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Commons Chamber

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 14 April 2016

House of Commons

Thursday 14 April 2016

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Rape and Serious Sexual Offences

The Crown Prosecution Service continues to improve its response to cases involving rape allegations and other forms of serious sexual offending. It has taken a number of steps to improve the conviction rate, which includes increasing the number of specialist staff within its dedicated rape and serious sexual offences unit and improved specialist training for prosecutors.

Despite claims that we have the highest ever number of convictions, conviction rates for rape, domestic abuse and other sexual abuses have fallen in the past two years. How does the Minister intend to rectify that situation?

The hon. Gentleman rightly points to the fact that the actual number of convictions continues to increase, which means justice for more and more victims. It is right that the Crown Prosecution Service brings cases to juries, and, of course, it is a matter for juries to determine whether a suspect is guilty. Increased funding for the rape and serious sexual offences units means an improved early engagement with the police so that the experience of victims becomes a better one, and we have tried and tested evidence that the experience of victims is vital if we are to make improvements.

Part of improving the evidence of victims is surely through the increased use of live links, which we are already seeing, where victims do not physically have to come to the court building to give their evidence. The report published this week by the CPS inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary recognises that. It says that, in some areas, the scheme is doing very well, but, in others

“the courts and the CPS were not comfortable with live links even though the video technology was available.”

What more can be done to spread consistency in its uptake?

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight that important report. In places such as Kent, best practice is clearly being demonstrated. With regard to national training, which is happening now, we will see more and more use of live links from victims’ homes and other safe places to avoid the terrible ordeal in many cases of victims having to come to court to give evidence in the courtroom.

Providing effective and compassionate support for victims and survivors of sexual violence is pivotal to ensuring that more of these heinous crimes are reported in the first place, and, ultimately, that more offenders are brought to justice. Will the Minister tell me how the Government intend to improve victim and witness care within the criminal justice system?

The hon. Lady may already know that revised guidance to prosecutors and Crown Prosecution Service staff about victim and witness care in the courts is already being rolled out. There are also more staff in the court system to help and support witnesses and victims through the process. More work is being done and will be done to ensure that the objectives that she and I share are met.

Will the Solicitor General join me in welcoming the recent violence against women and girls statistics, which show that more cases than ever before are being charged, prosecuted and convicted?

I certainly welcome those statistics. Importantly, they make the point that, when it comes to people’s lives, more and more individuals are finding that their cases are being heard and that justice is being done on the perpetrators of these appalling offences.

What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly about the possibility of extending Clare’s law to the Province, particularly in the light of the revelation from Women’s Aid that six murders in Northern Ireland had links with domestic abuse?

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises the important innovation of Clare’s law, which was introduced in the last Government. I was a key supporter of that legislation. I would be happy to have discussions with colleagues in Northern Ireland. However, it is a matter that, quite properly, has been devolved, but if it would help, I will of course hold those discussions.

European Arrest Warrant

2. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the use of the European arrest warrant as a prosecutorial tool of the UK leaving the EU. (904462)

5. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the use of the European arrest warrant as a prosecutorial tool of the UK leaving the EU. (904465)

The European arrest warrant makes it easier to extradite foreign suspects to where they are wanted for crimes and to bring suspects back to the UK to face justice for crimes committed here. It is the quickest and most economical way to do these things, and other member states would not be bound to co-operate with us in the same way if we left the EU.

The first piece of European legislation that I sat on in a delegated legislation Committee was a regulation that enabled us to track paedophiles more easily across different European countries. Why anybody would wish to end that kind of co-operation between European countries is beyond me. Does the Attorney General agree that the Brexit campaign is soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime?

I have great respect for those who argue for a British exit from the European Union, but I am afraid that I believe they are wrong on this. For the reasons the hon. Gentleman has given, there is considerable advantage to Britain and to British citizens in being part of the European arrest warrant.

Just to be clear, does the Attorney General think that if we were no longer part of the European arrest warrant, criminals from the continent would see Britain as a safe haven because of the extradition arrangements and the concern that they would not be taken back quickly?

There is no doubt that the quickest and easiest way of deporting criminals who face prosecutions in other European nations is, as I said, to use the European arrest warrant. Of course, those who argue for exit from the European Union would have to explain what alternative measures they would put in place to achieve the same objective. I am in no doubt that, as I say, the quickest and easiest way to do that is through the European arrest warrant, and any delay in that process will have very serious consequences.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend’s position take account of the European Court of Justice ruling on 5 April, which effectively drives a coach and horses through the whole of the arrest warrant procedure because it makes it clear that the European Court of Justice is in charge of whether or not a European arrest warrant can be applied for?

I do not think that it is quite as bad as my hon. Friend suggests. In fact, what the European Court of Justice said in that case is broadly consistent with what our own Extradition Act 2003 says. He will know, of course, that in respect of the countries mentioned in that judgment, we already succeed in extraditing people to them. One of them is Romania, and my hon. Friend might like to know that 268 people have been extradited to Romania since 2010.

In the Witney Gazette, the Prime Minister was quoted as saying about the European arrest warrant:

“Some other countries in Europe do not have our rights and safeguards. People can languish in jail for weeks without even being charged. I am not sure that the British people realise what is being done in their name. Are we really happy that with one telephone call from the Greek, Spanish or German authorities alleging that we did something wrong on holiday, we can be swept off to a continental prison? Rights and safeguards that we have enjoyed for centuries are being stripped away.”

Does the Attorney General agree with the Prime Minister?

I do not know when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote that. As my hon. Friend may recall, the Prime Minister and other members of the Government successfully negotiated changes to the European arrest warrant precisely to deal with the problems that my hon. Friend has just outlined. Now, UK citizens cannot be extradited unless the case is trial ready, and not unless the conduct in question would be a crime here and not unless it is proportionate to do so.

CPS: International Co-operation

3. What steps the CPS is taking to work more efficiently with international partners to reduce the threat of serious crime in the UK and abroad. (904463)

CPS prosecutors work closely with law enforcement agencies to give investigative advice and to prosecute serious crime. They draw upon international co-operation agreements wherever necessary to secure evidence and to agree how and where cases that cover various jurisdictions should be pursued.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer, but what are the Government doing to ensure that IRA terrorists are being brought back to the UK to face justice here?

I assure my hon. Friend that cases involving IRA suspects will be considered in just the same way as any other case. The special crime and counter-terrorism division of the CPS deals with cases of alleged terrorism. If a suspect is out of the jurisdiction, extradition will be considered if the prosecution evidential co-test is met.

I hope that the Solicitor General has seen that yet another accused criminal has fled to Pakistan this week. Is it not a fact that we need greater European co-operation because we have no extradition treaty with Pakistan? Where a serious crime has been committed, the perpetrator too often flees to Pakistan—and however heinous the crime, we cannot bring them back.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I mentioned multi-jurisdictional cases. Sometimes these perpetrators will cover more than one EU country and it is vital to have the mechanisms not just of co-operation, but of enforcement, which our membership of the EU guarantees. That is why I am a very strong supporter of remaining within the European Union.

EU Withdrawal: Changes to UK Legal Framework

Under article 50 of the treaty on the European Union, if the United Kingdom were to decide to leave the EU, it would need to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the remaining member states, setting out the arrangements for withdrawal. The EU treaties would continue to apply to the UK until the article 50 agreement entered into force or for two years if no agreement were reached and no extension to that period were granted. Any further changes to the UK’s legal obligations would of course depend on the nature of any further international agreements entered into.

Newcastle has a thriving legal services sector with many internationally renowned firms as well as two excellent degree courses at our universities. Does the Attorney General agree that leaving the European Union would mean that we would face years of uncertainty and confusion over our legal framework, which would necessarily undermine the success of our legal and financial services sectors?

First, I should say that I have boundless faith in the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of our legal professions, and I am sure that they would find a way through. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that there would be considerable uncertainty after any departure from the European Union, at least in part because there is a regulatory structure in this country that substantially depends on European regulation. We would have to decide how much of that to keep and how much we wished to change. She might also know that Professor Derek Wyatt, one of the leading experts on European law, recently gave evidence to the House of Lords European Union Committee. He said that

“it will take years for Government and Parliament to examine the corpus of EU law and decide what to jettison and what to keep”.

That is one of the reasons the Government believe that we are better off remaining within the EU.

Given my right hon. and learned Friend’s immense legal brain and huge legal capabilities, will he confirm to the House that he would want to remain as Attorney General should this country vote to leave the European Union so that he personally would be best placed to negotiate a super-duper British exit agreement in double-quick time?

I have nowhere near my hon. Friend’s faith in my abilities, but I do think that it remains in Britain’s best interests to stay within the European Union. However, if the British people decide that we should leave, the British Government will continue to do their best for the British public.

I hope that the Attorney General of all people will not underestimate the scope of his scholarly cranium, because the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) clearly does not do so.

A condition of our membership of the European Union is that we are also a signatory to the European convention on human rights. Can the Attorney General confirm that this Government are committed to remaining a signatory to the convention and not to join Belarus, the only European country that is not a signatory?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s first statement is entirely correct, but the Government’s intention is nevertheless clear: we are not seeking to leave the convention but we are seeking to construct a better and more sensible arrangement on human rights law in this country. We do not think that the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Human Rights is always sensible, and we wish to see a good deal more common sense being brought into human rights law. I regret that that opinion is not shared by Her Majesty’s Opposition.

I appreciate that the Attorney General’s hands are tied somewhat, in that nobody in the Vote Leave campaign has been clear about what we would be leaving to, but surely his officials will have made some assessment of the amount of legislative time that would be taken up by this Parliament trying to unpick 43 years of our involvement in European laws, rules and regulations.

I have just quoted the remarks of Professor Wyatt when he gave evidence in the other place. There is no doubt that considerable time and effort would be required in those circumstances. Of course it is difficult to be specific, because it would rather depend on what alternative arrangements were sought, post-departure from the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is right to say the onus is on those who wish to leave to explain what the world would be like if we did so.

This is very simple to explain. What it would mean is that this Parliament and our courts would take back control of our human rights legislation. It is a simple matter. Does the Attorney General agree?

The human rights laws within European law are extremely limited. The charter of fundamental rights within the European Union law canon does not create new rights and, as my hon. Friend knows, the European convention on human rights is a separate institution. He is wrong to suggest that this would be simple in any way; it would be extraordinarily complicated and take a very long time.

Internet Trolling and Online Abuse

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse. (904467)

7. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service has taken to increase prosecution rates for internet trolling and other forms of online abuse on social media; and if he will make a statement. (904468)

The Crown Prosecution Service recently revised its publicly available social media guidelines. They are subject to a current consultation, which will result in the publication of finalised guidelines on serious offences later in the year.

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the effect of online abuse on mental health can be damaging, particularly among young people? Will he urge the social media sector to engage with the CPS and other agencies to root out poor behaviour and signpost the support that is available to victims in law?

Online abuse can sometimes be worse than face-to-face abuse, because it is all-pervading and does not end at the school gates or allow for privacy at home. The Director of Public Prosecutions has met several social media providers, and the CPS will continue to work with them on measures to improve the reporting and prosecution of such abuse.

Even I have been trolled on Twitter. I do not know whether it was Momentum or someone else, but people have doubted the provenance of my hair. Can you believe that?

However, a friend of mine has a young son of 16 who has also been trolled on Twitter. He did not take it as lightly as I do and the poor boy has harmed himself, which is a serious matter. I was interested to hear the Solicitor General’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), but what steps can we take to deter young people from bullying other young people on Twitter, Facebook and other social media?

I am naturally reticent to trespass upon the bailiwick of my hon. Friend’s hair, so I will confine my remarks to the serious issue he raised about the mental health impacts on young people. Work is being done on training so that CPS prosecutors can enable victims and users to report abuse and, in particular, to ensure that offending content can be removed by providers.

What action is being taken in schools in conjunction with the Department for Education to try to curtail the amount of online abuse aimed at young people?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a massive amount of work is being done by not only the Department for Education, but the third sector on cyber-bullying and its effects on young people. The combined approach that is being taken in schools the length and breadth of the country is not only alerting young people to the dangers, but empowering them to make complaints, so that they do not have to suffer in silence.

EU Withdrawal: Effects on Human Rights

Through the European Union, the UK amplifies its work to promote and protect democracy around the world, increasing the UK’s influence on a range of issues. When 28 member states speak out against the most serious violations of human rights, that can help to set the agenda at the UN and other international organisations. That is a valuable way in which the UK can promote its values.

The EU charter reflects wider international standards and obligations that the UK has a history of championing. By moving away from it, we risk undermining human rights and respect for international law. What advice does the Attorney General have about the weakening of legal human rights safeguards that could follow?

If the hon. Lady is referring to the European Union charter of fundamental rights, it does not create new rights for British citizens, as made clear in protocol 30 of the Lisbon treaty, so there would be no significant consequence of departure in that way. However, there is a considerable advantage to the UK in communicating its views and aspirations on human rights protection not just in this country, but abroad, if we were no longer able to act through the medium of the European Union, as we do through other international organisations.

The Secretary of State for Justice recently told the Select Committee on Justice that, as far he was concerned, the framework of human rights across the UK was a reserved matter. Given that the Attorney General advises the Government on legal issues, will he explain why the Government’s view is that the human rights framework is reserved when it is not included in the exhaustive list of reservations in schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the Government’s view and mine that any change to the Human Rights Act 1998 as a piece of legislation is not a devolved matter—it is a reserved matter. That is the issue on which my right hon. Friend will shortly be bringing forward proposals.

The shadow Attorney General, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), cannot be with us today because he is busy changing nappies. May we congratulate him on the birth of his first baby, a beautiful daughter, Stella-Mae? We wish him and his partner, Leanne, all the best.

Does the Attorney General agree that if the UK left the EU, it would not only be human rights in Scotland that would be affected? Surely there would be a question over the whole devolution process in Wales and Northern Ireland. We should not forget that the agreement that gave us the institutions in Northern Ireland took membership of the EU as a given, and if the UK left the EU, it would lead to unwelcome uncertainties.

May I begin by adding to the hon. Lady’s congratulations to the shadow Attorney General on the new arrival in his household? We wish them all well. May I also congratulate her on taking on her new, temporary, but none the less important, responsibilities at the Dispatch Box? On her question, she knows, because she has heard me say it many times before, that I take the view that the protection of human rights in this country can perfectly adequately be undertaken by the British Government and by British courts. However, there is no doubt that were we to leave the European Union, a range of complexities would follow, not all of which we have discussed. There is no doubt in my mind that because of those additional complexities and because, on balance, I think there is huge advantage to Britain in remaining in the EU, that is the right decision for us to take.

Prosecutions for Offshore Tax Evasion

All tax evasion prosecutions are conducted under domestic tax law and no distinction is made in central records between offshore tax evasion cases and other tax prosecutions, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the total number of convictions since 2010 for tax offences is 2,647.

I am grateful for that answer, but the Attorney General will now know, through the revelations in the Panama papers, that industrial-scale money is going offshore. What role will his Department be playing in advising the Prime Minister’s taskforce on that tax evasion? Does the Attorney General expect any illegality to come out in that review? If so, what resources does he have to ensure that prosecutions take place?

As the right hon. Gentleman may know, the Serious Fraud Office, an agency that I superintend, is contributing to that taskforce, and £10 million of new money is available to support the work of the taskforce. As he would expect me to say, the question of who, if anyone, gets prosecuted as a result of that work is not for politicians, but for independent prosecutors, to determine. I am confident that the Crown Prosecution Service and the SFO have the resources they need to pursue this. As he will also know, the Government are providing additional tools by which that can be done, including the creation of new offences, both for individuals and for corporate entities that fail to take the necessary action to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion.

Tax evasion is not a victimless crime, and tax avoidance also has consequences. Both take money out of our hard-pressed public services and away from the people who work in them. This money could be used to fund more police, hospitals, schools and other local services, all of which have had severe cuts under this Government. There is a growing tax gap, and there have been a very limited number of prosecutions. How can the public therefore be confident that the Government are doing everything they can to crack down on overseas tax evaders, given the performance to date?

I do not accept that the performance to date has been ineffective. As I have explained, there have been successful prosecutions of those who evade tax. As the hon. Lady will know, it is not simply criminal prosecution that exists in order to take action against those who avoid or evade tax; civil penalties are also available to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and they bring in a substantial amount of money as a result of the actions that that agency takes. She is right about there always being more to do, which is why I highlighted two particular measures in the field of enforcement and criminal prosecutions that this Government are taking, and I look forward to the Labour party’s support for them.

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

New Junior Doctor Contract

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the effect on gender equality of the proposed new junior doctor contract. (904441)

16. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the effect of the proposed new junior doctor contract on women in that profession. (904458)

The Secretary of State fully understands his obligations under the Equality Act 2010 and his public sector equality duty. He is aware that he must pay due regard to each of the statutory equality objectives, which cover all of the protected characteristics, not just those that affect women. The new contract is a huge step forward for achieving fairness for all trainee doctors. For the first time, junior doctors will be paid and rewarded solely on the basis of their hard work and achievement, whether they work full or part time. Pay progression will be linked to the level of training rather than arbitrarily to time served. On 31 March, we published the equality analysis and family test alongside the new national contract.

By next year the majority of doctors working in our NHS will be women, yet the Government have freely admitted in their own equality impact assessment of the new junior doctor contract that aspects of it will disproportionately hit female doctors, so how can the women and equalities department possibly condone this shocking treatment by the Government?

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House. I know that she will want to read the full equality impact assessment over the weekend, and she will find if she does so that it makes it clear that this contract is good for women, that it is a fairer contract and that it does not directly or indirectly discriminate against women. That is why I am very keen to see it implemented as fast as possible.

What estimate has been made of the expected drop in the number of women doctors five years after the contract has been imposed, and how will the skills gap be filled?

We anticipate that this contract is better for women in a series of different ways and we expect women to be able to engage more easily with the workforce than they have under the previous contract. We believe that it is better for working mothers and better for women who are taking time out for maternity leave. For those reasons, we hope that it will reinforce the continued progression of women in the medical workforce, of which we are very proud in the Department of Health.

Can the Minister confirm that the new contract will mean that those who work the most intense and unsocial hours will be better rewarded?

I can confirm that. It will also ensure that women will not be subjected to the enormously onerous hours enforced under the current contract, which make the balance between work and family life completely impossible.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that under the existing contract two doctors doing the same job with the same level of responsibility and the same hours can be paid differently, but that under the new contract the total number of hours that can be worked will be reduced from 91 to 72, and that that will be especially welcomed by female doctors?

I can confirm that and it shows once again my hon. Friend’s attention to the detail of the contract. It should be made clear to the House that the British Medical Association agreed almost all of the contract that we are now putting in place, including many of the aspects that the Opposition are now seeking to attack.

It surprised me to hear both the Minister today and the Prime Minister, during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, claiming that the contract is good for women, when the equality impact assessment provided by the Minister’s own officials specifically says that it will have a disproportionate impact on women—an equality impact assessment that the Minister will not be at all surprised to hear that I have read in detail. How can it be right to introduce a contract, announce its imposition in Parliament in February and then only sneak out the equality impact assessment six weeks later during recess? Will he and his colleagues get back to the negotiating table and negotiate a contract that is good for patients and good for all junior doctors?

The hon. Lady is an expert in the history of equality impact assessments and the Equality Act 2010, and she understands it well. I must reassure her that through the entirety of the process the Secretary of State has been mindful of his duties under the Act, but not just for form. He is very keen to ensure that this contract is good for women, which is why at every single stage, both in negotiations with the BMA and in internal discussions, he has been mindful of his duties while trying to ensure that the contract is an improvement on the existing one. To be frank, we cannot return to negotiations with a party that does not wish to talk, and I urge the hon. Lady to get her colleagues to condemn the completely unnecessary action taken by the BMA, which put patients in danger.

State Pension Age

2. What steps the Government are taking to address the effect of the increase in the state pension age on women. (904442)

6. What steps the Government are taking to address the effect of the increase in the state pension age on women. (904447)

All women affected by faster equalisation reach state pension age under the new state pension system, which is more generous to many women than the previous system. In the first 10 years, around 650,000 will receive £8 per week more on average, due to the new state pension valuation.

Is the Minister aware of the recent Dutch case of a woman who was affected by changes to her retirement age, with more notice than many women in the UK have received? In that case it was found that the woman’s human rights had been breached. Does the Minister think women in this country have had their human rights breached by the action that his Government have taken?

Nobody denies that the state pension age needed to be reformed, but it is the transitional arrangements that the Government have or have not put in place that have caused so much consternation. I cannot help wondering whether a cynical calculation has been made that those women will have reached retirement age anyway by the next general election. May I ask a straightforward question? Do the Government genuinely believe that the transitional arrangements are fair—yes or no?

The transitional arrangements that were put in place in 2011 were debated in both Houses. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that initially it was proposed that the equalisation should be fast-tracked by two years. Following various debates and intensive negotiations, that was reduced to 18 months, at a cost to the Treasury of £1.1 billion. Transitional arrangements were made in 2011 and the Government have no plans to review them.

13. This is about women and equalities. We know that a woman born in early 1953 will already have retired; a woman born in early 1954 will not retire until the second half of 2019—two and a half years later. That cannot be right. In a spirit of fairness, will the Minister look at this again and give some solace to the women who have to wait an unbelievably long time to collect what is rightly and fairly theirs? (904454)

We need to accept that equalisation was necessary, first, because it was required by European Union directive and, secondly, because people are living longer. Women on the whole recognise that we need to equalise the state pension ages. We are not doing so as fast as some other countries, such as Germany and Denmark, which have already achieved what we are seeking to do.

Following the resignation of the previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Pensions Minister Baroness Altmann stated that he had

“often been obstructive to my efforts to resolve important pensions policy issues such as on women’s pensions.”

Now that the main impediment to change has been removed from Government, when can we expect an update on progress for the women of WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—who have been so unfairly treated for so long?

I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. As I said in my previous answer, the Government do not intend to review this matter because it was heavily debated and dealt with in 2011.

I thank the Minister for his response, but what is the purpose of the Department and, indeed, of the women and equalities ministerial role if they do not address the inequalities that exist? We have had four parliamentary debates on the issue, MPs have asked dozens of questions, 186,000 people have signed a petition and we voted in this House to agree that the policy is unfair, so after all that, why is the Minister still prepared to defend an indefensible position?

The hon. Lady was not in the House in 2011, but the issue, as I said, was heavily debated. A vote was taken after a Backbench Business Committee debate. As she knows only too well, a point of order was raised after that debate and the person sitting in the Chair at the time happened to be the first and former Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee. She made it abundantly clear that votes taken after debates tabled by the Backbench Business Committee are not binding on the Government.

Effects of 2016 Budget

10. What assessment she has made of the effect of measures in the 2016 Budget on different genders. (904451)

The 2016 Budget helped 790,000 women and 540,000 men by cutting their income tax to zero. It helped 7.4 million women and 5.6 million men with an increase in their state pension, thanks to the triple lock. It helped millions of men and women drivers by freezing their fuel duty. Finally, the national living wage gave an immediate pay rise to 900,000 women and 500,000 men this month.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but she might be aware that the Labour party has commissioned research which shows that, since 2010, 86% of the total amount of cash saved from benefit changes and tax savings has come from women, disproportionately. Since the autumn statement, that figure has increased by 5%. How much more do women have to take the brunt of this Government before action is taken?

We completely do not accept that analysis, which, by the way, has not been published. It appears to take into account the fact that the child benefit for higher rate women, such as myself, has been removed. Is the hon. Gentleman making the case that that child benefit should be returned to higher rate taxpayers? Also, that analysis has not even been published, but similar analysis assumes that extra Government borrowing can make everybody better off—that does sound like the Labour party.

The Government’s own figures show that since 2010 there has been a dramatic drop—more than 10,000—in the number of women taking equal pay cases to the tribunal, yet over the same period there has been a significant increase in the number of men doing so. Can the Minister explain those figures?

I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that the gender pay gap is narrowing so much. In fact, the steps that we have taken in the 2016 Budget, which will increase the pay of 900,000 women, mean that the gender pay gap for the lowest paid will have been eliminated by 2020.

Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor’s measures on small business rates will be hugely beneficial to business women across the country?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I also point out that we are making substantial progress on the number of businesses in this country owned and managed by women, which I believe will also lead to greater gender equality.

The Opposition welcome the Budget announcement about the removal of VAT on tampons, following the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff). However, given that the Chancellor has previously reassured me that the £15 million raised from this tax would be providing funds to domestic violence charities and women’s refuges, can the Minister clarify something for me? Did the Budget include a £15 million cut to women’s charities, and where is this Government’s long-term economic plan for women’s safety?

I can confirm that the £15 million announced in the Budget will be allocated to the charities that the Chancellor announced. We have also announced a further £80 million of support for those kinds of initiatives to tackle violence against women in our society.

Maternity Discrimination

I want to start by thanking the Equality and Human Rights Commission for the research it has led and for its report. The Government have accepted the great majority of its recommendations and will work with it, ACAS and employers to root out discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace.

I welcome the Minister’s answer. I am aware of a number of cases of new mothers in my constituency who have lost their jobs after giving birth or experienced some other form of discrimination at work. Will he set out a timescale for implementation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendations, and will he create an opportunity, through the usual channels, for a debate in the House on that work?

I am very happy to take up with the Leader of the House the possibility of having such a debate, because I would welcome it. The report made for depressing reading in some respects. Although it is welcome that 84% of employers think that it is important to support pregnant women and new mothers, it is frankly depressing that three in four mothers interviewed said that they had had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during their pregnancy. We need to achieve a wholesale change in culture. I will resist putting a timeframe on implementation of that change in culture, because ultimately that is something that Governments on their own cannot do. However, a debate on how we can all work together to achieve that would be very welcome.

Many women still face difficult decisions when it comes to having a baby, particularly women in high-powered careers in places such as London, where house prices are extremely high and working part time simply is not an option. What are the Government doing to encourage businesses to adopt a modern approach, allowing women the prospect of a balanced work and family life and flexible working hours, where possible?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but I know that he will welcome the introduction of the right to request flexible working and all the Government’s interventions to provide further childcare support for working women of all ages and all income levels. I believe that that will help women who want to be able to balance engagement in the workplace with bringing up young children.

LGBT Young People

8. What steps she is taking to ensure that support and advice is provided to LGBT young people. (904449)

We want every young person, regardless of their sexual orientation, to reach their full potential. That is why in March I announced a further £1 million fund to support schools to address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, in addition to the £2 million fund I announced in October 2014.

With Stonewall research showing that 55% of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experience bullying, I am pleased to hear that the Government are spending extra money, but what else will they be doing to ensure that those issues are covered in the curriculum as well?

The hon. Gentleman is right to mention the 55% figure. That is, of course, a drop from 65% in 2007, but we cannot in any way be complacent. In 2012, 96% of LGBT pupils reported hearing homophobic language in school. The PSHE Association published some excellent new guidance in October 2014 on diversity and relationships in its programme of study, as well as providing support to help teachers to tackle issues around bullying. Of course, having good personal, social, health and economics education and relationships advice, including material targeted at LGBT pupils and all their colleagues, is very important.

Albert Kennedy Trust research has identified that 24% of the homeless youth population are LGBT. That is a disturbing figure, and the Government are planning to cut housing benefit for people under the age of 21. Does the Secretary of State think that the situation is going to get worse or better for those young people?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we gave just over £48,000 to the Albert Kennedy Trust in 2014-15 to develop national online mentoring services. We have also protected homelessness prevention funding for local authorities, totalling £315 million by the end of this Parliament.

Trans young people experience unacceptable and unlawful discrimination. Three months ago, the Women and Equalities Committee published a groundbreaking report outlining more than 30 recommendations to improve the lives of trans people. When can we expect a response from the Government?

I had the pleasure last week of visiting the Young Transgender Centre of Excellence, which has just been opened by the LGBT Centre in Leicester, funded by BBC Children in Need. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention the groundbreaking report published by the Committee that she chairs. She also mentioned the 30 recommendations, which we are working through. I am sure that, like me, she wants us to make sure that when we respond, we do so in a full and open way. The report calls for significant changes to the law, complex changes to the NHS and changes to the policies and practices of more than a dozen public bodies, and I want to make sure that we get the response right.

This Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, have done great things for equality for LGBT people, particularly with regard to gay marriage, but there is one area of terrible inequality—at least one. A promiscuous straight man can have sex with different women every night, and yet that man can give blood. A gay guy can be in a monogamous relationship, and yet he is completely forbidden to donate blood unless he is prepared to certify that he has been celibate for 12 months. That is medical and scientific nonsense. It is also unfair. When will it change?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed this matter, and he knows that I have also discussed it several times with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), has also been listening to what my hon. Friend had to say.

We have lifted the lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have had sex with men. As my hon. Friend will know, the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs, which sets blood donation guidelines, has announced that it is reviewing the evidence and the policy. We expect to hear from it sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, LGBT mental health charity PACE was forced to close, citing cuts to its local authority budget as a major factor. Given that PACE had previously identified that more than a third of LGBT young people had made at least one suicide attempt, does the Minister share my concerns about the level of mental health support currently available for LGBT people?

Members on both sides of the House will know of my long-standing interest in mental health issues for all young people, and of the priority that we give it in the Department for Education, which flows through to the priority we give it in the Government Equalities Office. In the financial year that has just ended, we provided £4.9 million to 17 voluntary and civil society projects delivering support to children and young people with mental health issues, including almost a quarter of a million pounds £250,000 to Metro Centre to establish a mental health service for LGBT young people and to those working with them across London and Kent. We are obviously looking at what we can do in this financial year to make sure that services will continue to be funded. Again, I will work with my colleagues in the Department of Health to make sure that people of all ages with mental health issues get the support they need.

Order. You should start by just saying, “Question 11”. You can build up to your peroration ere long.

Gender Pay Gap

11. What steps her Department plans to take to encourage businesses with fewer than 250 employees to close the gender pay gap. (904452)

We are absolutely committed to eliminating the gender pay gap in a generation, which is why we are requiring larger employers to publish their gender pay gap, as well as their bonus gap. We will support all businesses to do that, regardless of their size, with a £500,000 package, which includes UK-wide conference events, online software and, of course, targeted support to some of the male-dominated sectors. We also have the Think, Act, Report initiative, which is available to businesses of any size.

Last July, the Prime Minister promised that companies with more than 250 employees would have to disclose their gender pay gap. This has already been pushed back by two months. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has found that only one in four firms has done any analysis of this. Does the Minister think that progress in this area is good enough, and what will be done about it?

Of course, this is more progress than we had under any previous Government, but this Government are not complacent. The gender pay gap is the lowest on record and has virtually been eliminated for women under the age of 40 working full time. However, we have brought forward the quite demanding regulation that larger employers will now have to publish both their gender pay gap and their bonus pay gap, and also why we have released a big package of support to enable to us to support them through that process.

Since the Government introduced tribunal fees, the number of equal pay claims has fallen dramatically. The Government talk the talk on equal pay, but why are they making it more difficult for women to challenge unfair pay claims?

We are reviewing this at the moment, but the hon. Gentleman must be aware that many more cases are going through ACAS—over 80,000 more cases went through ACAS last year. Surely he agrees it is actually much better to sort something out through mediation—in a friendly and consolidated way—so that people can go back to their workplace without stigma or any form of hostility.

Welfare Reform and Disabled People

12. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect on equality for disabled people of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. (904453)

The Government set out our assessment of the impact of the welfare policies in the Welfare Reform and Work Act on 20 July 2015. Spending on disabled people will be higher in real terms in every year to 2020 than in 2010.

A Lords Select Committee report published last month said that the Government had hurt disabled people disproportionately through inaction on the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, through spending cuts and cuts to legal aid, and through removing protections with their red tape challenge. Will the Government apologise for their lack of respect for disabled people and for the complete contempt in which they hold them?

If we look at the facts, we find that the Government are spending £50 billion every year on benefits alone to support people with disabilities or health conditions—that is more than 6% of Government spending. I think that answers the hon. Lady’s question very clearly.

Research by Unison indicates that no group will be more adversely affected by welfare reform than people with disabilities. We are at risk of regressing on issues of equality. When will the Government actively heed the voice of people with disabilities and reverse these damaging policies?

I remind the hon. Lady that this Government have done more for disabled people than any Government before us. [Hon. Members: “Rubbish!”] I have just outlined the amount of money that this Government are spending. Under this Government, there are more than 3.2 million disabled people in employment. Employment helps people to have more fulfilled lives. We do not give up on people, unlike the Opposition parties.

Employment Tribunal Fees

14. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the effect of the introduction of employment tribunal fees on access to justice for women who have experienced discrimination at work. (904456)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a post-implementation review of the introduction of fees in employment tribunals. That will consider, so far as is possible, the impact the fees have had on those with protected characteristics who use employment tribunals, as well as the types of case they bring.

The review has apparently been on the Minister’s desk since February, so I hope we get to hear the outcome soon. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, less than 1% of maternity discrimination claims now proceed to an employment tribunal. That means that 99 out of every 100 women who are discriminated against because of their pregnancy have no legal redress. Is he proud of that record or ashamed?

Pregnancy and maternity discrimination are unlawful and totally unacceptable. That is why the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission jointly funded independent research into the matter. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the review will take into account some of the findings of that research.

Public Appointments

15. What steps the Government are taking to increase the proportion of public appointments made to women. (904457)

Increasing diversity is essential to appointing the best people to our public boards. We are making real progress in increasing the number of women who are appointed. In 2014-15, 44% of new appointments were made to women, which is up from 39% in 2013-14. The steps that we have taken to increase diversity include streamlining the application process and increasing the awareness of opportunities through outreach and other events, a central website and the use of social media. We have introduced unconscious bias training for senior personnel in the Cabinet Office, including permanent secretaries and, indeed, senior Ministers.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply, which has pre-empted my supplementary. I wonder whether, in some cases, it is a lack of confidence that inhibits women in making an application for a public appointment. Could more be done to communicate to women that their applications are encouraged and will be successful?

It is really important that we get the very best people into public appointments. Women will play a crucial role in that. We recently received a report from Sir Gerry Grimstone that was commissioned to make appointment processes much more efficient, effective and streamlined. We have hit the highest figures ever recorded for women in public appointments, but we have not done enough. We want to go much further and to hit the 50% target we have set ourselves.

Gender Pay Gap

17. What steps she is taking to tackle the causes of the gender pay gap (a) in general and (b) in STEM careers. (904460)

Closing the gender pay gap is good for women and, of course, for employers and our economy. That is why we are requiring large employers to publish their pay gap data. Occupational segregation is one of the main causes of the pay gap, which is why we have announced the ambition of a 20% increase in girls taking A-level maths and science by 2020.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A continuing cause of the pay gap is the lower incidence of women studying science and engineering at university. Does she agree that closing the STEM gap is a prerequisite for closing the pay gap?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics carry a significant wage premium. Although women make up 50% of STEM undergraduates, that simply does not translate into the workplace. That is why we have set up a new careers and enterprise company to bring schools and businesses together to inspire and inform young people. We have also published guidance called “Your Daughter’s Future” to help parents to guide their daughters in subject and career choices.

The Women and Equalities Committee’s report on the gender pay gap showed strong and compelling evidence that increasing the availability of well-paid flexible work would make a significant difference in reducing the pay gap. What will the Government do to make flexible working easy and to encourage employers to offer it from the date of employment rather than having to wait for six months?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is why this Government have done more than any before to extend the right to flexible working to all employees. We will continue to work with businesses to encourage them to get the very best out of every single one of their staff.

The private sector has made great progress in gender equality in recent years, but there is still a big problem. Research by Simon Fanshawe has proved that there are more men called Andrew, David and John in senior positions in FTSE 100 companies than there are women. What more can the Government do to incentivise good practice and better gender equality in the FTSE 100? [Interruption.]

Yes, more Carolines. The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) is absolutely right, which is why the Government have done more than ever before to encourage FTSE 100 companies to address that issue. There are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. The next stage is to look at the executive pipeline and to make sure that we are encouraging women at every stage, so that we have more women on boards than ever before.

Business of the House

If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will first say that the shadow Leader of the House, myself and the Scottish National party spokesman all have something in common this morning. We should feel slightly anxious after the march of the deputies at business questions just before the recess. I congratulate all three of them on doing a star turn. [Interruption.] There will be another opportunity shortly, as well.

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 18 April—Debate on a motion on the introduction of the national living wage and related changes to employee contracts, followed by debate on a motion on educational attainment in Yorkshire and the Humber. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 19 April—Remaining stages of the Bank of England and Financial Services Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 20 April—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a motion on recognition of genocide by Daesh against Yazidis, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities. Debate on a motion on record copies of Acts. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Thursday 21 April—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will propose an humble address, to mark the occasion of Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday; I am sure the whole House will participate.

Friday 22 April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 April will include:

Monday 25 April—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by debate on a motion on education funding in London. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 26 April—Remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 27 April—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 28 April—Debate on a motion on World Autism Awareness Week, followed by a debate on a motion on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ “Building our Future” plan. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 29 April—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 25 April will be:

Monday 25 April—Debate on an e-petition relating to the meningitis B vaccine.

I, too, congratulate my deputy, my absolutely wonderful and magnificent hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), and all her opposite numbers, on their impressive appearance at the last business question. I think that was the first time that all three Front Benchers at business questions were women, so in the words of Annie Lennox, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”. [Interruption.] I will come to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) in a moment.

I also wish my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and her fiancé Richard well for their wedding on Saturday. I note that not many Tories are in the Chamber today. I gather that is because there is an away day for the Conservative party, or perhaps two away days in different parts of the country. Apparently it is a dress-down event, and I have a horrible image in my mind of the hon. Member for Lichfield preparing his outfit; I will leave that there. [Interruption.] I have seen it before, yes, and it is not very pretty.

Mr Speaker, on 10 March I asked whether you could hear the slow ebbing down the beach of the authority of the Prime Minister, and boy wasn’t I right?

“When there is so much still to be done to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable, it is difficult to justify putting middle class tax cuts before the needs of the working poor, and the socially disadvantaged”.

That is not me; it is the Conservative hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Even Tories admit that the Prime Minister is now a busted flush, and we had a classic example of that yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions. I bet the Prime Minister thought that he was giving a helpful plug for the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. However, the author of the book, Mark Haddon, was absolutely horrified when he heard that, and he immediately tweeted his agreement with Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who wrote:

“David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”

There are 63 private Members’ Bills on today’s Order Paper, and two new ones were added this week. When their proposers, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), were asked, “Second Reading, what day?” by you, Mr Speaker, they replied “28 April”, even though they, you, I, and everyone else knows that we will not be sitting on that day or any other Friday this Session. Incidentally, why on earth do you say, “Second Reading, what day?” as if you are Yoda in “Star Wars”? Why can’t you just say it in proper English? Mind you, you do quite a good impersonation, especially when you call “Andrew Selooous”.

Yesterday there was an excellent debate on all these matters in Westminster Hall. Many hon. Members think that the current system of private Members’ Bill is a complete waste of time that frankly brings the House into disrepute. When the Procedure Committee produces its forthcoming report, will the Leader of the House make proper time for us to debate changes if that is what the House wants?

Will the Leader of the House do something about the small business Minister—I mean the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise—who has become terribly patronising of late? She called me “darling” on “Question Time” last week, and all I can say is that I have been patronised by much better women than her. I also have a terrible fear that she thinks she is becoming Maggie—Maggie Smith, that is, the dowager countess in “Downton Abbey”. She cackles away through debates so much that she almost makes me seem calm and reasonable.

On Tuesday, the Minister praised the role that the Community union has played in the steel crisis, which is absolutely right. However, she and her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are the very Ministers who are forcing the Trade Union Bill through Parliament, which is an utterly partisan piece of legislation that tries to cut the legs off trade unions and is being cut to ribbons in the House of Lords. Would she be far better off listening to Community, which says that the Bill is a bad piece of legislation that will severely damage the finely balanced relationships between trade unions and business?

May we have a debate—this cannot be an Opposition day debate, because the Leader of the House has not given us one—on boardroom pay? The chair of the remuneration committee at BP, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, is giving its chairman a 20% pay hike, taking his remuneration to £14 million in a year when the company has made its biggest ever losses and cut 25% of its workforce. What message does it send from the Government that Professor Dame Ann Dowling has been a non-executive board member of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills since 2014? Why do the Government not just have a great big sign printed and put up over the Department saying, “There is one rule for the rich and quite another for the rest of you”? In fact, why do they not just get 20 of them printed and put them over the Treasury, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and Downing Street? Fundamentally, that is the Government’s motto today, is it not?

Finally, may we have a debate on underachievement? Some people on the Conservative Benches seem to think that if you are not a millionaire you are a failure, but let me tell them who really achieve something in life. It is the woman who gets up at 4 am to walk two miles to catch the bus to clean a hotel for 13 hours for the minimum wage. It is the widower who does two jobs to make sure he can put food on the table for his children. It is the middle-aged woman who gives up her job to care for her elderly dad. It is the teacher, the squaddie, the nurse or the dinner lady who goes way beyond the call of duty. Frankly, I would be proud to sit in a House full of people like that, rather than have to face that bunch of real deadbeats over there: a Health Secretary who has completely alienated the whole of the NHS; a Business Secretary who does not know where Mumbai is; and a Chancellor who produces a Budget so unfair that it even made the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) cry.

May I first thank all those who were involved in organising the security stand in Portcullis House yesterday? I hope Members on all sides of the House will take advantage of the package and the equipment on display. I am very pleased to have learned that they ran out of equipment, such was the degree of interest. I am grateful to all those involved.

The shadow Leader of the House started by talking about poverty. Let me just remind him that under this Government child poverty and inequality are falling, and that the proportion of tax paid by the wealthiest in our society is rising. I will take no lessons from the Labour party after its shambolic decade in government left 2.5 million people unemployed and communities struggling with a failing economy. We have turned it around in a way that they could have never done.

The hon. Gentleman raised the Procedure Committee’s report on private Members’ Bills. It is, of course, open to any Select Committee to bring a matter to this House. I am very responsive to the thought that we should have a detailed discussion about the Committee’s recommendations. We should always look at ways to improve the system.

I was a little surprised to hear a “Star Wars” joke from the Jar Jar Binks of the Labour party, and I have to say it was a little unfair. I have always regarded you as a man of greater stature than Yoda, Mr Speaker, and I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House would even make that comparison.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the Trade Union Bill is to stop trade unions holding the public to ransom. We see time and again relatively small groups of workers bringing our transport system to a halt and doing damage to far more workers. That is why we are the party of the workers: we represent the millions travelling to work, not a tiny minority of trade unionists who want to cause trouble for our country.

On boardroom pay, it is of course a matter for private companies and their shareholders what they pay their directors, but I would never condone inappropriately large pay rises. I hope all those involved in scrutinising businesses and attending annual general meetings of shareholders will always look very carefully to ensure the message that boardroom pay sends out is consistent with a well-managed company and a motivated workforce.

I am very happy to have a debate on underachievement. Actually, we have one every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, because the biggest underachiever in this House is the Leader of the Opposition.

I, too, will be joining the Conservative party away day this afternoon. The truth is that Labour would really struggle to hold an away day, such are the divisions in that party and the desire to remove its leader. It is extraordinary to see a once-proud party scrabbling to try to find an identity for itself, and to see Labour Members sitting stony faced behind their leader, who underachieves week after week after week—[Interruption.]

Finally, something that I think will unite all in the House except Tottenham Hotspur supporters: I would like to wish Leicester City good luck for their final games of the premier league season. It would be an extraordinary achievement for 2,500:1 outsiders to end up winning. Talking of rank outsiders, I have been trying to put a few quid on another one: I asked the bookies if they would let me place a bet on the shadow Leader of the House winning the battle, in due course, to succeed you, Mr Speaker, but they thought the idea so bizarre that they would not even take my money.

The European referendum campaign has kicked off with a controversy about Government leaflets, and now the local election campaign in Southend is also mired in controversy. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on local authorities’ conduct during local election campaigns, because it is claimed that mine, which consists of seven individual groupings, is sending out blatant party political electioneering letters about an energy company, and is printing articles in magazines without the appropriate election imprint?

There are clear rules on how local authorities and others should conduct themselves in referendum and election campaigns. In a local authority, it is for the chief executive to ensure that those rules are followed, and there are appropriate authorities to complain to if that does not happen. I hope my hon. Friend will do that. As regards the national leaflet from the Government, suffice it to say it contains a fine picture of Felixstowe.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and I pay tribute to our efficient, effective and excellent deputies for the business questions we were unable to make a couple of Thursdays ago, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), who was the undoubted star of the show.

On the question of odds, I am interested in the challenge put to the shadow Leader of the House. I tried to place a bet in Scotland on who would succeed in the race to be the next First Minister, and the odds are better for him than the actual Conservative candidate, Ruth Davidson.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) mentioned the number of benefits investigators working in the Department for Work and Pensions as against the number working in the affluent unit in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. After appearing just a tad bemused and embarrassed, the Prime Minister seemed to doubt the robustness of the figures, and said he would have them checked out. My right hon. Friend might have got the figures a bit wrong, because it is reported in The Guardian this morning that the 3,200 figure he quoted—the number of benefits investigators in the DWP—has swollen to 3,700. That compares with 320 working in the affluent unit. May we have a debate about these numbers? If the Prime Minister is still minded to challenge them, he could come to that debate himself and tell us what the figures actually are.

The Prime Minister has consistently and repeatedly refused to come before the Liaison Committee to answer questions about the EU referendum. It is an absolute and utter disgrace. He has a responsibility and obligation to come before the Committee Chairs to answer these questions. I do not know what is causing this anxiety and nervousness, but I am pretty certain that with a gentle approach from the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister might just be encouraged to fulfil his responsibilities and have a quiet, friendly chat with the Liaison Committee.

We were promised several statements on the military action in Syria, but we have not had any at all. I perhaps know why: there is nothing to report. There have been no military operations since the beginning of March, and the fabled Brimstone system was last used on 18 February. We are supposedly engaged in Syria in supporting opposition forces fighting Daesh on the ground, but there is little evidence that that has been happening, so can we secure these promised statements, even if they are just the Defence Secretary telling us that nothing much is happening?

Lastly, Nessie has been found, but I am sorry to disappoint the House: it is not the fabled monster of lore but a hollowed-out old wreck that has been stuck in the deep for decades.

I could not possibly comment or add to that, but the fact that the chaotic Labour party is overtaking the Conservatives in an opinion poll is perhaps a testament to this Conservative Government.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have absolutely no expectation or desire to be the next First Minister of Scotland. Equally, however, I am convinced that the Conservative leader in Scotland would indeed be an excellent First Minister, and it is clear that, whatever the outcome of the Scottish elections, the Scottish people think that she would be a better First Minister than the current Labour leader in Scotland. I suspect that is something on which we could agree.

There are thousands and thousands of people in HMRC whose job, day in, day out, and week in, week out, is to ensure that the right amount of tax is paid by people in this country and elsewhere, and to secure that amount. This Government’s record is far better than those of their predecessors when it comes to securing the repayment of tax from overseas centres, and tightening the rules and closing loopholes—things that were never done when the Labour party was in power during the last decade.

I know that discussions are taking place between the Chair of the Liaison Committee and No. 10. Dates have already been provided, and dates are promised for the future. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will continue to give evidence to the Committee in a proper way.

The last statement from the International Development Secretary on Syria was made in February, and I expect there to be a statement from the Ministry of Defence in the near future to update the House on defence matters there, as is right and proper. Back in March, the House was able to question the Foreign Secretary on what remain very important issues. I think all of us in this country hope that the ceasefire in Syria—which has not been completely kept, but which has at least taken things forward a step—will continue.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nessie and the Labour party, but what he said also highlights the fact that exciting developments in Scotland are sometimes fakes.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for a debate on the important issue of whether we should continue to use vellum to record Acts of Parliament, thereby asserting the right of the House of Commons to decide such matters. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although a Cabinet Office Minister will respond to the debate, this none the less remains House business, subject to a free vote—at least for the Conservative party—and offers us an opportunity to say to the House of Lords that we in this House feel strongly about these matters and want our view known?

It is, of course, custom and practice for Ministers to be in the House, week in, week out, to respond to Back-Bench business debates, and a debate of this kind is no different. The debate in question is on the Order Paper, as I announced earlier, and the House will have an opportunity to discuss the issues shortly. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) will clearly wish to speak against the proposal, and I think that the shadow Leader of the House will wish to speak in favour of it.

If I may continue the “Star Wars” theme, it is grateful that I am, Mr Speaker.

Members will have noted from the business statement that Back-Bench debates will take place on four days in the next two weeks. I believe that there could well be two more weeks of business after that before the Queen’s Speech. We are still some way short of our 27 days, but we anticipate an amicable accommodation over the number of days allotted to Back-Bench business before Prorogation.

I know that we have just had questions to the Minister for Women and Equalities, but one thing occurred to me when it was too late to submit a question. The White Paper on education proposes the removal of the requirement for parents to be school governors. Parents will still be able to be governors, but as members of other categories. The removal of that requirement will have a disproportionate impact on women, particularly in primary schools, given the number of primary schools that are yet to convert to academy status. May we have a statement from the Minister for Women and Equalities about the implications of the White Paper for women and other minorities?

This subject was discussed in the House yesterday, and, as the hon. Gentleman says, we have just had Women and Equalities questions. Before any measures are formally introduced, the House will have further opportunities to debate them.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the subjects of future debates. As a Minister, I would not normally make a representation to the Backbench Business Committee, but if I may, I shall break that rule today. I think it would be a very good idea—there have been a number of requests for this over the weeks during business questions—for Members on both sides of the House to discuss the work being done by voluntary sector groups in their constituencies. I would venture to suggest to the Committee that providing such an opportunity in the next three or four weeks would constitute a very valuable response to those requests. Most of us have groups in our constituency that we value and to which we wish to pay tribute, and a day’s debate on the subject would, in my view, be enormously valuable.

According to polling by YouGov, 85% of the public believe that the Government’s recent EU leaflet was biased, and 58% disapprove of it completely. May we therefore have a statement from the Government, stating that no further such materials will be produced during the referendum campaign? Will they confirm that, following yesterday’s designation, the leave and remain campaigns will have parity on funding, spending power and media coverage?

The Government’s position is to support remaining in the European Union, and that was the context in which the leaflet was distributed. The leaflet has clearly provoked strong views around the country, in households where it has been discovered—in my household it was buried beneath the pizza leaflets. It will be fundamental over the coming weeks that both sides of the argument receive the appropriate support under the rules in the Acts that we debated and passed last year. I am sure that will happen and that the Government will ensure that it does. The broadcasters will also want to ensure proper balance between the two sides in the debate.

In the middle of all the work I have been doing on the steel industry and local transport, I received a phone call from a distraught couple who run a hedgehog rescue centre in my constituency. They are currently nursing back to health a hedgehog found in Sheffield the other week whose spines had been cut off with a pair of scissors. They expressed their frustration that the perpetrators of this wicked act are very unlikely to be brought to justice. May we have a debate on the need not only to extend and increase the population of hedgehogs, for which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has very often called, but to increase protection for these wonderful creatures?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I saw the shocking picture of that hedgehog. It beggars belief how low and unpleasant some people in our society can be—the act was utterly, utterly unacceptable. From time to time, we do find extraordinary examples of maltreatment of animals, and the law does allow for the prosecution of people who have committed such offences. I certainly hope that, if the perpetrators in this case are found, they will be prosecuted. That is a matter for the independent prosecution authorities, but I certainly urge them to take the issue very seriously. The Government will continue to look at ways of ensuring that we properly protect animals. I am sure that the hon. Lady will now join the campaign being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) to provide the protection that many tens of thousands of people clearly support.

May we have an early debate on the potential role of the House of Commons in providing information to the public in the EU referendum campaign? The public have given up any hope of getting objective information from the Government. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that to maintain trust in our institutions the House of Commons Library could have a role in producing information so that our constituents can see the facts on how much we pay to the European Union each week, the negative balance of trade with the European Union, the impossibility of delivering our manifesto commitments to reduce net migration, and so on? Could we not put that on a dedicated House of Commons site, which would be respected as being objective?

We all pay tribute to the work done by the House of Commons Library—an immensely valuable service that provides dispassionate analysis. It also publishes the work it produces, although it is for Members to ask for that work in the first place. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will seek that analysis so that it can be published and the public can judge for themselves the rights and wrongs of the case.

It has happened again: another young boy has been tragically stabbed to death in my constituency. Myron, a talented young rapper, was well loved by his family and friends. We had a Backbench Business Committee debate on the subject, and we were looking to set up a commission. The Deputy Leader of the House told me at the last business questions to go ahead and set up that commission. I will do that, but how do I access Government funds to ensure that it is successful, and how do we ensure that the Government respond to its recommendations?

I am shocked to hear what the hon. Lady has just told us. It is a tragedy every time we lose a young person in such circumstances, and for it to occur more than once in the hon. Lady’s constituency must be immensely difficult for her. I send all our condolences to the family and friends of the young victim. If it is helpful, I will ask Home Office Ministers to meet her to discuss the issue. We introduced further measures when I was Justice Secretary to tighten the law. A jail sentence is now the clear presumption where someone is caught carrying a knife a second time, and there are tougher penalties for aggravated knife crime. As much as anything else, it is about education and convincing young people of the dangers of carrying a knife—a task that should be shared across the House.

As a result of his disabilities, my constituent Daniel Baldawi needs a ceiling hoist in his bedroom. Like everyone else, he likes to travel and would like to stay in hotels from time to time, but he finds that very few—including in even the largest chains—make provision in their bedrooms for his disability. May we have a debate on how large hotel chains can provide in all their properties at least one or two rooms with a ceiling hoist so that people such as my constituent can exercise their right to travel and stay in different parts of the country?

My hon. Friend makes a really valuable point, which has not been brought to my attention before. I encourage him to apply for an Adjournment debate and put these points to the Minister responsible. I hope that his simply bringing the issue up in the House will start to encourage hotel chains to think about doing something they might not have thought about doing in the past.

May we have an early debate entitled “Liberal democracy in the 21st century” to celebrate next Tuesday’s by-election for the hereditary section of the Liberals in the other place? Seven declared candidates will face an electorate of three—the noble Earls of Glasgow and of Oxford, and Baron Addington. Electoral Reform Services will conduct the count, and the full results, including the number of first preference votes for each candidate and the position after the transfer of votes, will be available in the Printed Paper Office. How long will a party that has been rejected by the people be kept alive through political life support by patronage? Does the Leader of the House really propose to reduce the size of this elected Chamber when more than 800 Members in the House of Lords participate in these farces?

I have the highest regard for the right hon. Gentleman. I always thought he would champion endangered minorities—but clearly not in this case. He asks about Liberal democracy in the 21st century. The answer is that there is very little of it left, but at least there is one election left that they will win!

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Mumbai with Sewa International, and together we opened a new school for disabled children. This remarkable school started with 55 young disabled people living and being taught in a single room by incredible teachers. Thanks to donations from the India diaspora in this country, a brand new facility has been built to enable 100 children to live and be taught in the area. May we have a debate in Government time to celebrate the contributions of various diaspora in this country to making life better for people in their countries of origin?

What I proposed earlier would very much provide my hon. Friend, the vice-chair of the Backbench Business Committee, with that opportunity. I pay tribute to all members of the Indian diaspora who have been responsible for such valuable support. I saw during my visit to the Tamil market that the British Tamil chamber of commerce organised in my hon. Friend’s constituency last weekend further examples of first-rate voluntary sector work alongside exciting new businesses. I pay tribute to everyone involved in organising what seemed to me to be an enormously successful event.

Sir David Normington, having been liberated by retirement to tell the whole truth, said this week that he was approached in his office at least once a month by the Prime Minister and other Ministers and asked to favour Tory party donors, ex-MPs or other Conservative officeholders when making public appointments. When may we have a debate on patronage to discover why, for the past six years, the merit of applicants for key top jobs has been decided on the basis of their Tory party card or on the amount of money in their wallet?

There are times when I have to take a step back in amazement at the sheer cheek of Labour Members. Labour spent 13 years in government packing the public sector with its cronies and, six years later, we are still trying to achieve a sensible balance in our public services—so I will take no lessons from them. We are trying to provide a proper balance of expertise, background, gender and skills to ensure a properly representative public sector, not one simply packed with the Labour cronies we inherited in 2010.

A constituent tells me that a year ago he discovered that his energy supplier had been changed without his knowledge or consent, and that it took him a lot of time and effort to resolve the matter. It is still unclear whether this was a genuine mistake or an underhand marketing technique. This is a serious problem; it is estimated that there are 55,000 such cases every year. May we have a debate to consider the obligations on energy suppliers to prevent erroneous transfers and to ensure that they have a valid contract before they take over supply?

This is an important point. There are also vulnerable consumers who are convinced on the doorstep to make inappropriate changes, alongside the potential examples of fraud such as the one my hon. Friend describes. It is the role of the ombudsman to look at these issues and to deal with complaints against these organisations, but this is an example of the kind of consumer issue that should be brought regularly before the House, and I would encourage my hon. Friend to use one of the channels available to him to do that.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) claimed in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that Lancashire County Council was proposing to cut all funding to nine women’s refuges, but a representative of the council tells me that the opposite is the case: the Government have pulled the Supporting People money and the council is filling the gap. May we have an urgent debate on the funding of women’s refuges? This situation is far too serious for politicians to distort it for their own political purposes.

I make two points. First, we learned in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that the Government have provided many millions of pounds to support refuges. Secondly, the hon. Lady has many opportunities to bring debates before this House, and if she wants to have a debate with my hon. Friends, she is very able to do so.

May we have a debate on the 2% levy that the Chancellor has allowed councils to charge for social care? It seems that Bradford Council is spending only a very small proportion of that money on the independent care home sector, despite levying the full 2%. May we have a debate so that we can find out exactly what the Government intended the money to be spent on, to ensure that councils up and down the country, especially Bradford Council, spend it on helping care homes to pay for things like the national living wage, which I thought was the intention, rather than on other things?

Treasury questions on Tuesday will provide an opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise that question directly with Treasury Ministers. He identifies something that we often encounter ourselves—that Labour councils spend money not on the services that matter but on bloated bureaucracies and on their own interests.

Huge portions of the Standing Orders of this place are frankly mince. They go out of their way to prevent scrutiny and representation, and instead ensure stacking in favour of the Government. The Procedure Committee has reviewed Standing Orders on a number of occasions, and it produced a comprehensive series of suggestions last year. Will the Government commit either to taking on the Committee’s suggestions or to ripping up the Standing Orders and starting again with something a lot more workable?

We have been open to change since we first entered government in 2010 and have made extensive changes to the way in which the House works. We have been open to new ideas. I am open to new ideas, and I listen carefully to and regularly discuss the thoughts and issues raised by the Procedure Committee. In the time allocated to the Backbench Business Committee, the House has an opportunity to express its own thoughts on what needs to change, so I dispute what the hon. Lady says about there being no opportunity for Back Benchers to get their views heard. As Leader of the House, I am open to considering how we do things better.

May the force be with you, Mr Speaker. I look forward to the Conservative love-in later today. May I recommend a similar no-knives-allowed event for the Labour party? Your biggest regret as Speaker is probably that you cannot attend.

One name that will not be on anyone’s lips at the love-in is that of Fraser Cameron, a Eurocrat who, since the Dutch referendum, has said that the EU should ban any further referendums on anything to do with the EU. Will the Leader of the House make a statement from the Dispatch Box now to inform Fraser— to avoid any doubt, we will not call him Mr Cameron—that we live in a democracy and believe in what the people say, that this Conservative Government have given the British people a referendum and that the British Government will decide when we have referendums on such matters?

My hon. Friend has found an item on Europe on which the shadow Leader of the House and I would agree. The idea that we would deny people across the European Union the opportunity to hold referendums on issues that are important to them is absurd. There is a time and a place in a democracy for referendums and for consulting the people. The idea that we would not do so in future is ludicrous and the author should be profoundly embarrassed by his comments.

May I offer an apology to the Leader of the House? During Foreign Office questions earlier this week, certain members of the anti-Europe brigade on the Government Benches shouted at those who were pro-Europe and I called them a bunch of grumpy old men. I realise now that that was a deeply ageist comment, for which I apologise.

May we have an early debate on consumer power? Through social media, we can now take on the likes of BP that pay disgraceful wages to their chief executives and the companies that are cutting ordinary workers’ perks to compensate for the national living wage. May we have a debate on empowering consumers to punish these greedy people?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When people ask for a change in the law on this or that, it is always worth remembering that one of the most powerful weapons available today, through the emergence of social media and mass communication, is direct consumer pressure on companies. If consumers disapprove of corporate behaviour, they can take their business elsewhere, which has an impact on performance, requiring such companies to learn lessons quickly. The power of the consumer is perhaps greater today than it has ever been.

Earlier this week the National Crime Agency stated that northern ports, particularly those on the Humber such as Hull, Grimsby and Immingham, were being targeted by people smugglers. When I last raised the matter with Ministers, they assured me that adequate resources were in place. In view of what the NCA has said, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Home Office Minister to make a statement?

I know that this is a matter of concern to my hon. Friend and, I suspect, to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). We do not want smaller ports to be used in such a way. If they are, the extra measures that must be put in place may disrupt legitimate trade. The Transport Secretary is here next week, so I suggest that my hon. Friend take up the issue with him first of all, but I will ensure that Home Office Ministers are aware of his concerns.

The Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, may recall my recent Adjournment debate on the staffing crisis at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, where staff had confirmed they were unable to deliver basic care owing to a lack of trained personnel. I was therefore highly alarmed to learn this week that the A&E department at Dewsbury and District Hospital was operating with less than half the minimum safe staffing requirement. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should have an urgent debate on that alarming issue?

Clearly, the hon. Lady raises a significant problem for her and her constituents. I will make sure the Secretary of State for Health is aware of her concerns. She may wish to initiate a debate, but in my experience it is probably best to go to the Department straightaway and say, “There is an issue here. It has been raised in the Commons. Can you take a look?” I will do that for her, and I hope she has a happy birthday on Saturday.

Thanks to Mr Speaker’s own magnificent decision making, there will be a demonstration next Thursday on Speaker’s Green of land mines and their removal by some of the most important bodies in the land, including the HALO Trust, from Scotland. Given the importance of this humanitarian effort, may we have a debate in this Parliament about the impact of the conflicts going on throughout the world in terms of the subsequent clearing-up of the detritus of war?

As we know, land mines have created horrendous injuries and many thousands of people around the world are living with the consequences of them. The work that has been done by people across our society, from members of the royal family downwards, to help clear land mines and support their clearance around the world is immensely valuable. I pay tribute to those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in the rest of Scotland who have been part of that. The Secretary of State for Defence will be here on Monday, so the hon. Gentleman may also want to highlight the value of that work to him and talk about ways in which the UK Government can continue to help it.

I was recently contacted by my constituent Rita Cuthell, whose father Ronald Volante sadly died while waiting nearly two hours for an ambulance to arrive after he suffered a heart attack. Mr Volante lived in a housing scheme that had a lifeline service, which he first contacted after experiencing pain. The inquest identified that despite the lifeline service provider having Mr Volante’s full medical history, it failed to convey any information to the ambulance services. Had the provider done so, his previous heart problems would have been identified and that would surely have led to a greater priority being given by the emergency services staff who took the call. May we have a debate on the need to introduce a new standard for lifeline services so that any relevant information they hold is conveyed when a 999 call is made?

That is a shocking and very disturbing story, and we send our sincere condolence and good wishes to Mr Volante’s family and convey our distress about the fact that this could happen. Clearly, one would wish the housing association involved to be acting quickly to make sure on the ground that that cannot happen again, but I will also make sure that my colleagues in the Department of Health are aware that this happened and ask them to look at whether there are lessons to be learned for the future.

May we have a statement from a Minister on the crisis in funding for local services? How can it be fair that every household in Audenshaw, Denton and Dukinfield has lost £414.74 in Government grant since 2011 and every household in Reddish and the Heatons has lost £297.35 in that same period, yet every household in Epsom and Ewell has lost only £13.12? We are not all in it together, are we?

The hon. Gentleman quotes the change figures, but he may wish to look at the absolute figures. We attempt to provide a fair balance of funding around the country. We take difficult decisions that ensure that local authorities have funding they can use to deliver necessary services while also enabling us to meet our national targets. I assure him that councils in many parts of the country still receive far less than councils in his area.

When the House rose for the recess, a local shopkeeper in my constituency, Asad Shah, was tragically killed. He was a much loved, gentle and friendly man, and he will be sorely missed by many in the Southside of Glasgow. He was also a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and the police have identified that there was religious aggravation behind the killing. May we have a debate on the persecution that the Ahmadiyya community faces in this country and around the world, and what the Government are doing to tackle this cancerous form of sectarianism?

First, let me say how deeply shocked we all were by that terrible murder and we were even more shocked by the motivation behind it. I know the Ahmadiyya Muslim community well. I have met His Holiness and members of the community, and I know the good work they do in our country, the positive role that they play in our communities and how they want to bridge gaps between different communities in this country. The fact that shortly before his death Mr Shah had published a message of goodwill to Christians is a sign of what a valuable part of our community the Ahmadis are. The hon. Gentleman is right. As you will know, Mr Speaker, they are persecuted around the world. We should always be willing to be their defenders.

The Leader of the House will be aware that we have just had Women and Equalities questions. I hope he is also aware that the Minister for Women and Equalities informed my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) that she is happy to have topical questions as part of that Question Time to allow Members to raise issues that have come up after the shuffle. Can he give the House any indication of when topical questions might be implemented for Women and Equalities questions?