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Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 13 April 2016

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Last week in Aldridge-Brownhills I visited Laserform manufacturing and Potclays, who supplied clay for the Tower of London poppies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that supporting small businesses and the further increase in personal income tax allowance, which came in this month, show that, unlike Labour, the Conservative party is the party of enterprise and aspiration and believes in enabling hard-working people to keep more of the money they earn?

Let me join my hon. Friend in congratulating the firms that she mentions. She is right that it is predominantly small and medium-sized businesses that will be providing the jobs of the future. We want people to keep more of their own money to spend as they choose. That is why the historic move last week to an £11,000 personal allowance means that by 2018 people will be paying about £1,000 less per taxpayer and we will have taken 4 million of the lowest-paid people out of tax altogether. That is the action of a progressive Conservative Government.

I am sure the whole House will join me in mourning the death today of the dramatist Arnold Wesker, one of the great playwrights of this country, one of those wonderful angry young men of the 1950s who, like so many angry young people, changed the face of our country.

Yesterday the European Commission announced new proposals on country-by-country tax reporting, so that companies must declare where they make their profits in the European Union and in blacklisted tax havens. Conservative MEPs voted against the proposal for country-by-country reporting and against the blacklisting. Can the Prime Minister now assure us that Conservative MEPs will support the new proposal?

First, let me join the right hon. Gentleman in mourning the loss of the famous playwright, with all the work that he did. He is right to mention that.

Let me welcome the country-by-country tax reporting proposal put forward by Commissioner Jonathan Hill, who was appointed by this Government as the United Kingdom Commissioner. That is very much based on the work that we have been doing, leading the collaboration between countries and making sure that we share tax information. As we discussed on Monday, this has gone far faster and far further under this Government than under any previous Government.

If the proposals were put forward by the British Government, why did Conservative MEPs vote against them? There seems to be a sort of disconnect there. The Panama papers exposed the scandalous situation where wealthy individuals seemed to believe that corporation tax and other taxes are optional. Indeed, as the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) informed us, they are apparently only for “low achievers”. When Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs says that the tax gap is £34 billion, why is the Prime Minister cutting HMRC staff by 20% and shutting down tax offices, losing the expertise of the people who could close that tax gap?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman wants to get on to our responsibilities to pay our taxes, which I think is very important. I thought that his tax return was a metaphor for Labour policy: it was late, it was chaotic, it was inaccurate and it was uncosted. Turning to his specific questions, he is absolutely right to identify the tax gap. That is why we closed off loopholes in the last Parliament equivalent to £12 billion, and we aim to close off loopholes in this Parliament equivalent to £16 billion. HMRC is taking very strong action, backed by this Government, backed by the Chancellor and legislated for by this House. I think that I am right in saying that since 2010 we have put over £1 billion into HMRC to increase its capabilities to collect the tax that people should be paying. The difference between those on the Government Benches and the right hon. Gentleman is that we believe in setting low tax rates and encouraging people to pay them, and it is working.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for drawing attention to my own tax return, which is there to see, warts and all—the warts being my handwriting, and the all being my generous donation to HMRC. I actually paid more tax than some companies owned by people he might know quite well. He is not cutting tax abuse; he is cutting down on tax collectors. The tax collected helps to fund our NHS and all the other services. Last month, the Office for Budget Responsibility reported that HMRC does not have the necessary resources to tackle offshore tax disclosures. The Government are committed to taking £400 million out of HMRC’s budget by 2020. Will he now commit to reversing that cut so that we can collect the tax that will help to pay for the services?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman’s figures, rather like his tax return, are not entirely accurate. At the summer Budget in 2015 we gave an extra £800 million to HMRC to fund additional work to tackle tax evasion and non-compliance between now and 2021. That will enable HMRC to recover a cumulative £7.2 billion in tax over the next five years. We have already brought in more than £2 billion from offshore tax evaders since 2010. The point that I will make to him is that I think we should try to bring some consensus to this issue. For years in this country, Labour and Conservative Governments had an attitude to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories that their tax affairs were a matter for them, their compliance affairs were a matter for them and their transparency was a matter for them. This Government have changed that. We got the overseas territories and Crown dependencies round the table and we said, “You’ve got to have registers of ownership, you’ve got to collaborate with the UK Government and you’ve got to ensure that people do not hide their taxes.” And that is what is happening. So when he gets to his feet, he should welcome the fact that huge progress has been made, raising taxes, sorting out the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, closing the tax gap, getting businesses to pay more and providing international leadership on this whole issue—all things that never happened under Labour.

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. The only problem with it is that the Red Book states that HMRC spending will fall from £3.3 billion to £2.9 billion by 2020. With regard to the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, only two days ago the Prime Minister said that he had agreed that they will provide UK law enforcement and tax agencies with full access to information on the beneficial ownership of companies. There seems to be some confusion here, because the Chief Minister of Jersey said:

“This is in response to a need for information without delay where terrorist activities are involved”.

Obviously we welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to fighting terrorism, but are Jersey and all the other dependencies actually going to provide beneficial ownership information or not?

The short answer to that is, yes they are, and that is what is such a big breakthrough. Look, I totally accept that they are not going as far as us, because we are publishing a register of beneficial ownership. That will happen in June. We will be one of the only countries in the world to do so—I think Norway and Spain are the others. What the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are doing is making sure that we have full access to registers of beneficial ownership to make sure that people are not evading or avoiding their taxes.

In the interests of giving full answers to the right hon. Gentleman’s questions, let me give him the figures for full-time equivalents in HMRC in terms of compliance. The numbers went from 25,000 in 2010 to 26,798 in 2015. It is not how much money you spend on an organisation; it is how many people you can actually have out there collecting the taxes and making sure the forms are properly filled in.

The Prime Minister is quite right: the number of people out there collecting taxes is important, so why has he laid off so many staff at HMRC, who therefore cannot collect those taxes?

In 2013, the Prime Minister demanded that the overseas territories rip aside the “cloak of secrecy” by creating a public register of beneficial ownership information. Will he now make it clear that the beneficial ownership register will be an absolutely public document and transparent, for all to see who really owns these companies and whether they are paying their taxes?

Let me be absolutely clear: for the United Kingdom, we have taken the unprecedented step—never done by Labour, never done previously by Conservatives—of an open beneficial ownership register. The Crown dependencies and overseas territories have to give full access to the registers of beneficial ownership. We did not choose the option of forcing them to have a public register, because we believed that if that was the case, we would get into the situation the right hon. Gentleman spoke about, and some of them might have walked away from this co-operation altogether. That is the point. The question is, are we going to be able to access the information? Yes. Are we going to be able to pursue tax evaders? Yes. Did any of these things happen under a Labour Government? No.

The Prime Minister does talk very tough, and I grant him that. The only problem is that it is not a public register that he is offering us: he is offering us only a private register that some people can see.

It is quite interesting that the Premier of the Cayman Islands, Alden McLaughlin, is today apparently celebrating his victory over the Prime Minister, because he is saying that the information

“certainly will not be available publicly or available directly by any UK or non-Cayman Islands agency.”

The Prime Minister is supposed to be chasing down tax evasion and tax avoidance; he is supposed to be bringing it all into the open. If he cannot even persuade the Premiers of the Cayman Islands or Jersey to open up their books, where is the tough talk bringing the information we need to collect the taxes that should pay for the services that people need?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding what I have said. In terms of the UK, it is an absolute first to have a register of beneficial ownership that is public. He keeps saying it is not public; the British one will be public. Further to that—and I think this is important, because it goes to a question asked by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—we are also saying to foreign companies that have dealings with Britain that they have to declare their properties, and the properties they own, which will remove a huge veil of secrecy from the ownership of, for instance, London property. Now, I am not saying we have completed all this work, but we have more tax information exchange, more registers of beneficial ownership, more chasing down tax evasion and avoidance, and more money recovered from businesses and individuals, and all of these things are things that have happened under this Government. The truth is he is running to catch up because Labour did nothing in 13 years.

Q6. My constituents John and Penny Clough, whose daughter Jane was tragically murdered by her ex-partner while he was out on bail, are campaigning to save Lancashire’s nine women’s refuges, which are currently under threat because Labour-run Lancashire County Council proposes to cut all their funding. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Clough family and me that Labour-run Lancashire County Council should prioritise the victims of domestic violence?


My hon. Friend raises a very moving case, and I know that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sincere condolences to Mr and Mrs Clough. In terms of making sure that we stop violence against women and girls, no one should be living in fear of these crimes, which is why we committed £80 million of extra funding up to 2020 to tackle violence against women and girls. That includes funding for securing the future of refuges and other accommodation-based services, but it obviously helps if local councils make the right decisions as well.

The United Kingdom and its offshore territories and dependencies collectively sit at the top of the financial secrecy index of the Tax Justice Network. Since the leaking of the Panama papers, France has put Panama on a blacklist of unco-operative tax havens and the Mossack Fonseca offices have been raided by the police in Panama City. What have British authorities done specifically in relation to Mossack Fonseca and Panama since the leak of the Panama papers?

In terms of who is at the top of the pyramid of tax secrecy, I think it is now unfair to say that about our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, because they are going to co-operate with the three things that we have asked them to do in terms of the reporting standard, the exchange of tax information and access to registers of beneficial ownership. Frankly, that is more than we get out of some states in America, like Delaware. We in this House should be tough on all those that facilitate lack of transparency, but we should be accurate in the way we do it.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what we are doing about the Panama papers. We have a £10 million-funded, cross-agency review to get to the bottom of all the relevant information. That would hugely be helped if the newspapers and other investigative journalists now shared that information with tax inspectors so that we can get to the bottom of it.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s final question, we are happy to support blacklists, but we do not think a blacklist should be drawn up solely on the basis of a territory raising a low tax rate. We do not think that is the right approach. It is the approach the French have sometimes taken in the past. In terms of taking action against tax havens, this Government have done more than any previous one.

Some 3,250 Department for Work and Pensions staff have been specifically investigating benefit fraud, while only 300 HMRC staff have been systematically investigating tax evasion. Surely we should care equally about people abusing the tax system and those abusing the benefits system. Why have this Government had 10 times more staff dealing often with the poorest in society abusing benefits than with the super-rich evading their taxes?

I will look carefully at the right hon. Gentleman’s statistics, but they sound to me entirely bogus, for this reason: the predominant job of the DWP is to make sure that people receive their benefits, and the predominant job of HMRC is to make sure that people pay their taxes. All of the 26,000 people I spoke about earlier are making sure that people pay their taxes. The clue is in the title.

Q8. Will and Carol Davies and many other farmers in south Herefordshire are still awaiting their 2015 payments from the Rural Payments Agency, nearly four months after they were due. That follows the failure of the RPA website last year. It is causing great personal and financial distress, and threatens the future of farm businesses. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet farmers to discuss the issue and press the RPA to make these payments by the end of this month, and does he share my view that, at the very least, farmers should receive interest on the amounts overdue? (904332)

I recently met both the National Farmers Union and the Welsh NFU, and I continue to have meetings with farming organisations, including in my own constituency. I know there have been problems with the payment system. The latest figures show that some 87% of all claims have been paid. I believe that the figures for Herefordshire are in line with the national average, but obviously that is no consolation to the 13% that have not received those payments. That is why we have a financial hardship process. We are working with charities. We have made hardship payments amounting to more than £7 million, but we need to make sure that the lessons of how to make the system work better in future years are properly learned.

Q2. If the British people vote to leave the European Union, will the Prime Minister remain in office to implement their decision? (904326)

Q10. Again on Europe, does the Prime Minister agree that the European Union is not just the world’s biggest single market but an ample source of foreign direct investment, providing 50% of the investment that we receive; and an excellent platform for supply chains to thrive and prosper, which gives them the ability to get the skills and the innovation that they need? That, for my constituency, means that Sartorius, Renishaw, Delphi and a whole load of other hi-tech companies thrive and prosper, as they do elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (904334)

I well remember my visit to Renishaw’s with my hon. Friend, where I was shown what I think was a world first: a bicycle that was printed on a 3D printer. I did not get on and give it a try, but it looked as though it would carry even someone of my weight. He is right, because the single market is 500 million people, and it is a great market for our businesses and our services. Increasingly, the market and the supply chain are getting more and more integrated. That is why we should think very carefully before separating ourselves from it.

Q3. Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer of children and people under 40, but, despite that, research into them receives just over 1% of the UK’s national spend on cancer research. That will be the subject of a debate next Monday in Westminster Hall. Will the Prime Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for Health, so that the Minister who answers that debate might be able to bring with him or her some long-overdue good news of change in this area? (904327)

I am very happy to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says. It is an important issue. We invest something like £1.7 billion a year in health research, but there is always this question when it comes to cancer research. The spending has gone up by a third over the last Parliament to nearly £135 million, but there is always the question about whether that is fairly distributed between all the different types of cancer. I will make sure that the Minister can give him a very full reply.

Q11. I have a steel producer at the heart of my constituency, and so I share concerns raised about the future of our steel industry and, more widely, of energy-intensive manufacturing. The north of England still has significant manufacturing, but it is being held back by green taxes, high energy costs and emissions targets. What more can my right hon. Friend do to help energy-intensive industries? (904335)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The changes that we are making are going to save the steel industry more than £400 million by the end of this Parliament, and that is a good example of the steps that we can take. There was an excellent debate yesterday in the House about this issue. We need to work on everything we can do in terms of procurement. We need to make sure that we are taking action in the EU against dumping, and we are. We need to make sure that we reduce energy costs where we can. We stand by to work with any potential purchaser of the Port Talbot works, which will safeguard steel jobs in other parts of the country, to see how we can help on a commercial basis. I am absolutely satisfied that we are doing everything we possibly can. We cannot totally buck the global trend of this massive overcapacity in steel and massive decline in prices, but those are the key areas—in terms of power, in terms of plant and in terms of procurement—where we can help.

Q4. Research by the Sutton Trust shows that turning schools into academies does not necessarily improve them. Parents at thousands of excellent primary schools want them to continue to be maintained by their local authorities. Why are Ministers planning to overrule parents and force all those schools to become academies? (904328)

All the evidence shows that academies work as part of our education reforms. Let me give the House the evidence. If we look at schools that converted into academies, we see that 88% of them are either outstanding or good schools. If we look at the sponsored academies, which were often failing schools, we see that there has been, on average, a 10% improvement over the first two years. All the evidence is that the results are better, the freedoms lead to improvements and, where there are problems, intervention happens far faster with academies. We have got 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools, and I say, “Let’s finish the job.”

Q15. The Prime Minister has met many great people, but I believe he has yet to meet the Vale of Evesham’s very own Gus the “asparagus man”. Would he like to rectify that omission by joining me in the Vale of Evesham for the British asparagus festival, which starts on St George’s day, and show his support for our fantastic farming industry? (904339)

I am happy to say that my hon. Friend’s constituency is only one constituency away and we share the same railway line, so if there is an opportunity for some great British asparagus, I would be very happy to join him.

Q5. May I take the Prime Minister back to his response to the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson)? I, too, have met Mr and Mrs Clough, and it was a truly dreadful case. Women’s refuges are facing absolute crisis. The changes that the Government propose to make to housing benefit will force the closure of women’s refuges. The Prime Minister needs urgently to look again at these changes, because unless he makes refuges exempt, they will be closing up and down the country. Will he do it? (904329)

I would say to the hon. Lady that we are doing the same kind of thing with these refuges as we did in the last Parliament with rape crisis centres. That is why the £80 million of funding is so important, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written to local authorities to explain that this money is available to make sure those refuges are there.

As part of world autism awareness week last week, the National Autistic Society launched its biggest ever awareness campaign, called “Too Much Information”, and young Alex, the star of the film, was here in the House and met many MPs on Monday this week. The society’s research shows that some 50% of autistic people and their families sometimes do not even go out in public because they are afraid of what people think and of the public reaction to them. Will the Prime Minister meet me and the charity to discuss how the Government can support this campaign, and how we can help tackle the social isolation of so many families through this campaign and through Government assistance?

First, let me pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has been campaigning and legislating on this issue for many years now, including the landmark legislation that went through in the last Parliament. We have been working closely with the Autism Alliance and have invested some £325,000 since 2014, but she is right that more needs to be done in terms of helping families with autistic children and raising the profile and increasing the understanding of what having an autistic child or being autistic is all about. I think she is absolutely right to do that. Let me put in a plug for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, which is still on at the theatre on Whitehall. I took my children the other day. It is absolutely excellent, and will provide a better explanation of autism than perhaps anything we can discuss in this House.

Q7. The authorities in Peru, El Salvador and Panama have raided offices of Mossack Fonseca, seizing documents and computer equipment, but no one has knocked on the door of the law firm’s branch in the UK. While recognising the operational independence of our enforcement agencies, does the Prime Minister share my deep concern that, as we speak, documents are no doubt being shredded and databases being wiped, undermining the opportunity to bring further potential wrongdoing to light? (904331)

The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that we need to make sure that all the evidence coming out of Panama is properly investigated. That is why we have set up a special cross-agency team—including the National Crime Agency, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other relevant bodies—to make sure we get to the bottom of what happened. But she is right to reference the fact that these organisations are operationally independent. It would be quite wrong for a Minister or a Prime Minister to order an investigator into a particular building in a particular way. That is not a Rubicon we want to cross in this House. Let us empower the National Crime Agency, empower HMRC, give them the resources and let them get on with the job.

May I draw the Prime Minister’s attention to the tragic death of Ayeeshia Jane Smith in my constituency? Ayeeshia was 21 months old when she was stamped on by her mother so violently that it punctured her heart. The pathologist said her body resembled a “car crash victim”. Yet Ayeeshia had been known to social services since the day she was born. They knew about the violent boyfriends; they knew about the domestic violence; they saw the doors kicked in; they smelt the cannabis; they saw the bruises; they saw the cuts; they saw the fingerprints on her little thighs—and they did nothing.

The Prime Minister will understand that people in Burton want to know how this could have happened. They are concerned to know that the serious case review has on its panel people who are directly involved in the organisations being investigated. Will the Prime Minister look at what we can do to make this and other serious case reviews more independent, so that we can make sure that no other child suffers the life and the death of Ayeeshia Jane Smith?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. In the work that we all do, we get to hear about some hideous and horrific incidents, but for anyone watching television that night, and seeing the description of what happened to Ayeeshia, it simply took your breath away that people could behave in such a despicable and disgusting way towards their own children. In my view, no punishment in the world fits that sort of crime carried out by the child’s own parent. As my hon. Friend said, there will be a serious case review. I will look carefully at his suggestions, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of Education will do so as well. There are criticisms of the way in which these cases are conducted, but in this case, to start with, we must get on with the serious case review because we have got to get to the bottom of what went wrong.

Q9. There are currently more than 7,000 people in the UK who need an organ transplant, including 139 children, and many will die because of the shortage of available organs. The Welsh Labour Government have already introduced groundbreaking legislation for opt-out organ donation in Wales. Will the Prime Minister join me in supporting the “change the law for life” campaign for opt-out organ donation throughout the UK? (904333)

I am always happy to look at this again. I have looked at it before and have not come out in favour of opting out. We debated the matter in the last Parliament and made quite a lot of moves towards making opt in much easier. We found that different hospitals and different areas of the country had very different records for how well they do. My personal position is that we should support and continue to drive opt in, but the House of Commons can vote on this issue from time to time, and on whether it wants to go down the Welsh track rather than the track we are on. Personally, I think let us make opt in work better.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that our colleague Lord Bates has just started a 2,000 mile walk from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, arriving in time for the Olympics to raise awareness for the Olympic Truce and money for refugee children. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Lord Bates well on this epic journey, and also commit the Government to upholding the values and principles of the Olympic Truce?

I have already written to Michael Bates to wish him well on this long walk and to support the work that he has done over many years for the Olympic Truce. He leaves me a bit of a hole in the House of Lords, where he has been doing fantastic work for the Home Office on security issues, so we wish him a good walk and a speedy return.

Q12. At Ealing hospital, the technically junior, though highly experienced doctors I met last week are dismayed that the Government’s equality assessment of their new contract finds that it discriminates against women—more than half of them. As the Prime Minister is a self-confessed feminist, leading a progressive Government—[Interruption.] So he says. Will he reverse this blatant injustice, which has no place in 2016? (904336)

I am grateful for the question and backhanded compliment. The contract is actually very pro-women because it involves a 13% basic pay rise, restricts the currently horrendous and unsafe hours that some junior doctors work, and gives greater guarantees about levels of pay and the amount of money that doctors will get. I think that as people start to work on it and with it, they will see that it is very pro-women.

Over 200,000 economic migrants came from the European Union in the period for which we have figures. Yet the propaganda sheet sent out to the British people claims that we maintain control of our borders. Have we withdrawn from the free movement of people, or is that sheet simply untrue?

The truth is this: economic migrants who come to the European Union do not have the right to come to the UK. They are not European nationals. They are nationals of Pakistan, or Morocco, or Turkey. None of those people has that right. That is very important—and frankly that is why it is important that we send information to households: so that they can see the truth about what is proposed. What my hon. Friend has just put forward is a classic scare story. Britain has borders. Britain will keep its borders. We have got the best of both worlds.

Q13. Stirling University in my constituency is Scotland’s university for sporting excellence. Elite sports have been rocked over recent months by an international doping scandal, which threatens to see entire countries thrown out of and banned from major sporting competitions. Does the Prime Minister agree that, in this Olympic year, the World Anti-Doping Agency needs further support, and will he tell me what further action can be taken? (904337)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. The World Anti-Doping Agency has made a lot of advances in recent years. The issue is relevant to our anti-corruption summit on 12 May, when we will look at corruption in sport and bring forward new codes of practice that we will adopt in this country and hope others will also adopt. There is also the question of whether doping should be made a specific criminal offence; that is something that we should look at and debate in this House.

What progress has been made in implementing Sir Bruce Keogh’s 10 clinical standards, published in December 2013, which are absolutely essential for rolling out the seven-day NHS?

Perhaps I can write specifically to my hon. Friend on the clinical standards. What is good is that Bruce Keogh and others within the NHS support the vision of a seven-day NHS. We should of course pay tribute to all the doctors and nurses who work at weekends already—that is a very important point—but we are trying to move towards an NHS in which the individual has access to their family doctor seven days a week and hospitals work more on a seven-day basis, which will save lives and improve care. I will write to my hon. Friend about the specific detail.

Q14. Parent governors play a key role in local schools, supporting their children’s education and performing an important civic duty. Is the Prime Minister aware of the sadness and anger that have resulted from the forced academies announcement because the duty for each school to have parent governors will be removed, and will he urgently review this attack on parents? (904338)

I am absolutely delighted that the hon. Lady asked that question, as I know we will be debating the issue later today. Let me be clear: we support parent governors and think that they have a great role to play, but no school should think that simply by having parent governors it has solved the problem of how to engage with parents. Let me say to her that there is something in the Labour motion for today’s debate that is actually inaccurate and should be withdrawn. It says that the White Paper

“proposes the removal of parent governors from school governing bodies”.

It does no such thing. As well as not getting his tax return in on time, the Leader of the Opposition is bringing forward motions to this House that are simply wrong.