House of Commons
Wednesday 9 March 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Civil Service: Progression
1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people from all social backgrounds can progress in the civil service. (903980)
We want to ensure that the civil service is fully representative of the nation it serves and benefits from the widest pool of talent in our communities and from every part of Britain. We have made considerable strides to increase diversity already, and we will shortly publish our strategy for social mobility, in which we will set out how we will further increase social diversity in the civil service.
My hon. Friend reminds us that there is big talent in Plymouth, and we want to make the most of it. Over this Parliament, as part of our broader commitment to 200,000 apprentices across the public sector, we will invest in more than 30,000 new civil service apprenticeships, which will offer a range of rewarding opportunities for people without university degrees, including opportunities already available in Devon and Cornwall. I am delighted to say that I have an apprentice in my private office. I hope that one of our apprentices will one day be Cabinet Secretary—and if that person is from Plymouth, so much the better.
Name-blind recruitment has been implemented in 75% of the civil service. We are working with other major workforces across the public sector further to embed name-blind recruitment. In addition, all civil service recruiters are required to undertake mandatory training to avoid unconscious bias before they embark on any recruitment exercise, and this includes panel members involved in sift and interview for fast stream apprenticeship schemes and executive recruitment.
Of course, and obviously we want to attract the best talent possible into the civil service. That is why we commissioned the Bridge Group report, which found that the fast stream, in particular, was deeply unrepresentative. We are taking considerable action to change that, however, including, as I just said, with name-blind recruitment, by publishing the pay ratio between the median and highest-paid employees and by creating over 200,000 apprenticeship opportunities in the public sector for young people.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which follows International Women’s Day yesterday. More than half of civil servants are women and more than a third of top civil servants in positions of leadership are now women, which compares favourably with, for example, FTSE 100 companies. However, there is much more to do to increase female representation in senior leadership roles, and we have introduced a number of initiatives, such as measures to increase gender diversity; a better system of entitlement for shared parental leave; more tailored support before and after maternity leave; and greater encouragement for job sharing.
One way of helping people from all social backgrounds to progress in the civil service is to move many more jobs, especially senior civil service jobs, out of London and into the regions, particularly areas such as the north-west. At the moment, someone has to come to London to progress in the civil service.
The hon. Gentleman is right; there has been a London bias to some extent within the civil service. We are therefore opening regional hubs. We will open one additional assessment centre in the north this year, with more regional assessment sites to follow. We will ensure that the fast stream is as attractive to people in all regions as it is to those in London.
If the hon. Lady is saying that we have a lot more work to do, I absolutely agree with her. Almost one in three people in Britain today are in working-class occupations, compared with a mere 4.4% of those who receive offers to fast stream, making the civil service significantly less socio-economically diverse than the University of Oxford. We know there is a lot more to do, but we are taking the necessary action.
Good morning, Mr Speaker. Our plan is to make people’s lives easier by reforming digital technology across government. We have now published over 24,000 open datasets, and are transforming more and more public services.
I thank the Minister for that response. Effective and secure data sharing is critical for 21st century government. Charities and research bodies have struggled for decades to access and evaluate data effectively, which has often slowed down world leading research. Does the Minister agree that the consultation on better use of data in government could lead to long-term complications around information governance in government being resolved?
I do. The better use of data consultation is about maximising opportunities for proportionate, secure and well-governed data sharing, including allowing world-leading research and statistics greater access to datasets as part of a wider programme to modernise and simplify the UK’s data landscape.
Under the requirements of .gov, the language choice button on each government page has to appear at the bottom right—and in very small letters. That means that many Welsh speakers do not realise that the language choice is open to them, as it is in so many Government documents now. Will the Minister look at moving the language button to the top of the page and making it rather more prominent?
I am an enormous supporter of the Welsh language, and we are working hard to make sure that Government documents are always, where needed, translated into Welsh. I shall certainly look at the location of the button on the page, but we do a lot of user-friendly research to work out where the buttons ought to be.
Trade Union Bill
4. What assessment he has made of the applicability of the provisions of the Trade Union Bill to officials of the devolved Administrations. (903983)
Our assessment is that since employment and industrial relations are reserved matters under the devolution settlement with Scotland, and are not conferred on Wales, the laws that govern them are decided collectively here in Westminster for the whole of the UK. This means that they will apply to all employers in the UK, including those in the devolved Administrations, as part of our country’s single market in goods and services, which has successfully enriched our intellectual, cultural and economic life for centuries.
Restricting facility time is likely to limit the Scottish Government’s ability to work effectively with trade unions on a range of issues, because they will not have the capacity to engage. The Scottish Government have already voiced concerns about the Bill. Will the Minister now listen and restrict its applicability so that it does not apply to public sector employees in Scotland?
The Trade Union Bill includes primarily an approach to try to make the facility time settlement transparent. It aims to publish data on facility time costs and expenses to allow politicians and voters to understand what the costs are and to see whether they are being spent efficiently. I think that that should be applied and welcomed right across the UK.
Since the SNP Government came to power in Scotland in 2007, the number of industrial disputes has fallen by 84%. I note this on a day on which junior doctors are yet again on strike and on the streets in England. I think that the public will draw their own conclusions about who can best manage industrial relations.
Given the Minister’s last reply, what sanctions does he intend to take to compel the Governments in the devolved Administrations to implement the draconian measures in the Trade Union Bill?
I hope the hon. Gentleman did not mean that the law makers in the various devolved Administrations are considering becoming law breakers. I am sure he did not. All of us here are involved in creating, and amending, laws for the United Kingdom as a whole, and I think it would set a very dangerous precedent for all of us to start saying that we will disregard those who do not please us.
Civil Service: Policy Making
Departments determine their workforce needs, and the civil service has a significant United Kingdom-wide presence. We are considering new Government hubs and strategic locations outside London as a way of further consolidating our office estates. I know from my own area that parts of Public Health England, for example, are moving from London to the east of England, which means £500 million of investment and thousands of jobs.
The Government have decided to close the office of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Sheffield and move it to London, and we have now learnt that the vast majority of policy makers for the northern powerhouse are based in London as well. We in Newport have benefited hugely from the location of civil service jobs in, for instance, the Intellectual Property Office and the Office for National Statistics. Given the Government’s recent woeful track record, will the Minister make it clear today that those jobs are valued, will be protected, and will remain in Newport?
The northern powerhouse is about devolution, not about jobs in London. The Government have a passion for Newport, and for Wales in general. Not only did the NATO summit encourage investment, but, as the hon. Lady knows, the Friars Walk regeneration project means more jobs and finance. When my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General visited the ONS office recently, he expressed huge admiration for the work of its staff, and committed himself to its long-term future. Only this week, it was announced that the ONS was recruiting 30 economic researchers to graduate posts. It is developing a skills base that will enable it to become a centre of expertise for data handling, and the hon. Lady should be celebrating that in her constituency.
When Labour lost power in 2010, there were 181 Government-owned buildings in central London. The equivalent number today is 54, because the present Government have got rid of 130. How much further will this go, given that it indicates a wish to move jobs out to the regions?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the figure should be about 20 by the end of the decade. It is worth noting that the number of civil servants based in London has fallen by more than 7,500. As my hon. Friend says, the number of buildings in London has fallen from 181 to 54, which has meant savings of more than £2.8 billion for the taxpayer.
The Minister suggested it was Government policy to try to ensure that civil service employment opportunities were spread throughout the United Kingdom. Does he agree that it is a good idea—on the grounds of value for money, and on other grounds—for everyone to get out of the London and Westminster bubble and out into the real world on a more regular basis?
I could not have put it better myself. As I have said, there are 800 civil service buildings outside London. We have important targets for developing important strategic hubs for the civil service all over the country, and more people who get out of the Westminster bubble, the better.
We know that the Minister’s friend the Paymaster General is very close to the Chancellor, and that he therefore likes to insert the words “northern” and “powerhouse” into every speech he makes. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), 98% of senior jobs in the northern powerhouse department are now based in London, and—with no sense of irony—Sheffield policy-making jobs in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been moved to Whitehall. The test for the Minister, when he finally gets the promotion that he has been seeking and that he so richly deserves, will be whether he has more senior and policy-making civil servants in London or fewer. Does he have it within him to live up to our expectations?
I genuinely cannot understand the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. She should be proud, as are councils in the north of England, that the northern powerhouse is devolving powers right across the region. We are one of the most radical Governments when it comes to devolution. Her councils in the north support it, and I am sad that she does not.
Infrastructure and Projects Authority
As the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has been in existence only for the past two months, it is a little early to give the House an evaluation of its effectiveness. However, I am completely confident that by combining Infrastructure UK and the Major Projects Authority, we will be better able to monitor from beginning to end the projects that the Government are engaged in.
Broadly, yes. Of course, the final decision on Crossrail 2 will be made only following the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission chaired by Lord Adonis, but I am confident that when we get there, and if Crossrail 2 does occur, the fact that the IPA will be in there from the beginning right until the last moment will improve the project’s prospects of being delivered to schedule and on budget.
Freedom of Information Act 2000
7. What plans the Government have to extend the coverage of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. (903986)
We announced our response to the independent commission on the freedom of information last week. The commission did not make a formal recommendation about extending the coverage of the Act, but we will take action to extend pay transparency across the public sector.
I am pleased to note that the Government appear to have retreated from their plan to introduce fees for freedom of information requests. Does the Minister agree with me and many of my constituents that it is in the public interest for the Freedom of Information Act to be extended to cover private companies when they are contracted to provide public services?
As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, I am a strong supporter of freedom of information, and I want to record my thanks to the commission, which did hard work and made sensible suggestions for improvements. The issue that the hon. Lady has raised is a complex one. For instance, we do not want to deter small businesses from supplying into government. We will consider what was written by the commission, even though no formal recommendation was made.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the commission’s conclusion that it would be inappropriate to introduce further charges for requests under the Act? Can he reassure my constituents that the Government have no plans to do so?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. As we said last week, we will not introduce fees because we think that it is important for people to use freedom of information to find out what is going on inside public bodies, including local authorities and more broadly, to ensure, rightly, that taxpayers’ money is spent better because the people who are spending it are held to account.
12. The Minister has just talked about extending the Act to cover private providers doing public service contracts, and he mentioned small businesses. Clearsprings runs a Home Office contract in my constituency relating to asylum seekers’ accommodation, but it is failing the taxpayer and the thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers living in its accommodation, safe from the scrutiny of the Act. Will he confirm that the Act will be extended to cover large companies such as Clearsprings? (903991)
I cannot give the hon. Lady that assurance, not least because, having considered this question and listened to representations from both sides of the argument, the commission did not make a formal recommendation on this matter. I can tell her, however, that FOI can be used to scrutinise those who set up the contracts that businesses, large and small, supply into.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (903995)
The responsibilities of the Cabinet Office remain much as they were last month. We continue to ensure that the Government fully and effectively implement their programme across Whitehall and the wider public sector.
Will the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made to ensure that every serving member of our armed forces, wherever they are in the world, will be entitled to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum? Will he guarantee that they will receive their ballots in good time, and will he please confirm how we will ensure that every vote is counted?
My hon. Friend has been completely tireless in her attempts to ensure that armed forces personnel can vote in the referendum, and rightly so. I can confirm the Prime Minister’s commitment given to her that we will enable all the armed forces to vote. I am happy to tell her that the chief counting officer for the referendum has now directed that postal ballots will be sent to the armed forces between 23 and 27 May to ensure plenty of time for their votes to be counted.
When the Government introduced new gagging clauses on charities in receipt of Government grants last month, they credited a report published by the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which the policy was a key recommendation. Just four months prior to that, the Minister for the Cabinet Office received a £4,000 donation from the chairman of the IEA, Neil Record. That is surely just a coincidence, but in order to avoid any misunderstanding will the Minister, who has said that he is committed to freedom of information, publish all communications between the IEA and his Department as well as all the submissions and advice that he received from the civil service?
I did not have any discussions with the IEA on this. It is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on good causes and the right things, not on lobbying Government. It is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things for which it was intended, not on ensuring that lobbyists can take politicians out for lunch.
I certainly do. Keeping a record of our laws on vellum is a long-held tradition, and we should safeguard our great traditions. I am looking forward to the debate on this tomorrow. In 1,000 years, I want people to be able to look at the laws that we pass in this House, so I hope to see a strong turnout in support.
T2. The Government are finally reviewing Atos contracts after several National Audit Office and Select Committee reports going back four years have highlighted poor performance and a lack of value for money for taxpayers. In addition, there have been devastating impacts on disabled people. Why have the Government taken so long to do that? Will the Minister also confirm that the anticipated savings have not been made? (903996)
The hon. Lady simply ignores the fact that the Government have taken the action, which should have been taken long ago and which the previous Labour Government completely failed to do, to deal with contractors who are not up to scratch. We are dealing with contracts that are necessary to improve matters and are improving them so that people get the services they deserve, which is why all our welfare programmes are now back on track.
T8. A constituent of mine who works for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Shipley has contacted me after being told by his managers that he is unable to help the campaign to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum and even to deliver leaflets in his own time. Given that Government Ministers are free to campaign in a personal capacity to leave the EU, why are the Government not extending the same courtesy to civil servants? (904002)
My hon. Friend’s constituent should follow the rules set out in section 4.4 of the civil service management code, which shows in what circumstances civil servants can engage in political activity. The Government of course have a clear position on the referendum: we want to stay in a reformed European Union. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to say that it is only because of our Prime Minister’s munificence, tolerance and generosity of spirit that Ministers are allowed to disagree in public with the Government position at all.
T3. The anti-advocacy clause has been widely condemned by civil society and is now subject to an e-petition in this House about its impact on academic grants. Will the Minister explain why it was brought in with no scrutiny in the House, and will he urgently review it in the light of the public outcry? (903997)
The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that taxpayers’ money should not be used to lobby Government. Those who argue against the clause are arguing that the taxes paid by hard-working people should be on spent on lobbyists. I disagree. The clause has been in operation for over a year in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where it was found to be working well, which is why have expanded it across the whole of Government.
Yes, we will indeed. We are also taking steps to make sure that we release the greatest possible amount of public sector brownfield land, so that in places such as my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine we see building in places where people welcome and accept it, to provide homes for our people, to the benefit of the taxpayer.
T6. In the last Parliament, the Government’s departmental plans set clear policy targets and the date they pledged to achieve them by. This time, no dates are given and the aims are as vague as “continue to be the most transparent government in the world”.Are the Government deliberately preventing the public from holding them to account or do they genuinely not know what they are doing for the next four years? (904000)
I am sorry that the hon. Lady obviously has not read the items on the website; a multitude of specific dates for specific programmes are given, and we will continuously update this as we go through the Parliament. It is true that we are the most transparent Government ever in this country and one of the three most transparent Governments in the world. Maintaining that is quite a good goal, and I would have expected her to welcome it.
T4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Almost two thirds of people in Scotland want to see charities speaking up for those affected by Government policies, which is why the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are against the new anti-advocacy clause. Will the Minister commit to assessing the impact it will have on Scottish charities? (903998)
Once again, we have a request from the SNP for hard-working people to pay their taxes and for those taxes then to be used to lobby the very Government that are giving out the grants. That is wrong in principle. We have been using this clause in practice for more than a year and because it was working well we have extended it across government.
The Prime Minister was asked—
People in Bristol South look forward to their share of the Government’s promised 3 million apprenticeships but they question how this is going to happen. On the eve of National Apprenticeship Week, can the Prime Minister tell us: does he have a delivery plan or is he making it up as he goes along?
We achieved 2 million in the last Parliament, we are confident of achieving 3 million in this Parliament and we do have a delivery plan. It is based on large companies continuing with their plans for apprenticeships; we want small companies to do more; we want the public sector to join in with larger apprenticeship plans; and we regularly review progress towards the target.
Q7. Many of my constituents get the train into central London every morning for work and they are concerned about the terrorist threats posed by Daesh here in the capital. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made in tackling the source of that threat in Iraq and in Syria? (903971)
I totally understand what my hon. Friend has said, and it was very striking what assistant commissioner Mark Rowley said last week about the dangers we face. What I would say is that domestically we are protecting counter-terrorism policing, and investing in our intelligence and security services, as we did in the last Parliament. On Iraq and Syria, we are making good progress at pushing Daesh back. So this is something we need to do both domestically and overseas. I have to say that I was completely appalled to see yesterday that the Labour party has readmitted someone to the party who says that the 9/11 suicide bombers “must never be ‘condemned’” and who belongs to an organisation that says:
“We defend the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq”.
Those are appalling views and I hope the Leader of the Opposition will throw this person out of the party, rather than welcoming him in.
I hope the Prime Minister will join me in mourning the death today of the fifth Beatle, George Martin, who gave us wonderful music that will last for all time.
Last week, the Prime Minister told the House that we had
“a strong economy with a sound plan.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 941.]
If the economy is so strong, why this week has he forced through a £30 per week cut hitting some of the poorest disabled people in the country?
First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in what he said about George Martin, as he was an absolutely massive figure, a giant in popular music, and responsible for some tunes that will live on for ever more.
I find it disappointing that the right hon. Gentleman cannot comment on the point that I made earlier, as it seems to me that, as party leaders, we have a responsibility for our own parties. He asked about the strength of the economy. We do face an uncertain international environment, and all the experts are warning about the dangers that we face, but, as we speak today, we have inflation at 0%, unemployment at 5%, our economy is growing, wages are growing and we are cutting the taxes that people are paying. That, combined with reforming welfare—and we are reforming welfare—is the way to get our deficit down, continue with growth and help deliver for working people in Britain.
I do not believe that the majority of people in this country are content to see someone diagnosed with cancer today and unfit to work next year reduced to poverty because of the cuts that this Government are putting through.
In the summer Budget last year, the Chancellor found another £6.6 billion to reduce corporation tax for big business. That was despite the fact that our corporation tax is already lower than in any other G7 nation. Today, Action for Children, the Children’s Society and the National Children’s Bureau show that local authority spending on children and young people has been cut by £2 billion—71 %. Does that not demonstrate a wrong choice by the Prime Minister?
Let us look at what has happened to corporation tax receipts since we cut corporation tax. That is the question, because the point of setting tax rates is to raise money rather than to make a political point. The fact is corporation tax receipts are up by 20% under this Government, so we have more money to spend on children, children’s services and education, whereas if we put up tax rates, as the right hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting, we would get less money in; that is the result. The Opposition care about making a political point; we care about raising revenue and providing good services.
I ask the question: if there is more money available to be spent on children’s services, why are there another half a million children living in poverty in Britain because of the policies of the right hon. Gentleman’s Government? If we really do have the strong economy that he claims, why did the Chancellor warn last week that
“we may need to make further reductions”?
Who will those reductions fall on—the disabled, pensioners, young people or women? Will he rule out attacking those groups?
The right hon. Gentleman will hear the Budget next week, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has an excellent record in steering this nation’s economy, stands up to give it. The right hon. Gentleman just made some remarks about child poverty. Let me tell him what has actually happened since 2010. There are 680,000 fewer workless households. Let us think about what that means. It means 680,000 households where someone is bringing home a wage, putting food on the table, and, under us, paying less taxes. There are 40,000 fewer households where no member has ever worked, and there are 480,000 fewer children living in workless households. That is real change for those children. That is about tackling child poverty by having a growing economy, growing real wages, falling taxes, and increased childcare—all things never delivered by Labour.
The problem is the number of households that are suffering from in-work poverty because of insecure jobs, because of zero-hours contracts and because of low wages. As the Prime Minister well knows the poorest have paid the most for the cuts, and women have paid for 81% of those cuts.
On 99 previous attempts to ask questions of the Prime Minister, I have been unclear or dissatisfied with the answers, as indeed many other people have. On this auspicious 100th occasion, may I ask the Prime Minister to help out a young man called Callum? Last week, the Prime Minister told the Engineering Employers Federation that we have a skills shortage—a good admission. Callum, a bright young man who wants to make his way in the world, asks, “Will the Government acknowledge”—[Interruption.] Perhaps the Prime Minister does as well. Callum asks:
“Will the Government acknowledge the importance of Sixth Form Colleges and post-16 education services in Britain?”
First of all, let me congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on getting to 100 not out—I am sure that will be welcomed across the House.
What I would say to Callum is that we are introducing in our country a situation where we uncap university places so as many people who want to go can go, and that we will be introducing, in this Parliament, 3 million apprentices. That, combined with better funded sixth forms and better funded further education colleges, means that we have actually got a proper education system that can really drive opportunity in our country.
Let me just come back once more on child poverty. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the figures: 800,000 fewer people in relative poverty than in 2010—300,000 fewer children in relative poverty than in 2010. That is the Labour measurement used, so when he gets to the Dispatch Box, he can tell us he was wrong about child poverty.
The Prime Minister seems to be answering the last question but one, so could I kindly bring him back to the question I asked from Callum, and point out to him that there has been a 10% cut in real terms in sixth form and further education, and adult education has been cut by 35% during his time as Prime Minister?
Construction output in Britain has shrunk for two consecutive quarters now. Surely that is a matter for concern. Is this not really a bit of a sign that this economic recovery is being constructed on sand?
First of all, let me just confirm we have protected 16-to-18 education in this spending round. The right hon. Gentleman talks about construction; of course, we want to see every part of our economy growing, and our economy is growing, unlike so many in what is a difficult and dangerous world right now. But if you look at our construction plans, you will see that, because we have got a strong economy, we are able to commit to HS2, we are able to commit to the biggest road programme since the 1970s and the largest rail programme since Victorian times, together with huge infrastructure projects in energy and in other areas. Those things are only possible because we have got a strong and growing economy. We know what Labour would do: his spending plans are a risk to the nation’s finances, his tax plans are a risk to every family in the country, and we know from Scotland what he wants to do, which is to put up taxes on people earning over £20,000. That is their plan, and it would wreck the country’s finances.
We have a construction industry in recession at a time that there is an acute need for new housing. Construction apprenticeships have fallen by 11% since 2010. We have the lowest rate of house building since the 1920s—almost 100 years ago. Will the Prime Minister look again at this issue, stop the cuts to skills training and cuts to investment that are holding back our country—holding back the skill ambitions of so many young people—and invest in them and in our future?
I do have to pick up the right hon. Gentleman on his statistics, because we have seen a massive boost to apprentices and apprenticeship funding under this Government—2 million in the last Parliament, 3 million in this Parliament.
On housing, let me just give him the figures: house building under Labour fell by 45%. Since then, it has increased by two-thirds. Over 700,000 new homes have been delivered since 2010. If you look at what is happening now, completions are up, housing starts are at their highest level since 2007—last year housing starts were nearly double the low point of 2009. They wrecked the economy, they created that instability; we have been building a strong economy—that is what we have got to stick with.
Q8. Unemployment in Sherwood has halved since 2010. Given that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make his Budget statement next week, can the Prime Minister assure the House that he will continue to support quality education, employment generation and infrastructure to get to jobs, so maintaining a Conservative ladder of aspiration? (903972)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The school improvement programme that we are driving forward, combined with uncapping university places and investing in apprenticeships, is giving people a ladder of opportunity to make the most of their lives and the most of the employment opportunities that are clearly being created in our country, where there are 2 million more people in work. I also know he has a particular interest, in his constituency, in extending the Robin Hood line, and he is meeting rail Ministers to try and deliver this. That is exactly the sort of infrastructure project that this Government want to get behind.
The refugee crisis is the biggest issue facing Governments across Europe. We now know that, under a UK Government programme, in Folkestone, trafficking victims were locked up without food, asylum-seeking children were forced to sleep on concrete floors, patients with diarrhoea were denied access to showers, and a naked woman was allegedly beaten at a detention centre. Is the Prime Minister ashamed of that?
I will look carefully at the points the right hon. Gentleman makes. I would say that our asylum system is fair, and Britain down the ages has given asylum to people who are fleeing torture and persecution. When it comes to resettling Syrian refugees, it was instructive at this week’s European Council to see a chart that showed how many countries have actually resettled Syrian refugees. Britain has done far better than any other country, bar Germany.
This week the Scottish Refugee Council called for an investigation into allegations about the way that asylum seekers are treated and housed in Glasgow. It wants the Home Office to commission an independent inquiry into claims of substandard housing and dehumanising treatment of refugees by the private company contracted to provide accommodation services by the Prime Minister’s Government. Will he commission that investigation?
We are happy for those issues to be properly investigated, and the Home Affairs Committee in this House of Commons has just done a report into the way that asylum housing is commissioned. If the Scottish Parliament wants to carry out those investigations, of course the United Kingdom Government will co-operate with that. We must ensure when we take people in that they are properly housed and looked after, and that their children are schooled, because that is the sort of generous country we are.
Q9. I welcome the Government’s excellent See Potential initiative to encourage employers to hire ex-offenders. I speak as someone who employs a female ex-offender via the excellent Working Chance charity, so will the Prime Minister assure the House of his commitment to ensuring that employers in the public, private and charity sectors play their part in providing greater opportunities for ex-offenders? (903973)
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I salute what he has done to help ex-offenders. If people are applying for a job, they have at some stage to declare the criminal record they have and the offences they may have committed. The question is: do they have to do it absolutely at the CV stage? We think that they should not. We believe in the idea of banning the box, and the civil service will introduce that so that people do not have to include that information on their initial CV, and they might at least get the chance of an interview and not be ruled out. That is what we are talking about. When we talk about life chances for people in our country, and giving people a second chance to make a go of their life, we are putting our money where our mouth is.
Q10. It is much to the Government’s credit that more than 2 million jobs have been created since 2010, but nearly 1 million of those have gone to non-UK EU nationals. Does the Prime Minister agree that the EU’s free movement of people is damaging the employment prospects of UK nationals and has contributed to the 1.6 million British people who remain unemployed? That has not been compensated for by an equivalent level of jobs for UK nationals in other European countries. (903974)
If my hon. Friend looks at the figures for the last five years, she will see that two thirds of the rise in employment has been from jobs going to British people. Where I agree with her is that, with the welfare reform that we have introduced for EU citizens and the tougher control of migration from outside the EU, we should see welfare reform in the UK as the flipside of migration control. We want to ensure that it always pays for British people to train up and do the jobs that are being made available, and we should see immigration control and welfare reform, together with a growing economy, as a way of getting more of our people into work.
Q3. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that it is very important to make the positive case for Britain remaining in the EU: each of us get £1,200 back for every £120 we put in; we have lower prices; we have more choice in shops; and we have easier travel for holidays and businesses? Will the Prime Minister explain how our membership of the EU benefits so many aspects of our lives? (903967)
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that, in all the arguments about single markets, sovereignty and all the rest of it, we can sometimes lose sight of some of the simple consumer benefits of being a member of the European Union. She mentions cheaper air travel, ease of travel and not having any tariffs. These are things we take for granted now, but they were simply not the case 40 years ago. I agree that that is a strong part of the very positive case we should make for remaining in the EU.
With the hon. Lady’s own constituency in mind, we should also point to the enormous success of the British car industry, which now employs and is responsible for more than 140,000 jobs. That is a great European success story. A lot of those cars go to the European market and we want to make sure that that continues tariff-free.
Q12. Our security is guaranteed under NATO, and the Government’s action to meet our 2% commitment is most welcome. I recently visited RAF Odiham in my constituency, where the Chinooks, which do so much for the United Kingdom and our friends overseas, are based. Will my right hon. Friend look at plans to improve the quality of accommodation for airmen and airwomen in RAF Odiham, which I am sure he agrees they deserve? (903976)
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Let me, through him, pay tribute to the Chinook pilots and the crews who service those helicopters. I have visited Afghanistan something like 13 times in the past few years. Their bravery, professionalism and brilliance in flying, often at very low levels, is absolutely remarkable. They have rightly been decorated and commended for the work they do. We have an upgrade programme for the Chinooks, which will mean new helicopters replacing part of the existing fleet that is becoming worn out. I think I am right in saying that some £2 million has been spent on RAF Odiham, but if more is needed we will make sure that that happens.
Q4. In 1949, aged 11 months, my constituent William Bradney was diagnosed with polio. He has worked from the age of 15 and he continues to work at 67. However, following a clearly flawed personal independence payment assessment, he is set to lose his Motability car—potentially within three weeks. He says that will leave him unable to leave the house and unable to work. Will the Prime Minister urgently review my constituent’s case and the cases of the 14,000 disabled people who have lost this essential lifeline? (903968)
I will certainly have a look at the case, because what we have found so far with PIP payments is that we are actually spending more money on disability, rather than less money on disability. I will look very carefully at the case. The whole point about PIP, as compared to disability living allowance, is that there is more of a proper medical assessment process to find out what is required. Through the hon. Lady, may I say to her constituent that I am sure he, like others, will welcome that we are so close to eradicating polio entirely from our world? The Government are committed to going the extra mile and making that happen.
Q15. Schools in South Suffolk were delighted this week to see the publication of the Government’s consultation on fairer funding. Given that the first part of the consultation will focus on the core principles, does my right hon. Friend agree that one of those principles must be that rural schools face unique and unavoidable costs that are not well funded under the current formula? (903979)
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. It is right that we are examining the formula and trying to achieve better fairness. I think everyone can now see that the gap between the best-funded schools and the worst-funded schools has become too great. I also agree that it is vital that the specific needs of schools in rural areas are properly considered. That is why our consultation proposes that we should direct additional funding to small schools in sparsely populated areas.
Q5. To follow up a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, official figures show—[Interruption.] It’s not funny. Official figures show 12,000 vacancies in construction that are hard to fill due to a lack of skilled applicants. Can the Prime Minister explain why, under his Government, the number of construction apprenticeships has fallen? (903969)
The point is we are building more houses, investing more in construction and training more apprentices. The money is there from the Government, and the apprenticeship levy on larger businesses will make sure that we can fund apprentices long through this Parliament.
The Prime Minister will be aware of a recent tragic fatality on the A17 in Terrington St Clement in my constituency. While we await the result of a full inquest and the police inquiry, does he agree that it is vital that the local parish council is fully consulted on new safety measures?
I have heard about that tragic accident and, on behalf of everyone, I send our sympathies and condolences to those involved. My hon. Friend is right to say that, in so many of these cases, the parish council has a lot of expertise about areas of roads that are not safe and things that could be done. Of course, it should be listened to in this and other cases.
Q6. We celebrated mother’s day on Sunday and International Women’s Day just yesterday, and Conservative Members were, rightly, keen to celebrate women on both occasions. Why, then, have this Government introduced cuts to public services, a freeze to child benefit and reductions in work-related benefits, which have left mothers £13 billion worse off? (903970)
The one thing I share with the hon. Lady is that it was right to celebrate mother’s day. I shared it with my mother, but I think I have probably said enough about her for the time being. It was also a privilege yesterday to welcome to No. 10 some inspirational women from all walks of life, to mark International Women’s Day.
I am not saying that this Government have solved all these problems, but we have more women in work and they are getting higher pay, paying lower taxes, getting more childcare and retiring with better pensions. When it comes to the things that Government need to do, we are appointing more women to senior positions and public appointments, and the honours system is now properly reflecting women. [Interruption.] Someone shouted out, “What about the pay gap?” The pay gap is now at its lowest published level. We have abolished the pay gap for under-40s. When it comes to protecting women, this is the Government who criminalised forced marriage, introduced the duty to report female genital mutilation, set out a specific domestic violence measure, and introduced Clare’s law so that people can find out about violent partners.
I accept that there is more to be done, but let me say this to the Labour party: one thing you can help with is no more segregated political meetings. Let us end the process of having people with bigoted religious views treating women as second-class citizens. I think you should all take the pledge—no more segregated meetings!
The UK still has relatively poor superfast broadband and far too many mobile “not spots”. Great work has been done, but what discussions will my right hon. Friend have with the Chancellor, in advance of next week’s Budget statement, about how we can improve coverage further, particularly for rural small businesses in areas such as mine?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Since 2010, we have nearly doubled the number of homes and businesses with superfast broadband. We are on track on the 90% and 95% targets, but clearly more needs to be done. This is an issue for Members across the House. Ten years ago, we were all rather guilty of leading campaigns against masts and all the rest of it. Our constituents now want internet and mobile phone coverage. We need to make sure that we change the law in all the ways necessary, that the wayleaves are granted, that the masts are built, that we increase coverage and that everyone is connected to the information superhighway.
Q11. Seventy-six per cent of the cost of a bottle of whisky is tax. Last year the Government’s 2% cut on duty increased revenue to the Treasury by £102 million. Does the Prime Minister accept that one of our greatest export products is taxed too much, and will he join me and the Scotch Whisky Association in calling for a further 2% reduction in duty in this year’s Budget? (903975)
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I have consistently backed Scotland, Scottish whisky and this vital industry, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: on the day that the profit and loss account for Scotland has come out, we can see that Scotland would face a £15 billion gap if it were outside the United Kingdom. I dread to think what taxation would have to be levied not just on whisky, but on petrol, work, incomes and homes. That is the prospect of life outside the United Kingdom, and that is why I am so glad we voted to stay together.
The Government have just presented three White Papers to Parliament under their self-imposed legal duty to provide information under the European Union Referendum Act 2015. The Minister for Europe, during proceedings between the two Houses, gave me an undertaking that the Government information under that Act would certainly, as he put it, be accurate and impartial. The three recent White Papers are not. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the enforcer of the ministerial code, which demands that Ministers give accurate information to Parliament. Will he issue instructions to Foreign Office Ministers to review and correct those White Papers?
First, let me say to my hon. Friend that we believe in the sovereignty of Parliament. Parliament dictated that those documents would be published, and that is why they are being published. On the question of their content, their content has been prepared by civil servants under all the appropriate codes. If he does not agree with some of the content, I would say to him and to other colleagues: challenge the content. Have an argument about the content. Stop arguing about the process.
Q14. The Prime Minister’s notes will indicate that I raised with him the question of the national wildlife crime unit earlier this year. I am delighted to report that its funding has been secured for the next four years, and I take full responsibility for that. I read it on my website, so it must be true. As my mother used to say, it never hurts to say thank you, and I do so. On a similar matter, may I ask the Prime Minister how his manifesto commitment to outlawing the use of wild animals in circuses is progressing? (903978)
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising such effective questions with such good effect. On circuses and wild animals, we have a manifesto commitment. We did not manage to meet it in the last Parliament. We license these things so strictly that I think we are now talking about one or possibly two circuses—[Interruption.] Two; thank you very much. We are still committed to legislating when parliamentary time allows.
Later today, colleagues from across the House and I will launch the all-party group on ending homelessness. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of organisations around the country, including the Northampton Association for the Accommodation of the Single Homeless and the Hope Centre in my constituency? Will he pledge that, as a Government, we will do all we can to help homeless people and to address the causes of homelessness so that we can end the problem once and for all?
I certainly welcome my hon. Friend’s launch of that all-party group. We need to work both on rough sleeping, where we face particular challenges at the moment—there are some good operations under way to try to deal with that—and on homelessness, at the heart of which is the need to build more houses. That is why we have an £8 billion housing programme to build 400,000 houses and we hope to build, by the end of this Parliament, 1 million new homes. That is the key. All the arguments about homelessness, in the end, come down to providing effective homes.
A friend of mine works a 39-hour week, including Sundays and bank holidays, on the shop floor at B&Q. Can the Prime Minister imagine my friend’s shock when he discovered that he would lose money as a result of the introduction of the living wage? That is because to introduce it, B&Q is cutting allowances. As a result, my friend will take home £50 a week, or £2,600 a year, less after the hourly rate goes up. Will the Prime Minister and his Chancellor ensure in their Budget next week that nobody who works on a shop floor will take home less money?
We want to see people taking home more money, and that is why we have introduced the national living wage, which will reach £9 an hour by 2010, and we are cutting the taxes of people like the friend to whom the hon. Lady refers, who will be able to earn £11,000 from 1 April before paying any taxes at all.
A recent study led by Imperial College has shown that biomass, if progressed through contracts for difference, could save bill payers and the Treasury billions of pounds. This industry supports thousands of jobs in the Humber, and in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). There is a sustainable business model. The biomass comes from the US and Canada. Will the Prime Minister look at this, so that we can try to get it into the CfD programme?
I will look at that, but what we all have to realise is that the levy control framework—the extra amount of money that we are prepared to put into renewable energy—is a finite amount. In the end, we have to make sure that we get cost-effective electricity and that we go green at the lowest cost. That is the aim, but I will look carefully at what my hon. Friend says.
It used to be said that an English family’s home was their castle, but following the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill, new tenants in social housing will be on fixed three to five-year contracts. Does the Prime Minister think it is right that a student beginning their secondary education may face eviction at the very time they are coming up to their GCSEs or A-levels?
For more people, we want their home genuinely to be their own, which is why we are extending the right to buy from council tenants to housing association tenants—so that millions of people will be able to own their own home. As for future tenancies, we want to make sure that social housing is there for the people who need it most. No current tenant is going to be affected. That is why we think this housing Bill will see more homes built, more homes owned, more homes rented and will be good for housing in our country.
Order. We will come to points of order. I think hon. Members raising points of order should have an attentive audience, which seems more likely once those leaving have done so quickly and quietly.
What is more, I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members, whose eagerness is evident for all to see, but points of order of course come after the urgent question and the statement. As I am sure these are very genuine points of order, hon. Members will come scurrying back to the Chamber in order to air their concerns at the appropriate moment.
Meanwhile, we have quite a considerably important and rich parliamentary offering—[Laughter.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—in the form of an urgent question from a very senior denizen of the House.
Agreements reached in principle at the EU-Turkey summit on Monday represent a basis on which in future all migrants who arrive in Greece could be returned to Turkey. That would, if implemented, break the business model of the people smugglers, and end the link between getting in a boat and getting settlement in Europe. That is something that the Prime Minister and the Government have been arguing for nearly a year.
The agreement would not impose any new obligations on the United Kingdom in respect of either resettlement or relocation. As we are not members of the Schengen area, we are able to maintain our own border controls and make our own decisions on asylum. Nor would the United Kingdom be obliged to resettle any additional refugees. We are already resettling 20,000 of the most vulnerable Syrians directly from the region through our own national scheme. We will not be part of the process of liberalising visas—that is a matter for Schengen countries—and we will still require visas for Turkish citizens to visit Britain.
The European Union also agreed on Monday to consider in due course extending the current financial support to help Turkey. There are currently no formal proposals for further funding on returns, and we will wait to see any proposals before commenting. We have already agreed to pay our £250 million share of the existing €3 billion Turkey refugee facility, and I made a written ministerial statement about that earlier this week. This builds on our existing £1.1 billion bilateral support for the Syria crisis and the additional bilateral commitment that we made at the recent London conference on Syria. The Turkey refugee facility is designed to provide immediate humanitarian support and also to fund the schools, hospitals and housing required over the longer term to support refugees and the communities that host them.
The agreement at the EU-Turkey summit on Monday will ensure that the €3 billion commitment agreed at last November’s EU-Turkey summit is properly and expeditiously disbursed. Intensive work will take place over the coming week with the aim of reaching final agreement at the next European Council on 17 and 18 March, after which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement to the House as usual.
One of the reasons why I asked for this urgent question was that the statement from the EU Heads of State or Government issued yesterday makes it very clear that the visa liberalisation applies to all member states of the European Union, not just the Schengen area. I quote from the official document, which says that the EU Heads of State or Government agreed
“to accelerate the implementation of the visa liberalization roadmap with all Member States with a view to lifting the visa requirements for Turkish citizens at the latest by the end of June 2016”.
Will the Minister therefore be seeking clarification and amendment to this statement, given that he told us that these visa requirement waivers will not apply to all member states, or will he negotiate some kind of opt-out to make it very clear that those waivers will not do so? It will obviously be a matter of concern if the text issued from the Heads of State or Government meeting is at variance with the clear statements that we have been getting from Ministers here and through the media in the past few hours.
Secondly, I am surprised that the Minister has not mentioned that there was an agreement to an accelerated process to get Turkey to join the European Union as a full member, so will he comment on the United Kingdom’s position on the pace of the proceedings to get Turkey into the European Union, on what arrangements, if any, he thinks will need to be made when Turkey joins over freedom of movement, on whether there would need to be transitional arrangements, and on whether Britain would wish to be part of the freedom of movement area without proper transitional arrangements and protections?
Thirdly, I find it curious that we still do not know what we might be paying. If our share of the €3 billion is £250 million, plus the contribution that we have made through the EU budget, presumably we are looking at more than £250 million on top of that if the sum is doubled from €3 billion to €6 billion, because I presume that that will also be a levy on the member states. This should be properly reported to the House of Commons because it is an additional contribution to the EU, on top of the normal budget.
Let me respond to my right hon. Friend’s three questions. We already have an opt-out from Schengen; that is written into the treaties. Similar arrangements apply to Ireland and Denmark in slightly different respects. The legal measure that would be used for any liberalisation of visa arrangements for Turkey would be a Schengen measure that would be brought forward under the appropriate treaty base, so it would not apply to the United Kingdom, Denmark or Ireland. I made it clear in my initial response to my right hon. Friend that the Government do not intend to liberalise our visa arrangements with Turkey.
On my right hon. Friend’s second point, it has of course been the policy of successive British Governments, including the one in which he served with such distinction, to support the eventual accession of Turkey to EU membership. That is not going to happen in the near future. The statement of the Heads of State or Government said on Monday that they would prepare for the decision on the opening of new chapters in the accession negotiations as soon as possible. To open a chapter such as chapter 23, which deals with the rule of law, might well be very helpful to strengthen the dialogue that we shall be having with Turkey about the rule of law, human rights and the standards that are expected of candidate members of the European Union but, again, no agreement has yet been reached on any aspect of opening new chapters, and many member states will have their views about that.
On my right hon. Friend’s point about Turkish accession—or any new member’s accession—and freedom of movement, the Government have said repeatedly that we will not agree to any further EU enlargement unless we first have in place new arrangements for transitional controls on freedom of movement so that we do not take on the risk, as we did in 2004, of very large movements of people in the aftermath of a new accession. Every decision to do with EU membership requires unanimity, so every country has a veto on every such step.
Thirdly, my right hon. Friend asked about finance. As I said, there are no formal proposals on the table. There is an ongoing negotiation at EU level in which there are many different moving parts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement after the European Council next week, but the refugee facility agreed last year is budgeted for and is causing the Commission to reprioritise its various spending programmes, which seems a sensible thing for it to do.
The countries of the middle east and the European Union are now confronted by the biggest refugee crisis since the end of the second world war. In the past 12 months alone, more than 1 million people have entered the EU by sea, mostly from Turkey to Greece. Does the Minister agree that the only way to deal with the crisis is to work with our European neighbours and other countries affected in the region, including Turkey? We welcome the fact that European nations are working together to try to find a solution, rather than having a situation of individual countries trying to find individual solutions to what is clearly a collective challenge.
We must recognise that we all have a responsibility to ensure that the language that we use reflects the fact that we are talking about fellow human beings in the most difficult of circumstances. Does the Minister therefore agree that it was deeply irresponsible of the Prime Minister to refer to people who are frightened, tired and fearful—families, vulnerable women, children and old people—as a “bunch of migrants”?
Does the Minister agree that the only way to reduce the overall flow of refugees is to tackle its root cause: the slaughter of the Syrian civil war? It would therefore be helpful if he could give us his latest assessment of progress with the ceasefire. The EU and Turkey say that they have agreed the broad principles of a plan to ease the migration crisis. How many of the promised 20,000 Syrian refugees have we settled? What additional financial contribution will the UK be making? When does the Minister expect any additional payments to be made? Can he set out how that money will break the business model of the smugglers exploiting the most vulnerable in the most dangerous way? How will we ensure that the money will be spent on what it was intended to be spent on? Who is monitoring this, and how? With the threat of conflict and climate change across the world, does the Minister agree that this shows exactly why we need to work together internationally, including by being a member of the EU, rather than walking away from our shared interests and responsibilities?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is in this country’s interests, and in the interests of every European country, that we put together a determined and coherent response to the crisis. I also agree that no single European country—not Greece, Germany, the UK or anyone else—can solve this human tragedy, or stop the wicked work of the people traffickers who are exploiting it, on its own.
The hon. Lady asked about the ceasefire in Syria. The latest information indicates that it is holding, but it is not holding perfectly—that will be no surprise to any Member. The Prime Minister, along with other European leaders, had a conference call with President Putin a few days ago to take stock of how things now look, and to urge him to work towards a political settlement and a political transition in Syria, which we continue to believe represents the long-term answer to try to rebuild that country and to give people hope that they can have a safe and secure life there.
The hon. Lady asked how the business model of the people traffickers would be harmed by the agreement reached last week. One key element of the deal—I emphasise again that it is yet to be finalised—would be that somebody who went in a boat and was intercepted or processed having reached one of the Greek islands would face being sent back to Turkey. They would then be put to the back of the queue for legal resettlement, so the incentive for people to entrust their safety to the people carriers would be removed.
The hon. Lady asked about the number of arrivals in this country under the Syrian refugee resettlement scheme. The number is now running at more than 1,000, so this is going on track and much as we had planned. I ought to recognise the role that the devolved Administrations and local authorities of all political colours have played in trying to make the scheme successful, and in making the process as easy as possible for the people whom we are trying to help.
My right hon. Friend correctly says that there is no obligation on the United Kingdom to take in extra migrants under the deal, but will he confirm that, once any of the 1 million migrants who have come to Europe in the past year and the 1 million who are expected are given EU citizenship, they will all technically have a right to come to the United Kingdom, as long as we remain in the European Union?
The fact that we are outside Schengen means that we impose border checks on everybody, including EU citizens. We stop and turn back EU citizens when we have good reason for thinking that their presence in the United Kingdom would be a threat to public safety.
On my right hon. Friend’s specific point, the overwhelming majority of those who have been granted refugee status in Europe have been granted that in Germany, which is where people are trying to get to. The proportion of all refugees in Germany who get German citizenship is roughly 2.2%, and the numbers are small because the German citizenship procedure is so rigorous. It takes eight to 10 years before somebody can get German citizenship. To achieve that, they need to have a completely clean criminal record, to show that they have an independent source of income and to pass an integration test, including by demonstrating a knowledge of German. Some of the fears that have been expressed are rather exaggerated, given the reality of the German situation.
SNP Members share the deep concerns expressed by the United Nations that the proposals would contravene refugees’ right to protection under European and international law. Vincent Cochetel, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Europe regional director, said yesterday that an agreement on this basis would not be consistent with either European or international law. With that in mind, what legal advice has the Minister received on the proposals from his officials? Will he set out how the Government will promote accountability and transparency around the €3 billion that is due to be given to Turkey by the end of March? Finally, what action have the Government taken within the process to promote human rights in Turkey and to hold Erdogan to account for his recent actions against his own citizens?
On the hon. Lady’s final point, we speak all the time to Turkish colleagues about human rights and rule of law matters. As I have said, we believe that the EU accession process—particularly chapters 23 and 24, if they can be opened—provides the best means for seeking those reforms in Turkey, which I think would command support on both sides of the House.
The statement of the Heads of State or Government says in terms that all those arrangements must comply with international law, so every Government have taken that on board. We should not forget that Turkey has provided refuge to about 2.6 million people who have fled from Syria. A large number of those people have been living in safety in UN-administered camps inside Turkey for many months, and sometimes for years. Please let us not forget to acknowledge the hospitality that not just the Turkish Government, but the ordinary people of Turkey, have shown.
The opening of chapter 23 negotiations simply serves to confirm that the EU has indeed agreed to accelerate the process of considering Turkey’s application for accession to the EU. Does my right hon. Friend consider it right even to enter such negotiations when Turkey’s human rights record is extremely worrying, not least in respect of its Kurdish population?
We certainly hope that the Turkish Government will resume as soon as possible the peace process with the Turkish Kurds, which appeared to be making quite some progress up to perhaps six months ago. On my right hon. Friend’s other point, as I have said, there has been no agreement yet as to whether any particular chapter or any number of chapters of the accession negotiations should be opened. The Heads of Government will return to that next week at the European Council. There would have to be unanimous agreement by every EU member state to each and every decision to open a new chapter, or to agree that progress had been made on any element of a new stage in Turkish accession negotiations. This is not a swift process.
Under the deal, Turkey has received €3 billion, and it has asked for a further €3 billion by the end of 2018. When will those negotiations start? Given that 90% of those entering the EU illegally do so with the assistance of criminal gangs, why have the Minister and the EU not ensured that Turkey will be paid on a performance-related basis for the number of people traffickers it brings to justice?
People traffickers need to be brought to justice in whichever jurisdiction they operate, but it is sometimes the case that the people committing the crimes involved in trafficking at the sharp end and organising the boats are not the people at the top of those organisations. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are talking about very professional, well-organised and well-funded international criminal networks that often indulge in drug smuggling as well as in people smuggling. They are transnational companies that are engaged in criminal enterprise.
There has been no agreement yet on anything beyond the €3 billion refugee facility that was agreed in November last year. Since that agreement, Turkey has taken a number of steps to help Syrian refugees, such as by making it possible for them to get legitimate work within Turkey and opening up work permit arrangements for them.
All hon. Members will have heard very disturbing reports recently of a newspaper office in Turkey being closed down for doing nothing more than publishing critical commentary about the Turkish Government. Will the Minister please inform the House whether the member states of the European Union value ever closer union and freedom of movement over and above the rights to freedom of speech of the individual?
The EU and the United Kingdom Government made it very clear last week that we continue to see freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the media as a cornerstone of the values that we champion at an international level. Adherence to those principles is written into the European treaties, and no country that fails to subscribe to them can expect to receive EU membership.
The principle of closing off the dangerous smuggler routes and instead providing safe legal routes to sanctuary is clearly sensible, but the Minister will know of the legal, practical and political problems with the plans put forward. He rightly makes it clear that there will be no changes to Turkish visa arrangements for Britain, but I suspect that in many others areas of the proposals there will be significant changes in the week ahead. In particular, have the British Government raised the plight of Afghan and Iraqi refugees? We know that about half the lone children who claimed asylum in Europe in January were from Afghanistan. What provision will be made for them?
The right hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, and the position of people who have come from other war-torn countries needs to be seriously considered, but we need always to bear in mind the basic principles of the 1951 UN convention on refugees: first, that to get refugee status one must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution; and secondly, that when somebody flees they are expected to apply for refugee status in the first safe country they reach, and not try to pick and choose, perhaps at the behest of people traffickers, between various safe countries.
May I press my right hon. Friend further on the human rights and rule of law abuses in Turkey? Last year Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice; Sir Jeffrey Jowell, the international jurist; Sarah Palin, the human rights barrister, and I wrote a report—I provided a copy to him, the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the shadow Foreign Secretary—outlining the serial and appalling human rights and rule of law abuses by the current Turkish Government. Will the Minister alter or firm up the Government’s attitude towards Turkish accession to the EU? While these abuses continue, there should be no question of opening any chapters at all, even though we need Turkey as a member of NATO and its agreement to help with the migration problem.
We certainly continue to regard adherence to the principles of human rights, freedom of expression and belief and so on as things that should be at the heart of the reform work of any country seeking to join the EU. I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend, however, that the evidence from other accession negotiations is that we can secure much swifter and more significant progress towards the reforms we all want to see when we sit down and start working on the detailed benchmarks and progress measurements in those chapters of an EU accession that deal specifically with rule of law matters.
The amount of money the EU gives to Turkey is fully justified—I hope that more will come—for the reasons the Minister has explained, but will he accept, following on from previous questions, that the President of Turkey has done his best to undermine democratic rights in that country? We have seen the outright intimidation of critics; last week, a newspaper was taken over by his henchmen and turned into a mouthpiece for the regime; and more recently, the same thing happened to a news agency. Does he realise that there can be no question of Turkey becoming in any way associated with the EU while this intimidation of critics continues and so long as the President does a good impression of trying to follow Putin?
As I have said before, we continue to talk frequently to Turkish officials and Ministers at all levels about the importance we ascribe to human rights, the rule of law and freedom of expression, and that will remain a core element of our dialogue with Turkey.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), I am not clear on the Government’s position on the legality of the mass transfer of intercepted migrants back to Turkey. What instructions are being given to the captain of Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay for when it intercepts a boatload of migrants? Has the captain been authorised to take those people back to Turkey? Will they be accepted back into Turkey? How does that fit with the comments from the UNHCR last night?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was in the House for the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made on Monday about the naval operation. The NATO operation is engaged in initial reconnaissance and surveillance of illegal crossings. It then passes that information on to the Turkish authorities so that the Turkish coastguard can respond and carry out interceptions. At the moment, that work is not being done by NATO vessels.
Anyone watching the refugee scenes across Europe over the past year knew that we could not carry on as we were and that we needed to act in concert with others, in terms of both the consequences and the causes, which are rooted in war and conflict. I agree with the Minister, therefore, that no individual country can deal with the consequences alone. May I urge him to reject any approach that says Britain’s answer should be to pay nothing, do nothing and pull up the drawbridge?
This country has a long and proud tradition of seeking to help people in dire need, wherever they are in the world, and build political stability in areas within what I might describe as our own neighbourhood. There have been plenty of examples in our history and European history where the failure to grip problems decisively led to worse conflict, human suffering and political problems for European Government than would have been the case had action been taken earlier.
May I press my right hon. Friend further on the legality of the deal? As I understand it, the UN’s top official on refugees, Filippo Grandi, has expressed real concern about an arrangement that involves a blanket return of anyone from one country to another. I am particularly concerned because it looks as if the EU is trading one set of refugees in Greece for another in Turkey. I cannot see any guarantee in the arrangement that there will be any drop-off in numbers. In fact, I am beginning to find the arrangement very worrying.
As I said earlier, under this agreement, if it can be finalised next week, we will for the first time break the link between people getting into a boat or being rescued from a boat in the Aegean and their gaining the right to enter a resettlement or relocation process inside the EU. Instead, there will be an agreed legal route for people to go from the camps to European countries. That will provide a serious disincentive for people to place themselves in the ruthless and exploitative hands of the people traffickers.
On the matter of legality, the statement of the Heads of State or Government says in terms that whatever arrangement they might reach next week should be in accordance with both European and international law.
I wish to associate the Liberal Democrats with the comments on free speech and also with those we have just heard about the very troubling one-for-one refugee agreement, which raises both practical and moral concerns. The Minister is a very honourable man; surely he cannot be comfortable with an agreement that requires refugees to risk their lives travelling to the EU in return for another refugee, but only one from Syria, to get safe passage. That is entirely unacceptable.
The purpose is to put in place a set of arrangements that remove the incentives for people to entrust their safety to the people traffickers. Unless we are able to do that, the risk is exactly that the flow of people and the appalling casualties that result from that flow of people across the Aegean will continue.
As always, the Minister is putting in a very skilful performance, but the issue of whether Turkey should join the EU is terribly important. I am disappointed that once again the Foreign Secretary is not replying from the Dispatch Box. I do not think he has answered one urgent question of the last five. We like the Foreign Secretary so much that we would like to see more of him at the Dispatch Box.
On the question of Turkey joining the EU, the Minister has been absolutely clear today that it is Her Majesty’s Government’s considered opinion that Turkey should be a member of the EU. Apparently, we have allowed ourselves to be blackmailed into progressing this matter. Given the closure of the main opposition paper, Zaman, this week, will the Minister confirm as a matter of fact that because the EU believes so passionately in the free movement of people, once Turkey joins the EU, all 77 million Turks will be allowed to come to work and live here without any check or any opposition at all and there is nothing we can do about it?
As I said earlier, we are not yet at the point where anything has been finally agreed. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make a statement after next week’s European Council. Support for Turkey eventually to join the European Union is an objective that has been shared by Conservative and Labour Governments alike since before I entered the House of Commons. My hon. Friend is not correct to say that this is going to be rushed. That is certainly not the history of previous accession negotiations: they take many years, and there is a right of veto for every member state over every single decision associated with an accession process.
One issue that has to be sorted out during an accession negotiation is precisely what the arrangements for movement of people are going to be. As the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, the United Kingdom is not going to agree to any further new members of the European Union until we have new and different arrangements in place to ensure that a new member joining the EU cannot again lead to the very large migratory flows that we saw after 2004.
Turkey has indicated that it needs £6 billion to help address the problem of refugees, but it is much better to address the refugee crisis where it begins—and one of those places is Turkey. Will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Turkish Government to ensure that the moneys allocated are sent to the places that need it most and to ensure that those of ethnic or Christian beliefs are able to receive them as well?
The money assigned in our bilateral spending and at EU level is going to people in need in Turkey and the surrounding states. There is a separate facility to give humanitarian support to refugees and asylum seekers in Greece, but the large sums of money I have talked about so far are being spent in Turkey. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that both the United Kingdom and the European Union disburse that money largely through the United Nations relief agencies such as UNICEF and through the major reputable non-governmental humanitarian relief organisations, precisely so it can go to help those in need and that we can know exactly where it is going.
Those of us who are in favour of leaving the European Union are being pressed regularly on the need to provide certainty about what the world will look like outside, yet today the Minister’s speech has been full of caveats, maybes and what may or may not happen. Does he now accept that this is what “in” looks like for those of us who are concerned about human rights issues, freedom of speech issues and other things that would come with Turkish accession, that there can be no certainty about the fear factor of staying in, and that it certainly is not safer to stay in rather than to leave?
The reason why, as my hon. Friend put it, I am “caveating” some of what I am saying is that although there was a negotiation at the summit on Monday, there has not yet been a final agreement. An effort is going to be made to reach a final agreement next week, and then my hon. Friend will be able to question the Prime Minister about the detail. I simply say to my hon. Friend—she and I differ on the question of EU membership—that the habit of working together within Europe to solve foreign policy challenges that cannot be met by any one European country on its own, not even the biggest and most influential, is a sign of health and a good reason for us to remain members of that organisation.
Turkey, of course, has a pivotal position in all this. If it wanted to, it could make the moves to ensure that we have safe havens in Syria and stop a lot of people entering Europe that way. Equally, it has a very important role in stopping people traffickers. Have the British Government seen actual plans by the Turkish Government on how they intend to stop the people traffickers and stop people travelling across to Greece?
Talks are going on between our enforcement agencies, Frontex and Europol at European level and their Turkish counterparts. The hon. Gentleman will, I know, understand why I would not want to go into detail about those talks. The possibility of safe havens was discussed at the EU-Turkish summit, but there are many political, legal and military complications to taking that particular step. We have not ruled it out, but there is no agreement on it as yet.
Surely the most important thing in all this is to deal with the problem at source—namely, Syria. What discussions were had at this summit with the Turks and the EU about how to put more pressure on all the parties at the Geneva process to make sure that we have a lasting peace agreement in Syria?
Those discussions did take place in the margins of the summit, although its purpose was to try to hammer out a way forward in dealing with the refugee crisis that is causing such difficulties both to Turkey and the European Union. I can assure my hon. Friend that the British Government and other European Governments are in constant contact with our Turkish counterparts about how best to bring an end to the appalling conflict inside Syria.
The Minister must recognise that an adequate humanitarian response must involve more than simply asking Turkey to facilitate mass expulsion under almost a barter scheme between different classes of refugees. Will next week’s European Council meeting properly address the concerns about whether this scheme violates international law and human rights?
This agreement relates to a wider issue of underfunding of refugee camps across the middle east by the international community. What are the Government going to do to reinforce the message from the United Nations that many of our international partners—not the UK; we have done our fair share—are not stepping up to the plate when it comes to the funding of these refugee camps, and that includes many countries within the EU?
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. I think we can trace the surge from Turkey into Europe last summer in large part to the decision that the United Nations had to make to cut food rations and restrict educational opportunities inside the camps, which led more people to feel that they had no option but to place themselves in hands of people traffickers. As I think my hon. Friend will know, the United Kingdom co-hosted a Syria donors conference in London a few weeks ago, which produced pledges from the international community of more than $10 billion. That is a welcome step forward, but I would be the first to say that we must now ensure that those pledges are turned into real money to help the people who are in desperate need.
I absolutely agree that Turkey is a crucial partner in the efforts to resolve the situation in Syria, and that we should be doing more to support what it is doing to deal with the migrant crisis. I must tell the Minister, however, that the largest number of UK citizens of Turkish origin live in north London and in Enfield in particular, the vast majority being Kurdish and/or Alevi, and that they are very concerned about President Erdogan’s refusal to acknowledge the decisions of the constitutional court, about the closing of newspapers, about the imprisonment of more than 30 journalists, about the curfews, about the restrictions on freedom of speech, and about the deaths of many innocent people who are their friends and relatives.
The EU and the accession process may well be the context in which those issues can be resolved—and I support the accession process in relation to Turkey—but can the Minister assure me that they will be raised with President Erdogan, and will not be brushed aside?
The UK raises concerns such as those in its dialogue with the Turkish Government at every level. We recognise that Turkey is in a better place today than it was under military rule, but we want to see our Turkish ally move with greater energy towards the full recognition of the rule of law and human rights to which its Government say they remain committed.
You are very generous, Mr Speaker, and I am very grateful.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that this is actually a rather grubby deal? We all know that our Government in particular, but the rest of the European Union as well, are desperate to be seen to be trying to resolve the migration crisis. We also know that it is, to some extent, a self-inflicted crisis. The free movement in the Schengen area is a temptation and an attraction to refugees who want to get into the European Union so that they can travel everywhere. The EU’s refusal to close down the Schengen agreement means that it wants to keep that invitation open, so it is doing a very grubby deal with a country that has a very indifferent human rights record to subcontract the deportation of the refugees back to their country of origin.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention again to what we have given up in this agreement? Let me return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). The statement of the EU Heads of State of Government says that we are going
“to accelerate the implementation of the visa liberalization roadmap with all Member States”.
I do not doubt my right hon. Friend’s sincerity, and I do not doubt that he intends that to apply only to the Schengen area, but will he take care to ensure that it does apply only to the Schengen area in any future drafting of the text of the agreement next week?
First, let me reiterate again that, as yet, there has been no deal. That is a matter for the discussions between now and next week’s European Council meeting.
I am sure that my hon. Friend has studied the European Union treaties intensely, in which case he will know that a measure affecting visas or migration must be introduced on a treaty base on which the United Kingdom is not bound, but can choose whether or not to opt in. As the Prime Minister has made very clear, we are not going to participate in visa liberalisation with Turkey. That is a sovereign decision for us to make, and one that is recognised in the European treaties.
I think most reasonable people would support a mechanism that cuts off the people-trafficking routes and the dangerous routes across the Mediterranean, but what assessment will the Government make when this mechanism is in place to ensure that it is operating as the Minister envisages and that the money reaches the people whom we want it to reach—the refugees?
I share the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) about the increasingly illiberal and authoritarian approach of Erdogan to, in particular, minorities such as Alevi Kurds, but we must also pay credit where it is due. The refugees are imposing a great burden on Turkey, and its camps are of a much better standard than those in any part of Europe, not least France.
May I ask the Minister a question about the European Union’s move on the liberalisation of visas and the opening of chapters? Will he confirm that, in the negotiations, the European Union will not renege on its commitment to ensure that no progress is made on those two matters before the republic of Cyprus has been recognised, and progress has been made towards a solution to the Cyprus problem?
My hon. Friend hints at one of the issues that have caused a stalling of the accession negotiations in recent years. That, too, will need to be thought about, and talked about, during the days before next week’s European Council meeting. There has been no agreement, as yet, on the opening of any accession chapter.
Is not the logic of the proposals that if Turkey succeeds in stopping sea crossings, no refugees will be resettled from Turkey? Is that not a greater incentive than ever for Turkey to wave people on to the boats, and is it not clearer than ever that a better solution is to provide more safe, legal routes?
That is not the nature of the discussion that we are having with Turkey. I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, but I think it is slightly simplistic to imagine that Turkey can just switch the taps on or off when it comes to flows of people and the activities of people traffickers. That applies particularly to the sea crossing to the island of Samos. Only 1,600 metres separate the Turkish and Greek coasts at that point, so once a dinghy has travelled 800 metres it is in Greek territorial waters. However, I think on Monday there was a clear commitment by both the Prime Minister of Turkey and EU leaders to finding a way forward, and a recognition that it was in the interests of both EU countries and Turkey for the issue to be settled through a coherent, well-planned strategy such as the one that is outlined in the statement issued by the Heads of Government.
Is not the Syrian issue one of the biggest problems that we face today? Has not the Russian action in Syria produced a large new wave of refugees who are leaving that war zone and being pushed into Turkey, and does that not mean that we must do all that we can to work with Turkey?
On 7 March, my right hon. Friend sent a letter to the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, emphasising that a great deal of the money that we are putting in is counting towards our international aid target of 0.7% of GDP. Everything that has been said today about Turkey’s human rights record and about the question of its entering the EU is absolutely right, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that, in the context of both those issues, we have more power and more influence in the EU than we would have if we were outside the EU and carping about it?
We really do have an excellent Minister for Europe. He has been in post for a record number of years and he has always implemented Government policy on Europe, however much it has changed. I hope that he will be there after 23 June when we negotiate our exit from the EU. I want to ask him a question about certainty. Does he agree that the only way in which the British people can be certain that 77 million Turkish citizens will not have the right to come to this country is if we vote to come out of the European Union?
No, no. I am afraid I must urge my hon. Friend to intensify his study of the European treaties and, particularly, the European directives. The treaties make it quite clear that each and every aspect of an accession negotiation, including arrangements for controls on migration, must be agreed unanimously. Every member state, including the United Kingdom, has a veto on every aspect of an accession negotiation. He is making a mistake in imagining that things will happen in the way he describes.
Will the Minister confirm that the majority of those coming into Europe from Turkey are men, and that the majority of them are coming from countries other than Syria that have a very poor human rights record in regard to women? How can we be certain that the mass migration into Europe will not have an impact on women’s rights, which have been hard fought for on this continent?
We have a genuine humanitarian crisis in Syria that has displaced about 11 million people, either within Syria or to neighbouring countries. That is now being exploited by people traffickers—on that point, my hon. Friend is correct. They are trying to encourage people of other nationalities to come in and claim refugee status on the back of genuine refugee claims and genuine refugee need. That reinforces the importance of having a robust system of processing individual claims, so that we can distinguish between people who have a well-founded fear of persecution and those who are trying to move for economic reasons. The reason that the United Kingdom is giving help to Frontex and the European Asylum Support Office is precisely to strengthen the capacity of the Greek system in particular to carry out those processes and to distinguish between genuine refugees and those who are trying to move for other reasons.
It is on everyone’s mind that the bombing of civilians by the Assad regime with Russian support in areas such as Aleppo is leading to the movement of even greater numbers of people, initially into Turkey and Lebanon and then across the Aegean towards Europe. That reinforces the need for us to turn this fragile cessation of violence into a genuine peace process inside Syria and a political transition that might offer the hope of rebuilding the country.
I have been reading the statement, and the Turks clearly have some good negotiators. The Minister has already stated that our financial contribution to the first €3 billion will be €250 million. The statement says that there will be a further decision on additional funding. Will he confirm that, whatever that additional funding might be, we will still be making a further contribution to it?
No formal proposal has been tabled as yet. The United Kingdom contributes to EU measures agreed collectively by the EU, but we have also paid out significantly more through our bilateral contributions to meet the needs of refugees in Syria and other countries in the neighbourhood. I do not think we should be in the least ashamed of this country’s role in helping those people in desperate need. One of the reasons I have been so proud to support this Government’s commitment to the 0.7% UN target is that it gives us the resources and the flexibility to respond to humanitarian crises speedily, wherever in the world they happen to be.
Am I right in assuming that the captain of Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay has rules of interdiction that allow him to report people-smugglers’ vessels going across the straits between Turkey and Greece and to pick up people in distress, but not to stop any such vessels that do not wish to be picked up? If so, will the Minister tell us why that is the case? More to the point, if those rules pertain, what action are the Turkish security forces taking on the eastern seaboard of Turkey, which we are subsidising, to stop people-smugglers’ vessels setting out towards Greece?
Turkey already assigns a large proportion of its coastguard resource to the Aegean. For the reasons that I gave in answer to an earlier question, intercepting every small boat making the relatively short crossing to one of the Greek islands is not as straightforward as is sometimes suggested. For greater detail, I refer my hon. Friend to the statement that the Secretary of State for Defence made in the House on Monday, in which he said:
“The primary purpose of the mission is to provide monitoring, surveillance and reconnaissance of the migration route across the Aegean, which will better enable the Turkish and Greek coastguards”—
and the EU Frontex mission—
“to intercept the boats and disrupt the business model of the criminal traffickers.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 27.]
I was interested to hear the Minister confirm that Britain would not be required to be part of the visa waiver arrangements, given that we are not part of Schengen. However, we are part of another common travel area, with the Republic of Ireland. What discussions will the Government be having with the Republic of Ireland’s Government about their approach to these issues?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable and important point. Like the United Kingdom, Ireland is not in Schengen and therefore not obliged to participate in any visa liberalisation. We keep in close contact with the authorities in Dublin, because the existence of the common travel area means that we need to ensure that we take account of each other’s decisions on this matter. I do not anticipate any difficulties in this regard—we normally think pretty much alike—but my hon. Friend is right to register that this is an issue that we need to keep in mind.