House of Commons
Thursday 28 April 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Drones (Safety Risks)
1. What recent assessment he has made of potential safety risks posed by drones to civil aviation. 
Drones have great potential, but it is important that they are used safely. There are already tough penalties in place for negligent drone use, including up to five years’ imprisonment for endangering an aircraft. The Department continues to work with the British Airline Pilots Association and the Civil Aviation Authority to assess the safety risks of drones.
Should not the Government heed the warning of Heathrow and, instead of taking their rather complacent position, realise not only the potential for catastrophes as a result of vandals or careless people using drones, but the dreadful possibility of terrorists using drones against stores of flammable material or nuclear power stations? Already, drones are being used to take mobile phones and drugs into Wandsworth prison. Should not the Government wake up and realise that this new menace is a potential great threat, and take precautions to reduce universal access to drones?
There is no complacency whatever from the Government on the use of drones. As I have said, there is a prison sentence available, and obviously I will keep the situation under review. It is also important to find out the facts behind certain incidents. It is now thought that the incident reported on 17 April was not a drone incident.
Could the Secretary of State update the House on the state of investment in our roads in the north-east, particularly the A1?
No. That is a most interesting matter, but a little distant from the matter of drones. Save it for the long summer evenings that lie ahead.
There are growing concerns about drone incidents that threaten public safety. It is not very clear whether the problem lies with the regulations themselves or with the enforcement of those regulations. Will the Secretary of State look at those issues?
Yes, I certainly will. Earlier this week I met BALPA—the meeting had been planned before the incident on 17 April—to discuss that issue as well as the problems that laser pen use is causing for civil aviation in this country. I will certainly keep those things under review and do further work, along with BALPA, the industry and the CAA, on drones and drone use.
Will my right hon. Friend assure me that all regulations and guidance on drones and air safety will apply and be communicated to airports outside London, such as East Midlands airport in my constituency, to ensure that we have a consistent air safety policy across the country?
Yes. My hon. Friend makes a very good point: this is a matter not just for London airports, but for airports outside London and right across the country, which serve very important international connections.
I hear what the Transport Secretary is saying about his engagement with airports, but this is also an issue for stadiums, railway stations and other places where the public gather in huge numbers. What discussions has he had with the widest possible range of stakeholders, including local authorities, on the use of drones?
I have updated the House on the issue addressed by the tabled question, namely aviation. Of course, there are wider issues and the Government keep them consistently under review.
I am grateful for that—even if it was not much of an answer, to be entirely honest. The Secretary of State also briefly touched on another very important issue relating to the threat that laser pens pose to airports across the United Kingdom. BALPA has called for all but the lowest-strength laser pens to be banned. What is his response to that?
As I informed the House a few moments ago, I met BALPA earlier this week. It has come forward with issues about laser pens. There is a bigger problem with laser pens, and much more evidence about the way in which they have been used. It is illegal to shine them in someone’s eyes, and there have been more prosecutions, but I am willing to take further action once we have reached agreement on the best way forward.
Mr Speaker, you may recall that this time last month, I asked the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), when, after three years of working groups, we would be told what the Government were going to do about the danger of drones to civil aircraft. His answer, you will recall, left us none the wiser.
This week, things became even vaguer when the Minister appeared to say in a written answer that he is not even going to consult on anything until the European Aviation Safety Agency has decided what to do. That is all happening at a time of reports that drones might have hit a civil aircraft, and of drones being banned over London altogether when President Obama was in town. Other countries have already brought in registration schemes and other initiatives, so when are we going to see some clear proposals from the Government, without having to wait for a US President to come to town?
Part of the point was made by the hon. Gentleman in his question when he said, “it might have been”. Governments do not legislate on what might be; they act on what the dangers are. As I have said, we are in discussions with the airline pilots’ union BALPA, as well as the CAA, about the right way to develop this. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that all drones should be banned completely, I should point out that the Labour party never thought about when it was in office.
Disruption Payment Scheme (Train Services)
2. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the schedule 8 disruption payment scheme for Network Rail and train operating companies. 
The framework and the amount of schedule 8 compensation are set by the Office of Rail and Road, which is conducting a review into this issue at the moment. The Department has provided input into the consultation, and the right hon. Lady is welcome to raise her concerns directly with the regulator.
I know that the Minister has concerns about schedule 8 payments, as do I. It is scandalous that train operators make millions from rail delays at the expense of passengers suffering from a poor standard of service. What immediate steps might the Government take to give power to the regulator to ensure that any net profits made by train operators from unplanned delays and cancellation caused by Network Rail go towards improving rail passenger services across the country, particularly in the light of the very low levels of passenger satisfaction?
The right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) have raised this matter with me eloquently on several occasions. I know that those things are part of the considerations of the current review. The right hon. Lady and I are as one on the view that the rail industry has to do more to improve the current compensation payments, which are rather generous in absolute terms but are not well advertised or well claimed, and I am looking forward to introducing the policy to reduce the delay repay threshold to 15 minutes. Ultimately, our goal should be to get the trains running on time so that passengers do not have to claim compensation. That is what underpins the Government’s record investment in the railway.
Constituents of mine wishing to get back to Bexhill and Battle after 9 o’clock on a Monday or Tuesday night are having to undertake a large portion of their journey by replacement bus, and we have just found out that that will carry on for the rest of the year. I declare an interest because that impacts on me on a Monday evening, but my intentions, as ever, are purely altruistic when I ask the Minister whether she would meet me to try to find out whether Network Rail can conduct this engineering work during the night.
It is good that the hon. Gentleman is doing more than just talking to himself about the matter. That is very encouraging.
My hon. Friend represents many thousands of travelling constituents, and he is assiduous in raising their concerns. I will, of course, meet him and look at what can be done to speed up that particular piece of work.
Passengers are, of course, completely inadequately compensated for delays, and I welcome the support that the Minister is giving to my campaign to halve the delay repay timings. Would she also support my campaign to sack Southern, which has proved itself completely incapable of running a railway service and should have its services handed over to Transport for London?
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is supporting the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to reduce delay repay to 15 minutes. It is lovely that at least some shreds of that coalition co-operation are still in action. He and I have discussed the Southern franchise many times. It is difficult. There are record levels of engineering work taking place on the line, and we are doing all we can, as he knows, to ensure that passengers suffer the least disruption possible and get the compensation to which they are entitled when their trains do not run on time.
Schedule 8 compensation is not making its way to my travelling public. Eddy Leviten regularly contacts me from Acton main line station, where there are no staff, no way of buying a ticket, no indicator board and only two trains an hour. Travelling from Acton main line station, which is only one stop from Paddington, should not be a case of taking your life in your hands and leaping into the unknown.
I am not going to give the House a boring diatribe about the purpose of schedule 8. [Interruption.] I know hon. Members would all be fascinated. The point of schedule 8 is slightly different from the point about compensation paid to passengers under the delay repay scheme or the national conditions of carriage. It is absolutely right that we should bring forward proposals. For the hon. Lady, a compensation threshold that kicks in at 30 minutes is probably not worth a lot, but one that starts at 15 minutes may be valuable. Ultimately, however, the hon. Lady’s constituents have a far greater choice of transport than many other people in this country, and that is why we are investing in the railway—north, south, east and west.
Some 80% of passengers entitled to a refund when their train is cancelled or delayed make no claim, largely because train operating companies make claiming too difficult. To improve passenger compensation arrangements, the Office of Rail and Road recommended that the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 should apply to rail. This month, however, the Government have further delayed introducing that by another year. Why should train operating companies have such beneficial compensation arrangements, while the Government intervene to delay giving passengers their right to compensation?
The question that comes to mind is: why did the hon. Gentleman’s Government do nothing about this for 13 years? It took a Conservative Government—[Interruption.] I encourage the hon. Gentleman to stay focused on the facts. Delay repay compensation levels have increased eightfold over the past five years, but there is far more to do. The actual amount of compensation available is more generous in this country than in almost any other country in Europe, but I want to reassure him about the CRA exemption. The industry had argued for a permanent exemption, which I found completely unacceptable. We have given the industry time to adjust to make sure it gets this right.
A30 and A303 Upgrade
3. What plans his Department has to upgrade the A30 and A303. 
The road investment strategy announced the upgrade of all remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and A358 to dual carriageway standard, together with the upgrading of the A358 in Somerset from the M5 at Taunton to the A303 at Ilminster. Highways England is making good progress, and three major schemes are planned to begin construction by April 2020.
I thank our excellent roads Minister for clearly stating the improvements from Stonehenge to Ilminster and through to Taunton, which are very welcome, but there is a stretch from Ilminster to Honiton that actually needs a little more improvement. We have got the co-operation of the Blackdown Hills AONB partnership, and we could actually get a 60-mile road through to Honiton, and on to Exeter, to make sure we have a second arterial route to Devon and on into Cornwall. I would like an update from our excellent Minister.
The hon. Gentleman wants a detailed disquisition from the Minister, and I fear he will not be disappointed.
The first road investment strategy did include some smaller scale improvements to that section of the road to improve safety and journey quality. However, it is a very challenging area in which to make improvements: it is a protected landscape and a very beautiful area, as my hon. Friend showed me when he drove me along the routes last summer and I heard at first hand the opportunity presented by such investment. We have started the second road investment strategy process, and Highways England is developing route strategies to inform that process. I will obviously take account of my hon. Friend’s contribution in the process, and I will make sure that Highways England liaises with him locally.
I welcome the upgrade of the A303, particularly where it joins the A358 and links from the A30. However, at the recent Neroche annual parish meeting, which I attended, it was suggested that the preferred options would be submitted to the Government by 2018 and there was a certain mithering in the audience about whether the Government would actually go ahead and build the road. Will the Minister confirm that this will take place by 2020, as it is so crucial for the wider south-west, not just Taunton Deane?
I can understand why there is local cynicism, because the scheme was cancelled by former Governments, but let me provide some reassurance. We are looking at consultations starting next year, the development consent order process in 2018 and the start of work in early 2020, so I am happy to provide the reassurance that my hon. Friend wants.
Heathrow Expansion (Transport Infrastructure Costs)
4. What estimate he has made of the potential cost of transport infrastructure for a third runway at Heathrow. 
The Airports Commission assessed the surface access requirements of each short-listed airport proposal as part of its work published in July 2015, and it estimated that there would be a cost of up to £5 billion for surface access works in relation to the Heathrow north-west runway.
There are clearly widely differing estimates of the capital costs of building an additional runway at Heathrow, but what is not in dispute is that building an additional runway there will cost significantly more than building one at Gatwick. If the Government decide to go ahead with expanding Heathrow, who will pay the difference—the airline passenger or the taxpayer?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that some of the estimates for surface access differ widely, even by the standards of some economists. One must bear in mind that the three sets of figures include different things over different timescales, the main ones being the work required exclusively for airport capacity, where the airport would be expected to make a major contribution; the projects that support airport capacity, but have wider benefits; and those in the Transport for London figures, which are needed in respect of wider population and economic growth during the next 20 to 30 years.
Do the Government accept the Airport Commission figure, which is £5 billion, the £2 billion from Heathrow or the £18 billion from TfL? Is this not just more of the 30 years of disinformation we have had out of Heathrow? When are the Government going to come to a decision, make their view clear and stop delaying matters just because of elections?
If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention to what I just said, he would know that I explained that those figures relate to different things over different timescales. On the decision, perhaps he could wait until my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) poses her question to the Secretary of State.
Can the Government give us any indication of the time period for construction from when the decision has been taken until the runway at either Gatwick or Heathrow is completed?
It is important to note that the additional time we are taking to look at a number of economic and environmental factors will not delay the delivery of a runway at whatever location is decided on.
7. What plans his Department has to improve infrastructure for electric cars. 
The Government have committed £600 million in this Parliament to support the uptake of electric vehicles. The UK has the largest network of rapid charging points in Europe, with a total of more than 11,000 public chargepoints. We will be announcing further details of the next phase of plans to expand the UK’s charging network later this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. I had a meeting a few weeks ago with Nissan, one of the vehicle manufacturers here in the UK. Nissan set out clearly the significant changes there have been in electric cars, with better acceleration and power, and longer battery life. We need charging points where people are: in the high street, in garages and in shopping centres. That is the way forward—to make them accessible in the places where the people and electric cars are. Does the Minister agree?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a much wider range of vehicles, many of which are built in the United Kingdom. We have seen a big increase; last year, more ultra-low-emission vehicles were registered in the UK than in the previous four years combined. I am very pleased that Ulster was one of the UK’s eight plugged-in places, which received £19 million of funding from the Office of Low Emissions Vehicles.
As the Minister will know, work has finally started on the new Ilkeston train station, where I am sure there will be at least one charging point for electric cars. It is vital that this major new investment brings as much benefit to our town as possible. With that in mind, will he back my campaign to establish a new electric bus route to link the station to the town centre, and will he look into how his Department might contribute to that project?
The hon. Lady did at least include the word “electric”.
I can tell my hon. Friend that great advances are being made not only with electric cars but with electric buses. I was at the Wrightbus factory in Ulster recently, where buses that will go all day are on a charge. Those vehicles would be perfect for the sort of project that she suggests.
Not just physical but intellectual infrastructure is required to support the electric vehicle industry, not least because the extreme voltages are extremely dangerous to people who do not know what they are doing and because the engines are entirely different from petrol and diesel engines. Has the Minister seen the campaign by the Institute for the Motor Industry for a proper accreditation, training and licensing system to spread knowledge about electric vehicles, and might his Department be able to support it?
It is certainly important that the people who work on these vehicles are adequately trained. But I would caution the hon. Gentleman about suggesting that electric vehicles are more dangerous than the alternatives; anyone who has seen a petrol tank catch fire will realise that electric vehicles are intrinsically very safe.
Airport Expansion (South East)
8. When the Government plan to announce a decision on the location of a new runway in the south-east. 
A number of important decisions on airport capacity were taken by the Government in December, including to accept the case for expansion in the south-east. However, we must take time to get the decision right on a preferred scheme. The Government are further considering the environmental impacts, and the best possible measures to mitigate the impacts of expansion.
On 24 March, as chair of the all-party group on Heathrow and the wider economy, I wrote to the Secretary of State with 64 questions about his Department’s work in that area. Unfortunately, I have received answers to none of those questions. Will he accept that it is essential to address important questions on noise, air quality and deliverability before he makes this decision, so as to give confidence in the decision-making process?
When that decision is made, I will be accountable to the House for why certain decisions were taken. In a letter from my hon. Friend that I did reply to, I pointed out that it would not be appropriate for me to provide a running commentary until the Government have come to a final decision. When we do that, we will be fully accountable for the decisions and recommendations that we make.
Is the Minister at least a little ashamed of the fact that a major inquiry under Howard Davies has made its recommendations, but nothing has happened? At the same time, we are putting all our national treasure into High Speed 2, but by the time that arrives in 2033 we will find that the driverless car has made it totally redundant.
I will take no lectures from a man who supported a Government who saw our position on the infrastructure league tables move from 7th, when Labour entered government in 1997, to 33rd by the time it left government in 2010. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that it was all his fault—those were his words and not mine.
More than 700 businesses have chosen to locate their headquarters in Buckinghamshire, not least because of the proximity of that excellent local airport, Heathrow. Far from building on the previous question, it is fair to point out that whereas HS2 brings absolutely no net economic benefit to Buckinghamshire, Heathrow does. It is a long time since Howard Davies reported. Will the Secretary of State get a wiggle on?
You have chastised a few people this morning, Mr Speaker, for making tendentious links with airports and HS2. My right hon. Friend refers to Heathrow as her local airport—I have not heard it described like that before, but in her case it is a good description and her constituents are well connected to that airport. I want other parts of the country to have the same opportunities that London is getting in its good transport connections.
I call Alan Brown, who I do not think will refer to Heathrow as his local airport.
It is not, Mr Speaker, but this decision could impact on Scottish airports.
To return to the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, I think that the Government should provide a running commentary on what they are doing about this important decision. Will he state clearly what additional work is being done to refine considerations on air quality and noise? When will that work be completed, and what else needs to be done for the Government to come to a decision?
I am afraid that I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about providing a running commentary, for the reasons that I gave in my earlier answers. That work is being done, and I hope soon to inform the House of the Government’s recommendations.
9. What steps he is taking to promote low-carbon transport. 
The Government are committed to delivering the emissions reductions needed to meet our climate change targets. That includes promoting the uptake of low-emission vehicles, reducing emissions from the road freight sector, and encouraging sustainable choices such as walking and cycling.
A quarter of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transport emissions, which the Government have pledged to cut. Will the Minister follow the example of the Scottish Government, who are committed to investing £62.5 million to create low-carbon infrastructure?
I will take no lessons from the Scottish Government on low-carbon infrastructure. We have some very tough targets—for example, for the electrification programme on our railways—which we are determined to meet. We will set our fifth carbon budget later this year and publish our emissions reduction plan shortly afterwards.
Electric cars are a form of low-carbon transport. Given the disasters with the nuclear power stations in Normandy and Finland involving EDF, will the Minister explain whence the electricity for all these electric cars?
Electric cars can benefit from surplus electricity overnight and use that off-peak electricity very effectively, and I for one believe that nuclear generation will be part of our future energy strategy.
Too few companies in east Lancashire either offer or advertise the cycle to work scheme. What can the Government do to extend the scheme in areas such as mine?
The Treasury is an enthusiastic backer of the cycle to work scheme, and I know that many people have taken it up and that many companies can make sure their employees get information about it. It is a great scheme that gets a lot of people on to two wheels and reduces not only carbon dioxide emissions but other pollutants that cars produce.
The most low-carbon forms of transport are cycling and walking. Extraordinarily, the Government chose to release the long-awaited “Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy” on Easter Sunday, although I can understand why the Minister did not want people to notice it, because while it is long on aspiration it is rather short on investment. Cycling UK has produced a detailed breakdown and concludes that by 2020-21 the amount of money spent on cycling outside London will be just 72p per head. How far does he think that the CWIS can go on 72p?
I think we should hang on a minute. When we came to power in 2010, we were spending £2 per head, but by the end of the coalition we were spending £6 per head, which is a very good record of investment in cycling. In the spending review, the Chancellor confirmed more than £300 million for cycling over the next five years, and many of the decisions on cycling are made by local authorities, some of which, at least, are still run by the Labour party.
I think that was an admission of a dramatic cut to cycling, but let us move on to walking. As we approach walk to work week, which I am sure we will all be doing, it is interesting that the strategy contains no measurable targets for walking at all. When I pressed the Minister in written questions, he sidestepped the issue and claimed that the strategy contained two “objectives” for walking. Why do we have to wait until 2025 to have any measurable targets?
We are determined to increase levels of walking—children walking to school and people walking as part of their everyday lives—and I know that many people understand the importance of walking not only to improving our transport infrastructure but to contributing to cleaner air in our cities.
Train Station Ticket Offices (Disabled Access)
10. What steps are being taken to ensure that ticket offices at train stations are accessible to disabled people. 
As my right hon. Friend knows, rail travel in this country is booming. A vital part of that growth is ensuring that rail is accessible to all, including passengers with disabilities, at every stage of their journey. The statistics suggest that disabled people are using the railways in ever greater numbers. In fact, the number of disabled persons railcards in circulation has risen by 12% year on year—a growth rate that far outstrips that for passengers without disabilities.
The concourse at Birmingham International train station in my constituency is to be improved to provide better access for the disabled, but will the Minister put pressure on the Chiltern line, where the carriages are much higher than the platforms? Would it not be possible to replicate what Transport for London does, at Westminster station, for example, by elevating a section of the platform?
My right hon. Friend raises the valuable point that there has to be a joined-up approach—we need operators and Network Rail to work together. I will look at the issue she raises about the station, but she should be aware that any improvement works carried out at a station in the UK have to comply with UK disability standards.
I am grateful to the Minister for her reply earlier, but given that Network Rail has financial issues and that £50 million is being taken out of the Access for All scheme, will the Minister explain what pressure she can put on Network Rail to make sure that stations that are not accessible to disabled people, such as Reddish North in my constituency, are upgraded, so that everybody can have access to a good rail service?
I am afraid that many of this country’s stations date from Victorian times when this was not even an issue. We are very proud of the Access for All scheme. Almost half a billion pounds has been spent, and money will continue to be spent, with the prioritisation of stations based on footfall and other such criteria. I would be more than happy to see whether anything can be done at the station the hon. Gentleman mentions, but we have to make sure that the money is spent in areas where most people are travelling. For me, this is absolutely part of railways for the future: it is vital for people with disabilities to be able to access their trains, and rolling stock will be fully disability compliant by 2020.
11. What plans he has to support the development of regional airports. 
I recognise the very important role that regional airports play in providing domestic and international connections and the vital contribution they make to the growth of regional economies. UK airports operate in the private sector, and it is for them to determine levels of investment and to attract airlines to operate from them.
Inward tourism is a major industry in Ayrshire, whether it be for golf and sailing or the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory. My local airport, Prestwick, has 660,000 passengers a year, but no connection to London—and, on the basis of discussions I have heard in this place, there is no sign of a connection to London. Will the Minister consider developing a strategy to support regional airports with connectivity in the short and medium term to bring more inward tourists?
The hon. Lady talks about connections and connectivity into London. This is one of the reasons the Davies commission was established. When we look at expansion in the south-east, we need to bear regional connectivity very much in mind. We must provide some reassurance to those who want further services from regional airports into London that they will have that opportunity.
I am reliably informed that Cornwall Airport Newquay is now the fastest-growing regional airport in the country. I thank the aviation Minister for his support in helping us to open up a new route from Newquay to Leeds Bradford. It will be essential to have regional air connectivity in place to make sure that, as our economy grows, the benefits are felt right across the country. Will the Secretary of State please confirm that the regional air connectivity fund will continue to be available to help smaller regional airports to open up new routes?
I am very glad that the route mentioned by my hon. Friend did qualify for the regional air connectivity fund. It is there and continues to be available. I believe it has made an important difference. The route my hon. Friend mentioned is certainly one that I have used on a number of occasions when travelling to his and other Cornwall constituencies.
The Minister will know that London Luton airport is undergoing a substantial and welcome expansion, but there is also enormous spare capacity at Birmingham airport. Birmingham could make a significant contribution to the air travel needs of London and the south-east with a simple and inexpensive upgrade in electrification of the railway line through Leamington Spa and Banbury, linking Birmingham airport directly to Crossrail and thus to central London and Heathrow, with a fast, non-stop, one-hour service. Will the Minister undertake to look at this proposal seriously?
The hon. Gentleman is always making the case for traditional railway links, although I know he is not so keen on high-speed links. I certainly commend what is happening at Luton airport. A few months ago I saw the regeneration work going on there, which is proving important for the wider area as well.
Local Major Transport Projects (Funding)
12. What steps he is taking to provide funding for local major transport projects. 
This Department is providing over £7 billion for the local growth fund, which will fund over 500 local transport projects by the end of the Parliament. As part of that fund, we have launched a new £475 million fund for transformational local transport schemes that are too large for the main allocations, and we have invited local enterprise partnerships to bid by July.
The construction of a 20-year awaited bypass for Middlewich would not only alleviate local congestion but open up employment land and thus support the regional economy by helping to create jobs. Will the Minister meet me and Cheshire East Council representatives to discuss the merits of a funding application for this project?
I would be happy to have that meeting, particularly if my hon. Friend involves the local enterprise partnership, as LEPs are central to putting these bids together. These types of investments are important for the local regional economy and some of the councillors’ own objectives might be relevant.
Will the Minister look very carefully at the plans that are being forwarded by the Mersey Dee Alliance for a direct strategic rail link to Manchester airport? Such a link would have a dual benefit, speeding traffic to the airport while taking cars off the M56.
That is just the sort of project that Transport for the North will be looking at. As aviation Minister, I understand the importance of good surface connectivity to airports to ensure that they can continue to grow, and Manchester airport, with its £1 billion investment programme, is an example for others to follow.
The Government have given considerable amounts of money to the Labour-dominated West Yorkshire combined authority, which spends most of the money in the Labour heartlands, ignoring the needs of areas such as mine. A Shipley eastern bypass, for instance, is vital to my local economy. How can the Minister ensure that the Government’s money is spent in areas like Shipley as well as in the Labour heartlands? If he cannot persuade the Government to act, will he directly fund the bypass that my constituents so desperately need?
One of the important changes that have taken place since our move from regional development agencies to local enterprise partnerships is a tendency to give more consideration to business and economic matters than to some local political objectives. I think that that is a great change, and I hope that, as a consequence, there is far less pork-barrel politics in Yorkshire.
A number of major transport projects are mentioned in “The Northern Powerhouse”, but west Cumbria seems to have been omitted. Will the Government look into how we can improve our transport links, and, in particular, will they give consideration to the nuclear developments that are taking place in the region?
We recognise that all parts of our country, including the peripheral areas, benefit from transport investment. The good news is that this Government understand the importance of infrastructure investment, unlike previous Governments who did not see it as such a priority.
DVSA (Driving and Theory Tests)
13. When he last had discussions with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency on the administration of driving and theory tests. 
My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State in the other place, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has been having discussions with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency about trialling changes in the practical driving test to make it more reflective of modern driving conditions, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has recently had discussions with the DVSA about future provision of the UK driving theory test.
I have received a number of complaints from driving instructors and pupils about significant delays in the provision of dates for tests at the Bletchley centre in my constituency. The DVSA has said that it is investing more resources, but this remains an issue. May I ask the Minister to take it up with the new chief executive, as a matter of urgency?
Demand for driving tests has been increasing rapidly. It has increased by more than 50% since 2013-14, and we expect the trend to continue. We are seeing the same pattern in relation to HGV tests. The DVSA has responded by bringing in more examiners and improving its forecasting model to match resource better with demand, as well as redeploying examiners from shorter-wait centres to those with longer waiting times. As for the specific issue of the Bletchley centre, I should be happy to take it up with the new chief executive.
I too am receiving complaints about delays in Kettering for driving tests and about cancellations of appointments. May I urge our excellent roads Minister to get on top of this problem before it gets out of control?
I am happy to take up any local problems affecting any colleague with the DVSA.
Cycling (Rural Areas)
14. What plans the Government has to encourage cycling in rural areas. 
On 27 March—during the Easter break, when people had plenty of time to read it—we published the draft “Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.” We want everyone in the country, including people in rural areas, to have access to safe, attractive cycling routes. Local authorities have a detailed understanding of their roads, and are well placed to decide how best to provide for cyclists on them.
Safe and attractive cycling routes are important, but a number of constituents who are keen cyclists have written to me about the problem of potholes, of which I have personal experience—and a scar to prove it, although I do not intend to show my hon. Friend where it is. Will he join me in welcoming the £28.4 million that Lincolnshire County Council will receive this year for highways maintenance, and will he also encourage highways officers in Lincolnshire to continue to do what they can to reduce the risk posed by these dangerous potholes?
Lincolnshire is a wonderful county for cycling, not least because it is relatively flat. The Government have allocated substantial funds for the repair of potholes, but I would encourage local authorities to concentrate on how effectively they are using that money. There is some good new technology out there which will mean that potholes can not only be repaired but stay repaired. We often hear stories about potholes being temporarily repaired and then opening up again very quickly.
Rail Electrification (North of England)
15. What recent progress has been made on rail electrification schemes in the north of England. 
We have electrified five times as many miles of track in the last six years as the previous Labour Government did in 13 years, and almost all that work has been in the north of England. I call that good progress.
Can the Minister explain why the privately financed £100 million Hull to Selby rail electrification scheme has been stuck in the Department for Transport for nearly two years, while her Department is announcing schemes such as the one involving £27 billion for Crossrail 2 between Hertfordshire and Surbiton? If she is really serious about the northern powerhouse, why can she not get a wriggle on and get this privately financed scheme to happen?
I think that that is Humberside for a wiggle, Mr Speaker. Rail North and I completely share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for faster and better rail journeys for her constituents, which is why the new franchise that we let last year will give her constituents brand-new trains—bye-bye, Pacers!—more services and more direct connections. Hull is getting £1.4 million for its station in time for the city to take pride of place as the UK city of culture 2017. She should be pleased with that record.
The Southport to Manchester line has been prioritised for electrification, but we might lose our direct link to south Manchester and the airport through Piccadilly. Why is that happening, and how does it constitute progress?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a service question that I am not across, but I will get back to him.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
We have continued to deliver on issues that affect the motorist, following the findings last year that defeat devices were fitted to Volkswagen vehicles. I instructed the Vehicle Certification Agency to test 37 different vehicle types in the UK over a period of six months to ensure that similar devices were not present on other models. The tests confirmed that they were not, but they did confirm that existing lab tests designed to ensure that emission limits were being met were inadequate. That is why we have been at the forefront of securing tough new Europe-wide real-driving emissions tests. We have also announced further funding to help with the problem of potholes across the country.
I recently completed a blindfolded walk with that excellent charity Guide Dogs to try to understand the challenges faced by visually impaired people, and I am greatly supportive of its campaign to improve access for guide dog owners and their dogs. It is not right that they should be often refused access to businesses and services because their dog is with them. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that taxi and private hire vehicle drivers receive adequate disability awareness training, given that a large number of guide dog owners are still being turned away from those vital transport services?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her question, and I entirely agree with the point she makes. Taxis and private hire vehicles are essential for many disabled people, and drivers are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers. It is also a criminal offence to refuse carriage to an assistance dog. Failure to comply with that requirement can result in prosecution and a fine on conviction of up to £1,000. A driver was recently fined £1,546 for refusing access to a guide dog; that figure included legal costs as well as the fine. That message needs to go out right across the industry, and we will draw it to the attention of the licensing authorities.
On Monday, the Minister of State said that Volkswagen had not yet fixed any cars in this country. NOx emissions pose a serious health risk to drivers, and indeed to everyone. As he acknowledged, we now know that all manufacturers produce diesel models that pollute above approved limits. How will he address the problem of higher NOx emissions across all models, and will he take urgent action to ensure that when it comes to Volkswagen, the UK is not left at the back of the queue?
We certainly will, and the Minister of State and I have been dealing with the matter. Before I get to the hon. Lady’s attacking us for not doing enough, she needs to remember who started the dash for diesel. Gordon Brown reduced the duty on low sulphur by 3p in his 2001 Budget—just before a general election—which increased diesel car registrations in Great Britain from 3.45 million, or 13% of the UK fleet, to 8.2 million, or 28% of the fleet.
That decision was of course based on the science at the time. As the Secretary of State knows, American VW owners may be entitled to up to $5,000 in compensation, while the owners of the 1.2 million VW vehicles in this country are not receiving a penny. Last week, the No. 10 press machine assured us that the Secretary of State had pressed VW specifically on the discrepancy in compensation. However, the Minister of State said on Monday that compensation was a matter for the courts, not Ministers. This is a matter of basic fairness, so when will the Secretary of State step up a gear and fight for a decent compensation deal for UK VW drivers?
I have made it clear in the meetings that I have had, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State in his conversations, with not only Volkswagen but other motor manufacturers, that we take this subject seriously. We want to see action. When the hon. Lady responded to my point about the huge increase in diesel cars in this country, I am glad that she said that the decision was based on the evidence at the time; that shows that the proper research was not done.
T2. The Minister will be aware that the House of Lords recently completed a review of the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on disabled people. A large part of the review focused on the accessibility of taxis and private hire vehicles. Will the Minister update the House on what action the Department will take as a consequence of the review? 
I can indeed update the House. The Government are committed to ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport services and opportunities to travel as everybody else in society. We plan to commence sections 165 and 167 of the Equality Act by the end of this year. I was pleased to see that raised in the Lord review, as I have been working on it for some time. Drivers will be required to provide assistance to wheelchair users, and to refrain from charging extra.
T7. Will the Minister take the trouble to come to the north- east and take the train from Nunthorpe, Middlesbrough, to Newcastle? Using an ancient Pacer train, it takes almost 90 minutes. The journey might be quicker by bicycle. If we had had a new train every time it was announced that the old ones would be replaced, we would have a whole fleet of them. If the Minister came and got a wiggle on, that might speeds things up a bit. 
I think I need a bit of mentoring in the dialect being used this morning. I accept that the last Labour Government did nothing to improve the system in their 13 years. I am glad to say that new trains will be operating on that line by 2020 as a result of a decision that I took, which was to override the advice, and to instruct the permanent secretary that the Pacers would be phased out, and that we would have new trains on the line. I am very proud of that decision.
T3. Every time I come across Network Rail, it seems to have a great deal of power, but to be utterly unaccountable to central Government. As we are seeing in Lincolnshire, that power can be used to frustrate growth infrastructure schemes that have the support of local authorities. What can the Minister do to ensure that Network Rail does not act to stop schemes that are in the best interests of local people and supported by local authorities? 
The best schemes are those that are strongly supported by local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local businesses. Network Rail is in a new phase in which route responsibility will be devolved, and it will work to a set of investment plans that are agreed, based on important bottom-up analysis.
Over the past 10 years, destinations and routes from Scotland have doubled, but flights to London have fallen by more than a third. Not only do we need starter routes, such as the Inverness to Heathrow route that we will have next week, but we need to up the frequency of these routes and guarantee them, as that would allow them to bed in and become fully established. Will the Minister establish a point-to-point public service obligation, including specific regional hub airports, and do all he can to create PSOs for airports such as Skye in my constituency?
We absolutely understand the importance of PSOs and of aviation, particularly for island communities. I am pleased that we have seen such a successful uptake of many of these routes, a number of which have been started without needing subsidies because of the buoyancy of the economy and the aviation sector.
T4. The slogan of CrossCountry trains is “Going that bit further”; my constituents would be delighted if it did exactly that and instructed more than three out of 63 trains a day on the inter-city service between Birmingham and Bristol to stop at the city of Gloucester. Will the Minister with responsibility for rail confirm whether the Department will require CrossCountry to restore decent commuter services from Gloucester on that line as part of its franchise extension? 
Nobody could be more assiduous in calling for those service requirements than my hon. Friend, but we must not have services to cities such as Cheltenham lost as a result of a change that he is requiring. I can confirm that discussions are ongoing. We have asked CrossCountry to report on the best way to deliver the services that he is talking about, and I am looking forward to discussing that with him shortly.
Despite the Secretary of State’s pride in the Pacer announcements, there remains huge under-investment in transport in the north, compared with London in particular; the ratio is 24:1. Ministers are now saying that they are going to cut the subsidy to the Northern franchise by up to 85%. Does he really think it adds to the credibility of the northern powerhouse if it takes half a day to cross it, in trains that are better suited to a railway museum than a railway system?
I would sometimes like to offer Opposition politicians another briefing about what these new franchises are going to deliver. It sounds a bit like “The Generation Game”, but thanks to my Government, the hon. Lady’s constituents will be rid of those outdated trains, and will get many more services of a much better quality; that will be delivered at less cost to the taxpayer. Only a Labour politician could argue for worse services and more subsidy.
T5. We have been very positive about the new Northern rail franchise. However, there are throngs of people who want to get from Leeds to Goole but cannot do that at the moment; there may even be some who wish to get from Goole to Leeds. The situation is the same on the Brigg to Sheffield line. Both lines are very under-utilised, so what opportunities are there under the new franchising agreements to get those improved services? Will the Minister come and ride the train with us? 
I think the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) wanted the Minister with responsibility for rail, but he is lumbered with the Secretary of State.
What my hon. Friend wants and what he gets are two entirely different things, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for talking about the need to improve capacity on the networks, and I am very interested to hear of all the people who wish to travel between Goole and Leeds. The new rail franchise for the north will provide a tremendous increase in capacity and a lot of new routes, and we will see whether his argument stands up.
With the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim Fathers, can we get a helping hand to do up Retford railway station, including the car parking, so that people can see the best of British when they visit my area?
The hon. Gentleman is far more familiar with Retford station than I am, but this is certainly something that would be considered by the local growth fund. I suggest that he goes through the necessary procedures to encourage his local enterprise partnership to apply for that funding.
T6. The Roadmaster velocity patcher can fill 300 potholes in a day, and Lincolnshire has got one—but we would like more. What help can the Minister offer my county council in getting more? Will he consider incentivising councils to work together so that we can increase the nationwide fleet of these fantastic machines? 
I am aware of the Roadmaster velocity patcher, and the Government certainly support the use of innovative and efficient methods to maintain our local highways. We have provided a budget of more than £6 billion for highways maintenance, plus there is the pothole action fund. We have introduced incentive elements to the highways maintenance fund, which includes an element of collaboration. I should like to see local authorities working with their neighbours right across the country in exactly the way that my hon. Friend describes.
The Minister clearly enjoys a life of undiluted excitement.
What are the Government doing to stem the flow of job losses among British qualified seafarers? In particular, will the Minister with responsibility for shipping have a look at how some of our regulation operates here? My constituents tell me that the operation of the certificates of equivalent competency, for example, are putting them at a disadvantage compared with seafarers from other parts of the world.
We certainly have the best-qualified seamen in the world, due in no small part to the tonnage tax scheme and the SMarT—support for maritime training—funding of £15 million a year. It is of concern if less-qualified people are taking jobs. I know that there are particular problems in the North sea with regard to jobs being cut. I would be pleased to meet the right hon. Gentleman to talk about the matter in more detail.
Will my hon. Friend reassure me that the Department is training apprentices and investing in apprentice-training programmes, so that the country can continue to have the skills and expertise to keep on with our world-leading transport infrastructure programme and improvements?
I can indeed give my hon. Friend that assurance. The transport infrastructure skills strategy sets targets for delivering apprenticeships throughout the supply chain, and will deliver them via procurement contracts. One apprenticeship will be created for every £3 million to £5 million of contract value, or for 2.5% of the workforce per year, depending on the contract type. Apprenticeships are right at the heart of our skills agenda.
I freely admit that I want the Secretary of State, and I hope that I get him. He has visited Bullsmoor Lane in my constituency, and he knows that it is being used as a slip road off the M25. It is a residential area with a very serious accident record. There is a lot of freight coming into north London and using the road as a route to central London. May I ask him in good faith to meet me and two of the leading resident representatives to discuss this very, very serious issue, and to find a satisfactory way forward?
Well, sometimes we get what we want, Mr Speaker. I am more than happy to meet the right hon. Lady on this. There does seem to be some confusion over whether it is a matter for Transport for London or for Highways England. That is no answer to the people who are suffering from the problems. It is a very difficult area to deal with, because of all the residential implications, but we will have that meeting.
I do not really care who answers my question. From the Minister’s description earlier, the local major transport projects fund could have been tailor-made for the Carrington bridge and the Worcester southern link project, which the finest minds at the Worcestershire LEP are preparing a bid for. May I say to the Secretary of State and his team that there should be no wiggle room for the Government in approving this project?
I visited—probably almost a year ago to the day—the bridge to which my hon. Friend referred. I cannot quite remember what was going on at the time. I viewed it from a site that was opened by his father some 30 years previously. The point that he makes about it being a suitable scheme for the local majors fund is certainly one that should be considered, and I urge the LEP and the local authority to ensure that they put in an application for it to be considered.
Will the Secretary of State work with the new Labour—obviously—Mayor of London to ensure the effective development of the HS2 Crossrail interchange at Old Oak? In particular, will he revisit the deal he made with the current Mayor of London in 2014, which means that no development—commercial or housing—can take place on the site unless there is a very extensive movement of the lines almost immediately after they open at great public expense?
Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I take no election for granted and I will meet whoever is the Mayor of London, but I very much hope it is my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who will be able to work much better with the Government than the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). With reference to development around Old Oak Common, that site will be a major transport hub in the United Kingdom, so it is very important to get the infrastructure right.
The Department has responsibility for delivering a number of local and national transport infrastructure projects, so will the Secretary of State undertake to write into every funding agreement that at every opportunity we will procure British steel for the construction of those projects?
I am happy to say that we have made a number of changes to our procurement process to reflect exactly the point that my hon. Friend makes. Wherever we can, we should support our own industry. That must be on a competitive basis, but there is a special case for British steel and about 98% of the steel that Network Rail purchases is British.
Trade Union Bill (Discussions)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will instruct his adviser on ministerial interests to launch an inquiry as to whether discussions between Ministers and officials and representatives of trade unions or the Labour party concerning amendments to the Trade Union Bill constitute a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
The Cabinet Office has advised me that there is no breach of the ministerial code and nothing for the Prime Minister’s adviser on ministerial interests to investigate.
The Trade Union Bill is now in ping-pong and, as is customary at such times, Ministers have held regular discussions with shadow Ministers to discuss possible compromises that would secure passage of the Bill and delivery of the commitments made in the Conservative party’s manifesto. On the basis of the amendments passed by this House yesterday evening, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are well on the way to securing all our manifesto commitments—ballot thresholds for strikes, reforms to the role of the certification officer, a tightening-up of rules around facility time, action to stop intimidation of non-striking workers, and the introduction of a transparent opt-in process for union members’ contributions to political funds.
The question of compulsory opt-in to trade unions’ political funds was one of the most contentious, especially in the House of Lords. Noble Lords referred the clauses in the Bill to a special Select Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Burns. Following the Select Committee’s report, the House of Lords voted by a large majority to accept an amendment to restrict the opt-in to new members and to exclude existing trade union members.
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I hold regular meetings with trade union leaders and the general secretary of the TUC, not just in relation to the Bill, but in relation to other responsibilities of mine, including our support for the excellent work of Unionlearn.
Trade union support for the campaign to remain in the European Union is not new and should not come as a surprise to anyone. The TUC declared its support for the campaign in February. The GMB union did the same on 22 February, Unite on 14 March and Unison on 13 April.
We all remember the Prime Minister foretelling that the next great scandal would be a lobbying scandal, and here it is. Trade union leaders have been complaining that they are unable to campaign effectively for a remain vote in the EU referendum while the Government’s Trade Union Bill has been threatening trade unions and their funding. The Bill would have implemented a Conservative manifesto commitment to
“legislate to ensure trade unions use a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions”.
As a result of the amendment being accepted, a 19-year-old who has just started a job and is a member of a trade union will now never be asked by a trade union whether he wants his political fund subscriptions to be taken out of his pay packet.
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons on 15 July last year:
“There is a very simple principle here: giving money to a party should be an act of free will. Money should not be taken out of people’s pay packets without them being told about it properly”—[Official Report, 15 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 885.]
and he likened that to mis-selling. On 16 March, the Minister in the other place described the Labour amendment, which the Government have now accepted, as a “wrecking amendment”. Yesterday, the Minister made a wholly unexpected concession when he announced his decision to abandon opposition to the change in the Bill.
It is now being reported on Channel 4 News and in today’s papers that those unexpected concessions are linked to a £1.7 million donation that trade unions might make from their political funds, which are now much larger than they would have been, to the Labour remain campaign, Labour In For Britain. Until recently, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) was trying to raise £75,000 for a few leaflets, balloons and badges; now the campaign is getting £1.7 million. It has been confirmed to me by more than two independent sources that No. 10 instructed those concessions to be made after discussions with trade union representatives. That being true would amount to the sale of Government policy for cash and political favours.
Lest there be any doubt about the impropriety of this deal, Her Majesty’s Opposition should ask themselves this question: what would they be saying if this Government had altered a Bill in order to give extra money to the Conservative party or to the Conservatives’ remain campaign, Conservatives In? My hon. Friend the Minister should ask himself this question: what would have been the reaction if a Labour Government had changed a Bill in order to favour the Labour party’s ability to support the Government on some controversial policy and in order to give the Labour party money? This stinks—it reeks the same as cash for questions. This shows that this Government really are at the rotten heart of the European Union.
The seven principles of public life require public office holders to
“avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence…their work.”
The ministerial code states:
“Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises”,
or appears to arise,
“between their public duties and their private interests”.
In this matter, the Labour party constitutes one of their private interests.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister instruct his adviser on ministerial interests, Sir Alex Allan, to launch an investigation? If my hon. Friend the Minister and the Cabinet Office are right, he has nothing to fear from such an investigation.
May I start by saying that I have the greatest respect for the passion and commitment, which have lasted for not just years but decades, that my hon. Friend has brought to the cause he advocates with such vigour—that we leave the European Union? I have nothing but total respect for that passion and commitment.
I just want gently to correct my hon. Friend on a few points of fact, because he focused so much on the important question he raised that a number of the things he suggested about the current mechanism for union members’ subscriptions to the political fund were not absolutely correct.
The first point to make is that it is not the case that somebody who has recently joined a trade union, and to whom the new requirement for an opt-in will therefore not apply, will never be asked whether they want to pay into the political levy—very far from it. There is a long-standing legal requirement that they are offered an opt-out from that political levy and that that is communicated clearly to them. That opt-out is not just a one-time thing; it is not something they are offered only when they join—it is something they can exercise at any time, and they need to be reminded of it regularly.
The other thing to say is that, while estimates from different unions vary, the overall estimate is that roughly 13% to 14% of all trade union members joined in the last year. I am not going to suggest that all trade union members will have needed to opt in to the political fund over this Parliament, but a substantial proportion will have.
I am afraid my hon. Friend is also not correct to say that we are talking about a Labour amendment. The amendment was moved by Lord Burns—somebody for whom I know my hon. Friend has the greatest respect, as a fearsomely independent former permanent secretary. The amendment flowed out of a Committee in which there was some very fearsome representation of all parties. It was clearly inspired by Lord Burns’s argument that it is not reasonable to ask people who have signed up to an arrangement in good faith then to have to sign up again through a different process simply because we have changed the law later on. I did not agree with that argument, and nor did we in this House, but what happened often happens when the House of Lords feels very, very strongly on an issue, when there is a very, very large majority against the Government’s position, and when an Independent Member of the House of Lords has moved an amendment that has secured support not just from the official Opposition and from the Liberal Democrats but from a huge number of Cross Benchers—and not just from Cross Benchers but some very significant members of our own party.
I urge my hon. Friend to look at the people who spoke in the debate and voted, or very assertively chose not to vote, in support of the Government’s position. They included not just Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe but Lord Forsyth, who supports the same campaign on the European Union that my hon. Friend has supported and who, both privately and publicly, said that he thought it was a profound error for us to pursue a compulsory opt-in for all existing members. So it is not right to say that it was just a Labour position.
My hon. Friend suggested that it was inappropriate for the Government to do anything in terms of making changes to legislation to further private interests, and of course he is right. However, it is not right, and not even in the passion of the moment is it fair, to categorise the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government in that way. We support the proposition that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. He disagrees, honourably and valiantly, but it is not a private interest—it is Government policy.
It is very good to have this further opportunity to re-emphasise our implacable opposition to the execrable Trade Union Bill, which is entirely unnecessary, bad for workers, and bad for businesses. As the Minister said, the Lords set up a cross-party Committee chaired by Lord Burns to look at the unworkable proposals on trade union political funds and party political funding. That Committee came up with a series of Salisbury-convention-compliant recommendations that were voted for by an overwhelming majority of peers from all parties and from none.
Will the Minister confirm that he recently met Lord Burns, who made clear the strength of feeling in the other place on this matter? Will he also confirm that he has received overwhelming representations from all quarters, including the trade unions? By the way, it is hardly surprising, given that this is the Trade Union Bill, that he should receive representations from the unions. Is it not the case that all these various representations made it clear that the proposals on political funding were unworkable and breached the long-established convention that major changes to the funding of a political party should happen only by agreement?
It would appear, at least partially that the Minister listened—well done—but he should have listened earlier, and he needs to keep listening. Will he therefore have a few more meetings with trade unions, which have made entirely reasonable proposals on e-balloting and facility time that still remain in the Bill? There is still time for him to think again.
I can confirm that, as the hon. Gentleman said, earlier this week I held a meeting, at my request, with Lord Burns in which I discussed with him an amendment to the Bill that we had put down and were intending to move. That amendment would still have applied the compulsory opt-in to existing members of trade unions but would have built a longer period of transition for trade unions to implement it and would also have changed the arrangements on the requirement for renewal of their opt-in to align it with the political fund ballots that need to take place every 10 years.
I had hoped that Lord Burns would feel, if not enthusiastic about that compromise, at least able to indicate that he would not actively oppose it when the Bill went back to the upper House in the next stage of ping-pong. Lord Burns, who is a man for whom I have huge admiration and a great deal of liking, was very clear to me that that was not an acceptable compromise and that not only would he not support it, but he would actively propose the reinstatement of his amendment, which excluded existing members.
Lord Burns made it very clear that his judgment was not so much a political one—it was certainly not particularly inspired by questions about the balance of party funding. It was simply based on his experience in the financial services industry, where he said it was very unfair to ask people to sign up to new things when they have already expressed an opinion on that very same question by a means that was previously legal. He said that that applied in this case; he thought that it was wrong and he could not support it. We then reflected on Lord Burns’s position and tabled the amendments that we passed last night.
As for the comments made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) about the rest of the Bill, I want to be very clear with him and other Labour Members: this Bill is going to dramatically improve the state of employment relations and the state of industrial action. At the moment, a trade union, including various education trade unions, can hold a strike three years after a ballot has been passed with a turnout of less than 20% of their members and close more than 1,000 colleges. That is currently legal. When the Bill—which will pass through this House with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin); I anticipate that the noble Lords will pass it next week—receives Royal Assent, it will no longer be possible to inflict on hard-working parents the closure of a school in the middle of the week on the basis of a tiny turnout secured several years ago. That is why I am proud of this Bill and why my hon. Friend can be proud of it: we have secured our manifesto commitments for all working people.
The Minister, regrettably, has been diverted from the path of procedural virtue as a result of the cheeky inquiries of the Opposition Front Bencher. We cannot now have a Third Reading of the Trade Union Bill. We must focus narrowly instead on the matter of the urgent question, which I know will be done faithfully by Dr Liam Fox.
Given this change to the Trade Union Bill, and following on from our abandonment of our manifesto commitments on immigration by not renegotiating free movement, will my hon. Friend tell us which of our election commitments we will not now abandon in trying to seek a remain vote?
Your cautionary tone is ringing in my ears, Mr Speaker, so I will answer my right hon. Friend’s question by narrowly focusing on the measures in the Bill that demonstrate, as I said at the start of my answer, that we have genuinely secured everything that was in our manifesto. This point came up in my discussion with Lord Burns, who really knows a thing or two about legislative drafting. Having read and re-read the precise words in our manifesto about the commitment to introduce a transparent opt-in for the political fund, he said that he was absolutely confident and very clear that the amendment that he tabled, which was passed in the other place and which we have now accepted, fulfilled that manifesto commitment in full; and not only that, but that the further introduction of the opt-in to apply to existing members was not given cover by the Salisbury convention, and that he would make that very plain in his speech in the upper House, if we were to try to restore that position. I mean no criticism of those who wrote our manifesto—it is a wonderful document that will live through the ages—but their wording was not so precisely established as to secure that additional application of the opt-in to existing members of trade unions.
We in the Scottish National party reiterate our complete opposition to the Trade Union Bill. Can the Minister confirm that it would be strange, on a piece of legislation that affects 6 million workers, for a Government not to consult bodies that represent those 6 million workers? Can he also confirm that the Government were considering concessions as far back as 26 January, when a memorandum in his name was leaked to many media outlets? Can he confirm what ongoing discussions he is having with devolved institutions, which still have major problems with the Bill and its extent as it relates to facility time and other issues?
The hon. Gentleman made a valuable contribution to our deliberations at all stages, but perhaps especially in Committee. I seem to remember that his criticism was both vocal and incisive on almost every measure in the Bill. Of course, he is right. Not only do we hold discussions with institutions in society about which we are legislating—I think it would be a little unfair if we did not—but we actually invited them to give evidence to the Committee. One of the most terrifying sights that I have seen in a long time was the general secretary of Unite, the general secretary of the GMB, the general secretary of Unison and the general secretary of the TUC all sitting in a row giving evidence to that Committee. Of course it was right to do that.
The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we have consulted the devolved Administrations. I have had a number of conversations by phone and in person with Ministers in the devolved Governments, who have expressed some concern about whether all the provisions in the Bill should properly apply to them, although we are absolutely confident that all the provisions in the Bill relate to reserved matters and therefore apply to everyone and every trade union in the United Kingdom.
I chaired the Trade Union Bill Committee, and therefore I am not going to comment on the Trade Union Bill, but may I make a general House of Commons and constitutional point? There would be concern if, as part of the ping-pong process, any Government at any time made concessions on a Bill as a result of something that had nothing to do with that Bill. My hon. Friend is an honourable man, and I am sure that he can confirm that no Government of which he was a part would ever do that.
I think I have explained pretty clearly what the process was. I speak for myself in simply saying that when I met the immovable force of Lord Burns, I decided that perhaps discretion was the better part of valour. That is not to say that Ministers do not have discussions on all sorts of issues with all sorts of people in society. It is the Government’s policy to support the remain campaign. The previous general secretary of the TUC is a board member of Stronger In and has been for months. The trade unions that I have listed made their positions very clear long before the Bill came back to this House or, indeed, the opt-in was considered in the upper House. I gently say to my hon. and right hon. Friends that not every compromise is a conspiracy.
Now that the Government, according to the barmy idea that is being propagated this morning by the right wing of the Tory party, are seemingly prepared to give way on different subjects, can I ask the Minister: what is the price for dropping this lousy, rotten Trade Union Bill altogether? I will try to get it.
It is the goal of my life to give pleasure to the hon. Gentleman, but I have to tell him that there is no price, because we believe in this Bill. We believe in our manifesto, and we are well on the way to delivering it.
I hope that the Minister will understand why people are asking these questions when we read from a senior political journalist in The Telegraph the following words:
“Last night a union source said bosses had always been clear that it would be ‘difficult’ to spend significant amounts on the campaign to keep Britain in the union while fighting against the Trade Union Bill. But they revealed that unions will now step up their campaigning and funding efforts in light of the concessions”,
Can he confirm right now that this journalist is absolutely wrong, that her sources are incorrect and that no such trade took place?
I am afraid that I will just have to repeat what I have already said. There is a natural process towards the end of a parliamentary Session in which concessions are made on Bills to secure their timely passage. What trade unions decide to do about their long-standing commitment to back the remain campaign is entirely a matter for them.
I think this is a very rare occurrence of the Government actually listening to Members of Parliament both in the upper House and in this House. I welcome that, and it is the right thing to do. It is right that the Government should meet trade unions—of course they should. The legislation is an attack on trade unions and does nothing whatsoever for employee-employer relations. It is a wrecking piece of legislation, and any concessions can only improve the Bill. I hope we can have more concessions in the short time left for the Bill’s passage.
The right hon. Lady is far too kind to me. I did not want to listen at all. I am afraid I simply acknowledged that, faced by an array of forces—it is not just led by Lord Burns, but includes most of the Cross Benchers, all the Liberal Democrats, all the members of Labour party and very influential Conservative peers, such as Lord Forsyth, Lord Deben, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack—neophytes in this game like me perhaps need to concede defeat.
It is true that the noble Lord Cormack is a very special “parli-a-mentarian”.
As the grandson of a trade union shop steward who went on to become a Conservative activist and whose son made it to the other place, I can say to the Minister that he has had correspondence on this issue from Government Members raising the concerns of their constituents who also happen to be trade unionists. May I thank him for listening in relation to that correspondence and paying attention to it? It is a profoundly Conservative principle not just to get through the business in our manifesto, but to engage with the other place to improve it.
My hon. Friend’s father did not just make it to other place, but made it into the Cabinet and was a very significant performer in the area of employment law and industrial relations, so we have much to learn from his work. My hon. Friend is right. I hope it is not breaking a confidence to say that I have had conversations with other Members of the House who were deeply concerned about this specific provision. I should not mention their names, but they include very significant—in fact, leading—supporters of the campaign to leave the European Union.
Has there ever been any psychological explanation of why so many Tory MPs have such a loathing of trade unions?
I do not recognise such loathing, and I certainly do not feel it myself.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) in congratulating the Minister on the way in which he has handled the Bill? Again, is it not the case that the Minister has had conversations with many people from all parts of the House, including on the Government Benches, both in the Commons and in the other place, about their concerns and that many of those concerns have now been addressed without any concessions at all being made to us?
I can confirm that, and none was more important than my hon. Friend, who had some very serious concerns. He did exactly the right thing: he came to see me privately about them as we were deliberating in the House. He tabled an amendment on Report, which he did not move because I had reassured him that we would look at closely as the Bill progressed. Yesterday, when he was not in the Chamber, I specifically mentioned that he had been influential in our decision ultimately not to press ahead with the measure that would have removed the check-off arrangement for trade unions in the public sector.
I declare an interest as someone who has paid the political fund levy since 1969, and is a former president of Unison and a member of the TUC general council. I assure the House that the trade unions are quite clear that they do not want the Bill at all. When the Government were pushing this Bill they were reminded that even Winston Churchill spoke against what they are trying to do. I will also say very clearly that, whatever gossip people are hearing, there is no doubt that the trade unions would have funded the Labour party’s remain campaign, because they realise that the people who the Prime Minister of this country described as swivel-eyed loonies and the other right-wing reactionaries who would deregulate this nation will be worse for working people. Whatever the outcome of the Bill, and even if it had not been changed at all, I am convinced that the trade unions would have been in that position on behalf of their members, putting their money where their mouth is.
The hon. Gentleman’s words speak for themselves and are very powerful.
This is a shabby political episode. The Government have been caught diluting trade union legislation to persuade the trade unions to come on board with the campaign to stay in the European Union. Is it not clear that the Government, big business, the big banks, the BBC and now the big trade unions are all ganging up on the British people to try to persuade them to stay in the European Union?
Nothing pains me more than to have angered my hon. Friend, as I clearly have. I have huge liking and respect for him; whenever he asks me to visit his constituency I drop everything to come, because I just think he is a great man. But I reject what he has said. Unlike in any other case, perhaps in this case he is blinded a little by his passion for the issue. I simply point out that all he need do is look at the front pages and editorial pages of every single newspaper that is traditionally seen as a Conservative supporter to see that there is a balance of opinion in this debate and his arguments are being well represented.
Given the impact the Bill will have on workers’ rights across the whole of the United Kingdom, what discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations since the Lords amendments?
I have not yet had that pleasure, but I anticipate it.
This is a very simple issue, on which the Minister could give a very straightforward answer. The allegation is that the Trade Union Bill was watered down for the benefit of the trade unions on the understanding that they would then make a considerable donation to the campaign to stay in the European Union. Will the Minister give us a clear denial, with the authority of the Dispatch Box, that any such discussions took place with Ministers or officials, and that in no way whatever was the watering down of the Bill done with any mention of funding from trade unions for the EU remain campaign? It is very simple for him to deny it if it is not true.
I aspire—and probably always will—to be as straightforward as my hon. Friend. I have been very clear: we went through a process of negotiation, not just with shadow Ministers but with members of other parties and none in the other House. We have secured a package that, I have to say, I do not believe any hon. Member on the Government Benches would have predicted; when we introduced the Bill, no one would have predicted that we would have secured as much of it as swiftly and as easily as we have, because it was probably the most politically controversial Bill in our original Queen’s Speech. As for decisions by trade unions to back the campaign for which they had already declared long before yesterday’s consideration of the amendments to the Bill, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) spoke very clearly when he said that the trade unions would have supported the campaign wholeheartedly and full-throatedly anyway, because they believe that it is in their interests and the interests of their members to do so.
I do not think that there was anything so grubby as a deal, but if an agreement was reached I congratulate the Opposition Chief Whip on showing how politics can be done. May I urge the Minister now to ask the private sector to follow the leadership of the trade unions and contact their employees to make the case for Europe and the terrible threats to jobs, investment and growth if we leave a single market of 500 million consumers?
I am not sure, Mr Speaker, whether you would count that question or my likely answer as directly relevant, but I will venture on until you stop me. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of businesses, small and large, have many beefs about the European Union—I do, too—but ultimately think that it is in our interests to stay. I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent, that I think all of us should be doing all we can, whether financially or in other ways, to encourage the people we represent to see that their interests are best protected by staying in.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) who asked this urgent question speaks passionately on behalf of his own union, which is the general and municipal union of Brexit bigots. [Hon. Members: “Order!”] It is extraordinary that he asked for the adviser on ministerial interests to be woken from his slumber—that adviser has been virtually unemployed since he was appointed, after the previous holder of the office, Sir Philip Mawer, resigned because he believed that he should have been called in to investigate the conduct of the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who gained absolution through resignation. As Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, why on earth is the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex not demanding an inquiry into the two Ministers who gave £3 million to Kids Company in the face of advice from civil servants, three days before it collapsed? It is because the office of the adviser has been degraded and politicised. [Interruption.]
Order. Calm down. Calm. The benefit of yoga, even for Ministers, should not be underestimated. Let me intercede briefly because there were calls of “Order” when the hon. Gentleman used a word about Members on the Government Back Benches. I did not intervene because I judge that to be a matter of taste. There is no imputation of dishonour and—I mean this in no unkind spirit—the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), and other likeminded souls, are perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Their honour has not been impugned in any way, and that is why I did not intervene. The remark stands, and the Minister must reply.
There are no bigots on the Government side of the House, least of all my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), or any hon. Friend who disagrees with me on this subject. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) does himself no credit by hurling that kind of playschool abuse across the Chamber. He is a disgrace, the comment was a disgrace, and he should withdraw it.
Order. The Minister is entitled to his view, but I hope the House will not take offence if I say that I will judge whether a remark needs to be withdrawn. With great force and eloquence the Minister has offered his view, and I respect him for that, but we will leave it there.
But he hasn’t answered the question.
If I were to intervene on grounds of order every time a question is not answered, nothing else would ever happen in the Chamber.
I confess to a sense of bemusement at this urgent question, which seems to be little more than a contrived confluence of the pet prejudices of right-wing Tories, namely trade unions and the European Union. That said, I restate my absolute opposition to this Bill. Will the Minister confirm that trade unions remain a part of civil society and have an absolute right to make representations to the Government on behalf of their members, irrespective of what right-wing Conservative Back Benchers might wish?
Of course I confirm that, but the position governing strike action, the proper regulation of trade union activities with regard to finances and membership, and the position on picketing and intimidation of non-striking workers, were not acceptable until this Bill was introduced, and they will remain not acceptable until the Bill has secured Royal Assent. Of course I accept that trade unions have an important role in society, but they needed and will benefit from this reform. I put on record my gratitude to all my hon. Friends, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, for their support for the Bill.
Today is International Workers Memorial Day, which serves as a poignant reminder of why we need good and strong trade unions in our society. I also think it right that the trade union movement is opposed to many of the measures in the Bill, which is an attack on how it operates on behalf of its members. On the substantive point of the urgent question, the Bill is not yet legislation and has not been enacted. Surely the fact that a Labour-affiliated trade union has decided to donate some of its Labour-affiliated political fund to a Labour-supported campaign is perfectly within the law.
The hon. Gentleman is correct.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister and all colleagues.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Points of order really come after statements. The hon. Gentleman has had a good run, and he should be patient. I am sure his point of order can be heard later, if it is sufficiently important to warrant either his staying in the Chamber or his returning to it.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 2 May—The House will not be sitting. It is the May Day bank holiday.
Tuesday 3 May—I remind the House that we will be sitting Monday hours, not Tuesday hours. We will be debating a motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Housing and Planning Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill.
Wednesday 4 May—Opposition day debate (un-allotted half day). There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by debate on a motion relating to education funding in London. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Thursday 5 May—General debate on the contribution of faith organisations to the voluntary sector in local communities. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 6 May—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 9 May will include:
Monday 9 May—Debate on a motion on Government Departments outside London. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Monday 9 will be:
Monday 9 May—Debate on an e-petition relating to the Government’s EU referendum leaflet.
Ed Balls! Do we actually have a Government at all? They are all over the place. We all thought that the referendum was a simple question of “EU—in or out?” but this week it got much more complicated, as we learned it was also about “ECHR—in or out?” The Home Secretary is an “in, out”, but the Lord Chancellor is an “out, in”. The Chancellor is an “in, in”, along with the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, but the Leader of the House is an “out, out”. As for me, I am out for in, but that is more of a gay pro-EU kind of thing.
The Health Secretary says he is in his last big job in politics—hurrah!—and I hear that with an impending reshuffle several Ministers have been scouring the jobs market. I have even heard rumours of new government postings to overseas territories being planned. Boris is off to St Helena to cultivate his Napoleon complex and Whitto to the Falklands, and for the Health Secretary there is Inaccessible Island, in the south Atlantic, which is probably where the junior doctors want to send him anyway.
As for the Leader of the House—this is very exciting news—I gather that he is 33:1 to be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer and 80:1 to be the next Tory leader, but I have a much better idea. On this day in 1789, as I am sure Members know, Fletcher Christian mutinied on the Bounty. Christian ended up on Pitcairn Island, which is 9,000 miles from here. I can just imagine the Leader of the House as the governor of Pitcairn, dressed in his white linen shorts, his solar topee and his white socks and sandals, lording it over all 56 inhabitants. If he wants, I can put in a word with the Prime Minister for him—because I see that the Prime Minister is trying to advance my career.
Can we have a debate on irresponsible politics? I suspect the Leader of the House might never have heard of Arfon Jones, but he tweeted:
“I think we should have a protest where thousands of us send emails containing the words bomb+terrorist+Iran. That should keep GCHQ quiet.”
Now Arfon might be a stupid crank, but he is also the Plaid Cymru candidate for North Wales police and crime commissioner.
Can we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the deeply worrying breakdown of the e-borders system on 14 and 15 June last year? We need to know, first: have there been other breakdowns? Were full warnings index checks implemented and, above all, why did the Home Secretary cover this up for so long? The Leader of the House says that we should leave the EU so we can control our borders, but surely the lesson we should learn is that the greatest threat to our borders is, frankly, Tory incompetence.
The Leader of the House says that we should consider Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill on Tuesday. As I walked into Parliament this morning, the police were moving on two homeless people who have been sleeping on the doorstep of this parliamentary palace for the last week. Under the Tories, rough sleeping has doubled and funding for those sleeping rough has halved. We believe that this Bill will make the housing crisis in London even worse. So will this Government ensure, for heaven’s sake, that for every single social housing unit sold off, at least another is built in its place?
On 29 November 2012, the Prime Minister said of the Leveson inquiry that there would be
“a second part to investigate wrongdoing in the press and the police”.—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 446.]
I listened to the Home Secretary very carefully yesterday. She made an excellent statement, but she also said:
“We have always said that a decision on Leveson 2 will be made when all the investigations have been completed.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 1441.]
Well, that is not right. Up until now, the Government position and the Prime Minister’s position has always been that Leveson 2 will start—not might start—as soon as the police and prosecuting authorities have finished their work.
Surely, one of the many lessons we must learn from Hillsborough is that when the relationship between the police and the press gets too close, it corrupts them both. After all, some have argued that the law of libel means there is no need for a strong independent press regulator, but the 96 people whose reputation was dragged through the mud by the police, The Sun and The Spectator could not sue for libel, could they? So surely we need Leveson 2 now more than ever.
As Passover ends on Saturday, let me say again as clearly as I possibly can that anti-Semitism is wrong—full stop, end of story. I am sick and tired of people trying to explain it away—and, yes, I am talking to you, Ken Livingstone. Of course the illegal settlements are wrong and the Palestinians deserve a better deal. Of course, too, rocket attacks on Jewish kibbutzim are wrong, and Hamas and Hezbollah must acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. I was taught to judge people not according to the colour of their skin, their race, their religion, their gender or their sexuality, but according to the strength of their character.
Frankly, it is no better when a senior politician looks at the President of the United States and sees only the colour of his skin and his “part-Kenyan ancestry” or when the Tory candidate for the Mayor of London runs a deliberately racially charged campaign against his Labour opponent. It is profoundly irresponsible, and it offends the fundamental decency of the British people. I hope I speak for all Members when I say that racism and racial prejudice are simply not welcome in our political system or our political parties.
I shall come back to that issue in a few moments, but I of course share most of the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. Let me deal with other issues first.
I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, and the shadow Leader of the House a very happy Ed Balls day. I never thought they would come to miss him as much as they apparently do.
I was asked about the European convention on human rights. The hon. Gentleman spoke about in-out policies and out-in policies, but what he did not talk about was all-over-the-place policies, which is the Labour party’s position on this issue. Labour Members do not want prisoners to have the vote, but they do not want to change our human rights laws. They should be smart enough to realise that those two positions are completely incompatible.
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of the Health Secretary’s comment about his last big job in government. What we would remind the hon. Gentleman of is the fact that he does not see his job as his last big job in government, as the Prime Minister wisely reminded us yesterday. The hon. Gentleman spoke of odds on jobs for the future, but I suspect that the odds on his becoming Speaker of this House are longer than the odds on my becoming manager of Liverpool football club.
On the subject of Liverpool football club and the hon. Gentleman’s comments on Hillsborough, I would like to say a couple of things. First, when we were in opposition, I served as a shadow Minister for Liverpool, and I have enormous regard for that city, its people and their resilience. I would like to pay a personal tribute to all the Hillsborough families and all the people in Liverpool who supported them through their long years of struggle. They achieved justice this week.
I also wish to pay a personal tribute to the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). I thought that what he said in the House yesterday was incredibly moving. It was a fine moment in our parliamentary history, and the right hon. Gentleman deserves enormous credit for what he has done.
The shadow Leader of the House talked about Leveson 2. Let me simply remind him of the Government’s position, which is that we will not move forward until the cases are complete. That is the right thing to do, and we will continue to stick to our position. The hon. Gentleman also made a point about Arfon Jones. Yes, I do know who he is, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the views he has expressed are objectionable. It is my sincere hope that he is not elected as police and crime commissioner in that part of north Wales.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the e-borders programme was supposed to arrive and be put into effect when Labour was in power, but that did not happen, because Labour failed to deliver it. When Labour Members talk to us about what we have done in government, they should bear in mind that they were in power for 13 years, and that they started by dismantling the exit checks at our borders and then completely failed to provide an alternative.
The hon. Gentleman talked about homelessness. Let me just remind him of his party’s record in government. In 13 years, the Labour Government built fewer council houses than we built during the first Parliament in which we were in office.
Let me now return to the question of anti-Semitism, and pay a personal tribute to the hon. Gentleman. When it comes to this issue, his has been a voice of reason, sanity and common sense in the Labour party, and he deserves credit for that. However, I wish that all his colleagues saw things in the same way. What he said about Ken Livingstone was absolutely right. Ken Livingstone’s comments yesterday, suggesting that the matters that were at the heart of yesterday’s controversy were not anti-Semitic, were disgraceful. I do not understand —as, indeed, many Labour Members do not understand—how Ken Livingstone can still be a member of the Labour party today. He should be suspended from the party for the things that he said. I also think, however, that there has been some naivety on the Labour Benches this morning.
The hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) said on the “Today” programme that she regarded these events as “trial by Twitter”, and likened what had happened to the tweeting of a picture of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) on a zip wire. It is clear that she does not fully understand the gravity of the situation. We heard wise words from the shadow Leader of the House, and I respect him for them, although I profoundly disagree with what he said about my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. He made a powerful point, and, in this regard, he is a beacon of sense in his party; but where is the sense on the rest of the Labour Benches in respect of what is a deeply, deeply serious matter?
A number of my constituents have been victims of what appears to be a financial scam, and Humberside police have referred them to Action Fraud. The contact that they have had with Action Fraud is minimal, and they are very dissatisfied. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the work of Action Fraud?
My hon. Friend has made an important point, and I pay tribute to him for raising this issue in the House. We are, of course, aware that a range of different scams are taking place throughout our society, and that the victims are often vulnerable people. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will be here next week, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that the issue is on his radar as well.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business.
Let us forget about Ed Balls day. Today is International Workers Memorial day, when we remember all those who have been killed in the workplace. The slogan for this day is “Remember the dead—fight for the living”. I think that those words are very apt, given that we are currently considering the Trade Union Bill.
Will the Government not simply do the right thing, and accept the unaccompanied child refugees who are currently languishing in a variety of refugee camps in southern Europe? When even the bleeding hearts on the Daily Mail are calling for the Government to accept these wretched children, surely the time has come for even this, the most callous of Governments, to reconsider their position and do the right thing. They will have their chance, for it seems that on 9 May, the Lords amendment will return to the House of Commons. Will the Government look on it positively, and, for the sake of the country and all its people—even the right-wing press—will they do the right thing by these children?
When I was growing up in Scotland, a little announcement was sometimes made during previews of the television programmes that people would see on their analogue sets: “not for viewers in Scotland”. It occurred to me that we could resurrect that announcement and apply it to Prime Minister’s Question Time, because most of the last two sessions have dealt exclusively with the academisation of English schools: not for viewers in Scotland, and not for viewers in most other parts of the United Kingdom. The Leader of the Opposition can raise whatever issues he wants—it is up to him to do that—but perhaps the time has now come to review Prime Minister’s questions to see whether we could make them more inclusive for everyone throughout the United Kingdom, particularly as we now seem to have two Labour parties as well. Perhaps the Leader of the House will support that call.
May we have a debate on the Government’s commitments on defence spending in the Clyde shipyards? I remember only too well some of the things that were said during the independence referendum. I particularly remember a leaflet that went round—it was common currency—that had been designed by the Labour and Tory alliance. The suggestion was that “separation kills shipyards”. It was actually quite a neat little slogan, implying that it would be all boom within the Union and doom and gloom if we secured independence. Of course we now recognise that for the nonsense it was. It is not independence that is killing the shipyards; it is this Union that is killing them slowly and painfully by diminishing the orders and delaying the start of the works. The Scottish people feel duped by all the commitments that were made during the independence referendum, so may we have a full debate so that the Government can explain fully what is going on? We need to ensure that the work is started on time and that all their promises are honoured.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as Leader of the House, has full access to the Prime Minister’s diary, so perhaps he can explain why there will be no prime ministerial visit to Scotland in advance of the Scottish election. In fact, the Prime Minister is probably the last person Ruth Davidson wants to see if she has any ambition, given the likelihood of the Conservatives beating Labour into third place. We would love to see him, however, because every time he appears, the Scottish National party gains an extra two percentage points. Will the Leader of the House encourage his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to come to Scotland? He could even come himself. The more Tories there are in Scotland in advance of the election, the better it will be for the Scottish National party.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have great regard for him as a parliamentary colleague, but sometimes his rhetoric lets him down. He describes us as the “most callous of Governments”, but we are providing the second largest amount of aid to all the refugee camps around Syria and doing as much as any nation in the world bar the United States to help the people affected. We are taking 20,000 people not from other European countries but from the refugee camps where they are most vulnerable. He talked about unaccompanied children, but we are taking unaccompanied children not from other EU countries where they are safe and under the control of the Governments of those countries but from the camps where they are vulnerable. Surely that is the sensible, wise, thoughtful and considerate thing to do. We are not saying, “No, we will provide no assistance.” We are providing assistance to those who have not been able to make it to Europe, and that is a policy that we resolutely stand by.
The hon. Gentleman talked about Prime Minister’s questions dealing with education. I would simply remind him that that is a consequence of devolution. This is a United Kingdom Parliament, but it is true that in his constituency, education is a matter not for him but for the Member of the Scottish Parliament. This is one of the differences that we have debated over recent months. The reality is that this is a consequence of the devolutionary settlement that he has championed from the start.
The hon. Gentleman talked about defence spending in the Clyde shipyards. He is absolutely right to suggest that if Scotland were independent now, it would not be getting big orders from the Ministry of Defence. He wants a debate and a chance to vote on these matters; he will soon have an opportunity to vote on whether to remove from Scotland one of the biggest defence facilities in the United Kingdom, on getting rid of the jobs there, and on removing from Scotland what is an important part of its economy as well as an important part of our nation’s defences. When he can explain his position on that in the context of the welfare of Scotland, I will take him seriously on these issues.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the Scottish election, and about the Conservatives in Scotland. I have been to Scotland since the start of the election campaign and I am delighted to see that the Conservatives are moving up in the polls, although I am sure that there is no connection between the two. All of us on this side of the House believe that we have the best leader in Scotland. We believe that she will play a crucial part in Scotland’s affairs over the coming years as people come to realise that the SNP Government in Edinburgh might make a lot of noise but are actually incapable of getting the job done.
On 12 May, the Prime Minister is hosting an anti-corruption summit in London. That has never happened before, and it will have a far-reaching impact. May we have a debate on the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and on our progress towards creating fully open public registers of beneficial ownership information?
That subject is due to be debated in Westminster Hall shortly, but my hon. Friend is right about the role that the Government have played over the past six years—first in coalition, and then on our own. We have delivered more change and progress on such issues than any previous Government, and that is something of which we should be proud.
I thank the Leader of the House for the announcement of the business. With this afternoon’s business, which was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee, the day and half-day next week, and the half-day in the following week, we are inching ever closer to the 27 days to which the Backbench Business Committee and Back Benchers are entitled within the parliamentary Session. I thank the Leader of the House for that.
As has been mentioned, today is International Workers Memorial Day, which is commemorated by the TUC and trades councils all around the country, including at a memorial service at noon in Saltwell Park in my constituency of Gateshead. This day, on which we say, “Remember the dead; fight for the living,” is for those who died in industrial accidents or from diseases contracted due to workplace conditions. Will the Leader of the House consider recognising International Workers Memorial Day in the parliamentary calendar in future?
On the subject of International Workers Memorial Day, may I first say that this country is a better place than it was in the past? Representing an area where there have been large industrial accidents in the past, the hon. Gentleman is right not only to recognise the progress that has been made, but to remember those who died before progress was made. None of us would wish to go back to those days. Even though we often debate the complexity of health and safety regulations, I put it on the record that it is not in the interests of anyone in this country, from business owners to workers to those who are not involved at all, to have an environment in which people are at risk in the workplace. When industrial accidents occur, as tragically happened at Didcot power station recently, we all bitterly regret it. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the work that they will do to mark this occasion. Let us never go back to the days when such things were commonplace in this country.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who now dominates the parliamentary calendar, controlling far more of it than the Government, will find an opportunity to recognise this important day and to ensure that Members have the same opportunity in coming years.
Macey, a nine-year-old little girl from my constituency, is not very well at the moment; in fact, I think she was taken into hospital again last night. To make her completely better, she is going to have to go to the United States and the NHS is providing for that. There was a problem, however, because she could not get a passport. She and her mother do not have passports, and it would have taken up to six weeks to get them. Thanks to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) and the personal intervention of the Home Secretary, the passports will now be sorted out tomorrow. Macey asked whether I could thank the House, and the Home Secretary in particular, for that. Perhaps we could have a general debate some time in the future about how the Government can, at times, work together for common sense.
I think my hon. Friend’s words say it all. We wish Macey all the very best in her treatment and a full recovery. The image of this place is often one of political debate and confrontation, but there are decent people on both sides of the House, one of whom is my hon. Friend, working on the behalf of their constituencies and trying to solve problems such as this, where all of us want the right thing to be done.
The Leader of the House will know that Calvin Thomas is retiring today after 26 years’ great service to the House, including 16 years as a Doorkeeper, working in the Special Gallery since 2009. I know Calvin well, in part because we have sometimes been confused due our similar, if different, names. Calvin has been consistently friendly, helpful and charming in carrying out his duties as a valued member of our staff, so may I ask that the Leader of the House conveys the whole House’s thanks to Calvin and wishes him a most happy and well-deserved retirement on our behalf?
The hon. Gentleman has said it eloquently on all our behalves, so I simply echo his words and not only wish Calvin a happy retirement, but express our thanks to the Doorkeepers, who are great servants of the House, treating us all with great courtesy and good humour and performing enormously valuable work for us. We value what they do enormously.
As my right hon. Friend may know, the UK Sepsis Trust has been working for some time with the Health Secretary to establish a public awareness campaign on Sepsis. Sepsis currently claims about 44,000 lives in the UK every year and the symptoms of the disease are still not well recognised. May we have a debate about what could be done to introduce a sepsis-specific public awareness campaign for both children and adults? I believe that such a campaign would have the potential to save the lives of thousands of people every year.
May I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend on the work she is doing in this important area? I am aware that the Health Secretary is taking this issue enormously seriously and has had meetings with those campaigning for the kind of public awareness work that she is talking about, and I am certain he will wish to take that forward. This is a very serious matter and it behoves us, as representatives of our constituents and as members of the Government, to try to look for ways to deal with challenges such as this.
May I ask the Leader of the House to condemn the Labour police and crime commissioner candidate for north Wales, David Taylor, for appallingly callous Twitter comments that can be interpreted by right-thinking people only as mocking Hillsborough families?
There are growing concerns that Government links with Tata and the Warwick Manufacturing Group will result in the sacrifice of heavy-end primary steel production at Port Talbot. Will the Leader of the House press the Business Secretary to make a statement to assure Port Talbot workers that this Government prioritise their future in deeds as well as words, and that all proposals for a UK steel solution will be assessed based on the evidence and with the interests of UK citizens first and foremost?
I can simply assure the hon. Lady that the Government take this matter enormously seriously, and the Business Secretary will be here again next week. The Government have taken an interest in this from the Prime Minister downwards—he has taken a personal interest in what happens at Port Talbot. None of us wants to see Port Talbot disappear; we want to see it continue to make steel. It is in all of our interests that that happens and we will work as hard as we can to make sure it does.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the conduct of the EU referendum campaign thus far? When canvassing in my constituency, I have found that local residents, regardless of their political views, are angered by the intervention of the outgoing President in our domestic affairs. They are also furious about £9 million being spent by the Government on leaflets and they think the Treasury booklet making forecasts for 2030 is crazy, given that, just like weather forecasters, these people cannot even get their projections right for the next day.
My hon. Friend is a vigorous campaigner on these matters and feels passionately about them. As I announced earlier, there will be a Westminster Hall debate on this on 9 May, when he will have the opportunity to express himself as succinctly as he wishes about the booklet that went through people’s doors. The interesting question is whether the factors that he has described will and are having an impact on the polling relating to the campaign.
We have heard from the shadow Leader of the House this morning that a British Airways computer system designed to stop the movement of terrorists crashed for 48 hours last year. Furthermore, I have learned that the British Airways outsourcing programme threatens 800 skilled workers who are working to protect our country. May we therefore have a debate to discuss the role of outsourcing in this event and to stop BA threatening our national security in a bid to save money?
The Government take our national security enormously seriously. While the failure the hon. Lady talks about took place, border control checks remained in place—as they always do and will. People’s passports are checked when they arrive in this country. The e-borders system is mostly about trying to ensure that we check people when they leave the country, which has never happened previously and is very important; we had hoped it would happen many years ago but, for various reasons, it never came to pass under the previous Government.
May we have a debate in Government time on the implications for the United Kingdom of the five Presidents’ report on economic and monetary union? As my right hon. Friend will be aware, under the guise of single market legislation the proposals are to take control over insolvency law, company law and property rights. Do the Government not have a duty to tell those in financial services and the City about the consequences of remaining in the European Union?
The five Presidents’ report, a major document published by the European Union, sets out the vision of those who lead its institutions for the next 10 years. It has provoked—and will continue to provoke—a lively debate about the future direction of this country and of the European Union as a whole. If my right hon. Friend feels that the matter should be debated in the House, I should say that I suspect that the Backbench Business Committee still has time available for a debate in the next couple of weeks. I suspect that this subject might attract fairly widespread participation.
Last week, during business questions, I raised an issue that is very serious in my constituency: the 20% increase in the use of food banks over the past year. That increase is precisely due to benefit delays and, even more criminally, benefit sanctions. I mentioned my constituent Paul who has been sanctioned for three whole years. The Leader of the House told me that that could happen only if three reasonable job offers had been turned down.
I want to return to this issue today to ask another question. First of all, let me point out that Paul is on £36 a week. His three-year sanction was due to his filling out his job logbook incorrectly, turning up 10 minutes late after having problems getting a bus, and expressing dissatisfaction after waiting for an hour at the jobcentre. He has therefore been living on £36 a week for three whole years. Will the Leader of the House consider, as a matter of urgency, a debate on the issue of sanctions, as an increasing number of people are having to depend on the charity of others?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes back and looks very closely at the circumstances of the case. I personally introduced the three-year sanction for people who, on three separate occasions, turn down a reasonable job offer—in other words, people who refuse to work. It remains my view to this day that if people who can work refuse to work and refuse to work again and again, they should not be entitled to carry on receiving support from the benefit system.
Last week came the really welcome news that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education had safeguarded the qualifications and teaching of community languages. I will list those languages for the benefit of the House: Gujarati, Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Japanese, Arabic, modern Greek, modern and biblical Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese and Turkish. That means that we have safeguarded the qualifications and the teaching of those vital languages in the modern world so that everyone can communicate. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State was not able to regale the House with the good news at questions this week. Something such as this should not be left to wither on the vine. Surely we should have a statement on that position, so that we can ensure that everyone understands that, from 2018, those languages are safeguarded in our education system.
Of course that is enormously important. Although we have the benefit in this country of having the nearest thing that there is to an international language in the English language, it is right and proper that, as a cosmopolitan society, we champion languages that not only preserve the culture of the different communities that live here, but open up enormous opportunities for Britain around the world. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I have no doubt that he will look to the different channels available to him to ensure that these matters are debated and explored more in this House.
Last week, I spoke in the national living wage debate to highlight the potential injustice of the decision to deny the living wage to those under 25. A young person could start work at the age of 18 and be in a role for seven years before being paid the same as their older and potentially less experienced colleagues. Can we have a debate in Government time to give Members the opportunity to persuade the Government to right that wrong and extend the living wage to the under-25s?
It has been the policy of this Government, and indeed of the previous Government, to differentiate in respect of minimum and living wages when it comes to younger workers and older workers precisely because when a young worker enters the workplace the employer is making an investment decision as well as a recruitment decision. The employer takes responsibility for training and developing that young person.
We did not want to see—indeed the hon. Lady’s party previously did not want this—a situation in which it was unattractive to hire a young worker, and we stand by that principle to this day. Of course many young people who start on the national living wage will move up the pay scale either through success in their own workplace or by moving to a different job. I still think it is important to do everything that we can to incentivise employers to take on young people.
As we are talking about the dodgy behaviour of police and crime commissioner candidates, may I say to the Leader of the House that a number of folk standing for election next week are ex-coppers trading on their record as police officers? Does he agree that the Government should bring forward proposals to ensure that ex-police officers standing to be PCCs make their police service record available for public scrutiny?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am aware of allegations about the Labour PCC candidate in Humberside. If the stories alleged about that candidate are true, he is unfit for public office, and it is a matter of public interest that the truth should be known before election day.
Back in 1847 when Lord John Russell was Prime Minister, our taxi licensing laws were developed. We now have a problem in the north-west of England, where one local authority is handing out hackney carriage taxi licences like sweeties. The problem is that with a hackney licence a person can operate as a private hire vehicle driver anywhere in the country, so there are now taxis from that local authority operating as far afield as Bristol without appropriate checks and balances. May we have an urgent debate on how we can bring our taxi licensing regime up to date?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was not aware of the situation that he describes. I will make sure that it is drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport who I am sure, if he was also unaware of it, will want to look at the matter very seriously.
The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has threatened to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for Stoke Gifford parish council in my constituency to charge for an organised sporting event that attracts several hundred people to quite a small park every weekend. Given that the Government have been a champion of localism and passed the Localism Act 2011 in the previous Parliament, that is a tad hypocritical. May we have a debate on the freedom of local councils to charge organisers who run sporting events in their parks?
I am not aware of the proposal that my hon. Friend refers to, but I understand his concern and I can see why he would raise it as a matter of importance in the House today. I will draw that issue to the attention of the Secretary of State. Clearly, we want to encourage local authorities to support, develop and underpin events that bring communities together. My hon. Friend makes an important point about his own constituency; I will make sure that we get a proper response for him.
This week has seen another dispute between the other place and this Chamber. I am sure that instead of leading to unaccompanied child refugees being brought into the country, it will lead to more cronies being appointed to the House of Lords. The Leader of the House has said previously that there is no appetite for proper reform. Where is the public appetite for even more cronies and donors than the current 800, and where is the manifesto commitment to continue stuffing the other place? May we have a statement on the matter?
The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues insult many of the very deserving and effective people who operate in the other place—people who represent the disability lobby, who have serious disabilities themselves; people who represent the arts world, who have long track records in the arts; and people who represent the business world, who have long track records in business. The expertise in the other place brings something significant to our parliamentary system, even though sometimes the two Houses disagree over issues, as we do currently.
Given the delays that a number of my constituents have faced in receiving their basic farm payments this year, may we have a debate on the process for issuing payments to farmers whose land crosses the English-Welsh border or the English-Scottish border so that such delays are not repeated next year? Those farmers always appear to be at the back of the queue.
That remains an issue. I have spoken to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about it. It is true that across the country the vast majority of payments have been made, but I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes. I will ensure that the Secretary of State is aware of his concerns. She will be here next week and will be able to respond to him fully.
The Leader of the House will be aware of the emerging crisis at the yard on the Clyde tasked with building the Type 26 frigate. A late start to the project and uncertainty over the future workflow threatens hundreds of jobs at Govan and Scotstoun. May we therefore have a debate in Government time to allow Members to discuss in depth the future of the Clyde shipbuilding industry and give a voice to those workers who are unsure of their future?
The Clyde shipbuilding industry has a strong future for two reasons—first, because it remains part of the United Kingdom and therefore benefits from United Kingdom defence spending, and secondly, because this Government have committed to the 2% spending level as part of our commitment to NATO. If those things were not happening, the future, of course, would be much more uncertain, but I am convinced that the Clyde shipyards have a strong future. They are an essential part of our defence and we need to ensure that they continue to flourish in the years to come.
May we have a statement on the treatment by the House of public petitions that attract a large number of signatures? As the Leader of the House knows, there will be a debate on 9 May about the petition to stop the Government spending public money on pro-remain propaganda in the EU referendum. As of a few moments ago, 217,072 people had signed the petition, but the debate on it, like others of a similar nature, will be held in Westminster Hall, where no vote can be held. Should it not be possible for the Backbench Business Committee to hold such debates in the main Chamber? Otherwise, petitioners will be disappointed to find that, although their concerns are debated, the House is unable to vote on them.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which relates to not only this subject but others. I would encourage discourse between the two hon. Members who chair the Petitions Committee and the Backbench Business Committee so that they can see how, when a petition reaches a certain number of signatures and clearly commands overwhelming public support, a debate can be brought to the Floor of the House.
For what it is worth, perhaps I can say from the Chair that I think that would be a very, very good thing. I would not dream of taking sides on the issues, but in terms of the link between Parliament and the people, it is very important that it be not just tangible but meaningful, and there is real scope for progress there, so I very much appreciate what the Leader of the House has said.
On the topic of democracy and having votes, the House voted 278 to 0 last week on a motion to ask the Government to bring to the UN Security Council the issue of the genocide against Christians, Yazidis and others. What will the Leader of the House do to bring the Government to account and to ensure they respect the democracy of this place by doing what they have been asked to do and taking these crimes to the UN Security Council so that action is taken?
To reiterate, the Government’s position is one of shock, horror and condemnation regarding what has taken place—that is an unreserved statement. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is taking careful note of the view of the House, as expressed in the debate the hon. Gentleman refers to.
I recently had cause to write to the President of the European Commission to ask what role he saw it playing in our EU referendum. I have had no answer, but given that the Commission spent £560 million directly promoting itself in 2014 and that it interfered in the Irish referendum in 2009, may we have a statement from the Government on whether European Commission interference in this referendum is welcome? As I understand it, the Electoral Commission has no powers whatever to prevent the EU from being an unwelcome active participant in our democratic process.
I can indeed confirm that that is the case. However, I am sure there will be different opinions in the House on whether such an intervention would be helpful or unhelpful to either side of the argument.
A former Minister, who spoke from the Dispatch Box less than a year ago, is now employed by industry in China—presumably using his insider knowledge—whose firms are in competition with British firms. Some 70% of former senior civil servants who worked on income tax are now working in the tax avoidance industry. When can we debate the need to euthanise the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which should be a fierce Rottweiler watchdog, but which is nothing but a poodle without teeth or claws, bark or bite, and is totally and utterly useless?
I do wish the hon. Gentleman would learn to tell us what he really thinks.
I am not sure if my memory is correct, Mr Speaker —you may correct me otherwise—but if I remember rightly, the Committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred was set up by the party of which he is part. I remind him that it was a senior member of his own party who described himself after leaving office, and while in pursuit of commercial opportunities, as a “taxi for hire”.
I have had the privilege of visiting the Rugby young carers project, which is based at Hill Street youth and community centre in my constituency, under the inspirational leadership of Annette Collier. It is for amazing young people who play a part in the care of family members. I was deeply concerned to learn that Warwickshire’s young carers project faces losing funding that will affect those under eight years old, as that will have an impact in Rugby. May we have a debate about the importance of properly supporting these young people?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One of the most invisible groups of heroes in our society are our young carers. Until we come across them at first hand, none of us really understands how a child can be left, in effect, as a full-time or semi-full-time carer of a parent. I have a young carers group in my constituency that does enormously valuable work. His local group clearly plays a really important role, and I know that he will do everything he can to make sure that its future is guaranteed because it is important to the communities he represents.
I am becoming increasingly concerned about the discriminatory language that has been used in the Chamber recently. The Education Secretary recently called us—the Opposition—“deaf”, using deafness as a pejorative term, which is unacceptable. Yesterday the Prime Minister used the word “poncey”, which many people take to be homophobic. May we have a statement about our duty under the Equality Act 2010, which includes the language that we use in this Chamber?
I think that people will hear in words what they want to hear. The one thing that nobody could accuse my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of is homophobia. The man who brought to this House and saw through same-sex marriage is not somebody who could ever be described as homophobic.
This morning there has been a very thorough Committee hearing on the UK steel industry, but will the Leader of the House organise a statement next week so that all Members are able to put questions to Ministers on behalf of our steel towns? Despite the commercial sensitivities, it is very important that we and our constituents know exactly what is happening and what progress is being made to secure the future of the industry.
My hon. Friend and Opposition Members who represent steel towns have done a really important job in recent weeks of reminding us of the importance of this industry. I commend him, and them, for that. I am happy to say that I can lay on just such an opportunity, because next week we have Business, Innovation and Skills questions and he will be able to put his point to the Secretary of State then.
Hot off the press this morning is early-day motion 1432.
[That this House notes last week’s by-election in the House of Lords, which saw Viscount Thurso elected to the other place following the sad death of Lord Avebury; further notes the size of the electorate was only three; calls into question the legitimacy of this by-election; believes now is the time for the abolition of the remaining 92 hereditary peers’ right to vote and speak in the House of Lords; and agrees to bring forward the second stage of reform following the House of Lords Reform Act 1999.]
That backs up the Bill I introduced on Tuesday to abolish the right of hereditary peers to vote and to speak in the House of Lords. Given that there are currently the same number of Members on the Government Front Bench as voted in the election of a hereditary peer last week, is it not time that we had a debate on ending this farcical process?
What always slightly puzzles me is that although Labour was in power for 13 years and brought through House of Lords reform, it did not address the issue on which Labour Members are calling for change. I think we all admit that there was something curiously quaint about the Liberal Democrat electorate of three, but of course one has to cut them a bit of slack because there are so few of them these days. My view is that there are pressing issues facing this country, and dealing with the Lib Dem electorate of three is probably not at the top of the list.
May we have a debate on the London licensed taxi trade? Black cab drivers in my constituency offer a lot more to London and their community than Uber does.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, in a free market London taxi drivers do face challenges, but I believe they are the best in the world and bring something of immense value to our city. I do not believe that in anything that any of us does in politics, at this level or at a London level, would we ever wish to jeopardise their future.
Given statements made in the Back-Bench business debate in this House a couple of weeks ago, I presume that last week the Government received for security review the Chilcot report. Will the Leader of the House update us on progress and when we can expect a debate in the House?
The report is now going through what I hope are the final processes before publication. As I have said to this House before, there is no Conservative Member who would not wish to see the report out and published. We were not in power at the time, so the issues do not affect us. We want to see the truth out there and we need to learn lessons about the Chilcot process for the future, in the event of similar inquiries needing to take place. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would like to see it published and out of the way so that people know what is in it.
May we have a debate on making it easier for metropolitan councils to switch to all-out elections or elections by halves so that councils such as Dudley can cut the cost of local politics?
That is an important issue and, of course, local councils have the freedom to do it: it is for them to decide whether they have elections in thirds, halves or individually. My personal view is that it is a real hike for a local council to be doing elections every year and I prefer all-out elections, but it is, of course, a matter for local decision making.
Every year on the Sunday closest to St George’s day, Enfield scouts and guides organise and take part in a St George’s day parade through Enfield town. I usually accompany them and it is a fantastic day. I pay tribute to the scouts and the guides, particularly to all the volunteer leaders for the good job they do in enabling scouts and guides to happen every week for our young people. I am very concerned that youth services are severely at risk from the cuts that the Government are passing down to local authorities, so may we have a debate in Government time to consider the problem, which is affecting our young people and their families?
May I start by paying tribute to the right hon. Lady for what she said about anti-Semitism in her party? The comments that she and the shadow Leader of the House have made are to their credit.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady about the role played by the scouts and the guides, but what they represent is the best of our voluntary sector. Sometimes we depend too much on Government and the public sector for the best work. That work is happening without any Government involvement, as it has done over the century since the scouts and guides movements were formed, and long may that continue.
The Jewish community has a history with Scotland going back beyond 200 years. I know that Members of this House will want to send a message that we value the Jewish community and the contribution it has made not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. With that in mind, and given this week’s events, may we have a debate on the valuable contribution that the Jewish community has made to civil society in this country and, equally important, on how we root out anti-Semitism in this country’s political discourse?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, whose sentiments will be shared across most of this House. We have heard some important contributions on the subject today. It might also be appropriate to say that this is not just about anti-Semitism; it is also about Islamophobia and prejudice against other groups in our society. There is no place in our society for racial prejudice. It should not be tolerated and we should unreservedly condemn it whenever we find it.
In the light of the changes to the railways suggested by the Hendy and Shaw reports, may we have a debate on how community groups such as mine in Bury can drive forward local ownership of railway assets that are to be disposed of, so that local people get a say in what happens in their locality?
That is a very important point. We have to be careful about disposing of rail assets, for two reasons, one of which my hon. Friend has just given. The other is that local authorities often have a vision to bring back into use transport corridors for the future, but if they are simply sold off for development, that option is taken away. I am proud that, over the past 15 years, this country has seen the reopening of railway lines and rail corridors. A new service was recently opened from Oxford to London Marylebone and it runs across previously disused lines that have been brought back into operation under Chiltern Railways. My hon. Friend makes an important point, because had it been decided to dispose of some of those facilities, that route would not have been possible. In reopening the line from Oxford to Cambridge, we are already seeing that there are barriers as a result of a previous development. My hon. Friend makes an important point about her own constituency, but it is one that should be learned right across the country.
Last month in business questions I raised the case of my constituent who took the drug sodium valproate, which is an effective treatment for epilepsy but which left her children with birth defects. The Leader of the House recommended that I try to raise the matter at Health questions, but unfortunately I was not successful. Does he have any advice for me on how I can raise the issue of sodium valproate and birth defects?
The Minister for Community and Social Care has just arrived in the Chamber, so he probably heard what the hon. Lady said. I will raise the issue directly with the Department of Health for her at the end of this sitting, and I will ask the appropriate Minister to respond to her. She makes an important point, and we have to be enormously careful about it. There are many drugs that make a big difference to our society, but where unexpected side effects cause the kinds of problems she refers to, it is right and proper that that is looked at enormously carefully.
I am most anxious that the Minister for Community and Social Care should have the opportunity to regain his breath. He is a very welcome arrival. [Interruption.] He has just run the marathon; that might be why he is out of breath.
May we have a debate on the crazy situation I face in Bexhill and Battle? Our local authority is one of only 17 in which parking enforcement is still the responsibility of the police, who have stated that they can no longer do it because—fairly enough—they are required to look after policing matters. The local authority refuses to take it on. The situation is driving our residents and business people absolutely mad. Would it be possible to have a debate on whether the Government should step in and end this madness?
Before I answer my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the Minister for Community and Social Care, who has just arrived, and to all the Members of this House who ran the marathon last weekend and emerged intact, with medals around their necks—
And in the past.
And in the past, but I will celebrate this year, if I may. The hon. Gentleman always wants to jump in and have his say, but I want to commend all those who ran this year for the valuable work that they have done to raise funds for charity and raise awareness of charities. They deserve a collective pat on the back from people in this House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) is right. It is an extraordinary position where nobody wants to enforce parking, and I can understand the frustration of local businesses. I urge him simply to redouble the pressure on the local authority. If he has enough people behind him on what he wants to achieve, in the end, the local authority will have to give way.
I join the Leader of the House in congratulating the Minister for Community and Social Care on running the marathon again and congratulating all other participants in the marathon. What the Leader of the House has said is both right and greatly appreciated by colleagues.
We now come to the first of our two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. The precise timings have yet to be determined, but there is a very sharp imbalance in favour of the first debate, as against the second. A lot more people want to take part in this debate, and that will influence the judgment of the Chair as to how long this debate should be allowed to run. In short, there will be an allocation of time for the second debate, but it will, very properly, be a much lesser allocation of time.
World Autism Awareness Week
I beg to move,
That this House notes that World Autism Awareness Week was held from 2 to 8 April; believes that there is a lack of understanding of the needs of autistic people and their families; and calls on the Government to improve diagnosis waiting time and support a public awareness campaign so that people can make the changes that will help the UK become autism-friendly.
We were on recess during World Autism Awareness Week. I want to put on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, which has granted this debate, and to you, Mr Speaker, for indicating that you may be willing to extend the debate because of the demand from people who want to speak in it. I know that there are conflicting Committees going on in other parts of the House, which will cause some problems for people who want to speak in the debate.
I also put on record my thanks, as chairman of the all-party group on autism, for the genuine cross-party view on the subject, and for the help and support I have received from Members of all parties. It is commendable that the House should work in such a way. It is nice to record that the all-party group on autism is, I think, one of the all-party groups that has the largest number of members. That shows the significance of this topic.
In 2015 the National Autistic Society carried out a YouGov poll and found that more than 99.5% of people in the UK had heard of autism. That means that, more or less, we are all aware of autism, which is a jolly good thing. However, just 16% of autistic people and their families whom the National Autistic Society spoke to as part of its recent research said that the public had a meaningful understanding of autism. Despite all the progress that has been made, there remains an enormous gulf between awareness and understanding. The key point here is that although more understanding may seem like a soft issue that everyone across the House can easily get behind without much thought, it is understanding that goes to the core of what people and families who live with autism every day have to deal with.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on all the work that she has done over the years on this crucial subject. She mentioned the National Autistic Society, and I praise it for its wonderful work. Does she agree that stigma around autism among the general public, in educational institutions and among many employers still holds all of society back?
That is true to an extent, but I want to balance that by saying that in some areas, many people who are on the autism spectrum are welcomed into the world of work, by GCHQ and other organisations that can take advantage of their unique capabilities. The hon. Lady is right in many areas, however, hence the debate.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for the work that she does. I also thank the Minister, who met some constituents of mine this week; they do not wish to be named in public. The right hon. Lady raised the question of awareness. Does she agree that it is important to have such awareness in our criminal justice system? Adults with autism, in particular, sometimes come into contact with the criminal justice system, and there is an inappropriate level of understanding of issues that may have led to that happening.
That is an astute observation. Later in my speech, I will come to the criminal justice system. I hope to set the scene across a range of areas, because there is not a part of government that autism does not touch. There are a range of implications, particularly in the criminal justice system, in which I believe people with autism are disproportionately represented in many areas.
For people and families who live with autism every day, improving understanding is fundamental to ensuring good levels of health and wellbeing and an ability to participate in society. The implications are all too real. The National Autistic Society survey that I mentioned found that 79% of autistic people feel socially isolated; half of autistic people and families sometimes do not go out because they are worried about how the public will react to them; and 28% of autistic people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with their autism.
To help to address the lack of understanding and tackle social isolation, the NAS has, as many Members know, launched a three-year campaign called “Too Much Information”, during this year’s World Autism Awareness Week. I was glad to support the launch of that campaign in Parliament. The cornerstone of the campaign is a short film, shot from the point of view of a child with autism, which tries to give the viewer some sense of what it is like to live in the overwhelming world that someone with autism lives in every day. Many parliamentary colleagues joined me for the event, and I am glad to report—this is almost unbelievable, but it is a very good sign—that, to date, the video has been viewed online more than 50 million times. That film marks only the start of the campaign, however, and there is clearly much more that must be done to help tackle social isolation among the nearly 80% of people on the spectrum who say that they feel isolated.
Over the years, Government have shown huge leadership on the awareness of other issues, with more than £2.3 million spent on dementia awareness and £20 million on mental health awareness. [Interruption.] Thank you so much. I wish it was gin.
At last—the relief of Mafeking.
While my right hon. Friend avails herself of a relieving glass of water, may I ask her whether she agrees that organisations, such as ASPIE in my constituency, that help people with Asperger’s and people on the spectrum to socialise play a really important role in helping to build their confidence and ensure they have the support they need to go into what can often be a very threatening world?
I am doubly grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that the achievements of such organisations and programmes should be congratulated by all of us in the House.
Action is needed for the 700,000 people in the UK who are on the autism spectrum and their families. I am aware that the Government have invested £325,000 on autism awareness work, but that is a drop in the ocean if our aim is to ensure, as I believe it should be, that this generation of autistic children grows up in a world that understands them.
At this point, I want to pay tribute to the Minister. Quite honestly, he has attended every autism meeting and function that I have asked him to attend. He shows a great deal of understanding of this area, so I am looking forward to a really meaningful response from him when he winds up the debate at the end of the afternoon. More leadership is definitely needed from the Government.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for the work she does on this really important subject. Does she agree that it is extremely worrying that only 15% of adults suffering with autism are in full-time employment? Would it be right and proper for the Government to support the work of organisations, such as Ambitious about Autism, to help them in the transition into work that could be so crucial for so many?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will mention some of the organisations involved at the end of my speech. Ambitious about Autism is just one of the many organisations that are trying to help people with autism into employment. I want to mention that later as well, because it is very important.
To build on the intervention on the criminal justice system by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), I should say that I recently visited Her Majesty’s young offenders institution in Feltham to see at first hand how a deeper understanding of the issues and how some adjustments in the physical environment can help people on the spectrum. The prison recently underwent accreditation from the NAS, and the prison staff’s enthusiasm in, and dedication to, helping the young people in their charge is absolutely admirable and really wonderful to see. I very much hope that members of the all-party group will go there on a visit to see exactly what Feltham has done. Custody can be a really traumatic experience for anyone, but without specific adjustments for those with autism, it is much harder for them to engage in their own rehabilitation. Familiarising staff with autism, allowing prisoners to use communal areas at quieter times, and reducing posters and notices to prevent over-stimulation are just some of the small things that can make a significant difference to the experience of autistic prisoners in custody.
I now want to pay tribute to the Minister for prisons, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who wrote to every prison in this country asking them to undertake autism accreditation. Currently, over 20 have been in touch with the NAS and its accreditation team and, alongside Feltham, four are going through the process. We want this kind of Government leadership and we want such leadership to be sustained. When I ask the Government to do more on the awareness and understanding of autism, I expect to get this type of response. Far more could be done in the criminal justice system, particular in the Courts Service.
Following the example of Feltham, the public sector can and should do much more to make sure all its services and buildings are more accessible to autistic people, so that they and their families can feel confident that they can visit public buildings and use public services in the same way as everyone else. For example, I was very pleased at the weekend to read that Asda is piloting a “quiet hour” in one of its stores in Manchester, when it will turn off escalators, screens and music for an hour to create a more comfortable shopping experience for those with autism. That is to be commended.
At this point, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Parliament is itself working, under the leadership of Mr Speaker, towards an autism access award and to make sure that autistic visitors to our place of work feel confident that they will be understood and treated well right across the board. In the light of this positive work on the parliamentary estate, I hope the Minister will meet me and representatives from the all-party group and the NAS to discuss how, together, we can build on the early successes of the “Too Much Information” campaign and ensure that all public buildings become accessible to people on the spectrum.
I want to turn to one of the biggest issues facing people with autism and their families, which is the time it takes to get a diagnosis in the first place. I can see from the nods that that rings a bell with everyone in the Chamber. Recent research suggests that, on average, adults have to wait more than two years for a diagnosis. For children, the figure stands at 3.6 years. An autism diagnosis can be life-changing, explain years of feeling different and help to unlock professional advice and support. Government guidelines say that a diagnosis should not be a barrier to putting in place the right support, but 58% of people on the spectrum have told the NAS that a diagnosis led directly to getting new or more support. How can the right support be identified without the clarity of a diagnosis?
It is fabulous that we are having this debate today. I want to back up my right hon. Friend on her point about the delay in diagnosis. I have spoken to many families in my constituency who have waited for months for a diagnosis for a child, while the child could and should have been receiving help for their enormous difficulties, but months if not years have been wasted. Yet we cannot even get the data about diagnosis from either the county council or the NHS. Not only are there delays, but there is a lack of transparency about waiting times for a diagnosis.
Absolutely. It is clear that, despite the best intentions of the Government, getting such a diagnosis is still crucial, as my hon. Friend says.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will give way for the last time, because I must make some progress.
May I join in with the overwhelming tributes that have been made to the right hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this incredibly important subject? I do not know whether she saw the in-depth report in The Economist a couple of weeks ago. It reported that a Swedish study has found that the cost of lifelong care for someone with autism could be cut by two thirds with early diagnosis and treatment. Again, the moral case and the economic case for this are overwhelming.
I agree. NHS England should collect, publish and monitor key information on how long people are waiting for diagnosis, and how many people are known by their GP to have autism. It should also ensure that waiting times standards on mental health, which are currently in development, reflect national guidance that no one should wait longer than three months between referral and being seen for diagnosis. The Government must share this commitment and ensure that NHS England meets its aims. Timely access to an autism diagnosis should be written into the Government’s mandate to NHS England.
I want to touch on autism and mortality. A recent Autistica report highlighted distressing findings from research in Sweden. The research found that autistic people, taking the population as a whole, have a lower life expectancy than the overall average. The research from Sweden shows that autistic people are at risk of dying younger from almost every cause of death. On average, this is 18 years earlier than the general population. For autistic people with a learning disability, the gap is even larger. The research shows that autistic people with a learning disability in that country die on average 30 years before their time. It also shows that autistic people who also have a learning disability are more likely to die early from epilepsy, and that those without a learning disability are at greater risk of suicide. It is worth remembering that the Swedish healthcare system is different from ours, but given the seriousness of those research findings, it is vital to find out whether they also apply in the UK, and if so, to understand the reasons for that. The Autistica report calls for this to be investigated as a matter of urgency, and I urge the Government to heed that call.
I want to comment briefly about the autism hospital passport, which has been endorsed by the Department of Health. The passport is designed to help people on the autism spectrum to communicate their needs to doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. It has been developed by Baroness Angela Browning in collaboration with the NAS. The motivations for starting the project were simple: when it comes to healthcare, the passport enables people on the spectrum and their families to have a much better experience of their interaction with the health service and to gain better, more timely and more fitting healthcare at the right time and in the right place.
I want to touch on various areas that I hope other Members will pick up, so I now turn to education. In specialist schools—the NAS is about to open a new one in the Epping forest area, supported by the Anderson Foundation—we have no fears about teachers’ ability to understand autism. But the training that teachers receive on autism has to be looked at carefully. Nearly 60% of children who responded to a survey said that the single factor that would make school better for them was if teachers understood autism. Teachers agree, and they want that training. A 2013 survey by the NASUWT found that 60% of teachers believed that they did not have enough training in autism. I am aware that work is going on to develop a new framework of core content for initial teacher training courses, but we need to make sure that no teacher enters the classroom without the tools they need to support those in their charge.
An intervention touched on employment, so I turn now to what children on the spectrum want after they leave education. They want the same things we all want out of life: stable, secure and fulfilling opportunities that allow them the same opportunities to lead independent lives. However, currently too few people on the spectrum enjoy the opportunity to find a job to help them maintain that independence. The Government have pledged to halve the disability employment gap—that was welcomed by Members on all sides of the House—and we await the Government’s White Paper, to be published soon; we also note recent assurances from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that that is a key priority for him. However, research by Scope has shown that the disability employment gap has remained static over the past year. Clearly the Government cannot rely on an improving economy alone to fix the issue. More will need to be done to close the gap.
The autism employment gap is even worse. The latest data indicate that only 15% of autistic adults are in full-time paid work at all and that 26% of graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed, by far the highest rate of any disability group. The NAS hears from autistic people that the Government’s mainstream generic programmes do not feel relevant to them and are not addressing the specific and long-term needs of people with autism.
More autism-specific programmes are needed. Research shows them to be more successful. For example, research into one specialist support scheme found that 70% of adults found work when supported by autism professionals. The all-party parliamentary group on autism plans to return to that work later this year. In the meantime, I have several questions. Will the Government’s disability employment White Paper include proposals for ensuring that people on the autism spectrum can access specialist support? Will the Minister report on progress by condition in seeking to halve the disability employment gap, so that low employment rates of people with conditions such as autism can be specifically tackled? Crucially, will he ensure that the new work and health programme records whether someone on the programme is on the autism spectrum?
Autism touches so many areas of Government work that it is difficult to address them all today. For example, I have not discussed social care, mental health issues or benefits. I know many colleagues want to speak and so I do not want to take up too much more time. In summing up, I return to public awareness. Survey after survey of people on the spectrum tells us that better understanding of the condition among both the public and professionals would be the one thing that would help them to feel more secure and allow them to have fulfilling lives. People on the spectrum are reasonable, and do not expect an ordinary member of the public with no knowledge of the condition to be aware of technical details about the diagnostic criteria for autism. However, they feel that just a little more understanding, compassion and awareness would make all the difference to their lives. If we see a child having a meltdown in a supermarket or an adult acting a bit differently on a train, we should stop and think for a moment. They may be autistic, and need our kindness, not our judgment.
I thank all the organisations that have contributed to the knowledge of Members here today, in particular those charities and groups with whom we work closely, including the National Autistic Society, which provides the secretariat for the APPG, Ambitious about Autism, Autistica and the Children’s Services Development Group. I also thank the many individuals who have got in touch with me, and with all other Members here, in the past week. I hope that together we can improve the lives of those with autism and make some real progress in this area.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. We will start with a time limit of six minutes and see how we get on.
Last Saturday, anticipating today’s debate, and in his customary elegant way, Guardian columnist John Harris wrote an excellent summation of some of the issues around autism. He ended his piece with these words:
“Our culture still too often couches autism in terms of pity or fear as an essentially Victorian sensibility lingers on. But we are moving towards a new world in which autistic people and their families advocate for themselves. For them, the current noise about autism perhaps highlights an inevitable phase of any struggle against ignorance: the point at which you know you’ve come a long way but still have light years to go.”
When we consider the debates and the legislation passed in this House regarding autism, we understand that we, too, have come a long way, and a significant reason for that has been the work of the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan). I therefore congratulate her on securing this debate and on all her work over many years in this area, not least as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism.
In my short contribution I will focus on a few issues. The first is that of diagnosis delay, something that every Member in this House will have countless examples of. It is the focus of the National Autistic Society’s brilliant campaign and is flagged up in the motion. As we have heard, for children the average diagnosis time is now some three and a half years. In my experience, from talking to parents, carers and experts, that is partly down to insufficient training among NHS people and cost pressures within the system. The reality for parents is that if they do not know where to turn and are without a diagnosis, there is not much that they can access.
Secondly, I will focus on what appears to me to be the biggest single problem, which is that people have to deal with a system of immense complexity, which is buckling under the cuts and has no single point of contact marked “autism”. For many, the system is simply bewildering and often very scary.
Finally, I want to highlight the campaign work being done by amazing people at local level, including my constituent Fay Hough, who only last week led a large demonstra