House of Commons
Thursday 9 June 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was asked—
First World War Commemoration
1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the greatest possible engagement by children and young people in the commemoration of the first world war. 
All our first world war programmes, including the school battlefield tours, the great war debate series and the 14-18 NOW culture programme, are designed to engage children and young people. Only last week, young people played a prominent role in our commemorations to mark the Battle of Jutland. I was delighted to be in Orkney and I commend the young people who participated. On 30 June and 1 July, we will commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, when young people will again play a key role at national events taking place at Westminster Abbey, in Manchester and at the Thiepval memorial in France.
My “Forget Never” project, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, is already getting young people from across Basildon thinking about the important events of 100 years ago. Will my right hon. Friend therefore join me in encouraging more young people to get involved in commemorating the Somme by calling on all remaining schools in Basildon to sign up to this project so that their students might also benefit from its opportunities?
I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments and am delighted to hear of the fantastic work being done in his constituency. I endorse all efforts to encourage young people to engage with the programme and to discover history. Young people can also get involved in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s “Living Memory” project in their local area and find out about events near them run by schools and not-for-profit organisations that are part of the Imperial War Museum’s centenary partnership.
It is important that young people engage with the commemorations, but it is also important that we in the House do so too. Does the Minister share my concern that, just a few weeks ahead of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, we do not have a planned moment to debate the matter in the House? My concern is shared widely across the House. If he agrees, will he use his good offices to raise the issue with the Leader of the House so that Members might have that moment here to reflect on this important moment in our history?
I totally endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I will have a word with the Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, as the responsible authorities, but I would certainly back such a debate.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the first world war is commemorated, too much emphasis is not placed on the set-piece battles. On average, every day during the first world war, 450 servicemen lost their lives, which is equivalent to all the losses in Afghanistan. It was not just a few set battles; it was every day for four years.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is funding for communities to explore local first world war history, through the Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as through the War Memorials Trust for the repair and conservation of local war memorials. Local communities should be commemorating every aspect of their local communities to highlight what happened and remember those who served and gave their lives.
I thank the Minister for acknowledging the contribution of the young people of Orkney to the Battle of Jutland commemorations last week, at which he was present. Is not the lesson that involving young people makes it meaningful and poignant for those of all ages and that, if we want to engage young people, we should involve them, not lecture them?
I was delighted to be in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency to experience the moving ceremonies for the Jutland centenary commemorations. It is vital that we engage everybody, particularly young people, so that they might learn about what happened.
I welcome the Department’s work to engage young people so that they might understand the suffering and sacrifice. What steps is it taking, however, to make young people understand the wider implications of world war one, such as the Balfour agreement and the redrawing of boundaries in the middle east, and how, in Europe, it sowed the seeds for world war two?
It is important that we get across the whole of this, and what the hon. Gentleman says is very important. At the moment, we are determined to focus on the particular events being commemorated, but more widely we also want to make people, particularly young people, aware of our 20th century history, of people’s experiences and of the tragedy of war.
Will the Minister congratulate everyone who was involved in the first world war, including those from the rest of the world, particularly Ireland—for us in Northern Ireland—but also the Indians, the Africans and all those who were part of it, so that children might learn that it included most areas of the world and that an awful price was paid by many?
Indeed. It is very important, for the empire and the Commonwealth, to recognise the contributions of all parts of the communities in the four nations of our country and particularly people from Commonwealth countries such as the Indians, the Canadians, the Australians and the rest. This lies at the heart of what we are trying to do, as we commemorate all those who participated in the Somme.
2. When part two of the Leveson inquiry will commence; and if he will make a statement. 
Criminal proceedings connected to the subject matter of the Leveson inquiry, including the appeals process, have not yet completed. We have always been clear that these cases must conclude before we consider part 2 of the inquiry.
Let me pin down the Secretary of State. Are we saying that when criminal proceedings have finished, there will be a part 2 or there might be? He told us on 3 March that a decision
“about whether or not Leveson 2 should take place”—[Official Report, 3 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 1097.]
will be taken afterwards. Is it when or whether?
This will need to be considered in detail once those cases have been concluded. There are still areas that were not fully explored in the original inquiry. There have obviously been events since the original inquiry, not least the proceedings in the courts. All these matters will need to be taken into account when we consider how best to proceed after the conclusion of those cases.
The Secretary of State was one of three Chairs of Select Committees, along with myself and the now Lord Alan Beith, who went to see the Prime Minister and we were given a cast-iron guarantee that there would be a part 2. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about criminal proceedings, which is exactly what the Home Secretary said on 16 December, but there is no reason why we should not have a timetable to prepare for the eventuality. These cases cannot go on for ever—even in our criminal justice system. There has to be an end. May we not have a timetable and perhaps the selection of a head of the inquiry so that we can begin that very important process?
I am delighted to hear that the Home Secretary and I are singing from the same hymn sheet on this matter. I have talked to her about it, but that was at a time when it looked as if the cases were going to come to a conclusion in the reasonably near future. Fortunately, or unfortunately, new cases have been brought, and one or two of them have not even started yet, which makes it very difficult to put a timetable on developments. I obviously agree with right hon. Gentleman that these cases cannot go on indefinitely, but they are already going on rather longer than was initially anticipated.
3. What steps he is taking to support the tourism sector. 
The Prime Minister’s five-point plan for tourism sets out how this Government will help to grow the British tourism industry. The year 2015 set new records for inbound visits and spend, but we are not complacent. To boost tourism in England further, the Chancellor announced a new £40 million Discover England fund at the last spending round. This will support visitors to discover even more of England’s hidden gems.
The Secretary of State may be aware of the many great tourist attractions in north Lancashire along the Fylde coast, including the historic Lancaster castle with stunning views over Morecambe bay and the area of outstanding natural beauty, the forest of Bowland? Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that the tens of thousands of jobs that are supported by tourism in my area are helped or hindered by the potential threat of fracking wells appearing in north Lancashire?
I very much share the hon. Lady’s appreciation of the beauties of the Fylde coast and the north-west. Fracking offers terrific opportunities for accessing further low-cost energy, and I do not believe that it should represent any threat to the tourism industry.
I would like to take advantage of this moment at the Dispatch Box to pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), who is responsible for tourism. He has done a great job. We look forward shortly to welcoming back to her role the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), but my right hon. Friend has done a fantastic job in her absence. I have no doubt that he will continue to advocate sports, tourism and heritage in the extremely effective way that he has over the last few months.
Our coastal communities are particularly important to the tourism sector, but they are also the communities that have been particularly badly affected by our membership of the EU over the last 40 years. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the initiatives he mentioned will be directed particularly at coastal communities?
I share many of my hon. Friend’s views on our membership of the European Union, although I have to say that I do not think EU membership has a great bearing on tourism. People come to this country because of our fantastic heritage, our wonderful landscape, our arts and our sport, not because we are members of the European Union.
The north-west does have many attractions, and I hope it will take advantage of the Discover England fund, which I described earlier. The fund is designed to raise awareness of the many attractions that England has outside London, and, as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), many of those are indeed in the north-west.
Has the Secretary of State had any recent discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive about Tourism Ireland, that strange body which is responsible for marketing the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland overseas? There is concern in Northern Ireland about the possibility that its identity will be lost and it will be unable to benefit from the inflow of tourists visiting the rest of the United Kingdom, although it currently has a tremendous amount to offer them.
I am aware of the slightly different arrangements for the promotion of tourism in Northern Ireland, although I have had no discussions with the Minister responsible for it. I think he has only just arrived. I look forward to meeting him in due course, and I shall be happy to talk to him about the issue then.
I join the Secretary of State in applauding last year’s success, when a record number of people—36.1 million—visited the United Kingdom. As he will know, 67% of those visitors were from the European Union and 74% were from other European countries. Will he join me in saying, “Thank you, Europe—thank you, our European colleagues—and please come more and spend more”?
I am extremely happy to join my hon. Friend in saying that. My view is that this country would prosper better outside the European Union, but that is in no way reflected in my attitude to our fellow citizens in Europe coming to visit us in the UK. I hope that they will continue to do so in ever-increasing numbers, whether or not we are in the European Union.
4. What steps his Department plans to take to increase the level of tourism in England from (a) domestic and (b) foreign visitors. 
We now have the full domestic and inbound figures for 2015. As we have just heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, there is good news on both fronts, but there is particularly good news about domestic tourism. The number of overnight trips in England reached 102.7 million, up 11% on 2014, and spending reached a new record of £19.6 billion, up 8%. However, there is more to be done, and we are determined to increase the number of both domestic and foreign visitors in the coming year.
What support can the Minister give the Derwent valley cycleway scheme, which allows visitors to cycle from Derby silk mill in the city centre through the Arkwright mills world heritage site at Belper, and on to Cromford and beyond? The scheme not only provides safer cycling for people of all ages, but encourages much-needed local and international tourism in the area.
I give my full support to the Derwent valley cycleway. This is an excellent scheme that safely opens up the beautiful Derwent valley, a world heritage site, so that more people can see it. Cycling has many health and environmental benefits, and the increased number of local and international visitors using the cycleway will benefit tourism in the region even further.
Will the Minister—for whom I have great respect—use his common sense, ground his boss and bring him to Yorkshire, so that he can talk to real people in the tourism business who are dreadfully worried about the impact of our leaving the European Union on jobs, investment and so much else? Yorkshire is a prime tourism destination, and we do not want to harm that.
Yorkshire is indeed a prime destination for tourism, and it has so much to offer. I have been going around the country—I am off to Devon and Dorset today and tomorrow—to promote tourism and heritage again, and I will do all that I can to persuade domestic and foreign visitors to come to Yorkshire and the rest of our great nation.
I am sure that the people of Devon and Dorset will soon realise how lucky they are.
5. What plans his Department has to promote the community benefits of rugby union. 
Sports such as rugby union bring tremendous benefits to the individuals and communities who engage in them. Between 2013 and 2017, Sport England is investing £20 million to get more people playing rugby.
We certainly know how lucky we are in Devon.
There are 47 rugby union clubs across Devon, and they provide people of all ages and backgrounds access to the game and a chance to get more involved in their community. What further support can the Government give those clubs and Devon Rugby Football Union to enhance further their role of getting more people involved in the game and their community?
I take this opportunity to congratulate Devon RFU on the work that it has been doing to provide so many opportunities for people to get involved in the great game of rugby. Across Devon, Sport England has invested £319,632 to upgrade, improve and repair nine grassroots rugby clubs since 2010. As I have said—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) should listen. We listened to her yesterday when she was waffling on about the BBC, so she should listen today to get some facts. We are focused on getting more people from all backgrounds involved in sport and physical activity.
Talking about the BBC, rugby union is only one of many sports covered by the corporation with its editorial independence. Has the Minister taken time to reflect on yesterday’s BBC debate, reviewed today’s press coverage and realised that Government interference in editorial issues such as the proposed “Scottish Six” is deeply unwelcome?
I was here listening to the debate yesterday, and I commend the excellent speeches of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy.
With the support and the help of the Minister’s Department, we had the first ever mixed ability rugby world cup in my constituency last year. Will my hon. Friend’s Department continue to help and support mixed ability rugby, and will he use his good offices to extend the mixed ability format, which has been so successfully run in my constituency, to other sports as well?
I have noted what my hon. Friend has said, and I know what a champion he is for his area and his constituency. We very much believe in inclusion and getting as many people involved as we possibly can. I will look at what he has to say and reflect on it.
Has the Minister had a chance to look at the success of schemes such as Rugby Get Onside, which is run by Saracens Rugby Club with young offenders at Feltham? Rugby has a great role in rehabilitating young offenders. Will he discuss that with the Justice Secretary and consider the role that rugby can play as part of his Department’s reforms of prisons?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and I will certainly do that. Rugby is a fantastic game that brings together all sorts of different people from different backgrounds and has great opportunities for community.
6. What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the roll-out of broadband in (a) rural and (b) urban areas. 
I am very pleased to tell you once again, Mr Speaker, how well the rural broadband programme is going. We have reached our target of 90%, with 4 million homes passed, and we will reach our target of 95% by the end of 2017.
My constituents in the parishes of Dallington, Brightling, Mountfield, Ashburton and Penshurst will welcome the Government’s new legal right to fast broadband. May I ask the Minister whether the reasonable cost test will be benchmarked against, first, the realistic cost to install in rural areas that are not currently connected to fast broadband and, secondly, the cheapest cost that any provider would charge rather than the cost that BT Openreach may calculate?
We will certainly consult on the reasonable cost test, and it may well be that a number of providers do provide the universal service obligation, which will potentially provide welcome competition. That will be open for consultation once we have passed legislation, which I know will have the support of the whole House.
Earlier this week, I received an email from the Minister, which helpfully informed me that 3,198 premises in my constituency—that is 8% or nearly one in 12—are not currently planned to be connected to superfast broadband. What has the Minister got to say to the sizeable number of my constituents who face the prospect of never being able to access an adequate broadband connection?
I would say to her constituents that we said that we would get to 90% by the end of last year, which we achieved, and that we would get to 95% by the end of 2017, so we have been completely transparent about what we are planning to do. We are now consulting on a USO precisely to help those constituents of the hon. Lady who are not in the rural broadband programme. We are bringing in important changes to planning in the digital economy Bill, which I hope will have the support of the Opposition Front Bench team. She should congratulate the Government because the way the contracts have been constructed means that almost £300 million is coming back, so we are going to go further than 95% and reach more of her constituents. She should be telling them that rather than complaining.
Residents in Denford are extremely frustrated at the lack of progress in securing superfast broadband. Will the Minister encourage Superfast Northamptonshire and BT to redouble their efforts to get Denford connected?
I will certainly do that.
What discussions are the Minister and his officials having with Welsh Government Ministers and officials about the universal service obligation to ensure that we can have joined-up thinking when the Bills, which I support, come through? To cement this relationship between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, may I repeat my offer of Ynys Môn as the location for a pilot scheme?
I would happily work with the hon. Gentleman and the Welsh Government. I have always found him and the Welsh Government to be congenial colleagues in regard to the roll-out of superfast broadband.
We know that the Secretary of State wants to leave the European Union, but his Minister appears already to have left the United Kingdom to inhabit some fantasy “Broadbandia” in which everything is, in his words, an “unadulterated success”. For the rest of us in the 21st century United Kingdom, however, the reality is different. One in five broadband users still has less than half the speed that Ofcom classes as acceptable, and 70% of smartphone users in rural areas have zero access to 4G. Rather than living in “Broadbandia”, the rest of us are living in “Broadbadia“. Will the Minister stop fantasising and acknowledge the view of the Countryside Alliance:
“This rural broadband betrayal is devastating”?
I know that the hon. Lady will want to join me in commemorating this important day, which is the 33rd anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s landslide election victory in 1983. In that year, there was no broadband and the Minister you see before you was sitting his O-levels. The Secretary of State, however, was on the great lady’s battle bus.
The hon. Lady might quote the Countryside Alliance, but the gardener Robin Lane Fox wrote an article in the Financial Times, which I know she reads, in which he talked about a move to the rural arcadia brought about by our broadband roll-out programme. He said that, like Falstaff, he was looking forward to dying babbling of green fields because he could live in the countryside with a superfast connection. Let us remind ourselves that Labour had a pathetic megabit policy, and that is still its policy. Let us also remind ourselves that we are two years ahead of where Labour would have been, and let us talk up the success of this programme instead of constantly talking down great broadband Britain.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s performance is greatly enjoyed, not least by the hon. Gentleman.
EU Digital Single Market
7. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits for the UK digital economy of completing the EU digital single market. 
As I was saying, we have a great broadband Britain in a great European Union. Britain sits at the centre of the digital single market, which, if it is implemented, will increase GDP for Europe by 3%, or some £300 billion.
This time, I think the Minister is on to something. The UK is Europe’s leading digital economy, and we have the most to gain from the digital single market. That is why 70% of techUK members and 96% of the members of the Creative Industries Federation want us to remain in the European Union. Will the Minister have a go at persuading his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how damaging it would be for digital jobs in the UK if we left the EU?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has a mind of his own, and he quite rightly often takes the view that it is not worth listening to me, which is probably why he is such a successful Secretary of State. I do wish he would listen to me on this issue, however, because tech and digital companies do benefit from our membership of the European Union and they will continue to thrive if we stay in the EU.
Does the Minister agree that the internet has been a huge source of economic growth in this country and that the last thing it needs is to be stifled by the Brussels bureaucrats, which is exactly what will happen under the proposals in the EU’s single digital market strategy?
That intervention reminds me that this is the 41st anniversary of the first radio transmission from the House of Commons, and quality interventions such as that keep the British public listening to and watching our proceedings. However, I do not think that the Brussels bureaucracy is stifling. In fact, 500 broadcast companies are based in Britain precisely because of European regulations.
Conflict Zones: Cultural Heritage
8. What steps his Department is taking to support the protection of cultural heritage in conflict zones overseas. 
The protection of cultural heritage affected by acts of destruction is a priority for this Government. The Government are providing £30 million for a new cultural protection fund, and the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, which will enable the UK to ratify the 1954 Hague convention and accede to its two protocols, had its Second Reading in the House of Lords earlier this week.
As one of the few archaeologists in this House, I feel that we as a country need to take a lead in protecting cultural heritage. Will the cultural protection fund and the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill do that?
We certainly benefit from my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area. He is absolutely right: this country has long been a strong advocate of cultural protection, but the perception of our commitment has perhaps been undermined by our failure until now to ratify the 1954 Hague convention. I am delighted that we will be doing so through the Cultural Property (Armed Conflicts) Bill, reinforcing our position as one of the leading voices in advocating the importance of cultural protection around the world.
9. What assessment he has made of recent trends in (a) the level of and (b) regional variations in the level of domestic tourism. 
As I have already said, there is good news on domestic tourism. The number of overnight trips in England in 2015 was up by 11%. Five regions—the east midlands, the west midlands, the south-west, Yorkshire and the Humber, and London—saw double-digit growth in domestic overnight trips on the previous year. Last year, there was positive growth in tourism in the east of England, including in both inbound and domestic visits and stays.
As you know, Mr Speaker, Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain and our first capital city. We have Roman walls, Britain’s only discovered Roman circus, and the largest Norman keep in Europe. May I invite the Minister to visit Colchester to see the amazing tourism potential that our town has to offer?
I commend my hon. Friend for being a champion for his city of Colchester. It is a place of huge cultural significance and history, and I encourage tourists to discover what is on offer there. I thank him for his invitation, which sounds like a fantastic opportunity, and my office will see what my diary permits regarding future visits.
Colchester also has a very good university.
As someone who spent several years as a bus driver, I know that one factor that encourages tourism is integrated ticketing on public transport. Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for Transport about amending the Bus Services Bill to allow more integrated services and to enable councils to run bus services?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is not in my remit and is not for me to comment on. I can say, however, that the Chancellor has been rather generous with his spending on transport in this Parliament—50% higher than in previous years. We want to ensure that visitors have the confidence to explore Britain using public transport.
As my right hon. Friend will know, we only have a new cathedral in Lichfield: the original, built in 650, burned down, so our current cathedral was built quite recently, in 1280. What can we do to encourage people to visit places such as Lichfield, which, beautiful though they are, are regarded by bus and coach companies as slightly off the beaten track?
My hon. Friend has been a tremendous champion for his constituency over many years. Thanks to the Chancellor, we have the £40 million Discover England fund to incentivise the development of world-class itineraries. I hope that my hon. Friend’s area and others like it will be looking to make applications to see that we get tourists to their parts of the world.
I thank the Minister for his response so far. We have an increasing number of tourists visiting Northern Ireland, not just because Liam Neeson is voicing the tourism adverts or because we have the Titanic, the SS Nomadic and the Giant’s Causeway, but because more people are holidaying at home. What can the Minister do to ensure that all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland work together so that we can all take advantage of the tourism attractions in each of them?
I know the fantastic opportunities that there are for tourist visitors to go to Northern Ireland and see what is on offer. We are trying to encourage people to have holidays at home—staycations—but we are also working with the devolved authorities to try to promote tourism, along with VisitEngland, Discover Northern Ireland, VisitScotland, Visit Wales and VisitBritain, so that we have a joined-up approach that shows the fantastic offer we have in our four countries of the United Kingdom.
Football: Television Rights
11. If he will take steps to ensure that football supporters from all nations of the UK have non-paying access to watch their national team play on TV. 
The Ofcom code on listed events ensures that key sporting events are made available for free-to-air channels. Our sport strategy, published last year, made it clear that the Government do not propose to review that list.
Like every other football fan on these islands, Scottish fans are looking forward to Euro 2016. We have our wallcharts at the ready and will be watching keenly. During qualification, however, we were unable to watch significant matches, including those against the world champions, Germany, on free-to-air channels. This month, we will be able to watch matches such as Romania versus Albania and Iceland versus Austria. How can those fixtures be regarded as of national interest when those of our national teams are not?
Scottish football fans will have the choice of the three home nations that have qualified in the championships to support, and I am sorry that on this occasion Scotland did not make it through. However, the question of which matches are shown by which broadcaster is essentially one for the sporting authorities. The limited list applies only to a very restricted number of sporting events, but beyond that it is for each sporting body to decide how best to strike the balance between maximising revenue for their sport and reaching as large an audience as possible.
I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the teams of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all the best in the European championships. Football shows us that we have more in common with our European neighbours than divides us, as I am sure the Secretary of State will agree. That was demonstrated by the singing of the Marseillaise at Wembley in defiant response to the attacks in Paris. In that spirit, will he join me in urging fans to enjoy the tournament peacefully, whether they are travelling to France or watching in the company of their friends at home or in public places, and to assist the police and security services in trying to ensure that we have a safe and secure tournament?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman and I am grateful to him for putting the case as he has done and giving me the opportunity to endorse everything that he says. We look forward to the matches in the championships to come and we wish all the home nations success. I have a second interest in that I drew England in the departmental sweepstake and will be supporting England in their match against Russia, which, sadly, was drawn by the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), so she will have torn loyalties. We hope nevertheless that that match and every other match pass peaceably and to the maximum enjoyment of those participating and watching.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
Since the last DCMS oral questions, Andy Murray has reached the final of the French Open and boxing has lost its most famous and greatest exponent, Muhammad Ali. The South Bank Sky Arts awards in June honoured British talent, including the Minister for Culture’s favourite rapper, Stormzy, and I am sure that the whole House will be looking forward to the Euro championships, which begin in France on Friday, and will join me once again in wishing success to all the home nations taking part.
Colchester Borough Council, Essex County Council and Arts Council England are all contributing to the Mercury theatre’s £8.8 million expansion plans. Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in the arts is an investment in our local economy and that we should all get behind these exciting and impressive plans?
I certainly do join my hon. Friend in that. I think he was 10 at the time, but he might recall that I represented part of Colchester in the House of Commons, so I am very familiar with the Mercury theatre. I am delighted to hear about the investment in its expansion. I think that any investment in the arts brings real benefits, not least in economic terms, for the local community. I wish the Mercury continuing success into the future.
On Tuesday, the Secretary of State told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in his evidence that there had been no discussions within government about Channel 4 privatisation, and that the examination of such an option had not been started by 9 September 2015, when he had previously answered questions before the Committee. However, in answer to an FOI request on 27 April, received in my office, the Department confirmed that he himself met the Minister for the Cabinet Office to discuss Channel 4 reform options on 3 September—six days before his appearance in front of that Committee. Can he explain the discrepancy?
Yes. The first discussion that I had with the Cabinet Office Minister was about Channel 4 and what possible options there would be for its future. At that stage, no decisions had been taken. Following that, the Department did begin to look at whether or not there was a case for having a fundamental examination, and the decision to go ahead with that was actually taken after my appearance before the Select Committee; it was taken later in the month of September.
Well, on Tuesday, in answer to questions from the Select Committee, the Secretary of State was asked whether or not any discussions at all had taken place before 9 September, and he replied—I have the transcript—“No not within government.” That seems to me a clear discrepancy, and it seems to me he may have misled the Committee, and I invite him to correct his evidence to it now on this very important matter, which matters to a lot of us in this House—the future of Channel 4.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that the future of Channel 4 is an important matter. Whether or not the discussion with the Cabinet Office Minister, which took place on 3 September, constituted the beginning of an examination, when actually a decision was not taken to begin that examination until about four weeks later, does not seem to be a centrally important matter in the future of Channel 4. We did decide that it was sensible to carry out an examination. That examination is still under way. We have still not yet reached decisions about the best way forward for Channel 4, but I look forward to having that discussion with Channel 4 in the very near future.
T3. There is a great aspiration in Cornwall to have a sports stadium. The Minister will know of this aspiration. What financial or other support can his Department give to deliver the stadium for Cornwall? 
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to his efforts particularly to bring about the stadium for Cornwall, which the Government are committed to. As he knows, I have already held two meetings with interested parties in Cornwall, which he was able to come to. I understand that good progress is being made, and that a draft planning application is now going before the council. I hope that that will lead to progress, and that we will see commencement of work on a stadium in the near future.
T4. What protections can my constituents and others expect on mobile phone roaming charges in Europe in the event of an exit on 24 June? 
That is a very good question. Britain was at the forefront of negotiating the reduction in roaming charges, working with our European partners, and it is yet another example of the benefit to consumers and citizens of being a member of the European Union.
After the huge success of the London Paralympics, we all saw how Paralympic sport can inspire. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating my six Worcester constituents, who have been selected to represent ParalympicsGB in the wheelchair basketball at the Rio Paralympics?
I should be absolutely delighted to do so. I think it is very important that we wish all our athletes great success in Rio. The Paralympics are just as important as the Olympics and we wish them all success in their ventures.
T2. On Tuesday I met Jean Cameron, the project director for the Paisley 2021 bid for UK City of Culture, for the third time. Despite my asking the Deputy Leader of the House a few weeks ago to give the Secretary of State a nudge, the bidding cities for 2021 are still none the wiser about the dates involved in the process. May I encourage the Secretary of State to get on with it and allow them to plan appropriately? 
I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board. We will make sure that the bidding process is as transparent and clear as possible and we will make the rules as clear as possible. While we are talking about culture, it is important to mark today as the anniversary of the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer by Archbishop Cranmer on 9 June 1569, following the Anglican Church’s break with Europe—I mean Rome!
I thank the Minister for his email on Monday about superfast broadband which I am sending out to my parishes. May I raise with him the problem of not spots in rural areas? What is being done following the cessation of the mobile infrastructure project run by Arqiva?
You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that I have run out of anniversaries.
The mobile infrastructure project was a fantastic success, with 75 sites established, but it has been overtaken by the emergency services programme, where the plan is to build 300 sites to complete the network cover—5,000 km of roads. I hope my hon. Friend’s constituents will benefit. In the next few months we will have a clearer idea of where those masts are going and which not spots they are tackling, and I will keep him informed.
There has been much discussion in the House in recent days about world war three. There is a real risk that world war three will start in my constituency between residents and a local school on the subject of footballs that keep falling into residents’ gardens. Can one of the Ministers advise whether there might be grants available that would help stop this problem?
I am sorry to learn of the problems faced by residents in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We are keen to encourage sporting participation and excellence in sport. Perhaps better aiming in kicking the balls will help to alleviate the problem. That is certainly something we would seek to encourage.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Palace of Westminster Artwork
1. What assessment the Commission has made of the effect on hon. Members and visitors of the level of diversity represented in artwork displayed in the Palace of Westminster. 
No formal assessment has been made. However, the strategic priorities for developing the parliamentary arts collection are reviewed by the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art at the start of each Parliament. The Committee makes targeted acquisitions that reflect the interests of the House, and makes changes to the presentation of works of art to promote engagement by the visiting public. The Committee has already decided to give further consideration in the current Parliament to the representation of the collection of parliamentarians of black, Asian or minority ethnic origin.
In the six years that I have had the privilege of serving in this House, I have often felt that the dead white men in tights who people the walls of this Palace follow me around, sometimes into the Chamber itself. As the answer to my parliamentary question showed, there are only two representations of BAME people in the whole of this Palace. In a few weeks, children from English Martyrs Primary School in Newcastle will make the journey to visit Parliament. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that they should be overawed and impressed by the Palace, but feel that they are part of its present as well as its future?
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady’s point. She will, I hope, be pleased to hear that on 5 July the Advisory Committee will discuss this very subject. I hope the Committee will be able to provide her with a clear action plan that will help to address her concerns.
It is vital that we embrace diversity at all levels to ensure that history is remembered correctly. We have portraits and statues of Queen Victoria in the House of Lords. Does the Commission agree that Members and visitors, particularly the latter, are astounded by the architecture, colours and sheer splendour of the Palace, and that there is unlikely to be anyone who leaves feeling negative or even discriminated against?
I am happy to agree with that comment.
House of Commons Employees
2. What discussions the Commission has had with trade union representatives on the terms and conditions of employees of the House. 
The Commission delegates to the Executive Committee responsibility for negotiating changes to terms and conditions of House staff with the recognised trade unions. The House is currently in pay negotiations for the financial year 2016-17 with the unions representing staff in the main A to E pay bands and the catering pay bands. These negotiations are being undertaken in the context of the general pay constraint within the public sector and the requirement for the pay of House staff to remain broadly in line with that of the home civil service.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. I am concerned to learn that certain members of the catering department are having to work double shifts in order simply to make ends meet. Can he confirm that, as part of the pay negotiations, staff will be paid the London living wage, not the Government’s bogus living wage? Does he agree that perhaps paying an extra 5p or 10p for a cup of coffee or a meaty wrap would be money well spent if we were paying our staff correctly?
I am happy to confirm that staff are indeed paid the London living wage, and to ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a response to his question about double shifts. I am also happy to raise his suggestion that a tariff should be applied to sandwiches in this place to ensure that pay is raised in the way he has indicated.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Northern Ireland Question Time
3. If he will introduce topical oral questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 
We gave this matter careful consideration, but the Leader of the House recently wrote to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee stating the reasons we will not be introducing topical questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As a consequences of devolution, the range of issues that are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office is narrower than for most other Departments. The introduction of topical questions might lead to a situation in which some questions fall outside the range of the Secretary of State’s responsibilities.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer. I do not want to stop all of us playing a part in each other’s areas and constituencies, but when we look at Question Time we see that the same questions are repeated, which minimises the number of Members who can get in. Topical questions might be another way of increasing participation and having more varied questions.
Each Member is responsible for the questions they submit. Because of the way the process of tabling questions works, the Table Office is able to ascertain whether a question relates to a devolved matter or is the responsibility of a UK Government Minister answering at this Dispatch Box.
Would not one way of increasing participation in Northern Ireland affairs, especially by Northern Ireland Members, be to have more frequent meetings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee?
That is an interesting suggestion. It is not one to which I can commit, but I will certainly take it away.
I appreciate the comments of the Deputy Leader of the House. However, in relation to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, I suggest that members of the public are entitled to expect members of the Government representing those posts to be subject to the same level of scrutiny as their peers around the Cabinet table. I therefore hope that further consideration will be given to introducing topical questions for all those areas.
As I have already indicated, we have given this matter careful consideration and, for the reasons I have set out, decided that it is not appropriate to introduce topical questions at Northern Ireland Question Time—and that would also be true for Wales and Scotland.
In response to the rather disappointing answers from the Deputy Leader of the House, may I ask whether she will consider introducing topical oral questions for Scotland and Wales?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place; I think that this is the first time he has asked a question from the Dispatch Box. I genuinely want to put across quite carefully the level of consideration that we have given to this matter. The Table Office is a very useful filter that enables us to ask questions that are in order. The risk is that Members could end up being ruled out of order while trying to ask their topical questions, which would not be good for their reputations either.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Parliamentary Estate: Refurbishment
4. How much was spent on the refurbishment of the north entrance to the parliamentary estate in the last Parliament. 
Some £55,958 was spent in the last Parliament, and £240,997 has been spent to date in this Parliament. The total forecast budget for the project is £423,902. All those figures include VAT.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. My point is about cyclists being excluded from the Curtis Green entrance, even though it is on the new cycle super-highway. Given the need for cyclists to be able to negotiate busy junctions safely, and the fact that they have to use the Derby Gate and Carriage Gates entrances, what assessment was made before the decision was taken not to allow them to use the Curtis Green entrance?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I am quite happy to investigate that matter and to write to her setting out the reasons for that. As a cyclist, I too would certainly like to see enhanced cycle facilities and entrances to the Palace.
It is not just a question of cycles being able to enter the estate; it is a question of the danger to cyclists. As a car turns in—I have had this experience in a car—it has to cut across the cycle lane and there is a real risk that, if the driver is not really attentive, a cyclist may hit the car and be in danger of death.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is certainly important that car drivers are attentive to the risks cyclists face every day as they cycle through London.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
5. How long the House spent voting in the 2015-16 Session. 
6. How long the House spent voting in the 2015-16 Session. 
The Government do not collect this information and do not have the information available. However, the House publishes a record of the time taken on all types of business in the House, and that will be available in the next Sessional Return when it is published in due course. As has been published, hon. Members had the opportunity to participate in 269 Divisions during the last Session, but the total time taken for all business that gave rise to one or more Divisions was 471 hours and 46 minutes.
We will all be aware that on Monday night we began voting on the Investigatory Powers Bill at 8 pm and finished voting at 11.14 pm. Members’ meetings and other engagements were disrupted for three and a quarter hours for only four votes. Our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament are able to vote on all Divisions at once. What consideration has the Deputy Leader of the House given to a daily unified decision time?
The Government made sure that on Monday a decent amount of time for debate was protected rather than compressed. On having a decision time, as in the Scottish Parliament, I suggest that separating decisions on an important piece of legislation from the discussion of them is not to the benefit of that discussion. We should try to ensure that we vote on matters that the House has debated. As we have seen in many debates, people have changed their minds as a consequence of listening to what was said.
One of the defences the Leader of the House has previously given for the current voting system is that it allows Members to grab a Minister in the voting Lobby. The thing is that guys on the SNP Benches are never in the same voting Lobby as Ministers. The 269 Divisions in the last Session meant that we spent roughly 60 hours of our time hanging around in the voting Lobbies, which is equivalent to a football player’s entire season in the premier league, so are we going to see electronic voting or the continuation of an inter-party league?
The hon. Gentleman has made an estimate based on the information I have just given him, but a lot of Members value the opportunity to see each other in the Lobbies. I recognise what he says about SNP Members often being in a different Lobby from the Government, but perhaps he should learn from his more experienced neighbours on the Labour Benches, who certainly use the voting process to grab Ministers when they leave the Lobby. Frankly, this Parliament spends more time scrutinising legislation than any other Parliament in the world, and I genuinely believe that our voting system is appropriate for that.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House for changing the list of initials under which we go through the Lobbies to vote. Moving the Gs to the left-hand column has speeded up the voting process, and as an H, it is now bliss to vote. I might add that I know from personal experience that it is very easy to vote against the Government and then to nip to the other Lobby to wait for the Minister to come out and ask them a relevant question.
I was trying to suggest that that was what Opposition Members tend to do, but I recognise what my hon. Friend has said. As a C, getting the Gs in with us has seemed—apart from the fact that I now vote in the same queue as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is a G—to increase the time it takes for us to vote. Nevertheless, we are all happy together in our Division Lobby.
While I am sure we are all very sorry that the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) had his dinner plans messed around on Monday night, may I urge my hon. Friend not to listen to those people who come here and within five minutes want to change long-established proceedings in this House that many of us value?
Of course, matters of voting are ultimately for the House to decide, although I do not sense an extended appetite for the changes suggested.
English Votes for English Laws
7. What plans he has to review English votes for English laws. 
We have fulfilled our manifesto commitment in introducing English votes for English laws, which we believe will continue to strengthen the Union. However, the Government will undertake a review of the English votes for English laws procedure in the autumn, as we said we would, drawing on the work of the Procedure Committee, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee.
Some aspects of the Wales Bill currently before the House are solely Wales matters on which every Member of this House can vote, and yet if similar provision were put in place in England, my vote as a Welsh Member of Parliament would not count. Is that fair?
All Members’ votes in this House count. The process is very clear. The change that we introduced ensured that matters that are devolved must now have the explicit consent of English Members. On the Wales Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we are transferring powers from this House to the Welsh Assembly, creating a stronger Welsh Assembly, and as a consequence we believe that all Members should be involved in that discussion.
I call Helen Hayes—not here.
International Syria Support Group: Airdrops
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the International Syria Support Group’s plans to commence airdrops to besieged areas in Syria.
I have been asked to reply, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is giving evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee this morning, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is responsible for the middle east, is travelling abroad on ministerial business.
The Government’s objective remains a political settlement that allows Syria to become a stable, peaceful state with an inclusive Government with whom we can work to tackle Daesh and other extremists. Only when this happens will stability return to the region and the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe stop. To achieve that goal, we need to get political negotiations between the Syrian parties back on track. The International Syria Support Group has made it clear that in order to create the best environment for talks to succeed, there needs to be a comprehensive cessation of hostilities leading to a full ceasefire, and sustained, unfettered access for humanitarian aid. Talks are now paused because progress on both those tracks has been insufficient. That is why we are pressing hard for an end to the current violations of the cessation of hostilities, the majority of which are down to the Assad regime. It is also why we need to see an improvement in humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas inside Syria. Both these points were agreed by all members of the International Syria Support Group in Munich in February this year.
However, in the light of the continuing dire humanitarian picture, at the most recent ISSG meeting in Vienna on 17 May, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary proposed humanitarian airdrops by the UN World Food Programme in besieged areas in Syria if access could not be achieved by road by the beginning of June. That deadline has of course now passed. We welcome the arrival of some limited aid in Darayya and Muadhamiya over the last few days, and we note, too, that the Syrian Government have agreed in principle to allow land access by the United Nations to the majority of areas requested for the month of June. Such progress as we have seen is undoubtedly the result of international pressure, including from the possibility of airdrops. Nevertheless, it is now crucial that the ISSG should hold the Assad regime to account for delivery of these commitments.
United Kingdom officials are meeting their ISSG counterparts and UN officials in Geneva today to continue that work, and the UN is pressing the Assad regime to allow airdrops if access by road is not permitted. We remain clear that airdrops are a last resort. Land access is more effective, more efficient and safer, both for those needing the aid and for those delivering it. The UN has plans in place to begin airdrops if they are needed, but it is clear that in a complex and dangerous environment such as Syria, this will not be straightforward. We will continue to support the UN in its efforts, but if the regime is not willing to allow sufficient land access or airdrops to those in desperate need, the ISSG should consider very carefully what steps might be taken to deliver the aid that is so desperately needed.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. As the Minister has pointed out, this is a clear humanitarian issue. There are 582,000 people living in besieged areas in Syria. The conditions for the men, women and children in these areas is beyond what many of us can comprehend. In the words of the UK’s special envoy to the UN,
“It’s a concept from medieval times: starvation as a weapon of war and purposefully withholding lifesaving medicines.”
That is what the Assad regime is doing. As the Minister confirmed, the British Foreign Secretary gave a deadline for that to stop, and that deadline expired a week ago. Since then, aid has reached a few areas, but that aid has not always included food, and we know that children are still starving.
The Foreign Secretary said that the International Syria Support Group would commence airdrops into besieged areas if aid was not allowed in by 1 June. He argued that that had the support of Iran and Russia, and he indicated that their support would be sufficient for airdrops to commence. Yesterday, however, the UN briefed that it had made a request to the Syrian Government to commence airlifts, not airdrops. It seems as though airlifts or airdrops are subject to the whim of the Assad regime. The Foreign Secretary made a promise to the people in those besieged areas and sent a clear message to the Assad regime.
As the humanitarian situation appears to be bleak and the position of Assad seems to have been strengthened, will the Minister answer these four questions? First, the current proposal appears to be for airlifts to be led by the World Food Programme, with the consent of the Assad regime. Can the Minister confirm whether there is a timetable for that to happen? If there is no consent from the Assad regime, what will happen next? Secondly, what happens if the Syrian Government refuse permission for that to happen? Thirdly, is the position of Iran and Russia the reason why airdrops have not occurred? If so, did the Foreign Secretary overstate their position on 24 May, or did they subsequently change their position? Finally, what implications does the Minister think the ISSG’s failure to agree to airdrops has for the Syrian peace process?
On the hon. Lady’s last point, there is no question but that the appalling humanitarian situation inside Syria makes it more difficult to have any hope of rebuilding a modicum of trust that might lead to political progress. I agreed with her description of what is going on inside Syria on the ground, and of the attitude taken by the Assad regime. I do not think anyone should be under any illusions about the fact that it is deliberately using the denial of access to humanitarian aid as a political and military weapon.
It is important that the United Nations, which is accepted by all as impartial and peaceful in intent, should be in the lead both in the talks with the regime and in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Given the nature of the military conflict inside Syria and the nature of the air defences, both Syrian and Russian, that are available, the best outcome would be agreed terms of access, either over land or by air, for the World Food Programme assistance. That is what was agreed and is happening with regard to an area that is being besieged by Daesh forces in one part of Syria. That would be better than other powers trying to intervene.
As I said earlier, if the Assad regime does not deliver on its commitments, the ISSG will have to return to this matter. We will have to take stock during today’s meeting in Geneva of how far the talks between the UN and the Assad regime have taken us and what chances there now are. Iran and Russia made commitments earlier this year to support the delivery of humanitarian aid to the people who are in need. Those are the powers that have influence over Bashar al-Assad and his regime, and it is their responsibility to use that influence to save the lives of these people who are in such desperate need of assistance.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I intend to run the exchanges on this question until 11 o’clock, but not beyond that. I know that colleagues will take their cue from that advice.
The Minister is right that Russia is the key to this. Only Russia can persuade the Assad regime to acquiesce. What steps are the Minister, the Department for International Development or both of them together taking to put pressure on Russia to do just that?
Russia is the key player in terms of influence over Assad and, of course, the key sponsor of Syria’s military capability. We use every opportunity, both within the ISSG, of which Russia is a full member, and in other diplomatic exchanges with Russia at official and ministerial level, to emphasise the importance of Russia delivering on the commitments she has made.
Some towns in Syria have not received food aid since 2012. We have an absolute moral responsibility to protect civilians who are suffering the wider effects of a conflict in which the UK is now an active participant. No expense has been spared in dropping UK high-tech missiles on the country, but it is bread, not bombs, that the people in Syria need, and it is incumbent on us to do all we can to make sure that they get it. May I ask the Minister why eight days have passed since the UN deadline, with no tangible action? Are we really asking for permission from Assad to feed the very people he has starved? The Minister will be aware that malnourished and sick children need specialist care that cannot be provided by airdrop. What action are the Government taking to re-establish road access to these desperate people?
It is the United Nations that is talking to the Assad regime about getting access, the United Nations that has the good offices to make those approaches, and the United Nations that is in charge of delivering the humanitarian assistance. That is the way forward that we judge at the moment is most likely to lead to a successful outcome that is safe for those receiving the aid and those delivering it.
There are parts of Syria where high-level airdrops of humanitarian assistance might be of help if we could not get overland access, but that is not a precise way of giving help. There are other parts of Syria where the nature of the conflict, or the densely populated urban character of the communities we are trying to help, means that we would have to bring in helicopters and could not rely on high-level airdrops at all. That again emphasises the complexity of the task and why the best outcome, for all its imperfections, would be the UN securing access, with the agreement of the regime, either over land or, failing that, for airborne assistance.
What material support is the United Kingdom giving the United Nations in preparation for access being granted, as we hope it will be?
As my hon. Friend knows, we have committed very large sums—£2.3 million—to humanitarian assistance in the crisis in Syria and its neighbouring countries. We are ready to provide additional support, if the UN wants it, for an expanded airdrop operation in the besieged areas.
As the Minister knows, the holy month of Ramadan began on Monday. There are millions of Syrian refugees in the countries immediately adjoining Syria. Will he confirm that our humanitarian efforts are continuing, so that those people are helped where they are, rather than having to make the perilous journey to the Greek or Turkish border?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of this. After all, people in the camps moved across the Aegean last summer because the United Nations was not getting sufficient funds to maintain either food rations or hours of schooling at previously agreed levels. We are certainly committed, and we are pressing all the countries and international organisations that, at the recent London conference on Syria, committed themselves to spending more to deliver on those pledges fully and promptly.
We welcome the opposition High Negotiations Committee’s suggestion that there be a Ramadan truce inside Syria. We hope that that might be an opportunity to stop further bloodshed.
It is depressing that starvation is again being used as a weapon of war, particularly when one man, President Putin, could make one phone call to his friend, President Assad, to remove many of the barriers to international aid. Assuming that the UN gets permission to deliver international aid, have we offered the use of British military bases, particularly those in Cyprus, to allow that delivery to happen quickly?
We have not been asked to provide that kind of assistance to the UN. Obviously, we would consider any request that we received from the UN seriously and sympathetically, but my understanding is that the UN would prefer to use civilian airports, because that would emphasise to all parties the humanitarian, rather than political, nature of the flights.
Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law lives in London. He is a retired doctor. He used to boast—he has boasted to me—that he had considerable influence over his son-in-law. Has anyone in the Foreign Office met Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law? That might be one additional approach that we could try.
I do not know whether there has been a recent conversation with Assad’s father-in-law, but I will ensure that that point is noted in the Foreign Office, and will perhaps write to the right hon. Lady.
The UN said on Thursday that helicopters would have to be used as air bridges in 15 of the 19 besieged areas because they are densely populated. In reality, the UN, working with the World Food Programme, would use helicopters, which need permission to land. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that means that it is vital to use diplomatic channels to urge Russia to insist that Syria open up those channels?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. This is an important test of Russia’s professed commitment both to the UN and its humanitarian aid work, and to a political solution in Syria.
If Assad and Russia’s shameful blocking of aid by land and air continues, will the Government redouble efforts with our allies to ensure that Assad is eventually brought to justice for crimes against humanity and war crimes?
The first objective must be to secure humanitarian assistance to those who are in desperate need. Then we need to achieve a strategy for a political settlement in Syria. When that is in place, there will indeed need to be a time when individuals who are responsible for the most appalling crimes can be held to account.
My right hon. Friend makes important points, and I am pleased that I agree with everything he says—not something I have usually done of late when he has been at the Dispatch Box. Will he join me in praising the work of our former colleague, Stephen O’Brien, who is now the United Nations emergency relief co-ordinator in this area?
I am very happy to do so. Stephen was a good friend of mine when he was a Member of the House, and while he served here he had a sincere and enduring commitment to international development and humanitarian assistance. He is showing real dynamism and leadership in his work on behalf of the UN.
The Opposition are right to raise the nightmare of the humanitarian consequences of this situation, but are not the Government absolutely right to proceed with the greatest caution in a situation with wholly unpredictable consequences, and particularly to reject the facile solutions of military interventions, even when they are put forward by a past Prime Minister with a record of shooting first and thinking later?
In terms of this urgent question, the key objective must surely be to find the means by which we can get humanitarian aid to those who need it as quickly and effectively as we can; I hope that we can all agree on that point.
The question of what Russia can do has already been raised. Can the Minister provide examples of what the Russians may have done so far, or give any positive news, that would suggest that they may be about to change their approach?
I would like to be more encouraging in my response, but so far the Russian approach has been frankly disappointing. The United Nations has been allowed access to help people who are besieged by Daesh forces, but those people are loyal to the Assad regime, so the Russians and the regime have been happy to allow that humanitarian assistance. A real test of Russia’s intentions is whether it will bring to bear the pressure that it could on Assad to act before the people we are talking about suffer further.
The Minister has confessed that children are dying for want of food and medicine. May we concentrate on the primacy of the United Nation’s role, and on those fantastic people in the International Rescue Committee, Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children who have real expertise? Is he regularly consulting those people on the ground?
The Department for International Development is in regular contact with those organisations, as is the United Nations, which has long-standing relationships with all international humanitarian non-governmental organisations. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a large proportion of the British Government’s aid assistance to humanitarian causes in Syria and the surrounding states is channelled through precisely the organisations he has listed.
The vexed complexities that the Minister has referred to, and the acute sensitivity of current UN efforts, are understood by the Syrian refugees whom I met in my constituency on Sunday, and they explained the dire plight of their starving compatriots. Their basic question to me as a Member of the House is this: why can powers not marshal the capacity and resolve to supply the means of life, given that we have shown that we can deploy the means of death?
One must take into account the military realities on the ground. We are talking about a regime in Syria that is besieging most of the communities whose plight we are discussing. The regime has formidable air defences of its own, and Russia has deployed its own air defence measures inside Syrian territory. For that reason, we believe that the safest and most effective means of providing humanitarian access would still be for the UN to agree terms under which that aid can be delivered. If that proves not to work, we must return to this issue, as I have indicated.
The conditions on the ground are clearly very challenging. As the Minister has said, many of the besieged areas are built-up, urban areas with no suitable space for a drop zone, and obviously high-altitude drops could harm people on the ground. Will he continue therefore to press for access for aid delivered by truck convoy and helicopter?
Yes, we shall, and we will continue that in Geneva this afternoon.
I thank the Minister for his statement. According to the UN, 600,000 people are in danger of starvation, but the Syrian Government say that airdrops are not necessary because there is no starvation, so there is clearly a difference of opinion. We need to secure support from the Syrian Government and the Russians. We in Britain pride ourselves on our tradition of helping others, both domestically and abroad. If we cannot secure land access and if the only way is by air, will the Government support the UN in pushing ahead with that to ensure that there is not a humanitarian crisis and that people do not starve?
Yes. It was my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary who pressed at the previous ISSG meeting for airdrops to be considered as a last resort, and if we cannot secure the access that the UN, with our support, is seeking, we will have to return to that possibility.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 13 June—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill (day 2).
Tuesday 14 June—Second Reading of the Wales Bill.
Wednesday 15 June—Opposition day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on the economic benefits of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. The debate will arise on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 16 June—As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, we go into recess until after the referendum, so the House will not be sitting.
Friday 17 June—The House will not be sitting.
The business for the week commencing 27 June, when we return, will include:
Monday 27 June—Motions to approve Ways and Means resolutions on the Finance Bill, followed by Committee of the whole House of the Finance Bill (day 1).
Tuesday 28 June—Conclusion of Committee of the whole House of the Finance Bill (day 2), followed by motions to approve Ways and Means resolutions on the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 29 June—Opposition half day (3rd allotted day—part one). There will be a half day debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
Thursday 30 June—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 1 July—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 4 July will include:
Monday 4 July—Estimates (1st allotted day). Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee. At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Let us start with a brief quiz. What is the shortest ever piece of British legislation? Answer: the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, which in 27 crisp words enabled women to stand for Parliament for the first time. As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the campaign for women’s representation, it is worth remembering that the campaign is often long but the moment of justice is short and very, very sweet.
What a week it has been: torrential rain; floods in the SNP offices; downpours in the lifts; thunder and lightning—very, very frightening. Clearly, God is very angry with the leave campaign. The Prime Minister was on the Terrace on Tuesday evening enjoying a sneaky fag—no, not that kind—and some congenial company, but then he was mostly chatting with Labour MPs because Tories will not talk to him any more. In fact, there has been so much blue-on-blue action this week that the air is getting as blue as the Culture Secretary’s DVD collection.
The Tory Government in waiting, also known as the Justice Secretary and the former Mayor of London, have been touring the kingdom in their blunder bus like Dastardly and Muttley in the mean machine. The special thing about Dastardly and Muttley, of course, is that no matter how much they cheated—and, boy, did they cheat!—they never won a single race. On the one occasion when they nearly won, Dick Dastardly stopped just before the finishing line to pose for his picture, as it was a photo finish. How very Boris! As Dick Dastardly always said, “Drat, drat and double drat!”
When will the Leader of the House publish the Government’s response to the Procedure Committee’s report on private Members’ Bills? The House is hoping that the Government are genuine about reform, because the system, frankly, is a monumental waste of time and a fraud on democracy.
Can the Leader of the House explain something to me? He has announced the 13 days that are for consideration of private Members’ Bills, but the first one this year is not until 21 October. In previous years, it has always been in September—and early September at that. Why so late this year? It makes it virtually impossible before the end of January for any Member to get a Bill through the House of Commons, let alone through the House of Lords. Are the Government deliberately sabotaging private Members’ Bills even before they have started?
On 14 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) asked the Leader of the House whether the rules of the House could be changed to allow Welsh to be used in the Welsh Grand Committee when it sits here in Westminster. I understand that the language of this House is, of course, English, but Welsh is the mother tongue of many of my compatriots and constituents, so is it not time that we allowed Welsh in the Welsh Grand Committee?
We are about to consider emergency legislation on electoral registration for the referendum. It is obviously a delight that so many new people have tried to register. In the last three months alone, there have been 4.5 million extra attempts. Even allowing for the fact that some of those will be people just checking that they have already registered, that is the equivalent of 63 extra parliamentary seats in areas with high numbers of students and ethnic minorities. Would it not be bizarre in the extreme for the Government to insist on the Boundary Commission using the old December 2015 register to determine the boundaries and number of seats allocated to Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England—or is this just gerrymandering?
Our Opposition day debate, as the Leader of the House announced, will be on the economic benefits of the UK’s membership of the European Union, because the last thing our very fragile economic recovery needs is the prolonged bout of uncertainty and the self-inflicted recession that Brexit would undoubtedly bring. We always achieve far more by our common endeavour than by going it alone. John Donne was right that no man is an island, and these islands are not a hermetically sealed unit. If we want to tackle climate change, environmental degradation, international crime and terrorism; if we want a seat at the table when the major decisions affecting our continent are made; if we want to shape Europe and fashion our own destiny: we have to lead Europe, not leave it.
Is it not fitting that on the Wednesday after the referendum we shall commemorate the Battle of the Somme, in which there were at least 200,000 French, 420,000 British and 620,000 German casualties? The continent that has been at war in every generation and in every century, that has spilt quantities of blood on the seas and the oceans, on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets and in the hills is now—thank God—at peace. We should not ever risk our children’s future: remain, remain, remain.
I start by marking the anniversaries of the campaigns to get votes for women and to get women into Parliament, which we are currently celebrating. I commend everyone involved in the art exhibition and new work of art in Westminster Hall and indeed all who came together in this Chamber last night for the photograph to mark the occasion. It is a very important development in our history that we should never forget. It is not so many years ago that, inexplicably, women were not given the vote and did not have the right to sit in this House. To our generation, that is incomprehensible. It is a change that always should have happened, and I am very glad that it did.
With apologies to the Scottish nationalists, I offer my good wishes to the England, Wales and Northern Ireland football teams in the European championship that is due to start this weekend. I very much hope that all of us here will cheer on all the home nations as they play their matches in the weeks ahead. [Interruption.] I am asked what this has got to do with the Leader of the House, but half the things that the shadow Leader of the House mentions have nothing at all to do with the business of the House—talk about pots and kettles, Mr Speaker! [Interruption.]
If I can shut up the shadow Leader of the House for a moment, let me confirm something that he would like to hear. We will be flying the rainbow flag from the top of Portcullis House to mark Pride weekend in London from 24 to 27 June. It looks like that has shut him up, Mr Speaker.
On the boundaries issues, let me remind Members that the current boundaries are based on figures from the 2001 census. In no way is that fair; in no way is it right and proper. In future, the boundaries will be based on figures that are updated every five years, and it is right and proper that, given concerns about the nature of our register, reforms be put in place to ensure that it is robust, appropriate and honest in a democracy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the private Members’ Bills report. We will respond to it shortly, as is due process.
I have given question of the Welsh Grand Committee careful thought, as I said I would a few weeks ago in the House. English is the language of the House of Commons, and it would cost taxpayers’ money to make a change at this point. I therefore think that English should continue to be the language of the House, although if someone who cannot speak English arrives here, we may need to look at the issue again.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned next week’s Opposition day debate on Europe. I was delighted to see that, notwithstanding the lively debate we are having in this country at the moment, the April figures for our manufacturing sector showed an improvement, which is a sign that the economic improvement over which we have presided since 2010 is continuing.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman managed to pay a visit to my constituency this week, and to speak to my local Labour party. He was, and always is, most welcome in Epsom and Ewell. I am sure that, in the event that things become too tough in Rhondda and the threat from Plaid Cymru becomes too great, my local Labour party will be delighted to welcome him as its candidate in 2020.
Given the repeated poor performances by Govia Thameslink Railway, which are adversely affecting thousands of my constituents, will a Minister make a statement on what is being done to improve services on the line?
I am well aware of that issue, which has been raised by a number of other Members on both sides of the House. I know that the rail Minister is concerned about it, and the company should certainly be immensely concerned about it. This is obviously a difficult time because of the improvements at London Bridge, but the Secretary of State for Transport will be here later this month and I shall expect my hon. Friend and others to raise the issue then, because I know that it is causing concern to a great many constituents.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement, although I suspect that the business on 27 June may be rather more interesting than what is currently billed.
This week, Ministers appear to have been working tirelessly. It is just a shame that they have spent all their energy on attacking each other rather than running the country effectively. That is why we need an urgent debate on the Government’s abject failure to manage the online voter registration system. Amid that embarrassing disaster, the employment Minister has called the Prime Minister “shameful” and “out of touch”, and the Justice Secretary has labelled the Government's own policies “corrosive of public trust”. Imagine what the rest of us think, Mr Speaker.
Let us also have a debate on immigration policy. Some current Tory Ministers have been touring the country declaring that when Brexit is secured Britain will kick migrants from the EU out and pave the way to letting more migrants from the Commonwealth in. Aye, we believe them—not. At the same time, other Minsters are trying to deport people like the Brain family from Dingwall, who are from another Commonwealth country. While all that has been going on, the Justice Secretary has stated that he wants to crack down on immigration to the UK altogether. Ministers are saying one thing to one part of the country, and telling a different tale to another. Just who are people to believe?
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that the debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill earlier this week featured a range of patronising and condescending remarks by Tory Back Benchers, directed particularly at women on these Benches. That was unfortunately repeated during yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, in which I participated. There were continual suggestions that we “don’t understand”. May we have a debate on “mansplaining”, and the fact that male Tory Back Benchers are not the only ones to have been elected to the House with an understanding of difficult and complex issues? The House will then find that women are very good at it too. I shall be happy to elaborate further if the Leader of the House needs any help in explaining that to his Back Benchers.
Let me start by reminding the hon. Lady that, if I am not mistaken, a few days ago the leader of her own party criticised the European referendum campaign of which she was part. I am not certain that the SNP is entirely aligned on this one.
The hon. Lady told us about the work that the House had done this week. Notwithstanding the fact that we are having the most serious debate that we have had in this country for a generation, the House is getting on with the important business of protecting the country from the security threats we face. I was grateful to the Labour party for the constructive way in which it approached that debate, but it was disappointing that, on a matter of national security, the SNP lined up in the Division Lobby against measures that we believe are essential to protect our citizens.
The hon. Lady talks about the legal position of migrants. As we are having this debate and people will be listening to it, it is worth being very clear about what the position is. Under the Vienna convention, regardless of the referendum, the legal position of anyone who lives in another country is that their position is protected if the nature of the residency arrangements in that country changes. I do not think that any of us, on either side of this debate, should give an alternative impression to people who might be worried about their position afterwards.
I would never in any way condone patronising comments towards women in this House. However, it is perfectly fair to say that the Scottish National party does not understand the importance of defence issues to this country. Its policies make no sense. Its arguments would do damage to Scotland, economically and in defence terms, and if we challenge them on them, it is right and proper to do so.
May I come back to the thorny issue of Avon and Somerset police force? The chief constable is under investigation. He and the police and crime commissioner tried to come to see me, and they are trying to influence MPs about what is going on with the serious sexual allegation against the chief constable. He is still in post. It is causing problems with the police force in Avon and Somerset. We really need a debate in this place to find out what is happening. This is a sizeable police force, covering Bristol and the Somerset area. Unless we get to the bottom of what is happening, we may have at least a problem with justice and possibly a travesty of justice.
My hon. Friend makes his point in his customary robust way, and he clearly raises issues that will be of very great concern to his constituents and to others elsewhere in the county. The Home Secretary will be here on Monday, so he will have a direct opportunity to raise this issue with her, and I am sure that he will do so.
May we have a debate in the near future on the political situation in Northern Ireland—thankfully, not because of any crisis, but because we should celebrate the fact that we are now embarking on the third term of uninterrupted devolution in Northern Ireland? We had very successful Assembly elections—certainly as far as our party is concerned. A debate will allow us time to debunk the nonsense being spoken today by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, about the peace process and the political process in Northern Ireland being under threat if we vote to leave the European Union. Surely that is the most irresponsible sort of talk that can be perpetuated in Northern Ireland. It is very dangerous and destabilising, and it should not be happening.
I pay tribute to all the political parties in Northern Ireland. The recent elections were characterised by being immensely dull, and that is a real tribute to the political progress that has been made in Northern Ireland. The fact that there was an election campaign based on detailed discussion about detailed issues—
And we won.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his success. He will agree that we should be immensely proud of having a routine election campaign about local issues without the controversies of the past. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House cannot shut up and cannot recognise the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, and I commend everyone who has been involved in it.
Order. All this shouting from a sedentary position is very unstatesmanlike. It is not the sort of thing that I would ever have done.
Child and adolescent mental health must be a priority for local health services and every local authority. May we have a debate on the extra measures that we can implement to ensure that the framework is effective in providing the necessary support for some of the most vulnerable in our society?
The Government can boast of a good record in this area. We are already implementing measures that will deliver additional childcare for very young children, which will give their parents the opportunity to get into the workplace and bring a sense of direction and purpose to their households. We are also bringing forward measures, which are about to be discussed in the other place, that will help tackle issues around the adoption system and the care system. We have a good message to tell about what we are doing, and I hope that every local authority up and down the country will give this issue the importance that my hon. Friend rightly says it should have.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for the news that there will be a Backbench business day on Thursday 30 June. I also particularly welcome the half-day debate, on the previous day, Wednesday 29 June, on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. I shall travel to the Somme on that day to join many members of the Northumberland Fusiliers Association. The Northumberland Fusiliers were heavily involved in the first few days of the battle, with battalions such as the Tyneside Scottish, the Tyneside Irish and the Newcastle Commercial battalion being heavily involved on the front line as hostilities began on 1 July.
I also ask the House to note that the membership of the Backbench Business Committee has now been concluded. The details are in today’s Order Paper. I welcome the new members, the hon. Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and for Hazel Grove (William Wragg), to the Committee. I should also like to place on record my personal thanks to the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for their service to the Committee and to the House over the past 12 months.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s thanks to my two hon. Friends. I wish all the new members of the Committee well, and I congratulate him on returning to his position as its Chairman. There will be many opportunities for Members to seek opportunities for debates from his Committee over the coming months, and I look forward to seeing the range of topics that they bring forward for debate. I also pay tribute to him and to all those who will be going to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. In fact, it is not a celebration; they will be going to mark that anniversary. People are absolutely right to say that we should do everything we can to prevent such a conflict from happening in Europe ever again, and we should particularly note the role played by the NATO alliance over the past 75 years, and the role that our American friends have played in that transatlantic alliance to help us to keep the peace in Europe. Long may that alliance continue.
We know that 76% of all suicides are men. The figure in this country is nearly 5,000 a year and those who are most affected are in the age group between 45 and 59. May we have a debate on what more local councils and local health authorities can do to reduce that alarming rate?
This is a subject of increasing importance. The rise in suicides among young men in particular is deeply alarming. The Secretary of State for Health takes this issue very seriously indeed and he is working on upgrading the national suicide prevention strategy. As a Government, we will do everything we can, and we are already putting additional resources into mental health treatments in the health service to try to tackle this and other problems. We are working immensely hard to tackle this.
In regard to parliamentary representation for women, it is worth remembering that in 1912 a future Labour Cabinet member, George Lansbury, resigned his London east end seat in protest against women being denied the right to vote and to be represented in the House of Commons. He subsequently fought a by-election, which unfortunately he did not win, although he came back to the House in due course. Does the Leader of the House agree that it would be useful to have a debate shortly on what is happening to women abroad? Yesterday, a 17-year-old woman in Pakistan was burnt to death by her family because they disagreed with her marriage, and it is said that 1,000 women a year in Pakistan are murdered in the same way. Despite all the progress we have made in this country, the suffering that goes on and the murder of women should be remembered, fought over and debated, and we should try in every way possible to end it.
It is a great pleasure to find something on which the hon. Gentleman and I entirely agree. The treatment of women in some societies around the world is absolutely atrocious, and we as a leading nation in the world should always seek to improve that situation. We should use what influence we have around the world to change other regimes in other countries and to create a world that is more enlightened and more supportive towards women and that treats them in the way they should be treated.
May we have a debate on blood cancer? Next week, I am pleased to be starting the new all-party parliamentary group on blood cancer—Tuesday at 2 o’clock, room N, Portcullis House—and I would be grateful if the Leader of the House considered granting time for such a discussion.
I wish my hon. Friend well in establishing his new group. The great benefit of all-party groups is the strengthening of ties between this House and those outside who are affected by conditions such as blood cancer. It is an important part of the work of individual Members of Parliament, and I commend him for what he is doing.
When I was a Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry—now Business, Innovation and Skills—I was given a draft of an answer to a colleague’s parliamentary question to sign off that said that they would have a full answer by the end of autumn. The Prime Minister’s long-awaited decision on the Airports Commission is still awaited, but he said yesterday at PMQs that we would get a decision “in the summer”. Can the Leader of the House clarify whether the September fortnight is part of the summer session or the autumn session?
Formally, summer will depend upon the weather, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the decision will come shortly. We have taken time over the decision because, rightly, Members of the House and on the Opposition Front Bench—[Interruption.] We hear them chirruping yet again. They have asked us to take immense care over the issue of air pollution in the United Kingdom, so we have been careful to consider the impact of nitrous oxide emissions around Heathrow to ensure that we get the final decision between the two choices right.
The Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016 were dealt with under the negative resolution procedure. Despite the statutory instrument’s provenance, much of it is commendable and will help in the fight against tobacco-related disease. However, may we have a debate on the paragraphs relating to e-cigarettes and vaping? ASH, Cancer Research UK, the Faculty of Public Health and the Royal College of Physicians are concerned that the paragraphs will be unhelpful in reducing the toll that tobacco takes.
I am very much aware of the issue that my hon. Friend raises. He is right that the measures have been carefully considered by the appropriate Committees of the House and have been debated and discussed in Brussels. I note his concerns and will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health understands the concerns that exist on the Government Benches and were raised through the Standing Order No. 24 application yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main).
We are now less than four weeks away from the publication of the Chilcot report and the former Prime Minister is back, haunting the television studios like some unwanted poltergeist, reassembling his old gang and getting his retaliation and excuses in first, all of which should give us some indication and encouragement that the report’s verdict will be damning—he has of course seen it—as indeed it should be. What will the parliamentary response be? Will there be a statement on the day of the report’s publication? Will the Opposition parties get sight of it under secure conditions? Will there be a debate in the following week? Will it be on the Adjournment? Will it be on a substantive motion? The Government have had a long, long time to think about this, and perhaps the Leader of the House can enlighten us on the parliamentary response to Chilcot.
Let me be clear that there will need to be discussions between the parties about exactly how we handle advance sight of the document, but it is of course essential that the House is able to question and discuss the report, even though it is not a Government report. I give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that such opportunities will be provided.
As for the reappearance of the former Prime Minister in the media, it is noticeable that he has been omnipresent recently. The right hon. Gentleman might have noticed his interesting contribution today, in which he accused the current leader of the Labour party of changing it from a party of power into a party of protest, with which I, and probably even the shadow Leader of the House, agree.
Constituents of mine with relatives who have severe mental health problems often want to be close to them and to support them however they can, but are frustrated by the understandable confidentiality that mental health professionals must observe in relation to their patients. May we have a debate on how we can protect both patient confidentiality and the understandable desire of people to do their best for relatives who are suffering?
It is a really difficult issue and one that all of us have come across in our capacity as constituency Members. A relative who wants to do the right thing may or may not be doing the right thing, and professionals have to make difficult judgments about giving relatives access to information. It is an issue to which there is no right or wrong answer, but I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Health is aware that my hon. Friend has raised those concerns and he will perhaps respond to them directly.
May I remind the Leader of the House that on joining this House some of us took the Oath in both English and Welsh, so will he look again at the proposal to use Welsh in the Welsh Grand Committee? Some of us did not speak English until we were aged five. Most of us are now bilingual, but nevertheless the Welsh language and its status are very important.
I absolutely understand the need to protect the Welsh language, and across different Administrations over the last generation extensive steps have been taken to protect the Welsh language and make it part of routine life in Wales. My question to the right hon. Lady, however, is about whether, at a time of financial pressure, it is really sensible for us to be spending taxpayers’ money in a House where the prime language, the main language, the official language is English and when we have Members of this House who talk in that language. As long as that is the case, although I have considered the matter carefully, I do not believe that we should change things.
The Prime Minister has said that the EU budget has been cut, so I thought that I would check with the House of Commons Library. I do not think that these figures have been published, but according to the Library our net contribution to the European Union will increase by more than £2.7 billion this year—to £2,727,000. That does not seem to be a cut, so may we have a statement from the Government next week explaining the situation?
Fortunately, courtesy of the Opposition’s debate choice next Wednesday my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to ask questions and make a speech about these issues in this Chamber. I have no doubt, given his assiduousness in these matters, that he will ensure that he does so.
Or even his assiduity.
As the Leader of the House will know, this Sunday marks the start of Diabetes Awareness Week. Will he join me in congratulating Diabetes UK on this important campaign? Although 3 million people have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, including me, 1 million people still do not know that they have diabetes. May we have a statement next week about the Government’s response to Diabetes Awareness Week? Will the Leader of the House personally show his support—this has nothing to do with the excitement of the EU referendum campaign—and visit a pharmacy or GP in his constituency and have a diabetes test to encourage others to do so?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This condition affects large numbers of people, as he rightly says, and there are people who are not aware that they suffer from diabetes. I will give him that assurance, although probably not over the next two weeks—there is quite a lot on. I will give him a commitment that I will have that test at some point over the next few weeks and months, because that would make an important point. We, as local Members of Parliament, could well follow his suggestion to raise awareness of diabetes in our constituencies.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made urgently by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary about the Government’s position on Turkish membership of the EU? In 2010, the Prime Minister said:
“I’m here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the EU. And to fight for it.”
In 2014, he said:
“In terms of Turkish membership of the EU, I very much support that.”
Last night, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who seems to be prepared to say anything at all to secure a remain vote, no matter how ludicrous, was saying that Turkey would never join the European Union. May we have an urgent statement to clear up this difference of opinion between the Chancellor and the Prime Minister and, in the meantime, will the Leader of the House confirm that it is still the Government’s position that Turkey should be able to join the European Union and that British taxpayers’ money is still being used to help Turkey’s accession to the European Union?
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s comments will have been noted by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and, of course, the Prime Minister will be back in this House next Wednesday before we go into recess. Notwithstanding questions about timing, it is still the Government’s policy that in due course Turkey should join the European Union.
I was recently contacted by several constituents who were looking to purchase the freeholds of their properties, which were built a few years ago. My constituents had found that the developers who originally built the properties had sold the freeholds on to private investment companies, who were now asking for three or four times the original asking price to purchase those freeholds. I know there is a process to resolve these issues, but it is lengthy, complex and expensive, so may we please have a debate on what can be done to simplify that process and give people some comfort that the homes they have bought are not being used by third parties as part of some speculative investment strategy?
This issue obviously affects a great many people and, where there are set processes, it should not be possible for any freeholder to exploit an individual leaseholder by contravening the rules. The amounts payable are calculated according to a formula that is set down in law, and should not be exploitable. If the hon. Gentleman has identified cases where this is not happening and from which there are lessons to be learned, I ask him to write to me, and I will pass the matter on to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and ask them to take a detailed look at the concerns he has identified.
May we please have a debate on how this House responds to the very diligent work of the European Scrutiny Committee? At a time when the nation is just two weeks away from taking the most important decision in a generation, it is inexplicable why there are no less than eight documents—
There are no fewer than eight documents covering a range of important topics, such as free movement and the European Union charter of fundamental rights, all of which have been recommended by the European Scrutiny Committee for debate on the Floor of this House.
Mr Speaker, I have a proposal for the House. We know that the shadow Leader of the House is a champion of charities. May I suggest that we all sponsor him in a sponsored silence to raise funds for his chosen charities?
On the subject of European Scrutiny Committee timetables, of course there are opportunities in the next few days, particularly next Wednesday on the Opposition day, to debate many of those issues, but I do understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) makes. We sought in the previous Session to make more time available for debate, and I will ensure that we look again to see that we can do that in the coming Session.
May we please have a debate about the excellent work that charities, such as KIDS in Hull, do, working with children with disabilities and their families? They provide services commissioned by Hull City Council. I am really concerned that, given the cuts to local authorities, great charities like that are now finding that their funding is being cut or reduced and that services to the most vulnerable in our communities will disappear.
It is always a great disappointment when we hear about local authorities—all too often Labour authorities—that are not innovative enough when it comes to dealing with financial pressures. There are some great councils around the country that are dealing with those pressures in a thoughtful way, pooling resources with neighbours and avoiding the cuts to front-line services that the right hon. Lady describes. I would simply ask her to urge her local authority to look for those examples and ensure that best practice keeps those services in Hull.
The Leader of the House has just confirmed that it is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to encourage Turkish accession to the European Union. Indeed, we are paying £170 million a year to help Turkey and four other applicant countries join. In the borough of Kettering there are about 5,000 migrants from eastern Europe, from a population of 72 million, 12 years after accession. Given that the population of Turkey is 76 million, that means that the people of Kettering face the very real prospect of having at least 5,000 Turkish migrants 10 or 12 years after Turkish accession—something that would transform the borough of Kettering. May we have an urgent statement from the appropriate Minister about why on earth we are spending £170 million a year on promoting this madness?
I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about these issues and is making these points during the course of the campaign that he is part of. There will be an opportunity next week in this House to debate matters related to the European Union, and I am sure he will also take advantage of that opportunity to raise the issues he has brought up today.
Constituents of mine in Motherwell and Wishaw have waited well over a year for a decision on their asylum applications. In that time, they have placed no financial burden on the UK. May we have a debate in Government time on the length of time still being taken to process and to make decisions on asylum applications?
Of course, it is not true to say that asylum seekers place no burden on the United Kingdom, because we do both provide accommodation for asylum seekers and support poor asylum seekers. That money comes from somewhere; it does not come from thin air.
We are all committed to seeking to get the fairest, speediest possible system for asylum in this country. We have a long tradition of being a refuge—a safe haven—for people escaping persecution, and that should always continue, but it is important that we do not allow our asylum system to become a veil for economic migration. They are different things and they should remain so.
The Humberston Fitties is a unique community in the Cleethorpes constituency consisting of holiday homes. Yesterday North East Lincolnshire Council ruled that residents will be able to occupy their homes for only eight months of the year, rather than 10 months, as has been the case for many years previously. That is partly a result of guidance or rulings from the Environment Agency and other bodies. May we have a debate to clear up the confusion between what is guidance and what is a statutory instruction from such agencies to local authorities?
I sometimes wish local authorities would make that distinction. The intention is to give them options to pursue, rather than telling them exactly what they should do. Local circumstances vary around the country, and when the participation of residents of holiday homes is lost for part of the year, that can have an economic impact. My hon. Friend has made an important point and I hope his local authority will take a long, hard look at what it must do and what is right for its area, and not simply tick a box because it thinks it must.
A number of my constituents have suffered long delays in having their Disclosure and Barring Service applications processed, particularly where those have been processed via the Metropolitan police, and more than one has fallen into serious debt as a result of not being able to take up employment as a result. May we have a statement or a debate on how we can tackle this problem and resource the service properly?
I know that this problem crops up from time to time for all of us as Members of Parliament. I have had experiences similar to that of the hon. Gentleman. The Home Secretary and the Policing Minister will be here on Monday. The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to put that question to them and ask what can be done to improve things.
My constituent Susan Fleeting contacted me regarding the tragic case of her son Robert, who died a non-combat death while serving in the armed forces in an English military base. Mrs Fleeting, like many similar families affected, cannot gain closure as there is no automatic inquest by jury into Robert’s death. Families require that we debate this important issue so that Mrs Fleeting, for her late son, and all armed forces personnel are assured of rigour and justice in the face of tragedy.
Of course, anyone who loses a child in unexplained circumstances should have information and should understand what happened. I will make sure that the Secretary of State for Defence is aware of the concerns that the hon. Lady has raised. She might like to write to me or to him giving more details. He will be here on the Monday after the referendum and I am sure he will be happy to take that question and give her a proper response.
The pub code, which is designed to give some measure of protection to pub tenants against the sometimes appalling behaviour of pubcos, was meant to be implemented on 28 May, but so far the Government have put nothing before the House. When will the Government bring forward a statutory instrument so that we can get the code in place to protect tenants?
I believe the answer is very shortly, but I will write to the hon. Lady and give her more detailed information about what is planned.
I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 68.
[That this House notes that Kamuran Yuksek of the Democratic Regions Party was in the UK on 25 April 2016 addressing a meeting in the House of Commons at the launch of the trade union Freedom for Ocalan Campaign; further notes that he spoke eloquently on the need for a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish question and expressed similar views in the Kurdish media; notes that on the evening of 10 May 2016 Mr Yuksek was taken away by Turkish police following an arrest warrant by the Public Prosecutor in Diyarbakir, while his house and office were raided by the police; believes the motivation for Mr Yuksek's detention is purely political; notes that he is the latest in a long list of journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, politicians, academics and human rights defenders who have been incarcerated for having the temerity to criticise the authoritarian regime of President Erdogan who has unleashed a genocidal war against the Kurdish population; believes the behaviour of the Turkish authorities to be outrageous and unacceptable; and calls for the immediate release of Kamuran Yuksek.]
The motion demands the release of Kamuran Yuksek, the leader of the Democratic Regions party, who is currently incarcerated by the Turkish authorities. May we have a statement or a debate in Government time on the outrageous and unacceptable behaviour of the Turkish authorities towards the Kurdish population?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. All of us regard with some concern some of the recent developments in Turkey. As a Government we urge the Turkish Administration to follow all the principles of democracy and fair justice in a democratic society. It is in their interests to do so, and if they aspire to join the European Union in future, whether we are in it or out of it, they will have to do that.
I refer to early-day motion 155.
[That this House congratulates the BBC for a vivid and restrained account of the suffering of the loved ones of the British soldier Tom Keys who was killed in the Iraq War caused, in his father's opinion, by the lie of the threat from non-existent weapons of mass destruction; looks forward to the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry Report, but is concerned that attempts may be made to invent a fictionalised history of the reasons for the UK's involvement in the second Iraq War; and recalls a letter sent to Tony Blair by the hon. Member for Newport West in March 2003 which warned that the world would be a more dangerous place at the end of hostilities in Iraq than it was before, and that the UK's involvement in President Bush’s Iraq War would deepen the sense of grievance among Muslims that the Western and Christian world seeks to oppress them and that this would provide a propaganda victory to Osama bin Laden that would increase his support and the likelihood of more acts of terrorism.]
When may we debate the motion about the Iraq war, a decision of this House that resulted in the deaths of 179 of our brave British soldiers, and the need for a new and swift inquiry—a parliamentary inquiry—into a decision of this House that resulted in the deaths of 438 of our courageous British soldiers? That was the decision in 2006 where only six of our soldiers had died in combat, and the decision was to go into Helmand province in the belief that not a shot would be fired. In the interests of informing our future conduct, is it not right that we set up that inquiry into the Helmand incursion as swiftly as possible and understand the consequences of that terrible decision?
The hon. Gentleman talks about separate inquiries, but we have the vehicles in this House for carrying out such inquiries; the job of Select Committees is to carry out precisely the kinds of investigations and lesson-learning that he has just described. It is always open to the Defence Committee, and indeed the Foreign Affairs Committee, to carry out such work if they so wish.
Further to the question from the vice-chair of the save the pub all-party group, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), having had a year to get the pubs code in place, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills then pulled it. Tenants are being denied a legal right that is laid down in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. BIS is refusing to give a date for when the code will finally come in, so may we have a statement on that? Can the statement also confirm that the code will apply retrospectively to the dates set down in legislation to ensure that those who are currently being denied their legal right get it?
As I said, I will get a proper response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is copied into it. The Secretary of State will be here on the Tuesday after the referendum, when both hon. Members will have an opportunity to raise the matter.
The Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have rightly condemned anti-Semitism, yet under our constitutional set-up a Prime Minister of Jewish or Catholic faith would be expressly forbidden from undertaking some of their duties, and the monarch still has to be of Anglican faith and is expressly forbidden from being of Catholic faith. Is the Leader of the House going to bring forward any plans to change these arrangements, or is he happy with a set-up that is effectively anti-Semitic and sectarian?
I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but disestablishment is not on the Government’s agenda at the moment; there is quite a lot to deal with, and that is not top of our list.
This week the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief released a report entitled, “Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds”. It highlights the shortfall in the number of caseworkers who determine asylum applicants on religious grounds and outlines 10 points for improvement. Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on what steps the Home Office is planning to take to ensure that caseworkers are adequately trained to assess claims by individuals seeking asylum on religious grounds?
This is obviously a sensitive area, and we have to take great care with it. Of course we want to provide refuge to people fleeing religious persecution, but we need to ensure that our system is robust and that the people we are dealing with really are who they say they are. Great care is already taken to do that. The Home Secretary will be here on Monday, so if the hon. Gentleman has further thoughts about what we should be doing, I suggest that he raise them with her then.
I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 175, which I tabled yesterday to mark the fourth anniversary of the Istanbul convention on preventing violence against women and girls.
[That this House notes that 8 June 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of the UK Government becoming a signatory to the Istanbul Convention on violence against women and girls; expresses disappointment that the Government, despite outlining their commitment to do so several times, has still failed to ratify this important convention; recognises that women still face a significant amount of inequality, with one in four women experiencing some form of domestic, sexual or psychological abuse during their lifetimes; further notes that ratifying the Istanbul Convention should ensure that a series of preventative policies will be introduced to help tackle and end violence against women, such as non-violent conflict resolution in relationships and the right to personal integrity being included in school curricula at all levels; congratulates the campaign group ICchange for their continuing work in applying pressure on the Government to ratify the convention; and calls on the Government to accede to this pressure and ensure ratification as soon as possible.]
I have sought debates on the matter through the Table Office, but with no joy. May we therefore have a debate in Government time to get to the bottom of why the Government have failed to ratify this important convention?
The hon. Gentleman has a number of different options for pursuing these issues, such as Adjournment debates or the Backbench Business Committee. I am sure that the Chair of the Committee, who is in the Chamber, has listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said. If other Members share his concern, I am sure that the Committee will consider that possibility.
EU Referendum: Voter Registration
I beg to move,
That the draft European Union Referendum (Voter Registration) Regulations 2016, which were laid before this House on 8 June, be approved.
It will probably help the House if I restrict my remarks simply to explaining the nature of this statutory instrument, as the issues it raises will no doubt be debated in the ensuing discussion. The House will already be aware that on Tuesday night, between 9pm and 10pm, there was a huge surge of applications for registration—three times as many in one hour as have ever been experienced—and that, as a consequence, the website crashed at around 10 o’clock. Therefore, there were two hours during which it was lawful to apply to register in time to vote at the referendum, but people were denied that opportunity. The House will also be aware that it is the Government’s intention, following the strong cross-party support and the Electoral Commission’s approval, to introduce legislation to enable people to apply for registration up to midnight tonight and, if they are registered, to vote in the referendum. I want to explain to the House how the statutory instrument will achieve that.
I am listening to my right hon. Friend with great interest. He says that the website was down for two hours. What was the hourly rate of applications, and therefore what is his official estimate of the number of people who wanted to register in that timeframe but were unable to do so?
My hon. Friend asks a very good question. Unfortunately, I can give him only a very partial answer. We know as a fact that there were, if memory serves, 214,000 applications in the hour leading up to the crash. What we cannot know, because it is in the nature of the computer system that it cannot tell us, is how many people either tried or would have tried to apply during the succeeding 90 minutes or so during which they were unable to apply. The answer is therefore that I cannot tell.
Have the Government made any inquiries, assessment or technical analysis of whether there is any possibility that some malevolent attack was made on the website at that time, as opposed to there being an incredibly unusual spike in the numbers?
My hon. Friend will very much recognise that I am not a technical expert on computing, but I am advised by those in the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service that, as far as they can make out, there was no untoward event whatsoever. There was simply an incapacity of the system to handle that number of applications. The system is designed to be scoped to deal with a certain number of simultaneous events, and that number was exceeded during that period, so in retrospect, it was not surprising that it fell over. I should add that since that time, as the very first lesson learned, the website has been altered so that it has a larger capacity—I think almost twice as much capacity—to be able to deal with a higher number of simultaneous events than previously.
I think the question that most people want answering is: what is the rationale for extending the period for voter registration by 48 hours, given that when the system crashed it deprived people of the opportunity to register for two hours? Why not 24 hours or 72 hours—why 48 hours?
That is another very good question that I am very happy to answer for my hon. Friend. If we had been able to work out more quickly how to bring forward legally watertight legislation—in two or three hours, rather than 24 hours—it would have been possible to introduce the statutory instrument yesterday, and it might then have been possible to have an extension for a 24-hour period. We are anxious that the legislation should not be in any way retrospective, and it therefore makes sense that it should apply from midnight tonight, after the time at which this House and the other place will, I hope, have passed the statutory instrument. In the meanwhile, we have of course been doing our utmost to promulgate the fact that people can apply to register during this period and will still be able to vote in the referendum, thereby correcting the error that occurred as a result of the crash.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. The message did get out in Northern Ireland—the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland promoted it, saying that people could still register beyond the deadline—only for a sudden reverse to take place later, so that it now does not apply to Northern Ireland. Why the shambles? What went on in terms of consultation with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland? Why are citizens in Northern Ireland being deprived of this extra opportunity? I know we do not have the digital system, but having been told that by the chief electoral officer and the Government, people had such an expectation. This is a UK-wide referendum, so why is there a difference?
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland did indeed issue a statement of the kind he describes. I do not know quite why it was issued, but that body is of course independent of us. As I think he is entirely aware, discussions went on yesterday about whether this should or should not include Northern Ireland. The answer to his question is the answer that he himself indicated: there is not an online system in Northern Ireland, and therefore the thing we are correcting did not go wrong in Northern Ireland. He would need to discuss with my colleagues in the Norther Ireland Office whether it would have been sensible nevertheless to extend this, but their view was that it would not be.
One of the big bugbears in the issue of electoral registration is the fact that people have to register some distance away from the actual election date. I am very pleased that the Government have now found that it is possible to shorten that period. Is it their intention that there may also be a shorter period for future elections so as to give people more time to register in advance of them?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, my erstwhile coalition colleague, for asking that question. That is certainly a serious issue that we will need to take away and consider in coming weeks.
I will take one more intervention from Opposition Members and then, if they will forgive me, I will try to make some progress.
I want to emphasise the same point as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). In future, can we look to having something whereby the whole of the United Kingdom is on the same digital system and everything works together, because then all the electorate will understand it?
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that comfort. Northern Ireland will shortly move to an online registration system, and it is clearly desirable that it should do so.
Let me briefly explain how this statutory instrument achieves the intended effect and avoids a problem that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, when the matter was discussed yesterday. Our aim is to enable those who are applying to register up to midnight tonight to register to vote, if they are eligible, in the referendum on 23 June. That moves that date forward by 48 hours—two working days. The statutory instrument achieves that by taking an entire block of time, which used to elapse between midnight last Tuesday and midnight on 16 June, and moving it lock, stock and barrel, without changing any of the relationships within it, two working days forward. That is why, if Members look at the statutory instrument, they will see that it inserts in a whole series of pieces of legislation a date of 20 June, which would previously, either actually or in effect, have been 16 June. The reason why 16 June to 20 June is seen as two days rather than four is that the whole of our legislation is constructed around working days, and the Saturday and Sunday— 18 and 19 June—are therefore excluded. So we have taken a block of time and moved it two working days forward. The net effect of that is twofold, and only twofold. First, it achieves the intended effect of ensuring that people can register to vote in the referendum if they do so by midnight tonight; and, secondly, it means that the registers will be published at the end of the process by midnight on 20 June rather than by midnight on Thursday 16 June. No harm to mankind arises from the delay in the register being published.
The reason the SI solves the problem that was very rightly and acutely raised by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee is that we retain the full five-day period for objections to applications, and indeed all the other aspects of the process, inside that block of time, because those relativities are not altered. I think that that is what led to the question from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about whether we could do exactly the same thing in future now that we have discovered that it does not cause any harm at the end of the process.
I very much welcome the fact that we are allowing people ease of registering to vote; I think we all agree with that as democrats. On the checking of who is eligible to vote, with large numbers seeking to be on the electoral roll, I have had a number of reports in my constituency of EU nationals being sent postal voting papers, and last night somebody called me to say that their 17-year-old daughter had received voting papers. What sort of assistance will be provided to electoral services officers and returning officers to ensure that the vote is secure in that sense?
First, nothing that we are doing in any way affects any of that, because the blocks of time are unaffected and therefore all the processes have the same amount of time in which to take place as they would have done previously. Secondly, there has been, in a few cases, a problem with the issue of votes to people who were not eligible to vote. That problem has been inspected and cured. We need to make sure that in future elections it does not happen. Thirdly, I have no knowledge of what might have happened to someone who is 17. I am sure that if my hon. Friend takes that up with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), the Minister with responsibility for constitutional affairs, the Minister will be delighted to look into it immediately.
My right hon. Friend says that the problem of ballot papers being issued to those who are not eligible to take part in this election has been identified and cured. Can he therefore give us an idea of the scale of the problem? How many of these wrong ballot papers were issued?
We believe it to have been around 5,000.[Official Report, 15 June 2016, Vol. 611, c. 3MC.]
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that paper applications will also be considered even though they may have arrived in the post yesterday morning or this morning, in the same way as late applications made online will be considered?
The answer to that is yes. The way in which the system in Great Britain operates, unlike that in Northern Ireland, is that all the paper goes into the online system at a later stage. The whole thing here has been delayed by two days.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, and then I am going to finish my remarks.
There is a knock-on effect from the registration for postal votes. As we heard in the news this morning, some people have voted already in mainland UK, whereas others in Northern Ireland have not. A large number of Northern Irish supporters are going to the European finals—the indication is that it will be some 20,000 people—and their postal votes could arrive on any date between 9 and 16 June, which means that those people will be away when their postal votes arrive. In the light of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has said, there seems to be a bit of chaos in the system. What discussions has the Minister had with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland to clarify those matters, get them sorted out and ensure that people who want to vote can vote?
There are two separate issues here. There is the question whether this statutory instrument has any effect on postal voting deadlines, and the answer to that is no, none whatsoever. They remain entirely intact. If there are people in Great Britain who are now able to register but who cannot get postal votes, they can take proxy votes instead. The deadline for proxy votes has not yet evaporated; it will be reached on 15 June, if memory serves. I have not had direct discussions with the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland about the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I suggest that he take them up with my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.
I am conscious of the fact that I am using up time that needs to be used by the House for debate, so I will close by saying simply this. We have, of course, taken advice from our own lawyers—I had extensive discussions with the most senior figures in the Government legal service over a number of hours, as the House might imagine, yesterday—and from not only the Electoral Commission but, through it, its lawyers. We are absolutely convinced that we can do this by statutory instrument within the powers given us under the statutes, and that therefore this is a legally watertight measure. I hope that it will command the support of this House and the House of Lords in time for it to become effective before midnight tonight.
We welcome this statutory instrument, and I am glad that there has been extensive consultation, particularly with the Electoral Commission. The day before yesterday, more than half a million people successfully completed their application to be on the electoral register. That was a record, and all of us who believe passionately in democracy were truly delighted. But at its peak, the website was dealing with far more applications than at the previous peak, which was just before last year’s general election. There has been understandable concern, on both sides of the House, about the fact that the online registration system was unable to cope with the demand before the close of registration the night before last. At an appropriate time, there will need to be an examination of how that could have happened, especially as there is likely to be increased digitisation of the process for conducting elections in future.
While many of those who applied to register after 10.15 pm were successful, sadly many were not. The result was that many people who wanted to register so that they could exercise their democratic right to vote were unable to do so. That was a negation of democracy and we are right to give those people the opportunity to exercise their democratic right to vote.
I have three specific questions for the Minister. First, does the statutory instrument alter the provisions relating to postal vote applications? He touched on that, but I would like him to say a little bit more. Of course, voters with postal votes are able to cast their votes not just before the referendum day, but on the day itself by delivering them to the polling station. Secondly, what provision are the Government making for proxy vote applications, or will the situation stay as it is?
My third question relates to the extra financial burden that could well fall on certain local authorities. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made reference to extra resources being made available, but I wonder whether the Minister before us can be more specific about how those resources can be applied for, whether there will be a ceiling on those resources and if there is any estimate of what the overall additional cost might be to the Government.
Does the Labour party agree with me that it is very important that the will of Parliament on whether people from the continent of Europe can vote in the referendum is enforced? It is the clear will of Parliament and most British people that they should not vote. Does the hon. Gentleman have any independent intelligence on how many of them have wrongly been sent polling cards?
I certainly agree that the rules should be adhered to, and I am reassured by the Government’s assurance that that will be the case. However, it would be wrong to exaggerate this issue and make any kind of political point out of it.
As I said, the statutory instrument has our full support because it will enable those people who feared that they had been disfranchised to cast their vote on 23 June. I sincerely hope that those voters do precisely that. I urge the Government to publicise as widely as possible the fact that this facility is available. I urge them to consider new means of advertising it, such as having an advert on Facebook.
I said a moment ago that the statutory instrument has the support of both sides of the House, but I am disappointed that some in the leave campaign have criticised it. It is said by some that the statutory instrument is disproportionate. Others in the Vote Leave campaign have even suggested that the registration site was crashed deliberately to provide an excuse for extending the registration period. That really is absolute nonsense. It is equally nonsensical to suggest that the statutory instrument is somehow unconstitutional. That is clearly not the case.
The Opposition believe that every single person who is entitled to be on the register and who has made a valid application should be able to cast their vote. Of course, how people cast their vote is up to them—that is what democracy is all about.
Is it not the case that students who are registering at this time may have been preoccupied with exams and graduation? Is it not wholly reasonable, therefore, if the system has crashed, for the Government to do something about it and extend the time for registration?
Yes, that is entirely reasonable. We could cite many examples of people the length and breadth of the country, particularly young people, who for reasons like those that my hon. Friend has given have not found time or had the inclination to register to vote. I am heartened that although many people say that the vote has not engendered a great deal of interest so far, the referendum has certainly excited a great deal of interest among young people. The indication is that many of the people who have applied quite late are young people who want to exercise their democratic right.
It is obviously good news that the referendum is generating excitement among people of all ages who want to take part in the ballot. However, many students are doubly registered, at their home address and at their place of learning. So that those people do not get into trouble, should it not be made clear that even if they are legitimately registered twice, they cannot vote twice? Should that not be explained, especially to those who are voting for the first time?
I think that most people realise that it is one person, one vote. That is a fundamental, core principle of our democracy.
With the change to individual registration, that has not been possible. The figures show that a million young people have fallen off the register, so it is not a case of registering twice; it is a case of not registering at all.
I do not want to go into detail about individual electoral registration. We have expressed our concerns about the process in the past, and I welcome the fact that more and more people want to be on the electoral register and thereby have the ability to vote. It is good for democracy that young people in particular want to be involved in our democratic debate and will cast their vote on 23 June.
Would not someone have to be a time traveller to vote twice, in their university seat and also at home? The idea that people would go to such lengths is ridiculous.
I reiterate that it is important for us to say categorically what most people realise: in our democracy, if one person has a vote, they should use it on one occasion on polling day. That is abundantly clear.
All who are engaged in the debate hold strong views, but it is vital for democracy that people have the right to cast their vote on 23 June. I therefore warmly welcome the Government’s initiative. It is unfortunate that we have had a technical mishap, but action has been taken. I urge people throughout the length and breadth of this country to take advantage of the opportunity to register to vote and to cast their vote, whichever way they wish to do that, on 23 June. The decision is the most important that this country will make in a generation, and it is therefore vital that everyone who is entitled to vote casts their vote.
Most of us, from whatever side of the argument, accept that the greater the number of voters who take part in the referendum, the better, because a high turnout, with more voters participating, gives the result added legitimacy.
The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) is right that student preoccupations are many and diverse. They do not always involve study or graduation—certainly in my experience. However, perhaps one of the lessons for the future is that leaving registration until the last two hours possible may not be the wisest thing to do. Perhaps those who follow these proceedings will in future decide to register in plenty of time if they want to have their vote.
The sad tale of Government, the public sector and IT continues. This is yet another chapter in it. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that, given the demand on the system, it was unsurprising that it crashed. I am very surprised that it crashed, so I would like to know one or two things. First, how much load testing was done? Why did not we anticipate that, when people realised that the referendum was getting closer, they would want to register? Why was sufficient provision not made in the system to allow for a spike in demand? That happened before the general election—it is not unprecedented. Why did the Electoral Commission not make sufficient arrangements to determine whether its system could cope with the demand? How do we know that it will not happen again? If we have another deadline tonight, how do we know that the system will not crash in exactly the same way?
It might help if I answer that point now. A massive amount of load testing was done, and the system was tested with the assumption that we would not face anything like the extent of the difference between what had been experienced previously—for example, at the general election—and now. This spike was three times as intense as the one that occurred before the general election. For today and yesterday the system has been made twice as capacious as it was previously, and we would now have to have about six times as many applications as were made at the general election before the system crashed again. I profoundly hope that that will not happen.
We also hope that such a crash will not happen again.
I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend provided further information either today, or to the House in due course. First, how many of these are duplicate applications? There is clearly a problem, and a lot of voters believe from the literature provided by the Electoral Commission that registering for the referendum is different from registering for the general election or any other election. A lot of voters have said to me, “I’m registered for the general election. Do I have to register separately for the referendum?” The information given by the Electoral Commission was less than clear, and I wonder how many of the applications are in fact duplicates from people who are mistakenly asking whether they are already registered.
My right hon. Friend is asking pertinent questions, and it will be useful to have them answered for the rest of the debate. We do not and cannot know how many applications are duplicates, because until they have been verified we do not know whether those people were already on the register. Anecdotally, we think that a large proportion of applications may be duplicates, but we will know that in aggregate only once we see the published register and compare it with previous registers.
An important lesson will be to see whether a larger number of people register for the referendum than for the general election. If it is a much larger number, it suggests that the clarity and instruction given by the Electoral Commission had a good deal missing, which would be an interesting lesson for us all. On the competence of the Electoral Commission, let me return to the point that I raised earlier about ballot papers being sent to those who are not entitled to vote in the referendum. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend said that issue was identified and cured, and I wonder whether in due course a list can be published of those local authorities that say they had no problem, and of those that did have a problem, so that we can see exactly where the problem occurred across the country and its extent. I would be interested to know whether for some of those local authorities that said they had no problem that genuinely turned out to be the case, or whether it was an estimate about whether there was a problem or not. If the issue is so difficult to identify, it is difficult to believe that people can be so sure that they did not make mistakes in sending out those ballot papers.
I totally accept that this is a legally watertight mechanism, but to legislate for an electoral process during the election itself is not a precedent with which I feel entirely comfortable. I understand the emergency nature of this legislation, and I want as many people to participate as possible. I understand why the crash happened in terms of the technology, but I do not find it easy to agree to in effect changing the rules of any part of an election during the electoral process. We must be careful to state that this is an emergency procedure, and that we are not in any way accepting a precedent for Governments of the future to introduce changes to the rules while the game is in play.
The Scottish National party welcomes the extension to registration. Our right to vote is precious, and we all bear responsibility for giving people that right, so I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I also agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who said that we would rather avoid legislating for an election during an election period, but we are where we are.
It is essential that everyone who wishes to register is able to do so, and the SNP will back the Government today on extending the registration window. This is a critical vote, and Members across the House with different views recognise the importance of this referendum. It will affect future generations, and it will have a much more substantial impact on younger voters, who will have to live with the decision that we make in two weeks’ time, than it will on older voters. We are on the final straight; there are two weeks until the referendum. Will the Minister assure us that there will be a post-match analysis, so that we can consider what lessons we can learn from what happened over the past 48 hours?
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest, and I agree that there should be a post-match analysis. Does he share my concern that that analysis will be conducted by the Electoral Commission, which will be writing a report about itself? Should there not be some kind of independent analysis? Otherwise, the report will automatically be skewed.
Of course the Electoral Commission should look into this matter; we should always consider how we can improve our democracy. I hope that the Government will also look into this issue, given that they bear the burden of responsibility for it.
It is important that there is a steward’s inquiry at a later date into what happened. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must also consider the effect that moving to individual electoral registration has had on this issue? Every time the register is compiled, there is a surge of new people joining it for the first time; this year, I fear that we may have had the additional burden of a lot of people who were previously on the register checking to see whether they are still on it, or realising that they are not, and that has created a big spike in demand.
My hon. Friend raises a good point about people double-checking. I double-checked myself, and I encouraged others to do so, so I wonder whether the Government will consider that.
I also ask the Government to consider what lessons can be learned from Scotland. During the independence referendum, voter registration was at 98%, and everybody involved in that process should rightly be proud of themselves. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) has also reflected on that. Having had 98% registration, we had an 85% turnout in the referendum, with huge voter participation on both sides, and we should learn from that. I hope that we will reach a turnout of 85%, or even higher, in the referendum, as I am sure that colleagues across the House do, although I am not sure we will quite get there.
I wonder how much of that increase was due to lowering the voting age, and giving younger people who are at school the chance to take an interest.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. If, as has been suggested, younger voters are the ones registering, I encourage that, and perhaps we should consider giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote. Evidence shows that the younger a person engages in the political and democratic process, the more likely they are to be engaged in the long term, so I hope we can reflect on that.
The hon. Gentleman makes important points, but we should not forget that an estimated 7 million people are not even on the register in the first place. We should not lose sight of that, or of what we need to do to get those people to register.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point that ties into the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) and other SNP Members have wondered whether we should start looking at automatic registration. We want to encourage people to register, and we do not want this problem in future. Automatic registration works in other countries, and it can be a better and cheaper system. Will the Minister commit to considering automatic registration when he conducts that post-match analysis? In conclusion, the SNP welcomes the extension to the registration period, and we encourage as many people as possible to take part in the important decision in two weeks.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I shall keep my comments brief. The statutory instrument is a sensible and proportionate measure that is in no way harmful to decent process, as the Minister sensibly set out. It simply picks up and shifts the period, which is a measured way of dealing with this unfortunate problem. I do not like it that the problem has arisen. I was the Minister who introduced online registration, an innovation of which I am very proud, and I wish the system well; we all want to see it functioning properly.
Let us not forget what the alternative to taking this measure would be. It would be to allow an unlawful situation to have persisted from Tuesday night, whereby people with the right to register to vote were denied the ability to do so—and an arbitrary situation also, given that, because of the nature of queueing on a website, it would not be possible to be even-handed towards citizens. It would be deeply ethically wrong to allow such a situation to persist, so we have no alternative but to take this measure.
There is another reason. None of us should accept poor service from the Government towards their citizens—those citizens ought to be the Government’s master—so I greatly respect the ministerial team for their efforts to ensure that public services, digital as well as paper-based, work better for citizens. That is very important.
Does the hon. Lady think it a fair point that the upsurge and crash occurred after the big debate between the Prime Minister and Nigel Farage? Might not the Government have anticipated a surge of interest at that point?
The Government have answered that point for themselves many times yesterday and this morning, but I think it was a foreseeable circumstance, what with the TV scheduling and the availability of online registration. I am, however, reassured by what I have heard today about a further multiplication of capacity. It is the right response. As I have said, retrospectively allowing for a further 48 hours—we hope that gets the message out—is a sensible solution.
I offer one more practical thought. If would-be registrants got as far as leaving their contact details on the site before it failed, it might be possible for them to be contacted directly in the remaining hours. I offer tha