House of Commons
Wednesday 25 May 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
This Government’s rail investment strategy is historic in its scale and ambition, and will benefit passengers in both north and south Wales. We are electrifying the Great Western main line all the way to Swansea, and we are developing the north Wales main line through a £43 million programme of modernisation and investment.
The Department for Transport seems to be making precious little progress on the Crewe to Chester-north Wales coast electrification, so will the Minister get together with his DFT colleagues and perhaps the Welsh Assembly Government, and I will even come along myself, to get a full engineering survey to find out the costs and the timescale for the electrification process, which is so important to the growth of the area?
I understand the importance of the north Wales main line to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the whole of north Wales. We are engaged in a £43 million programme of investment and modernisation and we are seeing the benefits of that investment. For example, there has already been vast improvement in services from Chester to Euston, which also benefits north Wales. I would thoroughly welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with the hon. Gentleman as part of our strategy for a north Wales growth deal.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the recent decision by the Office of Rail and Road to permit regular new direct rail services from north Wales and Chester to Manchester airport? Does he agree that journey times remain too lengthy? With that in mind, will he encourage Network Rail to increase line speeds and pave the way for electrification by prioritising the replacement of Victorian signalling systems—works that had been due for completion last year?
My hon. Friend touches on the crucial point. I pay tribute to his work since he came into the House. I remember his first Adjournment debate on north Wales transport links, in which he talked about the importance of the north Wales rail line and the A55. He is right to highlight the fantastic investment from Arriva Trains, which will see a tripling of the services from Llandudno in my constituency to Manchester airport. That development is most welcome to people in north Wales. I thoroughly accept that we need to modernise the signalling system, which is why we have a £47 million programme of investment during control period 5 and control period 6. That has slipped somewhat, which is a shame, but it is interesting to note that it did not preclude the decision by Arriva Trains to increase its services dramatically.
When the Secretary of State was serving as the Under-Secretary, he met my predecessor to discuss the Pencoed level crossing, which causes a significant amount of chaos in the town and the Ogmore constituency. Will he agree to meet me and constituents from Pencoed to carry on those positive discussions about improving the Pencoed crossing?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place. I am aware that the Wales Office has been working with local government and the Welsh Government in relation to the Pencoed issue. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman—after all, my first by-election was in Ogmore. It was a very wet by-election. I would be delighted to meet residents of Pencoed once again.
There is great momentum in north Wales and north-west England to improve transport links. This is a time for the Welsh Government and the UK Government to work together to improve those links. May we therefore have candour? The £43 million that the Minister referred to was actually investment by the Welsh Government, so will the UK Government step up to the plate and invest a penny piece in infrastructure in north Wales? That would be very welcome.
It is important and imperative that we work together—the Welsh Government, local authorities and the UK Government—in developing transport links throughout north Wales. That is why we have opened the door for a north Wales growth deal, on which we are working in partnership with the Mersey Dee Alliance and the North Wales Economic Ambition Board. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a real, effective change in north Wales will depend upon co-operation between Westminster and the Welsh Government.
The new Welsh Government are ready; cross-party and cross-border, Members of Parliament and local authorities are ready; and most important of the lot, we north Walians are very ready. May we have a commitment for proper electrification so that we end up with a growth deal that is worth the name?
It is imperative that we look carefully at the best value for money from investment in our transport infrastructure. I accept that there is a need to work together, but I also highlight the fact that the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses this morning called for more action from the Welsh Government. We hear that £200 million has been allocated for the A55, for example, but we have yet to see any action. We do need to work together; finger-pointing does not help.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, may I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for the work he did when he was Secretary of State for Wales in all matters supporting Wales, but particularly in relation to the steel industry?
We are doing everything we can to support the sale of Tata Steel UK, including offering support to potential buyers worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Our discussions with buyers, the Welsh Government and the unions continue, and we stand ready to negotiate with the preferred bidder to ensure the future of steelmaking in Wales and across the UK.
As we know, a critical meeting is taking place in Mumbai later today, and the future of the industry is hanging in the balance. What measures have the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the Cabinet taken to ensure that a viable and sustainable pension scheme is developed as a result of the sale of the business? Can he assure the House that it will be sustainable for the 130,000 members of the scheme?
I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Business since his meetings with Tata in Mumbai. Pensions are rightly one of the issues under consideration, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend highlighted them at the outset, when he said that pensions, plant and power were three of the issues that needed to be addressed. Pensions are an extremely complex issue and cross a number of Departments, but we are determined to find a way through in the interests of the members, the trustees and the company.
8. The sale of the steelworks is at a critical stage. It is crucial to the survival of the plant that both Governments act with purpose to support a successful buyer. Has my right hon. Friend agreed a way forward with the First Minister and the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay to ensure that that is the case? (905020)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he is doing in his constituency, where a number of steelworkers reside, and for the responsible way in which he has pressed issues that are fundamental to a successful steel sale. I met the First Minister earlier this week, and we absolutely agreed that this issue is our priority. We are determined to continue in close dialogue and to work closely together to secure the sale.
We on the Opposition Benches are solidly with the steelworkers who will be marching through Westminster today. The European Parliament has voted against giving China market economy status. Will the Secretary of State press his colleagues in the Cabinet to agree to higher tariffs on Chinese steel?
I look forward, like the hon. Gentleman, to meeting the unions that are marching through Westminster later today. Of course, we are determined to work with the unions and with Tata. However, market economy status for China is separate from the capacity of the European Commission to introduce tariffs. Where tariffs have been introduced, they absolutely work. There are 37 trade defence measures in place at the moment. On wire rod, for example, imports are down by 99%, and I could highlight a range of other speciality steels. So let us not confuse market economy status and the capacity to introduce trade defence measures.
Steel was a significant element in Wales’s £5 billion-worth of exports to the EU in 2015—that is in fact a third of the whole Welsh Government budget. Will the Secretary of State now make the positive case for the advantages to Wales’s businesses, jobs and profitability of remaining in the European single market and the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: 69% of steel produced in the UK is exported to the European Union. Access to that single European market is fundamental to the steel industry, but it is also fundamental to attracting a buyer. That was the very point I was seeking to highlight to business leaders in Swansea last week.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he represents the interests of his constituents. He recognises the interdependency of all these plants—the site in Corby, the site in Port Talbot and other sites across the UK. We talk to suppliers regularly because we need to maintain confidence that they will be able to continue to buy steel. We are determined to find a buyer that is in the interests of workers and the economy.
Is the right hon. Gentleman inspired by the minor miracle that has taken place in Newport, where Mr Sanjeev Gupta and his enterprising workforce have brought the dead Alphasteel company back to productive life? Is not this spirit of entrepreneurship, co-operation among the workforce, hope and confidence the way to stage a renaissance of the entire British steel industry?
The hon. Gentleman is right that the interest of Sanjeev Gupta in Liberty Steel demonstrates the dynamism in the industry and the great opportunity that is out there. Liberty Steel has reopened a plant that closed some time ago, and it sees that there is a future in British steelmaking. I hope that we will continue to use that momentum to secure steel for the whole of the Tata operations across the UK.
Given the Secretary of State’s previous answer on the effectiveness of tariffs, why do the UK Government keep being at the head of a blocking minority for reform of the lesser duty rule? Is it not the case that they simply have not done enough to save the British steel industry?
The hon. Gentleman is confused about the impact of the lesser duty rule, which relates to the framework. There are currently 37 trade defence measures in place. Where the European Commission has acted within the lesser duty rule, it has had a significant effect, be it in rebar, wire rod, seamless pipes or cold-rolled flat products. I could highlight a whole range of speciality steels where the tariffs are working within the lesser duty rule, because otherwise there would be an impact on other manufacturers and other costs. We need to work within the rule because it currently operates effectively.
In order to become truly accountable, the Welsh Government need to take responsibility for raising more of the money that they spend. That is why, as part of the Wales Bill, we will devolve income tax powers to the Welsh Assembly. I look forward to continuing to work alongside the Welsh Government to implement those powers.
I hope my right hon. Friend agrees that while the Welsh Government are profligate in many ways, the reinstatement of the Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway via Llanbedr Pont Steffan will be helpful to the entire Welsh economy. Such spending would be welcomed by all the citizens of Wales, who realise that investment in transport infrastructure is a precursor to economic prosperity.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are several examples of the strange priorities shown by the Welsh Government. Investment in railways is a priority of the UK Government, as shown by the electrification of the line from Swansea through to Paddington. That in itself will provide greater opportunities for rail travel, such as the upgrade of the valleys lines, which, in turn, provides a knock-on, positive effect on more rural communities.
Air passenger duty has already been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and is shortly to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but despite this, the Budget did not propose that it be devolved to the Welsh Assembly. Will the Secretary of State support the devolution of air passenger duty, and if not, why not?
Rates of taxation, including air passenger duties, are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who always keeps levels of taxes under review. The hon. Lady will be well aware that the Treasury is looking at this matter and will report in due course.
13. A few years ago in Boston, Massachusetts, a few revolutionaries said, “No taxation without representation”, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very important that the Welsh Assembly takes advantage of the Wales Bill and applies its own income tax? (905025)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the continued interest that he shows in Wales. I want the Welsh Assembly to be a mature legislator taking more responsibility for the money that it spends by raising money itself. On that basis, it will become truly accountable to the people of Wales, and will have to look differently at the sorts of spending priorities it has and the commitments it makes.
Small Business Support
Small businesses are leading the economic recovery in Wales. There are now 30,000 more small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales, employing 65,000 more people than in 2010. With SMEs accounting for over 99% of all businesses in Wales, the UK Government fully recognise their important contribution to the growth of the Welsh economy.
The Chancellor’s recent Budget announcement that business rates for the smallest businesses will be either greatly reduced or removed has gone down very well. It will have huge advantages for small shops in particular. What steps are the Minister and the Secretary of State taking to make sure that businesses in Wales will also benefit?
My hon. Friend is perfectly right to say that the business rates announcement was welcomed by small businesses in England. The Wales Office is calling on the Welsh Government to replicate the steps taken in England, in order to ensure that small businesses in towns and cities across Wales benefit in the same way from the changes that are being implemented in England, which will allow them to grow and to employ more people in Wales.
The Welsh Government have done well in attracting inward investment, but in terms of business confidence and Brexit, what will the UK Government do to shore up certainties about the Swansea bay lagoon, electrification and supporting Swansea with a city deal?
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the Wales Office is working very closely with the Treasury to develop a Swansea city deal, which will include the electrification of the main line to Swansea. We are also proposing a review of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon in order to look at its viability and to ensure that it will provide value to the taxpayer if it is developed.
Some 242,000 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on a successful tourism industry. Will the Minister concede that we could boost those small businesses either by reducing VAT on hospitality and tourism or by raising the threshold on which they pay VAT?
The hon. Gentleman is a champion of this issue and has been ever since I have been in this place. I share his view of the tourism industry in Wales: it is a success story of which we should be justly proud. It is important that the case is made to the Treasury, but I stress that the tourism industry in my constituency and in that of the hon. Gentleman is doing extremely well at present, regardless of any changes to VAT.
As the Minister well knows, many small businesses in Wales are highly dependent on the steel industry and will have been anxiously awaiting the outcome of today’s meeting in Mumbai. The terms of the package that his Government propose will be crucial to any potential deal, so will he confirm that they will do everything it takes to secure a successful future for our steel industry?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the steel industry not just to direct employment but to the supply chains in both north and south Wales. I assure her that the Wales Office and the UK Government are doing everything in their power to ensure that the steel industry and its skilled supply chain are protected in the future.
Many of our small businesses will also be concerned about the EU referendum, not least those in the Welsh agricultural sector, which received some £350 million a year from the common agricultural policy. The Minister has previously confirmed that, in the event of a Brexit vote, there is absolutely no certainty that his Government would replace those EU funds, so does he agree that it is in the very best interests of Welsh farming and the broader Welsh economy that we vote to remain in the EU on 23 June?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the agricultural industry to Wales. Almost 60,000 people are directly employed within the sector, and more than 95% of all Welsh agricultural exports go to the European Union, so I fully subscribe to her view that the Welsh agricultural sector will be protected if we vote to remain in the EU.
The labour market in Wales is going from strength to strength. Last week’s figures delivered a hat-trick of good news for the Welsh economy: employment is up to a new record high, unemployment is down to its lowest level since 2008, and the number of people on the claimant count continues to fall.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently visited Cardiff with the Minister for Employment and it was truly inspiring to hear the team at the Cardiff jobcentre highlight how universal credit and the flexibility it offers is encouraging people back to work.
The right hon. Gentleman is well aware of my position on this issue. I believe quite passionately that the Welsh economy is stronger for being part of the European Union. Whether for our manufacturing industry, our agriculture industry or our small businesses, I think the stability and certainty of being part of the European Union are good for Wales.
The unemployment level in Cardiff North is at a record low of 1.7%. Does the Minister agree that to support this trend and keep unemployment down, the new Welsh Government have to deliver on infrastructure promises such as the M4 relief road and the south Wales Metro, towards which this Government have given hundreds of millions of pounds?
My hon. Friend has been a great champion for the capital city of Wales since he was elected to this place. The £500 million contribution of the UK Government to the city deal in Cardiff will be essential for employment, growth and the continued success of Cardiff, but we need to keep up the pressure. The question marks over the M4 relief road are a barrier to growth in south Wales, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise his concerns about those delays. [Interruption.]
Order. A great many people in Wales will be attending to our proceedings, and I must also inform the House that today we are visited by the eminent figure Cardinal Charles Bo from Rangoon in Burma. We want to impress him not only with the quality of our interrogation but with the decency of our behaviour, so a little less noise would be helpful.
6. What the Government’s plans are for the future of S4C. (905017)
I was delighted to visit S4C last week to see at first hand the exciting developments at the channel, including the launch of its HD service in time for the European championship. I am sure we all wish Chris Coleman and the boys well.
What assurances can the Secretary of State give us that the UK Government’s review of S4C will not be compromised, as it will be conducted after the BBC’s charter review? Can he confirm that all options will be on the table, including securing an independent financial stream for S4C funded from revenues raised for public service broadcasting, and from direct Government support?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that a fundamental principle is operational and editorial independence. The BBC White Paper offers protection and support for S4C, but, of course, there is a review ongoing that will look at all these matters, such as governance and financing, in order to secure a long-term future for the channel. [Interruption.]
S4C is crucial to Wales, and particularly to the Welsh language. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh language is too often seen as the secondary language in Wales? It is not a secondary language; it is at least equal first.
This Government have a strong record of supporting S4C, and previous Conservative Governments have a strong record of establishing S4C, introducing the Welsh Language Act 1993 and turning around the decline in the Welsh language that we saw previously. We should be rightly proud of the language of our culture and our heritage—a true Conservative policy.
9. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on Wales of the UK leaving the EU. (905021)
At the February European Council, the Government negotiated a new settlement, giving the United Kingdom a special status in a reformed European Union. As I said in my speech in Swansea last week, I believe that Wales and the UK will be stronger, safer and better off remaining in a reformed European Union.
Eighty per cent. of Welsh farmers depend on common agricultural policy payments from the European Union, and the vast majority export their goods to the European Union. Given that Wales receives £245 million more from the European Union than it puts in, what assurances can the Secretary of State give us that the loss to those farmers will be plugged by the UK Government in the event of Brexit?
The Welsh economy is showing some spectacular employment figures at the moment, with more people in work than ever before, the claimant count falling and an unemployment rate well below the UK average. This economic success is based on a stable economic policy, and all the independent forecasts from the OECD, the IMF, the Governor of the Bank of England and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor show that there would be a negative impact should we leave the single European market.
EU programmes such as Erasmus bring enormous benefits to young people in Wales, broadening their experience and strengthening their employability. Does the Secretary of State agree that ensuring Welsh students can continue to benefit from such programmes is just one of the many good reasons to vote remain?
I would like to advise the House and the hon. Gentleman that the Erasmus programme was developed by a Port Talbot man some years ago. It has provided fantastic opportunities for students across Europe to share best practice and broaden the base of their knowledge. Of course, the European Investment Bank has also invested hugely in higher education and the new campus at Swansea University, worth more than £450 million, has benefited from such diversification.
The Secretary of State will surely have seen yesterday’s Cardiff University report showing that Britain pays nearly £10 billion a year net to be part of the European Union. Does he agree that, under the Barnett formula, that money could leave Wales £500 million better off if we vote leave on 23 June?
My hon. Friend is of course failing to recognise that independent forecasters—whether the IMF, the OECD or the Governor of the Bank of England—have talked about the negative impact Brexit would have on the Welsh economy. A £2 billion reduction in the scale of the economy, costing 24,000 jobs, is a step we cannot afford to take.
We of course discuss a range of issues that affect the Welsh economy. A Brexit vote would of course affect the Welsh economy in a negative way, with a £2 billion cost to the Welsh economy, costing 24,000 jobs. As we speak, we are seeing some spectacular employment data, but they are based on strong economic foundations and access to 500 million customers across Europe.
I do not necessarily recognise the basis of the question. The hon. Lady forgets the historic funding floor, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced at 115%. That demonstrates the strength of the commitment that this Government are showing to Wales.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the fact that Toyota has made it clear it will continue to manufacture in the United Kingdom, including at its engine plant in Wales, regardless of whether the British people vote to leave the EU on 23 June?
I certainly recognise the comments made by Toyota. It has specifically said that
“British membership of the EU is best for our operations and their long term competitiveness.”
Of course, it is not only Toyota; 150 component industries in the automotive sector depend on companies such as Toyota and Ford which all want us to remain part of the single European market.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—as always. The Prime Minister is attending the G7 in Japan, and I have been asked to reply on his behalf. This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The first duty of the Government is to defend the country. For almost 70 years our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate insurance for our freedom. We will review our Trident deterrent, and bring forward votes in this House; we ask MPs from all sides of the House to support this vital commitment to our national security. When she stands up, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), representing the Labour party, should indicate that support today.
We look forward to the vote on Trident—he should get on with it.
Given the overnight news of the French authorities’ dawn raid on Google, investigating allegations of aggravated financial fraud and money laundering, does the Chancellor now regret calling his cosy little tax deal with the same company “good news” for the British taxpayer?
It is good news that we are collecting money in tax from companies that paid no tax when the Labour party was in office. The hon. Lady seems to forget that she was the Exchequer Secretary in the last Labour Government; perhaps she can tell us whether she ever raised the tax affairs of Google with the Inland Revenue at the time.
Obviously, the Chancellor has done a bit more research this time. I regard that as a compliment.
From that answer, I think the Chancellor is far too easily satisfied with his cosy little tax deal. I note that even the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) labelled that deal “derisory”. The British public think it is even worse. Despite all the rhetoric, on the Chancellor’s watch the tax gap has gone up, and his tax deal with the Swiss raised a fraction of the revenue that he boasted it would. The Office for Budget Responsibility has blamed the lack of resources in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so why has he sacked 11,000 tax staff since 2010, and when is he going to give HMRC the resources it needs to do a proper job?
We increased resources for HMRC to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. We have introduced a diverted profits tax so that companies such as Google cannot shift their profits offshore anymore, and have made sure that banks pay a higher tax charge than they ever did under the last Labour Government. I come back to this question. The hon. Lady was a Treasury Minister. She stood at this Dispatch Box. She is asking me what we have done to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. When she was Exchequer Secretary, did she ever raise the tax affairs of Google? We should know that before she asks questions of this Government. [Interruption.]
We all have a great deal of respect for the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). The Chancellor of the Exchequer will know that the Exchequer Secretary deals with taxes on vices, not on Google. I did my job in taxing vices when I was in the Treasury. The Chancellor will be judged on results. He has been in office for six years. Given that France is demanding 10 times more from Google than he is, the public will make their own judgment.
Labour is campaigning to ensure that the UK remains in the European Union because that is the best way to defend rights at work as well as jobs and prosperity, but the Conservative party is split right down the middle and is descending into vicious acrimony. Last week the Minister of State for Employment called for Brexit, so that there could be a bonfire of workers’ rights. Does the Chancellor agree with her, or does he agree with Len McCluskey that a vote to stay in the European Union is the best deal for Britain’s workers?
First, the hon. Lady has confirmed that when she was in the Treasury she asked absolutely no questions about the tax affairs of Google. As she knows—we agree on this—I think it is better that Britain remains in the European Union, so why not now have some consensus on other issues, such as an independent nuclear deterrent? Let us have a consensus on that, and on supporting, rather than disparaging, businesses. Let us have a consensus on not piling debts on the next generation, but on dealing with our deficit, and a consensus that the parties in this House should have a credible economic policy.
I think the Chancellor has just agreed with Len McCluskey.
The former Work and Pensions Secretary said this week that the Chancellor’s Brexit report should not be believed by anyone, and he branded the Chancellor “Pinocchio”, with his nose just getting longer and longer with every fib. Meanwhile, the general secretary of the TUC said that the Treasury report gives us
“half a million good reasons to stay in the European Union”.
Who does the Chancellor think that the public should listen to? His former Cabinet colleague, or the leader of Britain’s millions of trade unionists?
It is no great revelation that different Conservative MPs have different views on the European Union. That is why we are having a referendum, because this issue divides parties, families and friends, and we made a commitment in our manifesto that the British people would decide this question. If the hon. Lady wants to talk about divisions in parties, I observe that while she is sitting here, the leader of the Labour party is sitting at home, wondering whether to impeach the former leader of the Labour party for war crimes.
I am glad that the Chancellor agrees with Frances O’Grady, but it is a pity that he cannot get half his Back Benchers, and most of his own party, to agree with him. Given that the former Work and Pensions Secretary has just called the Prime Minister “disingenuous”, and that the former Tory Mayor of London has called him “demented”, I would not talk about Labour splits. The Chancellor should get his own House in order before he talks about us.
Following the Chancellor’s second omnishambles Budget earlier this year, I see that his approval ratings have collapsed by 80 points among his own party. Given that he seems to be following a similar career path, is it time that he turned to Michael Portillo for advice? [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Last week, the former would-be leader, Michael Portillo, said of the Queen’s Speech:
“After 23 years of careful thought about what they would like to do in power, and the answer is nothing…There is nothing they want to do with office or power…The government has nothing to do, nothing to say and thinks nothing.”
Even this “nothing” Queen’s Speech has caused a revolt on the Chancellor’s Back Benches, and forced yet another U-turn to avoid the first defeat of a Government on their legislative programme for 92 years. Does that tell us all we need to know about this Prime Minister and Chancellor? It seems that they cannot even get their Back Benchers to vote for nothing without a fight.
I will tell the hon. Lady what we have done in recent weeks: we have taken another million people out of tax; we have frozen fuel duty; we have cut business rates for small businesses; we have seen the deficit fall by another £16 billion; we have delivered a record number of jobs; and we have introduced a national living wage. That is what we have been up to. What has Labour been up to? She talks about U-turns. They have turned the Labour party from a party that gave Britain its nuclear deterrent to a party that wants to scrap it; from a party that created the academies programme but now wants to abolish all academies; and from a party that once courted business but now disparages it—the prawn cocktail offensive is just plain offensive these days. As a result, it has gone from a Labour party that won elections to a Labour party that is going to go on losing elections.
With 29 days to go until the most important decision this country has faced in a generation, we have before us a Government in utter chaos—split down the middle and at war with themselves. The stakes could not be higher, yet the Government are adrift at the mercy of their own rebel Back Benchers, unable to get their agenda through Parliament. Instead of providing the leadership the country needs, they are fighting a bitter proxy war over the leadership of their own party. I notice there is no “outer” here: all the Brexiteers have been banished from the Government Front Bench. [Interruption.] It is nice to see the Justice Secretary here. I think the Chancellor has put the rest of his Brexit colleagues in detention. Instead of providing the leadership the country needs, they are fighting a bitter proxy war over the leadership of their own party. Instead of focusing on the national interest, they are focusing on narrow self-interest. What we need is a Government who will do the best for Britain. What we have got is a Conservative party focused only on itself.
The hon. Lady talks about our parliamentary party. Let us look at her parliamentary party. They are like rats deserting a sinking ship. A shadow Health Minister wants to be the Mayor of Liverpool, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) wants to the Mayor of Manchester, and the shadow Home Secretary wants to be the Mayor of both cities. When we said we were creating job opportunities we did not mean job opportunities for the whole shadow Cabinet. They are like a parliamentary party on day release when the hon. Lady is here, but they know the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) will be back and it is four more years of hard labour.
Today, we are voting on a Queen’s Speech that delivers economic security, protects our national security and enhances life chances for the most disadvantaged. It does not matter who stands at the Dispatch Box for Labour these days. They are dismantling our defences, they are wrecking our economy and they want to burden people with debt. In their own report published this week, “Labour’s Future”—surprisingly long—they say they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the working people of Britain.
Q5. What a privilege it is to be called by you, Mr Speaker. If the remain team have their day on 24 June, I shall have to apply by email to Herr Juncker to ask a question. Airbus is a wonderful example of European co-operation —European, not EU—with fuselages built in France and Germany and wings built in this country. Planes cannot fly without wings. Our remaining inside or outside the EU will have no effect on this business, for, as the Chancellor knows, it is trade and the hard work of businessmen and businesswomen that creates jobs and prosperity, not politicians and bureaucrats. It is their job to nurture growth and enterprise—[Interruption.] (905066)
Lachlan Brain is seven years old and attends the Gaelic medium primary school in Dingwall in the Scottish highlands. Next week, the Home Office—I see the Home Secretary briefing the Chancellor—plans to deport him and his family, despite the fact that he arrived as part of a Scottish Government initiative backed by the Home Office to attract people to live and work in the region. The case has been front-page news in Scotland and raised repeatedly in the House. What does he have to say to the Brain family and the community, which wants them to stay?
I am sorry but this has been going on for weeks and that answer frankly is not good enough. Appeals have been made to the Home Secretary by the Scottish First Minister, the local MP, the local Member of the Scottish Parliament and the community, and it is wall to wall across the media of Scotland, yet the Chancellor of the Exchequer clearly knew nothing about it. The problem in the highlands of Scotland is not immigration but emigration. Even at this late stage, will the Chancellor, who knows nothing about it, speak to the Home Secretary and Prime Minister and get this sorted out?
As I said, the Home Secretary will write to the right hon. Gentleman with the details of the case, but may I make a suggestion to the Scottish National party? It now has substantial tax and enterprise powers, so if it wants to attract people to the highlands of Scotland, why does it not create an entrepreneurial Scotland that people want to move to from the rest of the UK in order to grow a business and have a successful life?
Q6. Why is the Chilcot report not being published before the EU referendum? Is it because the Prime Minister and the Chancellor do not want the public reminded, ahead of the EU referendum, of how the Government of the day and the establishment are prepared to produce dodgy dossiers, make things up and distort the facts to con the public into supporting something they otherwise would not? (905067)
Q2. In the spirit of consensus, may I say that few things unite the House more than a concentration on the periodic reviews of the Boundary Commission, which are studied with fierce intensity and result in covetous eyes occasionally being cast on neighbouring constituencies? We note, however, that the electorates of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the City of Westminster have declined precipitously and against all logic. Does the Chancellor believe that the Prime Minister should be concerned about this? If so, what should he be doing? (905063)
I thought the hon. Gentleman was the Member of Parliament for Ealing North. The Boundary Commission is doing its work and drawing up boundaries independently—that is a good thing about our country—and we will see its initial proposals later this year, I think.
Q11. Will the Chancellor join me in congratulating Barnardo’s, the UK’s oldest and largest children’s charity, which this year celebrates 150 years of supporting and protecting vulnerable children? Does he agree that young people need support beyond the age of 18 to maximise their life chances and that the Government’s new care leavers covenant, which extends the duty of care to 25, is therefore a fitting way to build on Barnardo’s proud history of giving young people the best opportunities in life? (905072)
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that Barnardo’s is a brilliant charity and that we should all congratulate it on the work it does. We have a huge responsibility to people who are in the care of the state, which does not end when they are 18 years old. That is why we are announcing new measures in the Queen’s Speech to include support from a personal adviser, for example, until these people are 25 and to make sure that other bodies such as local authorities have a care for those people, bringing all the opportunities to their attention. This is part of the life chances strategy, which lies at the heart of this Queen’s Speech.
Q3. The Chancellor wanted a march of the makers, and today hundreds of steelworkers are marching to Parliament for their future and for their communities. Why do the Government back China’s bid for market economy status against the interests of British steelworkers? Why does this Chancellor block changes to the lesser duty tariff against the interests of British steelworkers? When will he set down an industrial strategy to put British steelworkers’ interests ahead of his own? (905064)
Our thoughts are, of course, with the steelmakers and their families at this very difficult time. [Interruption.] If we take a step back, we can all acknowledge that there is a global crisis in the steel industry, with tens of thousands of jobs lost across Europe alone and many tens of thousands beyond that. We are taking specific action today to help Tata, Port Talbot and related works across the country. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has been to India with the First Minister of Wales in a cross-party effort. Nationally, we have taken action to reduce energy charges on energy-intensive industries; we have taken action to ensure that there is more flexibility with emission regulations; we are doing everything we can to help this industry at a very difficult time, including making sure that there are tough tariffs on Chinese dumping. As a result of the tariffs introduced on rebar steel, those imports are down by over 90%.
Q12. Will the Chancellor confirm reports in the press today that former Labour Minister, Lord Sugar has joined the Government as our new enterprise tsar? Does he agree that this is a sign of people abandoning Labour for the prosperity, security and jobs offered by this Government? Will the Chancellor finally confirm that he has no new plans for a sugar tax? (905073)
Q4. I have a 14-year-old autistic constituent, who got on very well at primary school, but since moving to secondary school, its uncompromising one-size-fits-all approach has left him with a special school as his only option. What will the Chancellor do to make sure that when the independent expert group looking at initial teacher training reports back, Ministers will ensure that specific autism training forms part of their curriculum? (905065)
The hon. Lady raises an important issue, and I think she will receive a lot of sympathy from colleagues of all parties. The Education Secretary shares her concern and has personally raised the issue with the chair of the initial teacher training review, Stephen Munday. My right hon. Friend has stressed the importance of ensuring that teachers are properly trained to support young people with special educational needs and specifically autism. As a result, the chairman will include recommendations in the report on how core teacher training should cover special educational needs. The report will be published shortly.
Q15. My local clinical commissioning group is currently consulting on its appalling plans to downgrade A&E at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. Does the Chancellor agree with me and with thousands of “Hands Off HRI” campaigners, led by Karl Deitch, that all options should remain on the table and that a plan B must come forward to keep good-quality local health services? (905076)
My hon. Friend is a strong champion of his local area, and we all know that Huddersfield Royal Infirmary has been struggling with the private finance initiative contract that it signed under the last Labour Government. Any service changes must be made by the local NHS, and must be based on clear evidence that they will deliver better outcomes for patients. It is right for these decisions to be made by local clinicians rather than by politicians, but they must meet the four key tests that have been set out: they must demonstrate public and patient engagement, have the support of GP commissioners, be based on clinical evidence, and take account of patient choice. I expect the local NHS to consider all those options in reaching any decision.
Q7. The House of Commons Library estimates that 4.9 million UK citizens live or work in other countries, yet in my surgeries, week in, week out, I meet constituents from overseas who cannot obtain visas, residency or citizenship here. The whole of Scotland is outraged at the threat of deportation facing the Brain family. What, in the Chancellor’s view, is the difference between an economic migrant and an expat? (905068)
I think all the hon. Gentleman is demonstrating is that we do have border controls in this country, and that we do have immigration rules that need to be complied with. That is a very important aspect of the European Union’s Schengen area agreement, which we are not part of, and I think that it is part of the special status that we have in the European Union.
Will the Chancellor join me in welcoming the crew of HMS Duncan—the last and best of our Type 45 destroyers, which is currently moored in London for the commemorations of the battle of Jutland—some of whom are watching from the Gallery today? Will he also support the work that is being done by the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant to ensure that all our armed forces and their families have the very best housing that we can offer them?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in welcoming the crew of HMS Duncan, and in celebrating all that they do on behalf of this country to keep us safe and to represent Britain around the world. In return, we owe them a duty of care, and the armed forces covenant enshrines that duty. No such covenant existed before we came into Downing Street, and now that we are in Downing Street we are honouring our promises to Britain’s armed services and to the Royal Navy.
Back then, the Labour party was voting for tuition fees. The difference is this: we have learnt our lesson, and Labour Members have forgotten theirs. As a result, we have a credible higher education policy that is giving us the best universities in the world, a record number of students, and, crucially, a record number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds—which the Labour party said would never happen—and, in contrast, Labour Members have a completely incredible policy to abolish the tuition fees that they themselves introduced and create a £10 billion hole in the public finances. It is time that they were straight with students and made it clear that that is completely unaffordable, and that we go on funding our higher education system and asking graduates who are going to earn more, on average, than other taxpayers to contribute to their education.
St Albans and many other areas in the south and east value their green belt. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, 3 million people may come into this country if we remain in the European Union. Would the Chancellor like to suggest which bits of the green belt—about a quarter of a million acres—will be needed, and where they will be? We need to provide homes and infrastructure for those people.
We have made a clear commitment to protecting the green belt, and the planning laws that we have introduced, and propose to introduce, meet that commitment.
My hon. Friend and I disagree on European Union membership—and I have seen no particular evidence from the leave campaigners that immigration would fall; indeed, they seem to be telling some communities that they would let more people in—but let us at least agree on this. We will have a referendum, and, in the end, it will not be up to my hon. Friend or me to decide. It will be up to the British people.
Q9. No one should underestimate public support for the BBC. In the last week, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition about the removal of the recipes website. The Government may have been forced to pull back from some of their more extreme proposals, but there is still plenty to cause concern. Will the Chancellor agree to hold a debate and a vote on the Floor of the House, so that Members of Parliament can provide the parliamentary scrutiny that the charter renewal properly deserves? (905070)
We want a great BBC—a great public broadcaster—and we have agreed a deal with the BBC that it has welcomed. The specific issue that the hon. Lady raises was an operational decision by the BBC, not a decision taken by members of the Government. I have made the observation that we have a great national public broadcaster in the BBC but we do not want a great public newspaper in the form of the BBC. As newspapers increasingly move online, the BBC—as it has itself acknowledged—wants to be careful about what information it has on its website, so that we can also have a flourishing private press. I think that the BBC has got that balance right.
Will the Chancellor explain why the House of Commons Library and ONS figures for 2015 clearly show that although we export 44% of our goods and services within the single market, we run a disastrous loss or deficit on those exports of £68 billion per annum, up £9 billion since last year alone, in relation to the other 27 member states, whereas Germany runs a profit or surplus of a massive £82 billion in relation to those same 27 states? Is not that a bad deal?
We are a massive exporter of services; our services represent 80% of the British economy. We are home to one of the most successful car industries in Europe, and we export cars to the continent. We are also home to the world’s second largest aerospace industry and part of a European supply chain. That is why those leading businesses are in favour of our membership of the European Union. My hon. Friend and I disagree on this issue, but we stood together on a manifesto to have a referendum and to let the British people decide.
Q10. Headteachers and NHS and private sector employers in my constituency are telling me that they have few if any qualified applicants for a range of skilled roles, and that too many experienced staff are leaving. The single most common reason for this key worker crisis is the cost of rental and purchased housing in west London, which the Government’s housing policies will not address. Even the subsidies to buy— (905071)
Of course, we have 25,000 more clinically trained staff in our national health service, but I completely agree with the hon. Lady that there is a challenge of housing in London. I met the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, earlier this week and we are going to see where we can agree on policies that will help to address that issue.
In my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm to bludgeon the British voter into supporting a European Union that they do not really like, how can he justify planning to break the law? Is he aware that the Public Administration Committee has now published three legal opinions from Speaker’s Counsel—[Interruption.]
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Public Administration Committee has now published three legal opinions from Speaker’s Counsel that make it perfectly clear that it is illegal for the Government to keep their pro-EU propaganda up on Government websites during the purdah period?
Of course the Government will comply with the law and the Government websites will comply with the purdah rules. We are confident that they do so. May I make a general observation? My hon. Friend and I have fought for this referendum and it is now taking place. There are huge issues at stake about Britain’s economy, Britain’s security and Britain’s place in the world, and we have perfectly honourable disagreements on those big issues. Let us debate the substance rather than the process, so that the British people can feel that they have had a range of opinions and can make their own minds up.
Q13. The care sector faces a crisis made worse by the Chancellor’s failure to fund increases in the minimum wage properly. The 2% social care precept does not cover all the costs, so the Local Government Association asked the Chancellor to bring forward £700 million of better care funding from 2019 to this year and next year to help with the increased costs. Will the Chancellor listen to local councils and will he fund his own minimum wage policy? (905074)
Of course, we always listen to local authorities and are in dialogue with them, but we have given them the power, which many have used, to apply a social care precept, which came in in April in many areas. At the same time, we have put more money into the better care fund, and we are therefore confident that social care is funded. However, I agree with the hon. Lady that more needs to be done to help the social care sector, and the key thing here will be integration with the national health service over coming years so that the service is much more seamless for our citizens.
At the Conservative party conference last year, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the future that we, the state, provide for children in care was shameful—the dole and an early grave or the streets. Yesterday, the Prison Reform Trust, of which I am a trustee, produced a report identifying that far too high a proportion of children in care come into contact with the criminal justice system. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the Prime Minister ensure that policies are implemented right across Government to prevent unnecessary contact between children in care and the criminal justice system, so that those children can have a good future?
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks powerfully. We of course must have a care system that does the very best for children who find themselves in it. As I said in reply to an earlier question, the Queen’s Speech contains measures in that respect. The other thing that we are doing with my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is reforming our prison system so that, yes, people are punished for crimes, but that they also have a chance to rehabilitate themselves. That is one of the social reforms of which I am proudest to be part.
Q14. A Southampton letting agency has recently been banned from trading for three years for not giving tenants their deposits back, using them for other purposes. Letting agencies are almost completely unregulated, and it is pot luck whether Southampton residents actually get a fair deal. Does the Chancellor intend to do anything about that? (905075)
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I just heard the Chancellor say that we should debate the substance and not the process in our debates on the EU referendum. As I let you know this morning, Mr Speaker, I have tried to do exactly that. I have written numerous questions, but I am basically getting answers that say, “Talk to the hand.” I approached the Procedure Committee, which admitted that I have not had substantial answers, or indeed any answers, to some questions. What more can be done? The Government are trying to muzzle those of us who are trying to get to the truth of all this. They are trying to ensure that we do not get any answers. The Government are acting disgracefully, and I am ashamed at their behaviour.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order and for her courtesy in giving me advance notice of its thrust. I also note that she has expressed her disappointment in the Government in very forceful terms. She is most assiduous in pursuing this matter, and I say to her that it is, to put it mildly, regrettable that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is late in responding to a request from the Procedure Committee. That should not happen. If there is a Whip on the Treasury Bench, he or she should note that it is frankly unacceptable. If there is not, that message should be relayed to the relevant Whip sooner rather than later. I am sure that the lapse, which will be very unsatisfactory, not least to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), and his colleagues on the Committee, will have been noted on the Treasury Bench. I hope that it will be duly communicated to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.
If the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) has tabled questions that are orderly—they would not be on the Order Paper unless they were adjudged to be orderly—they should receive replies and quickly. My advice to the hon. Lady is to look for those replies each day from now on. If she does not get them, I rather imagine that she will return to the subject. In the interests of propriety, however, the Department should now provide those answers. Its performance is unsatisfactory. I do not want to use the word “shameful”, but it is unsatisfactory.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, the House had a comprehensive debate on the Government’s foreign policy and, in particular, its role in arms deals with Saudi Arabia. I put it to the Government that an urgent investigation should take place, following new evidence showing that UK bombs have been used in Yemen. At yesterday’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, the Foreign Secretary stated that
“the Ministry of Defence is urgently investigating the allegations, and I believe there will be an urgent question on this subject shortly.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 395.]
This morning, the Ministry of Defence gave a statement to the BBC World Service that contradicts the Foreign Secretary’s comments yesterday. The MOD statement says:
“We are not launching an investigation, we are seeking urgent clarification from Saudi Arabia as to whether or not these weapons have been used in the recent conflict and that is our usual policy.”
Have either the Foreign Secretary or his office asked you whether he can come to the House to clarify the position?
No, no request to issue a clarification has been made to me. If memory serves me correctly, the line of the Government that no investigation is under way was put by the Defence Secretary in response to the urgent question yesterday—that is my recollection—although, as the hon. Lady says, that is a different stance from that proffered by the Foreign Secretary at oral questions. It is not entirely novel for there to be different statements on the same subject emanating from representatives of different Departments. If a Minister thinks, in the light of the facts, that he needs to correct the record of what he said—I think the hon. Lady has the Foreign Secretary in mind in this context—doubtless he will do so. If he does not, it is presumably because he judges there to be no need. In that situation, the hon. Lady must table questions if she wants further elucidation, but it would be useful to have clarity on the matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Thursday 19 May, the shadow Minister for Europe, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), visited Sawley in my constituency, where she gave a radio interview in which she described one of my constituents—
All sorts of things reflect badly or well, but it has got nothing to do with the Chair. If the Chair took responsibility for what people said outside this Chamber, I really would have a very, very large responsibility indeed. It is very kind of the hon. Lady if she wishes to invest me with that sort of imperial power, but I do not think I have it and I doubt the House would want me to either.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) raised the issue of the Brain family in my constituency, the Chancellor of the Exchequer replied by saying that he would write to my right hon. Friend. This family are due to be deported in the next few days, and I am concerned about the timeliness of a letter, if that was to be written to my right hon. Friend. What routes are open to me to make sure that this case is urgently addressed, through the Home Secretary, to respect what was put in place at the time the family came here—that the post-work study visa would be in place—so that we do not deport this family, who are a credit to the highlands?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. My short answer to his inquiry is that if the matter is urgent, in his judgment, he knows the recourse available to him, and it would then be for the Chair to judge whether the matter was urgent. Perhaps we can leave it there for now. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) is stirring in his seat. [Interruption.] No, he does not have a point of order. Well, it is one thing to play with one’s own hair, but it is another thing to play with somebody else’s. I wondered whether there was a point of order brewing from the right hon. Gentleman, but there was not on this occasion—another time. I am sure he was being helpful.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 24 May).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Education, Skills and Training
I beg to move an amendment, at the end of the Question to add:
“but respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech contained proposals to enable further increases in tuition fees; believe that there should be no further increases in tuition fees; and further believe that no good or outstanding school should be forced to become an academy.”.
I am reeling from the prospect of public hair playing and from considering whether we should have a rule against it in this House.
Last Wednesday, we saw the age-old ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament. It was all done with the usual pageantry, and it was timed and executed to perfection as we have all come to expect. The only flaw was the one thing over which Her Majesty has absolutely no control, and that is the actual content of the Gracious Speech. When the Speech was finally unveiled, after all the build-up and ceremony, it was yet another anti-climax. It outlined a mere 21 Bills—this from a majority Government barely one year into their five-year term of office. They are running out of steam before our eyes.
We could sense the dismay on the Government Benches. The Speech was hastily described as “sparse”, “bland”, “threadbare”, “pretty thin gruel”, “uninspiring”, “managerial” and “vacuous”, and that was the verdict of the Government’s own underwhelmed Back Benchers. Others were less diplomatic. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), so recently a senior Cabinet Minister, called it “watered down”, blaming a Government who have surrendered to the “helter-skelter” of the EU referendum campaign. Former Tory Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo was even more scathing about the first majority Conservative Government elected since 1992. He told Andrew Neil:
“After 23 years of careful thought about what they would like to do in power, and the answer is nothing.”
The introduction of the national living wage is a con, because it is not a living wage. An increase in wages is obviously welcome, but it does not apply to those who are under 25. The national living wage describes itself as something that it is not, so we have a healthy degree of scepticism about how useful it will be.
Does the hon. Lady consider as “nothing” fairer funding for our schools, which will affect many Members not only on the Government Benches, but on the Opposition Benches? The Labour party once supported this policy. What is its position now?
I certainly agree that quantity is not all. I will come on to some of the detail of those Bills as I make progress with my speech.
Michael Portillo went on to say:
“The Government is in total paralysis, because the only thing that matters to the Government now is the saving of the Prime Minister’s career”—
“winning the referendum.”
In what will be a damning epitaph of this Tory Administration, he said that the majority that the Prime Minister secured last year is “all for nothing”. He said:
“The Government has nothing to do, nothing to say and thinks nothing.”
We have this “nothing” Queen’s Speech before us. We have a few eye-catching announcements designed to distract attention from the emptiness of the Government’s programme. We were presented with the possibility of driverless cars on our roads in four years’ time and even private spaceports, but there is still no sign of a decision on the much more pressing issue of airport capacity for the travel that millions must now undertake.
We were told that there would be a legal right to access digital broadband, but there is no clear route to resolve the scandal of this Government’s total failure to provide adequate digital infrastructure for all. Despite being the fifth largest economy, we still languish at 18th in the world for broadband speed.
Perhaps it is a sign of just how toxic things are in the Conservative party that even this self-described “uninspiring, managerial and vacuous” legislative programme has already caused yet another Tory Back-Bench rebellion.
The Government have already caved in by agreeing to an amendment to the motion which will exempt the NHS from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. We on the Labour Benches have long called for the Government to exempt the NHS from trade deals, and we are glad that they have now agreed with us.
It is interesting to see what this divided shower of a Government are now able to agree on. The only things on which they seem to be able to unite are flogging off valuable public assets such as the Land Registry, which actually makes us money, and unleashing the full force of the market in higher education. This rebellion on TTIP follows other Government U-turns and defeats on areas such as: forced academisation; cuts to tax credits for the low paid; cuts to personal independence payments for the disabled; pension tax relief reform; the solar tax; the tampon tax; Sunday trading; watering down the fox hunting ban; closing the wildlife crime unit; scrapping their own criminal courts charge; welcoming some child refugees to this country; and housing. The list does not even include the Chancellor’s latest Budget fiasco, which remains unresolved, and seems to be a £4 billion hole in its arithmetic.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I am surprised that, six minutes into her speech on the subject of education, skills and training, she has failed to mention that the first paragraph of the Queen’s Speech was about life chances. Given that the Queen’s Speech talks about education in prisons, when we know that half of the young people in prison have no education at all, a fairer funding formula for schools and social care, it is clear that it has some real substance.
I will get on to those points, but this is a debate on the entirety of the Queen’s Speech, and I am entitled to say what I like about any little bit of it. The hon. and learned Lady can make her own speech if she catches the Speaker’s eye, and I will thank her if she lets me make mine. I am here to make the point that I want to make, and I intend to do so.
The emptiness of the current Conservative agenda outlined in the Queen’s Speech is apparent in the public relations hyperbole that accompanied its announcement. Once more, we have to “mind the gap” between rhetoric and reality. Although the Government boast about their credentials as a “one nation Government”, they are cutting support for working people and giving the richest a tax cut. They think £450,000 for a starter home is affordable, and they are doing nothing effective to solve the housing crisis or the problem of soaring rents. They boast of a life chances agenda, as indeed the hon. and learned Lady has just done, but this is what is happening in 2016 in Tory Britain: homelessness is soaring; millions are forced to resort to food banks just to eat; Sure Start centres are closing; the attainment gap is widening between different areas of the country; and millions more are struggling to see their doctor, and cuts to funding mean that that is likely to get worse.
The Prime Minister’s self-proclaimed life chances agenda is either a joke or a con. How do the Tories improve life chances by abolishing student maintenance grants for the poorest, increasing tuition fees and barely mentioning further education colleges in their plans? How do they create opportunity by underfunding education and constantly fiddling with school structures while ignoring low morale, the chronic teacher shortages and the growing pressure on school places? The Government’s proposals for improving life chances must be judged in the context of their funding settlements for education, as I mentioned earlier. The 16-to-19 age group has seen a real-terms fall of 14% in its funding provision since 2010, and education capital spend has fallen by 34%.
I hesitate to interrupt such an enthusiastic and positive speech. The hon. Lady is having a busy day. Perhaps she would be kind enough to rally a little support for the Hereford university project, which will deliver the life chances that I know that she and I can unite in supporting.
The hon. Gentleman should invite me to come and visit the university. We can go together so that I can see what is going on in Herefordshire.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that there is likely to be an 8% fall in funding per pupil between now and 2020 in the schools sector, after a modest 0.6% rise in funding per pupil in the previous Parliament. It cannot be said that I do not put the figures accurately on the record and give the Government credit where it is due—0.6% for the first five years of the coalition, and minus 8% for the next period. Both adult and part-time education have seen huge falls in numbers participating because people cannot afford to pay.
One of the things that this Government are trying to do through their new Bills is to introduce new universities, which will give so many more people an opportunity to get the education they need. Students across the country are concerned about the current threat to our universities, with unions going on strike and disrupting teaching and exams. One of my daughters is about to take her finals. Does the hon. Lady agree that such strikes are not acceptable behaviour?
The first thing to say is that some of the threats are from the so-called new providers, which are untried and untested. We will have to look closely at the detail of the Bill when it is debated, and I am sure we will talk about that aspect.
By the way, I would like to acknowledge the fact that the Minister for Universities and Science has taken the place of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who is on his way to Mumbai to help talk to Tata about the crisis facing the steel industry in our country. It is about time. I wish the Secretary of State all the best with the work that he is doing. It is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box in his stead.
There is nothing in this Queen’s Speech on the growing funding crisis affecting schools. There is no mention of adult up-skilling, which is a particularly difficult omission. Without action in these areas, we will not tackle the critical skills emergency which is holding back our economy. Unfilled vacancies have risen 130% since 2011, with skills shortages accounting for over a third of unfilled vacancies in key industries.
I thank the hon. Lady, not least for once describing me on the Floor of the House as a Eurosceptic martyr. On skills and technical and vocational education, why does she think it has taken a Conservative Government to open a new university technical college in Peterborough—it is opening in September—whereas in benign economic times we saw under Labour massive increases in youth unemployment and the young people who did not want to go to university left on the sidelines?
I am glad to see that despite being a Eurosceptic martyr, the hon. Gentleman is still alive and kicking and doing his thing on the Tory Back Benches. It was the Labour Government who started university technical colleges, and I am glad that he will have one in his own area. He is being rather churlish in talking about our record, when we created the university technical college concept.
The Government have a very large target for apprenticeships, but 30% of those starting do not finish the course, and 96% are level 2 or 3 apprenticeships, with very low numbers attaining higher degree level apprenticeships. I understand and recognise that level 2 and 3 are very important to attain, but even more important for the future health and wellbeing of our economy is expanding the higher degree level apprenticeships, and quickly.
My hon. Friend will remember that in the previous Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill, the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill. Is not a real opportunity being missed? With public procurement and major engineering projects in particular, we ought to be getting more bang for our taxpayers’ buck, with proper, decent, high-quality advanced and further level apprenticeships tied into those procurement contracts.
I could not agree more. I am an admirer of my hon. Friend, especially as I have seen the recent pictures of him abseiling down a very tall building, so my admiration has grown even more. His Bill was an extremely good one. It is important that the Government think much more carefully than they have done to date about how they can tie in the money that they spend on public procurement with skills creation. The Business Secretary will have to do that if he is to deliver a prosperous future for British steel, and he should think about doing it in many more areas. There is a taboo that needs to be broken.
I am afraid I do share that worry about the very large quantitative target that the Government have set and, by all accounts, want to pass. When I talk to business, which I do regularly up and down the country, that obsession with quantity rather than quality causes some real worries. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us today that he has ways of dealing with that. I have come across some extremely dubious practice, if I may put it that way, in relation to the term “apprenticeship”. I am glad that the Enterprise Act 2016 has closed that loophole. We now need to see pretty effective enforcement or we will carry on seeing misuse and abuse in that area.
Does the hon. Lady accept that social clauses within public sector contracts, which have worked very effectively in Northern Ireland and Scotland, could be used much more widely? They do not contradict EU rules so that excuse cannot be used, and they could be a way of ensuring that public money is used to ensure that the country’s skills base is increased.
I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It is right that social clauses in procurement contracts have an important role to play. I make one observation, which I have made over my time in Parliament: those involved in public procurement can be very risk-averse. All too often they do not think about the extra things that they can get out of the money that the Government are spending and committing to particular projects, and they often use the excuse of EU procurement rules as a reason for not being creative enough in the way that they pursue procurement.
No one argues with the stated aim in the Higher Education and Research Bill of widening access and participation in higher education. That is what we all want to see. However, the Opposition object strongly to the approach that the Government have taken in both the White Paper and the accompanying Bill. The Business Secretary appears to believe that the solution to widening participation is to inject market forces into the provision of higher education, allowing new untried, untested providers to start up, achieve degree-awarding powers and secure university status, and he wants to force students to pay for it all through higher tuition fees.
My hon. Friend is making a really excellent speech. Does she agree that these reforms to higher education and this deregulation put at risk the excellent reputation of UK higher education institutions internationally—a reputation that helps us to attract so many international students to this country?
There is, if I may call it this, a “brand issue” with particular suggestions in the White Paper and the Bill. Again, the Opposition will want to study in great detail, and ask a lot of serious questions about, the potential consequences of what the Minister has suggested in the White Paper and the Bill.
There is absolutely no evidence that such competition will lead to higher standards or a better solution for students; indeed, it is likely to entrench privilege and elitism even more in the system. The proposal before us in the Queen’s Speech deregulates entry to what the Government clearly now see as a market in higher education. As my hon. Friend said, that is taking a gamble with the UK’s international reputation for providing the highest standards of degree education. It also means that any student studying at one of these probationary degree-awarding institutions—whatever they are going to be—will be taking a very personal gamble too. It is unclear what will happen if it all goes wrong or who will pick up the pieces.
After trebling tuition fees to £9,000 a year, the Government now wish to raise them again. They have chosen to remove the cap on tuition fees and to tie the capacity to raise fees to very dubious proxies for what they have called “teaching excellence”. Nobody objects to teaching excellence; it is like motherhood and apple pie, except that motherhood and apple pie are a lot easier to define. We can see motherhood, fairly obviously, and we can see apple pie—usually we have cut it open to check there are no blackberries in it—but it is a lot harder to know what teaching excellence is.
The Government have chosen various proxies, such as graduates’ subsequent employment records, student retention and satisfaction surveys. There are many reasons why people have good or bad subsequent employment records, and many of those have absolutely nothing to do with the teaching excellence of the schools or universities those people attended. For example, some people with disabilities are routinely discriminated against in our labour market, and is difficult for them to have a successful subsequent employment record. That may have absolutely nothing to do with the way they were taught or with the excellence of that teaching.
Likewise, many women have very different subsequent employment records from what they might have had if they had not left work early to have a family. It is also well documented that those from the black and ethnic minority communities are discriminated against in our labour market. When one looks at the figures, it is clear that many people from those communities who have exactly the same qualifications as others are discriminated against and have less successful subsequent employment records. So using subsequent employment as a proxy for teaching excellence already begins to break down.
I have talked to Universities UK, and it has grave concerns and reservations about the route the Government are taking—for some of the reasons I am outlining now. Of course Universities UK will work with the Government—it has a White Paper in front of it, and there will be a Bill on the Table of the House, which it will want to make the best it can be—but I would not take that kind of endorsement for blanket agreement.
Does the hon. Lady also agree that it will be difficult to sell the concept of higher fees for students when many universities have not got to grips with the inflation in salaries at their higher levels? Many students will simply see fees as a means to fund huge wage increases for people at the top of universities.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time. In circumstances where we know that one of the biggest single factors affecting the education of children and young people is the quality of teaching, does she agree with the principle that it is appropriate to ensure that we have excellence in teaching and that we improve teaching if we can?
Yes, but I am talking about how we measure excellence and what it means. If the hon. Lady were so concerned about the excellence of teaching, she would be looking at Sure Start and what is happening with early teaching. She would also be looking at the problems we have with teacher recruitment and at a range of other things. Nobody in the House disagrees with the concept of teaching excellence; the question is how one defines and measures it, and that is what I am trying to deal with now.
We have talked about subsequent employment. The other two proxies the Government have chosen are student retention—that is reasonable—and satisfaction surveys. Again, there are reasons why a student is not satisfied with an institution that may have nothing to do with whether it teaches in an excellent way. A lot more work will probably have to be done on these proxies if they are to have any meaning whatever. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, because the concept is very dubious at the moment.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), many people have given evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee inquiry into the teaching excellence framework. Many of the university vice-chancellors who gave evidence were very clear that they wanted to work with the Government to make sure that they can prove and improve their institutions’ teaching excellence, but they need more time to make sure that the metrics that are chosen are the correct ones. Does my hon. Friend agree that that would be a more sensible way forward for the Government?
I do. The Select Committee report outlines the sector’s worry that the reforms are being rushed in keeping with a timetable that does not actually reflect best practice. A lot of vice-chancellors and others in the sector are extremely worried about the implications of that.
The hon. Lady has made an argument about teaching excellence. As someone who taught in university for six years, I can tell her that there was really very little ambiguity in student satisfaction surveys even 15 years ago as to whether someone was doing a decent job of teaching, and there is even less now, given all the other modes of feedback. Even if that was not the case, we would be able to tell what was happening from the aggregate of these surveys, quite irrespective of any particular anecdotes she might be able to tell. There really cannot be much doubt, therefore, that teaching excellence can be evaluated, and it is quite proper that, if it can be, it should properly be included in an evaluation for student fees.
I am saying not that it cannot be included, but that the proxies the Government have chosen have given cause for concern, and I have tried to explain why. We have to think about how this works through, and I will be interested in what the Minister has to say about that.
Well, let me finish this point first.
If the Minister is not careful, he could end up with a range of results he does not want. There could be paradoxical disincentives for excellence. People who always find it difficult subsequently to get a job in the labour market may become less attractive as students to certain institutions because of the way these measurements are used. That would be a really backward step for the opportunities and life chances of large numbers of people who are already suffering disadvantage in our society. The hon. Gentleman should at least recognise that that is a possibility with some of these measurements.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kindness. As a consequence of her argument, it would be impossible to assess the teaching at, for example, the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, because it teaches disabled people who may suffer in their future life chances, yet no one doubts that that institution can properly evaluate, and indeed it does an excellent job.
As I understand the White Paper, this also about competition between universities, and there are some paradoxical results there that I would be worried about if I were interested in widening, not narrowing, opportunities. I think the hon. Gentleman ought to accept that.
I am trying to follow the point that the shadow Minister is making. Obviously it is important that the metrics and the process of the teaching excellence framework is right and appropriate, but just as with the research excellence framework, we will go through a process of getting to that point. That is why the White Paper states very clearly that this will be phased in and piloted, and recognises that there will be an important process of consultation and feedback. It is therefore not entirely clear to me why she is expressing the concern that the TEF is going to be imposed with no consultation.
It is partly about speed. I think that the REF took six years to get into place, and this is all due to be done from a standing start in a couple of years. We have to get it right or there will be consequences that nobody on either side of the House would want to see.
I do not want to get into a Second Reading debate on the Bill—that is probably not wise. I want to get on and finish my speech. I have tried to take a lot of interventions, and it is only fair to those who want to speak in the rest of the debate that I get to the end of my speech.
Education should not be about shackling a generation with yet more debt but about unleashing their talents to build a brighter future. That is why Labour Members understand that while there is a cost to higher education, we cannot allow market forces to let rip through our world-leading universities. If these changes went ahead, it is likely that by the end of this Parliament fees will have risen to £10,000 a year and poorer students could face bills of up to £55,000 just to study for a normal three-year degree. That is unacceptable. Labour will oppose the lifting of the cap and continue to argue for a fairer settlement for students.
I now turn to the Government’s education for all Bill. We all know that this was not the education Bill the Prime Minister wished to include in the Queen’s Speech. Just weeks ago, he assured us that it would contain measures to force every school to become an academy against their wishes. Since then, we have witnessed a humiliating climb-down as the Government finally woke up to the fact that their plans were entirely unacceptable to parents, teachers, and the wider public. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) has done a fantastic job in her Front-Bench position in pointing that out to the Government. Labour Members welcome this U-turn, and we will continue to challenge the Government on their fixation with the forced academisation of good or outstanding schools.
We support the principle of moving towards a fairer funding formula, although it is essential that measures are put in place to assist the areas that are set to lose out. However, a new funding formula cannot disguise that fact that, over this Parliament, school budgets face the highest real-terms cut since the 1970s. It seems that the Government’s response is not to address the escalating shortage of teachers and school places in their Bill, but to continue down the path of forced academisation. This has nothing to do with improving life chances but shows a Government with a rather dangerous obsession with structures at the expense of standards—a Government who are ideological at the expense of our children’s future.
On the Children and Social Work Bill, we will of course support measures to protect and create opportunity for the most vulnerable children in our society. We will look closely at the detail of this Bill and the proposals the Government are putting forward. We need to ensure that when action is taken, it is high quality, has proper oversight, and has the needs of children at its heart. Labour Members are clear that child protection services should never be run for profit. So far, this Government have failed to provide adequate adoption support. Local authorities are being starved of resources, putting further strain on children’s services and social workers. Every child deserves a fulfilling upbringing that provides a path into adulthood—on that we all agree—and we have a moral duty to tackle abuse and neglect wherever we see it.
This is a Government who have ground to a shuddering halt just one year after they were elected. They are a Government becalmed by a referendum of their own making, too consumed by their own poisonous infighting to present a compelling vision for our country. The Prime Minister is contradicted by his own junior defence and employment Ministers, and the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is taking time off from his “blunder-bus” tour to offer the keys to No. 11 to at least three different people. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the Minister for Universities and Science is one of them; we know of three, but there might be more. No doubt he will tell us whether the hon. Gentleman has approached him when he gets up to speak. This is a Government who resort to PR stunts and gimmicks, and we will call out their behaviour for what it is.
As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said, the Secretary of State is not with us today because he is in Mumbai, where we would want him to be, attending the board meeting of Tata and fighting for the interests of the UK steel sector. He would want to be here to champion this Queen’s Speech and to expose some of the shortcomings in the arguments we have just heard. I will not dignify the suggestion that the quality of a Queen’s Speech can be measured by the number of Bills in it. We are an avowedly deregulatory Government, and we legislate only when it is strictly necessary. Even if it were a reasonable benchmark, it is worth noting that 21 Bills is more than the average of 18 Bills per Session that we have seen over the past decade—but we are not going to go there.
This Queen’s Speech puts opportunity and life chances through education at the top of the legislative agenda. It ensures that every child goes to an excellent school and that schools are funded fairly, wherever they are; delivers high-quality, employer-led apprenticeships that provide a clear route to employment for young people. The hon. Member for Wallasey talked about quality, and it is worth noting that all apprenticeships must be paid jobs, with substantial training lasting at least 12 months, that develop transferable skills and lead to full competence in an occupation. A high-quality university place should be put within reach of everyone with the potential to benefit. We have made huge progress since 2010, with 1.4 million more young people attending good or outstanding schools, 2.4 million apprenticeships created, and record application rates to university. This Queen’s Speech is the next step in our long-term plan for our economy.
As I said, we are committed to a high-quality, employer-led apprenticeship programme in which apprenticeships must be paid jobs with substantial training opportunities that will equip people to take on the full responsibilities in that particular occupation.
In Macclesfield we were very fortunate, only last year, to see AstraZeneca, a major employer, take on 30 apprenticeships in some of the most important areas of life sciences in our constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that this approach, with colleges taking a keen interest in relevant local businesses, is the way to establish more apprenticeships and take this important initiative further forward?
Indeed, I certainly agree. Employers are at the heart of the Government’s apprenticeship drive and are continuing to drive up quality by designing new apprenticeship standards that provide the skills that young people need. High-quality apprenticeships will be embedded further, with the future establishment of the institute for apprenticeships, and Ofsted will also ensure that providers continue to deliver the high-quality training expected.