House of Commons
Wednesday 27 January 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Political Engagement: Young People
The Government’s new online electoral registration system has made it easier and quicker for everyone, especially young people, to register to vote. The process now takes less time than boiling an egg. We are also working with groups such as Bite The Ballot on the national voter registration drive, which is an excellent initiative to persuade more people to register to vote that runs for the whole of next week, in which I encourage everyone to get involved. The British Youth Council’s Make Your Mark ballot led to nearly 1 million young people voting throughout the UK and informed the Youth Parliament’s debates in this Chamber.
I welcome the Minister’s support for next week’s national voter registration drive. Last year’s drive helped nearly 500,000 young electors to register to vote. Would he support repeating last year’s projection of an image of a ballot box on to the Elizabeth Tower? I understand that you, Mr Speaker, are a fan of that, as am I, so we need to persuade Westminster City Council to allow that.
My hon. Friend deserves top marks for creative marketing ideas, but after the use of the Elizabeth Tower for unauthorised projections, including of Australian cricketers and various bits of Gail Porter, I am told that the subject excites strong passions in Westminster council and, quite possibly, the House authorities, so I should probably urge her to discuss her proposals carefully with them.
When I visited Harris school in my constituency recently to talk to its pupils about the role of an MP, I met bright youngsters who wanted to learn more about how Parliament works. Does the Minister agree that getting more public figures to talk and answer questions in schools would be a great way of engaging young people with the political process?
The hon. Gentleman raised this point with me a little while ago and asked about credit reference agencies, among others. We might be able to use other sources of data, but some base a lot of their information on the electoral roll itself, so we would need to ensure that the process did not become circular. There may be things that other people can add, however, and all sources of data offer potential ways to reduce the cost, and improve the quality and speed, of our registration efforts.
During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a huge number of young people became politically active and engaged in Scotland, but the current generation of 16 and 17-year-olds will not have the opportunity to vote in the EU referendum, although they will have to live with its consequences for much longer than most people in the Chamber. Why do the Government not accept that the best way to encourage young people to vote is actually to give them the vote?
Since the general election, we have debated this particular question four or five times—perhaps more—and collectively decided against it, with healthy majorities, on every single occasion. We can go over this again, and I am happy to have further debates with the hon. Lady as needed, but the House has made its collective decision plain.
The Labour party’s initial analysis shows big drops in registered voters in many university towns. The figure for Canterbury is down 13%, while those for Cambridge and Dundee West are both down 11% on last year. Those universities that have enabled students to register to vote when they enrol have all seen high levels of student registration. Will the Government issue guidance to all vice-chancellors immediately to suggest that they adopt such a system in September?
It is not quite that simple, but I sympathise with the hon. Lady, in that several new approaches that are being trialled in universities throughout the country are extremely promising. We want to pursue those, so perhaps the hon. Lady and I can discuss that further at our meeting later today.
Social mobility is mission critical to our plan to ensure that the civil service is fully representative of the nation that it serves and benefits from talent in every part of Britain.
We asked the Bridge Group to look into social mobility in the fast stream and the people who are joining the civil service, and it will report very soon. I can tell my hon. Friend the number of new apprenticeships in the civil service: 884 since we introduced the scheme in 2013—another part of broadening access to the civil service.
Many young people from working-class estates across the United Kingdom lack the capacity and training skills to join the civil service. What are the Government doing to ensure that they have the greater skills required to get on the ladder into the civil service?
Great training is available for people once they are in, but I want to broaden the number of people from different backgrounds coming into the civil service right at the start, which means people from all over the United Kingdom: from all parts, from all groups, from all ethnic backgrounds, men and women, to make sure that we make the very best use of the talent that is available.
I see that the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Chancellor has his own mission critical approach to social mobility. His closest adviser got a 42% pay rise while most public servants got a pay freeze; he has five times the usual number of special advisers while 80,000 jobs have been cut in the civil service; and this week it was revealed by The Sunday Times that the permanent secretary in his Department has used a loophole to avoid paying tax on his pension pot. Is it the Minister’s view that that is an appropriate leadership approach in the civil service, and is it not true that when it comes to tax, the Chancellor’s friends in Google get special treatment, and when it comes to social mobility in the civil service it helps to be a friend of the Chancellor?
It is disappointing that we do not have a cross-party approach to improving access to the civil service—who comes into it—to make sure that we have the very best people working for the common aim of delivering the Government’s agenda to improve the lives of citizens whom we serve, because that is the job that we focus on.
National Citizen Service
The National Citizen Service is helping to build a more responsible, cohesive and engaged society. The latest annual figures show a 46% increase in participation, making it the fastest growing youth programme for a century. Every £1 spent on NCS generates nearly £4 of social benefits—something that everyone in the House and the country should be proud of.
My hon. Friend will be aware that NCS was not specifically designed to tackle extremism in our communities. However, the programme plays a significant role in promoting tolerance by breaking down barriers between communities. NCS helps young people to learn about other cultures and creates positive bonds between people from different backgrounds. In 2014, 27% of NCS participants were from non-white backgrounds compared with 19% of the general population.
Through my involvement with NCS in Cornwall I have seen first-hand the truly life-changing experience that the programme provides. Will the Minister join me in thanking and congratulating all those people across the country who deliver the programme successfully, and does he agree that NCS is a clear example that this Government are truly a one nation Government?
My hon. Friend is a strong advocate of NCS in Cornwall, where 580 young people have recently benefited from a life-changing experience on the programme. A one nation Government helps everyone to reach their full potential. That principle is at the heart of NCS. We support everyone who participates regardless of background, and provide bursaries to those who need financial support. NCS achieves a diverse mix of young people, working together to develop new skills and giving back to their community.
The Minister will be aware that many Labour Members are great supporters of the programme, but can we be sure that the content has real, hard substance, such as democratic values and the equality of women in British life? Are those emphasised enough to young people on the programme?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman can be assured of that. According to the figures, 72% of participants felt more confident about getting a job after they had taken part in NCS. A year on, people are still benefiting from taking part in the NCS programme, according to the research.
11. In Cleethorpes and north-east Lincolnshire the NCS programme has been doing a lot of work in the local St Andrew’s hospice, which has had a great impact on young people. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lee Stephens, Graham Rodger and their team in north-east Lincolnshire, who do tremendous work? (903295)
Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the people in his constituency and across the country who take part in NCS. To date NCS participants have volunteered an estimated total of 8 million hours in their local communities, developing vital skills in the process. The programme benefits the participants and the local community.
Freedom of Information Act
9. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000. (903292)
The Government are committed to transparency and freedom of information. The independent commission on freedom of information was established to review the working of the Act and we will consider the report when it is received.
There are any number of instances that we can all point to where the publication of information that the authorities would rather have kept hidden has led to significant public benefits. The expenses affair in this place was one example. I do not know of a single case where the release of information through the Freedom of Information Act has caused any significant public damage. Does the Minister agree that any change to the Act should be designed to make it easier, rather than harder, for citizens to find out what the Government are doing?
I am happy to hear more from the hon. Gentleman because I am a great supporter of freedom of information and the Act, and of transparency. We have to make sure that its workings are accurate and we look forward to listening and seeing what the commission comes up with when it reports in due course.
May I inform my right hon. Friend that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be scrutinising those proposals very carefully indeed? We want to make sure that the judges are interpreting the Freedom of Information Act as Parliament truly intended, but I can tell him that there is no going back on freedom of information.
Indeed. The Freedom of Information Act has brought to light many things that it is in the public interest to have in the public domain. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s Committee will scrutinise the proposals very carefully, not least to ensure that the will of Parliament is the law of the land. I look forward to working with him on that.
I did not have to use the Freedom of Information Act because I went on to the gov.uk website to find out that the excellent Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, is now a non-executive director of the board of the Cabinet Office. May I say what a wise choice that is? What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that similar people are appointed to other Government Departments?
Crikey! Where to start? Mark Price is, indeed, an incredibly impressive businessman and I look forward to working with him on the Cabinet Office board. That information was published on our award-winning gov.uk website, which has had billions of hits because there is so much good information to be found there.
Is the Minister aware that despite all his fine words, there are many, including me, who believe that the purpose of the review is to undermine the Freedom of Information Act introduced by a Labour Government? So many of the abuses that have been revealed have become known to the public only as a result of the Act. The Government should be defending freedom of information, not trying to undermine it.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I said that much information is in the public domain, and it is in the public interest that it is public, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. That is my position. I look forward to hearing what the commission has to say about the operational working of the Act to ensure that it is working in the way Parliament intended.
It is confusing to hear the Minister claim to be such a fan of transparency, given that the Cabinet Office has set up a commission designed to weaken FOI—an ex-coalition Minister has described that as a “rigged jury”—botched the release of Cabinet papers, watered down consultation rules, and is now being investigated by the Information Commissioner for withholding thousands of items of spending data. If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, why has the Minister now abolished every single senior civil service post with responsibility for transparency?
Major Projects Authority
10. What assessment he made of the effectiveness of the Major Projects Authority prior to January 2016. (903294)
The Major Projects Authority—now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority—was set up in 2011 to establish the Government’s major projects portfolio and ensure high-quality project assurance and support. Since 2012 it has produced an annual report summarising progress and delivery of major Government projects.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office talks about the Government being the most open ever. Will the Minister without Portfolio sanction the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to release more information about which projects are green, amber or red so that taxpayers know what is going on?
The hon. Lady will know, because the Public Accounts Committee, which she chairs, recently questioned the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, that we do publish the information she mentioned. She should be excited by the new Infrastructure and Projects Authority, because it brings together the experience of the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, it saves taxpayers’ money, in the light of spending review priorities, and it brings under one roof support for major projects such as Crossrail and the Thames tideway tunnel, as well as major transformational projects such as universal credit.
This morning we published further spending transparency data, which the Cabinet Office is committed to do as part of our agenda to be the most transparent Government ever.
I thank the Minister of transparency for that response, but does he not agree that it is very difficult for him to lead by example on the transparency agenda when his own Department is being investigated by the Information Commissioner for refusing to publish routine spending data?
It sounds like the hon. Lady wrote her supplementary question before she got the previous answer, because we published that information this morning. What is more, we are publishing Cabinet minutes at twice the pace that we ever saw under the previous Labour Government.
The Government continue to publish a wide range of data sets. More than 22,000 are now available on the Government website.
The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency in reforming Government and helping the Prime Minister to deliver the Government’s agenda. This Government have made huge strides in transforming online services for the citizen. I am glad to tell the House that we are now embarking on an ambitious programme to change the culture of public services by using online complaints to deal with problems and sort them out quicker.
I am very happy to do that. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has recently had the opportunity to use the gov.uk services, but the universal impression is that for the first time in our country’s history one can now quickly get hold of what one needs to online. The service is also hugely responsive and takes account of feedback—something from which previous Governments were not able to benefit.
We answer freedom of information requests all the time. What is more, we are not only publishing more information but making sure that it is published in a usable way so that people can benefit from it right across this country.
T2. Does the Minister agree that taking a public appointment is an excellent way for people across the country to play their part in shaping our society, and that it is important that people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to do so? (903260)
Right across the public sector, thousands of public appointments are made each year. It is vital that people from all backgrounds, from all ethnicities, and both men and women, from all parts of our country, put their names forward so that they can help in our great mission of improving the lives of the citizens of the UK.
T4. In the past year, one in seven peers did not speak at all in the other place, despite many of them claiming allowances. If the Government are so keen to reduce the cost of politics, why are they not doing anything about this? (903262)
T6. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Robert Holdcroft, who owns the McDonald’s in Redditch, for hosting “snack and chat” events in his restaurant that allow sixth formers to question their Member of Parliament and increase their interest in politics? Perhaps he might like to join me at one of these events. (903264)
The hon. Lady will know that anybody who is not on the register as a result of the individual electoral registration exercise will have been approached on nine separate occasions to try to get them to register individually. Everybody now has the chance to register individually under IER on the rolling register in time for the elections.
We have been making significant savings in Government property, and the estate is already 20% smaller than it was in 2010. We have saved over £750 million in running costs, but there is much more to do. We have far more work to do to make sure that we are as efficient as possible in the use of property, and I look forward to leading that work.
T10. Does the Minister agree that the Cabinet Office could be far more effective in running the Government if it did not have in another Department a Chancellor who goes out and agrees pig-in-a-poke deals with Google, which everybody knows does not pay its fair share of tax, at a time when millions are filling in their tax returns?
T9. Again this year, many tens of thousands of young people will benefit from the National Citizen Service programme. However, there are still too many young people who have never been introduced to the programme or had the opportunity to “Say yes” to NCS. Will my right hon. Friend work with colleagues from across the House to make sure that every young person has the opportunity to understand this project and can sign up for this summer’s programmes? (903267)
As my hon. Friend puts it, NCS is a fantastic opportunity for young people. It massively expanded during the last Parliament, and we have ambitious plans to make sure that every young person who wants to do so can benefit from NCS, which does so much to inspire and enrich people’s lives.
T7. New research has uncovered that there has been a greater fall in UK civil service employment in Scotland than in any other UK nation. Between 2011 and 2015, 5,000 civil servants working for UK Departments in Scotland lost their jobs. Will the Minister tell me and my constituents whether that is his definition of “better together”? (903265)
Of course we have had to make savings in the number of civil servants as we have reduced the deficit, but there are far more UK civil servants working in Scotland than civil servants working for the Scottish Government. It just shows that, for Scotland as well as for the rest of this United Kingdom, we are that much better together.
In supporting citizenship and volunteering, what lessons can be learned from the excellent Team Rubicon UK, led by my constituent General Sir Nick Parker? It involves recruiting veterans and ex-servicemen to do great work, notably during the recent flooding.
The Cabinet Office is responsible for the guidelines on Government proposals. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights discovered when we went to Scotland earlier this month, there is a strong feeling about the consultation on the Human Rights Act 1998. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that the voice of people in Scotland is heard, and that they will not be gagged by the fact that the consultation will be issued during purdah following the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament? Will he give such a guarantee?
As the right hon. and learned Lady will know, the consultation principles, which we have recently promulgated—I spoke to the Joint Committee about them recently—have the effect that every Department should make sure that all consultations are proportionate, and that we make due allowance for any time during which it would be difficult for people to respond so that we get a full and adequate consultation on every occasion.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know the whole House will want to join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day. It is right that our whole country should stand together to remember the darkest hour of humanity.
Last year, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I said we would build a striking national memorial in London to show the importance Britain places on preserving the memory of the holocaust. Today, I can tell the House that this memorial will be built in Victoria Tower Gardens. It will stand beside Parliament as a permanent statement of our values as a nation, and it will be something for our children to visit for generations to come. I am grateful to all those who have made this possible, and who have given this work the cross-party status that it so profoundly deserves.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I echo the Prime Minister’s sentiments regarding Holocaust Memorial Day. We must never forget.
The North sea oil and gas industry, on which many people in my Waveney constituency are dependent for their livelihoods, is facing very serious challenges at the current time. The Government have taken steps to address the situation, but more is required if the industry is first to survive, and then to thrive. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he recognises the seriousness of the situation, and will he do all he can to get the industry through these very difficult times?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. I do recognise the seriousness of the situation. The oil price decline is the longest in 20 years and nearly the steepest, and this causes real difficulties for the North sea. We can see the effects in the east of England, of course across Scotland, particularly in Aberdeen, and in other parts of our country, too. We discussed this at Cabinet yesterday. I am determined that we build a bridge to the future for all those involved in the North sea. We are going to help the sector export its world-class expertise. We are going to help such economies diversify. We announced £1.3 billion of support last year for the North sea. We are implementing the Wood review. I will be going to Aberdeen tomorrow, where we will be saying more about what we can do to help this vital industry at this vital time.
On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the remarks the Prime Minister made about Holocaust Memorial Day. It is the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We have to remember the deepest, darkest days of inhumanity that happened then and the genocides that have sadly happened since. We must educate another generation to avoid those for all time.
Independent experts have suggested that Google is paying an effective tax rate on its UK profits of around 3%. Does the Prime Minister dispute that figure?
Let us be clear what we are talking about here. We are talking about tax that should have been collected under a Labour Government being raised by a Conservative Government. I do dispute the figures the right hon. Gentleman gives. It is right that this is done independently by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but I am absolutely clear that no Government have done more than this one to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance—no Government, and certainly not the last Labour Government.
My question was whether the Prime Minister thinks an effective tax rate of 3% is right or wrong. He did not answer it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer described this arrangement as a “major success”, while the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson only called it a “step forward”. The Mayor of London described the payment as “quite derisory”. What exactly is the Government’s position on this 3% rate of taxation?
But we have put in place the diverted profits tax, which means that this company and other companies will pay more tax in future. They will pay more tax than they ever paid under Labour, when the tax rate for Google was 0%. That is what we faced.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what we have done. We have changed the tax laws so many times that we raised an extra £100 billion from business in the last Parliament. When I came to power, banks did not pay tax on all their profits—allowed under Labour, stopped under the Tories; investment companies could cut their tax bill by flipping the currency their accounts were in—allowed under Labour, stopped under the Tories; and companies could fiddle accounting rules to make losses appear out of thin air—allowed under Labour, stopped under the Tories. We have done more on tax evasion and tax avoidance than Labour ever did. The truth is that they are running to catch up, but they haven’t got a leg to stand on.
It was under a Labour Government that the inquiries into Google were begun. In addition, as a percentage of GDP, corporation tax receipts are lower under this Government than under previous Governments.
I have a question here from a gentleman called Jeff. [Interruption.] You might well laugh, but Jeff speaks for millions of people when he says to me:
“Can you ask the Prime Minister…if as a working man of over 30 years whether there is a scheme which I can join that pays the same rate of tax as Google and other large…corporations?”
What does the Prime Minister say to Jeff?
What I say to Jeff is that his taxes are coming down under this Government, and Google’s taxes are going up under this Government. Something the right hon. Gentleman said in his last question was factually inaccurate. He said that corporation tax receipts have gone down. They have actually gone up by 20% under this Government because we have a strong economy, with businesses making money, employing people, investing in our country and paying taxes into the Exchequer.
If, like me, the right hon. Gentleman is genuinely angry about what happened to Google under Labour, there are a few people he could call. Maybe he should start by calling Tony Blair. You can get him at J. P. Morgan. Call Gordon Brown. Apparently, you can get him at a Californian bond dealer called Pimco. He could call Alistair Darling. I think he’s at Morgan Stanley, but it’s hard to keep up. Those are the people to blame for Google not paying its taxes. We are the ones who got it to pay.
The problem is that the Prime Minister is the Prime Minister, and is responsible for the Government and therefore responsible for tax collection. Google made profits of £6 billion in the UK between 2005 and 2015 and is paying £130 million in tax for the whole of that decade. Millions of people this week are filling in their tax returns to get them in by the 31st. They have to send the form back. They do not get the option of 25 meetings with 17 Ministers to decide what their rate of tax is. Many people going to their HMRC offices or returning their forms online this week will say this: why is there one rule for big multinational companies and another for ordinary small businesses and self-employed workers?
All those people filling in their tax returns are going to be paying lower taxes under this Government. That is what is happening. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman, he can, if he wants, criticise HMRC, but HMRC’s work is investigated by the National Audit Office, and when it did that, it found that the settlements that it has reached with companies are fair. That is how it works. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is pointing. The idea that those two right hon. Gentlemen would stand up to anyone in this regard is laughable. Look at their record over the last week. They met the unions and they gave them flying pickets. They met the Argentinians; they gave them the Falkland Islands. They met a bunch of migrants in Calais; they said they could all come to Britain. The only people they never stand up for are the British people and hard-working taxpayers.
We have had no answers on Google; we have had no answers for Jeff.
Can I raise with the Prime Minister another unfair tax policy that affects many people in this country? This morning the Court of Appeal ruled that the bedroom tax is discriminatory, because of its impact—[Interruption.] I don’t know why Members opposite find this funny, because it isn’t for those who have to pay it. The ruling was made because of the bedroom tax’s impact on vulnerable individuals, including victims of domestic violence and disabled children. Will the Prime Minister now read the judgment and finally abandon this cruel and unjust policy, which has now been ruled to be illegal?
We always look very carefully at the judgments on these occasions, but of course our fundamental position is that it is unfair to subsidise spare rooms in the social sector if we do not subsidise them in the private sector where people are paying housing benefit. That is a basic issue of fairness, but isn’t it interesting that the first pledge the right hon. Gentleman makes is something that could cost as much as £2.5 billion in the next Parliament? Who is going to pay for that? Jeff will pay for it. The people filling in their tax returns will pay for it. Why is it that the right hon. Gentleman always wants to see more welfare, higher taxes and more borrowing—all the things that got us into the mess in the first place?
We have not had any answers on Google or the bedroom tax, but I ask the Prime Minister this. Shortly before coming into the Chamber, I became aware of the final report of the United Nations panel of experts on Yemen, which has been sent to the Government. It makes very disturbing reading. The report says that the panel has documented that coalition forces have
“conducted airstrikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law, including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees…civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques”.
These are very disturbing reports. In the light of this, will the Prime Minister agree to launch immediately an inquiry and a full review into the arms export licences to Saudi Arabia and suspend those arms sales until that review has been concluded?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have the strictest rules for arms exports of almost any country anywhere in the world. Let me remind him that we are not a member of the Saudi-led coalition; we are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations; and British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes. I will look at that report as I look at all other reports, but our arms exports are carefully controlled and we are backing the legitimate Government of the Yemen, not least because terrorist attacks planned in the Yemen would have a direct effect on people in our country. I refuse to run a foreign policy by press release, which is what he wants. I want a foreign policy that is in the interests of the British people.
Q2. The recent explosion of spurious legal claims against British troops, including those pursued by the law firm that has donated tens of thousands of pounds to the shadow Defence Secretary, undermine the ability of our armed forces to do their job. Will the Prime Minister join me in repudiating the disdain that this shows to our brave servicewomen and our brave servicemen? (903270)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, we hold our service personnel to the highest standards, and it is right that we do, but it is quite clear that there is now an industry trying to profit from spurious claims that are lodged against our brave servicemen and women. I am determined to do everything we can to close that bogus industry down. We should start by making it clear that we will take action against any legal firm that we find to have abused the system to pursue fabricated claims. That is absolutely not acceptable.
I begin by associating the Scottish National party with the comments of the Prime Minister in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day, and commend Governments across the United Kingdom for supporting the Holocaust Educational Trust for the important work it does.
Does the Prime Minister agree that there is no justification for discrimination or unfairness towards women in the private sector or the public sector, or by the Government?
First of all, I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Holocaust Educational Trust. I remember as a new constituency MP meeting people from the trust and seeing the incredible work they do in my constituency. They work extremely hard around the clock but this day is particularly important for them. I urge colleagues who have not visited Auschwitz to do so: it is something they will never forget, no matter what they have read, films they have seen or books they have interrogated. There is nothing like seeing for yourself what happened in the darkest hour for humanity.
In terms of wanting to end discrimination against women in the public sector, the private sector, in politics and in this place: yes, absolutely.
I very much welcome what the Prime Minister says on both counts. He is aware of the state pension inequality that is impacting on many women, and that, on pension equalisation, this Parliament voted unanimously for the Government to
“immediately introduce transitional arrangements for those women negatively affected by that equalisation.”
What will the Prime Minister do to respect the decision of this Parliament and to help those women who are affected—those born in the 1950s—who should have had proper notice to plan their finances and their retirement?
First of all, the equalisation of the retirement age came about on the basis of equality, which was a judgment by the European Court. We put it in place in the 1990s. When this Government decided—rightly, in my view—to raise the retirement age, we made the decision that no one should suffer a greater than 18-month increase in their retirement age. That is the decision that this House of Commons took. The introduction of the single-tier pension at £155 a week will be one of the best ways that we can end discrimination in the pension system, because so many women retiring will get so much more in their pension which, of course, under this Government, is triple-lock protected, so they will get inflation, earnings or 2.5%, and never again a derisory 75p increase.
Q3. Our prisons can still be centres of radicalisation. Will the Prime Minister look at all measures, including those in the all-party parliamentary group for boxing report, for preventing troubled young people from falling into the jaws of those dangerously screwed up and predatory extremists? (903271)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is very disturbing that, when people are in our care and when the state is looking after them, on some occasions, they have been radicalised because of what they have heard in prison either from other prisoners, or on occasion, from visiting imams. We need to sort this situation out. The Justice Secretary has put in place a review. I will look carefully at the report my hon. Friend mentions, but, if anything, we must ensure that people who are already radicalised when they go to prison are de-radicalised rather than made worse.
Q5. Since the Chancellor of the Exchequer took control of the public purse, he has utterly failed to get the deficit under control. To date this year, he has borrowed over £74 billion to plug the gap or—to use the vernacular his party is fond of using for a hypothetical independent Scotland—the monumental financial black hole in his books. Is he now likely to breach his own deficit reduction target for the year by somewhere in the region of £9 billion? Will the Prime Minister finally concede— (903273)
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and the economic strategy the Government have pursued, has cut the deficit in half from the record level we inherited. Soon it will be down by two-thirds. We are meeting what we want to see in terms of debt falling as a share of our GDP. What a contrast with the situation Scotland would be facing if it had voted for independence. In just six weeks, we have seen a 94% collapse in oil revenues. Because we have the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom, the collapse in the oil price and taxation will not affect people in Scotland. Had Scotland been independent, it would be a very, very dark day indeed.
Q4. Recently, I held a mental health forum in my constituency. I brought service users and commissioners together to explore how we could improve mental health services in Dudley and Sandwell. I welcome the Prime Minister’s recent announcement on increased funding for mental health services. Does he agree that, despite the fact we have more work to do, his commitments are a clear indication of our desire to have a revolution in mental health services in Britain? He has delivered some commitments on that. (903272)
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. There is further to go, but the Government are investing more in mental health. We introduced the waiting times, most recently saying that young people suffering episodes of psychosis should be seen within two weeks. There is funding, there is parity of esteem, there is waiting time. There also needs to be a bigger culture change not just in the NHS but right across the public and private sectors, so that mental health conditions are given the attention they deserve.
What we are doing for women like that is making sure that this year they can earn £11,000 without paying any income tax. If they are on low wages, if they are on the minimum wage, they will get a 7% pay increase because of the national living wage. For the first time, there will be 30 hours of free childcare for those people. That is what we are doing for hard-working people. Do we need to reform welfare? Yes, we do. If the hon. Gentleman had read the report into why his party lost the election—not the one it published, of course; the secret one we all read over the weekend—he would see that, by its endlessly arguing for higher and higher welfare, the British public rightly concluded that under Labour there would be higher and higher taxes.
Q8. I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s words on creating a national memorial to the victims of the holocaust. Tonight in Harrow, representatives of the whole community will come together to listen to the people who survived the holocaust. This is the only way we can preserve their memory. My right hon. Friend rightly alluded to the wonderful work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in allowing literally thousands of young people to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and to see it at first hand. Will he commit the Government to continue funding the Holocaust Educational Trust, so that many thousands more can see the horrors of the holocaust? (903276)
I can certainly make that commitment. We have funded the trust with over £10 million since I became Prime Minister. As I said in answer to an earlier question, it does excellent work. I also think there is a real need now as, tragically, the remaining holocaust survivors are coming to the end of their lives. Many of them—I will be spending some time today with some of them—are now speaking up in the most moving and powerful way. Recording their testimonies, which must be part of our memorial, is absolutely vital. Their description of what they went through and the friends and family they lost, is so powerful and moving we must capture it for generations to come.
Q7. In 2013, the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee recommended extending the retention of business rates to include new build nuclear power stations. The Centre of Nuclear Excellence is in my constituency, and the new build at Moorside is vital for our economic prosperity. Given the Government cuts to Cumbria’s councils, does the Prime Minister agree that if we are truly to build a northern powerhouse, our local authorities must retain all business rates from the nuclear new build in west Cumbria? (903275)
I will consider very carefully what the hon. Lady says. We are committed to the new nuclear industry, and we are obviously making good progress with Hinkley Point, but we need another big station to go ahead. I will consider very carefully her comments about business rates retention and business rates more broadly, but the most important thing is to have energy infrastructure that allows for the delivery of new nuclear power stations. That is the Government’s position.
The Government are absolutely committed to regenerating our coastal towns and ensuring that everyone, regardless of where they live in this country, has access to high-quality public services and the very best opportunities. I am happy to reaffirm that to the House today.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
I recognise the initiatives the Government have taken, but the Prime Minister will know that many coastal towns, such as Cleethorpes, suffer from poor educational standards. We have many high-performing academies trying to reverse that and ensure that our young people have access to sport, arts and culture at the highest level. The council is preparing a report with the private sector. Will he commit the Government to working with me and the council to deliver regeneration to Cleethorpes?
No one, Mr Speaker, could silence the voice of the Humber. That was not going to happen.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am happy to look at the proposal with him. We have to make sure we tackle both failing schools and coasting schools, and there are some in coastal areas of our country. One issue is making sure we get very talented teachers and leaders into those schools, and that is what the national leaders of education service is all about, but I am happy to talk further with him.
Rathlin island is the only inhabited coastal village or town in my constituency. No British Prime Minister has ever had the honour to visit that part of Ulster. When does the Prime Minister plan to visit this remote location, which has considerable economic needs and could generate more employment and tourism?
I have been the first British Prime Minister to visit many parts of our country—I was the first to go to Shetland for about 30 years—but I fear, if I went to this island, people might like me to stay. I will certainly bear it in mind, however, the next time I visit the Province.
Q13. Rugby is the fastest-growing town in the west midlands, and work is under way to provide 6,200 much-needed new homes at the Rugby Radio site. My constituents are keen to ensure that public services keep pace with those developments and to see more services at their local hospital, St Cross. Does the Prime Minister agree with the NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, that district hospitals such as St Cross play an excellent role in the NHS? (903281)
I am a believer in district general hospitals, and I know what a strong supporter of St Cross my hon. Friend is and that there is a new dedicated children’s outpatient facility there, which is welcome. If we are to achieve our aggressive house building targets, more houses will be built in most of our constituencies, and it is important that we try, as far as we can, to welcome that and make sure that the infrastructure that goes with these necessary houses is provided.
Q9. Not everybody is as satisfied as the Chancellor with what for Google is loose change to cover its tax liabilities. On Monday, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) called on the Government to make companies publish their tax returns. In that way, we can all see how they make the journey from their cash profits to their tax bills. Does the Prime Minister agree? (903277)
I do wonder whether the right hon. Lady ever raised this issue when she sat in the Labour Cabinet when Google was paying zero tax. What we have is a situation where we make the rules in this House and HMRC has to enforce those rules. That is the system that we need to make work.
Q14. As cancer survival rates continue to improve and given that this is cancer talk week, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming a new state-of-the-art cancer information centre due to open at Royal Bolton hospital, and will he praise the collaboration of Macmillan Cancer Support, Bolton People Affected by Cancer, Bolton hospice and the Bolton clinical commissioning group, which are all making this happen? (903282)
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in that. Everyone in the House knows someone or has a family member who has been touched by cancer, and many people have lost loved ones to cancer. The good news is that cancer survival rates are improving, and we need to ensure they improve across all types of cancer, not just the best known ones. What I think my hon. Friend is saying is that this is not just an issue for the NHS; it is also about all those big society bodies that want to campaign and act on helping cancer sufferers, which have such a big role to play.
Q10. In the summer of 2014 when I was the leader of Highland Council, I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to join the Scottish Government and Highland Council in taking forward a city deal for Inverness. Highland Council has submitted a detailed plan on the theme of “a region for young people”. Will the Prime Minister now commit to giving this the green light in the coming weeks? (903278)
We are committed to examining the city deal with Inverness, just as we have made very good progress on the city deal with Aberdeen. I think these bring together the best of what the Scottish Government can put on the table, but also the best of what the UK Government can put on the table. Without wanting to be too political about it, the two Governments working together can do even more.
I thank the Prime Minister for meeting the deposed Maldivian President Nasheed and his legal team in No. 10 on Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend commit to work towards an international consensus on targeted sanctions, so that the Maldivian regime might reconsider its appalling human rights record and its record on democracy?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It was an honour to meet former President Nasheed, who I think did an excellent job for his country in cutting out corruption and turning that important country round. He suffered terribly from being in prison, and it is good that he is able to get out to seek medical treatment, but we want to see a change in behaviour from the Maldivian Government to make sure that political prisoners are set free. Yes, we are prepared to consider targeted action against individuals if further progress is not made. Let us hope that the diplomatic efforts, including by the Commonwealth action group, will lead to the changes we want to see. Britain and its allies, including Sri Lanka and India, are watching the situation very closely.
Q12. Forty-six per cent. of five-year-old children in Bradford suffer from dental decay, compared with just 28% across England. Fewer than half of the children living in the Bradford district have seen a dentist in the last two years. Given that the cost of treating tooth decay far exceeds the cost of prevention, will the Prime Minister look at the lack of availability of NHS dentists in Bradford South as a matter of urgency? (903280)
I am happy to look at what the hon. Lady says. If we take a view across the country, before 2010 we had those huge queues round the block when a new NHS dentist turned up because there were not enough of them. We have seen a very big— [Interruption.] Labour Members may shake their heads, but that is what happened, and some of us can remember it. We have seen a big increase in NHS dentistry since, but I will look carefully at the situation in Bradford.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the peninsula rail taskforce is set to deliver its report on a resilient railway to Devon and Cornwall. Would he be willing to meet me and a number of colleagues to ensure that Network Rail and the taskforce have enough funding for the two studies into the electrification of the line and the necessary reduction of journey times?
I had an excellent meeting with the south-west peninsula rail taskforce, which has been working closely with the Government. I will make sure that we continue to liaise closely with it. Clearly, we need to find an answer and we need to find the funding to make it work. We cannot allow to happen what happened in the past when a problem on our railways led to the peninsula being cut off. We cannot see that happen again.
Q15. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my constituents Dominic and Rebecca from Mitcham on the birth of their daughter Alice. Like every parent, they want their daughter to have better opportunities than they had, but with average London house prices increasing by £40,000 in 2013 alone and the average house in London now worth more than half a million pounds, does he understand their fears that Alice will never have the chance they had to buy her own home in the area she was born in? (903283)
I want to help Alice, and many others like her in London, to get on to the housing ladder. That is why we are introducing shared ownership, which brings housing into the reach of many more people. It is why we have Help to Buy London, which is twice as generous as the Help to Buy scheme in the rest of the country. It is why we are selling off the most expensive council houses and rebuilding more affordable homes. All those measures have been taken under the guidance and drive of Zac Goldsmith, who would make an excellent Mayor of London. That is Alice’s best chance of a home: to have a Conservative Mayor and a Conservative Government working together, hand in glove.
Someone who is experiencing a mental health crisis and goes to A&E in desperation needs prompt specialist help. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recognition of psychiatric liaison in his recent speech on life chances. Does he agree that the provision of 24/7 psychiatric liaison in A&E departments is an important step towards parity of esteem for mental and physical health in a seven-day NHS?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are seeing more mental health and psychiatric liaison in our A&Es. We are seeing it in some of them now, but we need, over time, to see it in all of them, because people so often arrive in a setting that is not the one in which they should be looked after. Whether we are talking about getting people with mental health conditions out of police cells, making sure that they are treated properly in prisons, or, crucially, making sure that they are given the right treatment when they arrive at A&E, that is very much part of our life chances plan.
I commend the Prime Minister for his remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day. In honouring the memory of those who were murdered by the Nazis, we provide the best antidote to extremism and anti-Semitism in our own age.
The biggest challenge facing Europe today is posed by the 3 million refugees who, it is predicted, will flee to our continent in 2016. Many of them will die along the way. Does the Prime Minister agree that the only way in which to challenge a crisis of that magnitude is to start to work with our European colleagues at the heart of a united Europe, and will he take this final opportunity to welcome in and provide a home for 3,000 unaccompanied children, as recommended by Save the Children?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of taking action to help with the refugee crisis. No country in Europe has been more generous than Britain in funding refugee camps, whether they are in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s view that the right answer is for Britain to opt into the EU relocation and resettlement schemes. Let me tell him why. We said that we would resettle 20,000 people in our country, and we promised to resettle 1,000 by Christmas. Because of the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, we achieved that. If we add up all that Europe has done under its relocation and resettlement schemes, we find that all the other 27 member states have done less than we have done here in the United Kingdom, because of those 1,000.
Yes, we should take part in European schemes when it is in our interests to do so, and help to secure the external European border; but we are out of Schengen, we keep our own borders, and under this Government that is the way it will stay.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Cabinet Office questions before the recess, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster stated in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox) that Kirklees Council had
“£200 million in useable and unused reserves”—[Official Report, 9 December 2015; Vol. 603, c. 979.]
and concluded that the problems that we reported were facing our constituents were, therefore, “not real ones”. I have now had it confirmed, not just by officers of the local authority, that its unused reserves are nowhere remotely close to that figure. Even including reserves that are already allocated and not useable, the figure is nowhere near £200 million. Through a written answer, the Minister with responsibility for local government, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), has confirmed that according to the Government’s own figures Kirklees Council had less than a fifth of that amount in unallocated financial reserves at the end of the last financial year. May I ask you, Mr Speaker, what recourse there is for Members when a Minister has, even if unintentionally, misled this House on a matter that so seriously affects our constituents?
The short answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that every Member of this House, including Ministers, must take responsibility for the veracity or otherwise of what he or she says. If somebody thinks the House has been inadvertently misled by a Member, the Member is responsible for correcting the record. That is the first point. The second point is that the recourse available to the hon. Lady lies in the Order Paper and the advice proffered by the Table Office. What I mean by that is that persistence pays, and if the hon. Lady thinks she has a good point, she should repeat it. She will have heard me make the observation that repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons, and if she wants to keep making her point, she can take advice from the welter of sagacious and experienced colleagues around her as to how best to do so; most of them are very practised at the art, as I am sure the hon. Lady will be, too.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will have heard many tributes made to Holocaust Memorial Day today and the Holocaust Educational Trust campaign, “Don’t stand by.” In the light of that and in that spirit, do you agree that it was inappropriate for the Prime Minister, in referring to the refugee crisis in Europe, to use language such as “a bunch of migrants”? Do you think that it would be appropriate for the House to ask the Prime Minister to withdraw that language and use much more statesmanlike language about the need to build a cross-party consensus on such a complex and sensitive issue?
The right hon. Lady speaks with enormous experience in this House and I respect what she says. I completely identify and empathise with her observations about the Holocaust Memorial Day, which she and I on other occasions have marked at events together, so I take what she says extremely seriously. I do have to say to her and the House, however, that the observation in question was not disorderly; it was not unparliamentary. Everybody must take responsibility for the remarks he or she makes in this House and it is very clear that the right hon. Lady would not have used that term. It is open to the Prime Minister to comment on it if he wishes, but I am not entitled to try to oblige him to say anything on the matter. The right hon. Lady has made her point very clearly, however; it is on the record and people will make their own assessments of this matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At business questions last week I asked a question relating to post-study work visas, an issue that is subject to an ongoing inquiry by the Scottish Affairs Committee. The Leader of the House responded by stating that this was
“an area that was not in the Smith commission report.”—[Official Report, 21 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 1566.]
However, I have a copy of the report with me, and page 28 states that
“the Scottish and UK Governments should work together to... explore the possibility of introducing formal schemes to allow international higher education students graduating from Scottish further and higher education institutions to remain in Scotland and contribute to economic activity for a defined period of time.”
May I ask your advice, Mr Speaker, on how the Leader of the House can correct the record and offer a commitment that the Government will now seriously consider this issue, as recommended by the cross-party Smith commission?
Notwithstanding the serious and statesmanlike countenance of the hon. Gentleman as he rose to raise his point of order, it suffered from the material disadvantage of being many things but not a point of order for the Chair. We can all read the Smith report. I confess that I am not myself familiar with, or do not have an instant recall of, page 28, so the hon. Gentleman has the advantage of me there, but he asks what opportunity there is for him to try to hold the Leader of the House to account, and the short answer is tomorrow at business questions. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be in his place, and if he is, I will see him.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In recent weeks, Ministers have made a number of statements here and in Westminster Hall about the steel industry, and in particular about the crucial issue of the Government’s procurement measures. It was therefore extraordinary to get a written answer from the Ministry of Defence yesterday stating that
“the Ministry of Defence (MOD) does not hold a complete, centralised record of steel procurement for projects and equipment, either in terms of quantity or country of origin”.
In the light of that extraordinary revelation, Mr Speaker, how would you advise me to gain greater clarity on whether the Government’s claims about what they are doing on procurement in the steel industry are actually the case, given that they do not appear even to be keeping records?
As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, his salvation lies in further questions and in the pursuit of debate, and there are opportunities to seek Adjournment debates. I say in no spirit of unkindness or discourtesy to him that I think it is evident from his puckish grin that he was more interested in making his point to me than in anything I might have had to say to him. We will leave it there for now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A few minutes ago, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), the Prime Minister referred to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) by his first name. It could of course be the case that the hon. Member for Richmond Park has recently been appointed as the Crown steward or bailiff of the Manor of Northstead, or perhaps the steward of the Chiltern hundreds of Stoke, Burnham and Desborough, but I do not believe that that is the case, and he should therefore be referred to in this House by his constituency. I believe that the Prime Minister did it in order to gain electoral advantage on this evening’s news coverage in London by using a name that most viewers would recognise. I also believe that the Prime Minister has been disrespectful to the House and to its procedures in seeking electoral advantage for the Conservative party. I wonder whether you concur with that, Sir, and I seek your advice on how we might upbraid the Prime Minister for that discourtesy.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has rather magnified the issue by raising it this way. I do not disrespect him for that; I simply make that point en passant. I would say two things to him. First, Members should of course be referred to by their constituencies and not by their names. Secondly, I think this was almost certainly an oversight. Even the Prime Minister, who is immensely experienced and dexterous at the Dispatch Box, can be responsible for an oversight in the heat of the moment. I think that it was nothing more than that, just as when I momentarily forgot to call Mr Vickers to ask his question. We are all fallible—even, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman, on a bad day.
Driving Instructors (Registration)
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 the registration of driving instructors.
The Bill provides for two deregulatory measures to simplify the registration of driving instructors. The first measure allows a driving instructor to request voluntary removal from the register of driving instructors. The second simplifies the process for re-joining the register where a person’s registration has lapsed for between one and four years.
To become registered as an approved driving instructor—or ADI as they are known—a person currently has to pass three examinations that test theory, driving ability and instructional skill. They must be medically fit and a fit and proper person to be entered on the register. The total cost of taking all the required tests, obtaining a trainee licence and joining the ADI register is approximately £750.
A driving instructor’s name is added to the register on qualification and remains on the list for four years. Once a person is on the register, they are required to take a standards check within four years to ensure that they are still instructing to an approved standard.
Under current legislation, a person can be removed from the register only—I find this quite extraordinary—if the registration runs out or they are removed from the register for conduct, competence or disciplinary reasons. The Bill would allow for voluntary removal from the register in the case of illness or other commitments such as caring for an older relative, maternity leave or a period of residence overseas.
Let me give three examples, which have been brought to my attention, of how the current legislation impacts on ADIs who wish to leave the register. The first is an ADI who was caring for his terminally ill parent and could not attend his standards check. Under current legislation, he had to be removed from the register for disciplinary reasons, which was absolutely ridiculous. To return to the register, he would have to requalify via the three-part qualification route, and his disciplinary record would be taken into consideration.
The second example is a female ADI who felt compelled to renew her registration despite taking a career break from instruction to bring up her two young children. If she had not renewed her registration at a cost of £300 it would have lapsed and she would then have had to undergo the three-part requalification process, which is crazy. The ADI felt that that was discriminatory. She would have preferred to leave the register voluntarily and return at a later date via the shortened route.
The third and final example is of an ADI who allowed his registration to lapse after having a heart attack. At the end of the 12-month period in which he could reregister without requalifying, the ADI was still on medication and did not feel well enough to resume instructing. The registrar did allow him a two-month grace period, but although that was welcome the ADI felt that he had been placed under undue stress, which could impact on his recovery.
Currently, if an ADI has been off the register for less than a year, they can reapply and will be added back on to the register, subject to conduct and medical fitness requirements. However, if the ADI’s registration had lapsed for more than a year at the time they reapplied, they would have to retake the three ADI qualification exams.
The problems caused by the current legislation were brought to my attention by a constituent who runs a driving school that employs 200 drivers. His reasons for contacting me on this issue are as follows. The driving instructor industry is, for a number of reasons, losing driving instructors—I was surprised by this—and the process of qualifying can be a long one due to the waiting times for tests. As a result, the UK has a shortage of driving instructors, of which I am sure that the House was not aware. My constituent’s company has a waiting list of some six weeks for pupils to start to learn to drive, which is hindering many young adults in their careers. This is a common issue across the country, and my constituent has spoken to many driving school owners in Thurrock and in Essex more widely who are experiencing the same issues.
As the role of a driving instructor is not a physical one, many ex-driving instructors would like to get back to instructing, but the lengthy requalifying process is making them decide against it, which is a shame as they have much in the way of skills and experience to give the industry. If the ADI is within 12 months of their registration finishing, however, they can just reapply without having to go through the whole process again. To help alleviate the problems of getting ex-instructors back into the industry we need to streamline the process, and, if possible, extend the 12-month period.
The cost of retaking the three qualifying exams and the time taken to complete them are both cited as reasons why such a small number of instructors return to the profession after a break. It is extraordinary that, of the 43,000 registered ADIs, only 25, on average, wish to return each year.
Simplifying the process of returning to the register after a break of one to four years by allowing the instructor to pass a standards check instead would reduce the qualifying time from 36 weeks to only six weeks and avoid the £194 cost of undergoing the three-part qualification. The standards check that returning instructors would take would be the same as the one that practising ADIs currently take during the period of their registration to ensure their continued competence to instruct.
A person applying to re-join the register by that route would have a maximum of three attempts at passing the standards check. If they failed three times they would have to repeat the full requalification process if they wanted to re-join the register, thus ensuring that the highest standards are maintained. This faster route would not be available to those removed from the register for disciplinary reasons.
The majority of driving instructors in Great Britain—they are in all of our constituencies—are very small businesses or self-employed. The changes to current legislation, which I was told by the Department for Transport were necessary to meet the concerns of my constituent, are outlined in the Bill. They would allow ADIs to be placed on the register more quickly and at a lower cost, benefiting both instructors and driving school owners such as my constituent. There would be no lowering of standards as the returning instructors would be tested to the same rigorous standard as their colleagues already on the register. I should warn the House that it is not my intent to give instructions on how to drive or to set up a school of motoring.
The geographical extent of the Bill will be for Great Britain, excluding Northern Ireland. This Bill will allow instructors voluntarily to leave the register for a period of time for health reasons or for family commitments and provide a simple, cost-effective way for them to return to their profession without compromising instruction standards. I commend the measure to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sir David Amess, Rosie Cooper, Martyn Day, Margaret Ferrier, Mr Roger Godsiff, Kevin Hollinrake, Steve McCabe, Wendy Morton, John Redwood, Andrew Rosindell, Dame Angela Watkinson and Mr Mark Williams present the Bill.
Sir David Amess accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 125).
[17th Allotted Day]
Housing Benefit and Supported Housing
Before I call the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, let me say that it may be of interest to the House and useful to those on the Front Benches to know that no fewer than 19 Back-Bench Members are seeking to catch my eye. In deciding on a time limit, I shall have to take account of the length of contributions from the Front Bench, and those on the Front Bench, being ever considerate, will, I am sure, wish to ensure that their contributions are tailored to allow for the views of Back Benchers to be expressed.
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government’s planned cuts to housing benefit support for vulnerable people in specialist housing, including the elderly and people who are homeless, disabled or fleeing domestic violence, risk leading to the widespread closure of this accommodation; notes the concern from charities, housing associations, councils and others across the country about the severe effect of these cuts; further notes that supported housing has already suffered as a result of Government spending cuts and policy decisions; notes that the planned changes will apply to all new tenancies from April 2016; notes the clear evidence that the Government’s proposal to mitigate these cuts with discretionary housing payments will not work; and calls on the Government to urgently exempt supported housing from these housing benefit cuts and to consult fully with supported housing providers to safeguard this essential accommodation.
We have called the debate to give voice to hundreds of thousands of elderly and vulnerable people whose homes have been put at risk by the Government. It is very encouraging to know that 19 Members from both sides of the House wish to express their concern and to make a contribution to this debate.
We have also called the debate to expose the decision to challenge; and to expose it to compassion and to care. We want to expose it, too, to common sense. In his November spending review, the Chancellor announced that
“housing benefit in the social sector will be capped at the relevant local housing allowance.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1360.]
With one short, sweeping sentence, he put at risk almost all supported and sheltered housing for the frail elderly, the homeless, young adults leaving care, those suffering with dementia, people with mental illness or learning disabilities, veterans and women fleeing domestic violence. According to those who provide that type of housing, he condemns nearly half of all such housing schemes to closure. He has already caused the cancellation of building work on nearly 2,500 new homes for people in those groups. The shadow Work and Pensions Secretary—my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith)—and I therefore joined forces to use the motion and the debate to draw attention to how the Chancellor’s crude housing benefit cut could hit the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who totally depend on such specialist housing, many of whom are the most vulnerable people with nowhere else to turn.
The National Housing Federation says that 156,000 homes—at least that number of people will be affected—are set to close. A survey by Inside Housing found that one in four supported housing providers are set to close everything, while 19 out of 20 say that they will close some of their supported accommodation.
Since the spending review, as you might expect, Mr Speaker, I have been asking Ministers for evidence regarding the decision. I asked the Minister for Housing and Planning how many elderly people will be affected by the Chancellor’s cut, but he told me that the Government do not know. I asked how many women fleeing from domestic violence will be affected—don’t know; how many people with mental health problems—don’t know; how many young people leaving care—don’t know. The Government do not even know how many people in supported housing receive the housing benefit that they plan to cut.
The Minister did tell me, however, that the Government have commissioned an evidence review. It started in December 2014 and should have been completed by November 2015, but was not. Why not? In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister told me that the delay was due to
“the emerging complexity in the design and delivery of the review”
and “General Election Purdah restrictions”. The Minister therefore did not know what he was doing when he commissioned the review, and he must have been alone in the House and the country in not knowing that there was a general election in May last year. He says that the review will be ready later this year, so he does not even know when he will know what, at the moment, he does not know. What a shambles! What a serious dereliction of duty from a Government who should be making policy on the basis of evidence, especially when that policy affects the lives of so many very vulnerable people.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one helpful thing that the Minister could do during the debate would be to make it clear that the cap applies to housing benefit, not to the service charge applied to so many in supported accommodation?
I do not often disagree with my hon. Friend, but I do not agree that that is the solution. It is absolutely clear, as the motion says, that the Government need to act immediately and confirm that they will exempt in full supported housing from these housing benefit cuts. They then need to work with housing providers to ensure that such housing can be developed and secured for the future. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that argument and will back us in the Lobby today.
My right hon. Friend suggests that the Government do not know what they are doing, but does he agree that it could be suggested that they do not care about the people whom they are directly affecting? They should care, however, that the Homes and Communities Agency has estimated that its investment in supported housing results in a net benefit of £640 million a year.
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I shall come on to touch on that matter, albeit lightly. People will make their own judgments about whether Ministers and the Government know and care enough so that they act to stop the cuts.
The devastating decision has been made with no consultation, no impact assessment and no evidence. This is not a tussle between Government and Opposition Front Benchers because the situation concerns each and every Member of the House. Every MP has in their constituency hundreds of residents in supported or sheltered housing, many of whom cannot pay their rent and service charges for themselves and totally depend on housing benefit to help to cover their costs.
Is not the real unfairness that supported housing, for many of our constituents, is an expensive but necessary choice? Without additional support from the housing benefit system, those people would not be able to afford such accommodation, which is vital to their everyday needs.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that we all have constituents in accommodation such as sheltered housing, and he knows that all Members, irrespective of their party, care about our constituents. Will he dissociate himself from the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) that Conservative Members, in seeking to bring forward changes, do not care, because we do?
It is down to the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues to demonstrate that case to those who are watching the debate, and especially to the people whose homes and lives are at risk.
As I said, every Member of the House has constituents who are threatened by the Chancellor’s crude housing benefit cut. In the Minister for Housing and Planning’s local authority area of Great Yarmouth, there are some 258 people in supported housing and at least 139 in sheltered housing. The numbers are even higher for Swindon and Tunbridge Wells. What do we say to these residents and their families? What do we say to the committed charities, churches, housing associations and other groups that provide such specialist housing and are so concerned?
Surely the right hon. Gentleman concedes that this is not a back-of-a-fag-packet policy and that the Government are doing a sensible thing by collating all the information and demonstrable data as part of a proper scoping exercise on assisted housing, with an impact assessment. They have also put aside nearly £500 million for discretionary housing payments and the changes will not take effect until April 2018. Surely that is a sensible policy for the Government to pursue.
We have not seen the information and we have not seen the evidence—we have not even seen the fag packet. Without the information and the evidence, why on earth did the Chancellor take this decision in the spending review before Christmas, thus pre-empting exactly what good policy and decision making should be based on?
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd and I called the debate to give voice to widespread concerns, to try to make the Government think again and to say that they must make exemptions from the cut. I shall set out in a moment why Ministers need to take a decision immediately.
Let me explain how the process will work. The Chancellor’s decision caps housing benefit for social tenants at a new rate, which is the same amount that private rental tenants receive through the local housing allowance. For most general council and housing association homes, this will not cause tenants any immediate concerns as their rents are lower than that level. However, specialist housing services and schemes that provide extra care and support involve much higher housing costs, with their higher rents and service charges often covered by housing benefit. The Government know that from their 2011 report on supported housing, which listed the main reasons:
“providing 24 hour housing management cover…providing more housing related support than in mainstream housing…organising more frequent repairs or refurbishment…providing more frequent mediating between tenants; and providing extra CCTV and security services”.
That is why rents in that type of accommodation do not mirror the rates in general private rented accommodation in the local area, but that is the level of the Chancellor’s cut and cap.
My right hon. Friend will know that, in Nottingham, the housing charity Framework is appalled at the impact of the change on the supported accommodation it provides for some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency. It says that hundreds and hundreds of spaces will have to close by 2018 if the change goes ahead. This is a very real problem facing some of the most deprived and vulnerable people in the country, and I applaud the fact that he has called this Opposition debate.
I thank my hon. Friend and applaud his effort to talk to providers in his constituency. The fears that Framework expressed are widely voiced and shared by providers who offer that type of housing and support. I do not know what figures he has for Nottingham, but Homeless Link cites figures in Birmingham that expose the shortfall. The average national rent in a homeless hostel is about £180 per week. The local housing allowance rate in Birmingham is half that figure, at £98.87 a week. The local housing allowance rate for a room in a shared house, which is all that single people under 35 are entitled to, is just £57.34 a week—a shortfall of over £120 per week, per tenant.
Supported housing is not just an emergency bed or a roof over someone’s head; the support helps people to get their lives back together. Last year, 1,500—or two in five—people housed by St Mungo’s in its hostels moved on from supported housing into individual accommodation. Last year, St Vincent’s—the Manchester-based housing charity—saw 15 of its young Foyer residents go on to university, one to Oxford. For thousands of other people with severe autism, learning disabilities, dementia and mental illness, living as independently as possible in supported housing, there is no alternative but hospital and residential care, which are much more institutionalised for the residents and much more expensive for the taxpayer. This policy risks turning the clock back on people’s lives and standards of care by 40 years.
My right hon. Friend has illustrated his case by referring to people for whom the alternative may be much more expensive and less adequate care. There are other people, such as women fleeing domestic violence with their children, who come to very good accommodation in my constituency, who will have no alternative at all if those places are closed down as a result of these measures.
My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, understands this better perhaps than anyone in the House. There is no alternative to the supported housing needed by many of the most vulnerable people, and which they have at present. That is why Ministers must act immediately to exempt supported housing in full from the crude cuts and undertake a detailed consultation with providers about how such housing can be secured in future. Before Christmas, I revealed the scale of the problems facing people in specialist supported housing.
No, I will carry on for the moment.
Since then, we have had a series of half-baked statements from the Government. The first was, “This is unnecessary scaremongering.” Not true—we are giving voice to the warnings and evidence from those who have the facts and will have to manage the consequences. Those are organisations the British public trust and respect, including Age UK, Mencap and Women’s Aid. Secondly,
“nothing will change until 2018.”
Not true—the cut and the cap apply to new tenancies from April this year, so the problem is immediate. My local housing association, South Yorkshire Housing Association, has told me that
“it takes time to rehouse anyone, let alone the most vulnerable people. Consultation on scheme closures will need to begin within a matter of weeks”.
No one will sign contracts for supported housing when they do not know whether the basic costs can be covered. New investment has already been stopped in its tracks: one in five providers have frozen investment and new schemes, according to the Inside Housing survey. Golden Lane Housing, Mencap’s housing arm, had plans for £100 million of investment over the next five years in supported housing across England, but they have been scrapped.
“Additional discretionary housing payment funding will be made available to local authorities, to protect the most vulnerable, including those in supported housing”.
Not true—the fund is run by councils to deal with emergency applications from people already coping with the bedroom tax, the benefits cap, and the cuts in the last Parliament to the local housing allowance. Awards often run for only a few months. The fund is currently £120 million a year, and it is a short-term and overstretched measure.
Policy costing in the autumn statement scores the cost of the Chancellor’s housing benefit cut at £515 million. The Government proposed to top up the discretionary housing payments fund by not £515 million but £70 million. Housing organisations rightly dismiss the idea that the fund is the solution, saying that that is “nonsense and unworkable”.
The insufficiency of discretionary housing payments for the bedroom tax has been shown again and again. I am delighted that today at least one case involving a family of carers has been exempted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that facing this sort of situation preys on the minds of vulnerable people, as they know that they have to apply for a discretionary housing payment and may not get it?
I think that my hon. Friend is discussing the case in the High Court, which found the Government to be in breach of equality legislation. We have always said that the bedroom tax is unfair, punishing people who often cannot afford to make up the difference, and that it should be scrapped. I hope that today’s High Court judgment will lead Ministers to think again about the bedroom tax and to act to stop the housing benefit cut damaging the prospects of many people.
The question for the Minister for Housing and Planning and for the Secretary of State—who was in the Chamber a moment ago, but then scarpered—is: did they discuss the cut with Treasury Ministers before the spending review? Was the Department even consulted? Either they did not spot it or they did not stop it. Either way, the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Department have been disregarded and overruled by the Chancellor.
The Housing and Planning Minister is in the Chamber to try to explain why housing schemes supporting more than 150,000 of the most vulnerable people, with nowhere else to turn, are set to close, while the real culprit keeps his head down in the Treasury. Forced to backtrack on tax credits when a tough stance on benefits backfired, the Chancellor turned to housing benefit cuts across the board to make his fiscal sums add up. With this, he has made the same errors of judgment. He has put politics above good policy and even basic humanity. He announces first, and asks questions later. He is failing many vulnerable people, and he is failing the taxpayer too.
This decision is a big test for the Conservative Government. The Prime Minister said just before the election:
“I don’t want to leave anyone behind. The test of a good society is you look after the elderly, the frail, the vulnerable, the poorest in our society.”
So will the Government act immediately and confirm that they will exempt in full from this crude, sweeping housing benefits cut those in supported and sheltered housing? Will they work with those who provide that housing to ensure that it is secure for the future? The only decision for Ministers to take on the motion before the House is to exempt that housing—a decision that would be based on evidence, compassion and care.
Once again, I stand at the Dispatch Box grateful for the subject chosen by the Opposition for debate. We are always happy to discuss welfare reform, because it is at the heart of the Government’s agenda. We make no apology for this commitment to the people of Britain.
Our aim is simple. We need to balance the books and introduce a welfare system that is fair to taxpayers, where work pays and where having a job is always preferable to a life on benefits. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) speaks as though we are debating in a vacuum. We have to bear in mind where we have come from in order to understand where we are going, and the wider picture. Let us remember that in 2010 we inherited a welfare system that failed to reward work, hurt taxpayers, and was a millstone around the neck of the British economy. During the 13 years of the Labour Government, welfare spending had shot up by 60% in real terms and 1.4 million people had spent most of the previous decade trapped on out-of-work benefits. The result was a benefits system in disarray, which was costing taxpayers an extra £3,000 a year.
Was my hon. Friend as surprised as I was when he heard his opposite number talking about good policy, when in the last 10 years of the Labour Government housing benefits increased by 46% in real terms? How could that be considered good policy?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the contribution from the Opposition Front Bench was long on flannel but short on facts? The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that despite small initial savings, there will be long-term benefits from capping housing benefit. My hon. Friend may wish to comment on that.
Will the Minister confirm that the coalition Government, including the Tory party, spent £130 billion more than the previous Labour Government on welfare, breaching £1 trillion for the first time under any Government? Is that not a fact?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the terrible mess that the coalition Government inherited. There was no fairness for hard-working taxpayers in such a system. There was nothing progressive in trapping people in lives without hope for a brighter future. The welfare system that his party left was broken, yet the Opposition have since then opposed every single decision we have taken to fix it. We have never heard from them proposals for alternative reforms, which can mean only that they oppose making any difficult decisions at all. It is easy to make noise, but much harder to do the right thing by the British people. We have seen one tactic time and again—scaremongering, exploiting the concerns of the very people they claim to represent, and playing politics with the lives of vulnerable people. Today’s debate is no exception.
If the Minister wants a specific proposal to save money on housing benefit and welfare, why does he not look at the £4.6 billion lost through fraud and error in the administration of our housing benefit system? Why does he not get a grip on that and introduce some better credit rating agency checks for applications? That is where the savings should be made, rather than on the backs of the most vulnerable people in our society.
We have been clear about protecting the most vulnerable people in our society; I will come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman is right. We need to continue to make progress in cracking down on fraud and error, and in local government as well—something that the Labour Government did nothing about.
My hon. Friend is making some powerful points. Will he remind the House that the Government are issuing £800 million to be allocated to local authorities for discretionary housing payments, and that a further £40 million was announced in the autumn statement for supporting the vulnerable, particularly for refuges for beaten women?
Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that until we heard from the former shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, we had not heard, in 25 minutes of listening to the shadow Minister, any suggestion or acknowledgement that housing benefit is now an issue that any responsible Chancellor needs to look at? We spend more on housing benefit than on secondary education and it represents 50% of what we spend on the defence budget. No responsible Chancellor of the Exchequer would not be losing sleep about housing benefit and looking to reform it.
I shall make a little progress and then take more interventions.
This Government have always been clear that the most vulnerable will be supported through our welfare reforms. We know that the welfare system is vital for supporting vulnerable people, and we know it is essential that all vulnerable people have a roof over their heads. That is why we have been determined to support their housing needs. We have set aside over £500 million to create a strong safety net against homelessness; we recently pledged £40 million for domestic abuse services, ensuring that no victim is turned away from the support they need; at the autumn statement we announced a further £400 million to deliver 8,000 specialist affordable homes for the vulnerable, elderly or those with disabilities; and the Department of Health committed to fund up to 7,500 further specialised homes for disabled and older people.
We spent an extra £2 billion on main disability benefits over the course of the last Parliament, and by 2020 we will be spending at least £10 billion a year extra over and above inflation on the NHS, including a record £11.4 billion a year on mental health, which we can do because of the stronger economy that the Chancellor has brought to our country.
The Minister is giving us the statistics on how much money the Government have put aside or will be spending. I ask him a straight question: will people currently in supported housing be protected, rather than being turfed out and made homeless? That is a simple question.
The Minister talks about women’s refuges. The manager of Monklands Women’s Aid, Sharon Aitchison, has just emailed me. She says:
“There is no doubt that our current set-up with housing benefit is already stretched to the max, so the refuge provisions viability would most certainly be in question and the reality is we would be unable to fund refuge provision if the cap went ahead for us.”
What does the Minister say to Sharon Aitchison, the manager of my local women’s refuge, which provides a brilliant service for women and children in desperate situations?
As I have just outlined, this Government announced an extra £40 million for domestic abuse services.
Funding for supported housing is part of the Government’s wider financial settlement to councils, which includes £5.3 billion in the better care fund in 2015-16 to deliver faster and deeper integration of health and social care. That will result in councils being better able to work together and invest in early action to help people live safely in their own homes for longer.
I am amazed. The Minister has started trotting out figures for the better care fund. That fund is back-loaded: the money will not reach councils until 2019-20, and is cancelled out by the new homes bonus being taken back at the same time. We have already lost an awful lot of support for older and vulnerable people.
Does the Minister believe, as he seems to have just said, that the most vulnerable will be supported by the welfare reforms? That is just not true, as we see from all the court cases that are going through. How will people in 2,300 units of housing for older people in Salford be protected? I advise the Minister not to talk about discretionary housing payments, as those have been shown to be insufficient.