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—
2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (904914)
3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (904915)
8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (904920)
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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?
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?
The Prime Minister was asked—
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? (904963)
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”? (904965)
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? (904969)
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? (904964)
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? (904970)
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? (904966)
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? (904973)
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? (904967)
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? (904974)
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? (904968)
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.
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? (904971)
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 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? (904976)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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?
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 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 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?