House of Commons
Wednesday 11 May 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I have to tell the House that yesterday, together with other right hon. and hon. Members, I attended upon Her Majesty the Queen to deliver the House’s message of congratulations on her 90th birthday. Her Majesty made the following reply:
“Members of the House of Commons,
I am most grateful to you for your address on the occasion of my ninetieth birthday.
I have been deeply touched by the many messages of congratulations which I have received on this particular birthday and I warmly reciprocate the good wishes of Members of the House of Commons at this time.”
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. 
2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. 
3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. 
6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. 
7. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. 
8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. 
I congratulate Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National party on achieving the largest number of seats in last week’s Scottish Parliament elections. I look forward to working with her and the new Scottish Government for the benefit of the people of Scotland.
The Government’s position is that Scotland and the United Kingdom will be stronger, safer and better off remaining in a reformed EU. Membership of the EU reduces costs for Scottish businesses; supports jobs in Scotland; and provides an export market currently worth £11.6 billion.
A re-run of “Project Fear” from the Prime Minister will not win the European referendum. Stories of war, genocide and economic crashes are not in keeping with making a positive case for the EU. When will we will hear the positive case for remaining in the EU?
I would like to add my congratulations to the hon. Lady’s husband on his re-election to the Scottish Parliament, where I am sure his witty repartee will once again be welcomed.
The hon. Lady and her colleagues repeatedly call for a positive campaign for Scotland to remain in the EU, but all we hear about from them is process and calls for a second referendum on independence. I call on them to disregard that approach and actually start setting out the positive case themselves.
The UK Government have shown disregard for Scotland’s higher education sector, severely damaging the talent pool by scrapping the post-study work visa against the unanimous wishes of business, civic society and, uniquely, all Scottish political parties. Does the Secretary of State accept the crippling effect that the Government’s EU referendum is having on the ability to attract young talent to Scotland?
The biggest issue facing Scotland currently is the uncertainty over the Scottish Government’s inability to rule out a second independence referendum, which they could quite easily do. I look forward to the First Minister, if she is re-elected to that post, setting out clearly that we will not have a second independence referendum. The Scottish Affairs Select Committee has produced a good report on the work study visa, and the Government are looking at it.
Does the Secretary of State consider that with 60% of UK landings in Scotland, a Scottish fisheries Minister should lead during the period of the UK presidency of the EU? Would not such an initiative be widely welcomed by Scottish fishermen, or is the Secretary of State still stuck in this Westminster rut of some nations being “more equal” than others?
My position is that Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the United Kingdom, and that the United Kingdom represents Scotland’s interest on fishing in the EU. The hon. Lady may be aware that the Scottish Government and the UK Government have been in discussions on intergovernmental relations, and particularly on how these issues of representation should work in the EU. My understanding is that the previous SNP-led Scottish Government were in agreement with those proposals.
This week’s EY report was critical of the UK Government’s approach to the energy sector, stating that it is not only stalling project development and investment but jeopardising UK energy security. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way for Scotland’s energy policy to develop is within the EU?
I absolutely agree that it is in the best interests of Scotland to remain in the EU, and it is also in the best interests of Scotland to remain in the UK, because it has been clearly set out that what is best for the future of Scotland’s energy sector is a UK-wide common market.
While we obviously want the UK to remain part of the EU, I am seriously beginning to wonder whether the Secretary of State’s mission is to antagonise as many Scots as possible before the referendum. Will he at least agree that should Scotland be dragged out of the EU against its will, that would be a major constitutional change?
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that tomorrow night I shall share a platform with the former deputy leader of the SNP, Jim Sillars. I shall make the positive case for Scotland’s remaining in the EU, and I understand that he will make the case for Scotland’s leaving the EU.
Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has warned that the UK’s withdrawal from the European convention on human rights would remove safeguards that have been
“bolstering the rights of psychiatric service users for decades”.
Will the Secretary of State join me in safeguarding mental health services, and oppose any attempts to withdraw Scotland from the convention?
As the hon. Lady knows, the Government is to launch a consultation on the introduction of a Bill of Rights after the EU referendum. However, I agree with her that the UK’s remaining in the EU benefits everyone in Scotland.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government are split on the issue of whether we should remain in the European Union. Just like the SNP, with Jim Sillars speaking for the leave campaign? Does he not think that it is somewhat embarrassing for the Government to be associated with that lot?
What the Government do, and what the Scottish National party does not always do, is respect the fact that people have different opinions. My view is very firmly that Scotland should remain in the EU, but I recognise and respect the fact that there are people in Scotland, including SNP voters and supporters, who want Scotland to leave the EU. That is why we are having a referendum, and that is why we are having a debate, and the people will have their say.
Why has my right hon. Friend not emphasised that when we leave the European Union, the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and the Scottish people will have sole control over Scottish fishing waters?
I do not believe that the best interests of Scottish fishermen, Scottish farmers or the general population of Scotland would be served by our leaving the EU. My hon. Friend—who now serves on the Scottish Affairs Committee—will know that, for example, large amounts of fish, particularly shellfish caught off the west coast of Scotland, go to a European market.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, would be safer if it left the European Union because, as Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, has said,
“Britain is Europe’s leader in intelligence and security matters and gives much more than it gets in return”?
What assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken of why the SNP is so keen on the EU when it is clear that the EU is in the global economic slow lane, when the EU’s unemployment rates are so much higher—including youth unemployment of more than 50% in certain countries—and when it is an indisputable fact that the common fisheries policy has, over the years, decimated the Scottish fishing fleet?
I note the inherent contradiction in SNP Members’ position, because every argument its members use for Scotland remaining in the EU is an argument that was dismissed when it related to Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom. However, on this occasion I will forgive them because, like them, I believe that it is in Scotland’s best interests to remain in the EU.
Mrs Freer, a pensioner in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, would like to say how pleased she now is to have two Mundells to choose from. She is also seeking reassurance that, as a pensioner, she would be better off in a reformed EU.
I am absolutely clear that the reforms that the Prime Minister brought forward will improve the EU for pensioners and citizens right across Scotland. I also believe that this is not the end of the reform process. The EU is not perfect, even after these reforms, but it is up to the UK to lead in reforming the EU, not to withdraw from it.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the EU is based on its current member states. What assessment has he made of last week’s Scottish Parliament election results in regard to ensuring the integrity of one of its largest members and removing the prospect of Scotland having to apply to join as a new member?
There was one clear message from last week’s Scottish Parliament elections: the people of Scotland do not want another referendum. I hope that the First Minister has heard that message loud and clear. The EU referendum is about the UK’s membership of the EU. It is not a rerun of the Scottish independence referendum.
May I also take this opportunity to congratulate all the MSPs who were elected last week, and to congratulate the SNP on its historic third term in government in Scotland? However, on a bad night for my party, my own seat of Edinburgh Southern saw a net gain from the SNP. I also want to congratulate the Secretary of State on his son Oliver being elected to the Scottish Parliament. His family now has two elected members, and they both have fetching beards—the word “fetching” being used loosely in this context.
The evidence is clear that the UK and Scotland are stronger in the EU. In the Scottish context, for example, as the Secretary of State has already said, the benefits include a market for 42% of our exports, a quarter of a million jobs, 10% of our higher education spending and a whole host of social protections. Can he assure the Scottish people that all Conservative MSPs will campaign to stay in the European Union?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations to my son. I have to say that the high point of the election for me was when someone on the doorstep said, “You look a lot like your dad.” That aside, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be a robust and proper debate in Scotland. Ahead of this referendum process, Ruth Davidson made her position very clear on supporting Scotland remaining in the EU. However, we cannot hide the fact that there are people in Scotland who would like to leave the EU, and I think their views should be reflected. The Conservative party in Scotland is not frightened to hide the fact that there are different views. Indeed, there are different views across Scotland.
The Secretary of State has not told us what Oliver’s response was when the constituent told him he looked awfully like his dad. Perhaps he could tell us when he comes back to the Dispatch Box. Everyone knows that this EU referendum is more about settling old scores in the Conservative party than about doing what is best for the UK, and indeed Scotland. We also know that the Scottish National party is desperate for any excuse to trigger another independence referendum. However, the truth is that the UK is better off in the EU, and that Scotland is better off in the UK. So is it not the case that this Secretary of State and his Government have taken a huge gamble with the UK’s future, and with Scotland’s future too?
Absolutely not. What we have done is to allow the people of Scotland and the people across the United Kingdom to have their say on this important issue, and they will do so. We need to have a debate in Scotland, and I am campaigning vigorously—as the hon. Gentleman appears to be—for Scotland to remain in the EU. The SNP parliamentary party here at Westminster is campaigning for that as well. People like Jim Sillars are campaigning for Scotland to leave the EU. Let us have a vigorous debate in Scotland over the next few weeks. I look forward to sharing a platform with the hon. Gentleman and with SNP colleagues.
May I also congratulate Oliver Mundell on his election to the Scottish Parliament?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will continue to champion the Scotland Act 2016, which he steered through the House and which has given so many powers to the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the Scottish people continue to benefit from being not only in the UK, but in the EU?
I thank my hon. Friend. I must get my son elected more often, because there have been more plaudits today than I recall at previous Scottish questions.
We will of course move forward with the implementation of the Scotland Act, but we will also work hard to achieve a positive outcome for Scotland in the EU referendum on 23 June.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the already high support in Scotland for remaining in the European Union could be improved further still if Scottish farmers could be confident that they will get their CAP payments when they are supposed to?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The reason CAP payments have not been made to Scottish farmers is entirely due to the previous SNP Scottish Government. Any attempt to suggest that it is down to the EU is incorrect. Farmers and others know the benefits to Scotland of being in the EU and will vote to remain.
Were the UK to withdraw from the EU, what impact would that have on Scotland and the EU’s relationship with Malawi, to which I know my right hon. Friend has recently been?
My hon. Friend knows that I recently visited Malawi, and, without being indiscrete, I can firmly say that the Malawian Government are in favour of Scotland and the UK remaining in the EU.
There is little evidence that Scotland wanted this Tory EU referendum, and it seems like only a minority of the Scottish people want to leave the EU. When the Secretary of State is putting Scotland’s membership of the EU at risk, what is his message to the Scottish people if we are taken out of the EU against our national collective will?
That is another positive campaigning point from the SNP. It is not for me to give advice to the SNP, but if my vote had fallen by 500,000 between the general election and the election for the Scottish regional list I would be focusing on getting my supporters out to vote on 23 June to ensure that Scotland votes to remain.
In the run-up to the European Union referendum, we are delighted on these Benches that the Scottish electorate has returned a pro-European SNP Government with the highest vote of any current party in any national election anywhere in western Europe. Most people in Scotland are pleased that, when given the opportunity, the Scottish electorate did not return a single MSP from the Europhobic UK irrelevance party and that there is a majority in the Scottish Parliament for Scottish independence as a member of the European Union. On the powerful case for remaining in the EU, will the UK Government please concentrate on making a positive, inspiring case to stay, rather than on rewarming endless scare stories?
I have made it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that that is my exact intention. Perhaps he could undertake today to stop obsessing about process and a second Scottish independence referendum and to concentrate entirely on the positive reasons for Scotland to remain in the EU.
Scotch whisky is the largest net goods exporter to the European Union, both from Scotland and from the United Kingdom as a whole. Does the Secretary of State agree that the European single market is profoundly important and positive for that £1 billion trade, meaning that there is no need for customs forms, duplication of labelling, and safety requirements? Will he stress the positive advantages to the whisky industry, and all exporters from Scotland, to jobs and to profitability of remaining within the European single market and the European Union?
I am absolutely clear that what the right hon. Gentleman states is the case, and I am sure he will have welcomed the visit to Scotland made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to stress the importance to the whisky industry of remaining in the single market. The particular points he makes about duplication in relation to labelling, certification and licensing are ones the Scotch Whisky Association has made, and I am sure the public will take them into account when they vote in the referendum.
North Sea Oil and Gas
4. What steps the Government are taking to support the North sea oil and gas sector. 
11. What steps the Government are taking to support the North Sea oil and gas sector. 
Of course this is an important sector and it faces difficult times. That is why I am delighted that the Chancellor announced a £1 billion package of measures in the Budget: a reduction in headline rates of tax; major investment opportunities and encouragement in relation to exploration, infrastructure and late-life assets; a quarter of a billion-pound Aberdeen city deal; and the creation of an inter-ministerial group specifically targeting the oil and gas sector.
Does the Minister agree that we need a long-term approach to secure the future of the jobs in the oil and gas sector in the North sea, and that part of that future is about making sure the skills that have been developed over many decades are not lost at a time when world prices are very low?
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more, which is why we have established an inter-ministerial group specifically looking at this and many other issues, and in a short period of time we will publish our workforce plan.
The North sea oil and gas industry provides vital home-grown feedstocks to Britain’s chemical industry—Britain’s largest manufacturing sector. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will continue to take steps to support the many jobs that depend on this vital sector?
The short answer is, of course, yes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does on the all-party group on the chemical industry. This is a very important sector. I meet people from it on a regular basis and I am very pleased to see the sort of work they are doing to increase exports.
Last week, I raised concerns about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the threat to our public services, only for them to be dismissed by the Prime Minister as
“the reddest of red herrings.”—[Official Report, 4 May 2016; Vol. 609, c. 170.]
Since then, several high-profile organisations, including Unite, have rejected his claims. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Prime Minister to insist on specific exemptions to protect Scotland’s NHS and public services?
At this Dispatch Box, I and other Ministers repeatedly have said that these sorts of claims—[Interruption.] I am waiting for the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) to take his seat. I do not wish to be rude to the hon. Lady, but I must say that this is absolute rubbish that she puts forward, as others do. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is absolutely right: this is a red herring. I undertake to share with her all the letters from impartial sources who have written to support our contention that public services, especially the NHS, face no threat whatsoever from TTIP—it is a good idea.
I hope that the Minister is aware of the increasing anxiety of Scottish and indeed Teesside workers about reductions in investment in safety offshore and the failure in many cases of companies to work co-operatively with trade union safety representatives. What recent assessment has she made of safety offshore? What can we say to our constituents to reassure them that the Government are on the case?
The hon. Gentleman makes some very important points and I am more than happy to meet him to discuss them, including any allegations that the unions are not being fully engaged with. As he knows, I do not have a difficulty with trade unions, having been a shop steward. I am more than happy to have a meeting to discuss this important matter.
Trade Union Bill
5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Ministers of the Scottish Government on the potential effect on Scotland of measures in the Trade Union Bill. 
10. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Ministers in the Scottish Government on the effect on Scotland of the measures proposed by the Trade Union Bill. 
The Trade Union Bill is now waiting Royal Assent. It is about employment and industrial relations law, which are reserved matters, and it will apply consistently across the United Kingdom. We have engaged with the Scottish Government through the passage of the Bill, and we will carry on with that work.
Despite the Trade Union Bill’s worst elements being removed or watered down, it is still a bad Bill. Does the Minister agree that a bad Bill will not make for good industrial relations in Scotland?
I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s views on the Bill. It is an excellent Bill and I fully support it and its aims.
Parties in both Wales and Scotland have prepared legislative consent memorandums on the Trade Union Bill on the basis that the Bill clearly impinges on devolved competences. In the light of that, does the Minister not now agree that the Bill should be subject to legislative consent motions? What action will the Government take to ensure that similar circumstances do not arise in future?
I am reliably informed that that has already happened. The hon. Lady is just not up to date on all of this.
With the relegation of Labour to third place in last week’s Scottish elections, does the Minister agree that now is exactly the right time to introduce an opt-in system for union members who wish to contribute to political funds rather than it being the default position?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I pay handsome tribute to the outstanding Ruth Davidson. Like the Prime Minister, she is a moderate, sensible, one nation Conservative. She has turned the skies of Scotland blue with, if I may say, a rather pleasing tinge of pink at the edges.
The Government made a number of concessions on the Trade Union Bill, but the Bill still seeks to undermine constructive social partnership and, as such, it is at odds with the democratic will of the people of Scotland and Wales. Given that the Government say that they believe in mutual respect between central Government and the devolved institutions, will they now hold immediate discussions with the devolved institutions about how the Bill will relate to Scotland and Wales?
Discussions are always continuing. Again, this is another red herring and the hon. Gentleman is out of touch on this. This Bill is good: it is good for Britain, good for trade unions and good for future working relations.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 May. 
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and, in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Even “fantastically corrupt” Nigeria is asking Britain to clean up its act and introduce beneficial ownership registers in the overseas territories. Will the Prime Minister achieve that tomorrow at the anti-corruption summit?
First, I had better check that the microphone is on before speaking. It is probably a good idea.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The answer is yes. We have asked three things of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies: automatic exchange of tax information; a common reporting standard for multinational companies; and central beneficial ownership registries so that UK enforcement can know who really owns the companies that are based there. They have delivered on the first two, and they will be following and delivering on the third. That is what he asked for, and that is exactly what he is getting.
Q2. In Banbury and Bicester, we have unprecedented housing growth. Does the Prime Minister agree that we must build sufficient starter homes so that the dream of home ownership becomes something to which everybody can really aspire? 
I thank my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend for raising that question. The fact is that we are building more houses, including more affordable homes, right across England. The legislation going through this House and the other place will ensure that we deliver on our manifesto pledge of 200,000 starter homes. Those are the homes that we want to see—affordable for people to buy. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Labour party and the House of Lords will stop blocking this Bill.
Since we often celebrate great national events in this House, will the Prime Minister join me in wishing Sir David Attenborough a very happy 90th birthday and thanking him for the way in which he has presented nature programmes on television and awakened the ideas of so many people to the fragility of our ecosystem? He has educated a whole generation.
On this side of the House, we are fully aware—[Interruption.] I haven’t asked a question yet. We are fully aware that the European Union has strengthened workers’ rights in many ways. In March, while the Prime Minister was trying to undermine workers’ rights with his Trade Union Bill, the European Commission put forward proposals to close loopholes in the posting of workers directive that would stop employers exploiting foreign workers and undercutting national rates of pay. Will the Prime Minister confirm that his Government will protect workers and back these reforms to stop the undercutting and the grotesque exploitation of many workers across the continent?
First of all, I certainly join the right hon. Gentleman in wishing a very happy birthday to David Attenborough. Many of us in this House feel that we grew up with him as our teacher about the natural world and the environment. He is a remarkable man. I am proud to say that the royal Arctic survey ship will be named after David Attenborough. There was strong support for Boaty McBoatface. I think the submarine on the boat will be named Boaty McBoatface but, quite rightly, Attenborough will take top billing.
On the posted workers directive, we are looking at this matter closely and working with our partners. We see some merit in what is proposed. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman today that the yellow card procedure has been invoked by national Parliaments over this, demonstrating the importance of these sorts of safeguards, even more of which we achieved in my renegotiation. The best thing that we can do for workers’ rights in this country is to celebrate the national living wage, introduced by a Tory Government.
The national minimum wage was introduced by Labour. The national living wage proposed by the Prime Minister’s friend the Chancellor is, frankly, a corruption of the very idea. It is not, in reality, a proper living wage.
My question was about the posting of workers directive proposals, which would prevent the grotesque exploitation by unscrupulous employers of workers being moved from one nation to another to undercut wages in the second nation. Will the Prime Minister be absolutely clear: will the British Government support this very important reform to stop this exploitation?
As I have said, we are working with the Dutch presidency. We think there is merit in a lot of the proposals, but we want to make sure we get the details right.
Let me pull the right hon. Gentleman up on something: he has just described the national living wage as “a corruption”. The national living wage is £7.20 an hour—a £20 a week pay rise for some of the poorest people in our country. I really think he ought to get up and say that he supports the national living wage, and thank the Government for introducing it.
I support a wage rise, obviously. The point I am making is that it is not a living wage, as it is generally understood.
Yes seems to be one of the hardest words for the Prime Minister to say. For the third time, will he just say whether or not he supports the posting of workers directive? He might be aware that Patrick Minford, a former economic adviser to Margaret Thatcher, said that the European Union has a negative effect on the City of London and that he wants the “shackles” of European regulation removed. Does the Prime Minister believe that our membership hurts the City of London or does he believe that European Union regulation of the finance sector in Britain and British-administered tax havens help curb the sort of bad practice exposed by the Panama papers and underlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) in his earlier question?
This is an area where we basically agree with each other about the European Union, so I will try to identify a question in that lot and answer it as positively as I can. First, I completely disagree with the economist Patrick Minford. He wants to see manufacturing industry in our country obliterated. It would be a disastrous step if we followed the advice that he gives. On the City of London, we need the right regulation for the City of London to continue its massive rate of job creation and wealth creation in our country, but we also need to remain members of the single market because it is absolutely vital for this important sector of our economy. I hope that on that, as on the issue of the national living wage, we can find some agreement between us.
The question that I also put to the Prime Minister, which perhaps he was not listening to, was what he was going to do—[Interruption.] I asked what he was going to do about the UK-administered tax havens that receive large sums of money from dodgy sources, which should and must be closed down, as should any tax evasion in the City of London. We need a British Government who are prepared to chase down this level of corruption.
This Government have done more than any previous Government to make sure that our overseas territories and Crown dependencies are not tax havens, but behave in a responsible way. As I said earlier, they are now taking part in the automatic exchange of tax information—that did not happen before; they have signed up to a common reporting standard for multinational companies—that did not happen before; and they are getting central registries so that we can find out who owns the companies in each territory. All these things are real progress. Of course, we would like them to go further and have public registries of beneficial ownership, as we are introducing in this country, not because of anything a Labour Government did, but because of a decision by a Conservative Prime Minister. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to be fair on those territories and Crown dependencies: many of them have gone much further even than many developed countries. Indeed, you get more information now out of some of our Crown dependencies and overseas territories than you would get out of the United States—for example, Delaware. So let us be fair on the territories for which we have an obligation and a responsibility. We are making them improve their record and the right hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that.
A month ago the Prime Minister informed the House that he welcomed the European Union proposals on country-by-country tax transparency reporting. We agreed with that, yet on 26 April Conservative Members of the European Parliament voted against these proposals. Did they not receive a memo from him or what? People expect that people pay their tax in this country. Tomorrow the European Parliament will be voting again on country-by-country reporting. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that Conservative Members of the European Parliament will support these measures, as he told us they would a month ago?
The most important thing is that we support these measures. This Government support the measures. These measures have come forward only because it has been a Conservative Government here in the United Kingdom proposing them. The only area of disagreement, I suspect, between the right hon. Gentleman and myself is that I do not think we should set a minimum tax rate for these countries. It has always been a position of Labour Governments and previous Conservative Governments that although we want to make sure that all these territories behave properly, we do not make them set a minimum tax rate. That is the difference between us. If he wants to swap voting records of Labour MEPs and Tory MEPs, let us have a whole session on it. I have plenty of material here.
That was a very long answer—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister could simply have said whether or not he supports the proposals and whether his Conservative MEPs are going to vote for them.
The Prime Minister will be very well aware of the concern across the whole country about the question of unaccompanied child refugees across Europe. Their plight is desperate and they are in a very dangerous situation. Everyone’s heart reaches out to them, but we have to do more than that and we have to be practical in our help for them. I got a letter this week from a voluntary worker with child refugees by the name of Hannah. She wrote to me about these children, some of whom have family members in this country. Can the Prime Minister confirm that in response to Lord Dubs’ amendment, there will be no delay whatsoever in accepting 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees into this country to give them the support they need and allow them to enjoy the childhood that they and all our children deserve?
We will follow the Dubs amendment —that is now the law of the land. The Dubs amendment says that we have to consult very carefully with local authorities to make sure that, as we take these children in, we are able to house them, clothe them, feed them and make sure they are properly looked after. So we need to look at the capacity of our care system, because if you look at some councils, particularly in Kent and southern England, you see they are already struggling because of the large number of unaccompanied children who have come in.
Just two figures for the right hon. Gentleman, to put this in context. Last year 3,000 unaccompanied children arrived and claimed asylum in the UK, even before the scheme that is being introduced. The second figure is, under the Dublin regulation, children with a connection to the UK can already claim asylum in France or Italy and then come to the UK, and we have accepted 30 such transfers since February. What I can say about Dubs is that there will not be any delay—we will get on with this as fast as we can—but in order to follow the law, we have to talk to our local authorities first.
Q4. During President Obama’s recent visit, was the Prime Minister able to talk to him about the Chinese dumping of steel and the robust action he has been able to take in the United States to address it, including introducing tariffs of 288%? If so, was his advice, “Keep backing British steel, increase the tariffs and tell the Chinese to go to the back of the line”? 
I did discuss this issue with President Obama, and both the US and the European Union have taken action against Chinese dumping. If you look at the figures, the excess capacity in China is around 25 times higher than the UK’s entire production. The anti-dumping tariffs we have produced in the EU have been very effective and, in some categories, have reduced Chinese exports by as much as 98%. So my hon. Friend should not believe some of the figures put around that the EU action does not work; it does work, and if we were outside the EU we might be subject to those tariffs ourselves.
The Prime Minister’s Government were elected with 37% of the vote, so I am sure he would acknowledge the success of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP in being returned victoriously, for a third time, with 46% of the vote—the highest figure currently of any political party in national elections anywhere in western Europe.
On the anti-corruption summit, has the Prime Minister read the appeals from Nigerian campaigners who say that their
“efforts are sadly undermined if countries such as your own are welcoming our corrupt to hide their ill-gotten gains in your luxury homes, department stores, car dealerships, private schools and anywhere else that will accept their cash with no questions asked. The role of London’s property market as vessels to conceal stolen wealth has been exposed in court documents, reports, documentaries and more”?
What is the Prime Minister going to do about this?
I am delighted to congratulate Nicola Sturgeon on her victory in the Scottish elections, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would want to congratulate Ruth Davidson on her stunning performance. We have something in common, because the SNP has gone from majority to minority, while the Conservatives have gone from coalition to majority. Next week he can get up and ask me how we are getting on with ordering some more pandas for Edinburgh zoo—I think that would be a very positive development.
The question the right hon. Gentleman asks about the corruption summit is absolutely right: the whole point of holding this summit in London is to say that action is necessary by developed countries as well as developing countries. One of the steps we are taking—to make sure that foreign companies that own UK property have to declare who the beneficial owner is—will be one of the ways we make sure that plundered money from African countries cannot be hidden in London.
It would be helpful if the Prime Minister confirmed that that list will be publicly available and not just accessible for the police. Seeing as how he is prepared to lecture other countries on corruption and probity, will he explain why seven police forces in the UK have launched criminal investigations into Conservative MPs for potential electoral fraud? That is very serious, so how is it that a Conservative police and crime commissioner can serve in such a role while being under police investigation?
First, let us be clear about this anti-corruption summit. Nobody is lecturing anybody. One of the reasons this issue does not get addressed is that countries and politicians are too worried about addressing it knowing that no country is perfect—nor, indeed, is any politician. But I think it is right for Britain to take this lead, not least because we meet our 0.7% contribution on aid. I think we are entitled to raise this incredibly important issue. As to what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Electoral Commission, the whole point is that in this country the Electoral Commission is independent. When it comes to operational decisions by police forces, they are independent too. Long may that be the case: that is the hallmark of an incorrupt country.
Q8. I know my right hon. Friend will want to join me in congratulating Katy Bourne, who was re-elected as the Sussex police and crime commissioner last week, topping the poll in Crawley for her work in helping victims. In that respect, will the Prime Minister commit to introducing a British Bill of Rights as soon as possible? 
I am happy to make that commitment and let me join him in congratulating Katy Bourne and all successful candidates. I think what we saw in the police and crime commissioner elections—[Interruption.] In a minute. What we saw in the police and crime commissioner elections was a very large increase in turnout, sometimes as much as a 25 percentage point increase. I think this new role is bedding in well.
For the sake of completion, I am very happy to congratulate Carwyn Jones, whom I spoke to over the weekend, and Arlene Foster, who will be First Minister of Northern Ireland. I spoke to her and the Deputy First Minister yesterday. And I congratulate Sadiq Khan, who won a very clear victory in London. We all look forward to working with him for the benefit of Londoners.
Q3. When Hull was left out of the Government’s plans for the rail electrification of the north, Hull businesses got together and produced a privately financed scheme to do the work for the city of culture 2017. It has been with the Department for Transport for two years. Does the Prime Minister think that the Department for Transport’s attitude shows incompetence or indifference to the scheme that has been put forward with private money? 
I think the hon. Lady is being slightly unfair on the Department, not least because passengers will benefit from 500 brand new carriages, and the removal of the outdated and unpopular Pacer trains. Some £1.4 million of investment is going into Hull station to be delivered before it becomes the UK city of culture. I understand that the Department for Transport is considering the case to complete the electrification between Selby and Hull. We make these investments because we have a strong economy and we are investing in our infrastructure.
Q9. I recently visited Silentnight in Barnoldswick. Its award-winning apprenticeship scheme has now created 40 full-time jobs. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Silentnight on the success of its scheme, which has helped the company to expand, and allowed it recently to award all of its more than 1,000 employees with an additional £250 thank you bonus? 
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Silentnight. I remember visiting it with him in 2014. Back then, it employed 800 people. It now employs 1,100 people. That is a good example of a business expanding under this Government. It is a big backer of apprenticeships. Of course, our target is 3 million apprentices in this Parliament.
Q5. Already in 2016, at least 46 women have been murdered in the UK. This number would be much higher if not for specialist refuges. I am standing to beg the Prime Minister to exempt refuge accommodation from the changes to housing benefit beyond 2017. This will certainly close services. I do not want to hear a stock answer about the £40 million over the next four years. He knows and I know that that will not stop refuges shutting. Will he exempt refuges? Will he choose to save lives—please? 
The hon. Lady raises an important point. That is why we delayed the introduction of this change so that we could look at all the possible consequences and make sure we get it right so that we help vulnerable people.
Q12. HIV infection rates in the UK are on the rise. My right hon. Friend will be aware that NHS England has refused to fund a pre-exposure prophylactic treatment. Will he agree to meet me and leading AIDS charities so that we can review this unacceptable decision? 
It is right that my hon. Friend raises this. My understanding is that NHS England is considering its commissioning responsibility. I want it to reach a decision on this quickly—this month, if possible—because there is no doubt, as he says, that there is a rising rate of infection, and that these treatments can help and make a difference. We are planning trial sites that are already under way, and we are investing £2 million to support them over the next two years. But he is right to raise this, and I will make sure he gets the meetings he needs to make progress with it.
Q6. In my first year as an MP, every other person coming to my constituency advice service surgery has been an anxious council tenant, usually mum, dad and two or three children living in a one-bedroom flat, and they are often in tears. They cannot afford to rent in the private market, they cannot afford to buy their council flat, and they absolutely cannot afford a starter home. Can the Prime Minister explain in practical and meaningful terms that I can read to them from Hansard when I go to my surgery on Friday why, in his view, the Housing and Planning Bill will not make their intolerable situation worse? 
I would say to the hon. and learned Gentleman’s constituents that there is a series of things that I believe will help them. First, making sure that the right to buy is there for housing association tenants as well as council tenants, with the full discounts, makes a difference. Added to that, Help to Buy means that people need a smaller amount of equity to buy their house, and that helps too. Further to that, starter homes will make a difference because they will be more affordable. Added to that, shared accommodation homes means that where you previously needed a deposit of £30,000 to buy a house, you may be able to buy a house now for a just a few thousand pounds’ deposit. All of those things make a difference. And for those in estates that need regeneration, we are backing that regeneration, which never happened under a Labour Government.
Q13. I am proud that this Government have delivered unemployment levels in my constituency at a record low of 1.6%. I am doubly proud that this Government have delivered the Cardiff city deal—a £1.2 billion investment in infrastructure. Does the Prime Minister agree, and does he share my eagerness now to see the M4 relief road, the eastern bay link, and electrification of the City and Valley lines delivered in Wales? 
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise these issues, because the money is there, and now, frankly, with a new Welsh Government in place, we need the action, particularly on the M4, which is a vital transport artery. We have given the Welsh Government £500 million in increased borrowing powers. The delay in upgrading the M4 is damaging business in south Wales, and frankly it is high time that the Welsh Government got on with it.
Q7. The “Why young Syrians choose to fight” report claims that it is money rather than religious fervour that acts as a recruiter for Daesh. While the Syrian army pays about $100 per month, often late, Daesh can pay $300 a month, on time, due to its funding and sophistication. Does the Prime Minister agree that much more needs to be done to offer alternative economic avenues for Syrians, to disrupt flows of funding, and to undermine the brains behind Daesh? 
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about the importance of economic development and aid, and that is why we have a very generous aid budget, but clearly right now in Syria it is very difficult to get aid support and development through. Where I take issue with him is that if we see this purely as Daesh recruiting people because it is paying them, we would miss the point that the cancer of Islamist extremist violence is damaging our world and our country not just in Syria but in other places too, and we have to understand the nature of that extremism if we are going to defeat it.
Q14. Havant’s new Dunsbury Hill Farm business park will create about 3,500 new jobs. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating its first new tenant, Fat Face, and support job creation across Britain? 
I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating business in his constituency on its expansion. The claimant count in his constituency has fallen by a staggering 52% since 2010, and we need to keep on with this by making sure that we are expanding the training and the apprenticeships that help people to get the jobs that are being created.
Q10. The Prime Minister said as Leader of the Opposition that the UK was fast becoming a “surveillance state” with powers that would “cause concern under the most oppressive regimes”,and he promised to “sweep the whole rotten edifice away.”But he has completely U-turned, and his Investigatory Powers Bill proposes to retain a record of every website visited by anyone in the UK. Why has the Prime Minister changed from being the self-proclaimed defender of civil liberties in opposition to championing ineffective mass surveillance in government? 
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will follow and listen to the debates that take place on this vital Bill. The fact is that if we want to make sure that we can keep our country safe, just as we have been able to see the communications data when two people talk to each other on a mobile phone or a fixed phone, the same has to be true if that conversation is taking place between people visiting an internet site. Is he happy for plots to be hatched, terrorism to be planned and murders to be arranged because people are using an internet site rather than a telephone? My answer to that would be no. We have got to modernise our capabilities to keep our country safe, and that is what this Bill is about.
My right hon. Friend said in November 2015:
“Access to the internet shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be a right”.
The accompanying press release went on to say that every home and business could
“have access to fast broadband by the end of this Parliament.”
Will my right hon. Friend say today, unequivocally—no ifs or buts—that this commitment will be honoured?
I am afraid my hon. Friend is going to have to wait for the Queen’s Speech, in which we will be setting out the next steps of how we make sure that access to this absolutely vital highway is there for all our citizens.
Q11. Will the Prime Minister give me a personal commitment to work with the Scottish Government to deliver funding for a Tay city deal for Dundee and the surrounding area? 
I am very happy to give that commitment. I think city deals are working. They are working in Scotland, and I was very proud to be there with the Aberdeen city deal. I make the point that, obviously, city deals between the Scottish Government, the UK Government and the city concerned can only work if we are all part of one happy United Kingdom.
Respected journalist Laura Kuenssberg has been subjected to an online hate campaign, which appears to be a sexist witch hunt to silence her. Increasingly, this is a tool used against people in public life by those who take an opposing view. Will my right hon. Friend condemn this kind of harassment, and will he work with media and social media platforms to preserve the right to speak freely without intimidation or hate?
We must be able to speak freely and we must have a robust and lively democracy, but some of the things that people say on Twitter, knowing that they are in some way anonymous, are frankly appalling. People should be ashamed of the sort of sexist bullying that often takes place.
Q15. Last week, London elected a new Mayor with an overwhelming mandate to tackle London’s housing crisis. It is a crisis that many of us fear the Housing and Planning Bill will make worse. Last April, the Prime Minister launched his manifesto, promising to replace sold council houses with affordable homes in the same area. Why, then, will he oppose an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill this afternoon that would effectively implement last year’s manifesto commitment? 
Let me again congratulate Sadiq Khan on his victory and say how much we are looking forward to working with him on the issues that matter to Londoners, whether it is transport, housing or keeping London safe. I put the question back to the hon. Lady: our Housing and Planning Bill means that every high-value property sold will mean two new affordable homes in London, so why is it that the Labour party here and in the other place are opposing something that will mean more houses, more affordable housing and more home ownership? That is the truth. They talk a good game, but, in the end, they are the enemies of aspiration.
During military operations in Afghanistan, British forces were heavily reliant on locally employed interpreters, who constantly put themselves in harm’s way alongside our people. I saw with my own eyes during Herrick 9 just how brave these interpreters were. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is a stain on our country’s honour that we have abandoned a large number of them to be threatened by the Taliban? Some have been murdered and others have had to flee their homes, in fear of their lives. We owe the interpreters a huge debt of gratitude and honour, and we must provide safety and sanctuary for them here.
We debated and discussed around the National Security Council table in the coalition Government and then announced in the House of Commons a scheme to make sure that those people who had helped our forces with translation and other services were given the opportunity of coming to the UK. We set up two schemes: one to encourage that, but also another scheme, a very generous scheme, to try to encourage those people who either wanted to stay or had not been translators for a long enough period to stay in Afghanistan and help to rebuild that country. I think it is important to have both schemes in place, rather than simply saying that everyone in any way involved can come immediately to the UK. Let us back Afghans to rebuild their own country.
The Prime Minister has confirmed to me that should we leave the EU, the European convergence funding for the very poorest parts of Wales would of course cease. Will he now confirm that in such a case the UK Government would make up the difference?
The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman, as I would to anyone asking a question about what happens were we to leave, is that I do not think you can give a guarantee. I am a profound believer in our United Kingdom. I want to go on making sure that poorer regions and parts of our country are properly supported. If, as I think is the case, we find that our economy would be hit by leaving and our tax receipts would be hit by leaving, that is obviously going to impact the amount of funding that we can put into agriculture, research or, indeed, poorer parts of our country. That is why I think the safe, sensible and right option is to vote to remain in a reformed European Union.
May I support the Prime Minister on his comments about Nigeria and Afghanistan, and ask him to stop pouring hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into those and other corrupt countries until they have cleaned up their act? While he is at it, will he tell us where he has the European Union in his league table of corruption, given that it has not had its accounts signed off for 20 years?
I thank, as ever, my hon. Friend for his help and support, and for his tips on diplomacy as well, which are useful given the past 24 hours. I would say to him that the leaders of countries such as Nigeria and Afghanistan are battling hard against very corrupt systems and countries. In both their cases they have made some remarkable steps forward, and that is why I am so keen to welcome them to the anti-corruption conference in London.
Where I part company with my hon. Friend is that I do not think it would be right to withdraw the aid that we give because, frankly, problems in those countries come back and haunt us here, whether they are problems of migration or problems of terrorism and all the rest of it. We are a country involved in a dangerous global world, and I see our aid budget, at 0.7%, alongside our defence budget, at 2% of our GDP, as ways of keeping us safe and prosperous in a dangerous world, as well as ways of fulfilling our important moral responsibilities.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am afraid the amount of noise regularly in the Chamber makes it necessary to outdo Barclays premier league matches in the provision of injury time. It is a pleasure to call Gill Furniss.
Twenty seven years ago in my constituency, we saw the country’s biggest sporting disaster. It is clear that we will not have the full truth about Hillsborough until we have the full truth about Orgreave and the policing of the miners’ strike. Will the Prime Minister accept the call by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and initiate an inquiry?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has met that group, is considering the points they have put forward and will come to her conclusions at the right time.
Business leaders in Cornwall, and indeed up and down the country, are awaiting news of progress on the decision about airport expansion in the south-east. Following this morning’s announcement by Heathrow airport that it now accepts all the Airport Commission’s recommendations, will the Prime Minister update the House on when we can expect a decision? Does he agree with me that a third runway at Heathrow offers the best opportunity for growth, jobs and the future prosperity of our country?
May I first—one of my many unforced errors in the past 24 hours—apologise to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss)? I should of course have welcomed her to the House of Commons and congratulated her on her by-election victory. She has lost no time in speaking up for her constituents in a very powerful and very accomplished way.
Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that, as we announced earlier this year, there are air quality issues that need to be resolved. We are on our way to working out how to resolve them, and when we do, we can come back to the House and announce what will happen next.
My constituent’s mother was killed in 1981. At the time, it was covered up as a suicide pact, but 18 years later it was uncovered that she had actually been murdered by my constituent’s father and his mistress. I do not think that anyone in this House will be able to imagine the pain and suffering that she and her family have had to endure. They are now having to relive that pain, because ITV is dramatising their whole ordeal, completely against her wishes, using not only the real names of her family but her own real name. I have raised this with ITV and with Ofcom, and, as far as I can see, no rules have been broken, but does the Prime Minister agree that victims’ voices should have a far greater role in any account of their tragedy? Will he meet me and my constituent to discuss what more could have been done in this case and how we can strengthen regulation in future to protect victims?
I was not aware of the case that the hon. Lady rightly raises. I remember from my time working in the television industry that there are occasions when decisions are made that can cause a huge amount of hurt and upset to families. I will discuss this case with the Culture Secretary to bring it to his attention and see whether there is anything more—apart from the conversations that she has had with ITV and with Ofcom, which is a powerful regulator—that can be done.
Yesterday Lord Prior spoke up for vaping as a way of getting off cigarettes; so has the Royal College of Physicians. Why are we bringing in the Brussels diktat that says that we must include vaping in the tobacco directive?
I am happy to look at this issue closely. It is necessary to differentiate between smoking and vaping, because they have very different health effects. I actually think that that is what is being achieved, but I will look into this carefully and will write to my hon. Friend.
Several hon. Members rose—
Lastly, Mr Tim Farron. [Interruption.] Order. However irritating the hon. Gentleman may be to Government Back Benchers, he has a right to be heard and he will be heard.
I am fantastically grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I heard the Prime Minister on two occasions this afternoon congratulate the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and I would like to repeat those congratulations myself. The Prime Minister did not, however, apologise for the disgraceful racist campaign the Conservative party chose to run in that election. Will he take the opportunity to apologise for deliberately dividing communities in order to win cheap votes?
It is a great way to end the Session—getting a lesson in clean campaigning from the Liberal Democrats.
White Paper on the BBC Charter
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to make a statement on the publication of the White Paper on the BBC charter.
I can inform the House that I will be making a statement tomorrow and laying before the House our White Paper on the BBC. The BBC’s royal charter expires at the end of the December. I launched our public consultation in this House in July last year, and in March we published the summary of responses, along with an independent review of the BBC’s governance led by Sir David Clementi. Over the past 10 months we have listened to the views of hundreds of organisations and institutions, and 190,000 members of the public responded to our consultation. As well as working closely with the BBC and the BBC Trust, we have also had the benefit of expert input from parliamentary Committees of both Houses, as well as from Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont.
The proposals in our White Paper are the result of one of the largest and most open consultations ever conducted. I have always been clear that I will publish our proposals as soon as we are ready to do so, and at a time when the House has the opportunity to debate them, and I look forward to doing so tomorrow.
The BBC is one of the most valued and successful institutions ever created in the UK, and it belongs to the people of this country who pay for it. It has levels of public approval that any politician would die for, and it is the linchpin of a unique ecology of broadcasting in this country, which enables the creative industries in Britain to grow at twice the level of the rest of the economy, exporting more content and employing more people than its size would suggest possible. It enables the UK to project soft power, and it creates good will for Britain throughout the world.
The Secretary of State has been displaying seemingly implacable hostility to the BBC during the charter renewal process, and he has also been avoiding Parliament. He had to be dragged to the House after weeks of almost daily leaked briefings to the media. He has not come willingly to Parliament, and he seems intent on using his brief sojourn in office not to strengthen the BBC but to diminish it; not to see value in it, but to denigrate it; not to enable it, but to control it.
Does the Secretary of State accept that a good charter must do three things? It must guarantee the BBC’s financial and editorial independence, and it must help it to fulfil its mission to inform, educate and entertain us all. Given that the BBC has agreed to take on the £1.3 billion cost of funding free TV licences for the over-75s, does he accept that any further top-slicing or direction from Government about precisely how money from licence fee payers should be spent is an unwarranted interference in BBC independence that threatens its financial independence?
On governance, does the Secretary of State accept that his proposals to appoint a majority of the BBC’s new unitary board, which we have read about in the newspapers, go further than suggested by the Clementi review of BBC governance? Does he accept that that raises a widespread concern that he is seeking to control editorial decision making, by appointing a majority of the BBC board responsible for editorial decisions—something that has never happened before? Does he agree that any such move would be catastrophic for the reputation of our national broadcaster overseas, and diminish its credibility and the respect in which it is held around the world for its objective reporting? Labour Members believe that appointments to any new unitary board must be made through a process that is demonstrably independent of the Government. The recent consultation on the BBC charter—which had the second largest response to a Government consultation ever—shows that three quarters of the public want the BBC to remain independent. Will he listen to that result?
The BBC does a brilliant job in informing, educating and entertaining us all, and four fifths of the public believe that it serves its audiences well. Today we read in the newspapers that the Secretary of State intends to rewrite the BBC’s mission. He is wrong to do so, and we will oppose any such revision. He is seeking to turn the BBC away from a mission that has succeeded brilliantly for 90 years and of which the public approve. Just who does he think he is?
The Secretary of State claims time and again that he is a supporter of the BBC, but he recently told Cambridge students that the disappearance of the BBC was a “tempting prospect”. He did not like the results of the public consultation, so he is simply ignoring them, but the public love the BBC and want it to carry on doing what it has been doing so well for more than 90 years.
May I finish by giving the Secretary of State a bit of advice? It is not too late for the Secretary of State to start listening to the public. Indeed, he had better do so. He will not be forgiven, and nor will his party, if he continues on the path, which he has been briefing to the newspapers, that will lead to the destruction of the BBC as our much loved national broadcaster and turn it instead into a mouthpiece of the Government of the day.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State’s opening comments. The BBC has a very trusted place in British life and does a huge amount to support creative industries, and its global influence is enormous. We agree on those things and I am determined to preserve them, but to say that I have been dragged to Parliament is a little bit rich when it has always been the intention for us to make a full statement when the House is sitting—that will take place tomorrow.
The shadow Secretary of State set out three concerns on which she said she would judge our White Paper. I am not going to reveal the contents of the White Paper before it is published, but I can tell her that she will find that we agree with her about all three of the concerns she outlined and that they will be met.
We have had an extensive consultation and have taken account of it. The hon. Lady has asked legitimate questions. I would simply say to her that they are legitimate questions for tomorrow when she has had the chance to read the White Paper rather than for now, when she has read comments in the newspapers that range from complete fantasy to others that are quite well informed but certainly not informed by me or my Department.
We occasionally criticise the BBC for repeats and insist on original content wherever possible, but I suspect we will have an awful lot of repeats tomorrow from the hon. Lady, because that is when she should ask the questions and when I shall be happy to provide her with answers.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that that worldwide reputation of the BBC, which he and I admire, depends above all on its obvious independence, and the fact that it is seen to be independent of the Government and all other pressure groups? Will he reassure me, as he tried to reassure us a few moments ago, that tomorrow’s White Paper will reinforce that reputation, and that it will be plain on the face of it that there is no threat to the BBC?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I have always made it clear that editorial independence is an incredibly important principle and that we will do nothing to undermine it. Indeed, I hope that, when he sees the White Paper tomorrow, he will find that we have done our best to strengthen it in some areas.
Members on both sides of the House wait with some trepidation for the publication tomorrow of the White Paper on the future of the BBC, but the Government should be in no doubt about the support for editorially independent public service broadcasting throughout the United Kingdom.
There often seems to be something of a gulf between some of the whackier notions floated by the Government via the press and broadcasting reality. One of the most bizarre must surely be the idea that the BBC should desist from broadcasting popular programmes at the same time that ITV broadcasts popular programmes—presumably, the BBC should show only dull, unpopular programmes at those times. There are reports that that remains a sticking point between the Government and the director-general. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that there is no truth in that absurd suggestion?
I and my Committee—the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—were concerned earlier this year that the process of releasing the White Paper might be delayed by the volume of responses that the Secretary of State has received, and I congratulate him on publishing it tomorrow. As he and the House will know, my Committee made several serious recommendations on governance, many of which were picked up by the Clementi committee and developed. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the selection process for the crucial role of the chair of the new unitary board will be as wide ranging, robust and independent as possible?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend—he is right that it has taken a considerable time to go through all the consultation responses. We have had valuable recommendations both from his Committee and from the Committee in the other House. It was always the case that we would try to make the statement as soon as possible, and when the House is sitting. I am delighted that we are in a position to do so tomorrow.
My hon. Friend will see what we suggest on appointments to the new BBC board, if that is the recommendation in the White Paper. I will be happy to talk to him about it further once the White Paper has been published.
The pre-briefing, from wherever it came in the Government, to the BBC-hostile press has not helped the Secretary of State’s cause. If the White Paper published tomorrow follows the recommendations of the excellent Select Committee report published last year—he chaired the Committee at the time and signed up to the report—I will support it. However, if there is any suggestion whatever of anything that intrudes on the BBC’s independence, he will have the fight of his life on his hands.
The right hon. Gentleman is asking the Secretary of State whether he agrees with himself.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s view that the report issued by the Select Committee last year was excellent—he played a very important role in framing the conclusions—but I repeat what I said: I am committed to the editorial independence of the BBC, and I hope that, when he looks at the White Paper, he finds the reassurance he seeks.
Earlier this week, the Prime Minister described the BBC as one of the most recognised brands on the planet—it is indeed. It is also one of the British institutions recognised worldwide as a great achievement of this country and great advert for it. It is clear from Members on both sides of the House that one key reason for that long-term success is the BBC’s independence. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure us that nothing in the appointments system or the board system in the White Paper exposes the BBC to greater direct interference from any Government, because that would be a hugely retrograde step?
I am repeating this but I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of editorial independence. On the appointments process, he will be aware that BBC Trust members were entirely appointed by the Government, as were BBC governors before them. However, the BBC board is a different beast, and I hope he will find that we have taken steps to ensure that BBC independence is beyond doubt.
Parents throughout the country value the BBC’s children’s channels, CBeebies and CBBC, because they are free from adverts for low-cost loans from Wonga and expensive toys. Like the NHS, the BBC is a world-class institution and the envy of other nations. If it is not broken, the Secretary of State must not fix it.
I share the hon. Lady’s admiration for the programming that the BBC produces for children, particularly given that most of the commercial sector has withdrawn from children’s programming. I consider that to be a very important part of the BBC’s public service role, and I hope she finds measures in the White Paper that she is able to welcome.
I doubt whether any hon. Member on either side of the House is not a major supporter of the BBC, but as someone who served on the National Heritage Committee and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee for many years, and as someone who worked for the BBC, I find some of the points made by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) a bit rich. I remember some of the appointments made to the board of governors by Tony Blair. She commented on the suggestion that the BBC should be showing programmes that are different from those shown by ITV and not competing, but that point was made by Chris Smith when he was Culture, Media and Sport Secretary in Tony Blair’s Government.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for those observations, which were well made. I hope he comes along and makes some more tomorrow.
The hon. Gentleman will not require much encouragement if experience is anything by which to judge.
S4C provides popular programming in Welsh—in fact, it is as popular as possible—and is largely funded by the BBC. Is the Secretary of State concerned that his proposals as reported widely in Wales are likely to hamper S4C’s ability to fulfil that unique prime function?
I am concerned if those reports are circulating in Wales, but I hope there will be reassurance tomorrow. I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit S4C just a few weeks ago and I share the hon. Gentleman’s regard for its programming. He will be aware that we have announced that we will be reviewing S4C once we have completed the BBC charter review. That, too, will be with the aim of seeing how we can strengthen and sustain it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred to his past. In 1957, when T S Eliot and Laurence Olivier formed the Third Programme Defence Society, I was a 12-year-old who put stamps on the communications. Trusting in the Government to bring forward a decent White Paper, I ask the Secretary of State to clarify when Channel 4 might come up for review.
My hon. Friend is right that a number of issues are on our agenda. The BBC’s charter was the first and most important priority, not least because it runs out at the end of the year. Channel 4 is an area that we are looking at again to establish whether it can be strengthened in the delivery of its public service remit. I am keen to make public our conclusions as soon as possible.
I have heard what the Secretary of State has had to say about the BBC’s independence, but does he recognise that there is just one ethnic minority member on the current board and that it would be a great travesty if the same old people in the same old Westminster village occupy the same old roles?
I am sympathetic to those comments. Arrangements for appointments to the board will be made clear tomorrow, but the importance of diversity is central to the White Paper and it applies to those who work for the BBC, those who appear on BBC programmes and indeed those who watch them.
Following the lefty-lovey hysteria at the weekend, does my right hon. Friend agree that scrapping the discredited BBC Trust, asking for more transparency in a publicly funded organisation and wanting the BBC to be distinctive and impartial is hardly the end of public service broadcasting as we know it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I think he will find that our proposals certainly do not represent the end of public service broadcasting. Indeed, I hope it will be felt that they strengthen public service broadcasting. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s contribution tomorrow.
There is no doubt about the level of public support for the BBC’s independence, impartiality and fairness. At a time when it is being undermined by its competitors and attacked by the hard right of the Conservative party, as we have just heard, and of course by the bitter practitioners of the new and kinder politics on the hard left, not to mention the crazed conspiracy theorists in the SNP north of the border and UKIP in England, is it not really important for mainstream politicians to stand up for the BBC’s right to do its job and defend its staff from the terrible bullying that we have recently seen?
I sometimes sympathise with the BBC when it comes to maintaining impartiality at a time when there are so many diverse views, making it increasingly hard to strike the balance between them. Impartiality and objectivity are nevertheless absolutely the cornerstone of the BBC’s reputation, and I hope that that will always continue to be the case.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the period of charter renewal is a good time to consider what the BBC can do better in the future, even though it is a much-loved national institution, given that this is recognised by the BBC itself and there is widespread concern about the need for reform of the BBC’s governance?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has contributed to the excellent Select Committee report on this matter. I hope that he finds that our White Paper proposals take account of it. They are intended to strengthen the BBC and ensure that it performs better in the areas where it might not have fulfilled its potential to date.
I am proud to host the BBC’s Scotland headquarters at Pacific Quay in my constituency. It is a great facility, providing many jobs within the city of Glasgow and more widely, with lots of production companies also using the facilities there. I want to ask specifically about BBC Alba. Its present schedule provides for 73% repeats and it is able to produce only 4.4 hours of original output a week. BBC Alba’s ask for the charter renewal is to be able to produce 10 hours a week. It is a modest request to the Government, and I very much hope that the Secretary of State will be able to take it into account. The channel has grown a great deal, reaching 700,000 people a week, but it needs extra support to grow its audience further.
I had a useful meeting with the chairman and chief executive of MG Alba not long ago. I agree with the hon. Lady that they do an excellent job in broadcasting Gaelic. The Government remain committed to that, but the hon. Lady will need to wait until tomorrow. We certainly recognise the importance of what she says, but the funding is to some extent a matter for the BBC.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s words of reassurance on editorial independence. Will he also provide reassurance on regional broadcasting and its continuing importance for the BBC?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of BBC regional and local broadcasting. When it comes to BBC local radio in particular, it is difficult to imagine that the commercial sector would ever provide the sort of news broadcasting and local community information that the BBC provides. This is certainly one of the BBC’s strengths, which I hope to see continue and strengthen even further in the future.
As part of the ongoing review and as we await tomorrow’s response to the consultation, will the Secretary of State confirm—it is important for regional broadcasting—that collaboration between BBC Northern Ireland and Irish broadcaster RTÉ will continue?
Again, I do not want to pre-empt the White Paper. That sort of issue is very much one for the BBC, but we very much support the general importance of the BBC working in partnership and collaboration with other broadcasting organisations.
In common with most Members, I fully respect the production values of the BBC. Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that it is only proper to ask the BBC to review its governance arrangements and ensure that it continues to have a distinctive approach in the face of a fast-changing digital world?
My hon. Friend is right on both counts. There is, I think, universal agreement that the existing governance structure has not proved to be sufficiently effective, so there is a need for a new system of governance. My hon. Friend also rightly makes the point that we live in an extraordinarily fast-changing media landscape, in which people are changing the way they consume television. If we compare that with the position 10 years ago, we find the current landscape transformed—and it is likely that the pace of change will continue. That is why the BBC needs to be adaptable and ready for that future.
Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will not listen to all the hard-line cranks and the obsessive detractors of the BBC who are always knocking this important institution, much loved and much valued by mainstream Britain? The BBC actually raises the standard and the quality of output from its competitors, so hobbling the BBC will do nothing but reduce that quality.
I have no wish to hobble the BBC. We have sought to listen to all the views expressed and to take account of them. All I can do now is invite the hon. Gentleman to come to the House tomorrow so that he can hear what we have proposed.
With wonderful BBC dramas such as “Happy Valley” and “Peaky Blinders” being filmed in my beautiful part of Yorkshire, will the Secretary of State assure me that the White Paper will enhance support and encourage yet more BBC TV production in the regions?
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the set of “Peaky Blinders” recently, although they were filming in Liverpool rather than in my hon. Friend’s constituency. This provides a very good example of fine and popular BBC drama—exactly the sort of thing at which the BBC excels—and I hope that it will continue to produce such programmes for a long time.
The people of Wales are true to the BBC, but the stories of their lives are progressively going untold. Will the Secretary of State commit to increase the hours of English language broadcasting made both in Wales and for Wales?
The importance of serving the needs of all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom is central to the BBC, and, indeed, plays a major part in our White Paper. Precisely how that is done is largely a matter for the BBC itself, but, as the hon. Lady will see, we will have a little more to say about it tomorrow.
I thank the Secretary of State for his words of reassurance, and particularly for what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) about local radio. In the last Parliament, I led a very oversubscribed Westminster Hall debate opposing cuts to BBC local radio services. Even the BBC Trust seemed surprised at the strength of cross-party feeling in support of local radio. I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s statement tomorrow, but what more can he tell us about the importance of local radio?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Local radio performs an extremely valuable function, particularly when there are crises such as the flooding that occurred in the north of England. During the flooding, it was essential that people were able to obtain information about how they could receive help and what the scale of the problem was, and BBC local radio played a critical part in providing that information. I am therefore a great supporter of BBC local radio. As for the allocation of the budget, that is largely a matter for the BBC. We do not tell the BBC how to divide up the funds that are available to it. However, I hope that it will continue to give local radio the priority that it deserves.
I speak as one of the old lefty luvvies who were adverted to earlier. We were under the impression that last July the Secretary of State had reached an agreement with the BBC that there would be no top-slicing of the licence fee. Will he tell us whether that agreement still holds?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the agreement that we reached with the BBC last July stands, and nothing in the White Paper will change that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, given its clear remit to educate, entertain and inform the British public, the BBC plays a pivotal role in British society, and does he agree that, as the way in which we consume education, entertainment and information evolves and changes, so must the BBC? Is that not what the White Paper is all about?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, the pace of technological change is very rapid. The way in which people consume television today is very different from what it was 10 years ago, but I have absolutely no doubt that by the time the charter is next renewed, it will have changed still further. Of course the BBC must take account of that, as must every other broadcaster.
As the Secretary of State may know, S4C is the only television channel in the United Kingdom that broadcasts in Welsh, and its continued existence is very important. Will its future funding and governance be considered as part of the charter renewal process, or will those issues be stuck in the long grass, with just a few little words said about them afterwards?
I agree that S4C makes a valuable contribution to the broadcasting landscape. It is appreciated throughout Wales and in other parts of the UK, and I believe that it has a considerable audience in Patagonia. As I said earlier, once the charter has been renewed we will conduct a further review of S4C which will cover all aspects, including its governance, its remit and, indeed, its funding.
There is no existential threat to the BBC. This debate has been characterised by the sort of hype that we have heard today, particularly from the left. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in return for a guaranteed £4 billion a year, plus BBC Worldwide, it is perfectly reasonable for the British public to expect a bit of belt-tightening, more accountability than the BBC Trust currently offers, a little injection of entrepreneurship, and, above all, a return to some of the even-handedness that characterised the first 40 years of the BBC?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. The BBC is privileged to receive £3.7 billion of licence fee funding, and, indeed, additional income. Obviously it is important that that money is spent wisely, that we seek to improve efficiency wherever possible, and that we also seek greater transparency in respect of the way in which the money is spent. All those things are priorities for us, and we will be addressing them tomorrow.
There is obviously a feeling that the Secretary of State should not seek to exert undue influence in the wrong direction when it comes to the future of the BBC, but may I suggest that intervention would be welcome in one context—that is, were he to advise that the people of the midlands should be given a much fairer and more equitable share of the return from the licence contributions that they make?
I am aware of the strength of feeling about the matter in the midlands in particular, and I know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy responded to a Westminster Hall debate about it. Again, this is largely up to the BBC, but we feel strongly about the importance of ensuring that the BBC serves all nations and regions of the United Kingdom, as we will make clear in the White Paper.
Having debated the future of the BBC a few days ago on the radio with my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), I yield to none in my willingness to go the extra mile in support of it—and I hope I am not one of the lefty luvvies to whom my hon. Friend referred. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me to listen to some of my concerns. Given that I am now reassured, does he agree that it might have been better for Opposition Members to wait 24 hours so that they could be educated and informed in the same way?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I was happy to be able to discuss some of his concerns with him and, I hope, to set his mind at rest, and I shall be happy to do the same for any other Members who have concerns. I would suggest to them, however, that it would be sensible to wait until they have seen what we actually propose, rather than some of the somewhat wild speculation that has appeared in the newspapers.
Virtually everyone agrees that the retention of a high-quality, independent public sector broadcaster is essential. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that one aspect of the £3.7 billion budget to which he has alluded is that it comes from the public purse, and does he also agree that greater transparency should be at the very top of both the BBC’s agenda and the agenda that he will announce tomorrow?
I agree with both those points, and they will be on the agenda tomorrow.
I was, once upon a time, a messenger at the BBC, so I know my way around Broadcasting House very slightly.
May I add to the argument for greater transparency by suggesting that we should have some understanding of how much senior managers in the BBC are being paid? My local journalists down in Devon would certainly be interested in learning about that.
I agree that transparency is very important, especially when public money is involved. Obviously, over a certain level, information about the remuneration packages of Members of Parliament, and, indeed, those of people who work for the Government throughout the public sector, is made public. The BBC already publishes the figures for its senior management, but I share my hon. Friend’s wish for there to be as much transparency as possible.
The Secretary of State has said that he recognises the importance of the BBC’s reflecting the geographical diversity of the regions of the United Kingdom, and, indeed, recognises the anger that exists in the midlands about the fact that BBC has not provided fair shares in that region, either in terms of investment or in terms of its operation and breadth of operation. I realise that he cannot say precisely what will be in the White Paper tomorrow, but can he tell us today what his approach will be in trying to influence those factors? May I also suggest that there is a job of work that can be done at Channel 4 to ensure that it has a greater geographical reach? Moving its headquarters to Birmingham might be a step in the right direction.
Obviously I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman today what will be in the White Paper that we are publishing tomorrow. Moreover, as I said earlier, some of those questions are for the BBC rather than the Government to determine. However, I reiterate that the need for broadcasters to serve all the nations and regions is a very important criterion, which we will be stressing to the BBC. I also hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Channel 4.
The cuts to local authority funding have created a crisis in the availability of regional arts and culture. In the BBC, however, we have a national institution that enables people to have access to the best, irrespective of where they live or what they earn. Does not the Secretary of State understand that by chipping away at the independence and the finances of the BBC, he is increasing unequal access, and that that is why he has created such a big backlash?
I hope that the hon. Lady will wait until the publication of the White Paper tomorrow before she makes any comment about the independence of the funding. I agree with her about the important role that the BBC plays in supporting the creative sector and the arts in this country, and that is something that I want to see continue.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the BBC is internationally renowned for its independence and its quality programmes that entertain, inform and challenge? Does he also understand that any attempts by the Government to play the fat controller by, for instance, packing the board, interfering with programme scheduling or top-slicing the licence fee would risk inflicting severe damage on the BBC’s reputation?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have no ambition to become the fat controller.
It is always useful to have a bit of information.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State refer to the important role of regional radio. I want to highlight the role played by James Hoggarth, who broadcast for eight hours straight from Radio Humberside when the BBC studio in York was flooded in December, providing a vital public service and emergency information. I very much hope that the White Paper will contain references to the important emergency service that BBC local radio provides.
I very much agree. As I indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) earlier, BBC local radio performs a valuable service at all times, but it comes into its own at a time of crisis in one particular part of our country or another. At such times, it is possibly the only source of news and information for the people who are affected.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), my constituents are deeply concerned about local and regional news provision. Can the Secretary of State assure us that tomorrow’s White Paper will not impinge on the independence or the resources of local news provision?
I say again that I will not reveal the contents of the White Paper, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not think he has any cause for concern.
It is a testimony to the quality of the BBC’s programming that BBC Worldwide brought in £226.5 million of funds to the BBC last year. That is the equivalent of £10 for each licence fee payer. Can the Secretary of State convey to the House of Commons that he has no intention of selling off any aspect of the BBC’s commercial arm?
Again, I invite the hon. Gentleman to read what we actually say about this in the White Paper tomorrow. Where I agree with him is that the BBC does have an extremely valuable asset and that it should exploit that in order to maximise the return and reduce the pressure on the licence fee.
Housing and Planning Bill
Consideration of Lords message
I draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendment 47E. I must also inform the House that the motion relating to Lords amendment 47E is certified as relating exclusively to England. If the House divides on the certified motion, a double majority will be required for the motion to be passed. I call the Minister to move to disagree with Lords amendment 47E.
Reduction of payment by agreement
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in their amendment 47E.
I should also like to inform the House that I am placing in the House Library today the Department’s analysis on the application of Standing Order 830 in respect of the Lords amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill. Yet again, we are here to defend our Bill and to make it clear that it delivers on our manifesto. I thank the other place for not continuing their opposition to starter homes, but this is the third time we have had to vote to confirm a key manifesto commitment, so I do not intend to detain the House for too long. I know that I do not have to remind the House of what we said in our manifesto, as I outlined those commitments last week and again earlier this week.
The Lords have scrutinised the Bill more than adequately, and I thank them for their efforts, but this is no longer scrutiny: this is a wrecking amendment. Enough is enough; it is time to stop. Mr Speaker, you have again certified that this amendment is financially privileged. As I set out earlier this week, it is contrary to convention for the House of Lords to send back an amendment in lieu that clearly invites the same response of financial privilege from this House. Yet on this issue it has chosen to do exactly that, not once but twice. A number of noble Lords rightly voiced their concern yesterday that the Lords were being invited to transgress constitutional proprieties, and I hope that this House will agree that this sort of behaviour risks calling into question the role of the second Chamber. The noble Lord Cormack eloquently said yesterday:
“The elected House…is the superior House when it comes to political power.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 1681.]
Lord Kerslake’s amendment has two levels of problems. It would impact on our ability to work with local authorities to deliver the best, most cost-effective, deals for replacement housing, and that could reduce the funding for our manifesto commitment to deliver right-to-buy discounts for housing association tenants. We received a clear mandate for that at the general election. This matter now moves beyond the question of policy and into constitutional issues. I ask the House to send a clear message that it is time for their lordships to respect the will of this elected House and to respect our right to get on with delivering the commitments we made in our manifesto, which the British public backed, so that we can deliver the homes that our country needs.
As we are all aware, the Government suffered a further defeat in the other place last night. As I said in our debate on Monday, after a string of defeats and concessions, some of the sharpest edges have been knocked off the Bill, but it remains an extraordinary and extreme piece of legislation, and a missed opportunity. Since 2010, homelessness and rough sleeping have more than doubled, house prices and private rents have risen dramatically and the housing benefit bill has ballooned, but the Bill does little to tackle those issues.
Lords amendments 47E seeks to put it beyond doubt that adequate funding would be available to local authorities to deliver at least one new affordable home for each higher-value property sold, and at least two in London. It gives local housing authorities the opportunity to demonstrate a need for social rented housing for the Secretary of State to consider. The Bill provides the statutory basis to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants paid for by a forced sale of council homes to the highest bidders, which could include buy-to-let landlords and overseas investors. Those homes have been paid for by our taxes and our parents’ taxes. They are public assets, but they will be sold to whoever has the money to buy them, and that could well be buy-to-let landlords and overseas investors.
Questions and concerns have repeatedly been raised about this, and the report from the Public Accounts Committee clearly identified the impact on local authorities and the risks of a policy so lacking in financial clarity. Lord Kerslake said in the House of Lords yesterday evening:
“It has been argued previously that this is unnecessary, since Ministers have given a commitment. If that is the case, it ought not to be controversial.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 1687.]
If the Government do not accept this like-for-like replacement, they need to explain why; otherwise, it will be clear that this is no more than another raid on local authorities’ finances, putting greater pressure on already-pressed local services. Shelter has calculated that, to deliver the estimated £4.5 billion of receipts identified by the Government, 23,500 vacant council properties a year will need to be sold. That is nearly a third of all vacant stock each year. Without a commitment in the Bill, there will be a huge loss of genuinely affordable homes as the Government sound the death knell for social housing. The Government have said that they are simply honouring their election manifesto, yet the relevant passage commits to a replacement, which is not in the Bill. The Bill and Government policy will make it near impossible for the delivery of new social rented and affordable rented housing as the new starter homes requirement will push social rented housing out of section 106 agreements.
The second part of the amendment seeks to give local authorities the opportunity to make a case, given local need, to replace a social rented home with another social rented home—if a local authority decides not to make such a case, that is fine, but if it wants to go for a different mix of affordable housing options, it can. The amendment would provide authorities with greater flexibility and expand opportunities for affordable housing. I had hoped that the Government would welcome that, but they insist on limiting new affordable homes to a restricted product aimed at one particular part of the housing crisis. If we are serious about fixing the housing crisis and if the Government are serious about encouraging people on to the housing ladder, they must consider all forms of tenure.
The Government were forced to make a string of concessions in the House of Lords and were defeated multiple times, showing the extent of the opposition to the Bill. It does nothing to fix the causes of the past six years of failure, sounds the death knell for social housing and will be a big let-down for people who are desperate for a home. While there are many things in the Bill with which we disagree, amendment 47E is an improvement and would put in the Bill the very thing that the Prime Minister confirmed is the Government’s intention to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) just an hour ago. I hope that the Government will reconsider and accept the amendment.
I rise simply to say that I do not understand the Government’s objections to the amendment. The press release that went out with the Conservative manifesto said:
“After funding replacement affordable housing on a one for one basis, the surplus proceeds will be used to fund the extension of right to buy”.
That is exactly what the amendment would achieve. I also fail to understand what the Minister meant when he said that the proposal
“would also significantly reduce the funding available for the voluntary right to buy, again preventing this Government from fulfilling their manifesto commitment.”—[Official Report, 9 May 2016; Vol. 609, c. 461.]
As I understand it, building costs are completely independent of the tenure, so I again fail to understand why the available money would be less than was previously the case. I hope that the Government will reconsider their decision at the eleventh hour and accept a perfectly sensible amendment from the House of Lords that does not contradict what the Conservatives put forward in their manifesto.
I wish I could say that it is a pleasure to be here once again to debate the many flaws in the Housing and Planning Bill, but I am grateful to the noble Lords for being so robust in their scrutiny and response. The Government have talked much about the obstructive nature of the Lords in relation to the Bill, but the Lords are not being remotely obstructive or difficult. They are simply not convinced that the Government have done their work or that the Bill will deliver on the Government’s manifesto commitment to one-for-one replacement. This is about a transparent and accountable legislative process that gives both Houses the confidence that there is any basis at all to believe that the Bill will deliver what the Government say it will.
Local authorities know their communities best. They undertake housing needs assessments and have statutory housing duties. They are democratically accountable to their local population. They know the mix of homes that is needed in their area. Nobody in the Opposition is saying that starter homes should not be a part of the mix; we want them to be part of a mix that is locally determined by councils that are democratically accountable to their local communities, and we want one-for-one replacement before the proceeds from forced sales are spent on anything else.
The Government are once again rejecting sensible, pragmatic advice from the House of Lords. They are ideologically committed to a Bill that will make the housing crisis worse than it already is. I urge the Government to listen to the House of Lords in its further assertion and to accept the amendment it proposed.
The Minister has complained about the behaviour of the noble Lords, but I am extremely grateful that they are standing up for people in housing need across the country. I only wish that the Government would listen to them and to the vast numbers of people, both in this House and outside the building, who are campaigning hard and loud for a decent housing settlement.
The Government’s refusal to accept the amendment has caused huge concern at local level. My constituency is facing a massive housing crisis, and another 10% rise in private sector rent is expected within a year. We desperately need more council homes, not fewer. It is vital that we get the replacement policy right in the Bill, or we risk seeing a reduction in genuinely affordable homes in the context of an already chronic social housing shortage. The Government have claimed that they are meeting their manifesto commitment to fund the replacement of council properties and to fund right to buy, but they are not. First, the money for replacement is not secure. Secondly, the offer of one-for-one replacement—two-for-one in London—is not the same as like-for-like replacement, which means the same tenure, the same affordable rent and the same area. The bottom line is that council housing assets should not be used to fund the right to buy for housing association tenants. In a housing crisis, we should not be adopting a top-down, blanket policy of forcing the sell-off of council assets.
The Chartered Institute of Housing concluded in its assessment of the policies that
“funds raised by high-value area sales will not fully cover the cost of local authority (LA) replacements and the cost of discounts under an extended right to buy”
and that funding the right to buy discounts
“could be achieved only at the cost of not building the replacement LA units”.
In other words, under the Government’s proposals, one can only be achieved at the expense of the other. The Government’s intention is that local authorities fully fund the right to buy, yet Ministers have not released any figures to demonstrate that additional funding would not be needed from central Government. That has been raised time and again, both in this House and in the other place, yet we still do not know how the numbers will add up.
Rightly, much has been made of the Public Accounts Committee report on this subject. The Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), rightly said that
“there are no costings or workings out. We are not talking about a ‘back of an envelope’ calculation—there is no envelope at all.”
The Government appear to be hedging their bets by not releasing an impact assessment and appear to have undertaken little or no consideration of how the proposal would be funded in practice. Lords amendment 47E has called them out. Ministers have estimated that they will get £4.5 billion of receipts from the forced sale of council homes. Shelter has calculated that 23,500 vacant council properties will need to be sold each year to deliver that figure. That equates to nearly a third of all vacant council stock and will leave those who rely on social housing with an even more minuscule chance of ever getting the secure council home they need. If Ministers were ever serious about replacing the council stock that they seek to flog off, it is surely only reasonable for the Government to take the precaution of ensuring, in legislation, that the funding will be there for local authorities to do so.
That prompts the question as to why the Government are digging their heels in. Why are they refusing to accept an amendment that simply seeks to secure their own manifesto commitment in the Bill? I fear the answer is that the proposal amounts to a tearing-down of the bricks and mortar of the welfare state: social housing. By objecting to amendment 47E, the Government are allowing council housing assets to be plundered to fund an ill-conceived attack on social housing, thereby pulling the rug from under those who need it most. That is why I hope that this House will continue to oppose the Government and will support the amendment from the other place.
It is most unfortunate that the Government are being so obstinate. They did the same over child refugees, but they gave way because of this House and the strength of feeling in the country as a whole, about which I am obviously pleased.
Interestingly, in all the years I have done this job, carrying out surgeries for nearly half a century, nobody has come to me to say that they wanted to be rehoused in the private sector, but plenty of private tenants have been dissatisfied with conditions and circumstances and have wanted to be rehoused by the local authority or the housing association, as the case is in my part of the world. If these people were in a position to buy, they would not be seeking social housing. The Government seem to forget, deliberately, the number of people in this country whose only hope of decent, adequate housing is if they can be rehoused by the local authority. Therefore, I regret all the more this obstinate attitude taken by the Government. I can assume only that it comes out of a bias towards the private sector, against social housing.
I have listened to what Labour colleagues who represent London constituencies have said. I do not, for one moment, suggest that the problem in Walsall is anywhere near the situation in these London boroughs, but enough people in my constituency have been waiting a considerable time to be rehoused. The reason for that is the acute shortage and long waiting list, and their only hope is to be rehoused, in due course, by the Walsall Housing Group. I hope that, even at this late hour, Ministers will understand the need for this Lords amendment to be accepted. As I said, it is regrettable that the Government have been so obstinate.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 47E.
The House proceeded to a Division.
I must inform the House that the motion relates exclusively to England. A double majority is therefore required.
11 May 2016
The House having divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
Lords amendment 47E disagreed to.
Ordered, That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendment 47E;
That Andrew Griffiths, Brandon Lewis, Seema Kennedy, Grahame M Morris, Teresa Pearce and Julian Smith be members of the Committee;
That Brandon Lewis be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee;
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Julian Smith.)
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.
Armed Forces Bill: (Programme) (No.3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)).
That the following provisions shall apply to the Armed Forces Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 15 October 2015 (Armed Forces Bill (Programme)) and 16 December 2015 (Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at today’s sitting.
(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Kris Hopkins.)
Question agreed to.
Armed Forces Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 1 and 2. If the House agrees them, Mr Speaker will ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Review of sentence following offer of assistance
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendment 2.
I intend to be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, as this is not a contentious issue.
I hope you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will allow me briefly to update the House. Our team in the Invictus games so far has a medal total of 89, 55 of which were won on the first day of the competition. One of our chief cheerleaders is my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans, who has taken through this Bill. I am afraid that the House will have to make do with me today.
I am pleased to welcome the Armed Forces Bill back to the House to consider amendments made in the other place. These two amendments deal with a matter raised by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in its 21st report—the regulation-making powers in new sections 304D(10) and 304E(9), which are inserted into the Armed Forces Act 2006 by clauses 10 and 11. The powers allow regulations to be made in relation to appeals against reviews of sentence.
Clauses 10 and 11 are part of the statutory framework that the Bill creates for offenders who co-operate with investigations and prosecutions. That framework closely follows the provision in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, which applies to the civilian criminal justice system. It includes provisions that allow a person to receive a reduced sentence in return for assisting or offering to assist an investigator or prosecutor. A decision of the court martial on such reviews may be appealed by the person who is sentenced or the director of service prosecutions. The Lords amendments make provision with respect to such appeals.
The Bill does not set out the detailed rules that will apply to the conduct of proceedings on such appeals. Instead, new sections 304D and 304E of the 2006 Act provide for those rules to be set out in regulations made by the Secretary of State. The rules will be based on existing rules in the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968 that govern the conduct of appeals from the court martial to the court martial appeal court or the Supreme Court.
Accordingly, the Bill confers powers on the Secretary of State to make regulations in relation to appeals against reviews of sentence that contain
“provision corresponding to any provision in Parts 2 to 4 of the Court Martial Appeals Act 1968, with or without modifications.”
That is provided for in new sections 304D(10) and 304E(9). Such regulations would be subject to the negative procedure.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee was content with that, subject to one point of concern. The Committee noted in its report that the 1968 Act includes some provisions that may be modified by the Lord Chancellor by regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. The relevant provisions in the 1968 Act are in sections 31A, 33, 33A, 46A and 47. They relate to the recovery of costs and expenses arising from appeal proceedings. The Committee’s concern is that the new regulation-making powers in new sections 304D(10) and 304E(9), which are subject to the negative procedure, could be used to make provision about the recovery of costs and expenses which, if made under the 1968 Act in relation to appeals covered by that Act, would have to be made by affirmative procedure regulations.
The Government therefore submitted amendments in the other place to clauses 10 and 11 to limit the powers in the sections of the Armed Forces Act 2006 under which regulations may be made about appeals. The effect of the amendments is twofold. First, regulations under those sections may not make provision corresponding to that which the Lord Chancellor may include in regulations under the 1968 Act. Secondly, regulations under those sections may confer regulation-making powers corresponding to those in the 1968 Act, but only if the exercise of the powers conferred is subject to the affirmative procedure, like the powers of the Lord Chancellor. The amendments address the concerns of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee.
Although I note that the amendments have been designated as engaging financial privilege, we do not expect any significant Government expenditure to arise from the use of the regulation-making powers. I therefore hope that hon. Members will support the amendments, which were accepted on all sides of the House of Lords without Division. I commend them to the House.
I thank the Minister for updating the House on the impressive medal haul for our Invictus games team: long may their successes continue.
Like the Minister, I do not intend to detain the House unduly, as there is considerable consensus in this area, but I want briefly to record our support for the Lords amendments to the Armed Forces Bill. It is always pleasing and reassuring when we reach consensus not only on both sides of this House, but with the other place, particularly when dealing with such important matters as the welfare of our armed forces personnel. The safety and security of our nation rely on the commitment, courage and patriotism of our armed forces personnel. We owe them a considerable debt of gratitude. It is only right that we continue to update the law to ensure that we protect their safety, security and well-being, as we look to them to protect our own.
We are therefore pleased to support Lords amendments 1 and 2. The amendments are technical in nature and will limit the regulation-making powers in new sections 304D and 304E of the 2006 Act in respect of the recognition of assistance by courts martial in sentencing, which the Minister went into in a little more detail.
We welcome the commitments that the Government made on Report to publish data relating to sexual assault in the armed forces in a clear format; conduct an independent review into the implications of, and potential benefits of, the removal of commanding officer discretion to investigate sexual assault; and review the compensation levels paid to injured service personnel, particularly the most seriously injured and those who suffer mental ill health. Although the Opposition originally called for those measures to be included in the Bill, we are very pleased that the Government are prepared to make the concessions outside the statutory framework. I commend my colleagues in the other place, particularly the noble Lords Touhig and Tunnicliffe, for continuing to push for those concessions.
We are therefore pleased to support the Lords amendments.
I thank the Minister for her speech today on the conclusion of our consideration of the Bill. I thank her for the leadership she has provided and thank all those who have supported the Bill. We very much appreciate the House’s commitment and dedication to our soldiers, sailors and airmen.
I will make one quick point and do not intend to delay the House. It is gratifying to see that the centrality of the role of the commanding officer is still recognised in the Bill. That they are being offered assistance and legal clarification through the Lords amendments should be welcomed by everyone in this House. However, we must never lose sight of the fact the relationship between soldiers, sailors and airmen and their commanding officers must remain sacrosanct and must not be eroded by litigious shifts towards independent judicial oversight. I appreciate that the Minister has included that in her amendments.
We must continue to trust the men and women who are in command of their units in peacetime and on operations. That lies at the heart of the bond between them and the service personnel under their command, whether aboard their ships, in their regiments or on their air stations. We tinker with that at our peril. I thank the Minister for her commitment.
I join the Minister in congratulating those who are participating in the Invictus games.
The SNP has a strong focus on supporting the work of the service personnel who make up our armed forces. We have made constructive and positive progress in Committee and in the Chamber. It is important that we use every available opportunity to examine and assess both the structures and the outcomes for members of our armed services.
We were pleased about the Government’s concession in the other place last month, when they agreed to a review to consider removing the discretion of the commanding officer to investigate allegations of sexual assault. The accuser and the accused would both benefit from any added transparency in such challenging situations.
The SNP supports Lords amendment 1. There was significant discussion in Committee about the most appropriate way to modernise the mechanics that lie behind the matters that are dealt with in clause 10, namely the review of a sentence following an offer of assistance. A person who has been sentenced by court martial may have their sentence reviewed to take account of assistance they have given or offered. The reviewing court may reduce the sentence in return for the offer of assistance. Additionally, subsection (8) allows a person whose sentence is reviewed to appeal against a court martial decision. The director of service prosecutions may also appeal against the decision. It is appropriate that fairness, transparency and good practice are central to service discipline proposals. Clause 10 appears to be a positive move in that regard.
In addition, we support Lords amendment 2, which relates to the provision that allows a sentence to be reviewed to take account of the failure by a person who has been sentenced to give the assistance that they had offered to an investigator or prosecutor in return for a discounted sentence. Again, clause 11 reflects the importance of additional transparency and clarity for service personnel, which we welcome.
We have a duty of care to our service personnel under the armed forces covenant, so it is vital that all measures relating to service justice are dealt with in terms of continual improvement, fairness and transparency. In relation to transparency and positive progress, it is worth noting that the SNP supports the Government’s promise that statistics on sexual assault and rape will be published before the summer recess. That is a topic to which I have returned several times in Committee and in the Chamber. It is vital that the statistics are published regularly in a consistent format and that the reporting includes all appropriate metrics, so that there is an opportunity to scrutinise the information properly and assess progress. If we do not have the regular opportunity to examine these statistics fully and consistently, many of the fine words spoken in this place are in the end simply words. I am encouraged that the publication of these statistics suggests that we appear to be making a positive step in the right direction towards greater transparency in service justice.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived.
Lords amendment 2 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived.
Sittings of the house (today)
That, at today’s sitting, the Speaker shall not adjourn the House until any message from the Lords has been received and any Committee to draw up Reasons which has been appointed at that sitting has reported.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
Pensions Uprating (UK Pensioners Living Overseas)
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern that the pensions of 550,000 UK pensioners residing in a number of overseas countries will no longer be uprated; is further concerned that this unfairness will lead to hardship for overseas pensioners and that this measure will discourage many UK citizens living in the UK from returning to their country of origin as many wish to do in their retirement; regrets that the Government has taken this action which will lead to loneliness and anger among UK pensioners living abroad; and calls on the Government to withdraw this measure and pay UK pensioners at home and abroad their due state pension with the same uprating adjustment in the interests of fairness and equity.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate.
I tabled early-day motion 1235 praying that the uprating regulations, which deny 550,000 of our pensioners their full pension entitlement, be annulled. That motion had the support of 97 Members from eight parties, including the Government party, as well as independent Members. This matter has cross-party support, and I hope that today the Government will reflect on the injustice that many face and the strength of that cross-party support.
The policy of not awarding increases has been followed by successive Governments and continues with the introduction of the new state pension that was introduced this April. People’s rights to their full UK pension are determined by the country they live in. There are 640,000 UK pensioners living in overseas countries where the UK meets its full obligation, but sadly there are 550,000 pensioners living in countries where annual uprating does not take place and pensions are frozen.
For the benefit of those who pick up the beginning of this debate and do not necessarily stay for the details at the end, does the hon. Gentleman agree that nobody intended this injustice to start? It started because in the 1950s there was no provision for uprating. Other countries introduced uprating, and no one bothered to say, “This is crazy”.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree that an anomaly exists. There is no logic whereby pensioners living in the US, for example, can benefit from their pension, but those in Canada cannot. It is a question of justice. That is why I am asking all Members across the House to unite on a matter that should concern us all. It is about doing the right thing, and I hope that today the Minister and the Government will respond correctly.
The pensions legislation provided for the additional state pension to be uprated at least in line with earnings. It also provided for the current policy on state pension uprating overseas to continue. Thus pensioners who would have been entitled to upratings if they retired in the UK are no longer entitled to that increased payment simply because they live in certain overseas countries. Pensions will be uprated only in a European Union country or one with which the UK has a reciprocal agreement. There are 16 such non-European Union countries, including the USA, Israel, Turkey and the republics of the former Yugoslavia. The agreements with Canada and New Zealand and the former agreement with Australia do not provide for uprating. Between them those three countries account for around 80% of overseas residents who do not get their full pension entitlement.
We are talking about individuals who have paid national insurance in anticipation of receiving a full UK state pension. We often talk about a postcode lottery; in this case it is a national lottery, with 550,000 pensioners paying the price—entitlement to a full pension based not on their national insurance contributions, but on the country they live in. How can that be fair? If they live in the US Virgin Islands, their pension rights are protected, but if they live in the British Virgin Islands, those rights are not protected. The debate today is about fairness. It should not be about where pensioners live.
Pensions, after all, are a contract. They are not a benefit. It is only fair and just that a British pensioner who chooses to enjoy their retirement overseas should receive the same amount as a British pensioner who chooses to remain in the United Kingdom. Either they have an entitlement or they do not.
If people pay in, the pension should pay out, regardless of their address.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very succinct comment. That is exactly the point. This should be about what are often called British values of fairness. If people have paid into a pension, they should get their entitlement with the annual uprating. There is no excuse for us not to do that. Why do we seem to have different classes of pensioners? It is morally unjust and truly unfair for the Government to strip pensioners of their right to equal state provision. Overseas pensioners are entitled to fairness. The state pension is a right, not a privilege.
I look forward to the Minister responding later in the debate, but I hope that we do not hear what we have heard before—that it is all about cost. It is about doing the right thing and recognising that all pensioners deserve to be treated fairly. We should focus today on the 550,000 pensioners who are losing out, but there is a topical dimension to this debate as well. What are the implications for the 400,000 UK pensioners living in EU countries if there is a Brexit vote in a few weeks’ time? In the other place, Baroness Altmann, responding on 3 March to a parliamentary question of 23 February, stated:
“Of course there is uncertainty about how a vote to leave the EU could impact on access to pensioner benefits for UK pensioners living in other parts of Europe.”
What are we to make of that? There is no clarity at all in that answer from the Government. Are the 550,000 pensioners with frozen pensions likely to be joined by others if there is a Brexit vote?
The Government could say today that irrespective of that vote, those living in EU countries will have their pensions protected. Will the Minister do that today? Will he assure our pensioners living in EU countries that their pension will not be affected by a Brexit vote? That is a simple request. It is easy for the Minister to respond appropriately and remove the uncertainty for UK pensioners living in Europe.
The Government want to lift the limit on the period that UK citizens living abroad can vote from 15 years to their entire lifetime. Why would the Government want to confer voting rights on UK pensioners, but deny them full pension rights? What drives the decision-making process of this Government? Is it cost savings, or will they accept our obligations to meet our commitment to paying pensions, regardless of country of residence? I appreciate that the Minister will no doubt have been told by the Treasury to offer nothing. The Minister is a loyal Government servant and I understand his position, but let me help him to strengthen his case with the Treasury.
The present Chancellor of the Exchequer, during a debate on the Pensions Bill in the 2003-04 Session, when shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said:
“If the system worked in the way that most people think, it would not matter where a person lived”––[Official Report, Pensions Public Bill Committee, 18 March 2004; c. 256.]
I have not said this before, but on this occasion I agree with the Chancellor: it should not matter where a person lives.
I appeal to the Minister to reflect on those words from his colleague, the present Chancellor. He spoke those words while in opposition, but each and every one of us should be judged by our deeds in government. It is not good enough to say the right thing when in opposition, and then, when in government, claim that it is all about cost. Let us today do the right thing. Let us unite in the House, standing up for all our pensioners, regardless of domicile.
I look forward to hearing voices from all sides of the Chamber. I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) speaking from the Labour Front Bench. She said at a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on frozen pensions on 2 February this year, “The situation is unfair, illogical and doesn’t make sense.” I agree with those sentiments. If the House divides on the motion, I hope Members on both sides of the Chamber will stand shoulder to shoulder with all the pensioners who are seeking their full pension rights.
My hon. Friend mentioned the all-party group on frozen British pensions. He and the Chamber might be interested to know that he has just been elected as a vice-chair of the all-party group on women against state pension inequality and that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) has been elected as co-chair—the meeting at which that happened was absolutely crowded. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that these injustices on pensions issues seem to run like a thread throughout UK Government policy? It really is time to resolve the WASPI issue and the overseas pensioners issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for that news—I did not even know that I was up for election. He is absolutely right: we are talking today about frozen pensions, but women born in the 1950s also face injustices. Many of us on both sides of the Chamber have engaged in the debate about that, and the fight goes on. Given the importance of these issues, I have suggested to the Minister that we should take some of them out of the Chamber and have a pensions commission that can look holistically at them. We can then make sure that we get them right and accept the obligations we all have to look after our pensioners, whether that is the women born in the 1950s or the frozen pensioners who are suffering.
I acknowledge that there is a cost to the Government in unfreezing pensions, but the resulting increased migration would offer them savings to help pay for doing that. In 2010, an Oxford Economics study using Government statistics showed that a pensioner who permanently leaves the UK saves the UK £7,700 a year in NHS usage and other age-related benefits, while the lost income in relation to such a pensioner would amount to £3,900—a net saving to the Exchequer of £3,800 at 2010 prices or £4,300 at today’s prices.
Many people living in the UK today perhaps came from the Caribbean or the Indian subcontinent and worked here all their lives, but those who want to go back to their country of origin cannot do so, because they risk being penalised by a frozen pension. We must help those who want to do that, as well as UK pensioners who live overseas. This is, therefore, not just about the gross cost of increased pension spending; there is an element of potentially reduced commitments to pensioners who seek to leave the UK to be with loved ones abroad or to return to their country of origin.
Those subject to frozen pensions have waited long enough to see this matter debated in the House. We must not let them down. We need to speak up for those pensioners living in the UK who want to move abroad to be with loved ones who have emigrated and those who came to work here and who wish to return to their country of origin, but who are fearful of the impact. There is a host of reasons why a pensioner may choose to move abroad in later life; it is simply wrong to punish them for making such a choice.
Pensioners who have paid the required national insurance contributions during their working lives, in the expectation of a decent basic pension in retirement, will find themselves living on incomes that fall in real terms year on year. Paying national insurance contributions to qualify for a state pension is mandatory. All recipients of the British state pension have made these contributions, and it is clearly unfair to differentiate payment levels.
Pensioners will now face ending their days in poverty because they chose to live in the “wrong” country—in most cases with no knowledge of the implications of their choice for their pension. Some people are being forced back to the UK—away from the family they love—just to secure an income they can survive on.
Reform would bring the UK in line with international norms, as most other developed countries now pay their state pension equivalents in the way I propose. We are, I am sad to say, the only country in the OECD that does not pay pensions irrespective of domicile. That should shame us all. Why are we the only country that does not accept our moral responsibility to our pensioners? That must change.
We know the statistics—that 550,000 people are affected—but behind those numbers are 550,000 human stories. Let me take three examples of the human cost of freezing state pensions. Abhik Bonnerjee, now 73, moved from India to Glasgow in 1960. He worked in the UK for 38 years—in shipbuilding, steel manufacture and the food industry. He also owned a restaurant for six years.
Abhik returned to India in 1997 and reached the state pension age in 2008, when it was paid at £87.30 a week. He made all the required national insurance contributions, and if he was still in the UK today, he would be getting not £87 but the full UK state pension. The decline in his real-terms income has left Abhik concerned about losing his home. He now feels he may have to move back to the UK. Why are we putting such a gentleman in such a position?
My hon. Friend gives a very good personal example. Is there not also a paradox? Abhik faces the dilemma of returning to the UK, but if he does return, not only will his pension be uprated to the full amount, but he will be able to access health and social care, so, as well as the disruption to this person’s life, there would also be a further cost to the UK Government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. This is not just about someone who comes back to the UK to live. Oddly enough, if such individuals came back to the UK for a holiday, they would collect their full UK state pension when they were here. The whole thing is just daft; we need to normalise it and accept our full responsibilities.
Let me give the example of Rita Young. She is 78 and lives in Peterborough, in the UK. She retired in 2002, aged 67, having enjoyed a long career in market research and as a community volunteer. Rita’s son moved to work in Australia some time ago and now has a family there. Since being widowed, Rita has wanted to join her son and grandchildren, but she has felt unable to do so because of the prospect of a frozen pension.
As Rita gets older, she finds daily life increasingly difficult, especially as she does not have a family around her to rely on. She is deeply saddened that she is not able to be with her family during the later stages of her life. She said:
“I have worked and contributed to my state pension all my life. It doesn’t seem fair that the government can just stop uprating it because I want to be with my family.”
That is the human cost of frozen pensions.
Lastly, there is former college lecturer Anne Puckridge, now 91. She lived and worked in the UK all her working life, paying mandatory national insurance contributions throughout. In 2002, aged 77, she finally retired and decided to move to Canada to be with her daughter and grandchildren, who had moved to Calgary. Fourteen years on, Anne, who served as an intelligence officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the second world war, is struggling to live on a frozen pension of £75.50 a week.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that the majority of Commonwealth nations are part of this process where pensions are frozen is a slap in the face for those who served not only this country but the Commonwealth in the second world war and in conflicts after that? In this year, when we have so many commemorations, unfreezing pensions would be a worthwhile exercise and would show that we value the worth of these people.
Absolutely. We owe a debt of gratitude to these people, and we should recognise that. My hon. Friend talks about the Commonwealth, and the arrangements are not reciprocal, because a Canadian pensioner who moved here would get their full pension. We need to make sure that our pensioners living in Canada are treated in the same way.
Anne feels that she will be forced to move back to the United Kingdom because her pension will no longer cover her day-to-day expenses, and she is increasingly reliant on her daughter to get by. She said:
“It’s the small things, and the injustice, that is really getting to me. I value my independence, but I can’t go on living on the breadline and I don’t want to inflict this on my family. As well as ever-increasing poverty, I feel a sense of stress and shame, which is affecting my health.”
For Abhik, Rita, Anne and all those who are not getting what is rightfully theirs, let this House today send a clear and unequivocal message to the Government that we want all our pensioners, regardless of domicile, to receive what is rightfully theirs: a full state pension. Today we can take the first steps towards fixing this injustice and delivering fairness for all our pensioners.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), and all those on the Order Paper who support the motion, on securing the debate on this very important subject. For the sake of clarity, I would like to point out a flaw in the motion. It seems to indicate that it is this Government who have introduced the measure, when it states
“will no longer be uprated”
“regrets that the Government has taken this action”.
I would simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that this policy has been consistent for 70 years. It is not something that this Government have done.
I made it clear in my speech that I recognise that this has been happening since the 1940s. I absolutely acknowledge that. This has happened under all Governments. None the less, we have the opportunity today to respond to it in the correct manner.
I give way to my hon. Friend.
The House and the Minister will recall that each year a statutory instrument, or equivalent legislation, is brought before the House to continue the policy, so none of us can say we are blameless. The fact that a small minority of us have so far been voting against what the Government propose to Parliament is our fault for not recruiting more people. The best people to recruit would be the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, and then the Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions who have to face up for the Government and will be able to pass the responsibility on to those who carry the responsibility—the most senior Ministers in Government.
I am grateful to both hon. Members for clarifying that point. I was simply pointing out an inconsistency on the Order Paper. For the sake of good order, I wanted to make clear that although yearly decisions have been taken by the Government, they are consistent with the policy undertaken by successive Governments from both sides of the House.
The UK state pension is exportable worldwide, regardless of recipients’ countries of residence or nationality. Successive Governments have taken the view that all those who have worked in the UK and built up an entitlement to state pension should be able to receive it. We have no plans to change this arrangement. However, the state pension is only increased, or uprated, each year where the recipient is resident in the European Economic Area or a country with which the UK has a reciprocal agreement that allows for uprating.
The policy on this issue has been consistent for 70 years, including under the Governments of Attlee, Wilson, Blair, Macmillan, Thatcher and Major. To uprate all state pension payments, regardless of a recipient’s country of residence, to the rate currently paid in the UK would cost in excess of an extra half a billion pounds a year. This amount would increase significantly over time. If arrears were to be included, the cost would be in the billions of pounds. Some have suggested partial uprating, but while this may cost tens of millions of pounds in the short term, the annual cost of the policy would converge to that of full uprating in the long term.
It might help if the Minister, either today or in the next Session, could tell us the last time the Government voluntarily negotiated a reciprocal agreement with another nation or territory. Secondly, since the last negotiation on a voluntary reciprocal agreement, how many other countries have been brought into the uprating for other reasons, such as accession to the EU?
I can certainly partly address my hon. Friend’s question. No new commitments allowing for uprating have been made since the 1980s. As far as the other information he seeks, I am more than happy to write to him.
We have to recognise that resources are limited. The Government have to make judgments and take difficult decisions about how best to use limited resources. The majority of pensioners abroad live in countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The rules in those countries vary. Some have largely means-tested pension systems, whereby a significant proportion of any increase in the amount of the UK state pension would go to the Treasuries of those countries, rather than the pensioner. I should add that many people who voluntarily move abroad do so before they have reached pensionable age. As such, many of them may well have been able to build up some pension provision in the countries they have emigrated to.
We should remember that the decision to move abroad is a voluntary one. It remains a personal choice dependent on the circumstances of the individual, which will differ from person to person. The implications for their state pension is just one factor in that decision. There is no evidence of a proven behavioural link between the uprating policy for the state pension and pensioner migration.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous with his time. Will he not accept that every other OECD country allows their pensioners who live abroad to collect their pension? Why are we standing against this? We are not talking about people getting something they are not entitled to, whether they have moved abroad before they have retired. We are talking about them getting something they are entitled to because they have made national insurance contributions. That is what we are denying them.
It is important that we do not just look at this from one narrow perspective. The hon. Gentleman says that people have paid national insurance and are therefore entitled to this. As I say, there are other aspects involved. For example, there is the element of individual choice. When people think about going abroad, it is not purely this issue that will determine whether they will live here or abroad.
Over the years, the UK has entered into a number of reciprocal agreements with other countries. Although most provide for payment of upratings, that is not the primary purpose of reciprocal social security agreements. They are intended mainly to provide a measure of co-ordination between social security schemes to protect the social security of workers moving between the two countries during their working lives. They prevent employees, their employers and the self-employed from needing to pay social security contributions to both the home state and the state of employment at the same time to get access to social security benefits. Of course, social security agreements vary to some extent from country to country, depending on the nature and scope of the other country’s social security scheme. It should also be noted that the UK is not alone in applying restrictions on payment of state pensions abroad. In some respects, the UK arrangements are less restrictive than those that apply in other countries.
The crux of the issue is individual choice. Those who have contributed to the UK state pension scheme are free to draw their entitlement from wherever they choose to live. The rules governing the uprating of pensions are straightforward and widely publicised. If a person chooses to live in country A their pension will be uprated, but if the choice is to live in country B their pension will not be uprated. In the final analysis, it is for the individual to weigh the benefits of living in country B, where her or his pension will not be uprated, against the benefits afforded by country A—or, indeed, remaining in the UK.
I am mindful that there are a number of hon. Members in the Chamber who wish to speak in the debate. It is a Backbench Business debate and I am mindful to give Back Benchers the freedom and opportunity to speak for a longer time than those on the Front Benches. So I congratulate again the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, and those who have supported him, on securing the debate. I am very pleased to have been able to set out the Government’s position, which remains unchanged.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), and my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on securing the debate. I thank all hon. Members taking part in it. They have already made some significant contributions.
My party leader has spoken eloquently on this issue in the past, having previously served on the all-party group. Frozen pensions seem even more of a problem today in the context of the rich and wealthy hiding their money in overseas tax havens. Many of my constituents have grandparents and parents who answered our Governments’ calls after the war to come to rebuild our country. Many of those pensioners have been long-standing public servants and have even fought for our country. They have paid national insurance for many, if not all, of their working lives and played by the rules.
Since 1981, however, it has been the position that where a person is not “ordinarily resident” in the UK there is no entitlement to an annual increase in retirement pension. The Government recently reaffirmed this in the debate on 26 January where the Minister stated:
“As hon. Members will be aware, the state pension is payable worldwide, but upratings for people who are not ordinarily resident in Great Britain are generally restricted to people living in the European economic area, Switzerland, Gibraltar or countries with which there is a reciprocal agreement that provides for uprating.”—[Official Report, Second Delegated Legislation Committee, 26 January 2016; c. 4.]
Cost has been cited as a determining factor in continuing to freeze pensions, and the House of Commons Library puts that in the region of £500 million a year. However, the proposal of partial uprating has an estimated up-front cost of just £37 million—small in Government spending terms—and this option offers an affordable and expeditious policy alternative. I and my party are keen to review the research by the International Consortium of British Pensioners and the National Pensioners Convention that suggests a partial way forward that is cost neutral to the Exchequer. We want to be bold in our response, and also credible. Indeed, I am aware that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin) has made a commitment to look into this proposal on behalf of the Government.
As somebody relatively new to this brief, I believe it is worth taking a fresh look at the current arrangements, as the logic is just not there. Arrangements have been made with some countries and not others. While one British pensioner in the USA gets an uprated pension, a pensioner in neighbouring Canada has theirs frozen. The Government should review the impact of this policy. Labour is calling for a full equalities and impact assessment of the freeze in overseas state pensions, as well as a country-by-country analysis of the number of people affected. I recently met the ICBP and the NPC, and we discussed the impact of the freeze in overseas state pensions. Many Members have spoken passionately about the individual impacts, such as in the case of Rita Young being kept away from her family, mentioned by the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.
The Government have told us half the story, but Ministers must be forthcoming about the impact of this policy. For example, the vast majority of those affected live in Canada or Australia, two countries where the pensions system is means-tested. The previous Pensions Minister said that, as a result, uprating the pensions of British citizens living in those countries would, in effect, mean a transfer to the Canadian and Australian exchequers, and the pensioners themselves would not necessarily be any better off. I would welcome further details from the Government about the number of British pensioners living in countries where the pensions system are not means-tested. I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House that information today or write to me. How many British pensioners live in countries where the pensions system is not means-tested, and by how much are they losing out? Echoing the request made earlier, have the countries in which they live approached the UK Government for a reciprocal agreement similar to that which we have with the United States, and if so, on what grounds were those agreements refused? Overall, will the Minister give us an estimate of the cost to the Exchequer of uprating for British pensioners living in countries where the pensions system is not means-tested?
I am keen to listen, learn and work with stakeholders such as the all-party parliamentary group to find a solution that is credible, affordable and fair. Members across the House will, like me, have received emails and correspondence from many overseas pensioners who will be watching this debate. I hope they take from it the message that Members from across this House value the contribution that they have made to our great country and will continue to work across parties to seek a fair way forward.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on his good fortune in securing this debate. I also congratulate him on his election to officership of the all-party WASPI group. Perhaps in that capacity he will be good enough to write to my constituents who expect me to be at its meeting today to explain why both he and I are here rather than upstairs.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on frozen British pensions, might be surprised that my name is not on the motion. The reason is merely that it is technically flawed, as my hon. Friend the Minister and, I think, the hon. Gentleman recognised. However, that should not be allowed to diminish in any way its thrust, which is very simple. For that reason, I do not want to detain the House for very long.
This is about an injustice that was perpetrated just post-war and has continued ever since under successive Governments. The point has been made, but let us make it again: it is absurd that a pensioner living in Canada on one side of the Niagara falls has a frozen pension, while a pensioner living in the United States, 500 yards or so away on the other side of the river, does not have a frozen pension. There is no equity, no sense and no logic in that whatsoever.
It has been said, slightly incorrectly, that a lot of these people have paid national insurance contributions and should therefore be getting their pensions. We all need to recognise that national insurance is not a funded pension scheme. Unlike a private pension scheme, which is fully funded, NI is not—it contributes to a number of benefits. Nevertheless, throughout their working lives, very many of these now-elderly people who are being shoddily treated have not only paid national insurance contributions but paid their taxes to the United Kingdom, served the United Kingdom, and, in some cases, served the United Kingdom in the armed forces. If, in retirement, having paid their dues all their working lives, they wish then to join friends or family in another country, why should they not be able to do so and take their pensions with them?
As we have heard, there is another restriction on movement. A significant number of Commonwealth immigrants who came to the United Kingdom in the 1950s and 1960s, became established here, worked here, regard themselves as British and have paid their dues all their working lives, would like now, in old age, to return to the Caribbean, for example, but feel that they are being prevented from doing so because they are afraid that their pensions will be frozen and they will not be able to afford to live in the country of their birth. I believe that is morally wrong.
Another downside to all this is that we are in danger of generating a cadre of pensioners who will be coming back to the United Kingdom, like the 90-year-old in Canada who may have to abandon his partner who has dementia and come back here because he cannot afford to live. If they do so, there will be a cost to our health services and our social services. That needs to be taken into account by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury.
On expats living particularly in France and Spain but throughout the European Union, one potentially very serious issue has been touched on but skated over. If—I hope we do not—the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union, there is no guarantee that those pensioners will continue to have their pensions uprated. Following the cessation of the winter fuel payment, on the slightly spurious grounds that Guadeloupe, Martinique and one or two other places are part of metropolitan France and that it is therefore appropriate to remove that benefit from those living there, a lot of these pensioners are not, as is popularly described, rich retirees living on yachts in the Mediterranean drinking gin; they are struggling. They will come home, because they will not have anywhere else to go. I suspect that the trickle of people doing so will turn into a torrent if we leave the European Union. It is no good the Brexit people saying we will negotiate unilateral agreements. With 27 countries? Okay, it may be mainly France and Spain, but we would also have to consider Italy, Greece and some of the other 26 member states dotted around the European Union. It is a very real issue that the DWP and the Treasury will have to face.
The all-party group recognises the very real difficulties involved in resolving a problem that has been allowed to build up over many years. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, it is facile to say that successive Governments have done this. Successive Governments have, but successive Governments have been wrong, and it is time we put the injustice right. There has to be a way of addressing the issue.
John Markham, Jim Tilley and others from the International Consortium of British Pensioners have met the Cabinet Office and proposed what I believe to be a sensible solution. I understand entirely that the Treasury is very afraid—this is not a DWP issue, really—that if an inch is given, a mile will be taken in the law courts by people who will seek recompense for the last 40 years. That, of course, could add up to a considerable amount of money. We have to move forward, however. We cannot honourably stay where we are, so John Markham and his colleagues, along with the all-party group, have suggested to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that there should be an uprating based on receipt of today’s pensions. If somebody had their pension frozen 20 years ago when they left the United Kingdom, and many have, they would be uprated at that figure, not at today’s figure. That would be a pittance—a pitiful sum of money—but it would be a step in the right direction. Gradually, over time, it would resolve the problem and we would accept the principle that those pensions should be uprated in line with inflation year on year, which is the right principle.
Following receipt of John Markham’s paper, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has looked at it and construed that more information is needed. That I accept. The pensioners are not expert in all these matters, although they are pretty good. My understanding is that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been in touch with John Markham and referred the matter back to him. He is now assembling the further information that is required to enable the Office for Budget Responsibility to consider the matter.
The DWP, the Treasury, the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister all have to recognise this. If we do not address the problem, there will certainly be a moral cost, because we are wrong. There will also be a financial cost, on two fronts, because pensioners who cannot afford to live overseas will come home and pensioners who want to retire overseas will not go. At the end of the day, that will be a cost to the social services budget.
When my hon. Friend comes to respond, if he is granted the leave of the House to do so—I assume that he will be—I would like him simply to say that he recognises the problem, and that he understands that there has to be a way forward. There has to be a solution. I mean no disrespect to him, but I suspect that this is slightly above his pay grade; it is certainly above mine. I want this Conservative Government to have the pride and the courage to give people who are in retirement overseas the dignity that they deserve.
I pay tribute to everyone who has brought this debate to the Chamber. I declare an interest: I am in receipt of a UK state pension, which has been uprated since I first received it. I further declare that it is possible that, at some time in the very distant future, I may decide to live abroad.
As you well know, Madam Deputy Speaker,
“facts are chiels that winna ding
And canna be disputed”.
I have written that down for Hansard. I will repeat many things that have already been said in the debate, because they are important. A pension is not a benefit. It is not a privilege. It is not a handout. Pensions are earned by individuals who contribute to the state—generally those who have worked hard all their lives to provide for themselves and their families and to support our economy.
UK state pensions are uprated according to the laws and regulations in this country, and that right must be extended to all British pensioners abroad, over half a million of whom do not benefit from uprating. Currently, as has been said, no reciprocal agreement exists with the Commonwealth countries of Canada, New Zealand and Australia. UK pensioners living in these countries account for 80% of those who have had their pensions frozen. We have a close relationship with those Commonwealth states, but apparently not close enough to form reciprocal agreements to support pensioners. The countries with which we have reciprocal agreements include the republics of the former Yugoslavia, the USA, Turkey and—a personal favourite of the Government —the tax havens of Barbados and Bermuda. The fact that the Government protect tax havens for the benefit of global elites but fail to right the injustice to their own pensioners perfectly exemplifies the Government’s priorities.
The reasons given by the Government for rejecting universal uprating lack coherence. The Government claim that the price of universal uprating is too high. In fact, Oxford University’s figures estimate that £4,300 is saved each year with every pensioner who moves abroad, because of the decreased pressure on public services. I am sure if they really looked, the Government could find the money to provide for those pensioners, just as they found the money for bombing Syria and just as they will find £167 billion to replace Trident. The Government are more concerned with bombing abroad than they are with supporting our pensioners abroad. The Government have said that they would like to focus on providing for pensioners who are based in the UK, but I reiterate that pensions are a right, and uprating for pensioners abroad should not mean a trade-off with pension rates for people here.
The Government have said that uprating is based on levels of earnings growth and price inflation in the UK, and that it has no relevance to pensioners abroad. However, no reciprocal agreements have been made with the three main foreign countries in which British pensioners live in order to try to overcome that deficit. The Government have said that opposition to universal uprating has been Government policy for 70 years across all Governments. As someone who supports the end of a 300-year political Union, I am not one for blind traditionalism.
This Government, like several before them, have refused even to consider universal uprating; they have refused to negotiate a reciprocal agreement with certain states, including Great Britain’s former dominions; and they have even refused to consider a review. That has all resulted in an asymmetrical system whereby pensioners in the EU and the USA benefit, but those in Australia and Canada, for example, do not.
The Government are taking “an out of sight, out of mind” approach, which leaves our pensioners who live overseas in some countries worse off each year, in real terms, through an incoherent system that sets us apart from every other member of the OECD. Partial uprating is a pragmatic and practical solution, and I urge the Government to take that route. It is about time the Government secured the rights to pension uprating for those who helped to build this country, rather than focusing on decreasing public spending and rolling back the state. When we work, we pay national insurance and taxes, and our pensions are accrued on that basis. Those pensions are a right, and no one should ever be refused what is theirs by right, whether they live here or elsewhere.
I am grateful for being called to speak in this debate. I operate on the principle that I have a contract with my Government and my Government have a contract with me: I work hard; I pay national insurance and I pay my tax, and in return I get a pension. That is a very simple expectation. It shames this Government and successive Governments that they have failed to meet their obligation to people who have chosen to move overseas. As I said in an intervention, where someone chooses to live should have no bearing on their pension entitlement, and it is shameful that Governments continue to argue otherwise.
The Minister said—it was a reasonable debating point—that uprating such pensions would cost £500 million a year, but people are owed that money and have a realistic expectation of receiving it. It is not as though a group of angry, silver-haired men and women were demanding some cash without having made any contribution. They deserve this cash precisely because they have made a contribution. Is my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) seeking to intervene? He has suddenly lurched forward in his seat.
I was just agreeing with my hon. Friend.
Oh, that is excellent. It is always nice when someone agrees with me, particularly someone from my own side.
Now that the Minister has resumed his seat, I just want to say that he made great play in his speech of the issue of choice, in that pensioners have a choice about where they live. I am delighted that we have choices in this country—that is the wonderful thing about living in an open and free society—and that we can choose where we live and whom we associate with. However, choice cuts both ways, does it not? Choice also applies to Government. The Government absolutely have the choice to honour their promises to retired people who have made an enormous contribution to this country. Right now, the Government are choosing not to honour those commitments. I conclude this very short speech by saying that the Government should exercise their right to choose by actually choosing to do the right thing.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and the other Members who have spoken in this debate. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends because the fact that so many SNP Members are in the Chamber for this important debate sends out a very positive signal.
Some of us have been speaking about and supporting this campaign for many years. As has been said, parties of all political persuasions have made all the right noises and said positive things when in opposition, but have completely reneged on that when in government, because Governments always tend to renege when the Treasury gets involved. I very much welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) because she reflected the views of the leader of our party, who has been committed to this for many years. I hope that we will now treat this campaign very seriously and be strong supporters of it.
I pay tribute to John Markham, who for many years has continued to push this issue with the International Consortium of British Pensioners, the global coalition of all the various campaign groups. He has kept going, as have all his supporters, when—time after time, setback after setback—they must have felt that they were not really getting anywhere. Following the speeches by Members on both sides of the Chamber, I hope they feel that they are now beginning to see movement. I also welcome the involvement and support of the National Pensioners Convention. All of us who have pensioners groups in our constituencies—this issue is certainly raised regularly in my area—know that pensioners in this country, no matter how difficult their circumstances, believe that the arrangement is unfair and would welcome the resolution of this problem.
I am particularly concerned about the issue because it involves many people from the Afro-Caribbean community in my area. They came to this country to work many years ago and many of them are now getting on and would like to go back. Some islands in the Caribbean are covered and some are not. It is just ludicrous that our Government cannot work out reciprocal agreements even with that small area of the Caribbean—let us forget the big countries for the moment. Those people want to go back home in their old age to retire, but do not feel they can go back knowing that their pension will not increase and that they may well need help from their families and relatives there, when they have been working over here. They want to go back home and to be able to retire with dignity.
To be honest, the Minister did not really say anything other than what he read out from his brief, which probably included everything he said the last time he spoke. I do not understand why we cannot get a reciprocal agreement with Australia, Canada and New Zealand. When he winds up, will he actually tell us why we cannot get such an agreement? Have the Government tried to do so? When did they last discuss it? What are the obstacles to it? Those three countries are among the countries closest to this country. They are part of the Commonwealth, and many of their citizens died for us during the first and second world wars. Why can we not get a reciprocal agreement with those three countries, and why can we not get one with the whole of the Caribbean?
Reciprocal agreements are only one way of solving this problem. The best way would obviously be to restore fairness by saying that this is the pensioners’ money, not the Government’s—the money is due to pensioners and should have gone to them. At some stage, a Government will have to accept that enough is enough and that we really must take this bold step. I hope that the suggestions made in this very good paper, “Frozen British Pensions: The Case for Change”, which has a lot in it, can be taken up. If we could at least have a partial uprating, that would be a start.
This is a question of justice and fairness, not of cost. We know that the cost for many of the people who would like to move abroad, go back home or retire to be with their family would be made up through savings over the years. There will be savings—there is no doubt about that—and it will also cost us much more if, as has been said, many people came back to this country just when they will need more support from the health service and all the other social services. On the cost issue, I understand that this sounds like a huge amount of money, but to me, £30 million—it would at least start to redress the problem by following the suggestion in this document—is not a huge amount of money. I do not want to get involved in the EU thing, but I think we are giving something like £50 million a day to the European Union. In the scale of things, £30 million is actually a very small amount.
I appeal to the Minister and certainly to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench to keep up the pressure on this issue, particularly because I believe that a start has now been made. During the 27 years that I have been in the House, I have never seen so many Members involved in holding debates or asking questions on these matters. Two or three committed Conservative Members have always done a huge amount of work on it, but for the first time a lot of new Members have understood the issue. The system has not been explained to people. There are even people moving now who do not realise what it means, because the website is not clear; there is no clarity. Many people who moved a long time ago had no idea that their pension would not be uprated, so we have not made this very clear.
I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate today. I hope that those watching this debate all over the world, who have felt so let down over the years, will feel that at last—thanks to the efforts of the Members who have secured this debate and have spoken today—there is a chink of light and that this situation may actually begin to change.
I agree with everything that has been said so far, except what has been said from the Front Bench. That is not to be taken personally by the Minister—we know that his role is to say what the Government have decided not to change.
The issue is that the Government have to change. We ought to start by changing the pension fund for Members of Parliament so that any Member of Parliament who goes to live in one of the countries on the frozen list does not get a pension at all or, if they do, it is not uprated in line with inflation. Why is it that the actuaries who do the calculations for the Government can take their second state pension—their work pension—abroad to any island in the Caribbean, and know that it will be uprated with inflation? Why is it that if they move to the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Ely, or possibly even to Dubai—
The Isle of Thanet.
Indeed—I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to him, to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and to others who, in advance of the welcome efforts from the Scottish National party, have followed the efforts of John Markham and his predecessors—he was not the first to fight this battle, although I hope he will be the last.
Why is it such an arbitrary collection of countries? I believe that a time will come when this Government find that a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is dominated, justifiably, by representatives of the main countries, where the more than half a million pensioners with frozen pensions live, asking the head of our Government why it is that a Minister can sit on the Front Bench and say—these are not precisely the Minister’s words—that we should not worry too much, because if the person really needs money they can get it from social security in the country they live in. That may be true in Australia, but it does not apply to the person who served in the civil service in Southern Rhodesia and stayed on in Zimbabwe, where we can now find billion dollar notes because of the previous inflation—heaven knows what will come from the present situation. That person has no option. That is not fair or right.
The politics mean that this change will come in time. It is a question of when and how. I suspect at some stage in the future—I hope still to be in the House when it happens; I do not intend to go on forever but I intend to go on for quite some time—the full uprating will be applied retrospectively. I understand from John Markham’s team that the first, and possibly only, step will be a partial unfreezing.
We need the Chancellor to understand that, as and when we have the proper plans for the 1.2 million British pensioners overseas to be able to vote—whether in individual constituencies or in some overseas constituency as for France—that will bring in a political power that is missing at the moment. The problem at present is that those who are already overseas tend not to be registered and do not vote—it is a scandal how very few of those who have moved even in the past 15 years are registered to vote and do so—and those who have not yet reached pension age or have not yet gone abroad do not think that this situation really matters to them.
We have 1.2 million British pensioners overseas now, which is 10% of British pensioners. We have to anticipate that there will perhaps be twice as many in the future. The time for the Government to resolve this issue is now. Otherwise, every extra 100,000 British pensioners abroad will mean about 50,000 in a country where their pension will be frozen, and the Government will then start to say that the cost is going up.
The alternative, of course, is for the Government to say that they do not think that pensioners overseas should get an uprating to their state pension and that they will renegotiate the agreements they already have with the EU and other countries around the world so that none of the 1.2 million British overseas pensioners will get an increase. That would at least have some logic to it. Perhaps the Minister will say now—or else he could write to me later—whether the Government have asked any country with which we have a reciprocal agreement whether it would like to drop it. I doubt he will be able to confirm that, because I do not think it has happened. Over the past 35 years, since 1981, the Government have simply thought that they do not have to do much about the situation because people are not making a fuss about it. Well, the job of this House of Commons is to make a fuss about it.
I could go on for quite some time, but I will put it this way. I do not want my Government—this Government or any alternative Government—to go on giving to the Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions the sort of points in their brief that the Minister has been given today and so has given to us. The arguments—not the Minister—are weak and insubstantial. They do not take us any further forward or provide a resolution. They just say, “We’re going to be stick-in-the-muds, because in 1981 we got away with it and nobody noticed.” More than half a million people, in countries that have mostly associated with this country, in war and peace, prosperity and difficulty, are being denied the increases that everyone else takes for granted, not just in this country but around the world.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for bringing the issue forward for debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for the way in which I put some of my points, which are not personal in any way at all. I hope that he will report back that this House and this country do not believe in unfairness. Some of us think that we were elected to help the Government to start doing things that are right because they are right, and not just because popular pressure will grow to make them do those things, whether they think they are right or wrong. The reason to do this is that it is right. The time to do it is now. I hope that that message will go clearly through to the Government.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for securing this debate.
It is fair to say that, given my youthfulness, prior to last year I did not have a great understanding of pensions. But the more I look into the different issues, the more bizarre the world of pensions seems to get. I thank the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for mentioning the fact that we are not at the WASPI meeting because we are in this Chamber debating this issue. He made an interesting point, which is in fact one reason why I find this debate incredibly bizarre. He said that the Government claim to have received legal advice that raises fears that people will be able to claim for back payments. But legal advice received by the International Consortium of British Pensioners from Blackstone Chambers contradicts that.
The Minister said that many pensioners overseas whose pensions are frozen are compensated through means-tested benefits in their country of residence and implied that unfreezing those pensions would make savings for foreign Governments at the expense of the UK taxpayer. But again, when we look at the facts, the ICBP’s recent review of the countries with the largest numbers of British pensioners with frozen pensions shows that that is simply not the case. The vast majority of pensioners would benefit greatly from an uprating in full.
That brings me to the person who my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber mentioned, Anne Puckridge, the former college lecturer, who is now 91 years of age. She worked in the UK all her life, then moved to Canada to be with her daughter and grandchildren. Fourteen years on, Anne, who served as an intelligence officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the second world war, is struggling to live on a frozen pension of £75.50, which is what she was entitled to when she moved. As my hon. Friend pointed out, she now fears that she will be forced to move back to Britain to be able to survive. He gave us some telling quotes. She has said:
“It’s the small things, and the injustice, that is really getting to me…I value my independence, but I can’t go on living on the breadline and I don’t want to inflict this on my family.”
That is telling. She is not asking for millions here—she does not want to raid the bank. She is asking for the extra 20 or 30 quid that she is entitled to after she paid into the system all her working life. Anne went on to say—this is perhaps the part that gives us most insight:
“As well as ever-increasingly poverty, I feel a sense of stress and shame, which is affecting my health.”
I looked through the various briefings on this issue and the previous debates there have been, for years now—as the Minister rightly pointed out, this debate has been going on since probably after world war two. In 1981, the line from the Government was not far off what the Minister said today. They said that they could not, unfortunately, unfreeze the pensions because that was incompatible with the Government’s policy of containing the long-term cost of the social security system to ensure that it remained affordable. This is an incredibly cynical point—I am getting used to those in here, so I thought I may as well join in—but it concerns the real lunacy of the argument about cost. Instead of giving people who have paid into the system all their life the £20 or £30 extra that people in the UK get and to which they are entitled, we are saying, “We’re not going to give you that money, but you can go and live abroad, make yourself ill through poverty, worry and the stress of having to come home. When you are forced to return to Britain, don’t worry, we’ll foot the bill for the NHS and everything else.” The argument about cost does not stand up—costs will increase when pensioners who have been made ill through stress or whatever, have to come back in order to survive.
Yet again, my hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Does not another nonsense argument about cost concern the reciprocal arrangement that is needed, given that Canadians in this country can get the full state pension from their country but British pensioners cannot get it in Canada? This is not about protecting social security in this country, because a reciprocal arrangement could easily be put in place. We are supposed to have the best social security system in the world, so the argument about cost is nonsense given that the Canadians can afford to pay for their citizens in this country.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I will touch on our relationship with Canada in a minute. My argument is supported by a 2010 study by Oxford Economics, which used Government statistics to show that a pensioner who permanently leaves the UK saves it £4,300 a year in NHS usage and other social security benefits. We are placing an increasing workload and cost on to the NHS and other public bodies—the very bodies that we are simultaneously using as part of the argument to continue with frozen pensions. It makes no sense.
The third reason often given by the Government for this measure is that there could be some sort of legal or political backlash, but that is not the case. This issue has been debated for years, and Annette Carson made a legal challenge against the Government on the basis of discrimination. She said that because she was in South Africa, which does not have a reciprocal deal with the UK, her pension was frozen, whereas if she had moved to an EU country—or a country with such a deal—she would have had an uprated pension. The judge ruled that she lost the case and that there was no discrimination, but he noted just how ludicrous the system is, and how much confusion there is about it. He ruled that it was a political, rather than judicial, decision, which shows how crazy these plans are—the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) used that word previously.
Any pensioner who moves within the EU or the European economic area gets an increase, and the UK has reciprocal agreements with 16 countries. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) pointed out, our agreements with Canada, New Zealand and Australia do not allow for uprating, yet those three countries are home to 80% of overseas residents who do not receive upratings.
I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said about choice and how that has to work both ways with the Government. The Minister said that pensioners can choose whether to go to country A that has a deal, or country B that does not, but that does not add up. Surely true freedom would allow someone to choose freely where they want to go, knowing that they have paid in all their life and will now get that back. It is not for the Government to put a hindrance on where people can choose to spend the pension that they have built up over their lifetime.
The hon. Lady has not put forward this idea directly, so perhaps I should say it out loud. Perhaps if New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada and others applied to join the EU, people would get that uprating and we would solve the problem.
That is an interesting point, but we will wait and see how things go in the summer.
Everything that has been mentioned in this debate touches on a deeper, more fundamental problem within pensions as a whole under this and previous Governments—that of inconsistency. We tell people to pay national insurance for a pension and to save for a fulfilling, free and happy retirement—but only in certain places. We tell people that we will give them greater freedom, that they can be trusted with their pensions, and that we will give them greater choice and allow them to take their pensions early—but we will not give them the freedom to move anywhere with that pension. Deals are made to uprate pensions in some countries, but not others; people are given the vote in some countries, but the Government are not prepared to pay out for their pension. It does not make sense. Everything seems to be convoluted and conflicting.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber mentioned what the Chancellor said about being supportive of change when he was in opposition, but the House of Commons Library shows that the then shadow Pensions Minister explained that the Conservatives had “considerable sympathy” with those affected. The Prime Minister stated in a letter that the Government do not feel that they can change anything in times of austerity—“How can we unfreeze those pensions when people in the UK are being asked to make sacrifices?” However, in the wake of recent events—whether the saga of the Panama papers or the shambolic deal with Google—it is clear that the Government are asking the wrong people to make sacrifices, and it is worth reminding the Minister that all the sympathy in the world will not pay the bills.
Several Members have asked the Minister to speak again, so with leave of the House I call Mr Vara.
With leave of the House I would like to make some brief comments. I am mindful that this is a Backbench Business Committee debate, and that it is not normal for Front Benchers to have a second go. I do not want to set a precedent, so I will just make one or two concluding comments about issues that have been raised.
Bilateral agreements were mentioned, and those are normally negotiated on the basis of compatibility of systems. That reciprocity is achieved between the two nations, and respective costs are broadly balanced. Canada has more than 150,000 recipients of the UK state pension, but any new bilateral agreement would not achieve reciprocity and would be disadvantageous to the UK taxpayer.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for all the work that he has done consistently over a number of years on this issue.
I will not take any interventions, but I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey).
I will not give way.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The logic, I think, is that if a reciprocal agreement may be done at no cost, there would be no reciprocal agreements anywhere.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot answer that because it is not a point of order. It is a point of debate, and the Minister is being brief because he has the leave of the House to speak again.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—I do not wish to abuse the leave of the House.
I simply conclude by referring to the issue raised by the International Consortium of British Pensioners, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet mentioned. He was right to say that it has come up with proposals, but it was felt that they were not sufficiently developed. The ICBP is working on more proposals and we look forward to having sight of them.
I once again congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber on securing the debate.
We have had a great debate and there is unity on both sides of the Chamber that the situation shames us all. Members on both sides of the House want the Government to take action. As many have said, it is about fairness. I thank the Front Benchers who have spoken, my hon. Friends the Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), and the hon. Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley).
This is a matter of considerable importance. The hon. Member for North Thanet has led the all-party parliamentary group with support from many others, including the hon. Member for Worthing West. We will not let this go, because we have a duty to stand up for the John Markhams of this world and all the others who have been mentioned.
I purposely did not mention the partial uprating but other hon. Members did. The Government could make a start by acknowledging the partial uprating. I say this to the Minister: please go away and talk to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who spoke in 2003 about the injustices taking place at that time. The Government should accept the moral responsibility that we have for pensioners everywhere. To take the logic of the hon. Member for Worthing West, if we as Members of Parliament decided to go and live in the British Virgin Islands, we would get our pension. If it is right for us, it is right for everybody else. Let’s do the right thing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes with concern that the pensions of 550,000 UK pensioners residing in a number of overseas countries will no longer be uprated; is further concerned that this unfairness will lead to hardship for overseas pensioners and that this measure will discourage many UK citizens living in the UK from returning to their country of origin as many wish to do in their retirement; regrets that the Government has taken this action which will lead to loneliness and anger among UK pensioners living abroad; and calls on the Government to withdraw this measure and pay UK pensioners at home and abroad their due state pension with the same uprating adjustment in the interests of fairness and equity.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I seek your urgent advice? I and others are very concerned about the plight of licensed black cab drivers in London, many of whom are my constituents—I believe many are your constituents. How can I bring my concerns best to the attention of the new Mayor of London?
I can honestly answer the hon. Gentleman by saying that that is sadly not a point of order for the Chair, but I wish it were a point of order for the Chair because I share his concerns. I no longer speak in this place on behalf of my constituents, but that does not mean that I do not work on their behalf. He and I share a very great concern about the point he has just made. I hope he will find a way, as other colleagues will, of asking questions or applying for debates in this place that will come to the attention of the new Mayor of London, whom we all hope will take the necessary action on this extremely important matter.
I have to announce to the House that I must correct the number announced in the Division earlier today on the motion to disagree to the Lords message on the Housing and Planning Bill. The number of Members voting no and representing English constituencies was erroneously reported as 177 instead of 166. The correct figures are as follows: the Ayes were 292 and the Noes were 197; and of those Members representing constituencies in England, the Ayes were 275 and the Noes were 166. The House will have noted that, although there was an error in the numbers, it makes no difference to the result of the Division.
Under the order of the House of earlier today, I shall not adjourn the House until any message from the Lords has been received. I will suspend the sitting to await a message from the Lords. When the House is ready to resume, the bells will be sounded and a warning notice will be put on the annunciator in the usual way.
Sitting suspended (Order, 11 May).
Train Services: Southend
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Barclay.)
I am absolutely delighted that I have been successful in securing this Adjournment debate. I am even more delighted that technically I have until 7 o’clock to speak on train services in Southend—although I saw that on PoliticsHome it was billed as “Train Services in Scotland” so I think people there got slightly confused.
I want to apologise for my voice, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is the result of hayfever, which I was told that I would grow out of 60 years ago, but much more importantly it is the result of attending a football match last night. I was honoured to attend the last match of West Ham United at Upton Park, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke). All I can say is that I have been blowing bubbles ever since—it was a wonderful occasion. My hon. Friend the Minister will be interested to know that the behaviour of West Ham supporters on the c2c train last night was absolutely exemplary. As she knows, I have one or two criticisms about what has happened on other occasions, but last night it was definitely the happy c2c line.
I am also delighted to share with the House the fact that it looks likely that we have a Conservative-controlled council in Southend again—a minority Conservative council with 24 councillors. I know that the House will want to send congratulations to first-time councillor David Burzotta, who is a wonderful tenor, and to David Garston and Mrs Helen Boyd, who won Prittlewell and Blenheim Park wards. Alex Bright, a member of staff of my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, was also successfully elected to the council. I mention this because three weeks ago, on 21 April, Councillor James Courtenay tabled a motion in the council about the c2c service that made a number of observations about it. His motion was accepted unopposed.
Last month, my hon. Friend the Minister and I had a meeting about train services in Southend, and we had an exchange of views. This debate gives me an opportunity to reflect on the situation since she and I had that meeting. Because the debate has come on early, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) have not been able to join me just yet, but although they are not physically here, they are here in spirit. They have both shared with me a number of observations on train services in Southend.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a robust politician—I celebrate that fact—will not take offence at anything that I am now going to say. I will probably sound like Victor Meldrew. I am delighted to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East has hot-footed it from the Foreign Office and now joined us in the debate. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford will be on his way in due course.
When I was first elected in 1983 as a Member of Parliament for the then constituency of Basildon—this does sound like Victor Meldrew—Ministers had huge power, but I feel as though, for whatever reason, their power is not what it was. I do not blame my hon. Friend the Minister for the repercussions of the timetable changes on Southend services. As a newly elected Member of Parliament all those years ago, I stopped the closure of an A&E unit with two days to go, for example, and I prevented three schools from being closed. My noble Friend Lord Patten and I were able to do something about re-siting a young offenders unit. We were able to do all sorts of things. All these years later, I feel as though my power as a Member of Parliament is greatly diminished.
As we all know, when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997—the number of Conservative Members of Parliament was reduced to 165, and then to 164 following a by-election—much power was given away to unelected quangos. My hon. Friend the Minister would be right to reflect on the fact that, because of privatisation, Ministers have much less control over such matters than they once did.
I have, for more years than I care to remember, been a commuter on trains to London. I was born in London, which is why I am a lifelong Hammers fan. I regularly used to commute on the Greater Anglia line, and I shared with fellow passengers the nightmare of being unable to get on to crowded trains, and worrying about being late for work and being told off by the boss. In those days, we did not have flexi-hours, and we used to worry about how on earth we would be able to get into the overcrowded carriages. My hon. Friend the Minister will be pleased to know that the trains eventually improved, and London Liverpool Street station was redeveloped. It is now an iconic building. That gave great comfort to all the commuters.
In the constituency that I now represent, only one station, Prittlewell, is served by that line. The station was included in the constituency six years ago. The trains that service the line are completely clapped out, the fares are far too high and the service is pretty poor in every respect. The present operators—I have to be fair to them—accompanied me on a public journey to Liverpool Street. The managing director, Jamie Burles, who is fairly new, was up for going on that public journey. He has been quite open and transparent with me about how to turn the line around and invest in it, and his company is submitting a fairly reasonable case to secure the bid. I am less than enthusiastic about supporting National Express’s bid to secure the franchise, simply because of the way in which it has dealt with me over the timetable changes. I will explain more about that in due course.
I turn to the c2c service, and in particular to trains that stop at the three stations in the area that I represent: Leigh-on-Sea, Chalkwell and Westcliff-on-Sea. Before I do, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, the late Lord Kelvedon, a former Secretary of State for Transport. He got a bad press for all sorts of reasons, but I have never met a colleague more honourable than Lord Kelvedon. Together with the late Lord Parkinson, he can take a great deal of credit for many of the improvements in our rail services. I was loosely involved in the then Department of Transport while each of them was Secretary of State, because I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Portillo, the Minister of State for Transport. Together, we oversaw the channel tunnel rail link and so many other improvements.
The present Secretary of State for Transport was a junior Minister in the Department at that time. Nothing has given me greater pleasure than to see what a huge success the Secretary of State is today. I think he has done a magnificent job in leading the Department under challenging circumstances. I am not saying that I agree with everything he has done, but I agree with most of the things he has done. He is certainly another robust politician.
It has so often been overlooked that the late Lord Parkinson and the late Lord Kelvedon were responsible for many of the excellent things that are happening in our transport system today. For instance, Crossrail is an absolutely fantastic project, and I never thought that I would live to see all the improvements. The fact that we have new rolling stock on our tube lines was absolutely due to those two Secretaries of State. It is marvellous that the carriages we now get on to are open from one end to the other and do not have the terrible congestion that there used to be. For the refurbishment of our stations, which obviously takes 10 or 20 years to happen, I give great credit to those two individuals.
Let me turn specifically to c2c. It was when I was the Member of Parliament for Basildon under a Conservative Government that I found myself as the champion for privatising the Fenchurch Street line. I did not seek that title, but that is how it turned out. In those days, the line had a well-earned reputation as the misery line. The rolling stock was awful, the trains kept breaking down due to points failure and the passengers had regularly had to walk down the line from Horndon-on-the-Hill.
The rest is history. It was down to the fact that the then chairman of British Rail agreed to go on a public journey with me. In those days, this place was regularly covered and I succeeded in having a public row with him live on television in one of the clapped-out carriages. That night—we used to sit into the wee hours of the morning—I was clapped through the Division Lobby by my colleagues, who thought that I was right to express myself, on behalf of my constituents, about how awful the service was.
The line was privatised, and in 1996 it was awarded to Prism Rail, which operated as LTS Rail. Relatively late on, LTS Rail was rebranded as c2c, which was sold to National Express in July 2000, and the line was transformed into the happy line. That was not the result of gas, but of the fact that everyone was very pleased when they got on the train—it arrived at the station a bit like the bullet train does in Japan—and very happy with the travelling experience. When I became the Member for Parliament for Southend West, I found that customer satisfaction had been transformed. I enjoyed a good relationship with the operators and became their greatest cheerleader.
All that changed, however, on 13 December 2015. The managing director told me about the new timetable changes. I had not asked for any timetable changes, and I had not had any letters, emails or phone calls complaining about the service, but he contacted me to say that the timetable changes would mean an improved passenger experience. I told him that I was already having a very nice experience, but if he could make that even better, so be it. He said there would be increased reliability—I thought the trains were very reliable—and that there would be quicker commutes and more seat availability. He told me that, in any case, if things did not work out, it was more likely than not that things would be returned to the way they were before.
I did not give the matter a second thought. I looked forward to Christmas and, far from being alarmed, I was absolutely delighted. It was now a Rolls-Royce service, in which one was transported to Fenchurch Street practically in sedan chairs. However, within days of the changes, I received dozens of emails from constituents complaining about how difficult their journeys to and from London had become as a result of the new timetable. At that time, I did not quite understand what they were talking about.
I then began to receive a large amount of correspondence, on a daily basis, about how dreadful the c2c line had become, with many people stating that they feared the misery line had returned. I found that incredibly frustrating, as I had put in so much hard work to fix the problem all those years ago. At that point I knew that it was absolutely essential that my constituents’ voices were heard. They claimed that their concerns were being overlooked—the managing director was apparently not taking much notice of them and had not made any public journeys at peak times to see the situation for himself.
I do not have a team of people to deal with the sort of absolute torrent that I faced at the time. As we all know, as power has seeped away from this place, politicians now often seem to exist simply to be blamed for things; as the Member for Southend West, I found myself being blamed for the impact of the timetable changes. Now, I have never been a trainspotter or an expert in timetable changes, so I did not quite understand exactly what was going on. But I was left to fend for myself with all these constituents’ problems.
It is no wonder that so many of them are still so displeased with the new timetable, when we look at the precise changes that have had an impact on the three stations serving my constituency. Trains servicing the stations in my constituency at peak travelling times now have fewer carriages, and almost all of them stop at every London station on the line. That is absolutely ridiculous, especially when we take into account the fact that c2c has reportedly recorded a 19% increase in evening peak travel and a 15% increase in traffic in the past three years.
It is clear why the commute has become a very unpleasant experience for my constituents. They tell me that at peak time they now face overcrowding. The trains are full before they depart from Fenchurch Street, yet there is the prospect of more passengers attempting to board at Limehouse, West Ham and Barking. I have been contacted about a number of issues caused by that overcrowding. It is important that I highlight the most serious problems that my constituents face.
I have been inundated with emails. I will not name the constituents—I will call them X. One says that he has given up emailing the MD of c2c
“as he seems to be fond only of providing glib comments or poor statistics…The May revisions”—
that is, the ones happening this month—
“do nothing to help the people to the east of Leigh-on-Sea…Even with the revised timetable I still lose 24 minutes a day…compared to my previous journeys, I am certainly no better off, and would argue nobody east of Leigh-on-Sea benefits at all from the May revisions. The railway is being run for the benefit of those in the Barking/West Ham areas…I am not convinced the new trains promised for later this year will materialise”.
The next says:
“The timetable is now a total mess…No ‘clock-face’ pattern or consistency.
‘Flagship’ trains like Leigh starters in the morning and the 16.58 down are withdrawn or wrecked by additional stops. Promises to local commuters broken.”
The next says:
“Paying in excess of £3,000 per annum for this privilege I fail to see how and why the service was changed, and after writing numerous emails to c2c complaining about the timetable changes, I have received no satisfactory response. Their last email to me advised me to contact the Ombudsman.
How could they not see the damage they would do by changing a timetable which, in my view, worked perfectly, and served commuters down the line more than adequately. Extra stops and fewer coaches, packed trains, no guards, the list is endless…The new timetable has returned us to the days of the Misery Line.”
The next one asks why c2c is discriminating against commuters from Chalkwell to Shoebury:
“Why don’t we have any fast trains in the morning between 6-7am”—
well, I do not know—
“why are they stopping every station? The overcrowding is horrendous—daily—why? Because they stop everywhere!...How can they justify journey time increase from 45 mins to almost an hour?...Why are c2c favouring East London?”
It goes on and on.
One commuter stated:
“I have used this line since 1964 and commuted between the early 1980s and 2007. Until the new timetable, I have never had any issue with c2c’s service”.
He pointed out some of the problems:
“18:00-19:00 capacity to Leigh reduced by 39%...7x 8-car trains having Leigh station calls removed between 17:00-19:00…Unacceptable tiny 4-car ‘off peak Tilbury loop’ size trains on the main line evening peak”.
I do not mean this as an argument against the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). The same commuter continued:
“The Leigh service is now further reduced to just 44 carriages (the 18.04 increased to 12-cars from 8, but 18.13 reduced to 4-car from 8, 18.58 8-car withdrawn with 4-car 18.49 added).”
As you see, Madam Deputy Speaker, my constituents go into fine detail about this, although I am not an expert in any of it.
Another constituent stated:
“Commuters from Leigh-on-Sea are not able reliably to jump on a train in the evening…Previously, semi-fast trains used to take 38 minutes whereas now the fastest train to Leigh-on-Sea is 46 minutes. c2c continue to run four coaches…c2c is running the new Metro trains down the line”,
which is having disastrous effects. In reply, c2c said:
“a good timetable is about the operator keeping up with its reputation of good performance. From Day One we will be making sure it works. We value our customers, and are providing a service for all.”
As my constituent said, however:
“I am afraid that the recent timetables changes have failed to maintain the sentiments in this statement”.
Another constituent said:
“Although I understand that the Minister for railways has agreed to waive the contractual obligation for more trains to stop at London connecting stations, c2c services continue to stop at more stations and it is us long distance commuters who suffer as we experience crowded trains,”.
She mentioned the contract to purchase more rolling stock, and said that yet again c2c is
“looking after the ‘local’ travellers and not the Southend areas commuters.”
Another constituent says:
“I no longer believe that the service is being run for my benefit…The additional London stops are unnecessary….very few people from south Essex get on or off at Barking or Upminster….c2c’s communications have been poor.”
Yet another says:
“In the AM peak, the number of trains servicing all the stations…has reduced…The changes on 16 May have absolutely NO effect for any commuter from Shoebur