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Commons Chamber

Volume 611: debated on Thursday 9 June 2016

House of Commons

Thursday 9 June 2016

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[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. (905288)

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.

Leveson Inquiry

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.

Tourism

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. (905292)

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.

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.

Broadband

6. What steps his Department is taking to accelerate the roll-out of broadband in (a) rural and (b) urban areas. (905294)

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?

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. (905296)

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. (905297)

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.

Domestic Tourism

9. What assessment he has made of recent trends in (a) the level of and (b) regional variations in the level of domestic tourism. (905298)

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.

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. (905302)

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.

Topical Questions

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? (905315)

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? (905317)

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? (905312)

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. (905328)

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?

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. (905330)

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

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. (905333)

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—

Divisions

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

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.

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.

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?

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

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—

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?