding. The Secretary of State and I are working with Ministers in the Irish Government to mark the events of this decade. I have discussed these issues with a number of officials, and I regularly meet the culture Minister, Heather Humphreys; we often attend events together, as representatives of both Governments, in remembrance of those people who died. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has visited the Somme to remember what happened there, and it is important to note that both the south and the north had a shared experience and a shared history in the first world war, with both suffering while fighting for the cause of defeating the Kaiser.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. As we reflect on the Somme and move towards the centenary of the conclusion of the first world war, will the Secretary of State or the Minister engage across government with the Prime Minister to think of a suitable national memorial restoration fund to allow us fittingly to bring our cenotaphs and memorials across this country up to standard for the centenary?
The Prime Minister was asked—
If you have worked hard for a company and helped it succeed, surely you should be allowed to benefit a little from the profits that the company makes. Does the Prime Minister therefore think it is now time for companies such as Sports Direct to follow the example of the best British businesses and allow people to benefit from a small percentage of the profits?
We have encouraged companies to have profit-sharing arrangements, and we took action in previous Budgets to do that. But we are going further than that, of course, by making sure that there is, for the first time in our country, a national living wage, which will come in in April of this year. That means the lowest-paid people in our country—people on the minimum wage—will have a 7.5% pay rise coming this April, under a Conservative Government.
Q3. With mounting global economic uncertainty, it was comforting to see this morning’s figures showing record UK employment. In this new age of kinder, consensual politics, does my right hon. Friend agree that every Member of this House should welcome the news that from North Yorkshire to north London, Britain is back in work? (903126)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; over the past year, we have seen more people in work in every region in our country, and that is welcome. This morning’s unemployment figures, which the House might not have had time to see, are very welcome. The unemployment rate is now the lowest in nearly a decade, at 5.1%; the unemployment rate is now lower than it was at the start of the recession; the latest figures show unemployment falling by another 99,000; and we have today in our country the record number of people in work ever in our history and a record number of women in work. Since I became Prime Minister we have 2.3 million more people in work, and I am sure that is something the whole House can welcome.
It is nice to get such a warm welcome. [Interruption.] If Members will allow me for one moment, let me ask the Prime Minister this question. Where in his election manifesto did he put his plan to abolish maintenance grants for all students?
First of all, people will recognise that there is no welcome for the thousands of people who have found work in our country. What a depressing spectacle. In our manifesto, we said that we would cut the deficit and uncap student numbers, and we have done both.
There is not such joy in Port Talbot and other places that have lost steel jobs. They want a Government who are prepared to support their industries. The Prime Minister has form when it comes to student maintenance grants because, in the Conservative manifesto, there was no mention—[Interruption.] Are you done?
I gently say to the Prime Minister’s dedicated Parliamentary Private Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson)—[Interruption.] Calm yourself, man. Auditioning to be a statesman does not include chuntering from a sedentary position.
As I was saying, the Prime Minister has form here, because there was no mention of tax credit cuts in the manifesto either. This proposal will affect half a million students, which is not mentioned anywhere in his manifesto. I have a question from a student by the name of Liam, who says:
“I’m training to be a mathematics teacher, and will now come out at the end of my course to debts in excess of £50,000, which is roughly twice as much as what my annual income would be”.
Why is Liam being put into such debt?
What I say to Liam is that he is now in a country with a university system that has more people going to university than ever before, and more people from low income backgrounds going to university than ever before. In addition, I say to Liam—and I wish him well—that he will not pay back a penny of his loan until he is earning £21,000. He will not start paying back in full until he is earning £35,000. Our policy will put more money in the hands of students such as him, which is why we are implementing it. By contrast, the Labour policy, which is to scrap the loans and the fees, would cost £10 billion and mean going back to a situation where people went out and worked hard and paid their taxes for an elite to go to university. We are uncapping aspiration; the Leader of the Opposition wants to put a cap on it.
I am pleased to say that Liam is trying to be a maths teacher, and that might help the Prime Minister as Liam did say that he was earning £25,000, which is more than £21,000—if that is a help. In 2010, the Prime Minister’s Government trebled tuition fees to £9,000, and defended it by saying that they would increase maintenance grants for students from less well-off backgrounds. They are now scrapping those very same grants that they used to boast about increasing. Where is the sense in doing that? Why are they abolishing those maintenance grants?
The sense in doing that is that we want to uncap university places, so that as many young people in our country who want to go to university can go to university. That is what we are doing. Before we have too much shouting from the Opposition, let me say that when they were in government, they introduced the fees and loans system. Given that this is the week that we are meant to be learning the lessons of the past election, let me read a lesson from somebody whom I rather miss. In the Times Higher Education, Mr Ed Balls wrote that
“we clearly didn’t find a sustainable way forward for the financing of higher education… If they”—
“think you’ve got the answers for the future, they’ll support you.”
In all honesty I say to the Labour party that, when it was in government, it supported fees and loans. When we were in opposition, we made the mistake that they did. If we want to be on the side of aspiration and of more university students, and if we want to help people make the most of their lives, the system that we have is working and the numbers prove it.
That is from the very same Prime Minister who is taking away the grants that are designed to help the poorest in our society to access higher education. I want to ask him about one particular group who are now being targeted by this Government: student nurses. They were not mentioned in the Government’s manifesto. The repayments that student nurses will now have to make when qualified amount to an effective pay cut of £900 for each nurse. Why is he punishing those nurses when we need them in our NHS?
First of all, there are now 6,700 more nurses than there were when I became Prime Minister. I know that the Labour party does not want to face up to difficult decisions, but let me just give the right hon. Gentleman one statistic. Two out of three people today who want to become a nurse cannot do so because of the bursary system. By introducing the loans, nurses will get more money and we will train more nurses and bring in fewer from overseas. It is good for nurses, good for the NHS and good for our country, and it is only a Labour party that is so short-sighted and anti-aspiration that cannot see it.
The Prime Minister and I would probably agree that we need to spend more and direct more resources towards dealing with the mental health crisis in this country. I have a question from somebody who wants to help us get through that crisis by becoming a mental health nurse. Vicky from York has a very real problem. She says:
“I would not have been able, or chosen, to study to be a mental health nurse without the bursary for the following reasons… I am a single mum and need support for childcare costs. I have debts from a previous degree. I am a mature student at 33. I would not take on further debts which would be impossible to pay back, and would not be fair on my daughter”.
She is somebody we need as a mental health nurse in our NHS. We are losing her skills, her dedication and her aspiration to help the entire community.
But two out of three Vickys who turn up wanting to be nurses are sent away by our current system, which means we are bringing in people from Bulgaria, Romania and the other side of the world to do nursing jobs for which we should be training British people. The British people want to train as nurses, the NHS wants more nurses, and this Government will fund those nurses, so let us help them train and improve our health service.
The problem is that the Prime Minister is expecting Vicky and others like her to fund themselves by paying back a debt or paying back from their wages in the future. I do not think that she will have been very reassured by his answers today; they will have been unconvincing to her. He was not very good at convincing the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), a nurse herself, who said:
“I would struggle to undertake my nurse training given the proposed changes to the bursary scheme.”—[Official Report, 5 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 15.]
The Prime Minister will be aware that nine out of 10 hospitals currently have a shortage of nurses. Is not what he is proposing for the nurse bursary scheme going to exacerbate the crisis, make it worse for everybody and make our NHS less effective? What is his answer to that point?
I will give the right hon. Gentleman a very direct answer: we are going to see 10,000 extra nurse degree places as a result of this policy, because we are effectively uncapping the number of people who can go into nursing. I have to say that this week has all been of a piece, with a retreat by the Labour party into the past. We have seen it with the idea of bringing back secondary picketing and flying pickets, with the idea of stopping businesses paying dividends, and with the absurd idea that nuclear submarines should go to sea without their missiles. Anyone watching this Labour party—and it is not just the leader, but the whole party now—will see that it is a risk to our national security, a risk to our economic security, a risk to our health service and a risk to the security of every family in our country.
Q5. Leicestershire and the east midlands continue to be a powerhouse of jobs and growth, attracting investment from the UK and beyond, and we are rightly proud of the success of our local businesses in Charnwood. Does my right hon. Friend believe that their continued ability to attract external and foreign investment would be helped or hindered were secondary picketing to be reintroduced? (903128)
First of all, let me say that the east midlands is a powerhouse of our economy, and in the last year we have seen employment in the east midlands go up by 17,000. I think that when businesses look at whether to invest in Britain, whether they are overseas businesses or indeed British businesses, they want to know that we are going to have good labour relations and not a return to the 1970s of secondary strikes and flying pickets. It is extraordinary that a party that spent so long trying to cast off the image of being in favour of these appalling industrial practices has now elected a leader and is backing a leader who would take us right back to the 1970s.
World attention on the conflict in the middle east is focused on Syria and Iraq, and much less so on the catastrophe in Yemen, which has caused thousands of people to lose their lives and millions of people to flee their homes. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what the UK Government are doing to support peace in Yemen?
We are doing everything we can with all the people taking part in this conflict to encourage them to get round a negotiating table, as they have done recently, in order to bring about what is necessary in Yemen, which is a Government who can represent all of the people. We have got to make sure that both Sunni and Shi’a are properly represented in that country. That is the only way that we will meet our key national interest, which is to back a Government in Yemen who will drive the terrorists, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—AQAP—out of Yemen, because they have been, and are, a direct threat to the citizens of Britain.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force, who have done that using British-built planes with pilots who are trained by British instructors, and who are dropping British-made bombs and are co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisers. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilian lives, and that he has not sought parliamentary approval to do that?
The right hon. Gentleman started in a serious place but then seriously wandered off. It is in our interest that we back the legitimate Government of Yemen, and it is right to do that. We have some of the most stringent arms control measures of any country anywhere in the world. Just to be absolutely clear about our role, we are not a member of a Saudi-led coalition. British military personnel are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations. Personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen, or selecting targets; and we are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process; but do we provide training and advice and help in order to make sure that countries actually obey the norms of humanitarian law? Yes, we do.
Q7. The recent floods in the north of England have caused untold misery to people, to householders, to farmers, and to livestock. What we need is a long-term strategy for floods. I know that the Prime Minister has done a lot of work in Somerset and across the country. Some rivers need to be dredged and some need to be slowed down, and we need to manage our floodwaters in a better way. Along with our long-term economic plan, can we have a long-term plan on floods? (903130)
We absolutely can and we do. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is doing. We have got an unprecedented six-year commitment of £2.3 billion, but as important as the money is making sure that we have an absolutely joined-up approach, as my hon. Friend says, to dredging in some places, to building flood barriers in others, and to managing the water in our landscape, including through farming practices, in a holistic way so that we are using all the resources we have to reduce the likelihood of floods.
Q2. There is concern on all sides about the recent rather patchwork approach to constitutional reform. We need a new Act of Union that sets out the rules and responsibilities so that the process of devolution by consent will be both fairer and more comprehensible. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other members of the Constitution Reform Group to discuss a new Act of Union? We come from all the major political parties and include experts such as Lord Lisvane, better known to this House as the former Clerk, Robert Rogers. (903125)
I am very happy to meet the right hon. Lady, who has great expertise in this area. I think there is a common interest in it. What we are trying to do as a Government is to find a devolution settlement that works for all of the devolved nations of the United Kingdom, including, importantly, for England as well. We have made some very good progress with the further devolution measures in Scotland and Wales and with the maintenance of the devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland. If there are further measures we can take, I am very happy to see them, but I do not necessarily believe that simply writing things down in one place will solve the problem. I am, however, happy to meet the right hon. Lady.
Q8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our nuclear deterrent works against our nation’s enemies only if our nuclear submarines are actually equipped with nuclear missiles, and that the defence policy of those who do not believe that, such as the Leader of the Opposition, is inspired by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, which shows that, while Labour Members may twist and shout, their current leader certainly needs help? (903131)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenious question. There is a comic element to sending submarines to sea without missiles, but this is in fact an absolutely serious issue, because the deterrent has been, on a cross-party basis, an absolutely key part of our defence and making sure that we have the ultimate insurance policy, which we on this side of the House support and which we should vote on. All I can say when it comes to Beatles’ songs is that I suspect that the Leader of the Opposition prefers “Back in the USSR”.
Just under two weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy was murdered in a knife attack in my constituency. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest condolences to Charlie’s friends and family. Given that knife crime in London rose last year and that the number of teenage deaths as a result of it peaked at its highest level in seven years, what action will the Government take to make sure that we do not return to the days when knife crime in London affecting young people in particular was merely a fact of life?
The hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House, which I am sure will want in spirit to be with the family and friends of Charlie Kutyauripo, who lost his life in that attack. There is nothing anyone here can say that will give them the comfort they seek. What I will say is that we have toughened the law on knife crime offences and the custodial sentences people are getting for those crimes. The police have done a huge amount to crack down on knife crime, which is why overall it has fallen by something like 17% since 2010, but there is still more to do in educating children and young people about the dangers of carrying a knife. In so many of these cases, the carrier of the knife ends up the victim of the knife attack so, as well as tough penalties and strong policing, we also need better education.
Q11. Does the Prime Minister agree that encouraging people in this country to learn the English language has a unifying effect? It aids integration and helps to create national identity and social cohesion, and should therefore be promoted. (903134)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The most important thing in our country is that we make sure that everybody can take advantage of the opportunities to work, get training and go to university. This is an opportunity country, but there is no opportunity for people if you do not speak the language. That is why we are going to target money at those people—they are very often women—who have been stuck at home, sometimes by the men in the house, and make sure that they can get the English language skills they need.
Let me make one other additional point, because this is so important. When I was sat in a mosque in Leeds this week, one of the young people there said how important it is that imams speak English, because if some young people can speak English but not Urdu or Arabic they need someone to guide them away from ISIL and its poisonous rhetoric. Speaking English is important for all, imams included.
Q6. Over the past few months, young people in Southampton have seen themselves frozen out of the living wage and housing benefit, and faced the downgrading or closure of the further education and sixth-form colleges from which many of them get their qualifications. We now see the ending of maintenance grants for those young people who want to go to university. What has the Prime Minister got against young people trying to make their way in life? (903129)
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for young people: record numbers going to university; record numbers who are taking on apprenticeships; and record numbers in work. Actually, today, the unemployment figures show a record low in the unemployment rate among those people who have left school. I would say to the hon. Gentleman that one of the reasons why a Labour MP in the south of England is as rare as hen’s teeth is that they talk down our country and talk down opportunity in it.
Q12. I thank the Prime Minister for launching the apprenticeship delivery board on Monday evening at No. 10. These men and women, who are expert in their sectors, are coming together to deliver 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020. Does the Prime Minister agree that it will be a great thing if, when students across our country log on to the UCAS website, they are informed about the opportunities for degree apprenticeships, as well as about more traditional degrees? (903135)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point for two reasons. One is that if you become an apprentice, that does not lock out the chance of doing a degree later in your career. Indeed, the opportunities for earning and learning are getting greater in our country. The second reason it is so important is that, in our schools, all our teachers are of course very well equipped to tell people about degree opportunities, because that is the route that they have taken—A-levels, the UCAS form and such like—but we need to improve the information in our schools so that people can see the opportunities for apprenticeships, in some cases then leading on to degrees.
Q9. My 24-year-old constituent Lara is in urgent need of a stem cell donor. Her family’s campaign, Match4Lara, is attracting global support. On Saturday, the O2 Centre in my constituency will run a spit drive to get as many people as possible on to the bone marrow register. Will the Prime Minister join me at that event on Saturday, and will he send a message of support to those working to keep Lara alive? (903132)
I certainly will join the hon. Lady in supporting Lara’s campaign. I have had meetings with bone marrow organisations in No. 10 Downing Street to support their matching campaign. I am sure that, by her raising it at Question Time in this way, many others will want to come to this event on Saturday and support Lara in the way she suggests.
Q13. The Prime Minister is aware that a number of colleagues and I await his response to our request, made in November, for a meeting regarding his EU renegotiations to discuss the importance of this Parliament—by itself, if necessary—being able to stop any unwanted taxes, regulations or directives, which goes to the core of issues such as control of our borders, business regulation and so on. Will he now meet us prior to the next EU meeting? (903136)
As my hon. Friend can imagine, I am having a range of meetings with colleagues about the European issue. I am sure that I will be covering as many in our parliamentary party as possible. I have always felt, with my hon. Friend, that he has slightly made up his mind already and wants to leave the EU whatever the results, and I do not want to take up any more of his time than is necessary.
Q10. The UK Government are a cheerleader for China to be awarded World Trade Organisation market economy status, because they want the City of London to become a major trading centre for the Chinese currency. MES for China would make it nigh on impossible to impose tariffs on Chinese steel, despite its dumping strategy. Is this not a classic case of the Westminster Government once again putting the bankers of London before manufacturing workers in Wales and the rest of the UK? (903133)
I have to say that the hon. Gentleman is wrong both on content and on approach. The two issues are separate. There are market economies that Europe still puts dumping tariffs on—we actually did that recently with America, and we have done it in the past with Russia—so I think we should take these two issues separately. We should continue to pursue robust action against China, which is exactly what we are doing, based on the merits. In terms of a closer relationship with China—a trading relationship—I want to help those Welsh businesses, including companies such as Airbus, break into Chinese markets and to make sure we get the best for British jobs, British manufacturing and British exports. That is what we want in our relationship with China.
Q14. Speaking of Airbus, the Mersey-Dee region, which straddles the England-Wales border, is one of the most dynamic industrial areas of the country. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the establishment of the all-party Mersey-Dee group, which has been formed to promote the economic success of the region? Will he urge his ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government to co-operate with the group in its work? (903137)
First, let me join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the new group. It is important, when we look at the development of the Welsh economy, to think about how north Wales can benefit from growth in the north-west of our country and about the links between the north-west and Wales, which the group will examine. Clearly, HS2 and what happens at Crewe will be a vital part of that process. I am very happy to talk further with him.
Will the Prime Minister reiterate, not just on behalf of the Government, but speaking for the whole House I believe, the unconditional and unequivocal support of the British people for the people of the Falkland Islands and their right—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—their inalienable and British-held right to self-determination? Will he confirm that that will not be undermined in any way by some kind of accommodation or negotiation in which the people of the Falkland Islands may have an enormous say, but have no veto? They should have a right to determine their own future.
The right hon. Gentleman has put it better than I ever could. The people of the Falkland Islands spoke as clearly as they possibly could in the referendum. They want to maintain the status quo. As long as they want that, they will have it guaranteed from me. I find it quite extraordinary that the Labour party wants to look at changing the status and giving away something people absolutely consider to be their right. That will never happen as long as I am in Downing Street.
Q15. As a former cub scout leader and Queen’s scout, I am pleased to say that scouting is thriving in Harrow. This year marks the centenary of the formation and founding of cub scouting across the UK. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 150,000 young people who participate in cub scouting every week in the UK, congratulate and thank the leaders who give up their time voluntarily to enable young people to gain a sense of adventure in a safe environment, and call on more people to volunteer as leaders as part of the big society movement? (903138)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The scouts are a great part of the big society. We have provided them and other uniformed youth groups with more than £10 million of funding since I became Prime Minister to help them do their excellent work. I had a letter recently from Bear Grylls, the chief scout himself, looking at what we could do to welcome the centenary and give this fantastic organisation a big centenary boost.
The Prime Minister may be aware, and should be aware, that Sheffield Forgemasters announced this morning the loss of 100 jobs in this crisis-hit industry, many of which will be in my constituency. We have had lots of warm words and hand-wringing and some crocodile tears from the Prime Minister and Ministers in this Chamber about the tsunami of job losses across the steel industry. Can he tell me when he will actually do something to support world-class companies such as Sheffield Forgemasters?
We have taken action, including action on energy bills that will save these industries £400 million in this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman chose to inject a bit of politics into this, so let me inject some back. When the Labour party was in power, what happened to employment in the steel industry? It was cut by 35,000—cut in half. Where were the carve-outs from the energy bills then? Where were the special arrangements for taking votes in Europe that we have put in place? Where were the rules to make sure that we buy British steel when it comes to public procurement, as we will for HS2 and the carrier programme? If he is interested in Sheffield Forgemasters, he might want to have a little word with his leader about something called a Trident submarine.
We do not yet know who will headline at Glastonbury this summer but we do know that, as things stand, they will not have anywhere to do their banking, as this world-famous town is to lose all three of its remaining banks within 12 weeks of each other. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging those banks to think again and to ensure that they meet their responsibilities under the banking protocols?
I will certainly make sure that that happens, and I will arrange for my hon. Friend to have a meeting with a Treasury Minister to discuss this issue. We are seeing huge challenges, partly because of the growth of internet banking, but it is important that in market towns such as the ones that he and I represent, banks continue to have a physical presence on the high street.
The Prime Minister might be aware of the tragic case of Julie Pearson, a young Scottish woman who died in Israel in November and who was allegedly beaten and raped before her death. I met her family recently, and I hope that the whole House will join me in offering their condolences to them. They are struggling to get answers from the Israeli Government and authorities; in particular, they are struggling to get her autopsy report. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss putting pressure on the Israeli Government and authorities to look into Julie’s death, so that her family can get the answers that they want and ultimately get justice for Julie?
I am not directly aware of this case, but I will certainly take it up with the Israeli authorities on the hon. Lady’s behalf, because it is important that her constituents get answers on this matter. Perhaps I could arrange for her to have a meeting with Foreign Office Ministers so that they can discuss this. We have good relations with Israel, and we should use those good relations to make sure that when people need answers, they get them.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department to make a statement on the failures set out by Mr Justice Jackson yesterday following the death of 13-month-old Poppi Worthington from Barrow in my constituency in December 2012?
The death of Poppi Worthington is deeply distressing and disturbing. Like other Members, I am sure, I have found reading the press reports incredibly difficult and moving. The House will understand, however, that I cannot comment on the case in detail. The judge made a ruling yesterday in the family court, but any further debate could be prejudicial to a second inquest into Poppi’s death, which is due to take place later this year. There are allegations of police failings in the original investigation into her death in 2012, which have been investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC report has been completed but cannot be released yet, so as not to prejudice the second inquest.
Child sexual abuse is an horrendous crime, and there is nothing more important than keeping children safe. That is why we have given child sexual abuse the status of a national threat in the strategic policing requirement, which sets a clear expectation on police forces to collaborate across force boundaries, to safeguard children and to share intelligence and best practice. As we have made clear, we will not hesitate to take tough action when councils or the police are failing in their statutory duty to protect children. Since 2014, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has been inspecting forces in England and Wales on their response to child protection, including child sexual abuse. Forces that fall short of expectations are being re-inspected to make sure that they have dealt quickly with any failures.
The Home Office is committed to strengthening the law enforcement response and we are working with police forces and the National Crime Agency to ensure that more resources and improved technology are available to investigate abuse properly. It is critical that the police have the appropriate expertise and tools to identify, pursue, investigate and prosecute offenders. We have introduced new sexual risk orders and sexual harm prevention orders, which the police can now use to manage an individual who presents a risk of sexual harm to a child. We have introduced powers for the police to close an establishment that might be used for sexual activity with a child.
It is vital that police identify child sexual abuse and respond appropriately. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. In March last year, as part of the “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation” report that the Prime Minister launched, the College of Policing and the national policing lead for child protection and abuse investigations set a requirement on all forces to train all new and existing police staff to respond to child sexual abuse and exploitation. That includes call handlers, police community support officers, detectives and specialist investigators. The College of Policing has developed and will keep under review a comprehensive training programme to raise the standard of the police response to child sexual abuse.
This Government are committed to tackling child sexual abuse, but I know that is little consolation to the family of Poppi Worthington. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for her reply. On 11 December 2012 Poppi Worthington was taken to bed by her mother a perfectly healthy child. As Judge Jackson set out yesterday, she was brought downstairs eight hours later by her father, Paul Worthington, in a lifeless state, with troubling injuries, most obviously significant bleeding from her anus. Mr Justice Jackson was clear in his judgment yesterday that Paul Worthington raped that child and she died soon afterwards, yet it was a full eight months later that the parents were first questioned by the police, despite a pathologist raising concerns at the time that her death was caused by a “penetrative sexual assault”. By this time crucial evidence had been lost by the police, such as the nappy she had been wearing at the time and her bedding.
In October 2014 the then coroner took just six minutes to record Poppi’s death as “unexplained”. The Crown Prosecution Service has said that there is currently no prospect of a case being made against the father. Despite the clear pointers available, Cumbria social services chose to allow Poppi’s siblings to return to the family. Although the failures happened after the child’s death, not before, the combined failure of several agencies is every bit as serious as those that contributed to the deaths of Victoria Climbié and baby Peter in Haringey.
Will the Government make it clear that they value Poppi’s life as greatly by ordering now a similarly thorough independent investigation into how the failings happened? Will they, as the second inquest is continuing, order a separate force to come in and take over the investigation into Poppi Worthington’s death to try to salvage some prospect of justice for her life? Will they renew their focus on improving social services in Cumbria, which have been troubled, as we know, for many months? What will the Government do to ensure the safety of the Worthington children and all the children in Barrow, given that Paul Worthington is still walking free?
The hon. Gentleman sets out the case clearly and passionately. He is working for his constituents, as he always does. He will know that in 2015 an Ofsted investigation found Cumbria social services to be inadequate. The Department for Education is in the process of an intervention into Cumbria social services to ensure that child social services work properly in Cumbria and that all children in Cumbria have the support and protection they rightly need.
We need to learn lessons from this case, but we need to wait for the second inquest. The Attorney General has granted the second inquest, and until it is completed we will not have the full facts. The hon. Gentleman will know that new evidence will have to come to light for the case to be reopened. That may or may not be the case, depending on the IPCC inquiry and the second inquest, but this is an operational matter in which I, as the Minister, would not be able to intervene.
This sounds like a depressingly familiar catalogue of failure and cover-up. At the time of this tragic death, a report would routinely have been given to the children’s Minister, and the Home Office pathologist, Dr Alison Armour, presumably also reported her suspicions to the Home Office. What action was jointly taken by Ministers in the Home Office and the Department for Education, particularly given the ongoing danger to siblings involved? What has happened to the serious case review that, since 2010, has been routinely published to reveal where failures have been made and to enable lessons to be learned, which is so crucial in this case?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He did an incredible amount of work as children’s Minister to deal with the failures in the system that we have seen here and he raises some very important points, many of which I, too, have raised with officials today. If he will forgive me, I will write to him on the specific points. May I also—I failed to do this earlier—offer to meet the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), because I think that there are many things that it is important we discuss face to face?
It is clear that there were multiple failings in this tragic case. I appreciate that the Minister has said that she does not want to jeopardise any further investigation, but it is terribly troubling that His Honour Judge Jackson remarked that “the police investigation was clearly deficient and that the police failed to launch a real investigation until nine months after Poppi’s death” and that the case is “more than usually troubling”. Will the Minister support the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for a separate police investigation by a separate police force? Will she also support the publication of the IPCC’s draft report on this case?
The hon. Gentleman asks about the failings in the police, and that is what the IPCC report will contain. We will know more when we see that report, but it cannot be published, even in draft, before the second inquest. I am sure that he understands that it is very important that that inquest can take place in a fair and open manner so that we get to the facts of the case and understand what happened. He will know more than anybody that Judge Jackson was looking at the balance of probabilities, whereas a criminal case would need to be beyond reasonable doubt—different levels of proof and of evidence are required. The hon. Gentleman understands that. I want to get to the bottom of this. I want to have the full inquest and understand exactly what happened, at which point we can determine the appropriate action to be taken.
I commend the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for his measured and reasonable putting of this important question. The whole nation will have been touched by the terrible tragedy that befell this little baby girl. Is it not troubling, however, that public agencies used public money to try to stifle debate and hide transparency and openness, using the family courts? Is it not time we reviewed the interface between the family courts and public agencies, because openness and transparency are the best disinfectant for and solution to such issues, ensuring that something this terrible and awful never happens again?
I welcome the Minister’s commitment to pursue these matters until all lessons can be learned, but does she agree that the crucial relationship is that between the police and social services? The crucial process is that information is passed on immediately. If that is done, these terrible acts can be discovered even more efficiently.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. If agencies are not working together and talking to each other, we will not find and protect those children who so desperately need our protection. I have been impressed and pleased with the work in multiagency safeguarding hubs, and in the many that I have visited it is truly refreshing to see police, social services, probation services and other agencies that have a role in protecting the most vulnerable people in society—particularly children—sitting together, co-located, working together, sharing information, and taking action immediately. We need more of that, and I know that Chief Constable Simon Bailey, who leads on child sexual abuse for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, is keen to ensure more multi-agency working so that we get that protection.
I support what the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) has said, and as a father of three young daughters my blood runs cold at this case. The Minister has rightly pointed out the growing need for integration of services outside Whitehall. There are many departmental responsibilities in government, including her Department, the Law Officers, the Lord Chancellor’s Department and—crucially—the Department for Communities and Local Government, which deals with funding for county councils to ensure robust, fit-for-purpose social service departments. Will she ensure that there is also full integration at Whitehall level?
Astonishingly, my hon. Friend managed to forget the Department for Education. The Education Secretary chairs the child protection implementation taskforce, of which I and other Ministers are members. That cross-department team considers how we implement what we have learned from other examples of child abuse, and what we have learned from this case will give us more information and help us to develop better ways to protect children.
This is clearly a disturbing case, and I understand the Minister’s reticence in not wanting to do anything that could prejudice justice. She will also have had only limited time in which to pursue it. May I urge her to keep pursuing this case, and not to be deterred by the process that is taking place? Will she clarify the situation regarding the police investigation? Surely we do not need to wait for the inquest for a police investigation to continue. As I understand it, the IPCC is verifying whether the police did the right job previously, and we need a police investigation now into this individual case. Could that be done by an alternative police force?
I know that the right hon. Lady has campaigned on these matters for many years, and I assure her that I personally will take this case and ensure that we get to the bottom of it. We must learn all the lessons from it, and understand what happened and what went wrong. We owe that to Poppi Worthington and to all other children in that situation. Specifically on the police investigation, she will be aware that we need new evidence before a new investigation can be held, so perhaps I may write to her and provide more information about the case as I receive it.
As a councillor I experienced the horrors of the cases of Jasmine Beckford, Victoria Climbié and baby P. I understand that the Minister cannot give a firm commitment today, but it is clear that those who are in charge of these investigations are not learning the lessons of the past. If the evidence points that way, will the Minister commit to ordering a proper judicial inquiry, so that further reviews can be undertaken and people can understand the lessons that have been learned and implement any changes, as proposed by the Communities and Local Government Committee last year?
We need to know exactly what happened, and understand the IPCC report and the findings of the second inquest. We also have the victim’s right to review, and once we have completed the legal processes the family wish to use that. I want to wait until all the facts are on the table and we know what happened before making any commitment.
As a fellow Cumbrian MP I am deeply shocked and concerned about this case, and I support my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) in his call for an independent investigation. I appreciate what the Minister is saying about the second inquest. The IPCC report appears to have been leaked to the press, which is of great concern. Poppi’s death was in December 2012 and it has taken a long time to get to where we are. The case has only gone through the family courts. No one has been charged, and I am concerned about that and would welcome the Minister’s comments.
I am not aware that the IPCC report has been leaked, but I will look into that. Perhaps when I meet the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness we could discuss that issue once we have more information about what has happened. If the report has been leaked that is shocking and should not have happened.
I commend the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) for bringing this issue to the House, and the Minister for her response. None of us can fail to be moved by the picture of the 14-month-old innocent Poppi Worthington. Although there has been some conflicting opinion, given the amount of press coverage and the opinion of Mr Justice Jackson and Dr Alison Armour, surely the case must be reopened. We should be able to stand proud of our British justice system, but in this case justice has not been done for Poppi Worthington or any other child that might be in danger. If the IPCC should find that the Cumbrian police did not act as they should have, will that be a reason for reopening the case?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that when we know what happened, where the failings were, and what—if anything—could have been done differently, I and my fellow Ministers will ensure that proper steps are taken and that we do all we can to get to the bottom of this issue and get the justice that Poppi Worthington rightly deserves.
Asylum Seekers: Middlesbrough
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking this urgent question and allowing me the opportunity to set out the Government’s response to the issues raised in The Times today.
From the outset, I underline that the United Kingdom has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need it, and we are committed to providing safe and secure accommodation while asylum cases are considered. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced the policy of national dispersal, which was designed to share the impact of asylum seekers across the whole United Kingdom. Under that arrangement, asylum seekers are housed across the UK under voluntary agreements between national Governments and local authorities. Those arrangements have been in place since 2000. Under current arrangements—the commercial and operating managers procuring asylum support services, or COMPASS, contracts—three companies provide asylum seeker accommodation, transport and related services. In Middlesbrough those services are provided by G4S.
As right hon. and hon. Members will have seen from my response published in The Times this morning, I am deeply concerned about the issues raised and the painting of doors of asylum seeker accommodation in a single colour. Anything that identifies asylum seeker accommodation to those who may wish to harm those accommodated in the properties must be avoided. I spoke to the chief executive officer of G4S this morning, and he assured me that neither G4S nor its subcontractor in Middlesbrough, Jomast, has a policy that states that asylum seeker properties should be identified in such a way. However, Jomast does accept that the company uses red paint across its portfolio of properties.
I have asked Home Office officials to look into this issue as a matter of urgency, and to report to me and the permanent secretary. G4S has advised that doors in the area will be repainted so that there is no predominant colour. As part of the audit that we have commissioned, I have asked it to ensure that COMPASS contracts have been appropriately implemented in Middlesbrough, and I have considered the Home Office’s arrangements for monitoring contract compliance in that area and more generally.
The Home Office works with COMPASS providers and local authorities to ensure that the impact of dispersal on local communities and services is taken into account when allocating accommodation. It is the responsibility of the suppliers to ensure that all accommodation used meets required contractual standards, and complies with the decent home standards—specifically, that accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. Each property used is subject to a housing officer visit every 28 days. In addition, Home Office contract compliance teams inspect a third of all properties using an intelligence-led, risk-based approach to monitor standards and ensure maintenance faults are rectified within the prescribed timescales.
Let me be clear to the House that I expect the highest standards from our contractors. If we have evidence of discrimination against asylum seekers, it will be dealt with immediately.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his very thoughtful and considered response. I share with him Middlesbrough’s proud record of welcoming people fleeing persecution and torture. We are rightly proud of the excellent arrangements we have with our churches and charities. I am proud of those people and the welcome they offer.
As the Minister rightly says, the background is that the contract for housing asylum seekers in the north-east is held by G4S and subcontracted to Jomast. The excellent article by Andrew Norfolk published in The Times explains that Jomast has 168 properties in two wards. Some 155 of them have their front doors to the street painted red. This marks out the properties and their inhabitants for those with prejudicial motivations and evil intent. There are accounts of asylum seekers being abused in their homes as a direct result of being so readily identifiable. Their doors have been smeared with dog excrement and daubed with graffiti showing the National Front logo. Eggs and stones have been thrown at their properties and they have been subjected to verbal abuse.
Such a policy may not be deliberate, but Jomast have to think it through. There is clearly a risk of undermining social cohesion and the safety of those seeking sanctuary. I am aghast that G4S claims no knowledge of that. Jomast has undertaken to remedy the position, but it is imperative that the Government insist that remedial action be taken as a matter of supreme urgency, and that the contractor and subcontractor are held to account. The Minister talks about the way the contract is managed. I ask him to stick to the theory he outlined in such great detail, because I am aware that the practice is far from the theory. Many people can be confined to one bedroom. That, simply, is not dignified. It is not a humanitarian response to put people in those conditions.
The public policy implications for contracting out the arrangements are devastating. People should not derive public profit from these matters; they are a matter for central Government and local government. Local government is the best organisation to look at the wider implications of welcoming people into our communities in this way. I therefore ask the Minister to review and reconsider that matter.
When did the Minister first become aware of this concern? When did G4S become aware of it and what action did it take? What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the readily identifiable red doors are corrected and on what timescale? At the moment, Jomast says it acknowledges the issue and will address it over three to six months. I suggest to the Minister that that is simply not acceptable. This must be done as a matter of supreme urgency: I have in mind a timescale of three to six weeks, rather than three to six months. I would like him to address that. If the Minister concludes that what has happened is discriminatory, what action will he take? In short, will he outline what penalties he has available to him to make sure that G4S, which has, frankly, suffered a great deal of reputational damage in recent times, and Jomast are held to account?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he raises his concerns. Like him, I pay tribute to the work and the approach that Middlesbrough, as an authority, has taken for many years in seeking to accommodate asylum seekers. He will be aware that a number of discussions have taken place between my officials, Home Office officials and Middlesbrough Council on the concentration of asylum seekers, as Middlesbrough is the only place in the country where our threshold of one in 200 is exceeded. I have asked my officials to look at that closely and at a plan to bring it back within the appropriate standards we have set.
On the report in The Times today and on the experiences of some people being accommodated in housing in Middlesbrough, I condemn absolutely any crimes of hate, any actions that sow divisions within communities and any actions that seek to intimidate or mark out asylum seekers in any way. We have been in contact with the local police this morning to underline any issues of community reassurance. They are actively considering appropriate steps. Complaints about hate crime should be made to the police, so they can be followed up and appropriate action taken.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about the urgency of response. As soon as I heard about the matter, which was late last week when The Times first contacted us, I instructed officials to look into it urgently because of my very serious concerns about what I was hearing. I expect the audit to be concluded on the Home Office side quickly, and completed at the latest by the end of this month.
On G4S, we have an ongoing regime of inspection of the maintenance and condition of properties. G4S has met standards where maintenance issues have been identified as requiring remedial action. It has followed through on them, but the audit will look at that closely. The chief executive officer of G4S underlined to me, in a conversation this morning, the seriousness and urgency of the issue. He underlined the sense of urgency that he and G4S attach to repainting doors to make sure there is no predominant colour. I said that I expected that to be done quickly. That was the message I got back from G4S.
This is a matter of utmost concern. The Home Office is working on it closely. We will look at it carefully and rigorously. It is not simply a question of looking at the contract. If there are issues that need to be brought to the attention of the police, and criminal action taken thereafter, that will be a matter for the police. I urge those with evidence to come forward and ensure it is reported appropriately.
I echo the plea for urgent action on the ground. Throughout the past 15 years, when the number of asylum seekers has been a hugely controversial and sensitive public issue, one of the best things has been that on the ground in communities there has been very little tension and very little violence. At a human level, the policy has been handled very well. It would be tragic if that were to end with some of the actions in Middlesbrough we have heard described. Obviously, the Minister will have to take a number of actions that will take some time, but on the immediate, on-the-ground action, if what is required in the short term is to repaint 150 front doors, then frankly this should not be taking three months or three weeks. The painters should be out now and it should be done by the weekend. I hope the Minister can assure the House that that kind of urgency will be shown.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. He has understanding and experience as a previous holder of the office I now hold as Immigration Minister. I can assure him of the urgency I have impressed on G4S in respect of resolving the issue quickly. The chief executive officer underlined that he recognised and understood that clearly. We will be monitoring the situation closely. I have asked officials to go to Middlesbrough tomorrow to assess the situation on the ground and to start work on the audit. I hope that that reassures my right hon. Friend of the urgency that I, my officials, and, from what we are hearing, G4S attach to this matter.
Today’s report in The Times is obviously deeply concerning, and I recognise the Minister’s concern and the steps he has taken to get to the bottom of it. It is concerning that such a thing has happened. It is early days but it seems right—it does not seem that the facts are disputed—that the doors were painted red. It is also concerning because of the underpinning arrangements. How did this come about, and how did nobody think it inappropriate for the doors to be so painted, particularly given that, as the Minister has outlined, there is a Home Office inspection regime and a local authority assurance scheme? How did nobody, under those arrangements, think there was anything wrong? There is also concern about the consequences. Hate crime is increasing—it increased by 18% last year—and the consequence has been hate crime in Middlesbrough. That is concerning in its own right. I echo the view that the sooner something is done to rectify the situation, the better. There is also concern that this matter is before the House only because of the careful work of Andrew Norfolk at The Times, not because some internal inspection or auditing scheme flagged it up as a matter of concern.
The Minister has told us when he first knew, and I appreciate he has put steps in place to make further welcome inquiries, but how did this escape whatever inspection or assurance regime was in place? Were the properties inspected or assured by the Home Office or anybody else? If not, what can be done to improve the regime? What conversations has the Minister had with the contractors in Middlesbrough? Is this an isolated example? Is it something that has happened just in Middlesbrough, or are there examples in other parts of the country? Have inquiries been made into that? If so, what have they shown so far? If not, can such inquiries be made? What further conversations can be had with all private providers of accommodation to ensure that this does not occur again anywhere and that, if it has occurred anywhere else, it is rectified as soon as possible?
As I highlighted, I spoke to the chief executive of G4S this morning and asked that work be done to assess whether this is an isolated issue. I have asked how we can talk to all the providers under the COMPASS contract and how inquiries can be made with their subcontractors as well. From initial investigations, it seems that some providers of social housing might, for maintenance purposes, paint in a particular colour. We are investigating that further. Jomast made the point that about 20% of its property portfolio is asylum accommodation. We will focus on this issue as part of the audit work I have commissioned, and we will see whether lessons can be learned about the ongoing maintenance assessment. Inspections are undertaken to identify whether accommodation remains suitable or whether steps need to be taken by our contractors. I have tasked out that work as part of the examination. I underline again that we take hate crime very seriously and will remain focused on it in our forthcoming work.
The hon. and learned Gentleman asked about inspections. We will look at the processes and procedures to establish why the significance of this issue was not identified earlier. I have noted reports in the press and elsewhere of the issue having been highlighted to G4S and potentially to others. We are seeking to get to the bottom of that.
I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for bringing this issue to the Floor of the House. The provision of accommodation to asylum seekers deserves significant scrutiny, so I welcome the Minister’s announcement of an urgent audit of asylum-seeker accommodation in the north-east. SNP Members and others across the House share his concerns and will have been appalled by the revelation of what seems to have been, at best, an eye-wateringly negligent red-door policy.
We question, however, whether an audit goes far enough. The story of the red doors is troubling, but the delivery of contracts for the provision of asylum accommodation across the country is a broader issue and raises similar serious concerns. Will the Government listen to those concerns? When I speak to the Scottish Refugee Council, I hear about problems of poor-quality accommodation; poor treatment of asylum seekers by staff, sometimes because of a lack of training, sometimes because of inexcusable abuse and mistreatment; inappropriate sharing of accommodation; and about not so much a lack of integration of the services referred to by the Minister but their complete and utter fragmentation. Will he broaden the inquiry into the provision of accommodation for asylum seekers to reflect those concerns? We need an inquiry that speaks to asylum seekers living in accommodation provided by Government contractors and to organisations such as the Scottish Refugee Council, which could have so much input. Finally, when will a decision need to be made into the extension of these contracts and what opportunities will there be for parliamentarians to scrutinise and input into that decision?
Property standards are monitored under the COMPASS arrangements by three key performance indicators, to ensure that accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. Accommodation is inspected frequently by G4S, the local authority and the Home Office, and, as I have indicated, housing officers visit a third of all properties every 28 days, on an intelligence-led basis, under our overall compliance approach.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about complaints. Provisions in the contract ensure that complaints should be escalated and taken seriously. Again, that is something I want the audit to understand in terms of the situation in the north-east. The matter will be pursued in that way. He also asks for a broadening of the arrangements. I do not judge that to be appropriate. I will see what the audit tells us and then consider whether further action is needed.
It is extraordinary that, with all these inspections, it took a journalist as distinguished as Andrew Norfolk to expose the problems. I accept what the Minister has said—he has acted with great speed in trying to put measures in place—but the Home Affairs Committee has written to Ministers in the past with concerns about the COMPASS contract. Over the years, Ministers have given these contracts to big companies, such as G4S and Serco, that are once removed from the real providers. As the House knows, G4S is a serial offender in respect of these breaches. With the greatest will in the world and despite his commitment to making sure something is done, I do not believe that an audit will be sufficient. If it is accepted that the doors were painted in a certain colour, that is appalling, and it should have been discussed and discovered earlier. When the audit is complete, will he undertake either to make a statement to the House or come to the Select Committee with its findings?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I appear before his Committee frequently to update it and, by extension, the House on matters relating to the immigration system. I believe I might be appearing before it in the near term, which might provide an opportunity for me to update him and his Committee and, by extension, other right hon. and hon. Members, about the work being done. I can certainly give him that assurance.
The right hon. Gentleman highlighted the question of whether it was accepted or known that doors were painted a particular colour. As I have already told the House, there is a practice among some social housing providers to paint in a particular colour for maintenance purposes, but it is precisely those factors that I will want to understand as part of the audit of not simply the practice in the north-east but the inspection regimes and processes we have in place to identify whether issues, standards and complaints are dealt with appropriately.
It is a good job that we have journalists such as Andrew Norfolk, who also helped, of course, to expose the Rotherham abuse scandal. Is it not a matter of concern that whenever some abuse is known about and comes into the public arena, the Minister makes a statement and somehow or other G4S seems to be involved? I would have thought that that would be a source of some concern to the Home Secretary and her Ministers. I do not question for a moment the Minister’s objections, just like those of the rest of us, to any form of discrimination, but should not those responsible for what occurred—the painting of doors in red where asylum seekers are concerned—be told in the clearest possible language that certain aspects of 1936 Berlin are not to be repeated in Britain in 2016?
We need to look at this issue very closely and carefully, which is precisely what we have committed to do. As to G4S and the properties it provides in the north-east, we examined about 84 properties where inspections were successfully completed. Where defects were identified, action was taken. According to our assessment, there were no key performance indicator failures in respect of Middlesbrough. That is precisely what the audit will examine further, taking into account the state and condition of the properties. This House has telegraphed its message very clearly today, in standing against hate crime and discrimination and ensuring that those who are here and who have sought lawfully to claim asylum are given a fair and appropriate welcome by this country, as we would all expect.
It is my understanding that concerns about this practice of painting doors red were first raised in 2012 by my Liberal Democrat colleague and then Middlesbrough councillor, Suzanne Fletcher. She has pursued the issue doggedly ever since, and it is largely due to her efforts that the matter has now come to light today. She was told by G4S that it had received no complaints, so there was no need to take any action. That could manifestly not be the case, and does it not raise in the Minister’s mind at least a suspicion that an audit is somewhat less than what is required? Yet again G4S has come to public attention for all the wrong reasons, and yet again it has been found wanting.
I discussed with the chief executive this morning the issue of complaints and when the matter was first made known to G4S. It is a matter that he has committed to examine further to get to the bottom of how G4S handled the issue for its own satisfaction. It is a question of doing the audit I have commissioned urgently to see the situation on the ground and understand how the inspection and audit regime has been conducted thus far. I will obviously want to reflect on what that tells me.
Jomast has a major base in my constituency, and this is not the first time that it has come under national media scrutiny for the wrong reasons. I have visited some of the hovels that have apparently passed the test as “decent homes”, driving huge profits directly from Government contracts. While the Minister inquires further into this latest scandal, will he also order a further review in real detail of the standards of Teesside accommodation, including houses of multiple occupation in my Stockton North constituency, and get a better deal and better value for money for both tenants and the Government?
As I have already indicated, a key part of the work we undertake is to see that accommodation is safe, habitable and fit for purpose. That is what the inspection regime looks at. To date, on the basis of the advice I have seen, those standards have been met. Clearly, however, we can focus on that element as part of the audit and see what that information tells us.
House of Commons Members’ Fund Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Mr Christopher Chope presented a Bill to consolidate and amend provisions about the House of Commons Members’ Fund; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 22 January, and to be printed (Bill 121).
Transport of Nuclear Weapons
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about controls on the transportation of nuclear weapons.
I would like to take this opportunity to call on the Government immediately to clarify what safety measures they have put in place and, ultimately, to put a stop to these convoys travelling through our towns and cities. It is my hope that greater awareness in this House of these convoys will strengthen calls across the country to rid us of nuclear weapons once and for all.
On several occasions since my election last May, nuclear convoys have passed through my Midlothian constituency along busy routes with commuters and families. These convoys pass with no regard to the danger they pose to the people of Midlothian. My constituents are horrified—and understandably so. As some Members will know, Midlothian is a semi-rural constituency, immediately south of Edinburgh, sitting at the foot of the Pentland hills. Penicuik is one of Midlothian’s largest towns, where we find the Glencorse barracks with Beeslack High School and Mauricewood Primary School in close proximity. Perhaps we can imagine the scene around lunchtime on a bright May afternoon, with the children from Mauricewood primary playing in the school fields and the pupils at Beeslack High School out enjoying their lunch, while just over the fence sit half a dozen weapons of mass destruction.
Since then, there have been countless reported incidents where convoys have continued to travel across the UK, regardless of severe weather warnings, with the most recent instance only last weekend in Stirling. A number of areas of the country are suffering from flooding while others are under snow, and emergency services are pushed. Roads and rail infrastructure are challenged almost to breaking point—yet still these convoys make their trek up and down our countries.
Following the public outcry in Midlothian on 22 May, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence to ask a number of safety questions, including what assessment had been made of the proposed route. I have to say that the answer provided to me was woefully inadequate. In his response, the Minister for the Armed Forces claimed that there had been an unbroken safety record for 50 years. That response could have been written by Frank Drebben and the Police Squad, saying “Nothing to see here, move along”. In actual fact, more than 70 individual safety incidents involving convoys were recorded by the Ministry of Defence over the period between July 2007 to December 2012. Those figures were provided to me by Nukewatch, an organisation that helps to monitor the convoys’ movement, and they had been provided to it by the MOD.
Alarmingly, the movement of convoys has changed. In 2005, MOD rules restricting travel by night were lifted, but moving convoys by night increases the risk of accidents and collisions, and makes security much more difficult. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has pointed out that drivers are far more likely to fall asleep at the wheel at night. These long journeys now take less than 20 hours, adding pressure to crews and critical safety equipment while families sleep in their beds. At a time when we have a daily reminder in this House that the UK threat level remains “severe”, these convoys are dangerous, highly visible and not only a risk through the level of accidents, but a moving target for terrorists.
Some might claim this is being alarmist, but it has been said that
“such an attack has the potential to lead to the damage or destruction of a nuclear weapon within the UK and the consequences of such an incident are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption to the British people’s way of life and to the UK’s ability to function effectively as a sovereign state”.
These are not my words—they are from the MOD in response to a freedom of information request by Nukewatch in 2005. We should just think about that— “considerable loss of life” and inability to function “as a sovereign state”. If anyone still thinks it is a good idea to have these convoys passing through our communities when the potential consequences have been acknowledged, they can feel free to do so. I have to say that I certainly do not. Given the enormity of these words, we must ask ourselves whether nuclear convoys are more of a risk to the British people and their way of life than terrorism. If that is the case, we have a moral, ethical and valid compelling mandate to remove that risk from our towns, our cities and our nations.
We need look only at the effects of social media to understand how powerful the risk is. When convoys travelled through Midlothian, I was alerted to the fact through Facebook and Twitter. Ordinary members of the public were drawing attention to the grim scene of nuclear materials passing their front doors. It is delusional to think that a convoy of 20 large vehicles can ever go unnoticed in this day and age. The existence of the convoys is already well documented, and if members of the public can do that, it seems logical to assume that others with darker motivations could do so as well.
I am sure that we are all far too well aware of the appalling damage and loss of life that a terrorist attack can bring about, but running convoys of nuclear weapons through the country does nothing to deter that. In the event of such an incident, or a fire or major explosion, local authorities might not be fully prepared to deal with the immediate aftermath. Although the police are informed of an approaching convoy, they are not obliged to inform any other services, including the fire and rescue services.
In a scenario of that kind, with lethal plutonium billowing around my constituency, local people would be at the mercy of a response team that is based in Bath. While I am sure that the members of that team are highly skilled and have considerable expertise, they are nevertheless based 380 miles from my constituency. At worst, if there were a fire or a major explosion, my constituency and neighbouring areas would be flattened.
This issue has been discussed in this House before. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) raised many of the same points during a debate back in July. However, the issue has not been raised solely by SNP Members, and I thank the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) for conveying her support for the Bill. As well as passing through 21 local authority areas in Scotland, the convoys pass through, or fly over, 13 in Wales and 91 in England, so this is not just an issue for Scotland.
As the House anticipates a potential vote on the overhauling and upgrading of the system through the Mk4A refurbishment programme, the Government should also be clear about the impact that the programme will have on the frequency of convoys. If every single warhead is to be replaced, and every single one is to be sent down to Berkshire and back again, I can only imagine the scene: you are standing on a street corner, observing the passing of military vehicles, some guarding and some carrying nuclear weapons, but you are not in North Korea. You are on the A702 in Penicuik.
Finally, let me raise a matter of great importance, and praise the hard work of the men and women who are employed on our submarines or as part of the logistical operation. They do an incredible job. It must not be forgotten that, regardless of our views on nuclear weapons, the men and women who work with them are doing a phenomenal job.
I believe that most of the people of Scotland, and, indeed, most people in my constituency, remain opposed to the UK Government’s policy of maintaining and upgrading the Trident system. However, I hope that the debate will persuade other Members, even if they agree with the pro-Trident policy, to show their concern and agree that real risks are involved in nuclear convoys. The transport of nuclear weapons should not be based on an argument for convenience at the expense of safety. The policy as it stands lacks transparency, it is counterproductive in that it does not protect us from terrorist attacks, and it shows a blatant disregard and lack of judgment in relation to our own citizens. While my ultimate hope is that the Government will see sense and think again about their policy of renewing Trident, they should at the very least respond to Members’ calls for an end to the absurd policy of driving nuclear weapon material near our schools, nurseries and front doors.
People in my constituency periodically receive warning notices telling them what to do in the event of a nuclear incident—I receive such notices in my own house—and iodine tablets are given out lest such an incident should occur. The difference—I was going to refer to the difference between the people of Barrow and Furness and the constituents of the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) in Scotland, but that would not be correct. The difference between the people of Barrow and Furness and SNP Members is that the former have a mature understanding of the fact that the regulatory governance structure is internationally overseen, and is designed to keep everyone safe.
Not only are live nuclear reactors maintained on submarines in Barrow and Furness, a few hundred yards from my house, without incident and without any of the paranoid scaremongering that has been deliberately whipped up by the hon. Gentleman, but nuclear material is taken by rail along the south and west coasts of Cumbria, and is taken entirely safely. The hon. Gentleman is trying to frighten schoolchildren and nursery children, and I really think he ought to know better. If he has done any research, he must surely know that the idea that there could be a sudden derailment, the whole of Scotland could immediately be filled with a cloud of plutonium, and everyone would put on gas masks and then die is a complete fantasy—and a fantasy designed not to achieve a greater level of safety for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but merely to add fuel to the fire of the SNP’s absurd argument.
In case you have forgotten that argument, Madam Deputy Speaker, it goes like this. “We believe in nuclear weapons, and we want Scotland to be protected by nuclear weapons under the NATO umbrella, but we also think that those nuclear weapons are immoral and abhorrent, and they must come nowhere near Scotland. They can be 50 or 100 miles down the road in Barrow and Furness if you like, and keep us all safe, but we do not want any of them on our shores.”
The hon. Gentleman was patting submarine workers on the head. He was saying to those who maintain and build the submarines that he and his party had the utmost respect for them. What absolute rubbish! His Bill would cause thousands of them to lose their jobs, never to return to Scottish soil. [Interruption.]
Let me end by saying—if I am able to do so above the hubbub of the Scottish Members who are trying to distract me—that the Bill has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with prosecuting the SNP’s absurd argument, which is certainly not supported by the people of Scotland. Every opinion poll, bar the one carried out by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—I will give SNP Members that: they have CND with them—has made it clear that the Scottish people, like those in the rest of the United Kingdom, are in favour of maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent while other countries possess them.
The Bill will not get anywhere, so I will not trouble the House by pressing it to a Division. We need to proceed with important business concerning psychoactive substances. I just want people to know, for the record, that the Bill is utter poppycock, and that no regard should be paid to it.
Question put and agreed to.
That Owen Thompson, Brendan O’Hara, Douglas Chapman, Kirsten Oswald, Carol Monaghan, Martin John Docherty, Mike Weir, Steven Paterson, Drew Hendry, Alex Salmond, Pete Wishart and Margaret Ferrier present the Bill.
Owen Thompson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March and to be printed (Bill 122).
Psychoactive Substances Bill [Lords]
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Psychoactive Substances, HC 361, and the Government response, HC 755,]
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
New Psychoactive Substances – Prevention and Education
“(1) In section 84(3) of the Education Act 2002 (curriculum foundation subjects for the first, second and third key stages), after paragraph (g) there is inserted—
“(gi) personal, social and health education.
(2) In section 85(4) of the Education Act 2002 (curriculum foundation subjects for the fourth key stage), at the end there is inserted “, and
(d) personal, social and health education.”
(3) In section 74(1) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which (when brought into force) will substitute a new section 85 in the Education Act 2002, in subsection (4) of that substituted section (foundation subjects for the fourth key stage), at the end there is inserted “, and
(d) personal, social and health education.”
(4) Before section 86 of the Education Act 2002 there is inserted—
“85B Personal, social and health education
(1) For the purposes of this Part, personal, social, health education (“PSHE”) shall comprise—
(a) education about alcohol and tobacco, illegal recreational drugs and new psychoactive substances;
(b) education about emotional health and well-being and how this can be impacted by psychoactive substances;
(c) education about individual safety, including risk taking behaviour.
(2) The National Curriculum for England is not required to specify attainment targets or assessment arrangements for PSHE (and section 84(1) has effect accordingly).
(3) The Secretary of State for Education shall set out guidance to schools and colleges to ensure that a coherent approach to personal, social, health and economic education is developed, including between primary and secondary schools.
(4) It is the duty of the governing body and headteacher of any school in which PSHE is provided in pursuance of this Part to secure that guidance issued under subsection (3) is followed and principles set out in subsections (5) to (6) are complied with.
(5) The first principle is that information presented in the course of providing PSHE should be accurate and balanced.
(6) The second principle is that PSHE should be taught in a way that—
(a) is appropriate to the ages of the pupils concerned and to their religious and cultural backgrounds, and also
(b) reflects a reasonable range of religious, cultural and other perspectives.
(7) The third principle is that PSHE should be taught in a way that—
(a) endeavours to promote equality,
(b) encourages acceptance of diversity, and
(c) emphasises the importance of both rights and responsibilities.
(8) In the exercise of their functions under this Part so far as relating to PSHE, a local authority, governing body or headteacher shall have regard to any guidance issued from time to time by the Secretary of State.” —(Lyn Brown.)
This would amend the Education Act to make PHSE, with drugs education including new psychoactive substances, a foundation subject in the national curriculum.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 3—Control of cannabis—
‘(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall consult the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs pursuant to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 with regard to the use of her powers to make regulations under sections 7, 10, 22 and 31 of that Act to—
(a) delete from Schedule 1 to the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 the substances listed in subsection (2), and
(b) add those substances to Schedule 2 to the 2001 Regulations.
(2) The substances referred to in subsection (1) are—
(a) cannabis, and
(b) cannabis resin.”
The intention of this amendment is to re-schedule Cannabis from a Schedule 1 drug to a Schedule 2 drug for the purposes of promoting research into its medical use.
New clause 4—Referral to Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—
‘(1) The Ministers shall refer to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) any substance which is, or may be, a psychoactive substance.
(2) The ACMD shall advise the Ministers whether the substance is, or appears to the ACMD likely to be, misused and of which the misuse is having, or appears to the ACMD to be capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.
(3) For the purposes of this section, “the Ministers” has the same meaning as in section 1(4) of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs).”
New clause 5—Review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall commission an independent evidence-based review of—
(a) the effectiveness of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 in reducing the harm caused by the misuse of drugs, including social problems connected with their misuse, and
(b) the implementation of the Act.
(2) The Secretary of State shall lay a copy of a report of the review before both Houses of Parliament within one year of the passing of this Act.”
New clause 6—Possession of controlled drugs—
‘(1) The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is amended as follows.
(2) Omit section 5(1) and (2).
(3) After section 5 insert—
“5A Measures in respect of possession of controlled drugs for personal use
(1) Where a person is detained on suspicion of having committed an arrestable offence and is found to be in possession of a controlled drug, falling within Schedule 2 (Class A drugs) in circumstances which do not constitute an offence under section 3 (restriction of importation and exportation of controlled drugs) or section 4 (restriction of production and supply of controlled drugs), a senior officer or a local authority may require the person to attend a drug treatment programme or drug awareness programme.
(2) The Secretary of State shall by regulations define “drug treatment programme” and “drug awareness programme” for the purposes of this Act.
(3) Regulations made under this section must be made by statutory instrument.
(4) A statutory instrument under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, both Houses of Parliament.””
Amendment 23, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, after “about” insert “reviewing the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and”
Amendment 24, page 1, line 11, at end insert—
‘(6A) Section [Control of Cannabis] provides for legal possession and supply of cannabis prescribed by a doctor.”
Amendment 18, in clause 2, page 1, line 14, after “any” insert “novel”
Amendment 19, page 1, line 15, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—
“(a) in the opinion of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is capable of producing a psychoactive effect in a person who consumes it, and
(aa) is, or appears to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs likely to be, misused and of which the misuse is having, or appears to them capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem, and”
Amendment 12, page 1, line 16, leave out “and” and insert—
“(aa) is not prohibited by the United Nations Drug Conventions of 1961 and 1971, or by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, but which may pose a public health threat comparable to that posed by substances listed in these conventions, and”
This amendment to the definition includes part of the alternative definition of psychoactive substances proposed to the Home Affairs Select Committee by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
Amendment 20, in clause 3, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
‘(2A) The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs shall propose to the Secretary of State the amendment of Schedule 1 for the purposes of subsection (2)(a) if they consider that a substance does not have, or is not capable of having, harmful effects sufficient to constitute a social problem.”
Amendment 21, in clause 5, page 3, line 9, at end insert—
‘(2A) It shall be a defence that the person did not supply the substance for gain (whether direct or indirect).”
Amendment 13, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
‘(5) It is not an offence under this section for a person (“A”) to supply a psychoactive substance to person (“B”), where A and B are known to each other and such supply is part of an agreement to obtain psychoactive substances for either A’s, B’s or both’s own consumption and the supply does not profit person A.”
This amendment avoids one person being criminalised when, as part of a group, he is responsible for obtaining psychoactive substances for the group where, in effect, each person in the group is purchasing for their own consumption.
Amendment 14, in clause 8, page 4, line 38, leave out paragraph (i)
This amendment seeks to exclude from criminalisation those who order psychoactive substances over the internet for personal consumption.
Amendment 22, page 5, line 19, at end insert—
‘(5A) It shall be a defence that the person imported the substance for his own consumption.”
Amendment 15, in clause 10, page 6, line 22, at end insert—
‘(3) In sentencing, the court shall take account of the relative harm associated with the psychoactive substance that was the subject of the offence.”
This amendment seeks to ensure that sentencing is commensurate with the potential harm done by the substance involved.
Amendment 4, in clause 58, page 36, line 25, at end insert—
‘(2A) The report must inform Parliament on progress made in improving education and awareness about new psychoactive substances.”
This amendment requires the Secretary of State to include a section on progress in NPS education in their statutory review.
Amendment 25, in schedule 1, page 40, line 5, at end insert
“except to the extent necessary to give effect to section (Possession of controlled drugs).”
Amendment 1, page 41, line 12, at end insert—
10 N-phenylacetyl-L-prolylglycine ethyl ester
13 L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine
18 Tongkat Ali
This amendment exempts a number of substances from scope of the regulation regime introduced in the Psychoactive Substances Bill. The substances in this amendment are commonly used to improve individuals’ cognitive performance and have been found to have positive effects in a number of academic studies.
Amendment 5, page 41, line 12, at end insert—
8 Alkyl nitrites”
This would exempt “poppers” from the Bill, as recommended by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
Government amendment 10.
Both amendment 4 and new clause 1 deal with the key issue of drugs education and awareness. This Bill contains provisions to disrupt the supply of new psychoactive substances, but they will not be effective without action to reduce demand. What we need is a coherent and comprehensive education and awareness strategy to go alongside this Bill.
Amendment 4 would place a duty on the Secretary of State to update Parliament on the progress made by the Government in improving education and awareness of new psychoactive substances. The Bill requires the Secretary of State to bring a progress review before Parliament. Our amendment prescribes that this review should contain information about education and awareness, too.
At the end of last year I visited St Alban’s RC high school in my constituency, my old school, and saw there at first hand the kind of educational work that was being done on so-called legal highs. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is precisely the kind of approach we need?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Wales has a very impressive education programme, and I will come to that later in my contribution.
New clause 1 seeks to amend the Education Act 2002 to make personal, social, health and economic education include a focus on drugs and new psychoactive substances. It should be a foundation subject in any national curriculum. The Government’s drug education strategy contains some warm words about providing good quality education and advice so that young people and their parents are provided with credible information on actively resisting substance misuse, but these warm words are not, and were not, acted upon. The coalition Government reversed Labour’s plans to make PSHE a statutory requirement, despite that being recommended in the review carried out by Sir Alasdair Macdonald. They closed the drugs education forum, a source of expertise on drugs education in England which disseminated information to teachers across the country. The forum was closed as part of a drastic cut in drugs education spending. According to the Department of Health, drugs education spending was reduced from £3.9 million in 2009-10 to around £500,000 in 2010-11.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about the need for PSHE to include these measures. Given that Five Year Forward view set out by Simon Stevens for the national health service assumes £5 billion-worth of savings coming from prevention, is this not exactly the kind of prevention we should be promoting in our schools?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If I remember my facts rightly, the Government estimated that having a comprehensive drugs education would cost approximately £500 for every pupil in England and Wales. If we offset that against the average of nearly £1 million that would be spent on a person misusing substances over the course of their lifetime, we can see it can be cost-effective to provide decent, comprehensive drugs education and so stop us spending at the other end, on people misusing and abusing substances.
Statistics provided by Mentor UK, the drug and alcohol charity, demonstrate that this was a disastrous set of decisions by the Government. Some 60% of schools now teach drugs education for one hour or less per year, and 59% of pupils say they cannot remember having a drugs education lesson in the last year. Paul Tuohy, former chief executive of Mentor, has told a national newspaper:
“We are probably in the worst situation for drug education for decades.”
Where there is drugs education in our schools, the quality is questioned. Ofsted found that 40% of PSHE teaching was not good and needed to improve. A 2013 survey of teachers by the PSHE Association reported that 81% of respondents would like more classroom resources for drugs and alcohol education.
I am going to come to that later in my speech when I talk about Wales. Although there has not yet been a proper examination of the findings from the drugs programme that Wales has put into action, the initial findings appear to show that it has had some impact. If my hon. Friend will allow, I will continue with my—[Interruption.] Thank you: I will continue with my oration.
The evidence, including from the Government’s own inspectors, suggests that the Government’s approach to PSHE simply is not working. This failure has occurred at a time when the growth of the new psychoactive substances industry has started radically to alter the drugs situation in our country.
Moreover, parents want these changes. A National Union of Teachers survey suggests that around 88% of parents want PSHE to be compulsory. A 2011 survey conducted by Mumsnet showed that 98% of parents were happy for their children to attend PSHE lessons.
I agree that there is much we can do to prevent the supply of, and demand for, these substances. This set of amendments is dealing with demand, and I feel that, unless we get across the message that these so-called legal highs are neither legal nor safe, the demand on the internet will become even greater. We need to get across the core message that the Government are sending through this Bill: these drugs are not legal and not safe. The demand on the internet needs to be curbed as well, which is why we need to make sure that we have proper education and information out there.
Teachers, parents and the Government’s own inspectors think we should have more and better drugs education, but it appears that the Government do not agree. In Wales, a Labour Government show us how successful an alternative approach can be. A £2 million investment in the all-Wales school liaison programme has made substance misuse education a core subject in 98% of Welsh primary and secondary schools. Almost all Welsh schoolchildren receive accurate, consistent and credible information about the potential harms of drugs, rather than having to rely on friends, myths, the internet and guesswork. The school programme is complemented by the Welsh emerging drugs and novel substance project, a new psychoactive substances information and harm reduction programme, as well as measures to educate parents. These are all part of a £50 million investment in reducing drugs harms.
There are signs that the Welsh approach is working. Drug deaths in Wales are down by 30% since 2010. By contrast, drug-related deaths have been creeping up in England. There was a 17% increase in the last year, and the Office for National Statistics states that they are now at the highest level since records began in 1993.
Too much of the drugs education in our schools is focused on providing information. Evidence suggests that to get drugs education right, it has to be taught alongside a focus on the life skills which empower young people to resist peer pressure and make informed decisions.
It is good to hear from the hon. Lady again; I enjoyed listening to her in Committee. I agree with a lot of what she is saying, and nobody is suggesting the situation is perfect, but we have Mentor UK, the “Rise above” programme and the FRANK campaign, and I feel sure she will come on to say that while of course there is a role for the state and for education and health, there is also a role for parents. I am a parent of two young children, and I intend to educate them as well as I possibly can with the information I have about the dangers of psychoactive substances. Does the hon. Lady agree that that has got to be a key part of this?
I do so agree with the hon. Gentleman about that. Unfortunately, I have not been lucky enough to become a parent, but I have nieces and I know that what their parents tell them and the information available to their parents is crucial in their making the right decisions.
There are a lot of very responsible parents out there who will of course talk to their children about legal highs, and about building resilience and self-confidence so that they make the right decisions in their lives. We have to accept, however, that unfortunately many children do not have the advantages we would like them to have, so it is incumbent on us all to recognise that education within the school setting is another way of getting important messages across.
My hon. Friend is right indeed about that.
These life skills can be taught only by helping children think about the challenges and dangers they face. They need to understand that bullying is often a tool of the drug pusher, and that a consequence for people taking drugs from pushers is often that they will get into debt or be open to exploitation. When these messages are introduced in the classroom, they can result in conversations between young people and a real learning process rather than it all being a bit hit and miss, as my hon. Friend says, if this occurs out of school. We need information, values and context in order to deliver a quality drugs education. That is why drugs education belongs in the sort of comprehensive personal and social education that can be provided by PSHE, and not solely, as is happening so often, in science lessons. Unfortunately, the Government have consistently opposed making PSHE a foundation subject whenever the issue has been raised in this House.
There is reason to believe that education about new psychoactive substances is particularly bad. Research by the Royal Society for Public Health found that a quarter of young people aged between 16 and 24 believed that so-called “legal highs” were safer than illegal drugs. As we all know, that is a dangerous misunderstanding because some new psychoactive substances have been classified as class A drugs. It is little wonder that young people, and indeed older people, are confused when they are being bombarded with marketing tricks from drug pushers who tell them that these are safe and legal alternatives. Given the ingrained and damaging myths around new psychoactive substances, I find it astonishing that as of 2 June just £180,556 has been spent over three years on education programmes about these drugs.
New psychoactive substances education and awareness is not just about schools. That is why I have tabled amendment 4, which would place a statutory duty on the Home Secretary to include an update on progress in improving new psychoactive substances education and awareness in her statutory review. The amendment would focus minds at the Home Office and compel it to put in place the most effective and comprehensive awareness campaign possible.
The Welsh Assembly found that 57% of new psychoactive substances users used the media as their main source of information about these substances. Public relations and advertising campaigns therefore have a key role to play, particularly among adult groups where the Government cannot act as a direct provider of education as they do in schools. The Government’s own public awareness campaigns are limited to the FRANK website, which, regrettably, has almost no social media presence. In the absence of any Government action, the Angelus Foundation has been forced to run its own advertising campaigns, using fundraising and corporate donations in kind. I want to praise its work again, but I am sure it would acknowledge that these campaigns should be nationwide and comprehensive, and it simply cannot afford to do this itself. The job it is doing is the job that Government should be doing.
I, too, very much commend the Angelus Foundation, which gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and has been very important in establishing the case for more education. Is it not strange that the “FRANK” website and the information it provides are wholly separate from, and without any connection or link to, other great work being done, such as the films that are pushed through social media about awareness of new psychoactive substances? There is no collaboration; surely we need the Government to take a lead on that.
I say give the hon. Gentleman a job in the Home Office, because we would become much more effective if we put into practice what he has just suggested. In Committee, the Minister seemed to agree—I do not want to put words into his mouth—that FRANK was inadequate. He said:
“I put my hands up: ‘Talk to Frank’ is not perfect. We will work with everybody to try to ensure that “Talk to Frank” improves...the way in which it is feeding information is perhaps not as open or as direct as possible. Let us sort that now.”––[Official Report, Psychoactive Substances Public Bill Committee, 29 October 2015; c. 84.]
I encourage the Minister, in responding to the points I have raised, to respond to the point the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has just made and to give us some understanding of the progress that has been made in sorting it.
The hon. Lady may not be aware that a very prominent anti-drugs campaigner in my constituency, Mary Brett, has always had a lot of problems with the FRANK website, particularly because of its emphasis on harm reduction. The feeling is that the website fails to really point out the dangers in a direct way that youngsters can understand. I therefore rise to support the hon. Lady in hoping that the Minister will re-examine this issue, because many very good campaigners with honestly held views think that FRANK is not good enough.
I thank the right hon. Lady for making that point. I know very little about drugs, apart from what I have learned hard over the past few months. I did not even know what poppers were when I first took on my brief—I had never heard of them; I thought they were the little things with the string that we had at parties. When I looked at the FRANK website it did not enlighten me that much. I needed something a bit more basic that would help to enlighten and educate me, and I therefore agree with the point she has made.
I urge the Minister to accept my amendment 4 and pledge to report to Parliament on the progress made in delivering the Government’s education strategy. It really is not a big ask and if the Government are serious about drugs education—I genuinely believe that the Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice is—they ought to be committed to monitoring this rigorously, at the very least. He claimed in his letter to the Bill Committee that the statutory review should focus on the operation of the legislation. I agree, but the operation of this legislation will not happen in a vacuum. He has repeatedly said that it must be complemented by a communication and awareness strategy. It therefore seems appropriate to me that a look at the “operation” of this legislation would include a substantive section on education and awareness, just to make sure that we are getting the messages out there and reducing demand.
I am sure the Minister will agree that we should be keen to review and evaluate the impact this legislation will have, and I am pleased there is provision in the Bill to ensure that that will happen. However, will he provide assurances that in the regular and annual collection of statistics about arrests, prosecutions, sentencing, offender management and treatment, information collected about substances covered by this legislation will not be subsumed into the similar data collected for drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971? Similarly, will he confirm that surveys carried out by the Government on crime and public health will separate out the consideration of information about the Misuse of Drugs Act controlled drugs and of information about psychoactive substances? I raise that matter because it will be too easy simply to obscure the impact this legislation will have if the information is collapsed into the existing systems for collecting data about action taken on drugs controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
I would also like the Minister to accept new clause 1—a girl can dream! The Government’s approach to PSHE simply is not working and we cannot stand by and let that happen when new psychoactive substances are bringing new dangers into our communities.
While I am on my feet, I will also speak to amendment 5, which, if passed, will add poppers to the list of exemptions to the ban on psychoactive substances. Poppers would then be treated like nicotine, alcohol and caffeine—substances that we know to be psychoactive, but do not feel it judicious to ban. We support the Bill because legislation is necessary to safeguard against the serious harms created by new psychoactive substances. Our concern to safeguard against harm is exactly why we believe that poppers should be exempt from the ban on psychoactive substances. In our judgment, fewer harms are likely to occur if poppers are added to the exemption list.
I have noted the Home Secretary’s response to the report of the Home Affairs Committee in which she recognises the representations made about a beneficial and health relationship effect and the concern that a ban will have, especially on men who have sex with men. I was pleased to see that the Home Secretary has chosen to refer the issue for further consideration by expert bodies. However, I was a little perplexed as to why that consideration is being made in partnership not with the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—her own body of scientific experts on drugs—but with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Strangely, if the recommendation from the MHRA is favourable and agrees with the evidence about poppers to date, the ACMD will then be consulted. Why does the Home Secretary prefer a different set of scientists and clinicians from her own? Perhaps the Minister could provide some clarity on that.
I am conscious that this is an intervention and not a speech. Later on, when I have a chance to respond to the debate in the tone that has been used throughout the passage of this Bill, the shadow Minister will be pleased to hear that the ACMD will start the process. That is something that I have initiated in the past couple of days.