House of Commons
Wednesday 2 March 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with Executive Ministers on a range of issues impacting the Northern Ireland economy. I welcome the recent visits to Northern Ireland by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise and the Mayor of London to see at first hand the businesses and people who make the country’s strong export record a reality.
As a consequence of both the Northern Ireland Executive’s efforts and this Government’s long-term economic plan, I am delighted to report that Northern Ireland’s exports have grown 4% over the year—higher than those of any other country in the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland employs about 100,000 people. Will she assure us that she will work alongside Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to try to find new markets, which are essential to the agri-food sector, such as India, Mexico and Brazil?
The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the agri-food business. Indeed, on Monday night my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Moy foods, one of the biggest employers in Northern Ireland. New markets around the world are key to growing the agri-food business, not only in the EU but in China and elsewhere. That is why I am delighted that in May the GREAT campaign to promote Britain and United Kingdom exports will be visiting Northern Ireland. I look forward to working with the Northern Ireland Executive to help that promotion to go from strength to strength.
Will the Secretary of State commit to commissioning research into the possible effects of leaving the EU on Northern Ireland’s exports and wider economy? Will she further commit to making a statement to the House on the economic effects on Northern Ireland of a UK withdrawal from the EU thereafter?
The Government are very clear that being in the EU makes us better off, stronger and safer. I do not think that we will be diverted by commissioning external reports about what may or may not happen. The United Kingdom knows exactly what being in the EU looks like, because we are in it now. The reforms that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has got will achieve that goal.
Earlier this week, a Cabinet Office report was published that stated that leaving the EU would result in the imposition of customs checks at the Irish border. Do the Minister and the Secretary of State accept the assessment of the Cabinet Office? What impact do the Government expect customs checks to have on Northern Irish exports to the south—and this is being positive?
Of course, as a member of the Government, I accept the Cabinet Office’s views. We should not forget that Ireland and the United Kingdom have a long-standing agreement, the common travel area, which would mean that certain barriers would not be in place. However, should we leave the European Union, we will be outside the customs union, and that will inevitably lead to some form of extra barriers to trade.
I do not know how the Minister keeps a straight face in some of his answers. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State is again avoiding answering these questions on the economy. Has the Minister discussed with Executive Ministers the survey by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce, which showed that 81% of businesses in Northern Ireland support continued EU membership? Is it the case that there is little surprise in that finding, given that 60% of Northern Ireland’s exports—a higher percentage than in any other part of the UK—go to the EU?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I discussed that with the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce at a reception on Monday night in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know how I keep a straight face, let me tell him that I look across the Dispatch Box at two Labour Members who are in favour of replacing Trident, and I remember that their leader has no intention whatsoever of using it or replacing it. [Interruption.]
We are all amazed by the Minister’s response. That really was going to the bottom of the barrel to try to find something to say.
Building on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), has the Minister discussed with Ministers in the Executive the fact that more than a third of exports to the EU—well over £1 billion a year—go to the Republic? She referred to a report. The Government report was published today, and her remarks are supported by the Newry chamber of commerce. There are very real concerns about customs checks having to be put in place at the border, because that would be a border between the UK and the EU. I discussed that last night in Belfast with Nigel Farage. We had a big debate about it. Let me say to the Minister that it deserves a better answer than, “It’ll be all right on the night.”
I think I would rather have seen Adele last night, who is playing in Belfast, than Nigel Farage.
The United Kingdom Government believe that we are better off, stronger and safer if we stay in the EU. Of course we do not want barriers to further trade. We recognise the importance of trade across the border to the Republic of Ireland. I can say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are absolutely united in making sure that Northern Ireland business prospers and does the best it can, because this Government’s long-term economic plan will ensure that exports and domestic trade flourish.
The UK Government are supporting the fight against organised crime through the police funding delivered through the Northern Ireland block grant, the £25 million to tackle paramilitarism due to be provided under the fresh start agreement, and the work of bodies such as the National Crime Agency and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The £160 million of additional security funding will support efforts on organised crime because of the involvement of terrorist groupings in that form of criminality.
In the fresh start agreement, the Executive committed to undertake a public awareness campaign to increase public understanding of the harm done to all communities by paramilitarism and organised crime. Given the impact that that has on businesses, will my right hon. Friend encourage the Executive to proceed quickly down that path?
A theme that came out strongly from the fresh start talks was the need for a whole community approach to tackling the problems of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland in order not only to continue the excellent work of the police and their security partners, but to ensure that the public are well aware of the harm done by organised crime and are supported in their efforts to give the evidence necessary to bring individuals to justice and put them in prison, where they deserve to be.
Since the National Crime Agency has, at long last, become operational in Northern Ireland, what efforts have been made to seize the assets of those involved in organised crime and reinvest them in community projects in Northern Ireland?
The NCA takes its duty to seize criminal assets very seriously. In that work, it will be assisted by the new joint agency taskforce on cross-jurisdictional crime, which will be established from April. It will consist not only of the NCA, Border Force, the immigration service and HMRC, but of the Irish Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau. That will significantly enhance the excellent efforts already being made in Northern Ireland on these matters under the Organised Crime Task Force.
The fuel marker Accutrace was introduced in April 2015. A six-month report on its use was deposited in the Library of the House in November. The review suggests that the new marker is having a very positive effect. It is too early to say whether the reductions are sustained and to establish causality, but the results are positive so far.
I would emphasise that Belfast, and Northern Ireland, is one of the safest places in the world. There is a significant problem with criminality related to paramilitarism and of course a lethal threat from terrorists, but the UK Government are absolutely determined to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the brilliant work it is doing. The PSNI is assisted by the very strong co-operation with An Garda Siochana in bringing to justice those who seek to exploit the border for criminal purposes.
In December, I attended a trilateral cross-border ministerial meeting with the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. We agreed new measures to enhance law enforcement co-operation. A joint agency task force to tackle cross-jurisdictional organised crime has been created in line with the fresh start agreement.
While accepting that there are political uncertainties in the south as a result of the elections, does my right hon. Friend agree that the north and south face similar difficulties in combating crime, managing offenders and supporting victims, and that it is in everyone’s best interests that the Administrations of the north and south work closely together?
It is a stain on our efforts to frustrate cross-border crime that, after decades of fundraising for and running the Provisional IRA, it took the Irish Republic to secure an Al Capone-style conviction on Thomas “Slab” Murphy. Does that not highlight the fact that much more needs to be done to frustrate not only those who proliferate across the border, but those who support and fundraise for ongoing terror in Northern Ireland?
The work that has been done by the Organised Crime Task Force and the PSNI over recent years in Northern Ireland is exceptional and very effective. I am convinced that the new strategy for paramilitaries in the fresh start agreement, in which the political parties went further than ever before in condemning paramilitary activity in the most forthright terms, and the cross-jurisdictional arrangements that were set up in the agreement will make Northern Ireland an even safer place than it is today.
It is hugely important that the police do all they can to tackle tobacco smuggling and I know that it is taken very seriously. It may be something that can be considered by the new joint agency task force on cross-border crime. It is a serious crime and those who buy illegal cigarettes are supporting and funding evil criminals who are involved in significant violence. It is not a victimless crime and I urge everyone to avoid purchasing such products.
There was clearly a cross-border dimension to the horrific events of August 1998 in Omagh. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and I, and I am sure the whole House, extend our profound sympathies to the friends and families of those who lost their lives on that terrible day. The Secretary of State has referred to cross-border co-operation and said that the relationship between An Garda Siochana and the PSNI is at an historic high. Will she commit, here and now, to bend every sinew to extend and solidify that relationship, because we must never, ever allow an intelligence breakdown to occur again?
I can, of course, give the commitment that the UK Government and, I am sure, the Northern Ireland Executive will do everything in our power to enhance the co-operation between north and south, which is crucial. I associate myself with the comments of sympathy, support and condolence to the victims of one of the vilest atrocities that has ever taken place.
I hold regular discussions with Executive and Government Ministers on a range of economic issues. Our long-term economic plan continues to deliver for Northern Ireland: the economy is growing, there are 46,000 more people in employment today than in 2010 and wages are up by more than 5% over the year.
The economic pact that was signed between the Executive and the Government means that we are working more closely than ever before to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy and boost jobs. Unemployment is down by more than 40% from its peak in February 2013 and progress is being made towards implementing the devolution of corporation tax, which shows that working together between our two Administrations is effective in delivering for Northern Ireland.
I welcome the very good news on the economy in Northern Ireland, but in the light of the recent job losses in the manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland, with companies identifying high energy costs as one of the impediments to manufacturing growth, will the Secretary of State say what she is doing, along with the Executive, to tackle that issue?
I have discussed that matter with the Executive and companies such as Michelin on many occasions, and I appreciate their concerns. It is also right to acknowledge the grave concern that people affected by redundancies at Bombardier will have. It is important to acknowledge that Bombardier is clear that that was part of a global restructuring, and that there was nothing that the Government or the Executive could have done to change its decision. However, it is also worth noting that manufacturing in Northern Ireland is strong and growing.
For our part, as leaders in the Northern Ireland Executive, we will continue to drive forward economic growth in conjunction with the Government here. Tourism is a major and important factor in driving that growth, and the Executive have invested heavily in, for example, Titantic Belfast and bringing major events to Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State help us by reducing VAT on tourism and air passenger duty? That would really drive forward our region economically.
The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, know that EU law constrains us from reducing VAT on those matters. However, I am committed to doing all I can to bring more tourists to Northern Ireland, which is a fabulous place to visit. In particular, the Executive’s investment in Titanic Belfast has been an outstanding success.
13. I thank the Secretary of State for her answers so far. However, although she can speak eloquently, and we are all very pleased about the economic development that has taken place, does she agree about the need to work more closely with Northern Ireland MPs and the Executive to establish a much more robust economic strategy to regenerate the economy and stimulate job creation, rather than a series of disconnected policies?
Closer working between Ministers and MPs is always desirable. The economic pact gives us a strong platform for doing that. We have brought the economic pact implementation into line with the process for implementing the fresh start and Stormont House agreements, and that gives even more scope for working closely with the hon. Gentleman’s party and others to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy thrives into the future.
Executive: Sustainable Finances
The Stormont House and fresh start agreements set out a number of measures to assist with the sustainability of the Executive’s finances. These include packages of financial support of around £2.5 billion, implementation of welfare reform, and measures to improve the efficiency of the public sector.
My colleague the Minister has stated the Government’s position on those matters. The Northern Ireland Executive’s finances are on a more stable footing than they have been for many years. As a result of the fresh start talks, we have settled a budget crisis that was threatening to collapse the institutions. The Labour party should support us in maintaining that financial sustainability.
The Government are publishing several documents setting out their position on the European Union. As I have said, we should welcome the dedicated work of the UK Government and the Northern Ireland political parties to settle a budget crisis that was threatening to collapse the institutions and a return to direct rule, which would have been a major setback.
The Federation of Small Businesses indicates that some 32,000 jobs will be created by the corporation tax provisions, which the fresh start agreement secured. Sixty per cent. of those jobs in Northern Ireland are in the small and medium-sized business sector. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that small and medium-sized businesses benefit from the corporation tax reduction?
This Government are committed to improving the life chances of disadvantaged children by addressing worklessness and improving educational attainment. These are largely devolved issues in Northern Ireland, where the Executive have the powers to address child poverty in areas such as health, education, housing and childcare.
Is the Minister aware of the Shankill children and young people’s zone in Belfast, a programme embedded in the community that aims to address generational disadvantage in the area? Is the Minister willing to meet the zone organisers and share the lessons being learned more widely?
Yes, I am aware of that organisation. I was on the Shankill yesterday visiting two business parks, the Argyle business centre and Duncairn Gardens, in that very sensitive part of north Belfast. I would be delighted to meet them, and if the hon. Gentleman wants to come along too, he would be welcome.
No, I do not accept that. The changes to the welfare system have proved that what we should do is make work pay. It is having a positive effect, as we see an increase in employment in Northern Ireland. More people and families are going out and securing a wage. That is the best way to lift people out of poverty.
Keeping people safe from terrorism is one of the Government’s highest priorities. The PSNI and its security partners have our fullest support. Funding for the intelligence services will increase significantly over the course of this spending review. The PSNI will also receive an additional £160 million to combat the security threat. [Interruption.]
I agree that both the pledge of office and the fresh start agreement itself will be judged on implementation. Experience in Northern Ireland says that making a declaration or getting an agreement is only part of the journey. We are determined to see the fresh start agreement implemented in full. Implementation is going well, not least with the establishment of the panel to set out the strategy against paramilitarism.
I can certainly do that. They have our fullest support, as set out in the Conservative manifesto for Northern Ireland. Their courage and dedication is saving lives in Northern Ireland on a daily basis. They remain one of the main targets for attacks by dissident republican groupings, but they put their own safety on the line to defend the whole of the community.
The Government’s position on these matters is clear and has been set out in a number of documents published in recent days. What we are all agreed on is the essential nature of the co-operation on security matters between the UK and Ireland, and the crucial importance of that continuing, whatever the result of the referendum.
Will the Secretary of State do what she can to unite the community in support of the police against terror? Does she agree that that job would be made much easier if senior police officers, who this week took a decision to relocate memorials to murdered colleagues away from public-facing positions in police stations into back offices, reconsider that decision and relocate them, and ensure that the campaign against terror gets support right across the community?
The Government remain committed to working with the Executive and rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. The Government’s long-term economic plan is working and delivering for Northern Ireland: the economy is growing; there are 46,000 more people in employment than in 2010; and wages are up more than 5%.
The Government recently set up an independent National Infrastructure Commission to ensure a long-term view on key infrastructure projects. What work is the Minister doing to ensure that the infrastructure commission is of benefit to the Northern Ireland economy, and can he name some specific infrastructure projects that it will undertake?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been in touch with Andrew Adonis to ensure that the commission is UK-wide. I am also delighted that, because of the efforts of the Government and the Northern Ireland parties through the fresh start agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive are well on their way to investing in new infrastructure for Northern Ireland, including hopefully work on the A5, the M2, and the A6 up to Derry, and Northern Ireland will get a 21st century road network that will improve economic development.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Only the SNP could try to maintain a grievance after a settlement has been put in place. We have built a powerhouse Parliament for Scotland that will have more powers, more ability to set tax rates, more ability to determine benefits for its citizens. Now it is time for the SNP to stop talking about grievances and get on with government.
Q2. The Csa Group in my constituency has recently taken on six new apprentices, and across South Ribble we have had more than 1,000 apprenticeship starts since 2014. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this suggests that the Government should stick with their plans so that even more companies have the opportunity to take on apprentices? (903841)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have this very stretching target for 3 million apprentices to be trained during this Parliament. We will do our bit by funding those programmes. We want business to do its part by contributing to the apprenticeship levy, but we need small businesses such as Csa in my hon. Friend’s constituency and, indeed, the public sector to get fully involved in training apprentices to give young people the chance to earn and learn at the same time.
The Treasury website describes it as a “long-term plan”. Well, it is certainly that, because it was announced in 2013 and is apparently not going to be introduced until next year. Why is the Prime Minister’s promise of 30 hours free childcare for three and four-year-olds not available for one in three working parents who want their children to be cared for in a pre-school?
First, on tax relief on childcare, we lost a court case against some of the existing providers, so there was a delay. The tax-free childcare will come in in 2017. As for the 30 hours, as I have said, there will be some pilot schemes this year and full implementation next year, which is in line with what we said in our manifesto. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is helping me to promote Government policy. When I became Prime Minister, of course, I think we had only 10 hours of childcare; then it went up to 12, then 15 and now to 30. Those are the sort of things you can do if you have a strong economy with a sound plan. If you are getting your deficit down and your economy is growing, you are able to do all those things. I am glad that we are able to talk about them.
A National Audit Office report published today confirms that one third of the families who were promised 30 hours of free childcare will now not receive it. That is a broken promise. The report also warns that many childcare providers are not offering the new entitlement owing to insufficient funding. As a result, 41,000 three-year-olds are missing out on free early education. Will the Prime Minister intervene, and ensure that those children are given the start in life that they deserve?
We want all those children to have the start in life that they deserve. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the National Audit Office report. Let me read to him some of the things that it says. For instance, it says:
“The Department has successfully implemented the entitlement to free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds, with almost universal take-up of hours offered to parents.”
I think that we should be congratulating the Secretary of State. It also says:
“The Department has made significant progress in providing free entitlement to early years childcare… parents and children are clearly benefiting from these entitlements… Stakeholders are…positive about increasing the entitlement to 30 hours”.
We are able to do all those things because we have a strong and sound economy. What a contrast it would be if we listened to the right hon. Gentleman. Because I regularly subscribe to the Islington Tribune, I can announce to the House that his latest economic adviser is one Mr Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister who left his economy in ruins. That is Labour’s policy in two words: Acropolis Now.
That is not much help to the 41,000 children who are not benefiting from what they were promised by the Government.
Let us look further on in the educational life of children. According to the Government’s own figures, half a million children in primary schools are in classes of more than 31, and 15,000 are in classes of more than 40. We are all aware of the importance of both pre-school and early-years education to giving all our children a decent start in life, yet half a million are living in poverty, and many are in oversized classes. Is it not time for a serious Government intervention to sort this problem out?
Let me bring the right hon. Gentleman up to date with the figures relating to all those areas.
Introducing the extra hours of childcare is obviously a huge operation for the childcare providers, but although the National Audit Office report said that only 58% of disadvantaged two-year-olds were accessing the free childcare offer, the latest information shows that over 70% are doing so.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the number of teachers, and overcrowded classes. There are 13,100 more teachers than there were in 2010, because we have invested in Teach First and in bursaries, and we have made sure that teaching is a worthwhile career. As for school places, I want to answer the right hon. Gentleman, because there are actually 453 fewer schools that are full or over capacity than there were in 2010—so that is progress—and there are 36,500 fewer pupils in overcrowded schools.
Why have we been able to do that? We have protected education funding. We have protected the money that followed every pupil into a school. We introduced the pupil premium, and that was the first time that any Government had recognised the extra needs of children from the poorest backgrounds. We have done all that, so our school system is growing, there are more places, and there are fewer overcrowded schools—all because we have a strong economy and the right values in place.
The problem is that class sizes are growing. The problem is that there is a crisis of teacher shortages as well. I have been talking to many teachers, as, I am sure, have the Prime Minister and others. I have a question from one, Tom, who says:
“I have been teaching for 10 years, and am currently head of D&T”
—design and technology—
“at a successful secondary school. With increasing numbers of teachers leaving the profession, will the government now accept that there is a crisis in recruitment and retention?”
Will the Government accept that there is that crisis in this crucial profession?
I have just given the right hon. Gentleman the figures. There are 13,000 more teachers in our schools than there were when I became Prime Minister. However, if he is worried about teacher recruitment, perhaps he can explain this. His party proposes to put up the basic rate of tax, starting in Scotland. How will that help? It means that classroom teachers, nursery teachers and secondary teachers will all pay more tax. What we are doing is helping teachers by saying, “You can earn £11,000 before you pay any income tax at all.” I do not think that recruiting teachers is simply about money—it is also about having a good school system, which we have in our country—but it certainly will not help if we listen to Labour and put up people’s taxes.
The Prime Minister seems to be in a bit of denial here. Ofsted and the National Audit Office have confirmed that there is a shortage and a crisis of teachers. Ensuring that there are enough excellent teachers in our schools is obviously fundamental to the life chances of children. When 70% of headteachers have warned that they are now having to use agency staff to staff their classrooms, is it not time that the Government intervened and looked at the real cost of this, which is the damage to children’s education and the £1.3 billion spent last year on agency teachers? We have this agency working situation in the national health service and also in education. Are we not moving into an era that we could term “agency Britain”?
The right hon. Gentleman has to look at the facts, rather than talking down the people who are working so hard to teach children in our schools. The facts are these: our teachers are better qualified than ever, with a record 96.6% of teachers in state-funded schools now having a degree or higher qualification. Those are the facts. On those going into teaching, Teach First is the most popular destination for Oxbridge graduates—something that never happened under a Labour Government. If you want to encourage people to go into teaching, you have to know that you have a good school system with more academies, more free schools and higher qualifications, and make sure that we have rigour and discipline in our classrooms, all of which has improved. All of that is possible only if you have a strong and growing economy to fund the schools that our children need.
Q3. Fiddlers Ferry in my constituency is one of several UK power stations announcing closure this year. However, Germany and Holland, both of whose carbon emissions are higher than ours, are building brand new mega-coal power stations from which we will be importing coal. It is hard for me to explain the logic of this to my constituents. Could the Prime Minister review the pace of our closure programme, particularly in the context of next year’s energy crunch? (903842)
My hon. Friend raises a very important question and he is right to say that there is big change in this industry. We want to see an increase in gas capacity and in renewables capacity, and of course the restarting of our nuclear programme, which I hope to be discussing with the French President this week. My hon. Friend is also right to say that security of supply must be our No. 1 priority, and that is why we have announced that we are going to bring forward the capacity market to provide an extra boost to existing stations, and this could indeed help Fiddlers Ferry itself. I would say to him and to everyone across the House that all these decisions we take about energy have consequences for people’s bills. He mentioned Germany, but German electricity prices are 40% higher than those of the UK; the level of subsidy makes up about 30% of German bills. Ours is less than half that level, and I think we have to think through these decisions and their consequences for energy consumers.
We all have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity. Parents have rights to maternity and paternity leave entitlement. Workers have the right to paid holidays and the right to work for no more than 48 hours each week. All those rights are guaranteed through the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that there are huge social benefits from being members of the European Union?
The point I would make is that in recent years what we have done, including under this Government, is to add to the rights that people have, including maternity and paternity rights. The emphasis in Europe now needs to be on making sure that we expand our single market and make it more successful for our businesses, recognising that social benefits matter as well, but principally I believe that they are a matter for this House.
Millions of UK citizens live elsewhere in the European Union. European decisions have helped the environment by reducing sulphur dioxide emissions by nine tenths. Relations between the 28 EU member states are often imperfect but they are maintained through dialogue and agreement, which surely is a huge improvement on the confrontations and wars of the past. Will the Prime Minister concentrate on the positive arguments for EU membership and reject the approach of “Project Fear”?
My arguments about being stronger in the reformed European Union, safer in the reformed European Union and better off in the reformed European Union are all positive arguments. I would add to that the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, which is that things such as pollution cross borders and so it makes sense to work together. The fundamental point he makes is one worth thinking about. He and I are both post-war children, but we should never forget, when we sit around that table, that just 70 years ago these countries were murdering each other on the continent of Europe. For all the frustrations of this institution, and, believe me, there are many, we should never forget that fact—the fact that we talk, the fact that we work together and the fact that we resolve our disputes around that table.
Q7. Those who foster children deserve our full support. To mark fostering February, last Friday I visited Jay Fostering in my constituency, which since its establishment in 2003 has helped more than 1,250 children to find a loving and caring home. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the team at Jay Fostering, as well as the carers? Will he also agree to look into how the currently complex funding arrangements for over-18s could be considerably simplified to ease the transition of children into adulthood? (903846)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which we started to address in the last Parliament because 18-year-olds were almost being automatically ejected from foster parent homes. We all know, as parents, that it is very important to give people the support they need. That is why we changed the law in the last Parliament so that local authorities are under a duty to support young people who choose to remain with their foster carers beyond the age of 18. We have put in place the “staying put” arrangement, we are providing £44 million over three years, and in the first year of its roll-out almost half those eligible to stay put have decided to do so. This is a real advance in our fostering arrangements.
Q4. As this is my first ever question to the Prime Minister, I do hope that my suit and tie match his mother’s high expectations. In September last year, 16-year-old Mohammed Dura-Ray was stabbed to death in my constituency. His mother Mariama discovered last week that the Crown Prosecution Service will not be prosecuting the man arrested for his murder. Sadly, she joins the 84% of people in Southwark who experienced knife crime last year who have seen no one held to account. The Home Office blames local police for that low prosecution rate, and I resent the accusation that my local police are not up to the job. Will the Prime Minister commit to ensuring that my local police have the resources to investigate knife crime fully and bring more killers to justice? (903843)
The hon. Gentleman uses his first question to raise an incredibly important issue: knife crime in our country. The good news is that knife crime has come down by about 14% since 2010, but he makes an important point about the level of prosecutions. Last year there were some 11,000 prosecutions, and the rate of prosecution is similar to that for other areas, but clearly everything we can do to help the police and help the CPS to increase the rate of prosecution is wholly worth while. We need to give the police the resources they need—and we are, through the spending round; we need to educate young people on the dangers of knife crime, and we need to make sure that those who commit these crimes are properly punished.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. For five or six years, the number of national insurance numbers issued to EU migrants has been hundreds of thousands higher than the official immigration figures. That implies that the official immigration figures may be a dramatic underestimate. We can know the truth of the matter only if Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs releases its data on active EU national insurance numbers, but HMRC has refused to do so. Will the Prime Minister instruct HMRC to release those statistics immediately so that we can understand the truth about European Union immigration?
I am glad that we have the single transferable question, if not the single transferable vote! It is very good to hear from my right hon. Friend. The reason why the numbers do not tally is that a person can get a national insurance number for a very short-term visit, and people who are already here but without a national insurance number can apply for one, so the numbers are quite complex. HMRC has given greater information, and I will ensure that that continues to be the case.
Q5. The proposed changes to Sunday trading are causing great concern to many retailers, shop workers, their families, faith groups and all who want to keep Sunday special, yet before the election the Prime Minister said that he had no plans to change Sunday trading laws. When did he change his mind, or was it always his plan to scrap this great British compromise as soon as the election was safely out of the way? (903844)
I thought it was right to bring forward these proposals because they are genuinely new proposals—new in that we are devolving to local authorities the ability to make that decision. Secondly, and crucially—I am sure that Opposition Members will be interested in this—we will be introducing new protections not only for new workers on Sundays, but for all workers on Sundays. The House should look carefully at this idea not least because our constituents are able to shop online all day, every day, including on Sunday. All the evidence shows that these proposals will be welcomed by customers and will create more jobs. We have nothing to be scared of in moving into this new arrangement.
Q9. At the weekend, I visited a young enterprise trade fair where teams from across local Staffordshire schools, including Rugeley sixth-form academy, were showcasing their entrepreneurial skills. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing good luck to all the teams, and does he agree that initiatives such this are key to inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs? (903848)
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that for years not enough was done in our schools to encourage enterprise and entrepreneurship. When we know that so many of the jobs of the future will come from start-up businesses, small businesses and rapidly growing start-ups, it is absolutely right that we should be promoting enterprise in our schools, not only through teaching but through exercises and enabling young people to start businesses by giving them small grants.
Q6. Yesterday, Five-Quarter Energy, a north-east small and medium-sized enterprise, ceased to trade. Its goal was the extraction of gas from coal deep under the North sea. The Government failed to provide a supporting statement to secure foreign direct investment owing to their inability to comprehend that underground coal gasification would not only secure our energy supply but provide feedstocks to grow our industries, and that all that would be totally decarbonised. Will the Prime Minister look into that appalling loss of opportunity and urgently change course and develop a meaningful industrial energy strategy that British industry, workers and the planet so badly need? (903845)
I shall certainly look at the case the hon. Gentleman raises, because we back all energy projects that can create jobs and growth in our country, and we have a very active industrial strategy for that. I know that he is disappointed about our decision on carbon capture and storage, but I say to him that that is an extra £1 billion capital investment, and even after that there is no sign yet that carbon capture and storage can be even close to competitive with nuclear power or offshore wind. None the less, I will look carefully at the case that he mentions.
Q11. A very large proportion of the fish caught by British vessels and landed in the UK are exported to Europe, mainly to EU countries, and, under reforms that were led by the British Government, a great many of our fishermen fish in the sovereign waters of other European Union countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our seas, those that exploit them, and the communities that they support are better off in a reformed European Union? (903850)
I do agree with my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to him for the huge amount of work he did to reform the common fisheries policy from what was a very poor policy to one that is now working much better for our fishermen. When it comes to fishing and farming, the key issue will be ensuring that Europe’s markets remain open to the produce that we land and grow. That will be vital to the debate that we have in the months ahead.
Q10. When more than 1,600 families are on York’s housing waiting list; when care workers are forced to leave the city owing to the cost of renting, thereby delaying hospital discharges; when young families are placed in a single room in homeless hostels; and when supported housing schemes will have to close because of benefit changes, can the Prime Minister specifically state why up to 2,500 predominantly high-value homes are being planned for development on public land in York central, without a single home being built for social rent? (903849)
The decisions made in York about planning are for York City Council and the local plan. One of the things that we did in the previous Parliament, which was specifically designed to help York, was to alter the change of use provisions so that empty offices could be used to build flats and houses for local people, which is happening in York and will help to make sure that that city continues to thrive.
Q12. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my constituent William Laurie, a brilliant young farmer whose business has been put at risk because the Rural Payments Agency has not paid his basic payment scheme money? Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that the figures that the RPA keeps putting out are fictional, or does he agree with his Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that it is the European Commission’s fault for making the common agricultural policy so complicated? (903851)
The system is complicated, and we need to make sure that the Rural Payments Agency does the very best that it can. To date 70,000 farmers have received their 2015 payments, which is 81% of all claims paid, but there is always room for improvement. Indeed, we should look at all the devolved areas of the United Kingdom to see how they are coping with the problem, but more broadly it is very important that we maintain the access that our farmers have without tariff, without tax, without quota, to produce the cleanest and best food anywhere in the world and export it unhindered to 500 million people in the European single market.
Yesterday the chair of the board of the International Campaign for Tibet, Mr Richard Gere, came to the House of Commons to meet Members of Parliament as well as you, Mr Speaker. Will the Prime Minister follow the example set by the United States, Canada, Germany and Japan and write to the Chinese authorities to express his concerns about the oppressive counter-terrorism laws introduced in Tibet?
Q13. In 2004 the 16-year-old son of my constituent Lorraine Fraser was murdered by a gang, and the conviction of four of them was secured through joint enterprise. The recent ruling in the Supreme Court has caused Lorraine and many other victims’ families a great deal of anxiety. Will my right hon. Friend agree to facilitate a meeting to enable these families to discuss their concerns with Ministers and understand what the ruling might mean in cases such as theirs? (903852)
Through my hon. Friend, may I extend my sympathy to his constituents? He is right—we should begin by remembering the families of all those who have lost loved ones to dreadful crimes and who are worried about that judgment and what it might mean for them. I am very happy to facilitate a meeting between him and one of the Justice Ministers to discuss it. I think we should be clear that that judgment referred only to a narrow category of joint enterprise cases, and it would be wrong to suggest that everyone convicted under the wider law on joint enterprise will have grounds for appeal. It is very important that that message goes out, but I will fix the meeting that my hon. Friend calls for.
People in the midlands are furious to learn that the Government have awarded a contract to make British medals to some French company. Imagine opening your Distinguished Service Order or your CBE to find “Fabriqué en France” on it. I have visited midlands medal manufacturers in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, and they are the best in the world. The Prime Minister should go back to Downing Street, call in the Cabinet Office Minister and get this scandal sorted out.
The only point I would make is that I am sure that all those in the Royal Mint in Wales would want to contest that claim and argue that they make the final medals in the United Kingdom. I am sure the competition between them and Birmingham is intense. I will certainly take away what the hon. Gentleman says. I was not aware of the issue, but where we can make something in Britain, we should make it in Britain.
Q14. A recent investigation by my local newspaper, the Derby Telegraph, uncovered reports of alleged experiments carried out on children by medics at a medical facility in Derbyshire during the ’60s and ’70s. Will the Prime Minister ensure that a thorough investigation is now undertaken? (903853)
I am very happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. She is absolutely right to raise this matter; they are very serious allegations and it is vital that the full facts are considered. My understanding is that the police, the local authority and the NHS are working together and that there is an inquiry process under the Derby Safeguarding Children Board, in line with is procedures. I encourage anyone who knows anything about this to come forward and give their evidence to the board.
The Syrian ceasefire is extremely fragile. There are reports that Russia is continuing to attack anti-Assad rebels, not Daesh, and that Islamic terrorists and weapons continue to pass into Syria across the Turkish border. What are the British Government doing to ensure that the ceasefire is properly monitored and, in particular, to reduce serious tensions between Russia and our NATO ally Turkey?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this matter. The cessation of hostilities is an important step forward, imperfect though it is, and it does enable the possibility of political negotiations starting next week. She asked specifically what we are doing to try to ensure that it is properly enforced. We are working with the Americans and the Russians to make that happen—I have a European conference call with Vladimir Putin later this week to reinforce these points. Even though the ceasefire is imperfect, the fact that we have it is progress. Not every group is included in the ceasefire, but basically we are not seeing the attacks that were taking place on the moderate opposition, which is welcome. It has also enabled us, with others, to get aid to communities that desperately need it, including through air drops and convoys. I would not put too much optimism into the mix right now, but this is progress and we should work on it.
Q15. Two weeks ago I visited the Zaatari refugee camp and the surrounding area on the Jordanian-Syrian border, primarily to assess healthcare services. I was struck by the remarkable generosity of the Jordanian people. However, the local system is under significant pressure. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss further what Britain can do to enhance healthcare services on the ground, both for the Syrian refugees and for the wider Jordanian community? (903854)
I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the situation. That refugee camp is an extraordinary sight, because of the scale of the endeavour under way. I think that Britain can be proud of what we have done, in terms of the direct aid that we have given and the London conference, which raised $11 billion for the refugee camps. I know that he has a long-standing interest in what we can do to ensure that facilities are delivered quickly, including, on occasion, using military facilities, and I think that there might be opportunities for that. We also need to ensure that the emergency response from non-governmental organisations and the United Nations is as fast as it can be when such crises happen in future.
As the Prime Minister struggles with certain elements in his party over Europe, does he ever think back to an inspirational and visionary Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who faced similar difficulties but stood up to the rebels in his own party and secured a yes vote for staying in Europe? Will he join me in celebrating the centenary of Harold Wilson’s birth next week? Across all parties we should celebrate that great, innovative Prime Minister.
I do feel a natural sympathy for anyone who has had this job, irrespective of the side of the House they were on. I think that Harold Wilson did some very important things for our country. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a particular connection to him. I wish his family well on this important centenary. I am sure that we approach things in different ways, but one thing that we would have agreed on is that Britain’s future is better off in a reformed European Union.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to Neil and Jennifer Burdett, the parents of two-year-old Faye, who died on Valentine’s day of meningitis B. Since Faye’s death, 815,000 people have signed the petition calling on the Government to vaccinate more children against meningitis B. I am proud that the UK is the first country to have a vaccination programme for meningitis B, but could my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government look at what more could be done to prevent more children like Faye dying from this horrid disease?
On behalf of the whole House, let me extend our sympathies and condolences to Faye’s parents and to all those who have had children suffering from this terrible disease. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we were the first country in the world to have this vaccination programme. The programme was based on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, who recommended targeting the vaccine to protect the infants at highest risk. The incidence of highest risk does occur in babies of five months, and of the 276 children contracting meningitis B last year, over 100 were under one year of age. But my hon. Friend makes important points. We need to look at all the evidence carefully, as do the expert bodies that advise us, recognising that Britain has already taken some very important steps forward by being the first country to vaccinate in this way.
State Pension Age
Yesterday we announced the appointment of John Cridland to lead an independent review of the state pension age. The review will make recommendations for the Government to consider, to ensure the future state pension age is fair and affordable in the long term.
The review will report by May 2017. I want to stress that the review is independently led and evidence led. Evidence will be put forward for Sir John to consider in his important considerations about the future of the state pension. The review will consider changes in life expectancy, as well as wider changes in society.
It is useful at this point to remind the House why this kind of review is necessary. In 1945, a man expecting to retire at 65 had a life expectancy of between 60 and 63. Men’s life expectancy rose from 14.27 years in retirement after their pension age to 27 years under the present forecast and existing timescales. Women have gone from 18 years in retirement after their pensionable age to 29.5 years in retirement.
Future generations, therefore, would rightly expect that we reflect those changes in how we set the pension. They would not thank us—we very rarely hear anybody talk about future generations—if we did not take the right decisions at the right time and did not have the courage to ensure pensions are sustainable, to avoid people having to pick up an increasing bill, which would make their lives even more difficult.
I want to make clear what this review is not about. It does not cover the existing state pension age timetable—it picks up from April 2028. We have already provided legislation for this, and the review will not look to change the state pension age up to that point.
It is worth reminding the Opposition at this point that when the Labour Government were last in power, they first legislated for state pension age rises beyond 65, but without any commitment to a special independent review, which we have undertaken. When we brought forward the Pensions Bill in 2013, the then Opposition seemed to have had a change of heart, and they—quite legitimately and reasonably, I thought at the time—agreed with us on the need for a regular independent review of the state pension age. Let me quote what the then shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), said during the course of the Bill’s passage:
“The Secretary of State and I have no difference of opinion on the need regularly to review the state pension age.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2013; Vol. 564, c. 661.]
It is worth reminding everybody that in that Bill was a statutory provision for a regular set of reviews of the pension age. Yesterday’s announcement is simply in line with that statutory requirement. That is what we are now doing, and that is what the then shadow Secretary of State said in agreement. I also remind the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) that at the time Labour made no amendment to change the nature or scope of the review; nor, I recall, did it have anything in its manifesto to do with that.
Under the legislation, we are required to appoint an independent reviewer who will make recommendations on future state pension age requirements. We have appointed Sir John Cridland to lead this work. The legislation also requires us to report on this in 2017. I can assure the House that we will report back to the House in an oral statement and a written statement on whatever comes forward from that review.
This review is part of the Government’s reforms to pensions to ensure that they are affordable for the long term. It is right that we recognise those who have reached their pension age and who have worked hard, done the right thing, and provided for their families. I believe that this Government are delivering for those very people. As a result of our triple lock, pensioners will receive a basic state pension over £1,000 a year higher than at the start of the previous Parliament and under the previous Government. We have provided greater security and more choice and dignity for people in retirement, while also ensuring that the system is sustainable for future generations.
May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State back to the Dispatch Box? We have missed him in recent months and are grateful that he is gracing us with his rare presence today.
Despite the statement we have just heard, I think that people travelling to work this morning will have been shocked to learn that the Government are planning yet another review of the retirement age and, in the immediate future, of when they can claim their state pension, with a clear implication that, as was the case with the women’s state pension, they intend to increase it further and faster than we, or the people of Britain, were expecting. People will also have been shocked to read this morning the Pensions Minister’s statement in another place, in response to the news of this review, that under the Tories the state pension age should no longer be considered as “a retirement age”. In other words, people will be able to retire only if they are rich enough or have a fat private pension; otherwise they will have to keep working—working until they drop, as one pensions professor warns this morning.
So could the Secretary of State try to clarify exactly what his Government’s long-term economic plan is for pensioners? Is it, as was the case with the botched reforms of women’s pensions, and as was implied in the terms of reference for this review, that people can expect the Government to ratchet up the retirement age much faster than expected? Can he guarantee that even if this review is not considering the planned increase to 67 by 2028, his Government will not bring forward that change? If that promise is not ratted on, can he confirm that his Government are considering speeding up subsequent rises, with increases to 69 or 70 being considered for people currently in their mid-40s? Could he also confirm that this will be a double whammy for those pension savers, as under his reforms everyone aged under 43 will have a worse state pension? Does he agree with his pensions colleague in the Lords that in the light of his reforms, the state pension age should no longer be considered as the retirement age, and so in future only the wealthy will have the luxury of retiring, while the rest will just have to keep on working?
Finally, what does the Secretary of State think is the upper limit for the state pension age? Is it 75, 76 or 77—or is it 80, as his former Pensions Minister colleague warned today? Is not the truth that the new pension promise is not the 75p that the Tories are always banging on about, but the 75 years that people will have to work and wait under this Tory Government before they get their state pension?
Well, all I can assume from that rather pathetic response is that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) did not think that his urgent question would be granted and that, after he heard that it had been granted, he scribbled away massively, because it was utter idiocy. I want to be kind to him, because he has made a career out of being Mr Angry at the drop of a hat. I remind him—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not want to hear this, but I am going to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. Let me remind him of exactly what his party was about before he took over as the Opposition spokesman. Let me—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Order. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) ought to know better, because he is a statesman—or, at any rate, a statesman of sorts—and should not conduct himself in an unseemly manner. As for the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), I have told him before to be careful: if you have that hot curry too often, it tends to have an effect upon your demeanour in the Chamber.
I am also worried about the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell). He has been here a long time and I want him to have a very good retirement, but he needs to calm down or he will not make it at this rate.
I remind the Opposition that the questions that the hon. Member for Pontypridd asked were all answered by his party when it was in government. It was the Labour Government who raised the state pension age—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not like being reminded of that. They did not have an independent review before they did it. They did it arbitrarily and set a set of dates, but they did not ask an independent reviewer to look at them. We are doing that now. That is what we were asked to do, and I think we are being reasonable about it.
It is also worth reminding the hon. Gentleman of what the then shadow Pensions Minister, Gregg McClymont, said when this statutory review—it is, I repeat, statutory—was passed by the Pensions Act 2014. He said—
Yes, I am doing it, but the hon. Gentleman’s party agreed with it. He should calm down, or he will never make it to state pension age. Gregg McClymont, the then Opposition spokesman, said at the time,
“we do not oppose the Bill”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 870.]
That was Labour’s position on the statutory requirement to review the state pension age. Baroness Sherlock said:
“It is vital that the way the state pension age is reviewed is…seen to be fair”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 December 2013; Vol. 750, c. 146.]
That is exactly what we are doing.
It is Labour that instituted the rises in the state pension, raised women’s state pension age and went for the equalisation of state pension age. In government, it started to do the responsible things, but in opposition it is utterly irresponsible and pointless.
I have one final comment to make to the hon. Member for Pontypridd. As I stood up, somebody said to me—[Interruption.]
Order. The shadow Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) are both rather cerebral academics. I cannot believe that they would conduct themselves in this manner in a university seminar. If they would not do so there, they should not misbehave here. Whatever they think of what the Secretary of State is saying, they must hear it.
Exactly, Mr Speaker, thank you. I say to the hon. Member for Pontypridd that, as I stood up, somebody told me—rather unfairly, I thought at the time—that he is shallow. Sadly, I now think that he gives shallow people a bad name. His response was pathetic and the urgent question was asked by an Opposition who have no policy and who jump around opposing everything and racking up spending commitments. No wonder they haven’t a hope in hell of being in government.
Every western democracy surely has a responsibility to review its state pension age on a regular basis and in a totally non-tribal, non-party political way so that its people know, a long time ahead, what changes will be made to the state pension age. If, in the past, we took too long to change the state pension age and then moved too quickly, surely now the cross-party consensus that was reached shows us that the right thing for the House to do is to set up the review, and that it should report back next year.
My hon. Friend, who has spoken about the matter on a number of occasions, is right, and I thought that we had that consensus. We certainly had it during the last Parliament, because the Liberal Democrats in the coalition agreed with us. The hon. Member for Pontypridd has mentioned the former Pensions Minister, who was keen to get a state pension age review. The Pensions Commission has said that increases in the state pension age are essential and that an independent body should be established to review them. We are doing exactly that.
Life expectancy in Scotland still lags around two years behind that in the rest of the UK. That gap persists across all social demographics and costs the average Scottish pensioner around £10,000. However, I am just as concerned about healthy life expectancy, which determines the age at which people start to experience illness and disability that limit their capacity for work. Healthy life expectancy is not rising at the same speed as life expectancy; in fact, the gap between the two is widening. Given the Government’s reductions in support for sick and disabled people of working age—we are due to discuss those changes later today—can we have any confidence that further increases in state pension age will not simply condemn thousands of older people with serious health conditions to an impoverished old age on state benefits prior to their official retirement?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her tone, and she has asked a legitimate question. The whole reason why we have instituted an independent review is so that people can raise such questions. I encourage her and her party to submit to the review and to Sir John Cridland their concerns about the different demographic issues in Scotland. They are well known, and it is quite legitimate for the hon. Lady to raise them with him. The point is that because Sir John is independent, he can look at the whole question—including aspects such as demographic changes or changes in the work that people do—and take a view about it. He may recommend that we make no changes, or he may come back to us with recommendations for change. I do not prejudge that, but I recommend that the hon. Lady make all those points to him.
In 1995, when I was Chancellor, I was among those who recognised that the old system was unaffordable. We thought that we were being courageous in giving 20 years’ notice of our intention to raise the retirement age. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in hindsight, we underestimated the remarkably welcome improvements in life expectancy and in the number of women who qualify for a full pension, and that we should have gone faster? Does he also agree that, inevitably, there will be loud complaints from those who are unlucky enough to be born at a time when they are just affected by the change, but that a Government have a duty to proceed in the interests of the country and in the interests of future generations of working taxpayers, who will not be able to afford to sustain our system unless we respond to reality?
My right hon. and learned Friend is correct. I thought that the position of successive Governments was to take that as a non-party political point and agree on the need to make those changes, the pace of which should be decided independently. We have done that. It was brave of the Government of whom he was a part to start the process of change, but it was always going to be necessary to review the matter in line with demographics. Recent demographic shifts have been rapid, so we are carrying out such a review now. I regret the fact that the Opposition have chosen to play political games rather than supporting this necessary change.
Does the Secretary of State accept that millions of people, having seen what the Government did in respect of the equalisation of the state pension age for women born in the 1950s, will look at the proposal and be worried that they are about to repeat those mistakes? Will he set out what transitional arrangements he expects for the changes, and whether that opens up the opportunity to look again at the injustice that has been done to those represented by the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign?
It is a legitimate concern to ensure that we give people plenty of notice, and Sir John Cridland will be looking at that carefully. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a submission to the review about transitional arrangements, it is absolutely possible for him to do so, and I encourage him to do just that. This Government did not introduce those changes, but we introduced a transitional change for those who were affected to improve the lot of a large majority of those who would otherwise have been adversely affected.
At the moment, there are three people paying national insurance for every person who receives a state pension; by 2040, if nothing changes, there will be only two people paying national insurance for every person who receives a state pension. There are more people in higher education than there have been in the past, and life expectancy has increased. Surely, in the long term, it is only common sense to match the retirement age to life expectancy in some way. We cannot enter the labour market later, leave it earlier, live longer and expect the state to pick up the bill.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. It is worth putting that into the context of what we have already done to sustain and support pensioners in the longer term. First, we have introduced more saving through automatic enrolment. More than 6 million people are saving for a pension. Secondly, the introduction of the single tier puts pension payments above the means test, allowing people to save in the knowledge that they will always hold their savings. Thirdly, the state pension is more than £1,000 higher than it was when we came into office. That is why we need to get the demographic changes right. We are going to be fairer to pensioners and support them as other Governments have never done.
I am not going to get angry, but I gently point out to the Secretary of State that he is quite wrong to say that there is a consensus on the matter. Indeed, he has broken the consensus that he established with the excellent former Pensions Minister, Steve Webb. The agreement was that independent reviews would look every five years at life expectancy and fairness for those who were paying in, but the Secretary of State is introducing affordability, which was not part of the original proposal, as well as bringing the review forward. Will he acknowledge that that is a change from what he agreed with Steve Webb and what the coalition Government delivered?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to find a difference, because I do not think that there is one. No one has more respect for the former Pensions Minister than I do; he is a good personal friend and I thought he did a brilliant job as Pensions Minister. As coalition partners, we worked well together. He and I agreed to introduce the independent review in the Pensions Act 2014. Sir John is quite capable of looking at the matter in the round, as we have asked him to do, and making a decision on the basis of “robust, evidence-based analysis”, as set out in the terms of reference. He may yet say, “I see no need to make any change,” but I am prepared to back him on that.
Our population is growing year on year, principally through immigration, so it is right that we look to the future. Will the independent review look at two scenarios, in which Britain either can or cannot control its immigration, depending on whether we remain in Europe? Will my right hon. Friend be able to see any of the information that comes through on both those scenarios?
Tempting though it is to involve the review in other areas, it is focused on the need to figure out whether, given the circumstances, demographics and affordability, the state pension age should rise and what it should be in years to come. I am happy for the review to be limited to that.
There are 2.6 million women who feel that they have not been given enough notice of changes to their pensions. I implore the Secretary of State to be straight with young people today about the fact that those of them who are born in areas of low life expectancy will be dead before they receive a pension.
I am not sure that the hon. Lady came into politics to decide that the future for people is so bleak that nothing can be done. Our role in this House is to make the changes necessary to improve people’s life chances and lengthen their life expectancy, so that they may enjoy the fruits of that life expectancy, having worked hard and saved hard, in a decent time of retirement. I am an optimist about Britain; she is a pessimist about Britain.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to review the pension age every five years and to give people the opportunity to know their retirement age with a long lead-in time, so that they can plan for a secure future for themselves and their families?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Essentially, the commitment made in the 2014 Act was to have a review in every Parliament. That will allow every Parliament to make decisions, and I hope that any changes, by the time we make them, can be done on a non-party basis. That would be the way to do it, and that is what we are engaged in.
This review was always known about. For those who are suddenly complaining that they had not noticed it, today’s written ministerial statement was down to be made yesterday. I do not recall their doing a single thing to bring it to anyone’s attention until a couple of newspapers wrote articles, after which a request for an urgent question was suddenly sent in.
I think everyone recognises that we need to review pension arrangements, especially given the demographics in the United Kingdom, but all such reviews throw up difficult cases and anomalies, not least in relation to differences in life expectancy across the regions of the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the review looks at such discrepancies, and that things are properly built in to make sure that information is given out when changes are made?
Much as I said to the spokesman for the Scottish nationalists, I say to the hon. Gentleman that, yes, it is recognised that there are issues about such areas. The point is that it is within scope of the review for him or anyone in his party to raise such issues with Sir John Cridland, and it is certainly within its scope for him, or anybody else he wants, to give evidence to the review.
My right hon. Friend has given some very cogent figures to the House, particularly the change in the number of years people can expect to spend in retirement from 14 to 27. Will he confirm that the independent review will be conducted in an impartial manner? Is not what we are hearing from Opposition Front Benchers and their friends in the SNP simply scaremongering?
I will repeat the figures. They are backed by what our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the Chancellor in a previous Conservative Government, once said with great foresight. The fact is that life expectancy for a man who retired in 1945, when the pensionable age was 65, was between 60 and 63. With the same retirement age, the expected period in retirement has risen to about 27 years. We must take that into consideration. I want more people to be able to work longer, and it was me and the then Pensions Minister who raised the default retirement age to stop companies telling people that they could not work past 65. Such people can now carry on working. We have done a lot, and this review is all part of that process.
The Secretary of State said that he wanted to reward those who work hard and do the right thing. He did not do that for women born in the 1950s, many of whom were given only three years’ notice of the acceleration in their state pension age. Will he now give the House a commitment that he will not, as he did in the Pensions Act 2011, further accelerate the changes in the state pension age that are due to come in up to 2046?
I accept that the hon. Lady raises a legitimate point but I wish that, in doing so, she would encompass the fact that she sat on the Labour Benches under a Government who raised the pensionable age and that accusations of “no notice” can very much be lodged at the door of the previous Labour Government. I simply say to her that, during the last Government, we made changes to improve the lot of many of those affected. As I have said, the independent review will look at all of that post-2028 and make recommendations about the best way forward. I hope that she will give evidence to the review if she has such concerns.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that countries around the globe are being forced to confront the impact of rapidly rising life expectancy levels, and it appears that only Opposition parties are in complete denial about the need for a sustainable state pension age?
That is a fact. Many of our neighbours have already equalised pensionable ages and are accelerating the move to a later pensionable age ahead of us. Germany, Norway and various other countries around the world have done so, and it is only right that we should do so as well. Otherwise, we will place a burden on our children and our children’s children, who will not thank us for not taking the brave decisions that are necessary.
I can tell the hon. Lady that it is very clear when she and those her age will retire. It is very clear that the independent review will make recommendations. If she wants to make her position clear and give her view, she should give evidence to the independent review. We will have a review in every Parliament. I do not understand why her party is against having a review. Surely we want an independent review so that it can be fair and balanced. I would have hoped that she welcomed that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the advantage of an independent review in every Parliament is that we should be able to give greater visibility to when changes will happen? Will he commit to not having a change with less than 10 years’ notice for those affected?
That is exactly the flow of timings at the moment. Sir John Cridland has to consider that, and we want him to look at making sure that such a process happens. We want people to have plenty of notice, and I know recommendations have been made about that. As I said earlier, he will look at that under his terms of reference, as will the next review and so on. I would simply say to my hon. Friend that if he has an issue, he should put it to the review.
The Secretary of State claims to be an optimist, but I see precious little to be optimistic about. We have had the stock Government response that, in raising any concerns, we are scaremongering. Does the Secretary of State agree that many of my constituents will, because of regional variations in life expectancy, die before they receive their state pension and have an absolute right to be scared?
I am sorry that the hon. Lady takes that view. We have rising life expectancy. We have people earning more in jobs. We have more people in work. We have more people saving, and preparing for their retirement, than ever before. We have a pension coming in that means they will not get means-tested. I have to say that I am optimistic on those grounds. I do not, however, blame her for being pessimistic because if I was sitting on the Labour Benches today, I would be really pessimistic.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents approaching retirement age that the headlines splashed across this morning’s papers—in one case, saying that people will be required to work until they are 81—have no basis in fact whatever, given that this is just the start of the review and that no conclusions have been made, let alone agreed by the House?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The reality is that this independent review will look at all of that. The papers have to make their own decisions—I will not be critical of them—but I would simply say that they cannot extrapolate from the announcement of a statutory independent review and say that it will somehow have certain implications for the retirement age going forward. All I would say is that it is necessary to get the balance right between people who are paying for those who have retired and people who have retired and are saving. It is the job of the Government to get that right, and I hoped it would be approached more consensually across the Floor of the House.
I want to raise another anomaly with the Secretary of State. People who worked in Northern Ireland when they were 14 and 15 paid national insurance contributions between 1947 and 1957, but those contributions did not count towards their pension entitlement because the school leaving age in Britain was a little higher. Can that anomaly be raised with Sir John Cridland and addressed so that it can finally be rectified?
As I understand it, that specific issue is not within the scope of the review, but I am certainly happy to talk to the hon. Lady about it. In general, the point about the review is that it is the first time—I would have hoped this would therefore be welcomed—that someone has asked an independent body to review such anomalies. I am very happy to speak to her if she wants to come and see me.
This is a policy on which there should be consensus and cross-party support. The evidence is that we are living longer and healthier lives, and not just in Mid Dorset and North Poole, so there should be optimism across the country. Does the Secretary of State agree that the responsible thing to do is to have an independent review, follow the statutory regime and examine the evidence and all the options, rather than scaremongering and using phrases such as “working until they drop”?
I must say that I was slightly surprised earlier today when I saw the Opposition spokesman tweeting the most inflammatory comments about people retiring. I can understand that those in opposition need to try to get attention, but to start worrying and scaring people without foundation or reality is nothing short of appalling. I wish the hon. Gentleman would get up and apologise for that.
The review will consider variations in pension arrangements between “different groups”. Will the Secretary of State give more detail on whether “different groups” refers to occupations, such as shift workers or, to give an example from my constituency, bus drivers, who get chronic bladder conditions? The life expectancy and health of those groups deteriorates as a result of their occupation. Will those issues be raised in the review?
Notwithstanding the antics of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to underscore the national importance of this issue and I commend the approach that his Department has set out. Despite the depressing and dispiriting response from the Opposition parties, will he undertake to continue to try to build a national consensus and a consensus across the House on this issue, as it affects all our constituents and should be above party politics?
I agree with my hon. Friend. My door is always open and I am always ready to see somebody, even if they then change their mind. I have found the tweet that the shadow Secretary of State sent this morning—strangely, not after he had seen the statement, but only after he had seen the newspapers. It states:
“Pensions Minister scraps retirement for all but the rich and those lucky enough to have a good private pension!!!”
How ridiculous is that? This is the announcement of a statutory review that his party agreed with in 2014. He really needs to apologise.
The Secretary of State and all of us here are fortunate to have satisfying, well-paid jobs, but many of our countrymen and women work just to survive. Will the review look at whether it should always be the presumption that living longer means working longer, or might we look at alternative ways of funding the basic state pension so that people are able to benefit and live fulfilled lives in retirement as a result of better healthcare and the fact that we are living longer?
Again, that is a wholly legitimate question for the hon. Gentleman to raise. As I said to his party’s spokesman, that matter is within scope for the reviewer, if he wishes to raise it. The reviewer and his team will have to decide how to get the balance right. It is certainly within scope for the hon. Gentleman and his party to ask the reviewer to look at that balance and to see whether some of the presumptions are necessary, and I urge him to do so.
The Secretary of State has been a champion of pensioners with the triple lock, the single-tier pension and automatic enrolment, which is now benefiting more than 6 million people. Does he agree that, in the light of the cross-party support for an independent review in 2014, it is rank hypocrisy for Labour Front Benchers to try to make political capital out of it today?
I genuinely regret that the consensus that was achieved for the 2014 legislation has been tossed aside in a matter of hours by the Opposition, apparently over breakfast this morning. [Interruption.] I urge them, instead of chuntering away on the Front Bench, to remember what their spokesman said in 2014. He said categorically:
“we do not oppose the Bill”.—[Official Report, 29 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 870.]
They agreed with the regular review. I urge the Opposition to get back to the sensible position of wanting to co-operate over changes to the pension age.
May I ask the Secretary of State about different occupations? Certain professions, such as those who serve in the armed services, the fire brigade and the police, require a lot of physical strength. We should even think about surgeons, who will have to operate on people later on in life. Has Sir John Cridland been asked to look at those people’s retirement ages?
That is another legitimate question. It is within scope for the hon. Lady to raise it with John Cridland and I urge her to do so. A number of similar points have been made. Of course, he will have to make the final decision about the balance of his review within the terms of reference, but this matter is certainly within the terms of reference. I wish those on the Front Bench of the hon. Lady’s party had taken such a positive view.
I have listened to this discussion for 45 minutes and, setting aside the bluster from some of the Opposition parties, the only point of divergence that I can see is on whether the Government have included a requirement for this five-yearly statutory inquiry to consider affordability. If that is the case, does my right hon. Friend agree that affordability should definitely be part of any inquiry into our pensions system?
Given that we have a national debt of £1.7 trillion or £24,000 for every man, woman and child in this country, it would be a crime for the Government not to consider whether our pension age is affordable. I hope that the other parties will reconsider, particularly Labour and the Lib Dems, given that this was the only point of difference that their spokesmen could raise.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I thought that there was consensus on this matter, but it has apparently been torn up. I urge those on the Opposition Front Bench to change their minds and engage with the review. Of course affordability will be considered. I do not know of any Government that would genuinely say, “We will make some change and not think about whether it is affordable.” Hang on a second—the last Labour Government did that, actually. I am sad to hear that the Opposition are following their usual trend, which is to shout a lot and make commitments they could never possibly meet if they were in government.
Will the Secretary of State rule out the prospect of the retirement age being increased to 84 as a result of the review, as was predicted by the previous Pensions Minister, Steve Webb? Are the Government prepared to set any upper limit on the state retirement age?
The hon. Lady should not grab on to and believe everything that is printed in the newspapers. They have their own legitimate reasons for publishing stuff. There is nothing in the review that talks about that. I have said categorically that John Cridland will review, within the terms of reference, where we should go with state pension ages and look at other aspects, such as affordability, within the context of what people have done and what their details are. If the hon. Lady has a particular issue she wants to raise, she should raise it with him.
What is untenable is that the hon. Lady’s party opposes an independent and regular review of state pensions. Why would anybody do that? [Interruption.] I hear the shadow Secretary of State shouting, “Rigged.” The only thing that was rigged was the way that he got on to the Front Bench to be the Opposition spokesman.
As someone who accepted the rise in his own pension age to 68 in 2007 on the basis of the evidence presented by the Labour party, it has been disappointing to hear the tenor of the Opposition’s comments today. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the review will be independent and that it will take into account factors across the country, not just in London and the south-east, that affect life expectancy? Will he assure me that we will seek to have constructive engagement with the Opposition? If we cannot get it with the shadow Secretary of State, perhaps we should try to get it with the shadow Pensions Minister instead.
I agree. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The important thing is that there is an independent review and that we own up to the decisions that we have to take. I wish the Opposition would accept that they took decisions about the state pension age. They have collective amnesia about anything that happened not just pre-2010, but apparently pre-2015. I expect that they will shortly forget everything pre-2016 and that it will go on like that. They should wake up, smell the coffee and get on with being an Opposition in the hope of being in government, not perpetually in opposition.
It is concerning and disappointing that further changes are being considered, given that the Government have not even fixed the botched mess they made of the transition for women born in the 1950s. Several of those women have come to my constituency surgery and some of them face losses of up to £30,000 as a result of the unfair transition. I wonder how many of the WASPI women have gone to the Secretary of State’s surgeries or those of his Ministers and what message he has had for them.
The terms of this urgent question and the review are to look beyond 2028. I accept that there are demographic issues in Scotland, such as a faster ageing population, that cause particular issues. I would therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party welcomed an independent review by an independent individual that can look at any aspects and problems in Scotland that they wish to raise. I urge them to do that. I take it from the nodding of his head that he welcomes the independent review, unlike the Labour Front Benchers.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that the Cridland review moves the indicator from life expectancy to health—mental as well as physical health—particularly for post-menopausal women, and that people can have quality of life post-retirement, so that we can gain from that social capital and people can look forward to their retirement?
The hon. Lady raises a wholly legitimate set of issues and concerns. We must consider how we deal with people who retire and their quality of life in retirement. I therefore agree with her, and urge her to talk to the review and ask that it finds some way to look at those issues, which we need to consider anyway.
Humanitarian Crisis: Greece
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on the developing humanitarian crisis in Greece.
I am delighted to be here to respond to the urgent question.
A situation of humanitarian concern is unfolding in Greece. There are reportedly approximately 10,000 people at the border between Greece and Macedonia. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that around 24,000 people—maybe more—are stranded across Greece. Greek authorities have established two camps at the border with a projected total capacity of 12,500, but crowded conditions are putting pressure on delivering essential support to people.
The UK is already providing nearly £55 million to the Mediterranean migration crisis response. This includes essential supplies such as blankets, sleeping mats and tents, as well as support through non-governmental organisations and UN agencies. The UK has established a new refugee children fund for Europe, which will meet the specific need of unaccompanied and separated children.
We should of course remember that the vast majority of Syrians who have fled Syria are in countries neighbouring Syria. That is why the UK continues to be at the forefront of the response to the crisis in the region. The recent London conference on Syria raised more than $11 billion with the Prime Minister announcing that the UK will more than double our total pledge to the Syria crisis from £1.12 billion to more than £2.3 billion. As part of this, we are working in partnership with host countries such as Jordan and Lebanon to help them expand job and education opportunities for refugees in a way that will enable them to better support themselves and give them hope for the future where they are.
The UK is working across the EU to ensure that a humanitarian crisis is averted and that the most vulnerable people are protected and provided with shelter. We are monitoring the situation closely. We stand ready to meet other priority needs and are sending a team to Greece to assess the situation.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer. We all recognise the important role that the Department for International Development has played in responding to the humanitarian crisis. Sadly, I regret that the same cannot be said of the Home Office, hence my targeting the question at that Department.
Yesterday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned that Europe faces an imminent humanitarian crisis, largely of its own making. As the Secretary of State reported, UNHCR described crowding and shortages of food, shelter, water and sanitation in Greece. I agree with her that, first, we need an emergency aid response, and the £55 million to which she referred is indeed welcome. However, secondly, we need an urgent strategic response from other European states to share responsibility for supporting Greece in processing and hosting arrivals. Does she agree that border closures, tear gas and rubber bullets do not amount to the required strategic response? Is it not obvious, as the UN has pointed out, that Greece cannot manage the situation alone?
Will the Secretary of State please now agree with the UN that it remains vital that the European agreements on relocation are prioritised and implemented? If not, who do the Government think should take on the responsibility? Is it the Government’s position that Greece alone must shoulder it? If she agrees that the challenge of relocation should be shared, how can the UK Government defend not playing their part in that?
Will the Secretary of State also back UN calls for increased regular pathways for the admission of refugees from countries neighbouring Syria? In the light of the unfolding tragedy, will the Government look again at increased resettlement, expanded family reunification, private sponsorship and humanitarian and refugee student and work visas? Surely, in that way, we can reduce dangerous journeys, save lives and support Greece.
I will start with the hon. Gentleman’s final point. He is right that ensuring that refugees can get on with life, even though they cannot be at home, is incredibly important. That is why the London conference focused not just on jobs and work permits so that refugees can work in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, but on ensuring that children are back in school, and looking ahead further than the next few years to their future. Those new, groundbreaking steps are important to understand how we can tackle more comprehensively the sort of crisis that is emanating from the conflict in Syria.
On the hon. Gentleman’s other points, the UK has worked hand in hand with the UN. We hosted the London conference with the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and I welcome the announcement that has just come from the EU about the step-up in support for refugees who arrive in Europe. I should say that the announcement has just been made, but our initial look at it—we need to examine it in greater detail—suggests that it proposes precisely the response that the UK has already put in place. It focuses on enabling NGOs that are already on the ground to do a better job, and UNHCR to do a stronger job, particularly in processing and registering refugees. Doubtless, as we get into the detail of the announcement, it will give us more of an indication of exactly what the plans are, but they certainly look like ones that we would welcome.
The hon. Gentleman asked about how Europe more broadly is responding to the crisis. Essentially, there are two different aspects alongside the pieces that I have just mentioned. One is sensible border control. The UK is not part of the Schengen area, for reasons that have become clear in recent months. However, it is important that countries such as Greece are helped to ensure that they can manage their borders more effectively. That is why the Home Office has worked with the Greek authorities. Of course, it is also important that, when refugees arrive in Europe, they make use of mechanisms such as the Dublin convention. We have a co-ordinated approach of dealing with refugees in Europe, but the challenge is that that has broken down in recent months. The UK has taken a clear position based on our proud history of accepting people who seek asylum and refugees, but of course the approach needs to be sensibly managed both for those who want to claim asylum and refugee status, and for the countries where people seek safety.
I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend recognise that we are talking about refugees, not migrants, that the two are different, and that we are dealing with men, women and children who are fleeing war zones. This country has a proud and honourable tradition, which is being honoured now in our seeking to assist, but the European Union response has been chaotic. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) is right: using rubber bullets and tear gas against children and women is not the answer. When will my right hon. Friend and her colleagues in our Cabinet seek to convene a European meeting to produce a proper and holistic response?
For many months, we have pressed for the comprehensive approach that, as my hon. Friend says, is required. The crisis has not emerged just in the last few weeks. There is an EU-Turkey summit next week, which will give us a good chance to see a more structured response from the European Union. However, throughout the process, the UK approach has steadily emerged as the most sensible. First, it deals with root causes. It helps people where they are in the region, and considers some of the reasons for their loss of hope about staying there, such as lack of jobs and the inability to get their children back into school. Where people need to relocate, we are enabling them to do so safely and securely.
We are working with UNHCR and other agencies on the ground to identify the most vulnerable people affected by this crisis in the region, and we are relocating those who need relocation in a sensible, managed way. That is much better for those people because they do not have to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers, and it is significantly better for the countries that people go to, because it enables them—as in the UK—to work with local authorities and communities, and ensure that they are prepared to take in refugees who are being relocated, and that the right services and provisions are in place when they arrive.
The Secretary of State has spoken again about what the Government are doing for refugees in the middle east, which is wholly commendable, but this urgent question is about the millions of refugees—including half a million Syrians—in Europe, and especially the plight of Greece. I was in Greece last month. The Greek people have been as hospitable as they can be, but their Prime Minister said this week that with the closure of the Macedonian border, and with tens of thousands of people backing up in Greece in the streets of Athens and on the islands, Greece runs the risk of becoming a permanent “warehouse of souls”.
What are the Government doing to get bilateral aid to the Greeks in this crisis, and to encourage Turkey to do something about the thousands of refugees who are being shipped from Turkey into Greece, with some coming increasingly from north Africa? What pressure are the Government bringing to bear on Turkey to put a stop to that and to make it easier for refugees in Turkey to work and get education for their children? Irrespective of the fact that we are not in Schengen, what are the Government doing to work with fellow members of the European family of nations to be more effective against people traffickers and provide safe routes for refugees? Above all, how can we turn our back on the people of Greece, who risk being overwhelmed because of the absence of a strategic and humanitarian approach to this issue from all EU nations, including the UK?
I strongly disagree with the hon. Lady’s last statement, because the UK is the largest contributor to the humanitarian response, including in Europe, and we have provided nearly £55 million to the Mediterranean migration crisis. She will be aware of the work that we have done in the Mediterranean helping to save lives in recent months with our Royal Navy and Border Force cutters. We have provided Greece with around £19 million of support in total, much of that to help the UNHCR, some to help NGOs on the ground and amazing organisations such as the Red Cross, and some to help the International Organisation for Migration. We have also worked with Greece to help it manage its borders more effectively.
The work that Britain is doing is showing the way to other member states in Europe with a sensible, thoughtful approach to this crisis that can help us not only to deal with root causes, which is what we are doing in the region, but to show that we must all provide support to refugees who are arriving closer to home here in Europe. The UK is leading the way in that.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and her ministerial team, who are doing an excellent job in difficult circumstances. The International Organisation for Migration suggests that 97,000 people have entered Greece in the past two months alone, which is eight times more than in the same period last year. Not all of them are Syrian refugees, although the majority are. What more can the Government do to work with the Governments of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Morocco, who make up the other 17%?