House of Commons
Thursday 25 February 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Attorney General was asked—
In September last year the Crown Prosecution Service published guidance for advocates on better communication with all witnesses. Advocates receive mandatory training for cases involving vulnerable witnesses, and special measures for those witnesses are regularly used at court, including pre-recorded evidence, intermediaries, screens or the use of a video link.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in my experience as a former solicitor, witnesses, particularly the most vulnerable witnesses, want to be kept better informed of the process of their case, to hear updates in a timely fashion, to be able to give evidence as quickly as possible without losing their right to be heard, and to be treated in the least intimidating way possible within the court process?
Indeed. It is important that we ensure that witnesses who are engaged in criminal trials, which will be difficult experiences for them at the best of times, understand what is happening in the case around them. I hope that my hon. Friend will be as encouraged as I am by the trials that have been run in three different Crown courts for pre-recorded cross-examination. That will enable vulnerable and young witnesses in particular to get their part in the trial out of the way and any further delays in that trial will not affect them. That is a huge step forward.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that manifestos are for Parliaments, not just for the first year of Parliaments, so we have a little time left. When we do bring forward proposals I am sure he will be encouraged to see ways in which we can help victims understand better what is happening in the cases in which they are involved, and help them have a less difficult experience within the criminal justice system. Having held ministerial responsibility for the system, the right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we will never be able to get to a place where giving evidence and being involved in criminal trials is easy for victims and witnesses, but we can make it less hard and we will bring forward proposals to do so.
The Solicitor General and I have regular conversations with the CPS about how we make sure that what prosecutors do assists victims and witnesses. My hon. Friend will understand that it is a prosecutor’s responsibility to prosecute a case on behalf of the state, not solely on behalf of a victim, but it is none the less important that victims are spoken to regularly and sensitively by those who are involved in the prosecution.
May I, through the Attorney General, thank the Government for deciding to reverse their decision to close Stockport courthouse, which has excellent facilities for victims and witnesses? Given that Her Majesty’s inspectorate has said that services to victims and witnesses require improvement, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman set out precisely what the Government will do to provide that?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the court estate is not part of my responsibilities, but I congratulate him on the success of his representations. In relation to victims and witnesses, there are a number of things that need to be done. Some will come from the Ministry of Justice; some, as I have indicated, come from encouraging prosecutors to do their job of interacting with victims and witnesses in a more effective way. We are making progress on that. Better communication, as I said, is important. Better training for prosecutors in dealing with cases, particularly where vulnerable witnesses or children are involved, is important and we are doing that too. Some of the measures that we are taking, which I referred to earlier, in respect of ways in which victims give evidence can also help in ensuring that the experience is distressing as little as possible.
Judges and legal advisers play a crucial role in assisting vulnerable witnesses in court. Is the Attorney General aware of the profound distress and demoralisation among legal advisers about the increased pressure that they are under because of the imposition of continued legal aid cuts and the effect on courts?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that legal aid is not part of my responsibilities, but I will say that in my experience—and, I am sure, in his—those who act in our courts on behalf of defendants and on behalf of the Crown do the very best they can to present the evidence clearly and give people the best possible experience of the trial process, and I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. He makes an important point that when it comes to the cross-examination of young or vulnerable witnesses, both advocates and the judiciary have a role in ensuring that it is conducted in the right way. I hope and expect that they will continue to play their part in doing so.
8. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998. (903729)
10. What discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998. (903731)
It emerged during an evidence session to the House of Lords Constitution Committee that the UK Supreme Court may be given a new role as a UK constitutional court. Given that the UK Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for Scottish civil cases and has a role in the devolution aspects of Scottish criminal cases, will the Attorney General commit to consulting with the Scottish Government before any such proposals are included in a consultation?
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Lord Chancellor’s evidence to that Committee, which I have read, he is not quite right; the Lord Chancellor was talking about the prospects for considering how the Supreme Court might fulfil a different role, and he was referring to the German example of how that is done. The hon. Gentleman will also know that no proposals have yet been brought forward; he will see them when they are. As I, the Lord Chancellor and others have said, we will ensure that there is proper consultation on any proposals.
As the Attorney General will be aware, both the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights have independently commented on the undesirability of any overlap between the proposed consultation on the Bill of Rights and pre-election periods, including for the Scottish Parliament elections in May. What discussions has he had with the Justice Secretary regarding publication of the consultation?
Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait to see the proposals when they are brought forward. On timing, he will know that the Cabinet Office has very clear guidelines on respect for purdah periods before elections, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is keen that all due regard is paid to them.
The Attorney General might not be aware that the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners’ Rights, Alex Neil MSP, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice to express concern that he has not sought to discuss the proposal to repeal the Human Rights Act with the Scottish Government. Given the wide implications of any repeal of the Act on Scotland, does the Attorney General agree that the Secretary of State for Justice must formally engage with the Scottish Government to discuss their concerns?
The hon. Lady is right; I have not seen that letter. But I do know that Mr Neil, and indeed other Scottish Government Ministers, have had contact with UK Government Ministers to discuss these matters. I can reassure her that when the proposals are brought forward, there will be proper consultation with the devolved Administrations.
The impending imposition of the British Bill of Rights could have the effect of curtailing the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice in Luxembourg as well as the Court in Strasbourg. Is it not the case that that will require further renegotiation with our EU partners and, therefore, should it not have formed a crucial part of the recent so-called renegotiation?
I am not sure that there is much appetite anywhere in Europe for re-opening those negotiations. The hon. Gentleman might find that there are proposals coming from this Government to make our relationship with the charter of fundamental rights clearer, based on protocol 30 of the treaties, which, as he will be aware, was negotiated by a previous Government. The protocol makes it clear that the charter does not extend rights in this country. We will bring forward further proposals on clarifying that, and again he will have a good opportunity to discuss them when he sees them.
I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on EU law matters. I am unable to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because whether or not the Law Officers have given advice, by convention, is not disclosed outside Government.
Recent judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, such as in Zakharov v. Russia, strongly suggest that the powers in the United Kingdom’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill could violate the European convention on human rights. What discussions has he had with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that powers provided for in the Bill are compatible with the convention?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in the most recent case in the Court of Appeal, in November last year, the provisional view was that the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 was not inconsistent with EU law. A reference has been made to the Court of Justice of the European Union. I will not comment on that particular case, but I can assure him that when it comes to issues of compatibility, anxious consideration is always given to ensure that legislation here is in accord with the rule of law.
In an unsafe world, we need to keep the United Kingdom, and indeed our European partners, safe. With the security charter for the draft Investigatory Powers Bill, how will the Government get the balance right between civil liberties on the one hand and national security on the other?
My hon. Friend asks probably the most important question about that balance. I can reassure him that the draft Bill, and indeed the legislation that will come forward shortly, strikes that balance, most notably in involving judicial authorisation for the granting of warrants. That double-lock process, which involves the Secretary of State and the judiciary, strikes the right balance.
The case involving the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), which the Solicitor General has referred to, and which is before the Court of Appeal, but with a reference to the European Court of Justice, could have implications for the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The case is being heard in April. How does the Solicitor General see that impacting on the timetable for the Bill going through this House?
While we understand that the case will be heard in April, it is still very much an unknown factor as to when a judgment will come. What I can say is that the outcome of any case will, of course, be carefully considered. However, I do not anticipate that causing a delay to the introduction of that important Bill, bearing in mind the sunset provisions in DRIPA.
Human Rights Obligations
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Question 4 alongside Questions 7 and 9. I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss important issues of common interest, including on domestic and international human rights law. As the House knows, not least because the Solicitor General has said this once already today, I am not able to talk about any legal content of those discussions, because, by convention, whether the Law Officers have given advice or not is not disclosed outside Government.
I have no plans to repeal any of them. As the hon. Gentleman may have heard me say in this place before, I do not think any of us has any serious argument with the content of the European convention on human rights, which is an admirable document. The difficulty we have is with the interpretation of that document by the European Court of Human Rights. This is not a matter of repealing rights; it is a matter of bringing some common sense back into the ambit of human rights law, and the Government are committed to doing that.
Part of the UK’s human rights obligations is to ensure that minority communities are not subjected to harassment and distress. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that allegations of rabid anti-Semitic behaviour from the Oxford University Labour club are a disgrace to Oxford and no doubt an embarrassment to the Labour party, and that they should be dealt with robustly by the University, if not by other authorities?
I agree with my hon. Friend: these are very troubling allegations, and I hope they are dealt with swiftly and effectively. However, he makes the important point that all of us, on both sides of the House, believe in the protection of human rights and in rules and laws that allow that protection to happen. What we are not in favour of is the perversion of human rights law by the introduction of silly cases that should not be before the courts at all. That obscures the important work my hon. Friend is referring to.
Under the Lisbon treaty, the European Union has a treaty obligation to join the European convention on human rights. However, the European Court of Justice has said that that would be incompatible with EU law. Does that not demonstrate that the European Court of Justice is, indeed, supreme?
I am sure you, Mr Speaker, were as worried as I was that this session was going to pass without mention of the European Union, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that matter right. As he knows, the decision on whether the European Union accedes to the convention on human rights is for the European Union, and it is therefore not unnatural that the Court of Justice of the European Union should express its opinion. All member states, and indeed the institutions of the European Union, now need to consider carefully what action they take next, and I am sure that is what they will do.
I am sure the Attorney General will recall that the Attorney General played an important role during the Iraq war, and that it continued right up until the various inquiries, including the Chilcot inquiry. I think he ought to declare now, in order to get rid of any doubts, whose side he is on—the Justice Minister or the Prime Minister. It is a fairly easy question: which side is it?
I am on the Government’s side; I think I made my position quite clear yesterday. In relation to the role of the Attorney General in inquiries, the hon. Gentleman is of course right that the Attorney General, and the Law Officers more broadly, have an important part to play in ensuring that the Government actions stay within the law, domestic and international, and previous and current Law Officers take that responsibility very seriously.
Yesterday, Amnesty International published its annual report, which rightly criticises the Government’s plan to scrap Labour’s excellent Human Rights Act. Amnesty’s UK director, Kate Allen, commented that the behaviour of the UK towards China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt shows that the Government have lost their passion to promote human rights. Does not the Government kow-towing to countries like China and Saudi Arabia, without challenging their dodgy human rights records, and the Prime Minister’s phoney plan to water down the Human Rights Act, send the wrong message to dictators and rogue states?
No. The position is this: Government Members, I am sure in common with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, will continue passionately to advocate the case for the protection of human rights both in this country and abroad. He is quite wrong to say that this Government, in common with their predecessors, do not challenge other states that have a doubtful human rights record—we continue to do that.
In relation to the Amnesty International report, I have a huge amount of respect for what Amnesty International does, but in this report it has, in my view, overstated its case just a little. It is not the case, as I have said before and as the hon. Gentleman knows, that human rights and the Human Rights Act are the same thing. It is possible to protect human rights without the Human Rights Act—in fact better to do so—and that is what this Government intend to do.
Sexual Offences: Conviction Rates
I thank the Solicitor General for his admirably brief reply. He will know that despite claims of the highest number of convictions ever, convictions for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual offences have fallen. I work closely with Sheffield Rape Crisis, which tells me that there is a real postcode lottery in support for victims, and if victims are not supported they are less likely to come forward. What discussions has the Solicitor General had with the Home Secretary to ensure adequate funding for sexual violence advisers?
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, I work regularly with colleagues in the Home Office to look at a wide range of measures that need to be put in place to give support to victims of sexual offences. I remind him that in terms of absolute volumes, conviction rates continue to rise and are the highest ever. I assure him that the CPS has now engaged 102 specialist prosecutors in its RASO—rape and sexual offences—units to place proper priority on the swift and effective prosecution of these serious cases.
In our enthusiasm to get convictions where they are deserved, can the Solicitor General make sure in his discussions with the Home Office that other parts of the system, particularly the police, do not lose their commitment to justice, and that, while they must owe a proper duty to the complainant, they should not simply ignore potential exculpatory evidence in their investigations?
Is the Solicitor General aware that Scotland’s conviction rate for rape and sexual offences has increased significantly over the past few years as a result of setting up a centralised national sexual crimes unit in Edinburgh, in which the specialist prosecutors oversee the prosecution of all sexual crime across Scotland? I am sure that Scotland’s Law Officers would be very happy if England’s Law Officers wanted to visit and learn more about it.
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for raising that matter. The scale involved in England and Wales is slightly bigger, so they have taken the regional unit approach, but I entirely agree with her about the need to standardise practice. The Attorney General and I are always very conscious of that in our conversations with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service, and work is being done to improve that standardisation.
In the latest thematic review of rape and serious sexual offence units, the CPS inspector found that the care given to victims of rape and sexual assault
“fell well short of what is expected”.
Is the Solicitor General concerned by Kevin McGinty’s findings that in some areas the CPS has stopped giving early investigative advice to the police because resources are overstretched?
I remind the hon. Lady that that report related to a particular period from a year to 18 months ago, and since then the CPS has taken huge strides both in increasing the number of prosecutors and in improving the methods by which cases are assessed and managed.
Criminal Sentencing: Leniency
Can the Attorney General confirm that he is fulfilling our manifesto commitment to review the unduly lenient sentences scheme, and will he comment specifically on whether that review will take into account family courts, where it is currently at the discretion of the presiding judge whether to refer up sentences of serious cases of sexual crimes and rape?
The answer to the first part of my hon. Friend’s question is yes, we will fulfil that commitment and, as she knows, we are looking carefully at how best to do so. I will also consider what she has said in relation to matters considered by the youth courts. There are difficulties with including all youth court cases, but we will consider carefully what she has said and see whether there is a way of accommodating it.
Legal Framework: Social Media
There is clearly some awareness of the legal framework applicable to social media, but I publish warnings online reminding people of their responsibilities wherever appropriate. My office also sends tweets warning social media users of the risk of being in contempt, where a particular problem has been identified. I assure my hon. Friend that I am always looking at ways of raising awareness in this area.
The media quite properly play a role in reporting cases, but any lack of responsibility allows my office and, indeed, criminal law to intervene, particularly in respect of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Detailed guidelines on the prosecution of such cases are available on the CPS website.
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
The Prime Minister has set out challenging Government targets to increase black, Asian and minority ethnic opportunities by 2020, including take-up of apprenticeships, employment and recruitment to the police and armed services.
The Scottish Government have launched a programme entitled, “New Scots: Integrating Refugees in Scottish Communities”, in order to ensure that refugees have every opportunity and support to rebuild their lives in Scotland. What similar initiatives are the UK Government taking to support refugees and fight racism?
The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), who works across the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Home Office, is working extremely hard to support refugees in a way similar to the programme that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
Research suggests that people with ethnic-sounding names have to make twice as many job applications as do white Britons to get job interviews. Will the Minister therefore discuss with the Business Secretary and others how to strengthen guidance to companies on their recruitment practices?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made a significant commitment in that area. Many of the country’s top employers, including the civil service, are committing to name blind recruitment processes, and UCAS will be making university applications name blind from 2017.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Government on introducing name blind recruitment in the civil service, the NHS, and other large graduate employers. Will he join me in encouraging other large companies across the UK to follow suit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should certainly encourage companies across the country—not just FTSE 100 companies, which seem to be making significant efforts, but companies large and small—to look at diversity and how they can use it to improve their business.
Apprenticeships are an extremely important part of the Government’s agenda. We have a target of 3 million apprenticeship starts during this Parliament. Within that, the Prime Minister has clearly set out the Government’s commitment to ensure that 20% of those apprenticeship starts are for BME young people, which I think is a great step forward.
Universities: BME Students
The Prime Minister, as we have just heard in respect of apprenticeships, has set a goal of increasing by 20% the number of BME students in higher education. In our new guidelines to the director of fair access, which we published on 11 February, we ask him to maximise the contribution of access agreements towards that ambition. The share of BME enrolments at the United Kingdom’s institutions has already risen by just over 20% to 23% between 2009 and 2015. Expenditure to widen access through agreements is expected to reach £746 million in 2016-17, up from £444 million in 2011.
Many gifted BME young people in my constituency and across the country who have lived here all their lives and are lawfully and legally resident in the UK, and who have made their way through the UK education system, are effectively prohibited from accessing the student finance support that would allow them to progress to higher education because they do not have settled immigration status. Will the Minister take steps to ensure that the Government introduce new eligibility criteria as a matter of urgency, to ensure that all our young people have the opportunity to make the most of their talents this academic year?
I welcome what the Minister has said about the figures for university applications. Does she agree that we must not take our eye off the ball when it comes to other routes, and that we must also encourage BME students to take courses such as apprenticeships and ensure that they have equal status in those routes?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In the city of Nottingham, I have also seen the great success of mentors and the hugely important role that they can play not only for BME youngsters but for women. Mentors do excellent work, and there is good evidence of their importance. I encourage all Members of this place to go out and make sure that in our schools everything possible is being done to make sure that there is fairness and equality.
Research shows that while BME students are over-represented in university entrance figures, they tend to go to the new, post-92 universities. The Women and Equalities Committee heard this week that the Russell Group universities are poor at doing outreach to encourage students from disadvantaged and BME backgrounds to apply to their universities compared with the Ivy League universities in the US, which have a far better record on that. Will the Minister join me in seeking to address this issue?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point, if I may say so. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, who makes the point that the London Academy of Excellence is a very good example. I must say that my nearest university, the University of Nottingham is—like Nottingham Trent University and many other universities—making a really positive effort to get into all our schools to make sure that all our pupils have every opportunity and that they, if I may put it this way, aim high.
The Government talk the talk of encouraging more black and minority ethnic students into university; yet, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, their recent decision to scrap maintenance grants will disproportionately affect those very same students. Does the Minister believe that this disproportionate impact is acceptable?
I am not familiar with the impact assessment, but I have to say that I am quite surprised by it. I reiterate the point: it is absolutely imperative that we make it very clear that everybody should aim high. That is what we want to do and that is what we are seeking to do.
Gender Economic Inequality
The employment for women is at a record high, and the gender pay gap is at a record low. The Government are committed to enabling women and men to fulfil their economic potential.
I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that 65% of the people who will benefit from the new national living wage in a couple of months will be women. This Government are taking that very important step to raise pay for the lowest-paid in our country.
I do not doubt my hon. Friend’s commitment to reducing the gender pay gap further, and I commend the Prime Minister for his position, but the reality is that women in my constituency of Basingstoke face a gender pay gap of 30%. Should this not be on the agenda of every single company throughout the country, as well as on that of our local enterprise partnerships?
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, given her interest in this matter, not only are we taking steps to publish this information for companies with more than 250 people on the payroll, but for financial services—the sector I, as Economic Secretary, engage with most—which has the highest pay and the biggest pay gap, we have appointed Jayne-Anne Gadhia to review pay in the sector and see what further steps we can take. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last July:
“Transparency, skills, representation, affordable childcare—these things can end the gender pay gap in a generation.”
The WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—campaigners are not going away, so will the Minister raise the issue of better transitional state pension arrangements with her Department for Work and Pensions counterpart? These women deserve fair play.
As a woman whose state pension age has gone up by six years during her working lifetime, I welcome the changes that will equalise the state pension age for men and women. That will end the discrimination of women in their late 50s, which has prevented far too many of them from reaching higher-paid roles in our society.
Women’s under-participation in the labour market costs the UK economy £600 billion in lost productivity, according to the Government’s own analysis. Will the Minister guarantee that the forthcoming Budget will reverse the universal credit cuts that reduce work incentives and guarantee a childcare place to every working mum who needs one, and will she ask her colleague the Chancellor finally to change course and stop introducing a series of measures that disproportionately penalise women?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady, who is my twin, is completely wrong on this. The facts are that we are extending the free childcare offer to many people and bringing in tax-free childcare for many, many people. I share her aspiration to unleash the economic potential of women in our economy. The OECD has said that if the participation rates of men and women were equalised, the economy would be 10% larger. We are therefore taking a range of steps to encourage that to happen.
I welcome the draft gender pay gap reporting regulations that the Government published last week. Although I understand why the Government would not want to bring in enforcement procedures for non-compliance, will the Minister assure the House that the matter will be kept under constant review? Does she agree that it would be counter-productive for companies not to comply with the new regulations, as it would deter the most talented women from applying for their jobs?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I welcome his support for the initiative. It is a voluntary scheme. We are trying to change the culture, and transparency is part of that. It will allow women to make a choice. If they are thinking of working for a company, they will be able to ask, “Am I able to see how this company treats men and women?” And at a time of record employment for women in this country, women have more choices.
Domestic Violence Services: Funding
The Government have already announced £40 million of funding for domestic abuse services between 2016 and 2020, as well as a £2 million grant to Women’s Aid and SafeLives to support early intervention. We will shortly publish a refreshed cross-governmental violence against women and girls strategy, which will set out how we will do more still to secure long-term funding for domestic violence services and support for all victims.
I return to the question of long-term funding for domestic violence services, which is so important, having raised it in January, when the Minister said she was holding discussions with service providers. How are those discussions progressing, and when will we see an outcome? Can we know at some stage, if not now, who is involved in those discussions?
I should make it clear that central Government funding for domestic abuse services has not been cut. I want to make that clear so that there is no confusion. The issue is about locally commissioned services. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right that I have been having discussions with local commissioners and service providers, and I will issue the refreshed VAWG strategy shortly.
The Prime Minister said in January 2014 that he would ratify the Istanbul convention as soon as the UK banned forced marriages. The relevant legislation came into force in June 2014. Will the Minister explain what is now delaying the process?
There is an issue with article 44 of the Istanbul convention, which is about extraterritoriality. It is an issue regarding the devolved Administrations, of which there is more than one, as the hon. Lady will be aware. When we have clarified that point and passed the relevant primary legislation, we will ratify the Istanbul convention.
Welfare Reform: Gender Equality
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that working lone parents with assets or unearned income are more likely to lose out under universal credit. With single parents overwhelmingly being female, it appears to me that the Government’s austerity programme is once again targeting women. What representations has the Minister made to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about the impact of universal credit on women’s equality?
I come back to my opening comment: we fully assessed the impact of the Bill’s equality measures, and we are meeting our wider obligations. As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, universal credit supports people in employment, and that applies equally to women. That is alongside all the additional measures that we are now implementing, such as the national living wage, increased childcare and tax-free childcare.
18. The Minister will be aware that women’s aid groups have expressed serious concerns that changes to housing benefit could force the closure of many refuges. Will she challenge her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to exempt refuges from those changes, to protect vulnerable women and children who are fleeing domestic violence? (903754)
The hon. Lady will know that there are measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, and they are in conjunction with the many discussions that we have with stakeholders, and we take on board all considerations. That is exactly what the Department will do in its dialogue with third-party organisations.
We all know that women are affected by changes to the retirement age, and Ministers and their officials have met and corresponded with hundreds of women about pensions reform. The changes have been subject to many recent parliamentary debates, and the Government’s position has been made clear.
Indeed the Government’s position has been made clear, and they are cloth-eared in listening to women who are affected by these pension changes. If the Minister had been present yesterday in the debate on providing transitional protection for women affected by the pensions changes, she would have heard Conservative Members—indeed, Members from every party in the House—cite individual women who have been degraded and impoverished by these changes. When will the Government begin to listen to them?
I did listen to that debate, while I was also in another debate in Westminster Hall. Let us be clear: the Government have listened to extensive concerns that have been raised in the House, and concessions worth more than £1 billion were introduced to lessen the impact of the changes for those worst affected. The previous Government introduced future changes to the state pension age for women and men, following extensive debates in both Houses of Parliament. Importantly, the Government have made difficult but necessary decisions when it comes to speeding up the timetable for the equalisation of the pension age.
Women born in 1953 and 1954 are particularly badly affected by these changes. Many of them went into work at the age of 15, and will have to work more than 50 years before they can access their pension. Will the Government have another look at this? There are things that can be done if the political will is there.
The Government have listened extensively to the concerns raised, and they have also worked with pensions organisations. To reiterate, the Government have made concessions of £1 billion, which have been introduced to lessen the impact of the changes on those affected.
The apprentice national minimum wage applies equally to all apprentices, and from October last year that rate was increased by 21% to £3.30 per hour. We continue to focus on improving the quality of all apprenticeships, and we are putting that into statute. We all go into schools, and one great thing we can do is not only to act as role models, especially if we are female, but to sing out about things such as the apprenticeship scheme, and make clear that it is not confined to boys.
I thank the Minister for her response, but the reality is very different to what is on paper. Results from ComRes commissioned by the Young Women’s Trust in September found that female apprentices earn £4.82 per hour, compared with £5.85 for men. Another survey stated that there is an £8,400 difference in those areas of work where women figure highly, such as social care, childcare and hairdressing, in comparison with men, so actually, it is not correct.
I am not quite sure what is not correct, but, in any event, I know what the minimum wage is and it is for all apprentices. If there is evidence that women doing apprenticeships are being in some way discriminated against in their pay, we want to know about it, and we look forward to the hon. Lady coming forward, meeting the Minister for Women and Equalities, and between us we will sort it out.
Will the Minister assure me that older women are getting a fair deal when it comes to apprenticeships, and especially that they are able to return to work after caring responsibilities? Will she look carefully at the engineering and construction sectors to ensure that they are truly open to all?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. When it comes to those sectors, the Minister for Women and Equalities and I—in fact, all of us—are extremely keen to make sure that we use every opportunity and anything available to us to make the case that younger women in particular must go into these excellent work streams. We know we need to do more. We all have a part to play and that, of course, includes Government.
Given that the apprenticeship gender pay gap for women stands at about £2,000 a year, does the Minister share my concerns that this is where the gender pay gap begins? Will she explain why the Government’s new institute for apprenticeships does not include provision or targets for women? What message does she think that sends to women seeking apprenticeships?
The institute, with which I am familiar, will comprise all the sorts of people it should have on it—primarily employers, but it will look to work with providers—to make absolutely sure not only that the quality of apprenticeships is good, but that we get everybody and anybody applying for apprenticeships. Whatever someone’s background might be—sex, colour of skin or ethnicity—absolutely does not matter at all. In certain areas, I do not have a problem at all in making a positive case to make sure that more women or more people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds go into apprenticeships, especially the high-quality ones. There should be no barrier.
Older Women: Caring Support
Unpaid carers are the backbone of our society. That is why the Care Act 2014 gave carers new rights that focus on their wellbeing and give them properly targeted support. We have also invested £1.6 million in a series of pilots to look at the best ways to support those who have caring responsibilities.
I have been visiting care homes and care companies in my constituency that are currently facing unprecedented challenges. Does the Minister agree that this places an even greater onus on older carers, who do invaluable and compassionate work? What measures will she put in place to help older carers get back into employment when their care duties come to an end?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Unpaid carers are the unsung heroes of our economy. The value of informal care is about £62 billion a year. For many carers it is literally a labour of love, which is why we have extended the right to request flexible working. A pilot project is considering the best way to support carers, through investment in technology and professional support, to stay in employment.
A constituent visited my surgery last week to seek help. She had planned to retire and care for her elderly mother, but she now finds, unexpectedly, that her retirement date will be significantly later than planned. Does the Minister understand the wide implications of the issue raised by the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign and the real difficulties that problems with notification of pension date changes are causing for 1950s-born women with caring responsibilities?
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. I understand the concerns, but she must remember that the new state pension will give 650,000 women an average increase of £416 a year on their pension and, in addition, support those who take time out of employment, for example for caring roles, by crediting this very important work.
Entrepreneurs: Government Support
We are absolutely committed to supporting women to start and grow their own businesses. I am really proud that Britain has been named the best place in Europe for female entrepreneurs. Our £1 million women and broadband programme enables them to take advantage of technology to start or grow their own business. We are running nationwide “meet and mentor” sessions to help give female entrepreneurs access to the right support and encouragement.
Self-employment is at record levels. Since 2009, women have accounted for more than 50% of that increase. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming Julie Deane’s new review into self-employment, and will she work with colleagues to take forward recommendations that will help more women to set up businesses successfully and to thrive?
Julie Deane is an incredibly inspiring example of the great female entrepreneurs we have here in the UK, and about a million of our small and medium-sized enterprises are indeed led by women, contributing an incredible £85 billion to the British economy. Julie has made some wide-ranging recommendations as part of her review into self-employment. I know that my hon. Friend has been involved in those recommendations, and they will be considered very carefully by the Government.
More generally for women who choose a career in business, I understand that Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have recently appointed Sir Philip Hampton to lead a review into increasing the number of women in UK boardrooms. I just wondered why the Minister thought that appointing that man was the right thing to do for this particular job.
I think we have to get away from the supposition that this is just a women’s problem. The fact that women are not as fully engaged as they should be on boards or indeed all the way through the business pipeline is a problem for everybody, and all businesses need to address this issue. That is why we need excellent people to lead this investigation, ensuring that it is all done as properly and fully as possible.
Whether online or offline, all forms of bullying, including homophobic bullying, are completely unacceptable. That is why we are investing £2 million to support schools to address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying more effectively. In fact, my Department is funding Stonewall’s Train the Trainers project in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, at the Great Clacton Church of England School, to build skills and confidence to address this form of bullying.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman saw sight of my answer, because I think we can firmly agree on that. I mentioned the £2 million project that we are funding. Stonewall is very much one of the bodies delivering on this, as are the Anne Frank Trust, Barnardo’s, Diversity Role Models, EACH—Educational Action Challenging Homophobia—Educate and Celebrate, the National Children’s Bureau and Show Racism the Red Card. They are all doing an excellent job.
Gender Pay Gap
We are committed to closing the gender pay gap within a generation. This is important not only for women, but for business, prosperity and the health of the UK economy. That is why from next April we are requiring large employers to publish their gender pay gap, and why we have been working very closely with business to help deliver this.
I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome the steps that are being made, but will she join me in commending the Scottish Government for laying regulations in Holyrood to extend the requirement on public authorities with more than 20 employees to publish information on their gender pay gap and equal pay statements?
As the father of a growing number of daughters, it is important to me that women can enjoy exactly the same level of career advancement as men, which they clearly do not. Many experts and leading female CEOs of international companies believe that the lead indicator is not the gender pay gap, but the level of career advancement for women. Will the Government consider looking in future into whether major companies could report the percentage of men and women at every stage within their organisation to help change the culture?
This legislation will require businesses to show how many people are employed at the different sectors of their organisations. However, my hon. Friend is right that this starts right from the beginning when girls are given careers advice about which businesses and sectors they should aim to get into. We need to get away from the idea that there are “girls’ jobs” and “boys’ jobs.” There are just “jobs.”
I have recently put a series of parliamentary questions to every Government Department on the gender pay gap, and every Government Department that has answered to date has shown that there is a gender pay gap. What is the Minister going to do about the situation on her own watch?
I wonder whether this legislation will be broad enough to help a constituent of mine who recently separated from her boyfriend. She now has a “To Let” sign outside her house at 102 Church Drive, Shirebrook because she works for Mike Ashley at Sports Direct on a zero-hours contract. I think that is disgraceful, and I would like to see legislation that ensures that employers who operate zero-hours contracts cannot put women such as my constituent in jeopardy so that they lose the roof over their heads.
STEM Subjects: A-level
The number of science and maths A-level entries among girls has increased by 12,000 in the last five years, but the Government are determined to encourage even more girls to study those subjects to help them to secure rewarding jobs in the future. I recently announced that, by 2020, we want to see a 20% increase in the number of girls applying to study science and maths. To achieve that, we will build on an extensive range of Government-funded support for schools.
There are some fantastic STEM schools in my constituency, including Outwood Grange Academy, where I attended a brilliant STEM skills workshop a couple of weeks ago, and Woodkirk Academy, which I visited with the Minister for Women and Equalities last year. Will she join me in praising those schools, which are helping more pupils to consider STEM careers by finding imaginative ways to show them the possibilities that those subjects hold? Pupils have even participated in a LEGO minecraft workshop at Woodkirk.
I welcome the opportunity to join my hon. Friend in praising the work of Outwood Grange and Woodkirk Academies for their excellent work in this regard. During my visits I was impressed to see at first hand how the academies engage pupils in STEM subjects, demonstrating the application of science and maths and promoting STEM careers.
I am sure the whole House agrees that STEM subjects provide exciting, rewarding, fantastic career opportunities for women and girls, but studies show that without some personal experience of STEM careers, girls are unlikely to consider them fully. Why have the Government abolished face-to-face careers advice and made work experience something that girls have to organise for themselves? Will the Secretary of State bring back mandatory work experience?
Actually, we are going to go much further. We have introduced, and are funding, the Careers & Enterprise Company. We shall be investing more than £70 million in careers work during the current Parliament to enable young men and women to be inspired by people who visit schools, by work experience opportunities, by finding out more, and by the Your Daughter’s Future programme. We discussed the gender pay gap earlier. I think it worth noting that those working in careers in science or technology are paid, on average, 19% more than those in other professions, and I think we can all agree that we want more girls to go into such careers.
The Government will have invested an extra £1 billion per annum by 2019-20 to help hard-working families with the cost of childcare. We are doubling the amount of free childcare to 30 hours for working parents of three and four-year-olds, and from early 2017 tax-free childcare will benefit about 2 million families by up to £2,000 per child. Many families will also be able to claim 85% of childcare costs through universal credit.
I thank the Minister for that, and especially for the extra £13 million that is being made available to councils such as mine in Staffordshire so that they can roll out the childcare plan sooner. That will help thousands of hard-working families throughout the country. However, will she give particular consideration to what can be done to help families with disabled children and children with special needs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we are investing more in childcare. Those with disabled children receive £4,000 of tax-free childcare per child. During the last and current Parliaments, we have been rolling out education and healthcare plans for children, including those aged nought to 25 who have more complex needs. We are clear about the fact that our childcare policies must require providers to cater properly for children with disabilities.
Sanitary Products: VAT
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has written to the European Commission and to other member states setting out our strong view that member states should have full discretion in regard to the rate of VAT that they can apply to these products, and that that should be considered in the context of the Commission’s action plan on VAT, which we expect to be published in March.
Frankly, I think that many women throughout the country will be rather disappointed by the Minister’s response. Will she guarantee that the Prime Minister or the Chancellor will come to the House and make a statement once the Commission has responded to our request, so that the public know where we stand before the referendum?
Of course, the Government do believe that this is something on which we want to take action. I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome the fact that the Chancellor has already announced a new £15 million annual fund to support women’s charities in the interim period before we can tackle this on a unanimous basis across Europe.
EU Solidarity Fund: Flooding
First, I want to pay tribute to all those who have supported the many places that were flooded in December and early January; the local authorities, the emergency services, the Environment Agency staff, the community volunteers, the military and many others made a significant contribution to supporting communities affected by the terrible events that we saw over Christmas, in December and in early January. The whole House will want to recognise the enormous effort that has gone into supporting households and businesses, not just the initial response to the floods, but the ongoing work to get residents back into homes and businesses open.
The responsibility for recovery, including matters relating to the European Union solidarity fund, lies with the Department for Communities and Local Government, and officials in DCLG worked hard throughout that period and continue to work hard to support those communities and those affected by those events. The Government recognise that the immediate priority is to respond to the urgent needs of those affected, which is why we have already provided more than £200 million to help those affected by the floods to support recovery and repair. A key feature of our package of support is the communities and business recovery scheme, which is designed to provide ready support to local authorities affected by Storm Desmond and Storm Eva and, in turn, to help individuals, small and medium-sized businesses and communities return to normality. Additionally, it provides property-level resilience grants of up to £5,000, so that people can protect their homes and businesses against future floods by putting in place resilient repairs. To date, under the communities and business recovery scheme, government has paid out a total of £21 million for Storm Desmond and £26 million for Storm Eva. Further payments will follow, and we are also supporting farmers with grants of up to £20,000 to help restore damaged agricultural land and farm vehicles and access and repair boundaries and to address field drainage.
Having set out what the Government have already done, I want now to turn to what more we can do. I am today announcing that the UK Government will make an application to the EU solidarity fund. The EUSF was set up to respond to major natural disasters. The fund was created as a reaction to the severe floods in central Europe in the summer of 2002. Since then, it has been used for 70 disasters covering a range of different catastrophic events, including floods, forest fires, earthquakes, storms and drought. The only time the UK has applied to the fund was following the flooding of 2007, which saw widespread and significant damage across large swathes of England. Member states have 12 weeks from the start of an incident to register their intent to claim. Once we have confirmed our intent, there is time to consider, with the Commission, the elements of assessment. Following this process, the Commission assesses the application and, if it is accepted, proposes an amount of aid to the European Parliament. Once the appropriations become available in the EU budget, the Commission adopts a decision, awarding the aid to the affected state. It is then paid out in a single instalment. When aid is paid out, the affected state is responsible for the implementation, including the selection of operations, and their audit and control. Emergency measures may be financed retrospectively from day one of the disaster, but the EUSF is not, and nor is it designed to be, a rapid response instrument for dealing with the effects of a natural disaster. Financial aid can be granted to the applying state only following an application and budgetary process, which can take several months to complete.
I thank the Minister, my fellow Stockton MP, for his response, which is extremely welcome today. It has taken an urgent question to get the information from the Government, so I am delighted that you granted it, Mr Speaker. I know there has been considerable confusion in government about which Department was responsible for making the application, and I, for one, am delighted at today’s news. I was pleased when the Environment Secretary told the House last month that she was considering an application, only to have one of her civil servants answer my letter to her by telling me it was a DCLG responsibility. We now know the answer today—it is a DCLG responsibility, and I am glad that that Department has actually taken it on.
What we have always known is that it is a Government responsibility to apply to the solidarity fund, and a failure to do so would have deprived our communities of much-needed additional funding to get their homes, lives and businesses back on track. The whole House knows of the devastation that was caused across the country over the Christmas period and into the first months of this year. Recovery costs in Cumbria alone are estimated at £650 million. Other estimates of the total cost suggest that the clean-up bill will exceed £5 billion. It is therefore imperative that the Government do everything possible to maximise resources from all possible areas to support that operation.
I was pleased that, in her statement to the House on 5 January, the Secretary of State said:
“The Government will continue to do what it takes to get those areas up and running and prepare for future events.”—[Official Report, 5 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 70.]
However, for nearly three months, while gesturing a willingness to provide support and assistance, she and the Government have been shy about promoting an application. Members and their constituents have been left totally in the dark, as it appeared that the Government would fail to make an application for help from the EU solidarity fund, which was established precisely to respond to such natural disasters as those experienced in Cumbria, Lancashire, north Yorkshire and Scotland.
The fund has been used by states across the EU in response to 70 disasters, ranging from flooding and forest fires to earthquakes and storms. Just last year, Italy, Bulgaria and Romania received more than £40 million in similar circumstances. You will know, Mr Speaker, that we on the Labour Benches have been extremely anxious that this opportunity could be lost. To be clear, the first floods for which an application could be made in Cumbria were some 11 and a half weeks ago, yet it has taken the Government to within a single working day of the deadline to confirm that an application is being made. We all know that there are those who quite wrongly believe that we get little from the EU. I am clear that the UK should be embracing the offer of additional support, particularly as we have paid £300 million into the fund since it was set up.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. Will he outline what discussions he has had across Government and with local authorities in the affected areas in the preparation of the application? Why have Members and communities been left in the dark for so long when it would have been a boost to them to know that more help could soon be on the way? What is the final estimate of the cost of the devastation suffered by our communities, and how much are the Government bidding for? Is there just one application, or will there be multiple applications to reflect the fact that a number of communities were affected and that each could qualify due to the level of devastation they have suffered?
Finally, I am aware that my Stockton neighbour and I will be on opposite sides in another debate—that of whether we remain in the European Union. Does the Minister not agree that it is funds such as this that can, and I hope will, bring great benefits not just to communities hit by natural disasters, but to constituencies such as his and mine where there are large numbers of people suffering considerable deprivation?
There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the hon. Gentleman. The Department has been working on this application for some time. We had to draw together a range of information across Government Departments, talk to local areas, and assess the cost and impact of events that have taken place. That is what we have been doing, and what we will continue to do. As more information comes through and we go through the process of supporting those communities, we will ensure that the application is thorough, and that it accounts for all opportunities to add to it and to recognise the damage that has been done. Those discussions have been taking place across Government in the right way and in the right timeframe, so that we were able to make our announcement.
I congratulate the officials in my Department and in others who have been working hard to bring all the information together so that we can announce that this application will be made. The application will continue to evolve as more information comes through. As I said in my earlier comments, the European Union solidarity fund is not designed to be a rapid response to events of this kind. It is a longer-term fund to provide compensation to communities. Even though an application is now being made, it will take months for that money to be paid. However, we will continue in our commitment to supporting those communities, providing the funding and the backing that they need. That is what we have done so far and what we will continue to do to ensure that the communities affected by the terrible weather events get the support they need to recover as quickly as possible.
I gently say to the Minister and the House, that, in 2011, Somerset suffered from disastrous floods. The Prime Minister and my local area looked at this fund very closely indeed. We made the decision that we would not apply for it at that time, because it was too complicated, too difficult and the benefit to the communities was not there. [Interruption.] Those on the Labour Benches can chunter as much as they want, but we have now made the area in Somerset that was flooded safe through UK funding. The proof of the pudding is evident this year—we have not had to switch on the main pumps. The system has worked. We do not need this funding to do what we have to do to secure our communities.
My hon. Friend has demonstrated an understanding of the European Union solidarity fund that is absent among those on the Opposition Front Bench. It is a complex fund that requires a number of facts to be taken into consideration. There is an administration process that will take a long time and cost a significant amount. That is why we had to carry out a proper assessment to understand whether it would be of net benefit to the UK taxpayer to make an application before we got to the place where we could make the announcement that I have been able to confirm today. That is the right process, and my hon. Friend has demonstrated from his own constituency experience his deep understanding of the issue and the complexities of the matters before the House.
I welcome the statement. The Minister talks about the rapid response. Where was the rapid decision-making process on the Government’s part? I welcome the announcement, but it was not a difficult question. If we have an insurance policy, of course we are going to cash it in. Why would we not do so? That is logical and sensible. I welcome it. In relation to Scotland, have the Minister and his Department calculated how much money will be coming to Scotland, owing to Barnett consequentials? Can he say anything about the timescale and when that might be expected?
The rapid response that I was talking about was the money that the Government immediately made available, the hard work that was done, particularly by my colleagues and officials in DEFRA, the Environment Agency and emergency responders—the work that was done straight away to support the communities affected by flooding. I can confirm that one of the factors that has delayed the process and made it more difficult to carry out the very complicated assessment that underpins the application to the EU solidarity fund has been the slowness of getting the information that we needed out of the Scottish Government. Had they responded more quickly, perhaps we would have been better informed earlier and able to announce with more clarity what would be done.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Three weeks ago I asked the Prime Minister why we were not applying for these funds. I am delighted that we are now doing so. More than 300 of my households were hit by the floods. A third of them were not covered by insurance because of the high premiums and eye-watering excesses. Perhaps some of this extra money can help them. In one case a business, the Ribchester Arms, has been closed since Boxing day. It has lost tens of thousands of pounds and still has ongoing costs. It hopes to be open by Easter. Can my hon. Friend make sure that Ministers look again at the number of businesses that were hit during the floods to see how much extra assistance, thanks to this money—our money; we are only bidding for our money—we can give them to help them get back into business?
There are thresholds that have to be met, there is an assessment of damage that has to be done, and there is no guarantee that an application to the fund would yield more money than the cost of applying and delivering it. None the less, we have made that assessment and have come to this decision. I am delighted that it pleases my hon. Friend. I would be happy to have discussions with him about individual businesses in his constituency, but I remind him that regardless of what happens with this fund, the Government have made significant funding available to support local businesses and communities affected by flooding. That funding is available now. We do not have to wait for this fund to come through to support the communities affected.
My constituency was not damaged in the most recent floods, but I know from previous flooding that speed is of the essence. I have known people in my constituency wait not just months, but years, to get their home back to a decent standard. It is all very well for the Minister to be uncharitable and find himself unable to say anything nice about the European Union, which provides the fund. People do not want just the wellies on the day; they want the action after the flooding.
The hon. Gentleman is right—speed is of the essence, which is why the Government have made more than £200 million available to areas affected and made it available as quickly as possible—immediately —for the communities that needed support, so that support is there. This fund will take time to pay out. That is the way the process works. It will take months from the date of application to come to conclusion. We have decided to apply because we have assessed it to be of net benefit to the UK to do so, but the funding that communities needed was provided by this Government straight away.
My hon. Friend says that this is an important application, but will he put it in context? Every day British taxpayers pay £50 million to the European Union. How much does he think we are going to get back: three or four days’ worth of contributions?
The Minister has indicated that all that is required at this stage is a notification of intent to apply. If that is the case, surely he could have got the process under way weeks ago. When did he actually apply? Was it today, or yesterday? How much does he think he will actually recover? The Government have done the assessment, so what do they expect to recover from the European Union? Is he aware that the closure of the A591 in Cumbria is having a massive impact on the local economy—it is costing it £1 million a day—and on local families and businesses? The Government seem to lack a sense of urgency. Will he just get on with it?
I have to make it clear that there was no guarantee that the fund would bring a net benefit to the UK, or that it would be possible to apply, until a proper assessment had been done of the level of damage, the regional thresholds and whether we qualified to make an application. That assessment has now been done and we have announced our intention to apply before the deadline, which is the right thing to do. We will then work through the process to ensure that the UK gets the maximum benefit that can be delivered. Separately from that, the Government are already doing what needs to be done to support communities. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has been doing a huge amount of work in Cumbria, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, to ensure that communities get the support they need, regardless of the progress made with this fund. It will take time, but we are now committed to applying to the fund.
Can the Minister confirm that the UK paid £36.5 million into the EU solidarity fund last year, making us the second largest net contributor, and that we have only ever claimed once, in 2007, when we received £130 million? Is not the reason we have been reluctant to claim that we get very little out of the scheme because of our rebate? Effectively, we are paying into an insurance scheme that we cannot claim from.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is an interplay between the application for funds, the funds being paid out and the rebate. The reality is that this is a complex process and there are restrictions on how money that is released can be spent. We have made the assessment and believe that the fund will be of net benefit to the UK, which is why we have today announced our intention to apply.
Today’s announcement is welcome, but it is long overdue. What specific discussions have the Government had with local authorities in Scotland to ensure that the appropriate amount of support is sought for flood-affected communities?
The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. Much of this, as a devolved matter, is dealt with by the Scottish Government, but we have had ongoing discussions with them, including, in the context of the application I have announced today, on the information we need from them to underpin the parts of the application that apply to Scotland.
This is excellent news. I accept that there are complexities in the EU solidarity fund, but what is unpalatable, and a horrendous burden for the people of Calder Valley, is the £32 million of infrastructure damage and the shortfall of £15 million for future flood defences. Now that we have applied to the fund, can my hon. Friend assure the people of Calder Valley that the cost of infrastructure repairs and shortfalls in any future flood defences will be met either by the fund or by the Government?
My hon. Friend has been one of the most diligent and passionate advocates for his area; since the storms in December and January, scarcely a day has gone by when we have not discussed matters pertaining to Calder Valley. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting the affected communities, and we continue to work with the local authority to ensure that is done. His representations have been incredibly helpful in informing the process of recovery already, as I am sure they will continue to be.
May I, too, welcome this announcement, having outlined in my Westminster Hall debate last month the cost of the damage in my constituency and the neighbouring Calder Valley? The Minister has not been quite clear about exactly how much the Government hope to secure from the fund. Following the assessment he has done, can he indicate exactly what value of funding will be available?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I wish to put on the record on the Floor of the House my appreciation for the constructive nature of the debate we had in Westminster Hall—I think it brings out the best in this place when we pull together to do what we can to support the communities we all represent. As I am sure she will appreciate, we are at the stage of having identified that applying will be of net benefit to the UK. We still have a lot of work to do to finalise the costs and figures that we will submit to the Commission, so I am not in a position to confirm what the entire net benefit will be at the end of the process, but we will of course keep the House updated as progress is made.
To not give false hope to the communities everyone is talking about today, the Minister must say at the Dispatch Box that there is no guarantee of our ever receiving this money. Domestically, the process is complicated enough, but when we get to the European process, whereby we apply for some of our own money to come back to this country, it becomes even more complicated, and the timeline is extremely long. Will he give us a rough idea of how long the timeline was in 2007? Will he also assure communities that the Government are spending money now that is helping them, and that we will do well in the future even if this money from Europe does not come?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have said, this is not a rapid response fund; the money takes a long time to come through. The Government therefore made more than £200 million available straightaway to provide the support that communities need. My hon. Friend understands Europe better than most, given his experiences and history of working there. What he says is valid, and Opposition Front-Bench Members should perhaps listen to it carefully and take it into account.
We all welcome today’s announcement, and we all really felt the misery of the people affected when we watched the news on our TV screens. My constituents, particularly those in the West Kirby area, which is vulnerable to flooding, will be pleased to hear this news, but they will be a little baffled about why things have taken so long. I appreciate that work has been going on in the background, as the Minister said, but given what a miserable experience people have gone through, it would have been helpful if the Government had communicated their intention earlier. Will the Minister give an assurance that, should these things happen again, the Government will be prepared to apply to the fund?
I cannot give an assurance that the Government will always apply to the fund, because we may not always meet the threshold criteria to apply. We will always have to assess the cost-benefit to ensure that the cost of managing and delivering the fund does not outweigh the benefit that could come from it, and that includes, of course, the impact on the rebate. However, regardless of the fund, we have provided more than £200 million up front to ensure that communities such as those of which the hon. Lady speaks get the support they need.
I welcome the Minister’s decision. Will he give an assurance that, if the application is successful, it will not be used to offset funding already allocated from other resources and that it will actually make more resources available to improve defences along the Humber estuary and elsewhere?
We do not yet know what the final quantum will be, or how long the money will take to be paid. What matters is ensuring that communities get the support they need now. The Government have made, and are making, that support available, and we continue to work with local authorities to deliver it. That is our priority, but we are confirming that this fund will be applied for, and we will, of course, keep hon. Members updated as we progress through the process.
Businesses in my constituency, and in the borough of Rochdale, are absolutely baffled about why the Government have left it until the eleventh hour to apply for this vital funding. Will the Minister please assure me that he will get the application in by Sunday? Does he not also agree that the fund is a great argument for remaining in the European Union?
I am disappointed that the hon. Lady’s local businesses are baffled, but I am sure that, on leaving the House today, she will wait not a moment to explain to them the reality of the process. As I have said, this is not a rapid reaction fund. We have to ensure that we meet thresholds, and we have to assess damage. There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that we fully understand and apply for every bit of applicable damage, and we have announced that we will undertake that process. In the meantime, we have ensured that we have made funding available. It will still take many months for the fund to pay out, but we are pursuing that process.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), will the Minister please advise the House what support the Government can give small businesses and homeowners to improve resilience against future flooding and to prevent these things from happening again?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which provides a timely opportunity to remind hon. Members, and indeed local authorities, that the Government are making up to £5,000 available for flooded properties through the property-level resilience grant. We are encouraging owners to apply for that funding to improve resilience. We are being flexible so that grants can be pooled, allowing multiple properties to invest in joint flood defence schemes. We have provided more than £200 million, and that is one aspect of this, but it is important to improve resilience for the future.
If this were not so serious, the antics of the British nationalists on the Government Benches would be quite funny; perhaps they should learn something from lastminute.com. The Minister said that the Scottish Government took a long time to respond. The reality is this that the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities wrote to the Department, and the Deputy First Minister raised the issue on the floor of the Scottish Parliament. Is this the Minister’s long-winded, long-awaited response?
I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s question was, but the reality is that the UK Government responded immediately to the weather events that we saw over December and January. We made funding available, and we gave local authorities freedom and control over how it was to be spent and delivered to support people affected by flooding. That is the right thing to do. There is still work to be done on the recovery. We are doing that work and will continue to do it until all communities feel that they can get back to normal and back open for business, as so many places already are, and we can move on from what has been a very difficult period for so many.
Hundreds of my constituents in Nottinghamshire have benefited from the repair and renew grants, or resilience grants, which are operated by the Minister’s Department and seem to be operating well in getting money to people very quickly. In my constituency, a number of constituents did something very altruistic and chose to pool their repair and renew grants, not just for small community projects but to put towards whole-village or whole-town flood defence schemes. Thanks to the valiant efforts of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), we managed to find a work-around so that that was achieved. Will the Minister assure me and other Members that elsewhere in the country such community-wide altruistic schemes can be a way of using the £5,000 repair and renew grants?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Absolutely: the £5,000 resilience grant for each property can be pooled as long as the properties concerned benefit from that pooling. We have designed the schemes to be as flexible as possible in responding to different circumstances in different places, but most importantly to respond quickly, unlike the fund that we are discussing, which, important as it is, will take several months from this date until it is seen to pay out.
My constituents in Hull who were badly flooded in 2007 would have been aghast if the Labour Government at that time had not immediately said they would apply for the solidarity fund. When exactly was the decision made to make the application? The Minister is not offering much reassurance when he says that there is still much work to do if the deadline is this Sunday.
The intention, in accordance with the process that exists, is to indicate our intention to apply. I would be staggered had any Government immediately announced an intention to apply for the fund, because we cannot do so. We have to assess the impact on regional GDP and assess the costs to know whether we qualify. It might be easy to announce an application but then find that we do not qualify to apply. The responsible thing to do is to assess the costs and the potential benefit and then make a decision to apply, in time, if it is appropriate to do so. That is what this Government have done.
I welcome what the Minister has said today and his recent visit to Pendle. I thank him for the Government’s decisive action to address flood risk, including the Environment Agency’s commitment to spend more than £500,000 this year on addressing flood risk in the village of Earby in my constituency. Will he join me in encouraging the many tourists and visitors who regularly visit flood-affected parts of the UK to show their support by visiting this Easter or this summer?
I thank my hon. Friend. Many of the areas that were affected by flooding in December and January are some of the most beautiful parts of our country and of the north of England, and there are businesses across those communities that are very much open for business. We are encouraging people to continue to visit, or to consider visiting, those wonderful places to support their economies and communities. Many of them are open almost as though nothing had happened, working through what has been a trying period that has none the less shown the very best of the community spirit that exists right across the north.
Given that large parts of Greater Manchester were flooded, I welcome the Government signalling their intention to apply for these funds. The Minister implied that they have been working on the detail of the bid for some time, so will he clarify the detail of what they intend to use the funds for? Will it be to assist local authorities with the ongoing reconstruction work after the floods, or will it be to future-proof our flood defences?
The Government’s priority is to support the affected communities today. We have ensured that funding is available immediately to do that. We are still working through the process of the fund application, and we will continue to do that for as long as it looks like it will produce a net benefit to the UK. We will pursue it and ensure it is delivered, because we can see its benefit to communities. What matters to communities such as those that the hon. Gentleman represents is the quick response, the funding that is made available and the support that is given to local authorities to deliver immediately on their immediate needs and for their recovery thereafter. That is what we have done, and we continue to make funds available to do it. We have made that commitment and will stick to it.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 29 February—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the European Union referendum, followed by Opposition day (un-allotted half day). There will be a half-day debate on the UK steel industry on an Opposition motion.
Tuesday 1 March—Estimates (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the 2015 spending review, followed by a debate on the reform of the police funding formula.
[The details are as follows: First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The FCO and the 2015 Spending Review, HC 467, and the Government response, HC 816; and Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Reform of the Police Funding Formula, HC 476.]
Wednesday 2 March—Estimates (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on the science budget, followed by a debate on end of life care. At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates, followed by proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill. Further details will be given in the Official Report, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
[The details are as follows: First Report from the Science and Technology Committee, The Science Budget, HC 340, and the Government response, HC 729; and Fifth Report from the Health Committee, Session 2014-15, HC 805, and the Government response, Cm 9143; First Report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Follow-up to PHSO Report: Dying without dignity, HC 432; Sixth Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2014-15, Investigating clinical incidents in the NHS, HC 886.]
Thursday 3 March—Debate on a motion on gangs and serious youth violence, followed by general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 4 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 March will include:
Monday 7 March—Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill.
Tuesday 8 March—Remaining stages of the Enterprise Bill [Lords] (day 1), followed by a debate on a motion on International Women’s Day. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 9 March—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Enterprise Bill [Lords] (day 2), followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 10 March—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 11 March—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 March and 7 March will be:
Thursday 3 March—Debate on the offshore oil and gas industry.
Monday 7 March—Debate on an e-petition relating to the income threshold for non EU citizens settling in the UK.
Mr Speaker, as I am sure you are away—[Laughter.] It hasn’t started very well, has it? As I am sure you are aware, today is St Æthelbert’s day. I hope you are not confusing him with the other St Æthelbert, who was king of East Anglia, or any of the other Anglo-Saxon saints, like St Athwulf, St Bertha, St Congar or, of course, Sexwulf, who was the bishop of Mercia who founded Peterborough Abbey. Today’s St Æthelbert was king of Kent and died in 616. It is particularly relevant that we commemorate Æthelbert today, as he was the first king to establish laws in these lands banning blood feuds. I suspect that the out campaign and the Conservative party have need of him.
After all, when George Galloway turned up at an out campaign the other day, half the room left; Nigel Farage thinks that Gove, Cummings and Johnson are too clever by half and has sacked all his deputies; the Prime Minister is furious with the Justice Secretary for saying that his deal on the European Union is not legally binding; the Johnsons are engaged in a full-blown family bust-up; and the Mayor of London seems to be feuding with himself. Only this month, he wrote that leaving would mean
“diverting energy from the real problems of this country”,
but now he wants to do precisely that. He is not so much veering around like a shopping trolley as off his trolley, if you ask me.
The Prime Minister and the Mayor maintain that they are still friends. As St Æthelbert might have said, greater love hath no man for himself than this, that a man lay down his friend for a chance of getting his job.
Talking of mothers’ advice, my mother told me three things. First, if it is free, take two. Secondly, never take home a man who is wearing a hat until you have seen him without the hat. I can see that the Leader of the House agrees with that one. Thirdly, and more importantly, never trust a man who is wearing slip-on shoes. I merely point out that the Prime Minister was wearing slip-on shoes yesterday.
Now we know that the referendum period will run from 15 April until 23 June—[Interruption.] Do keep calm. Would it not make sense for the Queen’s speech to be delayed until after the referendum in late June or early July? The House did not sit in the immediate run-up to the referendums in 1975 and 2014 because they coincided with normal recess dates. Should we not do the same in relation to this referendum in June: rise on 16 June and return on 27 June?
I know what you are thinking, Mr Speaker. The Government’s business is so threadbare, how on earth can we keep the Session going until July? I have a suggestion for the Government. They could simply hand the rest of the business over to us. We could, first, abolish the bedroom tax; secondly, save our steel; thirdly, repeal the gerrymandering of parliamentary boundaries; and, fourthly, force Google to pay its fair share of tax, just as the French Socialist Government did. They are charging Google £1.3 billion in tax, as opposed to this shabby little Tory Government, who are letting Google get away with just a tenth of that: £130 million.
I welcome the nearly St David’s day debate on Welsh affairs. It will give Members a chance to welcome the 750 new jobs that have just been announced by Aston Martin, thanks to the work of the Labour Government in the National Assembly; to point out that cancer survival rates have improved faster in Wales than anywhere else in the UK; and, most importantly, to congratulate Subzero, whose new ice cream parlour in the Rhondda has served 10,000 customers in just 11 days, proving that all those blasted migrants who came to the valleys from Italy in the 19th century did us a big favour by giving us frothy coffee and the best ice cream in the country. Is it not time you made sure that we had Subzero here in Westminster, Mr Speaker?
I welcome the International Women’s Day debate on 8 March, when I hope we will be able to raise important questions, such as the horrifying statistic that violent crime, including domestic violence, has risen by 23% in south Wales in recent years. However, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the Dame Janet Smith review into sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile? Something was terribly wrong at the BBC for a long time. Staff knew what was going on but were terrified to say anything. Auntie lost her way, children were abused and the victims were badly let down. We must, surely, make sure that that never happens again.
Finally, private Acts of Parliament have been published on archival paper rather than vellum since 1956, and now the House of Lords has recommended that public Acts follow suit to save money. As you will recall, Mr Speaker, our Administration Committee published a report in which it agreed with the Lords, and the Leader of the House agreed with that report at the Members Estimate Committee that you chaired on 2 November. During the recess, for some bizarre reason, the Minister for the Cabinet Office stuck his oar in, and said that he was going to pay to keep on using vellum. That is a parliamentary decision, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Government or the Cabinet Office. Will the Leader of the House please tell the Cabinet Office to butt out, and will he allow a vote on the matter so that all Members can make their views known?
I must say that if I was the shadow Leader of the House I would not have picked today to bring up the issue of the European Union referendum. You may not know this, Mr Speaker, but all Labour MPs have apparently been asked to take to the streets on Saturday to campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. You may not be surprised to learn that one or two Conservative Members may be on the streets to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, but what about the Leader of the Opposition? He is going on a CND anti-nuclear march, even though his deputy said yesterday that he would vote to keep Trident. You really could not make it up.
Another two weeks have passed, and the shadow Leader of the House is still in his place and still a paid-up member of the Corbyn fan club. I knew his party leader was a disciple of Marx, but I did not realise that the hon. Gentleman was—a disciple not of Karl Marx, but of Groucho Marx, who famously said:
“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them...well, I have others.”
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Queen’s Speech and the flow of business. I can assure him that this House will continue to consider the Government’s extremely important agenda, which is making and will continue to make a real difference to this country. In 10 days’ time, we will have another Second Reading debate, on the important reforms in the Policing and Crime Bill, and we will shortly bring forward the Investigatory Powers Bill. He need have no fears: this Government have a strong and continuing agenda for this country, which we will continue to pursue.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Aston Martin. May I say how delighted I am about Aston Martin’s decision for Wales? It is good news for the people of Wales and good news for the United Kingdom. It is a tribute to the way in which this country is being run and to the favourable economic climate that exists under this Government, which is why big and small businesses are investing in this country.
I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the report on the BBC and what has been said this morning. What took place is clearly absolutely shocking. Lessons need to be learned not just in the BBC, but in institutions across this country. It is inexplicable to our generation how these things could have been allowed to happen over all those years, but we must not think such things could not happen today and we must make sure they never happen today. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be in the Chamber next Thursday, and I have no doubt that he will want to discuss the issue then.
The question of vellum is a matter for the House of Lords. The House of Lords will reach a decision, and that decision will be final.
There is exciting news for beer drinkers around the country. For the princely sum of £6, people can now drink their favourite pint out of their own Jeremy Corbyn pint glass. I think there will be a stampede. I do not know whether the shadow Leader of the House has one yet, but I am sure he will rush to the Labour website to buy one.
Surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman did not ask for a debate on public spending and the economy. That may be because he agrees with the former shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), who has said that the Labour party’s current approach to public spending is to place all its faith in what he called a “magic money tree”, by promising to reverse every cut and to spend, spend, spend. I think we should wish the previous shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, a happy birthday today. I never imagined that the Labour party would miss him so much.
Perhaps the Scottish nationalists can be excluded from this, but may I ask the shadow Leader of the House to join me in congratulating Wales on its victory over Scotland in the Six Nations during the recess? I did, however, still hear the tones of “Delilah” coming from the crowd, as usual, at that match. Welsh rugby fans obviously pay no more attention to what he says than anyone in this House does.